Genetics is Karma - Western science meets Eastern philosophy

In November 2018, I had the pleasure of taking part in a conversation with Swami Sarvapriyananda, on the relationship between science (genetics and neuroscience, in particular) and Eastern philosophies (Vedantic philosophy, in particular). The event was organised and hosted by the Rubin Museum in New York, and prompted by the publication of my book, Innate.

The conversation was framed around the concept of karma, which has some interesting parallels with evolutionary influences on human nature, genetic effects on our individual natures, and neural mechanisms of learning and memory. But, as you will see, the discussion was quite wide-ranging, touching also on reductionism in neuroscience, subjective experience, the self, perception, qualia, free will, morality, artificial intelligence, and the hard problem of consciousness.

Though I am not a believer in Eastern religions (or any religion), I do find many aspects of the underlying philosophy – especially the emphasis on flux over stasis, process over essence, wholes over parts – to be a welcome alternative to the more fixed, essentialist, and reductionist approaches that dominate much of Western scientific thought, which, to my mind, paint us into a corner when we are trying to understand the relationship between brains and minds.

The transcript of the conversation is below. (You can listen to the audio here). I hope that you will find it as enjoyable as I did.

Tim McHenry: Good evening everyone. Let me ask a question of you, if I might. Hands up those people who would give credit to their parents for everything they’ve become. Show of hands. That was impressive by the way. Hands up those of you who would blame their parents for everything they’ve become.

Either way you might both be right, because this is a little bit of what we’re exploring here tonight. Hello and welcome to the Rubin Museum of Art. I’m Tim McHenry – I direct programs here. And the Rubin is a place in Manhattan where we try and unpack some of the great wisdom teachings of Himalayan Asia and present them to you here in New York and the rest of the world.

Thank you for being here and thank you for deciding and disposing yourself to be here, because disposition – your behaviour and your traits – are in a way some of the things that we’ll be talking about a lot tonight.

Let me start off with this book, called Innate, by Dr. Kevin Mitchell, who comes to us from Trinity College Dublin where he is at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics as well as the Institute of Neuroscience. And he has come out with this book that really explores a number of different things and tonight we’re exploring whether our genetic disposition is indeed our karma, or if that’s a total misinterpretation. 

And Dr. Mitchell looks at reasons for human diversity in this book and argues that while experience can change our behavior it's unlikely actually to change our traits – what we are genetically disposed to do. So if humans are genetically prone to ignoring long-term threats, for example, like the climate crisis that's looming in front of us, do we actually stand a chance as humans of surviving life on this planet, let alone sustaining life on this planet? That might be one of the questions we're going to ask tonight too. 

What's great about this book is that genetics is a very complicated subject. And Dr. Mitchell really brings such a clarity and tone to the proceedings that any of us in this room can read it and we will be much better off understanding how we operate as a result. So, Dr. Mitchell, thank you so much for making the trip over from Dublin to be with us tonight. And thank you also for your great contribution to the scientific literature on this subject. 

So we come to the Karma part of the equation here tonight and delighted and honored of course that returning to the Rubin is Swami Sarvapriyananda, who is the minister of the Vedanta Society in New York, uptown, and I am glad to see so many of you joining us here downtown at the Rubin tonight. Thank you so much. Swamiji has this great, great talent. He can bring a deft lucidity to the Upanishads that I’ve heard very few accomplish in the times that I've been at this museum and he does so with the self-deprecating humor and wryness that just wins you over. So you will be much richer in the great ancient wisdom of the Vedas having been here tonight too.

So this combination, unlikely as it seems, is coming together at the Rubin to help you maybe realize that we may be diverse but there is a commonality as humans that we all want to share and need to share.

So, Swamiji, thank you so much for honoring us tonight, by being here, and Dr. Mitchell thank you for visiting us from across the ocean. And now we bring them together on stage and engage in a conversation and a Q and A with you and then hopefully a celebration the book upstairs afterwards. So, Dr. Kevin Mitchell, Swami Sarvapriyananda - please welcome them.

SS: Well, here we are. Let's start off by, Kevin – why don't you tell us about genetics and your work and Innate, the book. 

KM: Okay, great. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here and to have this chance to have this conversation, which I'm really looking forward to. So, the book is about the origins of our individual natures – what makes us different from each other, what gives us our characteristic personality traits. Are we shy or outgoing? Are we cautious or reckless? Are we driven or laid back? All of the things that really make us who we are over the course of our lifetimes. 
And it's premised on the idea that all of those traits have some physical basis in the way our brains are wired. And I don't just take that for granted – a lot of the book is about showing that that actually is the case. And then the question is if that's true – if it's the way our brain is wired right now that is influencing our personality traits – then what is the origin of that?

Why is my brain wired the way that it is? And so one of the reasons is genetics. We all have a program in our genome, in the human genome, to make a human body with a human brain. So our shared human nature is part of our evolutionary heritage. If we had chimp DNA, we would have a chimp brain and we would behave like chimps. So broadly speaking the differences between species can be narrowed down to the differences in their DNA and the program of brain development that's encoded in that DNA.

