Contemporary philosophy of consciousness and the self


The contemporary debate on the philosophy of consciousness is very rich, lively and complex, and is becoming increasingly relevant with accelerating progress in artificial intelligence – which is bringing with it all kinds of questions of machine intelligence, machine ethics and the nature of consciousness.

Simplifying enormously – given our present interest in establishing the nondual Madhyamaka view of the Middle Way and refuting the true existing of self (which includes refuting truly existing 1st-person consciousness) – we may identify two broad positions within the debate:

  • Dualists: building on roots in ancient Greek philosophy and the 17th-century philosophy of René Descartes, contemporary ➜dualists hold that there is an unexplained and possibly irreconcilable dualistic split between 3rd-person accounts of the material world and 1st-person accounts of conscious experience – in other words, between ‘matter’ and ‘consciousness’. This has been expressed as the ➜”Hard Problem of Consciousness”, namely how does subjective conscious experience (including the experience of ➜’qualia’) arise from (or on the basis of) the physical brain? Authors aligned with this perspective include philosopher David Chalmers and Buddhist teacher Alan Wallace.
  • Non-dualists: opposed to the dualists, contemporary non-dualists do not accept that there is an irreconcilable dualistic split between matter and consciousness, and therefore do not accept that there is a “Hard Problem” or “explanatory gap” that needs to be bridged. Authors aligned with this perspective include philosophers Daniel Dennett and Thomas Metzinger, and Metzinger’s article “Enlightenment 2.o” (see below) follows Chandrakirti both in positing “a world without objects or selves” and in seeking to avoid the extremes of nihilism (“vulgar forms of materialism”) and eternalism (“irrationalism and fundamentalism”).

From our perspective as followers of the Middle Way, an important aspect of the debate between these two positions hinges on whether contemporary non-dualists are essentially aligned with the Madhyamaka or opposed to it. We need to determine where they stand, and whether should should accept their positions or attempt to refute them:

  • Madhyamaka-friendly: according to one understanding, (some) contemporary non-dualists are aligned with the Madhyamaka in the sense that they reject all extremes of true existence in the ultimate truth, while allowing for scientifically-based explanations of consciousness in the conventional truth and examining whether our scientific understanding has any implications for how to live a ‘good life’ in the everyday world – much like a 21st-century version of the Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka.
  • Madhyamaka-unfriendly: alternatively, contemporary non-dualists might qualify as Chandrakirti’s opponents either by virtue of being reductionist nihilists (which is an accusation that contemporary dualists level at them, much as Chandrakirti’s opponents levelled at him), or because they are positing the extreme view of a truly-existing monism.

Debates around monism in particular can be challenging to untangle, as contemporary philosophy (especially around the mind-body problem) tends to see the opposite of dualism as monism, and doesn’t always distinguish between truly existing monism and non-truly existing monism (i.e. nonduality). This distinction is also at the heart of confusion about the differences between Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamaka. And given that some contemporary non-dualists refer to themselves as ‘monist’, we need to understand what they mean by this. Once again, we need to ask whether we should accept their positions or attempt to refute them:

  • Monism: philosophers who believe in truly existing ➜monism reject duality and assert a truly existing single reality or substance, in the way our Samkhya opponents explain Atman as the ultimate reality, or the way that our Cittamatra opponents explain that all seemingly dualistic phenomena are actually “Mind-Only” and arise from the alayavijñana. Likewise, in modern Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta is ➜understood as “absolute monism”. If contemporary non-dualists assert truly existing monism, for example in the form of truly existing materialism, then they qualify as Chandrakirti’s opponents. In making our assessment we might also want to consider whether the materialism of contemporary science is the same as the truly existing materialism of the ancient Indian Charvaka school we met in Week 4. When Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche taught the ➜Two Truths in Bodh Gaya in October 2014, he said that we should not see scientists as enemies of Chandrakirti, and instead we should understand the scientific notion of ➜falsifiability as part of the definition of valid relative truth. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has also said, we need to accept that conventional truth in the scientifically literate 21st century is very different from conventional truth in pre-scientific India and Tibet, and there is no conflict between science (correctly understood as a falsifiable attempt to describe and explain regularities in the conventional world) and Buddhism (correctly understood in terms of the Two Truths).
  • Nonduality: other monists reject dualism, but without asserting anything truly existing in its place. They hold a “view” of monism in much the same way that Chandrakirti holds a “view” of emptiness – in other words they do not have any truly existing views, but use language in order to refute their opponents and teach a correct understanding of relative truth. If contemporary non-dualists do not assert any views of true existence, but are instead just seeking a good scientific understanding of conventional truth, then they are not Chandrakirti’s opponents.

The selection of pre-readings for Week 5 does not attempt to provide an exhaustive overview of contemporary philosophy of consciousness or cognitive science. Rather, it offers some contrasting positions that we might engage with – in the spirit that Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti engaged with their opponents in ancient India. Hopefully we might both be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in their positions, and also learn about of the strengths and weaknesses of our own.

[Reposted from the Introduction to Week 5 pre-reading]


Artwork: from cover of Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2011) (artist unknown)

2 thoughts on “Contemporary philosophy of consciousness and the self”

  1. Alex, hi. 🙂

    Could you please give some examples of teachers that would fit in your Nonduality category above, monists rejecting dualism but without asserting anything truly existing in its place? I’m wondering specifically about the Direct Path teachers like Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon and his lineage of Western students, Jean Klein, Francis Lucille, and Rupert Spira.

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