Fifteen years ago there was a documentary series on HBO called Kindergarten. The show followed a group of kids in the course of their school year, filming their interactions until they became almost oblivious to the cameras. In one episode, a girl is showing her classmates something she wrote. One classmate, apparently amazed at her friend’s ability to write, asks “How do you write those words?” The girl replies simply “I used a pencil.”
Clearly this doesn’t answer the question intended, but it does in one sense answer the question asked.
Part of my argument here will be that the advocates of a biological account of the mind are using the same kind of response as this little girl. However, while she simply didn’t understand that her classmates couldn’t write as well as her yet and so misunderstood the question, they ignore the real problem, refuse to understand the question, and then claim they have provided an answer. What they offer is an explanation of something (the girl really did use a pencil to write the words), but not one that says anything about the real problem they have pretended to solve. Neurological accounts of things like enlightenment, or of thought in general, simply offer up an account of one of the efficient causes of the thing in question; this is not much different from explaining that I wrote this by tapping keys on a computer, and just asserting that accounts for things like how I arrived at the meaning I am attempting to convey.
Furthermore, I am going to suggest that in the case of what I will call the reductivist version of x-buddhism, this evasion serves to produce a pernicious kind of neoliberal ideology. Among these reductivists I would include the advocates of mindfulness as well as all of those who suggest that Buddha was in some way a neuroscientist, or that Buddhist teachings are borne out by neuroscience, or that enlightenment is in some way a brain state dependent on some kind of neuroplasticity. All of those who believe we can reduce enlightenment (or happiness, or contentment, or awakening) to the level of bodily processes (neurons firing or sensory perceptions or feelings of comfort) are asking their followers to believe something false about the world, because that false belief is integral to the neoliberal ideology they hope to produce, and to profit from.
In part, my response was motivated by the recent release of Shinzen Young’s Book The Science of Enlightenment. However, I will use this book only as an example of the pervasive mistaken assumptions common to the reductivist x-buddhists. Read the rest of this entry »