And the same principle applies within a species. So between individuals we all have variation in our genes. We have millions and millions of differences, if we looked at our DNA compared to each other. And some of those differences affect how our brains develop and thereby affect our psychology. So the circuits that control how outgoing we are or how risk averse or threat sensitive or sensitive to rewards – all of those things that manifest as patterns of behavior in any given scenario – ultimately are wired into our brains in some way. 

So there is a large genetic component to variation in these personality traits and we can measure that and it's very easily demonstrated in things like twin studies and family studies and even studies across the whole population where we can see people who are more genetically similar to each other are more similar to each other not just physically, which we all are very aware of, but psychologically as well. 

But that's only the start of the story. So there is an aspect of genetic destiny – when we are born, we have our particular version of the human genome which does have a strong influence on our emergent traits. But the relationship between our genes and the way our brains work is very indirect. It's not the case that you’re extroverted because you've got genes for extroversion that are doing something in your brain right now. They're not genes for extroversion or genes for intelligence. They're genes for building a brain and it's the process of development that actualizes that. 

There's a sort of a potential in the genome that gets realized through the processes of brain development, which are extraordinarily complex. There are trillions of connections in the brains of thousands of different areas. There's thousands of different types of neurons. They all have to connect to each other in very, very specific ways. So that means that the relationship is not a static one, it's not a deterministic one. 

It's played out through those processes of development and actually that introduces another source of variation, which is in a sense the opposite of destiny. It's chance. Because every time you run that program you don't get the same output. You don't get the same outcome exactly. If you look at identical twins for example, in the physical structure of their faces or their bodies or how tall they are, there's a little bit of variation. And if you look at the physical structure of their brains, they're very, very similar to each other, but they're not identical. 

So development itself adds a whole layer of variation that's often overlooked. We talk about nature versus nurture. We think about genes versus environment. But actually development is a third source of variation that's really important. So genetic variation and developmental variation together mean that even by the time we're born, our brains are already uniquely wired in a way that that will never be repeated. Even if we cloned ourselves a thousand times you would never get exactly the same output. 

And so we do start with some innate predispositions. The blank slate idea is just not tenable at this stage. But that's just the start. It doesn't mean that our behavior at any given moment is controlled by those innate predispositions. That's just the foundation of it. And again the idea of a trajectory continues because those predispositions affect our experiences and they affect our environment, in a way. It's not just our environment and our experiences affecting us. They do, but that's not one-way traffic because our experiences – we choose them, and the way we react to things is idiosyncratic and dependent on the way our brains are wired. 

I might find some situation very rewarding. And you might not find it interesting at all. And then my behavior would change in relation to that – I would tend to do that behavior again because it was rewarding in the first instance and so on. And so those innate predispositions affect the trajectory of our lives – the way our habitual behavior emerges; the way our character develops over time, so that there's a sort of an ongoing process there it's not a static relationship between our nature and our behavior, ultimately. 

SS: Alright. That's a lot to figure out, but that's wonderful the way you summarized all of that. How do I react to that? 

This morning I was walking in Central Park with another monk who is here, and he was asking me about the subject of today's discussion: Genetics is Karma. He said: “What does that mean?” And I thought about it. And then realized Tim had been particularly clever in selecting the subject. If you look at it this way – genetics is karma. Both of us I think would agree for entirely different reasons, but come at it from different angles. From a Vedantic or an Indian philosophy perspective, our genetic makeup is the result of our karma. So karma is causal towards genetic. I think Kevin would probably – I mean I won't speak for him – but he'd probably say that karma would be more often an empty term. Genetics is karma. Genetics is all that there is and karma would be a just a descriptor? 

KM: Actually I don't think so. I think that – I mean, if I understand the concept of karma, which I don't very well – but I did have the chance to look at the talk that you gave recently, this morning on the train from Washington, which was fascinating. And so the basic idea of cause and effect, and the idea of, you know, of all of us carrying the load of our past deeds, I think is absolutely true. 

And that's true at the neuroscientific level. And it's true in a different way at the genetic level. So at a neural level each of us does have the imprint of our past experiences – that's what our brains are for. You know, the whole idea of having a nervous system is so that we can learn from experience so that we can say OK when this happens, this tends to happen. When I did this action in this scenario it turned out well – I'm going to reinforce that action and do it again. But when I did this action, that turned out really badly and I'm not going to do that again. 

So those are things that our brain pays attention to and the way that it does that, the mechanism by which it does that, is it physically alters the strength of connections between nerve cells. So our experience is literally written into our brain anatomy. It's not that there's some kind of a floating abstract representation of those experiences – those experiences are embodied in the structure of our brains in a way that really is the accumulation of experience over time, that then informs our behavior in the future. 

