Buddhism, Pheno-menology, and Cognitive Science: Assessing the Dialogue

Here is a description of the graduate seminar I will be teaching at the UC Berkeley Center for Buddhist Studies during Spring 2014:

Buddhist Philosophy, Phenomenology, and Cognitive Science: Assessing the Dialogue.

This seminar will be devoted to recent work in cross-cultural philosophy that links Buddhist philosophy with cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology. Our guiding question will be whether Buddhist philosophical psychology can be understood as a kind of phenomenology. The conviction that it can be so understood is often used as a way to argue for the relevance of Buddhist accounts of the mind, as well as Buddhist meditative practices, to cognitive science, especially to recent neuroscience attempts to explain consciousness. Yet this approach to the Buddhism-cognitive science dialogue has provoked criticism. Buddhist scholars have argued that Buddhist accounts of the mind are theoretical constructs, not phenomenological descriptions, and they have emphasized that these accounts are embedded in metaphysical and epistemological frameworks that are incompatible with “neurophysicalism,” the view that consciousness is a state of the brain. At the same time, philosophers and cognitive scientists have voiced scepticism about the validity of phenomenology for a scientific understanding of the mind. Examining these criticisms in light of our guiding question will require us to think about what exactly phenomenology is and what it could be in a modern cross-cultural context. At stake is nothing less than the fundamental issue of what it means for the human mind to examine itself and the place that Buddhist philosophy can have in this endeavor for us today. Our readings will include chapters from my forthcoming book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, the manuscript of Jay Garfield’s forthcoming book, Why Buddhism Matters to Philosophy, as well as a wide variety of sources from Buddhist studies, Buddhist philosophy, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology.

SSHRC Insight Grant

I’ve received a 5 year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant for a project called “Attending to Mindfulness.” The grant budget includes funds to support one PhD student for the duration of the project. Here is the Project Summary:

After decades of philosophical neglect, attention has emerged as an important topic in the philosophy of mind. At the same time, the cognitive neuroscience of attention both presupposes and gives rise to foundational philosophical issues about the nature of attention and its relationship to cognition, emotion, and consciousness. My research project will contribute to this convergent focus on attention in the philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience.

To my knowledge, my research project will be the first philosophical examination of the significance of recent cognitive neuroscience research on attention training through Buddhist mindfulness meditation, as well as the first philosophical study of the relevance of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophical theories of attention for contemporary philosophy of mind.

My working assumptions are (i) that attention actively structures experience; (ii) that the ability to guide and control attention is essential to being a cognitive agent with a subjective perspective on the world; (iii) that voluntary mental attention is a trainable skill; (iv) that mindfulness meditation methods train attention in precisely describable and measurable ways; and (iv) that mindfulness is a mode of skillful embodied cognition that depends directly not just on the brain but also on the rest of the body and the physical, social, and cultural environment.

My research project has five specific objectives: (1) to develop an account of voluntary mental attention as a flexible and trainable skill; (2) to clarify the conceptual and phenomenological relations between attention, consciousness, and agency;  (3) to demonstrate that voluntary mental attention should not be reductively identified with neural processes inside the head, but instead should be understood as a mode of skillful activity of the whole embodied and environmentally embedded agent; (4) to criticize the cognitive neuroscience of mindfulness meditation practices for neglecting the embodied and embedded nature of these practices; and (5) to propose an alternative embodied cognition approach to the cognitive science of mindfulness.

My methodological approach (developed extensively in my earlier work) is to use conceptual and phenomenological analyses of subjective experience to assess cognitive science investigations of human cognition, while using cognitive science models and findings to enrich philosophical analyses. A key new advance (which builds on my earlier work in cross-cultural philosophy of mind) will be to enlarge the domain of phenomenological philosophy of mind to include Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. A further advance will be to show the significance of this cross-cultural approach for the cognitive neuroscience of attention and mindfulness training methods.

This project will serve as an exemplar for cross-cultural philosophy of mind. It will demonstrate the significance of cross-cultural philosophy of mind for foundational issues in cognitive science. It will also be the first philosophical examination of the significance of mindfulness meditation training for understanding the nature of attention and its relation to agency and consciousness.