Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Consciousness of consciousness

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Everyone seems to pretty much agree that consciousness is a big mystery, and a really important one. Careers have been built, and books written, on the topic.

Of course, no one really agrees on what consciousness means. Is an animal recognizing itself in a mirror a form of consciousness? Others seem to confuse consciousness with thought. Is consciousness somehow related to emotion, such as what we feel when viewing a beautiful sunset? Is consciousness related to the elusive notion of qualia–what it means for something to be “red”, for example? Or is consciousness what distinguishes human beings from lower life forms–we are conscious, and they are not? Is consciousness merely the quality of being conscious (assuming we can define that), or something more? Is consciousness connected to, or identical with, the values we associate with humanity, such as ethics, or love, or loyalty? Is consciousness a state, or a process? Ultimately, in our discussions of consciousness we are trapped in an infinite loop: we don’t know what consciousness is, so we cannot speak coherently about it or what mechanisms it might be based on, and without knowing the mechanisms it is based on, we cannot define it.

To me, it makes no sense when talking about consciousness to say I’m conscious of having a headache. I just have a headache. It make no sense to say I’m conscious of seeing a chair. I just see a chair. It makes no sense to say I’m conscious of a beautiful sunset; it’s just a beautiful sunset. The term consciousness is vacuous if we use it to refer to any experience whatsoever. To be  worth talking about, consciousness must have a subject. For purposes of this discussion, we will say that the subject is an experience. Consciousness is not merely having the experience; it is a higher-level mental process whose subject is the having of the experience. By “experience” I mean something that we think, or sense, or feel. If one chooses to consider thoughts, and senses, and feelings, as neurological processes, then by this definition consciousness is a higher-level mental process whose subject is neurological processes. Since a mental process is itself a neurological process, it follows that consciousness is best defined as a neurological process the topic of which is a neurological process. Expressing this way makes the recursive nature of consciousness clear: we are conscious, but also can be conscious of being conscious, and conscious of being conscious of being conscious, and so on ad infinitum. To make it clear, this can be called reflective consciousness.


The acid-head who thought he could fly

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016


Let’s assume someone, perhaps under the influence of LSD, believes he can fly–or perhaps (he believes) God has told him he can fly–and so he jumps off a building intending to fly away. But instead he falls to the ground and dies. The reason is that his belief was incorrect; it was counter-factual. It did not conform to reality, or at least to a certain subset of known physical reality.

Now I’m well aware that the notion of “fact” is a slippery thing and there are many kind of beliefs and worldviews and mindsets that do not fall as cleanly onto the spectrum of fact vs. fiction as the belief that you can fly. However, one can stipulate that not all propositions in the world are necessarily characterizable as provable facts without abandoning the claim that some facts, physical or otherwise, do in fact hold.


Sakiko's new blog

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Sakiko has started a blog at . Expect lots of cat pictures.

The Tale of Nathaniel the Toad

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Douglas Crockford is the oracle of Javascript and holds the right position on Javascript 2.0. He also writes the quirky Department of Style blog. Here’s today’s post:

Once upon a time there was a small toad named Nathaniel. Nathaniel was despised by everyone who knew him. Not because he was a toad, or because he pulled the wings and legs off of flies before he ate them, but because he could not be trusted.

One day at the forest tavern, where all the small forest creatures went nightly to get drunk, Nathaniel announced that he was never going to pay back the money he had borrowed from his little woodland friends. And he borrowed large sums of money from just about everyone.

So they killed him. And then they pulled his legs and arms off and ate him.

Star Simpson and Ko

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Star Simpson (picture), the MIT student who was arrested on Sept. 21 at Logan Airport for wearing a circuit board on her sweatshirt (story), went to high school at HPA with my son Ko .

She’s clearly a brilliant student and athlete, but maybe not such a great web designer, judging by her MIT home page (now offline, but still available in Google’s cache).

To set the record straight, technically it was not a printed circuit board but rather a “prototyping board”, as pointed out in this fellow MIT student’s blog . OK, thanks for the clarification.

Nancy's Good-bye to Uncle Bill

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

I wrote about my Uncle Bill’s recent death here . Unfortunately, I have no picture of Uncle Bill to grace this post with. Here’s my sister Nancy’s remembrance, which she kindly consented to let me post here.


Goodbye, Uncle Bill

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

My Uncle Bill died in his sleep last week at the nursing home in Lewiston, ID where he was spending his final days. He’s been cremated and his ashes will be scattered on the Alaskan ocean where he fished for salmon in his second career, alongside those of his late first wife.


Dogen on visual and auditory perception

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

Which of the following two statements is Dogen more likely to have made?

1. We should unite body and mind to see and hear things, because this will allow us to grasp them directly, unlike a reflection in a mirror

2. Striving with body and mind to look at and listen to things may bring us closer to reality but ultimately is not the enlightened model

We are looking at an often-overlooked portion of Genjo Koan, which the overwhelming consensus says is correctly interpreted as (1). But I think it’s (2). How about you?

Let’s start off looking at the Tanahashi/Aitken translation:

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined the other side is dark.

To oversimplify, he’s saying that full engaging body-and-mind is good, reflected stuff is bad, and that one side being dark is good again.

