Buddhism and Cognitive Science

0262720213 2.01A paper I wrote recently on Buddhism and Cognitive Science. In it I look at the work of Francisco Varela in relation to the aporia of first-person phenomenological experience when contrasted with third-person neuroscience and its relation to the Buddhist notion of anatman, or no-self.

Buddhism, Cognitive Science, and the Self


At the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago a young, articulate Buddhist addressed the crowd. In his address Dhamapala, a previous Buddhist reformer in Sri Lanka, wove together the most avant-garde of that epoch’s scientific concepts, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the Enlightenment idea of cause and effect as the guiding principle of the cosmos with the Buddhist doctrines of dependent origination and karma. In this way Dhamapala was able to claim that Buddhism was not only compatible with modern science but had in fact prefigured it.[1]

            According to David McMahan Dhamapala’s rhetorical moves were common among early Buddhist attempts to wed science and Buddhism in the West. The question driving this research paper is whether or not this is still happening within Buddhism today, specifically within the field of cognitive science? What is revealed is that in the work of Francisco Varela, a Buddhist neurophenomenologist, a very similar rhetorical/methodological strategy is being used. This is especially true of his work The Embodied Mind, co-written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch.

            This paper is an endeavor to examine Varela’s attempt to overcome two, related but ultimately separate, of the most pervasive current deadlocks within the study of consciousness and the larger field of cognitive science as a whole. It is my opinion that one of his attempts works, while the second, the one in concert with Dhamapala’s, does not. My aim at the end is to give some reasons as to why this seems to be the case and, because I do not have the space to do more, point in the direction of other work that I find more scientifically, experientially and ethically adequate.

            As I stated, some of Varela’s work in the field of neurophenomology, seems to offer a way forward in the science of consciousness. As Varela and Thompson point out in the essay “Neural Synchrony and the Unity of Mind: A Neurophenomenological Perspective” there is a gap in the science of mind between first person phenomenological experience and third-person neuroscience.[2] Put simply, how is my experience of myself as a free, conscious, self-directing agent compatible with the notion that my mind arises from and is possibly determined by my brain and the causal processes inherent to it? This is one of the, if not the, most commonly recognized problems in the study of consciousness. What Varela and Thompson wish to offer in this essay is a way of “criss-crossing” this explanatory gap with the notion of embodiment.

            To begin Varela and Thompson argue that neuronal synchrony—the phase-locking of neurons and neuronal subpopulations over short spans of time—not only happens at the short-range but at the long-range as phase-locking between widely distributed regions of the brain. This is offered as a way of understanding “the overall integration of all dimensions of a cognitive act.”[3]These synchronous assemblies must be disassembled in order to prepare for the next reassembly for the next cognitive act. They suggest as an interesting side note, that this may account for the moment-to-moment temporality of consciousness.[4] Varela and Thompson consider these assemblies as within the broad category of networks of non-linear oscillators, which they believe to be a paradigmatic example of self-organization.[5]

            Thus the synchronous assemblages of neuronal subpopulations form an example of an emergent network. An emergent network or process is one that arises out of a network of subunits and their interactions and ends up with new patterns of organization and behavior that are non-proportional to the subunits of the substratum and those units’ interaction. A very simple example of emergence is water, which has the emergent property of wetness that hydrogen and oxygen alone do not have. These new patterns or behaviors are the local-to-global determination or bottom up causation of an emergent system.

            The important point for Varela and Thompson is that emergent systems tend to display global-to-local determination or top down causation. This is when the new global behaviors, patterns, or characteristics of the system effect local interactions. This happens when the systems collective behaviors constrain or prescribe the behavior of individual elements. It is fundamentally a governing, limiting and thus negative—this should not be read as a value judgment—action. Varela and Thompson state that, “the emergent whole-system processes are morphodynamic, in the sense that they determine the system’s identity through time as a unity having its own proper domain of interactions and whose properties and behaviors can be physically realized in multiple ways.”[6] The paradigm for this is the autopoesis, or self-generation, of a living cell.