And as I said, the way that that happens depends on our initial predispositions and the way that we experience the world subjectively, because subjective experience is in a sense all that we have access to. So our brain doesn't know that there was an object of experience, it only knows what we experience subjectively and that does get written into our brains in in a very real kind of a way, over the course of each of our lives. 

On a genetic level what's really interesting is that… So, let me say in psychology and neuroscience that the term for this process is called reinforcement learning. So you learn from something where you get a reward or a punishment. And so most of the time most of the experiences that we have we're completely ignoring, our brains are ignoring, they're not relevant, they're totally neutral, nothing is happening in our brain. But when we get a reward or a punishment or surprise or something we should pay attention to, then something changes, and that's reinforcement learning, that's how our habits emerge. 

So over evolutionary time, natural selection is the ultimate form of reinforcement learning. So if you had two organisms in the past that lived at the same time that were genetically different to each other in a way that influenced their behavior – say one was more aggressive than the other. And if it turned out to be a good strategy to be aggressive and not a good strategy to be less aggressive, then the aggressive one might have more offspring, might survive. So the bonus from natural selection – the reinforcement – is: you live. And you have offspring. 

So, over time, that's repeated billions and billions of times, billions and billions of generations, then that literally gets wired into our genome, in a way that affects the circuitry of our brains, in a way that explains human nature broadly or instincts in different animals. So it's the same process that happens when we learn individually, it's just a very, very slow process over natural selection, but I think you can think of it as a karmic process in a sense. Again it's the record of our past written – or our ancestors pasts – but written into our DNA literally. 

SS: It's very interesting. And the reason I'm smiling is you brought back memories of me reading the selfish gene, by Richard Dawkins. I read it at one go on a train journey, which in India tends to be longer than...

But let's step back a little bit. Let's come at it, this thing, from the direction of karma. Karma is a word, which is very popular. I think more popular now in the United States than it is in India. Where does it come from? Karma literally the Sanskrit word means action. That's all. The verb means action. But the doctrine of karma is very pervasive in Indian thought. In all the different Indian philosophies, no matter what angle they come at it from – the Buddhists and the Hindu philosophies for example disagree on many, many things – the existence of God, for example, or of a permanent subjective self, for example. But they all agree on karma. So karma is important to Indian thought. 

The doctrine of karma, basically if I want to put it very simply for our purposes – it goes like this: whatever we do has effects. It's basically cause and effect. Somebody once asked me where does this so-called law or doctrine of karma come from. And I started giving scriptural references and then that person, he said, No, no, no, I'm not asking for scriptural references. Where does the idea come from – the concept itself? 

And I thought about it and I went, hmm... it comes from a basic concept of cause and effect, which is very innate to us – even to animals, some animals that have an idea of causation. So the idea is this to put it very briefly: Good action – defined in a very general sense – good action, consciously done, leads to what is called merit and that merit leads to pleasant experiences in life. I'll give you the Sanskrit – Dharma leads to Punya, leads to

So this is the causal sequence. You do good – and this generates some kind – the word again is karma – the word for action is karma, and the word for the accumulated results of action is also karma. 

And the result of good karma, as everybody knows in downtown New York, is you have a pleasant life. We say it's my karma. It's good karma to do this, it’s good karma to do that. You're absolutely right – that's how they see it. And bad karma is the opposite. If I'm consciously naughty – that is Adharma – and it generates a potency called Papa or demerit and that leads to unpleasant consequences in the future. So this is broadly speaking the doctrine of karma. So basically what they say is, we experience a chain of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, we have this in our lives, and behind the pleasant experiences is our good karma. And behind the unpleasant experiences is our bad karma.

There's a little more to it than that. Karma – every action that we perform consciously has three effects. I'm putting it this way because then we can have a dialogue about that, because two of them I don't think Kevin will disagree with. First one is you share food with a homeless person. And the person gets fed. There's no doubt about that, nobody denies that. That's a direct physical effect of some action. There's a psychological effect. So your repeated action tends to form tendencies or patterns of behavior. So that's a psychological karma – we do good long enough and you get the habit of sharing food with the homeless person, or something good like that.

The third one is where the belief comes in – that this also has a future effect on our life. So a pleasant effect of good karma or an unpleasant effect of bad karma. That's not a scientific statement, an empirical statement, but that's… Where does this idea come from? It comes from us, as conscious beings. We are not, no matter what Dawkins would like us to believe just gene machines. You know the model that the genes have developed these machines for their own propagation and that's the whole… that’s what we are as human beings. But that's not what we experience. You use the term subjective experience. I'd like to make an entry there. We experience everything subjectively. I mean that's our entire door to the universe. 

