Saturday, September 5, 2009

Embodied Zen

I think it's safe to say that (early) Buddhism is to a fairly large extent, empiricist in its approach and general tenor. And I would also agree it is not the kind of empiricism found in Logical Positivism, nor for that matter, any other form of western philosophical empiricism. However, it is an empiricism that is conditioned by it's particular cultural/historical context, specifically the lack of understanding and knowledge that contemporary brain/cognitive science brings to light. Because of this, ontological assumptions were made based upon ‘experiences’ that may not be born out by recent empirical study.

Findings of cognitive science tell us that our bodies, brains, and environmental interactions provide the mostly unconscious basis for our sense of what is real. What cognitive science shows is that our sense of what is real begins with and depends upon our bodies, most especially our sensorimotor system, and the structures of our brains, which have been shaped by evolution and experience.

I would also agree that Buddhist meditative practices allow us to ‘go beyond’ our higher order concepts to a greater degree than perhaps most western scientists might agree possible (but perhaps with practice would understand), but I am convinced by the findings of cognitive science that categorization and primary order conceptualization, being a consequence of how we are embodied, cannot be ‘transcended’ or ‘left behind.’ Categorization is, for the most part, not conscious and rational; we categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact with the world in the way we do. In fact, not only do we not have full conscious control over how we categorize, we cannot have such control. Even when we think we are intentionally forming new categories, our neural unconscious categories enter into our choice of possible conscious categories. It is not merely that our bodies and brains determine that we will categorize; they also determine what kinds of categories we will have and what their structure will be.

For instance, the fact that we have muscles and use them to apply force in certain ways leads to the formal structure of our system of causal concepts. Yet, we often think of ‘causality’ as something independently existing in the world. Our concepts of causes, conditions, actions, states and change represent ontic features of the world. These concepts are taken literally, not metaphorically, yet cognitive science shows how these concepts are metaphorically constructed, emerging from everyday bodily experiences. They arise from human biology.

“Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment, What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, ‘get beyond’ our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1999, p. 19

What Lakoff and Johnson show is that these findings from cognitive science point out that our very concept of a disembodied mind arises from common, phenomenological experiences we all have throughout our lives. The very concept of the ‘unconditioned’ comes out of our embodied phenomenological experience. Our mistake, cognitive science seems to say, is we take it literally and draw some misguided conclusions. As they conclude, this has dramatic consequences for our understanding of religion and spirituality, which, in our culture – and throughout much of the East as well – has been defined in terms of disembodiment and transcendence of this world. What they (and I have long called for) is an alternative conception of embodied spirituality that begins to do justice to what people experience. There is another way – an embodied sense – to understand the experience of transcendence, of the ‘unconditioned’ or the ‘unborn.’ A mindful, embodied spirituality is a possibility, and I believe that the Buddhist practice (but I agree not tradition) can perhaps best provide a structure for creating it.

1 comment:

nicole said...

Good job on the reformating!! :)