            They argue further, through the use of two experiments, that conscious events are to be understood as this limiting, or what they call order parameters of large-scale brain dynamics. To understand consciousness one has to go further and consider embodiment. Three dimensions of embodiment are crucial for their understanding. The first, what they term sentience, is the organism’s self-regulation and has an affective and emotional dimension.  This is the organism’s capacity to feel its own activity and arises from the complex system of the body. This system includes the brain but is not limited to it and thus to look for neural correlates of conscious experience misses the point because it misses this sentience which pervades all sensory experience.[7]

            The second dimension is that cycles of sensorimotor coupling with the environment enable the organism to behave as a situated agent, in other words enable a kinesthetic ability. The last dimension builds off the others. It is the ability for intersubjective interaction. This involves both the ability to recognize the intentional meaning of other’s actions and linguistic communication. Although intersubjectivity is less understood than sentience or sensorimotor coupling Varela and Thompson point out that it is connected to the emotions and forms of sensorimotor coupling such as “mirror neurons”, in which patterns are formed in the neuronal activity of the premotor region which are similar to the patterns formed when producing the same kind of action in the organism itself. These “mirror neurons” have been seen in animals and there is evidence for them in humans. Some have speculated that they are a part of the neural basis for the development of language.[8]

            This aspect of Varela’s work is not only none problematic, but in fact very convincing.  In my opinion he and Thompson are right to suggest that this is a way for moving beyond neuroreductionism, epiphenomenalism, and substance dualism and in this a way forward. What one does notice, in this account, is the lack of a unified subject or agent. The mental process is spread across a wide array and is seemingly uncontrolled by any central agent. There is no homunculus inside one’s head or transcendental I in the control tower of the self. It is this problem that Varela, Thompson and Rosch attempt to tackle in The Embodied Mind, via the Buddhist tradition. Stating it this way is actually not quite right because, as will be seen, for them it is no problem at all.

            According to Varela et al. (from here on Varela) there is no central unifying aspect of consciousness. In this book they are working with a similar model as in the essay previously explored, that of emergence and embodiment. What they suggest is that consciousness is made up of sub-systems composed of aggregates, which are also composed of aggregates, that form individual agencies that in turn form new agencies and eventually the appearance of a unified agency, or an agent.[9] While in phenomenal experience one believes that he or she is a self there is no actual self and thus no ground for this belief.

It is important to notice here that Varela is employing the same rhetorical strategy as Dhamapala. An aggregate is the term used by Buddhism, and specifically the texts of the Abhidharma, to describe the experiential aspects that give rise to a belief in the self. The aggregates also serve as pointers towards investigation.[10] The five aggregates within the Abhidharma are (1) forms, (2) feelings/sensations, (3) Perceptions, (4) dispositional formations, and (5) Consciousness. There is not room to explore the relation of the aggregates to one another here, but suffice it to say that the last aggregate is dependant on all of the others, yet is not an inevitable outcome of them.

This brings us to the main thrust of the argument in the book, which can be simply stated as such: in light of the fact that the cognitive sciences have shown that there is no homunculus in the head it is safe to assume that they have proven that there is no self at all and thus Buddhism was right when thousands of years ago it told us exactly this. What Varela suggests is that through the practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation the phenomenal experience that there is a self can be overcome and thus a bridge can be built between the findings of neuroscience and phenomenal experience.

The argument proceeds into the realm of Western post-modern (or at least post-Nietzschian) philosophy. Varela argues that the modern, or post-modern, West has come to the realization that the self, the world, and knowledge are groundless, or without a reference point, neither in the subject nor in the objective world. This is Nietzsche’s famous statement about the death of God. What this leads to in a world that is dependant on a ground, or reference point, for meaning is the embrace of nihilism.[11] Using the work of Nishintani Keiji, a Japanese philosopher who was raised and immersed in the tradition of Zen Buddhism and also a student of Heidegger, Varela argues that Nietzsche and Western philosophy in general cannot escape nihilism because it has not gone far enough. It still attempts to hold on to the notion of a grasping mind when it needs to realize that the dualism of objective/subjective is inherently unstable and thus that no self exists.[12] In other words, western philosophy fails because it is not Buddhist enough.