So karma makes sense to us as conscious subjects. We, for example, when Kevin speaks about being shy or outgoing, these are not only just behavior patterns you can observe objectively, but it is something what it feels like inside to be shy. Something what it feels like inside to be outgoing and extroverted, to be risk taking. That, from that inner person, the inside-out explanation – that’s where karma comes in. That's where, I think, where the mechanistic or naturalistic model, of our bodies being biological machines with a genetic blueprint…  

I'm not doubting the science, it would be silly to. But – is that all that we are? That's one. And number two – look at our experience. That's not how we experience ourselves. I'm sure we are actually speaking about the same thing but we are looking at it like mirror images, coming at it from two different angles. If you look at it inside out, it's subjective experience. If you look at look at it externally, it is bodies produced from the core genetic material and demonstrating certain patterns of behavior. 

And let me bring it together. So if we have done a particular kind of karma enough, we have certain tendencies. Now in Vedanta or all Indian philosophy, except the materialists, we believe that we are not just a body. This conscious being that we experience inside – thoughts, feelings, emotions – that is what is called a subtle body. So there is a physical body – this one. And there's a subtle body inside – what we experience ourselves to be. And the belief is that when the physical body dies, the subtle body survives because it's not entirely dependent on the physical body. And the subtle body is the receptacle of these inherited actions – patterns of behavior, good and bad. 

And so when the subtle body goes on – it comes to new bodies, just like retiring your old car and buying a new one maybe. And you sort of get the car you deserve
So, we are all ancient creatures in that way. I know Kevin agreed just to that. We are ancient in that sense, in a physical sense too, because we have the inherited past of thousands of generations back to our animal ancestors. But I suspect you're talking about it from the body point of view, which is true from the body point of view. 

But I'm talking about it from this psychic point of view, from our existence as conscious beings. We are ancient beings and we have an inherited load of karma. And if you see that really matches the genetics, I would say there is nothing really wrong in that, because you would expect that the subtle body would come into a physical body which matches its dispositions – its psychic dispositions – again you'd buy the car you would want to buy. So, that is one way of bringing the two together. Would you have some comment on that? 

KM: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there was a lot in that. So I think… So generally, you're right in your prediction that I'm very sympathetic to the first and the second of the points that you had made and maybe less so to the third, in the sense that it presupposes the existence of what in Christian philosophy you call a soul. That is something that is in a sense immaterial, that's immortal, that transcends the physical body and that lasts after it. And in this case that then goes on to inhabit a new vehicle – a new car. 

So that for me is not a scientifically tractable question. It's not something that science can bear on. It is actually a matter of faith in that idea. I think what's interesting is, you know, in modern neuroscience we take a very materialistic view. So the idea is in modern neuroscience – the sort of bedrock – is that the mind is what the brain does. It's not a separate thing. 

And in fact I think the word “mind” is very unfortunate in that it's a noun. It shouldn't be a noun – it should be a verb. We're “minding”. The brain is minding in the way that your circulatory system is circulating. You know, at least it's not an object. We talk about “the mind” – that makes it sound like an object. It's a process or an activity – it's the brain at work in a way that is producing some kind of subjective experience. 

But I actually think that a lot of modern neuroscience is way too materialistic. No, sorry, not too materialistic – too reductionist. There's a tendency to try and reduce things, to describe things, in terms of particular circuits being active, particular neurons are firing when we're having some kind of an experience, so I can look at a brain scan and say well, these neurons are active and you're having that experience, or I could even stick electrodes in your brain and activate them and cause you to have that experience. And then I could go: well, I'm done. I have explained everything about that. Those neural circuits firing constitute that experience. And that's not an explanation. 

SS: No. Yes. And then I was going to take issue with that. 

KM: Yes, that's merely a description. And I think, in a sense, that neuroscience is locked into this really reductionist, atomistic type of scientific explanation, which took over in the history of Western thought, from Newton and Bacon onwards. Where, you know, they showed with remarkable power that they could predict so many things in the physical universe based on just a few simple laws of things hitting into each other – it’s mass, it’s energy, it’s velocity, and that's it. That's all you need to explain, you know, the solar system and things like that. So there's a tendency… At some point, biology became parasitised by physicists. And the physics thinking dominates biology and actually to my mind it completely misses the point of biology. 

Which is that living things do things. They're agents. They have causal power in and of themselves that is different from just things happening inside them. So physics describes what is happening, but the idea of something doing something is completely foreign to physics. There is no physical formula that can even come close to that concept. So neuroscience is trapped somewhat in this, sort of, reductionist way – it doesn't have currently an explanation for agency, which is required for free will to exist. You can't have free will as an agent if agency doesn't exist. 

SS: That's a lot again. But before we go into that there's a point where I would like to step back one and go to that materialist reductionist thing which is set into neuroscience for example. So let me put it this way. What is not a matter of faith is that we experience minds. If you don't like the word I will not use the word but it is something like – that is something like to be inside here listening to sounds, to tasting that water which you just tasted. And if you say… that's the firing of certain neurons in the brain. That's not exactly true. What you experience is the coolness of water on your tongue. And not a flash of electricity in some neuron in the brain. These are two different things. And if you ask why are they two different things? Because we experience it to be so. In a physics experiment, the two of us would have the exact same experience of say a chemical experiment or a physics experiment. 

