« Eyes shut spiritual escapism: the trap of "going within" | Main | Don't understand the brain? You can't understand spirituality. »

February 16, 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"Neurophilosophy" is nothing more than a rhetorical pastime - mostly because there is no point in trying to figure out how it is we think we exist. We know we exist, and we also know, and absolutely refuse to accept, that we will also cease to exist, whatever that actually means.

No one has ever heard a dead body complain.

Those of us who are nihilists would probably do well to just keep our mouths shut and let others discover the awful truth on their own.

We see only that which we are psychologically conformed and trained to see. Our shortsighted seeing has been encapsulated by our accumulated responses to the world around us that formed during childhood. Though we might think that some of our understandings have come independent of our history, these apparent new understandings just stem and bud from the domino affect of early childhood that gave birth and cemented-in our ego identity. Consequently, we do not experience the environment itself but rather images created through our subconscious-projector. Someone with a chip on their shoulder actually has a programmed chip located in their psychological ego-makeup that creates the world they are interacting with. With some, this acting out of an invisible injury can be an obvious observation, but we all have our programmed neurosis chips within that are camouflaged from our conscious awareness. Besides unconsciously hiding this chip from ourselves, we spend our life's energy masking it, via our persona's, from others.

Religion and philosophy are often times USED to AVOID dealing with a deeper understanding of why we think and do what we do. Saying, "In nondual thinking each thought is experienced as arising and passing away by itself, not "determined" by previous thoughts but "springing up" spontaneously", is just another way of avoiding the reality-workings within ourselves. Our chip within is constantly undermining and working against the face of reality. Carl Jung once said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

"In nondual thinking each thought is experienced as arising and passing away by itself, not "determined" by previous thoughts but "springing up" spontaneously."

For this to be true there would have to be just enough memory to complete a thought but not enough to relate it to previous thoughts. Anyone who's brain is operating like this would be considered and idiot or moron. Perhaps this is what the nondual people are aspiring to.

"In nondual thinking each thought is experienced as arising and passing away by itself, not "determined" by previous
thoughts but "springing up" spontaneously."

---I don't there is anything such as "nondual" thinking. There really isn't anything that is a non-dual. What we have here is dualistic thinking, that is pointing to the non-dual. Thought that is being experienced as arising and passing away, is still in some sort of whole minded of dualism. Just my opinion.

Another excellent and thought-provoking post, Brian.

I had an epiphany of sorts about the connectedness of thoughts after my most intense period of mindfulness meditation practice a couple of years ago, which tracks with your observations here. I had accepted for purposes of practice the idea that thoughts are originless and destinationless, and during practice I let them go and returned to mindfulness.

However during the day I was working on carpentry projects by myself, and I began to notice with the same perspective I used to observe the arising of "thoughts", that in fact my thoughts were not disconnected. They were connected to my past, and connected to each other. I watched my mind jump from thoughts of Plato, to associated memories of college, a particular professor, a love triangle. Was this suffering? Haha, no. Nor was it completely random. Was it purposeless? The memories all had a kind of energetic charge to them, meaning that they had emotional as well as cognitive content.

Because of my studies of mathematics, I have begun to think of conscious thought (if there is a mode of consciousness that is not thought that is not what I am talking about here) in terms similar to mathematical group theory.

In Group Theory, mathematicians look for simple transformations analogous to addition and multiplication of numbers, but more abstract. They are after an understanding of sets of things (such as different types of numbers) which are isomorphic under those transformations; which is crazy fancy language for the idea that if two things are in the set, then a Group operation upon those two things results in another member of the set. Simplest example: add two integers, and you get another integer. But the idea can be applied to any "operation" or "transformation" which has this property of isomorphism ("the same under change"). We say that the integers form a group under the operation of addition.

In the same way that adding two integers can never result in anything but another integer, I think that there are thoughts which belong to Groups that are something like closed sets. Language for example: no matter what English words you put together, you don't naturally get a thought in another language. But more specifically, ideologies have a Group-theoretical character in the sense that, ideologically conforming thoughts lead to more thoughts in the same ideology. They are annoyingly closed in this sense, but not in the absolute sense that mathematical groups are.

