Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is there time without consciousness?

Time, as is well known, is according to Augustine extensio animi, an extension of one's soul. Hence, it does not exist apart from it.
However, Sartre maintained that the most fundamental level of consciousness is pre-egological and Husserl supported (only) a transcendental ego –that is, one which does not appear as such in consciousness. Buddhist thinkers were explicitly non-substantialist, at least after Vasubandhu.
Does time-consciousness entail a (transcendental, at least) ego?
Husserl's claim that there is a moment of retention within every instant of experience, might help one in avoiding to postulate an ego and yet account for time-consciousness. However, one might object, such a retention is itself momentary and hence cannot account for long-term memory.
While dealing with such questions, Matt MacKenzie admitted that retention is one of the conditions of possibility of memory, and it is still not the depiction implied by memory. In order to get it, one needs to add an account of the sedimentation of retention-traces (in Sanskrit one would call them vāsanā or saṃskāra). This is the role of the depository consciousnessm the ālayavijñāna. A presentist (and at the conference on Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques this role has been performed by Jan Westerhoff) could instead object that there are, in fact, NO RECORDS of the past. What appears as a record of the past is in fact a present cognition, which we misinterpret as relating to the past. In other words, it only "looks" as a record, but it exists in the present as something else.


Jayarava said...

Seems to me that Buddhists must have strayed very far from their original mission to get caught up in a discussion like this!

elisa freschi said...

Interesting… why do these discussions seem so unuseful to you? After all, memory makes a great part of our life and relying on it can make us happier or unhappier. Why should not Buddhists take part to the discussion?

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

I'm heavily influenced by early Buddhism, so my approach may not be relevant to Vasubandhu et al.

But it seems to me that the Buddha was not interested in what consciousness, reality, time, or memory is or isn't. He did not ask "what is" questions. These kinds of questions result in diṭṭhiṭṭhāna 'speculative views'. Such views are simply opinions, they cannot ever be definitive. This is why 2500 after the Buddha such things have still not been settled, despite some clever people seeking answers.

A Buddhist should be asking 'how does' questions, questions about method within a narrow scope: how does suffering occur, and how do we stop it?

And the answer is not to theorise, but to examine one's experience, to understand the relationship to experiences. Defining experience (or memory as a particular kind of experience) is not important at all. We all have experiences (and memories) whether we define them or not. The Buddhist project is all about understanding that suffering comes about through unrealistic expectations on experience, and letting go of those expectations (which is much harder than it sounds!). The reasons we make these errors are interesting to some extent, because the answers give us some insight into stopping. But the reasons are not crucial.

In some ways Buddhist Philosophy is an oxymoron. It drags us into a debate on terms which are outside our domain (avisaya).

What is the purpose of a question like: "Does time-consciousness entail a (transcendental, at least) ego?" Why is the answer to this question of value to anyone? In order to answer the question, one must first also define what criteria are used for valuing an answer; or in what world-view and values system the answer will be meaningful. Also what is meant here by 'ego' and 'entail' in the first place? So the whole system is tautological in that the answer is only meaningful in terms of a predefined set of conceptions, which are based on opinions already held, that in effect predetermine what the answer to any ontological question will be.

The question 'does an ego (of any kind) exist?' makes assumptions about 'ego' and 'existence'. Neither 'existence' nor 'non-existence' are useful terms for Buddhists because the domain (visaya) of Buddhist inquiry is experience. We have an experience of what we might call a 'point of view'. We may think of this as 'myself'. But does that 'self' (more precisely a sense of having a point of view) exist or not? The experience of having a point of view is just like any other experience - it is dependent on a great many things, and not stable or substantial.

