09 January 2008

Put meditation in the primary school curriculum!

I keep coming back to this, but the naive optimism with which people try to skirt the mind-body problem really frustrates me. This lecture by physicist/Buddhist B. Alan Wallace is yet another example. The talk contains some very interesting information on Asian contemplative science and an enthusiastic call for rigorous introspective methods to be integrated with contemporary psychology and neuroscience. A much needed call, and I love Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but it's a call that comes with some really troubling eliminations and contradictions that Wallace tries to skirt with some ugly old Cartesian footwork.

To Wallace, all is fine and well with the idea that brain processes cause mental processes, but he vehemently rejects the idea that brain processes are identical with mental processes. He quotes Christof Koch: "The characters of brain states and of phenomenal states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other" and says "Look at brain states - they don't have any mental qualities at all. Observe mental states - they don't have any physical properties." I disagree. Study an aspect of cognitive neuroscience for long enough and eventually you can feel it working in your head when you see, hear, smell, taste, recognize a face, structure a sentence, move or make a choice. Acquire an appreciation for the neurobiology of monoamines for example and you start to see how your evaluations and moods could be quantified. This does not mean we shouldn't use introspection in neuroscience, I think we should use it more often and practise the awesome introspective techniques Wallace mentions daily - put meditation in the primary school curriculum! Absolutely. But to say that the mental and the physical cannot be one and the same is rubbish and repression. They can, and if they are, then there are errors and lies at the core of the Western social and existential conception of what it means, and should mean, to be human.

Sometimes I think the iPlant is my way of calling attention to all this: an attempt to make people aware of their real reaction to the possibility that mind and brain are one and the same; a way of making them pay attention to what the consequences of that would be. But the iPlant only brings out a fraction of the preconceptions about the human condition that we would have to reject as completely and utterly false.

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