We can escape from one Group of thoughts into another. And once we have done this once, it is possible to begin to see our thoughts as members of Groups, and to begin to navigate between these Groups instead of being bound to one "True Group" of thoughts. What is important within a thought-Group is following the rules that land you back inside the Group. Unless you are just trying to cause trouble! heh

Group theory gets more abstract and even convoluted, despite its very elegant simplicity of concept, just speaking of addition and multiplication of numbers, and what sorts of sets of numbers there are that form Groups under what sort of operations. It is deep and powerful, but difficult. In a sense it is metamathematical, and I suppose I am reaching for a metapsychological understanding here.

I think any cogent Group-Theoretical practical psychology would also be difficult to discover, but I find the concept unshakeable. I have had these experiences many times. We know the transformations that lead a fundamentalist from one thought to the next fundamentalist thought, and a scientist from one thought to another scientifically rigorous thought. But I do not yet know how it is that former adherents of this or that "Group" are able to transcend the boundaries of one thought-group into another. I only know that we can do it.

It is not only fundamentalists that convert to atheistic materialism, but hard scientists who convert to fundamentalism. I am more fascinated by that process, that transformative capacity, than I am with which Group is "true."

"Those of us who are nihilists would probably do well to just keep our mouths shut and let others discover the awful truth on their own."

Yes, nihilists are boring.

Your logical abilities and science (physics, neuroscience etc) has inherent limits.
Quantum physics is somewhat different but this is another story.

Human logic is cannot interpret itself.
You reach to a infinite loop.
The subject cannot be its object of observation.

What the hell are you trying to analyze?
Simply you can not do that.

Life/death is a mystery and that is why it is beautiful.

Sirious, thanks for helping to make my point. You're right: the subject can't observe itself. That's why neuroscience is necessary to get an "outside" perspective on the "inner" sense of human consciousness.

Researchers can understand how the mind/brain works in a much more objective manner than subjective experience reveals. This shows how delusional, or at least limited, much of our intuition about how "we" are is.

It's sort of like how people used to believe the world was flat because they had no perspective on themselves and the earth except from where they stood. It took science and experimentation to reveal the truth.

Likewise, much of spirituality is based on pre-scientific musings about the mind/brain. For example, that "we" have something called a "self" that can be realized. Or that "pure" perception is possible without contamination by prior experiences.

Sirious Black,

You are right in thinking that human logic cannot interpret itself and that subject cannot be its object of observation. Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it".

But the "same consciousness that created it", is just a small part of our brain's potential consciousness. Breaking through "it" and "seeing outside the limitations of our egoic-box", can be experienced within our bigger box. I believe Einstein demonstrated these break-through moments. These break through moments are different in spirit than the
"springing up spontaneously" thinking.

------------ BLOGGER ----------------
In nondual thinking each thought is experienced as arising and passing away by itself, not "determined" by previous thoughts but "springing up" spontaneously.

That, of course, is complete bullshit. There's reams of neuroscientific evidence showing that present awareness and thinking is strongly affected by prior experiences...

In this setting, I suspect the intent is just to isolate and experience individual thoughts as they arise -- not to deny the causality of previous thoughts and awareness. As a practical matter, if you simply allow thoughts to simply "arise and pass away", you're potentially at least, more open, more focused, less consumed by following trains of thought than derail stillness. Anyone who's tried to meditate quickly sees the need for this strategy. Loiter and there's an endless litany of: "Hm, why do I keep thinking that thought?, That reminds me of the time..; OMG, taxes are coming due! ".

"Or that "pure" perception is possible without contamination by prior experiences."

It's a wonder to me that this notion is still around, seeing as how it can neither be explained nor demonstrated.

Wishful thinking, like hope, springs eternal.

Wait a minute.

1)Neuroscience and science are human creations. OK? Therefore scientists use their brains, their human logic to conduct experiments, to analyze, to observe and to interprete.
All the breakthroughs some of you are expecting in the realm of science, are scientific.
They are products of pure logic.

2) Pure mathematical logic has boundaries and there is proven that there are problems that will never be solved. Goedels Proof anyone?

3) So neuroscience has boundaries that will never be solved.

*** Talking about Einstein who was helped tremendously by the math power of legendary Greek mathematician Karatheodori by the way: Alfred could not easily digest Quantum Mechanics.

Wait a minute.

1)Neuroscience and science are human creations. OK? Therefore scientists use their brains, their human logic to conduct experiments, to analyze, to observe and to interprete.
All the breakthroughs some of you are expecting in the realm of science, are scientific.
They are products of pure logic.