The last move in the book is an attempt to provide an ethic for a groundless world. Varela argues that the compassion of Buddhism is strong enough to guide our ethics and is in fact the only one up to the task in our present day world. Of course this does not mean that everyone needs to become an explicit Buddhist, but rather an implicit one through the recognition of groundlessness by the process of mindfulness/awareness meditation. It is argued that compassion naturally arises out of the realization achieved through this practice. This, in turn, rests on the Buddhist notion that compassion is our natural inclination and just needs to be uncovered, so to speak, through mindfulness/awareness meditation.[13] 

The last move that I wish to make is a subtle critique of Varela’s attempt to overcome the gap between phenomenal experience and cognitive science’s findings. The first thing that needs to be pointed out is the instability of first person subjective investigation. While many within the study of consciousness believe that it is possible to use the first person perspective as a peace of scientific data, this is done through the use of the third-person scientific method of investigation.[14] In contrast to this, Varela is arguing that the phenomenal experiences reported by practitioners of mindfulness/awareness meditative practice should be considered as important and valid as the scientific data obtained through the cognitive sciences.

This relies on the assumption that the experience of mindfulness/awareness meditation is not shaped by the practitioner’s expectations.[15] In other words Varela assumes that the practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation opens the practitioner to the way things really are, what Kant called the world in itself. What is this? It is the fact that there is no self. This is a highly problematic assumption for anyone who is not a Buddhist. Further, it is a common understanding within the social sciences, philosophy and even the “hard” sciences—one need only to think of Kuhn’s paradigms—that individuals’ presuppositions shape their experiences. We should not be surprised when Buddhists come to the realization, through meditation, that there is no self, this is exactly what they knew they would find. At the very least this makes his argument for the validity of the phenomenal experience gained through mindfulness/awareness meditation suspect, if not entirely flawed.

The second point that I wish to make is that it seems to me that Varela suffers from the same Cartesian bias that he accuses of others. What I mean by this is that one of Varela’s assumptions appears to be that if one cannot find a homunculus or a transcendental I, then no self exists. Though the apparent lack of agency, or of a self, revealed by the cognitive sciences is beyond doubt a huge philosophical conundrum, I believe that it is one that will be overcome. In fact many have even began to do so in very creative and convincing ways.[16] While the self may not look like the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment, this does not mean that it does not exist.

My third, and last, point is that Varela’s last move, his argument for the validity of Buddhist ethics in our current age, fails. Again, we find that Varela’s argument relies on a shaky, if not entirely incorrect, assumption. That is, as I already pointed out, it is dependant on the Buddhist belief that compassion is our natural inclination.[17] From many other traditions, including the Christian one, this is a down right dangerous assumption. Further, it is not at all clear that an ethic of worldly peace and nonviolence flows naturally out of Buddhism groundlessness.[18] In fact Brian Victoria, in his book Zen at War, seems to suggest just the opposite when he states, “Zen and the sword are one and the same.”[19]

In light of the last thee critiques I consider myself warranted in rejecting Varela’s Buddhist attempt to overcome the gap by overcoming our experience of ourselves as having a self. I have already stated that the argument made in his essay with Thompson seems convincing and helpful. Other’s, the philosophers Nancy Murphy and Slavoj Zizek make use of strikingly similar arguments in order to obtain a ground for a self, although a self quite different than the original understanding of Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental I, but nevertheless a self with intentional agency and ethical responsibility. It is my contention that these theories of the self are both more convincing and take into account the phenomenal experience of the self, namely that we have one, in more promising and ethically responsible ways than Varela’s.


[1] David L. McMahan, “Modernity and the Early Discourse of Scientific Buddhism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72.4 (2004): 901.



[2] Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson, “Neural Synchrony and the Unity of Mind: A Neurophenomenological Perspective.” In The Unity of Consciousness: Binding, Integration and Disassociation, ed. Axel Cleeremans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 263.

[3] Ibid., 270.

[4] Ibid., 272.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 275.

[7] Ibid., 280.

[8] Ibid., 281.

[9] Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT Press, 1991), 106-110.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 241.

[12] Ibid., 244.

[13] Ibid., 248.

[14] Daniel Dennet, “The Fantasy of First Person Science”, [A written version of a debate with David Chalmers, held at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL,. February 15, 2001, supplemented by an email debate with Alvin Goldman] http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/chalmersdeb3dft.htm (Accessed 18 March 2009).

