Reply To: Entertaining doubts about rebirth

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Jared K. Jones

First, your mind is far from fragile or simple! Your three-point formulation is correct. Then, I’d add:

4. There is a host of evidence from physics, past-life recall in children, memory formation in the absence of brain activity (during a heart transplant), and other realms of science that are better explained by a non-physical mind hypothesis.

A) How does your argument help us understand the possibility of rebirth?

The gap from ‘the mind isn’t generated by the brain’ to ‘the mind comes from somewhere else before birth’ is a rather small one. As you strongly imply in point B, causes are similar in nature to their effects. Therefore, a previous moment of mind is the most logical and plausible explanation for a mind arising in your mother’s womb. A collection of material components that share no properties in common with the mind is not a plausible explanation. I would go so far as to say it is an incoherent explanation.

Of course, the correlation between mind-brain activity needs to be explained, but that is explainable within the framework of Neutral Monism or Participatory Dualism (or Soft Dualism), as explained in the paper. These two views are, in my humble estimation, compatible with Buddhist ontology: co-dependent arising, non-dualism, sunyata (emptiness), and, in particular, the higher understandings of emptiness inseparable from awareness.

B) Is it not plausible to assume that for MI to be effective… [that] they ought to be generated precisely in accordance with the attributes/components/laws of the physical world?

Mind and matter do share some properties in common. Arguably, at the level of conventional experience, both are momentary or impermanent phenomena. Both are subject to forms of cause-and-effect from moment-to-moment. More on this below.

That MI is created specifically based on the physical attributes of the word “apple”… Therefore effective manipulation of that MI (e.g. for recognition, or labelling) requires a match between that non physical knowledge (MI) and the presence of the physical components that enabled its generation (someone saying “apple”)

You’re getting very close to the definition of a ‘generic image’. Generic images are a blend of every experience you’ve had pertaining to a socio-linguistic concept. For example, when you think of ‘apple’, what comes to mind is a blended image of thousands of things related to apples. This includes odd things like plastic knives (because grandma cut up apples with a plastic knife).

For us, there is a non-physical cognisance that generates and experiences this image. The image is also non-physical. For the robot, this no one is observing nothing. It’s just 1’s and 0’s dancing. Eventually, this dance becomes sufficiently complicated that humans begin using the language of cognisance to speak about the robot’s behaviour, but there’s still no one home. This is very much like the ‘image on my phone’ example. It is simply effected by the electrical impulses generated by the camera, and then does what it was programmed to do based on those impulses. However, the robot never even generates a physical image on a screen. So, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalence between MI and the robot dance.

It is only at this point that we can assume that, although non-physical, mind must mimic the laws of the physical world because its MI are generated thus.

To get a little subtler, mind and matter are inseparable: mind-matter. The mind is primary in the relationship of mind-matter. It is the aspect of a non-dual reality that is the characteristics, identity, structure, patterns, relationships, meaning, and purpose. Physical things are undifferentiated and uncharacterized when (hypothetically) disconnected from the mental aspect of reality (per sunyata and Quantum Mechanics), although such a disconnection is impossible. So, the very things which you are instantiating in physical reality are imputed by the mind. This may be going too deep down the rabbit hole, but it’s an important point. Physical reality doesn’t have any properties without mind imputing them, so how can mind follow after the properties of physical reality?

As they say in Zen, ‘Show me the cup!’ Paraphrasing Dharmakirti and Khedrubje, a conceptual mind knows its object through negation and not affirmation. The concept of an apple is not a set of ‘apple properties’ because there is no such thing. An apple is made of non-apple properties: redness, roundness, sweetness, firmness, and so forth. These properties are generally highly variable, which is why it is so difficult to program an AI to recognise an object by going through a process of affirmation. Every specific instance of an apple is different. It has unique causes and conditions. It changes from moment-to-moment: so, it is not self-similar through time. There is nowhere for appleness to hide.

Rather the concept of an apple is the ‘opposite of non-apple.’ Apples are known through inference rather than identification, i.e. what is appearing is not excluded from being an apple despite the visual appearance not being specifically apple-like. This inference by way of non-exclusion from the category, when validly applied to some percept, constitutes ‘an apple’, though no apple can be found. As Ven. Nagarjuna said in the opening of the Mula:

Neither from itself nor from another,
nor from both, nor without a cause,
does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Due to no apple being found, the causes and conditions which bring apples about also cannot be found. They cannot be found in the apple, nor the conditions, nor within both, nor does the apple spontaneously arise from nothing. Further, the apple is not utterly non-existent, given that it performs functions in our experience. Non-existent things do not perform actions, so there must be an explanation for the apple’s existence. The explanation is mental labelling. When labelled, the apple comes into existence. Further, the causes and conditions which bring apples about also come into existence. This should sound similar to J.A. Wheeler’s Gedanken experiment in the opening of the essay. Particles have no history until measured. Once measured, the history occurs. It’s also like that with the apple.

While we are a few years away from both Mind and Mental Factors and Emptiness teachings, I add this to merely say that there are robust answers to the questions you’re asking, but as Geshe Namdak said of the Kadampas: ‘You must have teeth!’