I could go on - people write books about this stuff - but hopefully you can see my angle.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you Jayarava, for this interesting and insightful answer. I see your point, my question ("Does time-consciousness…?") only makes sense within a certain game, namely that called "philosophy of mind". In favour of Vasubandhu et al. might be said that I have been using them for the sake of a game, they were probably not willing to play.
However, they might have sometimes taken part to a similar game (for instance, while answering to Nyāya or Mīmāṃsā objections) because they thought that samyag-dṛṣti is also a component of the eigth-fold path. Hence, one needs to see things correctly and to this "correct seeing" belongs the anātmatā as an antidote to the over-ātmatā of the Brahmanic schools.
A more general question is: how "kuśala" it is to engage in intellectual discussions? Personally, I am certainly (do I need to state it?) an intellectual person. Would it be better to tell me "it is useless to think about it" or to show me an intellectual way leading to the Buddhist path? I would probably not even listed to the first kind of teacher, I'm afraid, because I can hardly avoid discursive thinking.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

Yes. I'm a compulsive thinker as well (as my own blog shows). There are two approaches I think. On one hand I think about philosophical problems and engage in debates, make points, have arguments etc, but I don't mistake this for the path. It's for the purposes of entertainment, and a way of interacting with people that I enjoy. Although sometimes it does help to tease out some important information.

On the other hand there is thinking my way into the Dharma as a more serious activity and practice. There is always going to be some cross-over, but this kind of thinking involves looking for the consequences of the reflections, and tapping into personal experience - a form of knowledge that is seldom acceptable in scholarship. One must connect the intellectual activity with the experience of being intellectual, i.e with the body.

I might reflect on one of my favourite questions: "what is it that arises in dependence on causes?" There is a super-structure of doctrine, and a whole range of responses from inside and outside Buddhism. I could argue about it for centuries without end (if death were not to intervene).

But if I really sit back and reflect on this question, and on the experience associated with thinking about it, then the understanding that comes is not so easy to articulate. I begin to see that experience is what arises, and that no experience falls outside dependent arising... and that there is effectively only experience; that the experience of self-hood, is only an aspect of experience and arises in dependence on causes too. Knowing is also an experience. Hence I don't like playing the exists/doesn't exist game. More interesting is the experience of knowing this for yourself, of sitting with it for an extended period, watching the mind work, and allowing the implications to permeate you. It's not about who's right, or who can make the best argument, but about the thoughts and feelings you have in the process. It's about being an embodied mind, and what that is like.

So I wouldn't say it's useless to think about anything. But just thinking on it's own has limited value, as does arguing with someone who is determined to play a different game. One needs to think, but to go deeper as well, to include the body, to feel what it is like to think about something deeply.

I would ask: why argue about something which cannot ever be settled? I suppose one could study the historical dynamics of such arguments for insights in the nature of intellectual inquiry. But we'll tend to be playing some game or other when we're doing that, and of course that determines the conclusions to a large extent. With personal experience it is more difficult to play games if we focus on the raw experience, and get under the interpretations. Or you could say that it is a game which everyone plays to their own rules, and the task is to find our what our own rules are, since we usually don't know until we start investigating that we ARE playing a game.

I think many philosophers admit to epistemological limits; but few are content to admit the limit and leap ahead to come to conclusions anyway. It's an almost irresistible urge. And it almost always ends up proposing some variety of existence/non-existence. But experience can't be described in this frame work, so yes it surprises me that Buddhists do it - especially those who lived after Nāgārjuna!

A while back I translated a sutta for my blog which purported to be about the conflicts between scholars and meditators - I doubt it was the Buddha, but it is interesting none the less that the conflict comes up in the Canon. See Meditation and Scholarship.

I've always envied people who could be brief!

Best Wishes

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
I am sorry for answering just now to your interesting comment (I have been abroad in the last week).

I must admit that I intellectually see your point (because it appears again and again in Buddhist texts), but I cannot "buy" it completely. In fact, it is difficult for me to be an intellectual being (to say the least, as a logistikòn zōón) and at the same time to mistrust my intellectual experiences. I am FINE with the contention that my intellectual experiences are limited, that they cannot grasp the entire truth of x, y or z. And also with the contention that pure intellectual speculations might be an intellectual game one plays in order to avoid engaging with deeper truths or experiences.
But the Buddhist claim you are upholding here seems more radical: intellectual inquiry might be superfluous, misleading, erroneous.

Personally (and, as I said, although I intellectually understand it), this claim puzzles me like a Freudian one would. How can I mistrust myself in such a radical way? I guess a Buddhist would answer that our worldly experiences are exactly what bounds us to saṃsāra. Hence, we *have to* mistrust them. Yet, it does not surprise me that every single Buddhist even after Nāgārjuna had to engage with this sort of thoughts. Don't you?

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