What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

Since I am going to the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, I thought I should share an essay I wrote a while ago.

Q: What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

The stated goal of our enterprise is to create an intellectual milieu where Indian philosophical ideas and theories play an influential role in the development of the cognitive sciences. Therefore, we need to make Indian philosophical ideas available in a form attractive to the average cognitive scientist, a task easier said than done. As we all know, the typical cognitive scientist, while paying lip service to Hume and Kant, really doesn’t care that much about Western philosophy, so why should he care about Indian philosophy? In fact, if developments in what have been called “experimental philosophy” and “neuro-philosophy” are to be taken at face value, it is philosophers who should take cognitive science and psychological experimentation seriously, not the other way around. The working cognitive scientist seems to have concluded that as the science has matured, it is the philosopher’s job to systematize and popularize the field but not to add anything of substance.

In this bleak scenario how can one motivate a cognitive scientist to study Indian philosophy and learn some of its fundamental concepts and intuitions? A typical response might be to say:

  1. That cognitive science has created its current edifice on the backs of many generations of western philosophizing about the mind.
  2. These metaphysical intuitions and theories play an enormous role in determining what hypotheses are considered, what experiments are done and what conclusions and interpretations are drawn from the data.
  3. Not only do these metaphysical presuppositions play a role in “purely” scientific theorizing about the mind, they also guide our technological metaphors, such as robots, intelligent computers etc. Ideas about artificial intelligence which have been enormously influential in cognitive science, as well as captured the popular imagination, also embody these metaphysical presuppositions, physicalism being the most important one.

Even if one agrees with these claims (and certainly many cognitive scientists will do so) I believe that a rational reconstruction of the metaphysical presuppositions of cognitive science will not change the field all that much — the bookshelves of every university bookstore in the west is full of critiques of cognitive science and consciousness studies as well as alternative approaches drawing inspiration from various sources, ranging from Quantum Mechanics to Buddhism. So far, these critiques have hardly made a dent on mainstream cognitive science, which, if anything, is heading towards ever more reductive neural and biological explanations.

I believe that the problem lies not in the overt philosophical commitments of cognitive scientists, but rather in the tacit and unconscious ways in which these commitments are embodied and enacted in the day to day practice of cognitive science. The cognitive scientist who agrees that reductionism is a problem will still automatically look for brain areas in which cognitive functions are localized. Perhaps that makes his paper more acceptable to the journal to which he plans to submit his findings (which itself shows how physicalist metaphysics has utterly penetrated the intellectual economy of cognitive science), or more likely, he does not know what other kind of explanation and exploration of the mind is even possible. The availability of ever more powerful imaging, physiological and genetic technologies for probing the mind make it “natural” for the cognitive scientist to pursue the reductive route to success. This deep co-dependence between physicalist and mentalist metaphors for the mind, mathematical and mechanical technologies and “viable” theories of the mind and consciousness needs to be researched carefully, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that:

  1. Cognitive Science (and modern science in general) has developed in close contact with the development of sophisticated mechanical and mathematical techniques that have provided scientists with the most productive metaphors for the mind.
  2. This vicious circle has to be broken if one is to move out of blindly reductive approaches to cognition.
  3. Breaking this circle will require a rethinking of the nature of machines as well as mathematics and logic, where mechanical and logical systems are seen as open, embedded, embodied systems rather than as isolated, syntactic and abstract systems. Furthermore, this rethinking will have to be fleshed out (both figuratively and literally) as research programs so that future generations of students and researchers will learn how to do mathematics/logic/cognitive science differently.
  4. Indian philosophy will play a crucial role not because its ideas are interesting (which they are) but because we think that its various philosophical lineages embody different but equally critical and rational traditions of exploring the mind.

For better or worse, if the archetypal image in modern western cognitive science is that of a computer, then the archetypal image of an ancient Indian cognitive science is the Yogi. One need not buy into orientalist notions of the exotic other to realize that there might be a underlying truth here. The yogi metaphor incorporates a subject-centric perspective on the mind while the computer metaphor simply does not. The ultimate (and emotionally satisfying) irony would be the demonstration that the real yogi is the Indian logician watching smoke billow from his lookout at the base of the mountain rather than the hippie meditator smoking dope at the top of it, but lets not get ahead of our story for the moment.