But first let’s make some minor stylistic criticisms

  • In the original Dogen repeats “fully engaging body-and mind” with regard to both seeing and hearing, but Tanahashi omits this. All else being equal, we’d prefer to retain such stylistic devices in the original. But it may be more than merely stylistic: Dogen could be using the repetition to indicate excessive exertion..
  • Dogen uses the terms kenshu and choushu for seeing and hearing, the words in question being comprised of the character for “see” and “hear” followed by that for “take”. If Dogen had simply intended “see” and “hear” he would have used the corresponding terms, but instead he makes a point of using compounds with “take” as the second element. In other words, he is emphasizing the perception aspect: “take in sights”, “take in sounds”. This is missing from Tanahashi.
  • In the original, there is a but (J. suredomo ) after “grasping things directly”, but Tanahashi has omitted this and instead brought the sentence to a full stop. Again, this may not be a merely stylistic matter; the “but” can easily be read as casting a negative nuance on the “grasping directly.”
  • In the original, it says “moon and water”, but Tanahashi has rendered this as “the moon and its reflection in the water.” It may be OK for him to add “reflection”, but in that case at a minimum it needs to be “the moon and the water [in which it is reflected].”

What other clues do we have about what the sentence might mean?

  • The “fully engaging” part (in Japanese, koshite) reminds of the “setting forth” (J. hakobite) phrasing used a few paragraphs earlier, where Dogen says disapprovingly that “setting forth on your own to practice and illuminate things is delusion”. Actually, “fully engaging” is pretty much of an invention on Tanahashi’s part, trying to make the sentence read better under what he thinks its interpretation is. The dictionary for this character gives “raise”, or “act”. One translator uses “muster”. Many translations, including modern Japanese ones, interpret this as “bring together”, which does have some justification, but this would seem to be another after-the-fact attempt to justify an a priori interpretation.
  • “Body/mind” appears in the immediately following paragraph, the famous one which states that learning the way means learning yourself, and ends by saying that letting yourself be enlightened by all things means casting off body and mind. So it seems odd that Dogen would be telling us here to gear up body and mind to perceive things and then turn around and tell us to cast off body and mind in the very next paragraph.
  • Of course, the moon and water recall the famous analogy further down in the essay, where Dogen says “gaining enlightenment is like the water cradling the moon.” Again, it’s counterintuitive that he would be using the water/moon here in a negative sense, referring to unduly intermediated perception of reality, and then turn around and use it as a beautiful metaphor for enlightenment. (Although eminent commentators such as Nishiari Bokusan, the early 20th century abbot of Eiheiji, say that this is precisely what he is doing. So what do I know.)
  • There is one confusing factor, which is that some versions of the original place this sentence as a continuation of the previous, which talks about how buddhas are not conscious of being so but are nevertheless buddhas and go on being so. Other versions break the portion we are looking at into a new paragraph. If it is a continuation, then it should be talking about what buddhas do. In fact, some translators even make that explicit, rendering this as “Buddhas unite body and mind to see things…”.

But beyond purely textual analysis, we can also think about what Dogen is likely to be saying. Modern neuroscience teaches us that every perception is mediated through a series of neural subsystems. In other words, there is no such thing as “direct” perception, much as we might like to think there was. Even buddhas have optic nerves and a primary visual cortex.

I’m therefore going against the tide and interpreting this paragraph as follows:

Straining with body and mind to take in sights, or straining with body and mind to take in sounds, may get you closer to reality, but this is not the way the mirror reflects things, or the way the moon and the water work. Focusing on one thing, you will lose sight of the others.

Bob and Sakiko get married

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

Bob and Sakiko got married on Tuesday, November 14, 2006.

Thanks for your comments

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

I’d like to thank the readers of Numenware for their insightful comments and the value they add to the blog.

Actually, the greatest number of comments came on an obscure post about a trivial English grammar issue. For some reason, huge numbers of readers from India believed I was offering some kind of English lessons. I wish I could figure out how to monetize these guys!

Next most popular was 34 readers commenting on my post about Charles Shaw’s $2 wine. Must have gotten picked up somewhere. As long as they click on my Google ads, I’m fine.

My post on sushi restaurants near my house generated 24 comments. My favorite was

My two interests are Neurotheology and Sushi and those two roads have guided me to this informative website….

Thought-provoking comments included those on the article Science and Buddhism on craving and suffering and The End of Faith. On my post on Bill O’Reilly: unlikely neurotheology advocate , the actual interviewee who appeared on Bill’s program made a comment. Some of the comments were very personal: on Religious music in your brain, one reader commented:

I am constantly hearing Christmas and religious hymns whenever I am not concentrating on a task. I also hear some old popular songs ‘Tammy’ & “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, “Star Spangled Banner” Every tune is in the same beat of 3/4 time. How do I stop this, it is driving me mad.

No one bothered to comment on one of my favorite posts, God and the brain in your gut, although it got some trackbacks. Nor on Peak experiences on mountain peaks , although it got picked up by Mind Hacks, nor on the article about dried squid entrails. My post about Sanyo: washing machines and global symbiosis yielded a request for a user’s manual for one of their washing machines.

The longest comment, by far, was on my post Book review: Living with the Devil , where Nordron, a Buddhist monk from Dharmasala, gave a thoughtful, detailed Buddhist perspective. Rhawn Joseph himself commented on my post about him and warned me that the picture I was using was wrong (since fixed).

I have been blessed with thoughtful, informative comments which add, I think, to the overall value of the blog, and not too many of them to be overwhelming. Thank you again.