But in the case of conscious experience there are two reports to it. What the MRI scanner is seeing and what I am experiencing inside. So the words you use –subjective experience – now that’s data. And that is something we continuously are getting. Where is the link between the firings of the neurons and what the brain does and what I am experiencing? Because I'm not experiencing what the brain does – I'm experiencing an internal movie. Or to put it very simply: Chalmers or Daniel Dennett – which side do you come down on? 

KM: I don't come down on either of their sides, to be honest. I think they both have some flaws. But you've hit upon the central problem in neuroscience. 

SS: Yes – the hard problem. 

KM: Yes, the more and more we're able to explain behaviors in terms of neural circuits firing… And I should say the advances have been phenomenal. I mean there are some tools now both in humans, but even more so in animals, where we can get to particular sets of neurons, we can tweak them with light, we can cause an animal, you know, it'll fall asleep, it'll be aggressive, it'll change its behavior in many different ways, it will feel a reward. It will feel a punishment when there is none happening. You can implant a memory, you know, so that the level of detail that we're getting with neuroscience these days is absolutely amazing. And as a consequence we're somehow moving further and further away from what we wanted to explain. Which is how the brain produces the mind… 

SS: Right. 

KM: …and how subjective experience actually happens. And this is what I think is unfortunate in neuroscience these days is that we've gone down this reductionist rabbit hole, and it's fine, it's great, we need to know the details, but we need to relate it back as well. 

And in some way I think what we're missing is the nature of causality, but also of experience, that is not just instantaneous. It's not just what's happening in the brain right now that's causing the subjective experience. It's the fact that the animal has been through all of these life experiences when those neurons were firing in the past that causes it to associate with things that happened out in the world. So it's an extension of the experience of the firing of the neurons that is linked through the experience of the animal to things that happened over time. And out into the world. And I think that extension is what's required to link the phenomenology of neural firing patterns to the phenomenology of subjective experience. 

SS: That's what you're bringing to the table. 

KM: Exactly. 

SS: Genetics is bringing to the table.

KM: I don't know if it's even genetics necessarily. It's a way of looking at neuroscience that tries to align it with psychology as an explanatory framework rather than something that dismisses all of the subjective experience as an epiphenomenon that's not required. It's not, you know, it explains it away, as opposed to explaining it.

SS: Eliminates it. 

KM: Exactly. Yeah. 

SS: Physics. I was amazed to see Ed Bitton (sp?) who is a very well known physicist here in Princeton. He's in super strings, he's working on that. A little video clip of him on YouTube, he's talking about consciousness, and he says that: I think in some sense consciousness is going to remain a mystery. We are going to find out more and more about the workings of the brain, but why these workings are associated with something like consciousness, I think that's going to remain a mystery. 

I want to put it from a scientific framework. Why this whole idea of karma and eastern philosophy becomes relevant is because if there is something that physics, neuroscience, and science, applied and pure science, here is data, which it cannot explain, then it becomes a scientific problem too. 

KM: Absolutely 

SS: Consciousness is a scientific problem. 

KM: Yeah. And I think that… It's funny, there was a trend in psychology, at one stage to dismiss the qualitative and the subjective and to concentrate on the outward manifestation of that that could be measured…

SS: Behaviorism 

KM: Behaviorism. And psychology is sort of coming back from that again, but it dominated the field for a very long time, and the reason was simple – that it was very hard to measure subjective experience and qualitative experience and in a way it seemed unscientific and psychology wanted to elevate itself to the level of a real hard science. And it did that by measuring lots of things. And in some cases they’re sort of pseudo proxy measures and so on. 

And that's fine up to a point but it gets away from, again, the central thing that you want to explain: Why is there a qualitative experience? What does that even mean that something should feel like something? Why should it? 
SS: Yes, why should it. 

KM: Because you could build a robot that, you know, behaves and does all kinds of things and it needn't be feeling anything. It just has to be programmed to do certain things in response to a scenario. And it could learn. I mean, you know, the reinforcement learning that I was talking about earlier is the basis for artificial intelligence.

SS: Machine learning. Yes. 

KM: So you don't need qualitative experience, somehow. At least we don't understand why you would need it. But it's there. It's the central fact of our lives. And it should be what neuroscience is all about trying to explain. But unfortunately it tends not to be. And, you know, maybe because so many careers have been sunk in this, it's just such a difficult problem. 

SS: I was in a debate where David Chalmers and Christof Koch, they were facing off, and Christof Koch - he's the chief scientist for the Paul Allen Brain Institute. He said when he went into consciousness studies, his colleagues told him that it's a sure way to kill your career. 

But I'm glad to hear you say that. Let me say what the real problem seems to me from a Vedantic perspective from an Upanishad perspective. There are a couple of points I'd like to put forward here to you and to the audience, which I think modern consciousness studies is missing something very vital which Eastern philosophy can contribute. 

