Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Location: Rochester, United States

Chronically curious モ..

Thursday, March 20, 2008


It's time to stop previewing and start SKIMming :)
This is one hell of a cool application, specially for reading all those darn papers and working almost exclusively online.

You can quickly annotate and highlight and add stickies and whatnot and saves it in the extended file attributes (which some might find cause to quibble over). Here's a screenshot from a really nice paper(pdf) ;)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Revision time

In a previous post, I proposed buddhism:0, science:1 because, I felt, science offered a better understanding of the world around us. In that and a second post, I thought that what justified this was technology: unless you can truly understand, you cannot truly manipulate. It's revision time! So, let's ask the harder question: Does technology really justify the scientific way of understanding the world? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense of the previous post. But why "no"? For the moment, let's make the generalization that mathematics is the core of the structures through which we understand the world and create technology. (I would love to hear counter-arguments; remember, the claim is not just understanding the world, it's understanding the world and technology). As Thuan points out (still stuck in the Quantum & the Lotus ;), just the mathematical part of structures that support understanding-and-technology can predate the entire structure. That is, the maths (e.g. tensors and Riemannian geometry) can come before the physics (in this case, general relativity and gravity bending space). Matthieu responds:
...There's nothing odd about the fact that what we conceive corresponds to what we perceive. The way we explore the world, then sort out our perceptions of it, necessarily agrees with our mathematical concepts, because both perception and conception are products of the mind [italics his].
In short, the basic structure of the mind generates concepts either in 'mathematical space' or in 'physical space'. So, it's hardly a coincidence that the two mesh. Remember, here the 'mind' does not refer to the fundamental, luminous quality of pure consciousness, but rather refers to the relative-truth notion of consciousness (see previous post). So, technology does not justify an ultimate truth of the world, even if it does justify the current (relative-truth) model of how things work. In a sense, we conceive of the world around us. This can either be a conception originating in our sensory receptors or a conception arising purely from consciousness. In all cases, these are abstractions at some level or another, and the idea is that they all share a common source. Therefore, inasfar as some subset of these conceptions share common grounds with how we conceive of the world, technology will happen. But then, here's the other question again: Why is there no technology coming out of Buddhist thought? In a previous post, I hypothesized that " might not be expected to advance when it is not felt that having a thin-screen tv trumps the handpainted wall hanging of Tara." In the chapter The Grammar of the Universe, Thuan says something similar. The monk responds:
M(atthieu):This lack of development of the methods of modern science may have less to do with an inability to analyze phenomena than with a different scale of priorities as regards the various fields of knowledge. Which is more important - to know the mass and charge of an electron and to study the details of the world around us, or to concentrate on developing the art of living, to deepen our knowledge of vital questions such as ethics, happiness, death ... and to analyze the ultimate nature of reality?[pg. 208]
And yet, as Matthieu says shortly later, this does not mean that Buddhist thought cannot and does not include all the stuff from what they call our 'illusory' world, with the current 'scientific' style of rationalization. That is, Buddhism is interested in the conventional truth, since this is where most of the suffering happens, and, as the Dalai Lama tells it, is the place that seems best suited to get up to seeing the absolute nature of things. But to them, the conventional truth has no independent justification. This revision is scratching off Technology as a justification :)

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Heard a really nice talk by Wendy Haylett on the Diamond Cutter Sutra (among other things) at the Tibetan Buddhist centre. One of the things from the talk impressed upon me yet again one of the first reason that I'd found Buddhism so interesting: it seemed to coincide with some observations in cognitive science. Wendy went through an exercise of trying to ask, what is it in/of a pen that is its 'pen-ness'? Is it the function? (that depends on who is holding it) is it the shape? the materials? the color? And of course, there isn't any one thing or set of things that you can point to as being a pen. Just as, as Chomsky pointed out (and I simply cannot find the reference right now), if the human race were to disappear, there suddenly would be nothing like a garbage can. Both pens and garbage cans as distinct entities are just in the mind. A similar point is raised by the Amazing Gleitmans, Lila & Henry; e.g. in this paper (with Sharon Armstrong). As they point out, if one looks at a dictionary,
...(m)ost of the words in the language are defined there in terms of one another, with most words - unfamiliar ones excepted - acting as defined on some occasions and definers on others. It is as if all the words made their living by taking in each others' washing.
The idea here is that concepts are not the sum of their features. How remarkably similar is this to the endnote in the Quantum & the Lotus, which explains the argument of Chandrakirti that a "chariot" has no inherent existence:
  1. A chariot is not intrinsically the same as its part (wheels, axles, etc.), for they are multiple, and the entity of a chariot would then become multiple. If one insists that the chariot is really "one" entity., then all of its parts must be a single entity. Thus, absurdly, the agent (the moving chariot) and that which draws it along (its parts) would be one.
  2. A chariot is not intrinsically different from its parts, for if it were, then it would be an entity totally distinct from its parts. But ontologically, independent and simultaneous phenomena cannot act on one another, and so cannot be connected by a causal chain[1]. The chariot should then be perceived as being separate from its parts, which is not the case.
  3. The parts of a chariot do not depend intrinsically on the entire chariot, for if they did, then the parts and the whole of the chariot would have to be intrinsically "different", which returns us to the previous point.
  4. For the same reasons, a chariot does not intrinsically depend on its parts.
  5. A chariot does not possess its parts, as a farmer owns a cow or a man his body. For that to be true, the chariot would have to be either intrinsically distinct, or indistinguishable from its parts. Both of these possibilities have already been refuted.
  6. The chariot entity is not a simple composite of its parts: (a) the form of its parts cannot be a chariot; and (b) the form of the composites made up by the parts cannot be a chariot, because the forms of these parts remain unchanged, i.e., they are a chariot neither before nor after coming together.
  7. The form of the composite is not a chariot, because the composite formed from the parts is not an entity with a distinct existence. There is no composite of the parts different from the parts themselves, otherwise we could perceive the composites without perceiving the parts. As we have seen, the composite cannot be identical to its parts, for if it were, either the "composite" entity would be multiple, or the parts would be a single object, To sum up, the form of the composite exists only through a conceptual imputation.
Not bad for someone from the seventh century A.D. :)

