Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Brain-Mind Conundrum

I’m reading "The Consciousness Instinct: unraveling the mystery of how the brain makes the mind. It’s a book (Farrar Straus and Giroux) by Michael Gazzaniga, who is director of the SAGE Center of the Study of the Mind at UC at Santa Barbara and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, founding director of the MacArthur Foundation's Law and Neuroscience Project and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

Impressive credentials. Not someone you would expect to do a shoddy job of research or deny credit to non-Western authors of important scientific concepts.

Yet in his book there is no mention of the Upanishads which contain the earliest and still profoundly important speculations about the nature of reality perceived by human beings and its origin in a universal abstract. The idea of a universal God originated in that concept.

He does not mention the Buddha, whose teachings on mindfulness are hardly unknown, and whose concept of Sunyatta is central to the Brain/Mind relationship. It also gave birth to the Zero, one of the most important concepts in the history of science.

There is nothing about Adi Sankara, whose Advaita philosophy about the shared nature of the Universal and Individualized Soul fashioned modern Hinduism. The Semitic religions got their idea of the human soul and monotheism from India but credited it to Plato (He dismisses a similar concept advanced by Pierre Gassendi a French mathematician/priest who interpreted it in terms of the human soul being of a dual nature, atomic and non-atomic.)

He notes Galileo's notion about the heliocentric universe and the importance of mathematics without mentioning Aryabhatta the Indian mathematician who preceded him by a millennium.

He says the "notion that the world is composed of atoms" was "first proposed in Western culture" in the fifth century BCE by the Greeks Leucippus and Democritus. There is no hint that an entire school of philosophy in India pursued that idea.

Perhaps he is unaware of the history of Indian philosophy and science. If so it points to the systematic exclusion of Indian traditions in American education as in European colonial systems.


By page 54, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gazzaniga is a learned fool. He does not believe in God. Consider the following: "By the end of the 19th Century, many philosophers were insisting that the mind had to have its physical brain, which somehow contained memories and cognition. Some physiologists also required the spinal nerves, and others insisted that the body, too, was part of the package.

“Locke separated the mind from the soul, and infused the mind with rational reflection, ethical action and free will. The mind is the basis of consciousness, volition and personhood, but it is fallible and can generate illusions and error, and its only coin is conscious ideas. Nothing bubbles up from unconscious depths. Locke skirted the issue of how matter could produce something like free will by adding an omnipotent God to the equation and saying that he made it so. Hume eliminated those supernatural powers from the equation and tried to establish a true science of human minds. In doing so he realized the limits of the human mind, how all thought has to be constrained by its capacities. Thus, he questioned the philosophical basis of Newton's mechanistic science as a way of looking at the world, by undercutting the foundation of human's grasp of physical causality.

“Schopenhauer insisted that unconscious motivations and intentions drive us, not conscious thinking, which makes him more of an a posteriori apologist. Helmholtz showed that our perceptual systems are not veritable Xerox machines, but rather stitch personal information together in a best guess sort of way. Then along came Darwin, who plopped our brains down on an evolving continuum, instructing us to use natural selection to figure out how they got the way they are and to leave God out of it."

Because Gazzaniga leaves India out of the picture he does not realize that all the thinkers he mentions were struggling to cope with versions of Indian ideas decanted to Europe through missionaries and merchants who discounted major elements of the Hindu view of reality such as Karma (moral causality) and Dharma (moral law). In that view, the universe is a moral construct that individual souls navigate in bodies they inhabit by dint of their moral quality. What each individual perceives of the universe is thus determined by his/her position at the crossing of personal karma and dharma.

By omitting this profoundly important dimension of Hindu thought, European thinkers committed multiple quantum errors of understanding and interpretation.

On the one hand, because Indian ideas unseated scholastic concepts they thought God was extraneous to the universe. Newton's "mechanistic" model of the universe was part of that dismissive process, which European thinkers took to constitute their "Enlightenment."

On the other hand, in a Godless universe they placed humanity at the center, despite the fact that it was, in their estimation, a species resulting from accidental evolution. “I think therefore I am” declared RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) the French philosopher. His supremely self-referential and ultimately idiotic statement came to be the war cry of a civilization unmoored from the world and hugely destructive of it. 

Three centuries later, as that destructiveness became too obvious to ignore the Western world set about trying to repair the harm but instead of looking at the root cause, the arrogantly pretentious premise of its own civilization, it has clung to piecemeal "scientific" solutions. 

By page 54, Gazzaniga is mourning that we are now "still confused, still with the same questions," and hopes that the next 100 years will bring "new insights, new scientific findings, wholly new ways of thinking about consciousness." Perhaps he should take an introductory course on Indian philosophy as a starter.

Will post another comment when I finish the book.