One is that clear distinction between subject and object. It's a very inside out approach. But the advantage of the Vedantic approach is each of us can actually look into ourselves and find that, yes it is so. So we are aware – there's no doubt about this. We are all aware right now. We are aware and we always have been. That's our lives. This internal movie that we experience. Now when you look at this awareness you find two things. 

One is the things we are aware of – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, memories, images, creativity, thoughts, desires, emotions – all of these are what we are aware of. They keep changing. Vedanta calls these the objects of awareness. And there is an unchanging subject, which is not an object. I can't emphasize this part strongly enough, because it is completely missed in modern neuroscience. 

What modern neuroscience is doing and consciousness studies is looking for an objective explanation of consciousness. Why? It's perfectly understandable because science is about objective explanations. And it has worked beautifully till now. And this is Ned Block who is in philosophy of mind at NYU. He says it worked beautifully till now. Except when you try to explain everything with object, except when you now begin to study the subject, and you want it desperately to be an object and it doesn't work that way. 

The subject is undeniable. And this imperative that we must somehow objectify it – is understandable – but it is bound to fail from the Vedantic perspective. This is point one, that what we are looking for, consciousness, is the pure subject. It's not an object. 

Second thing which I want to put forward is this. What often goes by the name of consciousness in consciousness studies is a mixture of subject and object. So, for example, what we normally think of as consciousness – thoughts, feelings, emotions. Immediately what Vedanta would do is: you are the subject, having experiencing objects, which are thoughts feelings and emotions. So the thoughts, feelings and emotions themselves are not conscious. They are part of what we would call the subtle body. The… in general the mind itself. So to distinguish between mind and consciousness. This is one important contribution I think Eastern philosophy can bring forward and the non-objective nature of consciousness. These are the two things. 

KM: Yeah, well, so, I completely agree. 

SS: I'm surprised, I wouldn’t have expected that.

KM: Sorry, I apologize if any of you came here hoping for a bunfight. Because we’re in violent agreement here. So I think what's interesting… so you referred to David Chalmers earlier and he talked about the hard problem of consciousness, and the hard problem is simply this: that physical stuff… no matter what you do, describing physical stuff doing physical things – it never can explain qualitative experience because they're phenomenally different, fundamentally different nature of things. He gets in some way a lot of credit for naming that “the hard problem” of consciousness. I don't think that's actually a surprise to anybody. I think we all knew that it was hard…

SS: But he coined the term… 

KM: Yeah, he did, he coined the term, which definitely caught on. So, one way that I think about this, and it's… speculative, is to think that… and it's not just my way… but, but… So ordinarily when we're having a perception say, light hits the retina here, it activates some neurons, they send a signal into this part of your brain and this part, and the signal gets passed from level to level to level, and what it does, as that happens, is it extracts more and more interesting information from the signal. 

So originally in the retina it's just lights hitting like this. But the next stage is already looking for two cells that are firing at the same time. And then it infers there's a there's a little line there, there's an edge, there's an edge of an object in the world there. And as you go on and on, the neurons are extracting information about objects and shapes of objects and even specialized for faces and tools and things like that. So we can describe all of that – that passing of information and ultimately have not described vision at all. 

However, there is another way to think about it, which is that really what the visual system is doing is not just passing and passing that signal – it's making a prediction of what is out in the world and it's comparing that prediction to the signal that's coming in. And if it looks like there's a mismatch, it's updating its prediction of what's in the world. And that's perception. The updating of the prediction – the inference of what it is out in the world that is the source of those incoming sensory signals. Does that make sense? 

SS: Yes... But I want to step in here and say this. The Google self-driving car, they're talking about in California. And when you are driving and it pulls up next to you. You are doing this – updating a perceptual information. And that car is also doing exactly the same thing but it does not have an internal experience – a qualia. 

KM: Exactly right. So what's missing? So it's making an inference. It's building a model of what's out in the world. 

SS: Yes. 

KM: And it has in its in its processors a representation or a model of what's out in the world and in fact any system any complex system that needs to regulate itself or regulate something else has to have a model of that thing. That's a very fundamental sort of law of computing and engineering. 

SS: Absolutely. 

KM: Now, the interesting thing is in human brains we don't just model the inference of what's out in the world. We have a model of the model. Human brains have evolved in such a way that the real estate of our cerebral cortex is so massively expanded – that's why we have to fold all into our skull – but as that evolutionary expansion happened we get more and more areas. The basic areas that are doing vision and hearing and so on, don't expand very much if you compare our brain to a monkey brain. You know they expand a little bit but not that much.
The ones that expand are the ones in the middle – the ones that are taking information from multiple sensory areas and abstracting more and more, sort of, well, abstract pieces of information about things in the world. But while they're doing that they're making a model of each lower level. So as you build a hierarchy that gets higher and higher and adds more and more levels, you're getting further and further away from a model of the world. And more to a model of the model and a model of that model – and you could see where this is going… 

SS: No, I don’t…

KM: So ultimately the brain has a model of itself. And it has to incorporate in that model a modeller in order to make sense of the whole thing. It has to posit its own existence. 