2) Pure mathematical logic has boundaries and there is proven that there are problems that will never be solved. Goedels Proof anyone?

3) So neuroscience has boundaries that will never be solved.

*** Talking about Einstein who was helped tremendously by the math power of legendary Greek mathematician Karatheodori by the way: Alfred could not easily digest Quantum Mechanics.

Complex mental imagery "created" by meditation, drugs, or by other means are not the same as the intricate neurons nets, and neuron firing in the brain!! However, mental imagery is clearly closely connected with the hardware of the "mind". From the POV of Sant Mat, and other traditions, such experiences especially those "generated" by drugs, or indeed, electrical means are seen as possible mental projections, and/or glimpses of the "lower worlds" which go way beyond our imagination, and are not true higher experiences. The latter cannot, it is claimed be induced by artificial means. They come through genuine meditation of some description.


Sirious Black,

Yes and no on Goedel's Proof. While he proved that there are inevitably going to be undecideable propositions in any system of arithmetical axioms, Zermelo never accepted this as a serious limitation on our ability to solve problems--we can find the solutions, but only at the expense of our precious closed set of axioms.

Goedel's undecidable propositions arise in the logical vein of the Barber's paradox, in which the following axiom is asserted:
The barber shaves everyone in the village, except those who shave themselves.

The proposition that is undecidable on the basis of this axiom is any statement about who shaves the barber. It is a paradox under that axiom. However, it is not an unsolvable problem: we could simply observe the barber to determine whether he shaves himself, or goes to another village, and then we add a new axiom to resolve it.

The reason that Goedel rocked the world was that he fatally wounded the programme of Russell and Whitehead to put mathematics on a purely logical foundation -- to resolve every statement by logical manipulation of the fixed axioms of the system. In order to solve the paradoxes that must arise in any complete system of arithmetic (not to mention neuroscience) one needs (gasp) a new axiom to resolve them.

This is the death knell for a logically complete type theory -- Russell's programme -- but not for solving problems. We can solve them individually, but must give up our goal of being made generally infallible by logic. We have, instead of a complete theory of types, a nested hierarchy of axiomized types that must be refined by the resolution of paradoxes; this is why Zermelo never accepted that Goedel's Proof was of any great significance to anyone but Russell and his cohort. No doubt Euclid, who Russell and many others cut their mathematical eye-teeth on, would be scandalized too.

Sorry about all of that longwinded stuff, but I wanted to get to this point: I believe science represents the effort to completely resolve material questions; but this cannot be done on the basis of any set of fixed axioms. We are always having to break through to new understanding, new levels of theory and hypothesis -- but every set of rules, no matter how refined, will still be incompletely decidable; it will still retain paradox.

My conclusion at this point: Neuroscience without spirituality is neuroscience. Spirituality without neuroscience is spirituality. Where they meet there will be paradoxes, whether we begin with scientific axioms, or psychological ones, or philosophical and religious ones.

Conflating the terms of spiritual experience with the realm of scientific experiment is bullshit. They have completely different "axiom sets." To compare them you have to do more than resolve paradoxes: you have to throw logical thought right out the window. That may be fine for the spiritual search, but not for the scientific one.

I am presenting this as food for thought rather than trying to assert and impose a fact upon anyone. The question arises, where is a thought located? Can it be scientifically proven that it is exclusively located in the brain with a measuring device? I am not saying that thought can exist independent of brain, but rather where is it located during its creation? Is thought embedded within a neuron? Is thought located in a physical domain or does it exist somewhere else? Can science provide proof where thought is located?

Good comment Shawn,

Where does the act of thinking begin and proceed? Is a thought the product of thinking? At what point does the thinking supposedly stop, and then the immediate generation of it's unique thought become created? Is this the unknown, that one day will become a known? Or, perhaps it is the non-knowable, the Mystery.

Fascinating topic......

Shawn, here's some thoughts about your question: where is a thought located?

These quotes are from "The Ravenous Brain," by neuroscientist Daniel Bor.
"In neuroscience, our atomic equivalent is the neuron, and the one neuroscientific sentence we might want to pass on to that next generation of creatures, before we all perished in the cataclysm, might be:

All conscious and unconscious mental processing equates to the electical activity of vast collections of neurons -- information processing brain cells, each of which has a biological version of thousands of input and output wires connected to other neurons, thus allowing each neuron to influence, and be influenced by, the activity of many others.