[15] (Varela and Thompson 2003, 72-73)

[16] See Nancy Murphy’s section in Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer, eds., In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), ch. 4. Also see Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT Press, 2006), 174-182, 200-251.

[17] (Varela and Thompson 2003, 248)

[18] However, one must recognize that Buddhist practitioners have often been peaceful, and have even struggled against violence and injustice in ways that should put many Christians to shame.

[19] Brian A. Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhilt, 1998), 100.


7 thoughts on “Buddhism and Cognitive Science

  1. You say: “There is no homunculus inside one’s head or transcendental I in the control tower of the self.”

    It was a reasonable assumption in the nineteenth century but is now highly contentious. There is a huge problem with the popular interpretation of the homunculus argument. The homunculus argument is that: if pre-twentieth century physics is correct then there would need to be an observer in the brain to observe what the brain observes and an observer in the observer’s brain to observe what it observes …etc.. This is then interpreted as an unimpeachable argument that observation cannot happen in the brain – a weird interpretation when the alternative, that pre-twentieth century physics is false, is a known fact. The homunculus argument is normally used to show that a theory disproves an observation but do you abandon the theory or reject the observation? (see Materialists should read this first)

  2. John,

    My intention was not to suggest that there is not room for observation (or what I would prefer to call representation) within the brain. As I tried to point to later in the paper it doesn’t seem to me that just because the self that we assumed we’d find, due to 19th century physics, folk psychology or 19th century philosophy, isn’t there doesn’t suggest to me that there is thus no self at all, or rather that their is no room for agency. I am assuming that this is what you are after with the desire to leave space open for “observation in the brain”.

    I think I would be more comfortable calling it representation because otherwise it does seem to smack of a cartesian theater that, though Dennet’s and others attacks on it maybe ungrounded, I would still want to shy away from. I like representation because the language suggests an openness to a system. What I mean is that I still do not believe that there is a “self” inside the head “observing” what goes on there, but rather that the brain, through language, can present and represent to itself, possibly ad infinitum, in the form of a feedback loop due to its embodiment in its environment. This process, along with many others, is the self and leaves room for agency and moral responsibility while taking seriously the brain sciences, philosophy of mind etc.

    From looking at your blog I am more than willing to say that you have done much more work in this area, so I would be interested in hearing your thoughts further. Thanks for the comment and the link.


    1. I am very uneasy about “agency” altogether. If you meditate and verbal thought occurs you can listen to it and it goes away. The listening is not an action but it calms the non conscious actions that create the verbal thoughts. When you have listened and watched your thoughts and dreams there is a stillness and a space. What is this form that is you?

      1. John,

        I must admit that I find your comments rather opaque. Are you arguing for anything here or simply raising questions so as to raise doubt?

        I am also not sure that I can answer your question at all sufficiently in this format, but I will attempt to do so. I think that I would want to say something like, this form that I refer to as myself is a complex-biological-emergent-system that has achieved a state of self-awareness/consciousness and is able–through its cultural-linguistically embodied cognitive system–to supersede its determination through virtual representation and thus achieve some sort of agency and responsibility, albeit somewhat limited.

        I do admit that my answer is somewhat mystifying as well. I am also curious who or what for you has “decided” to meditate?

  3. The goals of Buddhism are achieved by behaving appropriately, meditating, being mindful and through philosophy. Mindfulness and meditation cultivate the mentality of an “observer” in which discursiveness or “verbal thoughts” are avoided and can reduced by simply listening to them. Observation can remove most forms of recursive activity such as verbal thoughts and imaginary mental scenarios, dreams etc. Now, it seems to me that your article, and Varela’s contemplations, are directed at discovering the genesis of recursive mental activity. You describe this activity as “self awareness”, this may be true but it seems to me that “awareness” is the opposite, try this meditation:

    Find a comfortable, quiet position, clear your mind so that it is free for a second or two of any imaginary images or verbal thought and listen for the next verbal thought. You may find that a word suddenly pops into your mind. Notice that you do not consciously create the word, it is just there. You may now either adopt the scenario of an imaginary active speaker and enjoy the discursive flow of verbal thought or listen: continuously listening usually stops the discursive flow. It seems to me that the imaginary verbaliser is “self aware” whereas the listener is simply “aware”. It is for you and writers such as Varela to decide whether imagining oneself as an active speaker or becoming a mindful, meditating observer is closer to the Buddhist path.

