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A “neuron fractal” created by anthony mattox on Flickr.



The hard problem of consciousness, as defined by philosopher of mind David Chalmers, refers to the difficult problem of explaining why we have qualitative phenomenal experiences. In other words, how is it that some organisms are subjects of experience, and why should any physical processing give rise to a rich and meaningful inner life?

I recently saw a wonderful debate between philosopher John Searle, who is a professor at UC Berkeley, and Buddhist practitioner and scholar B. Alan Wallace, who is the founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. Both of this men have dedicated much of their careers towards the study of consciousness and the mind. The debate centered around what is the proper methodology for understanding the origin and nature of consciousness.

John Searle’s most famous argument on consciousness is the Chinese room argument (1980) which attempts to show that a symbol-processing machine like a computer can never be properly described as having a “mind” or “understanding”, regardless of how intelligently it may behave. This argument was specifically geared towards proponent of Strong A.I., who propose that as long as a computer is programmed with the right inputs (sensory information) and outputs (behavior) that this machine would have a mind in the same sense as a human has a mind. John Searle argues that this view of functionalism, and specifically the computational theory of mind (which is the current running philosophy in the cognitive sciences), will never explain consciousness – for it completely ignores qualia, the inner experiences as a result of one being conscious.

Searle, a self-proclaimed biological naturalist, believes that consciousness can be solely explained through an understanding of the processes of the brain, but he gives leeway towards a “whatever works”-attitude towards the further understanding of human consciousness. Despite Searle making it clear that the answers to consciousness will come from the researchers of neuroscience (specifically, he believes the answers will be found in the understanding of a higher systematic pattern of neural firing and not in the structure of the brain itself), he never gives an account on how the subjective will be incorporated into this field of study.

Alan Wallace is quick to point out the limitations of neuroscience, claiming that fMRI scans and other similar methods of observing the brain only reveal neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) and say little regarding its causes. Wallace, instead, proposes the methodology of introspection, as it was first introduced in Western psychology by William James in the late 1800s, in understanding the nature and origins of consciousness. Wallace, in a nutshell, claims it would be absurd to pursue a study of consciousness and ignore the potential knowledge that can come from direct observation of the subject being studied.

During Wallace’s opening statements he reveals to the audience why introspection had been wrongfully thrown to the waste bin during the early years of psychology. Due to the previous success of the scientific method in explaining astronomy, physics, biology, and chemistry, early researchers of psychology, such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, began to ditch introspection and move towards behaviorism in an attempt to justify psychology as a more scientific field of study.

Despite the West’s early reluctance towards introspection, Wallace gives a primary example of where introspection has had much success – which is in Buddhist psychology. Well-trained Buddhist monks have focused on direct study of the mind for centuries before the West ever developed an objective study of mental phenomena. Wallace emphasizes that introspection, which he has refurbished as the more scientifically-accepted term “metacognition,” can be used as a legitimate methodology of studying the mind. He goes on to suggest that the acceptance of metacognition as a useful tool of observing the mind could be as revolutionary as the telescope was towards the development of astronomy.

Searle accepts that metacognition could offer some insights into consciousness, but if so, why have Buddhists not revealed anything true about the causes of consciousness since the Buddha’s death in roughly 400 BCE? Searle goes on to say that perhaps Wallace’s insistence on meditation and metacognition as a means of studying consciousness is perhaps a “hidden agenda” to prove the existence of something metaphysical, such as a soul.

But, Searle, how can a suggested methodology have a “hidden agenda?” Shouldn’t the technique of metacognition prove its worth in whatever knowledge it reveals or fails to reveal about the mind? Searle also claims that Buddhism has not yielded anything useful about the origins of consciousness, and then later in the debate admits his ignorance towards Buddhism as a whole.

Even so, the methods of Buddhists actually compare quite well to the rigors of the scientific method – and perhaps science is even in a desperate need for an alternative tool of observing the mind. The Buddha laid out a very disciplined and precise method for diving into a direct study of consciousness. And any initial faults or misunderstandings of the Buddha’s methods have been corrected in various traditions and interpretations – over two thousand years of improvement. Further, the Buddha’s methods of introspection yield results that are perfectly capable of replication (just like any good scientific finding). The only thing is it requires a lot of work and a lot of meditation. But Wallace says: what tool of knowledge does not take some work to perfect? Before one can do science, one needs to spend the time to understand math and statistics – how is this any different from learning the methods and language of the Buddha?

But the real question would be: why should we deny metacognition or neuroscience? This is one thing Wallace and Searle are both in agreement about: let us just do whatever works! Wallace thinks, “Yes! We should study brains! Do that! Why shouldn’t we?” Perhaps we need further study of both brain science and meditation, which is already beginning to become a mainstream trend in the cognitive sciences.

Despite all the disagreements, one thing is for certain: everyone is willing to come together to help workout this hard problem of consciousness. This is evident in the Mind and Life Institute which holds annual meetings between neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, Buddhists, physicists, linguists, anthropologists, and those in the field of artificial intelligence and technology, all regarding the study of the mind, consciousness, and mental well-being. Since the cognitive revolution in the 1950s, the cognitive sciences have truly grown to become one of the most interdisciplinary studies ever to grace mankind, and it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting vehicles of today for the furthering of human understanding and intelligence of the reality we live in.

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