...When I was told that in fact information is distributed throughout a network of neurons, that it is encoded in the strengths of the connections between neurons in huge networks spanning millions of neurons, that it wasn't really localized at all, but is a pattern of activity, I found this account shocking.

It is in some ways the single most difficult neuroscientific concept to accept, but because of the way evolution works, it can't be any other way.

Thanks Brian for this description of how our mind/body processes thought. And just think, this description is most likely just the tip of the iceberg.


Is there a definition of what a "thought" is, in terms of neurons and their electrical activities? Likewise, is short and long term memory a storage warehouse of neuron electical activities? I just love this conversation.

Roger, good question. Thought seems to still be a mystery, especially the subjective awareness of one. Here's some thoughts about thought that I dug up via a quick Google search:


Thanks Brian,

Interesting stuff.

Jiddu Krishnamuti said, what makes
us think the subconscious is any less petty,
than the conscious mind ?

Thought is a thing.

A thing can never become a personalized

We are things ... not WHO's.

Thought is the spider's web, that weaves
the matrix for the Black Widow of
the WHO.

We are a plain tasteless cake. The
WHO is the frosting created by thought.

Thought as a thing, feels lonely, so it
creates the fiction of a self.

Thought makes itself a Godlike being with
an immortal soul.

Thought is scared to be alone.

The fictional WHO runs from Guru to
Guru to find a way to survive the
death of itself.

Thought will die at death, but there
was never any WHO that could have.

Thought is born and dies in microseconds.

We die and are born millions of times
each day.

Yet, we ask ourselves, what is death ?

What a strange creature man is.

You died thousands of times while reading

(cont. from above post )

You Are All Experts in the Afterlife.

You are all experts in reincarnation.

You have been born and died millions of
times in this very life.

If you are experts in life and death,
than why do you run from death ?

WHO is it that runs from death ?

And, why is WHO running ?

Even without a WHO, there is still fear
of death.

Because that impersonal thing we are,
does not want to stop experiencing.

So, even if we should become enlightened
and are not worried about the death of
our non existant WHO, or self,

we are still worried we will stop experiencing.

Even selfless existance, is better than none.

Right ????

Hi All, I'm new here and catching up on some topics of interest to me (neuroscience and experience.) Brian, you said:

"Likewise, much of spirituality is based on pre-scientific musings about the mind/brain. For example, that "we" have something called a "self" that can be realized. Or that "pure" perception is possible without contamination by prior experiences."

I agree there's a load of junk spirituality that could and should be taken apart by neuroscience. The belief that 'self' (small s) can be realized might fall in that category. However, the main non-dual traditions don't seem to me to be saying that at all. They instead talk of a universal/impersonal principal of awareness, they call Self (or equivalent.) And some have said the Self springs from a deeper source which... [here their scribbles become faint and illegible.] Not much there for a neuroscientist to get worked up about?!

Regarding "pure awareness" - I take this term to refer to unoccupied awareness, though from reading earlier posts I take it you don't believe even that is possible :-) I'm not so dismissive because, although you can't be aware without an object to be aware *of*, the objects of awareness can be vanishingly subtle. At times of alert detachment for example there may be a 'process' going on that is restful but has no particular content, shape, meaning etc. It's hard to see what kind of prior experience would be informing that kind of thing?!

There's also the question of where it all begins, experientially. A baby must at some point have had few or even no experiences to impinge on its awareness, and I understand the point of non-dual meditation is to return to exactly that state. (Noting cc's comment that this might be the mental state of an idiot(!), I hasten to add this is not to be taken as a "functioning" state, but a sane default state that brings rest and balance to the mind *between* functionings.)

Tom, I'm sympathetic to your point of view. However, it is difficult nowadays for me to ignore solid research into how the brain works. Have you read Patricia Churchland's book "Brain-Wise"? It's fascinating, if somewhat dense (seems to be a textbook).

I think you'd see, upon reading the book, that we neither should want to return to an "infantile" state of mind, nor is this possible. From our days in the womb onwards experience starts to shape how we experience the world, mostly in ways that are outside conscious awareness.

I don't see how this is anything to be concerned about (not that we can do anything about it). It just means that we are the world, and the world is us. This is true "non-duality," in my opinion.

