Transcript: 41. Monima Chadha on Indian Philosophy of Mind

Monima Chadha takes Peter through Buddhist-Hindu debates over mind and self.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about ancient Indian philosophy of mind and I think maybe the first thing we need to discuss is what terminology they use for the mind and related concepts. Is there a Sanskrit word that really just means exactly what we mean by the English word mind?

Monima Chadha: Yes and no, as you would expect from a philosopher. So there is the term Manas, which is translated as mind, but there are also other terms that are used in Indian philosophy. For example, Chitta, for example, Ahamkar, for example, the notion of Budhi, which are all mental faculties, if you like. So when we talk about mind in Indian philosophy, we are talking about mental faculties, we are talking about conscious states, sometimes they're also referred to as mind, Chitta, for example, in the Buddhist philosophy especially. So I think it's not an easy translation to say: we have one term in Indian philosophy and an equivalent in Western philosophy. The other thing to keep in mind, I think when we are using the term 'mind,' is in the Indian tradition, it is used as belonging to the category of not-self. So in the Indian tradition, the main divide is not between mind and body, rather it is between the self and the not-self. And what distinguishes these two categories, in my opinion at least, what is the most important distinguishing factor in these two categories is that the mind, as you know, with other things belonging to the category of not-self, which is body, sense organs, and so on, they are all impermanent. Whereas the self is something which is permanent, even eternal for some of the Vedic schools. So that's an important distinction to keep in mind whenever we are thinking about the mind, we have to think of it as an impermanent entity. It reminds me of one nice question that is asked in the... it's in the mythological tradition, you know, what is swifter than the wind? And the answer is mind is swifter than the wind. That's the answer given, but mind is not something, you know, we do not need to think of it. In Western philosophy, we often use the terms mind and self and person interchangeably. We shouldn't make that mistake when we are thinking about Indian philosophy, because it belongs to a different category altogether.

Peter Adamson: That really then sets up the concept of the self or the mind as a key debate in ancient India between the Buddhists on the one hand who deny the existence of a persisting self, and the Vedic schools on the other who insist upon it. And I'm wondering if it's really safe to think about that as a debate about the mind, because in the Vedic tradition, we sometimes have a distinction between the mind and the self. So is that really a debate about the philosophy of mind?

Monima Chadha: Here is how I like to think about it. The debate is about whether, you know, there is a self or not. That's how the debate is characterized. And you could think of it as a debate about the mind, because what the Buddhists are going to say, in my opinion, what they're saying is: the mind can do all the work of the self. And so we really don't need a self. And we'll get to the details of this argument later. But that's what I think is going on here, that they want to say we don't need a self because whatever the Hindu schools say that the self can do can be done by the mind.

Peter Adamson: And of course, the Buddhists would deny that the mind persists over time as well, because actually they don't think that anything persists over time.

Monima Chadha: Yes. And that's, you know, part of the challenge is, you know, to be able to explain how something that is impermanent can explain phenomena like memory. And that's one of the reasons why the Hindus postulate a self. Otherwise we don't have a good explanation of memory. And the Buddhist replies, no, we can account for memory and other mental functions and other, you know, so-called proofs of self from the Hindu school. I think the Buddhist at least tries to respond to each of those challenges by giving an explanation how mental faculties might do the same work and mental faculties, notice, are impermanent.

Peter Adamson: That is indeed one of the most prominent arguments for the persistence of the self that we find in the Vedic schools, for example, in Nyaya, they have this argument that I must be persisting over time because I can remember things that I experienced yesterday. And that does seem like a very powerful argument for the persistence of the self, doesn't it?

Monima Chadha: It does seem like a powerful argument, but the question, I mean, there's... we need to be careful here. First, let me say this. The original argument in the Nyaya Sutras does not mention memory. It is only in the commentaries that memory comes into play. The original argument is just that we need an explanation of desire. And what, how can we explain desire if we haven't had those experiences before? There must be a persisting self. In the discussions, in the commentary, you do get a mention of memory. And I think in the commentaries, you get specifically the mention of what is called episodic memories, which is not just remembering facts about the past, but remembering episodes in the past. For example, I can remember that, you know, I was the one who was singing on my 40th birthday. You know, that's a vivid memory I have. And that's the kind of memory I think that the Nyaya are really interested in explaining. That kind of memory cannot be explained without assuming a permanent self.

Peter Adamson: And is it really about remembering things that happened quite a while ago, or would they also apply this to a kind of ongoing memory? For example, I can remember that I've been talking to you now for several minutes, but it's not like I forgot about the fact that I was talking to you, and then some time passed and then I thought, oh yeah, I used to be talking to her at that earlier time.

Monima Chadha: I think it's an interesting question when you put it that way. You know, how much time needs to have been passed before it can count as a memory? You know, because even when you say a whole sentence, you know, I need to remember the words to be able to respond to your question, right? Is that a memory? The Nyaya would think not. You know, they think sentence comprehension happens all at once. But, you know, there are other episodes say something that happened a few minutes ago. Will that count as a memory or not? I think it should.

Peter Adamson: And they don't distinguish between what we might call short-term and long-term memory then, when they're describing this kind of argument for the persistence of the self?

Monima Chadha: I don't think they do make that distinction.

Peter Adamson: What about another argument that you find in the Vedic tradition, which is not about the persistence of the self over time, but more about the unity of consciousness or maybe first-person perspective on things at one time? For example, at the moment I'm talking to you, so when you talk, I hear your voice, but I'm also seeing the room around me. And you might think, well, there needs to be some kind of mental principle. Maybe it's the mind, maybe it's the self that would somehow gather together these impressions into a single kind of gestalt awareness.