I would like to end this brief note with a nested series of strategies for a cognitive science research agenda grounded in Indian philosophy, where we begin by noting that:

  1. The soteriological background of Indian philosophy is post-embodied rather than dis-embodied, i.e., pure consciousness or freedom is conceived at the boundary of our embodied existence rather than as a spirit like substance, unrelated to the body that coexists and interacts with the body in some unknown and perhaps unknowable manner. Therefore, the bugbear of dualism and the concomitant physicalist, reductionist response does not even arise. As a consequence, every major problem in cognitive science, from the nature of subjectivity to the possibility of conscious computers will be cast differently in a Indian approach to cognitive science. Furthermore, seeing our existence as constitutively embodied doesn’t commit us to materialist explanations of the mind, for our current conceptions of matter presuppose the very dualist metaphysics that we are trying to combat in this Indian approach. The possibility of post-embodiment (pure consciousness, moksa, nirvana), admitted by all Indian schools, acts as a counterweight to radical physicalism and reductions of the mind to the body or the body to matter.
  2. Furthermore, as dualism is discarded, we also start taking the subject of knowledge and consciousness as an embodied being more seriously. Instead of asking the question “what is consciousness” we ask “what is it for one to be conscious”. Knowledge is mediated by cognitions, which play an important epistemological role, without overly psychologizing knowledge. Furthermore, cognitions are neutral with respect to the subject-object divide (as I understand them anyway), in that they can be grasped by a subject and point towards an object with equal ease. Note that from a mathematical point of view, the subject is no more mysterious an explanatory construct than the object. In one case arrows go from the cognition to the object, and in the other the arrows go from the subject to the cognition. While my treatment of the mathematical aspects here is all too brief, I want to stress that avenues for further research can be opened up by formulating Indian philosophical notions in terms of appropriate mathematical concepts. One could go so far as to speculate that understanding the role of mathematics in cognitive science based on Indian philosophy will have important implications not only for Indian philosophy but also mathematics itself. The same goes for technology. While Indian philosophers did not use either of the two in their work, there is no doubt that any research effort now will have to engage with both of them, to the benefit of Indian philosophers, mathematicians and technologists.
  3. Finally, we need to engage with the issue of how Indian philosophy will transform the practice of cognitive science. Indian philosophy based cognitive science should break the codependence of cognitive science with syntactic symbolic metaphors as well as mechanical technologies. Not that technology should be shunned, but rather that certain unreflective uses of technology to reduce the mind to matter or the mind to syntactic computation should be set aside and the fundamental problems reconsidered. Here’s where we should start fleshing out concrete problems such as:
  • The problem of learning concepts from examples (by children primarily, but adults as well. Perhaps Dignaga has something to say about concept learning that the Chomsky’s and Fodor’s and Hempel’s have missed.
  • The possibility of analytic entailments that are still empirical (in arthapatti) can help us understand how we humans know that a cup in our hands is no longer on the table from which we picked it up. More generally, it gives us ways to understand knowledge that is both analytic, and innate in some sense, and yet deeply empirical and embedded in the world. Here Indian philosophy can say something important about the nature-nurture debate. As in the case of mind-body dualism which is rejected in the Indian framework, nature and nurture are not opposing quantities either. Knowledge can be part of our nature and yet be utterly grounded in experience. I am interested in finding out how the basically empiricist attitude of Indian philosophy avoids the rationalist-empiricist divide in modern western philosophy and cognitive science, which I believe, closely parallels and influences the physicalist-dualist divide.

To conclude I would like to say that cognitive science is perhaps the only scientific discipline in which one can think of concrete, systematic and possibly revolutionary interventions based on an understanding of Indian philosophical concepts. Unlike the physicist who sees Vedanta at work in Quantum Mechanics but has no way in which to flesh out his intuition (right or not) in the mathematical language that physicists respect, I can see how Indian philosophy can work its way into the details of cognitive science. Whether that happens or not will be mixture of luck, hard work and creativity, but it is definitely worth a shot.

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