David Weisman, M.D. via Psychology Today,
One of my previous essays was picked up with approval by at least one Buddhist, saying it “could be a basic Buddhist teaching text.” That essay concerned neurology’s demonstration that the thing we take as our unified mind is false. Our mind is not unified and, indeed, can barely be said to exist. It mostly fools itself into being, and it is easily fractured into separate parts, in which the subject maintains subjective unity through the use of confabulation.
At the time, I’m sorry to say I was privately dismissive. One hears this sort of thing all the time, especially about Buddhism and the brain. Like any religion, Buddhism made pre-scientific claims about the world and will root itself in the real when allowed.
When science supports a particular religious teaching, you can expect members of that religion to become strict empiricists, telling themselves and the world that their belief is grounded in reality. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition happily accepts a weather model out of the University of Colorado showing how wind could have created a land bridge for Moses and his exodus. They are less happy to accept scientific data that contradicts their preconceived beliefs, witness the religious response to evolution.
No surprise there. No human likes to be wrong, but science doesn’t care. Science, at least good science, tells us about the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Sometimes what science finds will be consistent with what religion wishes it to be. But usually not, and I should note that on every large issue: human origins, our place in the universe, cosmology, and our minds, science finds profound contradictions to most religious thought.
My understanding of Buddhism is incomplete, but I think I have the essentials down. Briefly: one of Buddhism’s central dogmas teaches the world is constantly changing and there is no such thing as a permanent state. This seems appropriate as far as the natural world is concerned, and apparently it should not be applied to mathematical truths or moral certainties, but is sometimes applied to Buddhism’s own dogmas. Buddhism has had eons to work out the seeming contradictions, and it is only someone who was not indoctrinated into Buddhism who finds any of this weird. Or at least any more weird than any other religious dogmas, like, say, the belief that a God breathed a soul into the first human and since then all (or at least most) humans have them.
When a Buddhist applies the idea of constant change to the self and the soul, he gains an insight that other religions lack. What we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain, that our terms for it do not find meaning. The Buddhist word for self is anatta and it means ‘no self.’ It is used to refer to oneself, while cleverly reminding the user of the word that there is such thing.
Within this framework, one is immediately struck by the disconnect between perception and religious teaching. All is endlessly changing, but I feel unified and unchanged from moment to moment, year to year. The way things feel becomes suspect, just as it does in modern neuroscience. Broadly, both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on similar points of view: the way it feels to be you isn’t how it is, that even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (witness the tortured negation of anatta), and there is no permanent, constant soul in the background.
Read the complete piece here.
Image via patheos.com
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