    Tuesday, March 11, 2008

    Dualistic Consciousness?

    I have been getting puzzled and confused about an apparent contradiction in Matthieu Ricard's treatment of consciousness in The Quantum and the Lotus. On the one hand is the idea of shunyata, or none-ness (=one-ness), by which there is, in one sense, no notion of a true separation between things out there. Since there is just interdependence, all phenomena can be seen as just one, and "... ultimately, phenomena have no intrinsic existence"[pg. 28]. But, when it comes to consciousness, it suddenly seems to go dualistic:
    "... cause and effect must have a common nature, when the cause is substantially [as opposed to cooperatively] responsible for the effect. ...A moment of consciousness can only be caused by a preceding moment of consciousness. If something can be born from something utterly different, then anything could be born from anything else. Thus the fundamental level of consciousness cannot have arisen from inanimate matter, and it doesn't necessarily and in all contexts, depend on being embodied in a physical form."
    So is this dualism? Thuan asks Matthieu precisely this question:
    Matthieu: "Buddhism's conception is radically different from Cartesian dualism. We believe that there's merely a conventional difference between matter and consciousness because, in the end, neither of them has an inherent existence. Because Buddhism refutes the ultimate reality of phenomena, it also refutes the idea that consciousness is independent and exists inherently."
    So, the key to the puzzle (which, had I read the texts more carefully, is there right from the start), is the difference between relative or conventional truth and absolute truth. In the absolute sense, there is no difference between matter and consciousness. But in the relative or conventional sense, there is. But why should consciousness be separated from the material in the relative sense? Buddhists see causation as arising from two things - substantial causes and cooperative conditions. E.g., for a flame, the burning fuel is the substantial cause of the flame, and the atmosphere etc. that make it possible are the cooperative conditions that allow the combustion of the fuel. However, the causes and effects must have 'similar natures', for otherwise anything could be the (substantial) cause of anything else {Note: I think I might prefer to refer to it as a substantial, immediate cause}. And, in the Buddhist theory, material things, because of their qualities like having a location in space and being measurable, do not accord with them being the causes of consciousness. In this view, then, the brain is a cooperative condition for consciousness, rather than a substantial cause. And how does one know this? Well, that's part of the come-and-see bit. You have to do their "math", which is meditation and all that. It's a bit like needing to learn about tensors in order to work through a mathematical understanding of general relativity. Or, you could just believe that Einstein and his crowd (or Siddhartha and his crowd) did the math right... ;)

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    Friday, March 07, 2008

    The day before Genesis

    That's the title of a scientific article in Discover of April 2008. And, given the current extra-curricular readings in Buddhism, it comes almost as a pleasant shock. Several times I've heard or read, how Buddhism views the Big Bang. Their argument is pretty simple: nothing can be causeless. This is one(?) way of deriving the first of the Noble Truths, that of Suffering. So, for example, Matthieu Ricard, in The Quantum and the Lotus, explains that from the Buddhist view point, there cannot be A beginning, out of nothing. What this article does, is to examine the view of some main-stream physicists who would like to know, what came before the Big Bang? The article describes three main ideas:
    1. The idea, originating in string theory, that this world is a 3D brane embedded in a higher dimensional "bulk". This theory makes testable predictions about how gravitational waves should look like, if we could measure them.
    2. The question of time: why does it always move 'forward'? Turns out, you can have models where it does actually move backwards. For this, you need multiple Universes embedded in a multiverse, and so the Big Bang comes out of a background "foam", which holds its cause.
    3. The end of Time. This is an idea from 'rebel' physicist Julian Babour, which is just too similar to Buddhist notions. The basic idea is that 'time' is an illusion, all there are are endless successions of Nows. Strikingly, each Now is a state of the entire universe. Pretty much the same idea as in Buddhst thought.
    Taken together, it seems clear that at least some parts of modern physics are remarkably congruent with the kind of things that the Dalai Lama or monks like Matthieu Ricard talk about. It's almost time to re-visit the misgivings about the relation between science and buddhism again.. ;)

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