SS: Yes 

KM: That's where I think consciousness comes in. It's the brain expecting itself to exist. And in a way that is still very mysterious even at a scientific level. And like I said speculative, but, you know, in a way that doesn't require something outside the brain. It's not an infinite regress it doesn't require something ethereal or immortal that transcends the brain because of the… the brain is hierarchically structured but it's recursive. That is, it's not one-directional. Every level in the hierarchy is a two-way information. So you get these sort of loops that can be a system modelling its own self… 

SS: Right…

KM: And so some of these ideas is based on work by Douglas Hofstadter. 

SS:  I know him…

KM: His “I am a Strange Loop”. 

SS: Yeah, and the other one, “Gödel, Escher, Bach”… 

KM: where he used you know examples from mathematics…

SS: Basically, self-reference leading to consciousness. I don't buy it – for two reasons. One is: where does the model, which is still objective – where does it become… Where does it light up so to say? 

KM: Yeah. 

SS: And… I mean, let me give you two concrete examples. One is the artificial intelligence you can expect it to become more complicated and at one point it will have to model itself also. 

KM: Yes 

SS: It still wouldn't probably be self-conscious.

KM: Are you sure?

SS: I'm not sure. That's what I'm saying. 

KM: Maybe it would be… 

SS: Yes. So you would probably have to predict something like that. And there are people here who work on A.I. and they want you to be right. The keep nagging me so – can we make A.I. into a self-conscious thing – that I would say from a Vedantic perspective, no.
But that's one. Second, not so complicated brains – a gecko – would you think it would have qualia? 

KM: That's such a good, such a good question. Of course it's difficult to know, but I don't think there's any reason to think that they wouldn't. 

SS: They wouldn't? 

KM: I don't think there's any reason to think that they would not. 

SS: even without very complex brains…?

KM: That would not be my starting position. 

SS: I would agree with you.

KM: My starting hypothesis would be that human experience is not fundamentally different from that of other animals and I think even if you go down to insects, which actually have surprisingly complex brains – insects have done very well as a branch of evolution – they have quite complex brains… 

And in fact there are some fundamental similarities in the way that their brains are structured – even though they're very different evolutionary pathways. But they sort of converged on a structure of the brain is the sort of hierarchical way of arranging things, that allows them to model themselves, model the world predict the outcome of their actions, learn from their experience and so on. 

So I think that while it's true that the model I just described of the brain modeling itself and positing its own existence maybe in some way a basis for self awareness. It doesn't explain why it feels like something…
SS: Right 

KM: And that's the question that almost… it's so difficult to get to that experimentally in a scientific sense. 

SS: It's very difficult 

KM: It's an extremely difficult question to even think about an experiment to address whether an animal has a qualia or not, because the only way you could ask it is to ask it to do something, right. So, I mean, and people do this – for example in mice. You can put a mouse into a cage – a certain environment – and you can give it an electric shock. And the next time you put it in that environment it will freeze, because it expects the electric shocks so it learns very rapidly. This is one-trial learning because it really doesn't like getting shocked and if you put it in a different environment that it hasn't been shocked and it's fine it'll explore happily.

Now you can use a trick. There's something called optogenetics, which is a way to activate patterns of nerve cells with light. You can make it think it got a shock or you can make it think it was in this environment when it got a shock even though it wasn't. And then you can ask it does it have that memory in its brain, even though it was like the movie Inception – you implanted that memory, basically. You can put that animal in the environment where it wasn't shocked but it thought that it was and it will freeze, so it can report, in a sense it's qualitative state.

SS: Right. 

KM: Does that mean that it's feeling something? I don't know. There's no… we don't know. All we get is the report, right. And they can't tell us that it's feeling something or not. So the only beings that we have any access to their qualitative experience are human beings, because they have language and they can tell us: I felt something.

SS: Right. In fact, wouldn't you say the only being that you have access to for an inner experience is yourself? 

KM: Yeah. Well, yes, absolutely. 

SS: Because for us, we are all reporting it to you – we could all be zombies for all you know.

KM: Yeah, and actually one of the interesting things, and I mean, this is a subject that I explore in the book is that is that that subjective experience is demonstrably different between people. You know there's sort of a philosophical question about whether, you know, when I see the color red. Is it the same as when you see the color red, and so on. And even at that basic level of perception while we can't necessarily ever show that we're having the same experience there are plenty of instances where we can show people are having a different perceptual experience.

SS: And maybe reporting the same thing...

KM: Yeah or reporting different things if you ask them. But one of the interesting things about that is that there's a huge range of perceptual experience that we're very much unaware of. And that's because it's so subjective that we never even think that someone else might be having a different experience. 