Hey, I'm a fan of neuroscience too! And I'm not concerned about anything other than unnecessary argument and wasted opportunities for serious people from different disciplines to cooperate.

Much of the confusion is about the context in which terms are used. Those with a material bias seem to take experiential claims as physical claims, while those with a spiritual bias may do the opposite. Lets watch out for that!

Excellent article!

I suggest to all who would assert their more-or-less ignorant opinions (unless you are well-learned on the topic and draw from facts) to watch the TEDTalks series called "Mind Games" (it's on Netflix). For those of you who don't know, TEDTalks presents the top scientists and experts in their fields giving brief lectures on the most current scientific revelations.

In some of them they explain how precise the methods have become at mapping brain activity and understanding specific roles for parts down to the cells. For example, far beyond a general understanding of sections (and their correlating processes) of the brain, they know precisely which cells store facial recognition information. If these cells are damaged the individual will lose their ability to recognize faces...this has happened.

Geneticists know precisely what many genes and alleles in our DNA control, independently and in combination. They can easily dictate many of the physical (and, thus, mental) characteristics of rats to their choosing such as eye color, hairlessness, even number of limbs, temperament disposition, learning capacity, etc. Surprisingly, a rats DNA is more difficult to manipulate (such as cloning) than a humans, so if is accomplished with rats, humans are easy!

Devices have been built using super-powerful magnets that are placed over the appropriate areas of the brain to induce intense psychological experiences - feelings of profound euphoria and/or sensing the presence of 'divinity' or other (angelic) beings. That's right...activate the right area of the brain and you can 'talk to the spirit(s)' anytime you like. This is an evolutionary potential that clearly offered significant survival & thrival advantages...abstract, imaginative, creative thought offers many unique means of overcoming nature's cold indifference.

The problem with human beings is that they are typically abundant in opinions and beliefs but rarely so of facts and knowledge. Being able to play with various mental states and points of view allows for significant possibilities. Too bad that with our multi-layered conscious network some of our perspectives (I would argue most actually) are manufactured entirely in the abstract, and often psychotic, functions of our minds.

There exists ONE reality...that's why it's called a UNIverse. Yes, it seems to be in perpetual flux, but we continue to enhance our capacity to grasp a particular snapshot moment. Resolving the paradox between the permanent & absolute past with the malleable & potential future will allow us to ascertain the impermanent & imminent present with greater accuracy.

I spent over 25 years studying esotericism from many cultures. I even spent 10 years, privately, under a Buddhist 'Master'. I used to believe that the physical world is an illusion and the only true reality is the 'spiritual' one. After MUCH searching for an adequate and meaningful definition of what 'spirit' is, I have come to finally realize that I (and nearly the entire spiritual and religious community) had it backwards all along...EVERYTHING is physical, including energy (that's why the study of it is called 'physics'). There exists enough scientific evidence to demonstrate that ALL mental states and psychological phenomena have their bases in the under-workings of BIOLOGICAL processes.

I would love to see mankind get it's shit together and come to terms with reality as it exists, however cold & unsettling it may be, so we can stop acting like the most insane and destruction creature this planet has likely ever seen!

For the anti-materialist, anti-nihilists, anti-rationalist, anti-existentialist, etc: Recognizing the intrinsic LACK of meaning & purpose in life does NOT mean we can't use our unique capacity to create (imagine) one of our choosing. With a rational understanding of each others plight, along with an honest & accurate comprehension of natural principles, we can ease much suffering and even make this otherwise daunting existence rather fun.

I hope I live to see that MIRACLE!

It strikes me that people who answer questions about the universe without knowing all the facts are either arogant or delusional in some way or other. I suggest we all give up our insecurities and appreciate the wonder of it all....

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)


  • Welcome to the Church of the Churchless. If this is your first visit, click on "About this site--start here" in the Categories section below.
  • HinesSight
    Visit my other weblog, HinesSight, for a broader view of what's happening in the world of your Church unpastor, his wife, and dog.
  • BrianHines.com
    Take a look at my web site, which contains information about a subject of great interest to me: me.
  • Twitter with me
    Join Twitter and follow my tweets about whatever.
  • I Hate Church of the Churchless
    Can't stand this blog? Believe the guy behind it is an idiot? Rant away on our anti-site.