Sunday, June 20, 2004

Science and Consciousness

An article in the current issue of Turning Wheel, published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, argued against the possibility (liklihood?) that science, and in particular artificial intelligence, would ever explain consciousness. (I regret that the article itself is not available online so that it can speak for itself.)

Here is my reply.

I enjoyed the "Hungry Ghosts of the West" article in the Summer 2004 issue of Turning Wheel, and I agree that consciousness is one of the last remaining mysteries. I suspect, however, that the author would resist my referring to it that way--as if consciousness too may sooner or later be resolved and no longer remain a mystery.

The same issue of Turning Wheel repeats a quote from the Dalai Lama to the effect that if science should disprove any aspect of Buddhist cosmology, Buddhism must change.

I don't expect science to "disprove" consciousness. There is nothing to disprove. But I do expect science to be able to say more about how it works. When that happens, I don't want to see Buddhists disappointed because they were hoping that science will fail. That would put us on the wrong side of awareness.

Science has seen many revolutions, most of which have corrected our sense of ourselves as being the center of the universe. Understanding consciousness will simply be another step in that realization.

Whether or not we understand how sentience works, we will remain sentient beings. As the Buddha said, it's all in our heads, and knowing how our heads work won't make it less so. It will simply make it less grandiose, which will be good for us.

-- Russ Abbott

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