I mean let me ask a question for example. Some proportion of the population are able to form a mental image in their brain. And some are not. Completely just unable to do that. So if I say, picture the Empire State Building in your brain, how many of you can actually get, well it's going to be the majority… How many of you can't form a mental image of the Empire State Building? Just one lonely, aphantasic... 

But that's an example of something that's only come to light recently. That's a pretty deep difference in subjective experience and that goes on to the way that we form concepts about things. And there's tons of other sorts of perceptual differences like that, that are highly underappreciated but that inform our subjective experience in ways that then inform the way that we think about things out in the world. 

SS:  Right… just out of curiosity. Would such a person see the Empire State building in a dream? 

Audience member: I do. 

SS:  Which means you can form images in a dream. 

KM: Yes. 

SS: And it's the mind that is doing it.

KM: Well it's not. I mean, it's the brain that's doing it. 

SS: Alright… 

KM: So when you're dreaming you're having brain activity in your visual cortex… 

SS: Right. 

KM: And actually to the point where we can decode in a sense the content of dreams by scanning your brain while you're dreaming. 

SS: That's worrying! 

KM: Yes! So, if you know, if you get someone who has say watched a bunch of movies and you get a pattern in the brain that you can then learn about so you can say okay when the person is seeing a building this is the kind of pattern that you see and so on. So you need to do that to prime your decoder so that it can then see when it sees it again, this is what's happening.
So, I mean, dreams are interesting. They are subjective experience but they're a kind of an interpretation. You know, the make-sense-of-things part of the brain is trying to infer what the hell is going on in its visual cortex. And it's basically sort of almost random patterns but it's trying to put some meaning on that and then you do get these weird sort of things happening in our dreams and a lot of them are things that you can trace back to something that happened that day, something you were thinking about and so on. And actually what happens is you get a replay of the activity that happened in your brain during the day. You can see that in animals those patterns get replayed over and over again. So there's a physical basis to that.

SS: And a subjective basis. 

KM: And a subjective basis. Exactly. 

SS: I’ll just mention one thing. I would be failing in my duty if I didn't bring in the moral angle because karma often is in fact connected with morals and ethics. 

So if you do good, karma is good. And if one is consciously naughty, then the karma is bad. Would genetics provide a basis? I know there is in evolutionary psychology, so is there an evolutionary genetics of ethics, which can be based on genetics? 

KM: Well I think there's at least a science of morality. That can explain why we have morality and potentially where it comes from. In an evolutionary sense, that relies on issues of social cooperation and it frames it in a pragmatic sense. It basically says the reason why we feel outrage when someone cheats in a social relationship, where there should be reciprocity but they've not done something, or the reason why we are very attuned to fairness, especially like toddlers, you know, there are evolutionary reasons for that, that have to do with those being useful things to have to foster social cooperation in groups in which we lived and continue to live. 

What it doesn't do. Is give any kind of moral prescription to say this is a good thing to do because of evolution. That's a non sequitur. It's a description of what is and maybe where it came from, not a description of what ought to be. And I think that comes back to something that you said earlier about transcending human nature and the idea that individually we can try to do that, but effectively that's what civilization has done. 

SS: Correct.

KM: That's what culture has done. That's the reason why we're not beating each other to death in the street all the time because there are social conventions that civilization has brought up that allow us to suppress what would be those otherwise urges to do that occasionally. So there is, hope, I think that in a general sense we can transcend our shared nature.

SS: Right. 

KM: And in an individual sense we may be able to transcend our individual natures, not by changing it, which I think, you know, a lot of sort of the self-help industry is aimed at changing your nature. 

SS: And often that's why it doesn't work 

KM: Exactly – it doesn't. But what you can do, is try to change your habits. It's difficult of course. Old habits are hard to break. It's effortful, but it's possible. And it becomes more possible if you become more aware of them. 

SS: Right. 

KM: So the level of introspection – if you become aware of the underlying motives you can do something about. And just as a silly example I find myself sometimes getting completely infuriated by totally trivial things. I mean absolutely in a rage. And I will just be in the grip of this primal fury, and at some moment an insight will come to me and I'll say: Jesus, you just need some coffee. Just get some coffee. That's all that's wrong with you.

So a little bit of insight at some point can kind of allow, and it does… I can then override that biochemistry, that neurochemistry that has driven me into a rage for no good reason. 

SS: I think we are in agreement, there, coming from different angles. But there's almost a language of karma – that we have inherited a load of karma from the past and like tendencies and character traits. But we need to educate ourselves, train ourselves, to transcend that nature – it's almost the same language. Dawkins also says in his book The Selfish Gene. He doesn't say that: I'm not saying that you have to be selfish. Rather I'm saying just the opposite. We need education, we need civilization, basically, to overcome these genetic predispositions.


The discussion continued with a Q&A, but the recording unfortunately ends there, which is a shame, as there were some very thought-provoking questions from the audience.



Popular posts from this blog

Grandma’s trauma – a critical appraisal of the evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 1 - a tale of two neuroscientists

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 2 - assessing the scientific evidence