4. Epistemology (ii): The Mind-Body Problem

Our discussion of epistemology begins with the so-called Mind-Body Problem. As this article defines, the mind-body problem “is a philosophical problem concerning the relationship between thought and consciousness in the human mind and the body.” The issue boils down to the fact that “it is not obvious how the concept of the mind and the concept of the body relate.” “Are the mind and body two distinct entities, or a single entity?”

Furthermore, “in general, the existence of these mind-body connections seems unproblematic. Issues arise, however, once one considers what exactly we should make of these relations from a metaphysical or scientific perspective. Such reflections quickly raise a number of questions like:

  • Are the mind and body two distinct entities or a single entity?
  • If the mind and body are two distinct entities, do the two of them causally interact?
  • Is it possible for these two distinct entities to causally interact?
  • What is the nature of this interaction?
  • Can this interaction ever be an object of empirical study?
  • If the mind and body are a single entity, then are mental events explicable in terms of physical events, or vice versa?
  • Is the relation between mental and physical events something that arises de novo at a certain point in development?

These and other questions that discuss the relationship between mind and body are questions that all fall under the banner of the ‘mind-body problem.'”

In philosophy, the domain of the mind-body problem belongs to philosophers called empiricists. Our exploration of epistemology begins with a dialogue between eminent empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley. Their discourse serves as a springboard for our discussion.

According to Bryan Magee, author of The Story of Philosophy, John Locke (1632-1704), “Although not the first empiricist in the history of philosophy, Locke has ever since his day been regarded as the chief founding father of empiricism and all that flows from it.” In addition to his contributions to epistemology, Locke was also known as the “father of liberalism.” He had substantial influence over the Americans and the French in formulating their liberal democracies.

According to Magee, Locke was interested in exploring limitations “to what is intelligible to humans.” Locke thought that “if we could analyze our own mental faculties and find out what they are capable, we should have discovered the limit of what is knowable by us, regardless of what happens to exist externally to ourselves.”

Locke believed that “what we have direct experience of are the contents of our own consciousness—sensory images, thoughts, feelings, memories, and so on.” He was also resolute that “as regards our knowledge of the external world, the raw data, the basic input, come through our senses – we are increasingly in receipt of specific impressions of light and dark, red, yellow, or blue; hot or cold, rough or smooth, hard or soft, and so on and so forth; to which in the early stages of conscious lives, we are not even able to give names. But we register them from the beginning, and remember some of them, and begin to associate some with others, until eventually we begin to form general notions and expectations about them. We started to acquire the general idea of things, objects outside ourselves from which we are receiving these impressions; and then we begin the process of learning to distinguish one from the other.” Furthermore, Locke stressed that “our senses constitute the only direct interface between ourselves and the reality external to us.”

Finally, “Locke came to the conclusion that our notion about what actually exists – and therefore our understanding of the reality of the world – must always derive ultimately from what has been experienced through the senses.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an Irish philosopher. According to Magee, “Most of the famous philosophers of the past have produced a body of work that covers a wide range of problems, but Berkeley is remembered for a single insight which no one since has been wholly able to ignore. Locky was entirely correct, said Berkeley, in saying that all we can ever directly apprehend are the contents of our own consciousness. But in that case, he asked,What possible warrant can we have for asserting that the existence of these mental contents is caused by things of an entirely and fundamentally different character from them to which we can never have direct access, namely objects.” 

Today, humanity is still asking the same question, albeit using contemporary scientific terms. For example, in Closer to Truth, the mind-body question is asked this way, “How does the brain produce the mind? This is one of the most difficult problems in science, because how can physical qualities, no matter how complex and sophisticated, actually be mental experiences? Electrical impulses and chemical flows are not at all the kind of stuff that thoughts and feelings are. The physical and the mental are different categories.

Indeed, after several hundreds of years of scientific inquiries since Berkeley, humanity still has not understood how the “brain produces the mind” and if “the physical and the mental are two different categories.”

According to Buddha, scientists are wrong on both counts. Not only does the brain not produce the mind, but it is the mind that produces the brain. In Buddha’s view, separating the body and mind as two distinct entities and deeming the body as reality is humanity’s delusional misunderstanding of reality, which is the root cause of their existential suffering. Buddhism exists to correct that misunderstanding and liberate humanity from its existential suffering.

Let’s try to understand the issue from the teachings of quantum mechanics.

According to Nobel Laureate quantum scientist Dr. Frank Wiczek in this episode of Closer to Truth, quantum mechanics has confirmed that “the most basic objects out of which to construct the universe are not particles, but objects we call quantum fields.” Furthermore, “we see particles are kind of epiphenomena. They are kind of ripples on the deep structure.”  

The following image is the artistic rendition by quantum physicist Dr. Tong of what epiphenomena looks like. This artistic rendition shows particles as ripples in the fluctuating quantum energy field. Particles are considered epiphenomena because, while they appear phenomenally as ripples, they are derivatives of quantum energy in science.

However, as discussed in Preface: Nothing But Mentality, energy in physics is a “quantitative property that is transferred to a body or a physical system, recognizable in the performance of work and in the form of heat and light.” In other words, while energy, as human-made “quantitative properties,” helps scientists investigate phenomenal reality, it is not a reality in nature.    

According to Buddha, reality in nature is “Nothing But Mentality.” In other words, if mentality replaces quantum energy in Dr. Tong’s image, it applies to nature. Therefore, while the epiphenomena in quantum mechanics are secondary phenomena derived from quantum energy, the ripples in nature are epiphenomena derived from mentality.

Additionally, like quantum mechanics teaches that fluctuating quantum energy is the foundational block of the quantum universe, Buddha teaches that fluctuating mentality is the foundational block of the universe in nature. Since epiphenomena in nature are derived from fluctuating mentality, they are the consciousness and the mind that build everything in the universe, including the human brain. Like everything else in the universe, the human brain is an epiphenomenon.

As the following image from Dr. Tony Tyson shows, all phenomena, from gigantic galaxies in the sky to the ripples in the quantum realm, are all fluctuations in the field of mentality, which connects them all in nature. If what looks physical is really physical, they cannot connect with one another.  

Indeed, in nature, no phenomena are solid. From ripples in the quantum field to the giant galaxies in the sky, all phenomena that look solid are, in fact, epiphenomena, secondary phenomena derived from the fluctuating mental field. There is no mind-body problem because what appears phenomenally as the “body” is essentially the “mind.” Not only are the body and the mind one entity, but it is the “mind” that produces the “body” in nature.

As history has shown, scientific investigations of the mind-body problem over the last few centuries have not borne fruit. The fact is that if scientists keep their scientific method the same, they may never solve the mind-body problem.

So, the question obviously becomes, “What is the fundamental difference between science and Buddhism?”

Ultimately, the difference between science and Buddhism boils down to knowing, “Why is it necessary that the scientific method always starts with making assumptions?” and “Why did Buddha never need to make assumptions but could realize that reality in nature is “Nothing but Mentality” and that the mind-body problem is a delusional misunderstanding of reality?”

The answer to this fundamentally core question lies in epistemology. The discussion on epistemology continues in the next post as we explore the question, “How do we know what we know?”

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