I'm a big fan of Steve Hagen's books about non-religious Buddhism. "Buddhism Plain and Simple" and "Buddhism is Not What You Think" really resonated with me.
But his new book, "The Grand Delusion: What We Know But Don't Believe" elicited a lot of question marks in the margins.
One problem I had with the book is that while Hagen's other books were marked by humility, this one has a heavy dose of grandiosity. Hagen sets out to solve every issue perplexing humanity, or more accurately, scientists.
Consciousness. Quantum theory. Free will. Existence of God. All these topics, and more, supposedly are subject to The Grand Delusion -- a belief in substantiality, that things actually exist.
OK, emptiness is a core Buddhist notion that I'm fine with. Nothing has inherent existence. Interdependency rules the cosmic roost.
Anything we can point to, like a coffee cup, doesn't stand by itself but is the result of countless interactions involving countless entities extending all the way back to the big bang and the creation of our universe.
While Hagen respects the conceptual thinking of scientists, and everybody else, he views concepts as a poor guide to what is genuinely real. Which supposedly is known by perception, not conception.
I part company with Hagen on this assertion. He often quotes Huang Po, a ninth-century Zen Buddhist. In John Blofeld's translation, Huang Po says "The ignorant eschew phenomena but not thought; the wise eschew thought but not phenomena."
So Hagen speaks over and over of simply seeing. That's what reality is, what is perceived with no effort in everyday life. Sure, this is a Zen notion in line with chop wood and carry water. Just live a normal natural life and you're in touch with big "R" Reality.
Problem is, Huang Po had no idea of how the human mind and brain really work (the mind is the brain in action, though as we'll see, Hagen disputes this). I don't think we should rely on the pre-scientific assertions of Huang Po over modern neuroscience.
Hagen is familiar with a lot of modern science. However, he fails to speak about neuroscience in nearly as much detail as he does physics, probably because he can use physics as an example of how science is confused about reality, whereas the findings of neuroscience point to Hagen's confusion about how perception works.
There is no such thing as "simply seeing." Seeing isn't simple. It requires much learning. What is learned essentially are perceptual concepts: shapes, colors, shadows, perspective, etc. Huang Po may have thought that seeing, or perception in general, is like a mirror reflecting an image.
But this is wrong. Hagen even has an example of this in his book.
He relates a story told by Oliver Sacks about a man who had been blind for forty-five years, "having had little more than an infant's visual experience, and this long forgotten." The man had his sight surgically restored in middle age. While he could see, it was "all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur." The man never could see normally.
This shows how important experience is to seeing. Somehow Hagen misses the point of his own example, saying, bizarrely, "Simply put, conception, as useful as it might be, is no substitute for perception."
Huh? Conception makes it possible to see usefully. It enables infants to move from perceptual confusion to normal seeing, where that shape of color and light is Mommy, not just a blob. Who would want to trade normal seeing for mixed up, meaningless seeing? Not even Hagen, I suspect.
I have an even bigger problem with how Hagen looks upon consciousness and the brain in "The Grand Delusion," because his take on this is decidedly at odds with his frequent admonition to just see. I suspect he falls prey to Buddhist orthodoxy here, which is disappointing.
What I see, what I know from direct experience, is that when I've been given anesthesia in several colonoscopies that I've had, I lose consciousness almost instantly. I then wake up with no memory of what happened during the procedure. So it seems clear that a chemical administered by the anesthesiologist impacts my brain, which becomes unconscious.
Same thing happens when a football player, or whoever, has a strong impact to the head. Unconsciousness results. There are countless (almost) examples of how changing the brain changes consciousness. This isn't a matter of abstract conception. It is a matter of seeing what happens.
Yet here's some quotes from Hagen's book about the brain and consciousness. My comments are in red.
People have noticed since the middle of the nineteenth century that there appears to be a correlation between conscious experience and brain activity. Unfortunately, serious study of that correlation over many decades has brought us no closer to understanding mind or consciousness. In fact, the more we investigate this apparent correlation, the more elusive a genuine understanding has become.
Absolutely false. Hagen needs to do more reading in modern neuroscience. A lot of progress is being made in correlating brain activity with consciousness. For example, it is now possible to predict quite accurately whether a patient is in a vegetative state from that activity.
Physical processes in the brain have never been demonstrated to give rise to subjective experience. We only assume that they do -- because there seems to be a correlation.
Well, I assume Hagen would be fine with having his brain removed, since he is skeptical that physical processes in his brain cause his subjective experience. More seriously, Hagen doesn't put forward any other explanation for subjective experience. Because there are mysteries waiting to be revealed about how consciousness functions, Hagen denies all that science does know about the brain and consciousness.
The fact is, we have no evidence that consciousness even has an origin, let alone that it originates in matter... Consciousness will always remain a mystery for those who continue in their attempts to construct it from matter.
These baseless assertions show how Hagen has gone all-in on religious dogmatism when it comes to consciousness and the brain. There is lots of evidence that consciousness arises from the brain. There is zero demonstrable evidence of consciousness existing apart from a brain. Again, this is obvious from simply seeing how consciousness is altered or lost by physical changes to the brain. Hagen should try LSD, or just a strong cup of coffee, if he doubts this.
Consciousness is not a thing and nothing produces it.
Again, this is anti-scientific dogmatism. It would be honest if Hagen would say that while consciousness appears to be produced by the brain, there is a lot to learn about how this happens. Instead, Hagen veers off into his version of Buddhist orthodoxy, which places Mind as separate and distance from Matter. (I'd say that this isn't at all what Buddhism teaches, just how Hagen views Buddhism.)