Welcome to Module 3
Lesson 2: Models of the world
Buddhism & Quantum Physics
Lesson 2: Models of the world
During the course of this lesson, you will:
- Learn how the mind creates models of the world;
- Investigate whether patterns truly exist in nature, or only in the mind;
- Examine the constraints on our cognitive models.
In this lesson, Prof. Dunne discusses how our current conceptualisation of the world – our judgements of the objects and phenomena that we perceive – is always based on our past experiences. As Dharmakirti would put it: when we are experiencing the world, we do so because we want to engage with the world (there are things we want to get and things we want to avoid). In other words: the mere presence of a mental event is not of interest for us, unless it is being interpreted in such a way that we are able to act on what we are knowing and/or experiencing.
2a. The Mind, Discrimination, and Mental Models
The first level of analysis discussed in Lesson 1 examined what is real, what impacts the senses. It involves the conceptual process of experiencing the world and engaging with it, acting based on what we know or infer from our experiences. This process involves what is experienced in the moment and, at the same time, a prediction of what will happen in the future, which can potentially validate our previous inferences about a certain object or phenomenon.
In this second lesson, Prof. Dunne discusses how our current conceptualisation of the world – our judgements of the objects and phenomena that we perceive – is always based on our past experiences. As Dharmakirti would put it: when we are experiencing the world, we do so because we want to engage with the world (there are things we want to get and things we want to avoid). In other words: the mere presence of a mental event is not of interest for us, unless it is being interpreted in such a way that we are able to act on what we are knowing and/or experiencing.
For example, a person sees fire on the far side of a field, and because they are feeling cold, they conceptualise this fire as something that can make them warm, causing them to walk over and warm themselves up by the fire. In other words, for the real to be causally efficacious is based on a prediction of what one will be able to do (getting warm) when one takes action and walks over to the fire at the other side of the field. Another example could be: a pencil in my room is not part of my field of awareness until I identify it as a pencil, because of my need for a pencil and me becoming aware of it in my room and identifying it as something that can function to fulfil my need for a pencil.
In this process of conceptualization, we thus make a judgment about something being fire or an object being a pencil. In order to do that, we leave “Sat”, bare experience, behind, and time travel mentally to past experiences. All these past experiences go into the moment of conceptualising a certain entity as a pencil, which is separate from the direct perception of the object (the ‘Sat’ or bare experience, that which is present and/or real).
Professor Dunne emphasises that according to the Madhyamika view, and all Mahayana Buddhism, things that are real are immediately present (or ‘Sat’), and therefore, all conceptualizations (such as our conceptualisation of the fire or the pencil as explained above) are unreal, or mere mental fabrications. In other words, according to the Madhyamika view, the ‘concept pencil’ can be deployed in an action, but the reality of the pencil itself is ‘Sat’, immediately present, and therefore not a concept.
2b. Do Patterns Truly Exist in Nature?
According to the Madhyamika view, conceptualization brings us out of what is immediately present to us and enables us to manipulate the experience of a thing (such as a pencil or a fire), but it is not telling us what is real anymore. This view within the Mahayana Buddhist lineage therefore states that the active conceptualisation is not picking out a pattern of reality (like a Platonic Idea of the ‘pencilness’ of all existing pencils), but rather obscures what a thing actually is, or what reality actually is: it takes us away from ‘Sat’ into the world of concepts, thereby obscuring reality. In other words: there is no existing pattern in reality that says what ‘is’ a pencil.
One of the key aspects of Dharmakirti philosophy is the recognition that all our acts of conceptualization that involve a certain pattern of recognition, are the result of our own subjective perspective: the patterns that we see in the world (the ‘pencilness’ of the pencils) are created through our conceptual process, and therefore these patterns do not exist inherently according to the Madhyamika view (thereby flipping Platonic philosophy on its head). In other words, the patterns that we see in the world are only the reflection of a concept, an ideal identification, a fabrication. These patterns, or any ideal entity like the ‘pencilness’ of all pencils are nothing more than fabrications of our cognitive system. If this is true, however, is there any reason why conceptualisations of the world should be in any way constrained? Why can we not arbitrarily put any conceptualisation on any object, for example, calling a pencil an elephant instead?
2c. What Constrains our Models of the World?
Of course, conceptualization is not completely arbitrary: it does have some constraints, reasons why we cannot simply call a pencil an elephant. Professor Dunne explains that our models of the world are constrained by what is impacting our experience, and our predictions of experience, as well as our senses and our consciousness. Therefore, one cannot arbitrarily attribute any property to a given object or phenomenon: whatever model we create of the world, it must be based on what is impacting our consciousness, which subsequently constrains that model of the world.
While there are no objective, real patterns in the world, there are constraints arising from causal properties and/or features (of objects like a pencil) and the interaction of matter with our sensory system is what enables ones future actions and predictions of any future actions. What is the nature of these constraints, and how do we determine what those constraints are? Is matter the basis of these constraints or do we need another model, or might there even be a point where these models all break down? These are the kind of key questions that Prof. Dunne extracts from the Madhyamika view in Buddhist philosophy discussed here (starting with Dharmakirti).
As Prof. Dunne emphasises, one of the aspects of this Buddhist epistemological philosophy started by Dharmakirti is to eliminate any idiosyncratic knowledge inherent to a particular subjective experience of one person, in some way, to ‘unlearn’ the belief that ‘I’ (a subjective individual) determines reality, or that the world is dependent on ‘my’ subjective perceptions: it is not up to me to say what is real and not. So, this philosophy moves towards a kind of objective stance, which embraces an intersubjective world by teaching us to no longer be caught up in one’s own, subjective concepts of the world.