    Now consider the brief moment of clarity, the cleared mind. My question is: what is this space and time of a cleared mind and what would be the measured variables in the brain that correlate with it? Your article does not seem to address this issue but rather seems to focus on discursive thought, the products of the non-conscious parts of the brain that just pop into mind, as you say, you are analysing mind in terms of “its cultural-linguistically embodied cognitive system”.

    Certainly, whether the contents of mind are derived from sensation or from a non-conscious linguistic source they occur in a container or “form” that can exist without linguistic or sensory content – just close your eyes, relax and merge with the space to be this form itself. As I pointed out before, this space and time of the mind are inexplicable according to materialist reasoning, we will need to use scientific ideas to explain it (see Materialists should read this first).

    1. John,

      I don’t have the time to respond fully now and I would like to think about it a little longer, but I will say what comes to mind now.

      I am not sure why the cleared space and time of the mind has to be anything other than just that. Could it not simply be the temporal clearing of the process that is a part of me? Why must this lead to the idea that I have no self or agency? In addition, I do not agree with your distinction between the “aware listener” and the “self-aware conversant”. The aware listener is aware of his/her awareness and thus is self-aware. I do not see how one can stop this reflexivity. If one does, than one is aware that one has done so, and thus is self-aware. I may be missing something, and it is probably connected to the problematic nature of explaining the attainment of nirvana, etc. I am not saying that this is a definitive argument against Buddhism, for I recognize that language is incredibly limited when speaking about the Beyond, instead I am trying to register my apprehension with your distinction. Hope this makes sense.

  4. You make two fascinating points in your comment:

    “I am not sure why the cleared space and time of the mind has to be anything other than just that.”


    “The aware listener is aware of his/her awareness and thus is self-aware.”

    So what we are considering is how a geometrical entity, ie: simultaneous things that are also arranged in time, can be aware. You suggest that a “process” is involved in this awareness. Processes are successions of arrangements of things, such as the succession of states in a computer or the succession of positions of the gears and disks in a windmill. Conventionally a process has a fixed state at an instant and at each instant is an arrangement of things in space but not an arrangement in dimensional time. The only way a conventional processor can report its state at an instant is to transfer elements of this state to a “reporting state” at another instant. But, of course, the “reporting state” can only report its state at another instant and so on.. This is why conventional processors can never be said to “know” their own state (cf: homunculus fallacy, symbol grounding problem, Aristotle’s regress, Ryle’s regress).

    So how can our geometrical being be aware? The answer seems to be straightforward – we can see movement and hear whole words. Unlike a conventional processor we extend through dimensional time so that, at any instant we are also extended in dimensional time. Just watch something move or listen to a word – do you just hear just the briefest of phonemes or do you hear whole words extended through time?

    This seems impossible – how could you be extended in time at an instant? Well, although temporal extension at an instant seems like a ridiculous contradiction to the nineteenth century physicist it is not incompatible with earlier or later physics. Even as early as Aristotle the answer to this conundrum was evident, events that are extended in time would project to a single point in the present to make our mind. Descartes copied this idea but made the point, the Res Cogitans, supernatural. In modern physics we can invoke four dimensional world geometry in which one of the dimensions (dimensional time) subtracts from the other three so that things can be arranged in space and time but also have no separation in certain spacetime directions (ie: be distributed but also be at a point). In terms of a meditation, what we observe is that words are extended in time at the lips of a speaker, just watch someone speaking, the words extend in time and project at the instant of observation in the same way as the speaker’s body extends in space and projects at the point of observation.

    If we ignore flows of symbols (such as words) and just consider the arrangement of objects that is our mind it is evident that being aware is being a multidimensional geometrical entity. Just look, our minds have an evident 4D (or even 5D) projective geometry. However, “becoming”, the non-dimensional aspect of time is still unexplained.

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