Monima Chadha: Yes. So there is certainly that idea in Buddhist philosophy. Of course, the Nyaya and the Hindu schools will say that the only thing that can unite perceptions or unite experiences at a time is the self. The Buddhists will say, well, there is the mental faculty of what they call the eighth consciousness or the storehouse consciousness, ale-vijan, as it's sometimes called. That can account for synchronic unity of experiences. So why are experiences happening at the same time seem to be united? So there are certain mental principles, if you like, that can account for unity of experiences without postulating a self.

Peter Adamson: Actually, I think that that maybe really helps us put our finger on the difference between the mind and the self, because I suppose that the Vedic side of the debate is to say, well, the mind performs certain functions, but I also have, for example, sense perception. And so I need a self to gather together what's going on in my mind and what's going on in my sense perception together into one sort of unified consciousness. For example, I might remember what I was doing yesterday while looking at a painting, and it would be the self that unifies these, if I understand the argument correctly. Whereas the Buddhists say, no, you can get by with just whatever the mind does and whatever sense perception does. Is that right?

Monima Chadha: Well, the Buddhist actually does not distinguish between sense perception and mind in the sense that you're talking about here. I think that the Buddhist thinks of various kinds of consciousnesses as all being various kinds of minds. So the Buddhist doesn't have a notion of a mind as such as one thing. The mind itself is various kinds of conscious states changing and causally connected over time. So if you think in this way, sense perception is one kind of conscious awareness. Self-awareness is one kind of conscious awareness. Bodily awareness is another kind of conscious awareness. And all these series of conscious awarenesses, if you like, are happening at the same time. And so they share the timeframe and they share some other features, some other causal interactions between those things happening at the same time. And therefore, they can do the work that the Hindus say you require a self for.

Peter Adamson: And I guess that that's a very different kind of critique of the standard Vedic account than we've just been talking about in the previous episodes where we talked about the Charvakha position. Because the Charvakhas seem to accept that we have at least a mind and maybe even a self. Although at least in the Charvakha Sutra, it doesn't talk about the self. It talks about mental phenomena, but it avoids the word Atman. And what the Buddhists are saying is very different from what the Charvakhas are saying. Is that right?

Monima Chadha: Yes. I think the difference between the Buddhists and the Charvakhas is when the Charvakhas also talk about consciousness and as an emergent property of the material elements. The Buddhists are not materialists. The Buddhists have a distinction between mental atoms or mental elements and physical elements. So they talk about psychophysical complexes and they don't talk about reducing the mind to the body. But, you know, it's a different kind of critique because the mind in this context, as we said before, is not a permanent thing, not a thing that continues to exist over time. Mind in this context, if you like, is a series of conscious awarenesses and many multiple series of conscious awarenesses.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, their critique of the idea of something that persists would apply to the emergent Charvaka mind just as much as it would apply to Vedanta theories of self.

Monima Chadha: It would because the Charvakhas are not thinking of the material elements as things that don't persist. You know, the Charvakhas are thinking of material elements as things that persist over time and sometimes they combine in various ways to give, you know, rise to this new property of consciousness as in the human body. So that's what the Charvakhas are saying. The debate between the Charvakhas and the Hindus is not about, you know, whether there is persistence or not. That's a different debate. The debate between the Hindus and the Buddhists is whether we need to have persisting entities in our ontology to explain everything there is.

Peter Adamson: So this argument that you get from the Buddhists that we don't need to postulate the self or the mind. I mean, so far the way that you've described it sounds like almost like a kind of Occam's razor style argument. Maybe I'm thinking of that because I happen to be covering Occam at the moment in the medieval episodes, which are appearing in parallel to this. But it sounds like the argument you're describing is of the form, 'we can explain these phenomena without postulating a mind or a self that endures over time. So we shouldn't do it.' Is that really the way that they argue? In other words, that we don't need to posit the self or do they actually also have arguments for why we shouldn't posit the self because it's actually an incoherent idea?

Monima Chadha: They have different kinds of arguments in different schools. I mean, like the Hindu schools, you have many traditions in the Buddhist side as well. And the particular argument that I'm talking about here, I've talked about is, you know, to do with the idea of whether you need to posit a self to explain the phenomena. So that argument, I think, belongs to the Avidharma school. And Vasubandhu tries out that argument by saying, you know, for the Avidharma, anything that is real or the criterion of reality, if you like, is that to be is to be causally efficacious. And his claim is that the self is causally inefficacious. Therefore, there is no self. There's nothing for the self to do. Other schools have a different kind of argument. So another kind of argument that you find in the Buddhist schools is that, you know: if you postulate the self, it will make you unhappy because with self comes self-interest. So, you know, we do not, you know, this is not doing any work. In fact, it's an illusion which causes us a lot of misery. So we need to get rid of this illusion. That's a different kind of argument that you get in the Buddhist schools as well. There's the incoherence argument as well in the Buddhist tradition. But again, there's different philosophers, different schools arguing why we should not accept the self. All of them are trying to interpret the Buddhist dialogues and give you different arguments as their interpretation of what the Buddha had in mind in the denial of self.

Peter Adamson: I think especially that second kind of argument you mentioned is in a way is a kind of strange argument because, I mean, here we've been talking about philosophy of mind, which is usually considered to be a very abstract theoretical branch of the history of philosophy. And then they come along and say, 'well, here's why you shouldn't believe in the mind. It will make you unhappy.' This is sort of not the kind of argument you get in contemporary philosophy of mind for sure.

Monima Chadha: I don't know why you say here's why you shouldn't believe in the mind. They say here's why you shouldn't believe in the self. And you know, if I may reiterate myself, here's why you should not believe in persisting things, because that will make you unhappy. But mind is not a persisting thing for them. You know, mind in so far as it is thought of as mental awareness, it's something which, you know, exists only momentarily and then goes out of existence, giving rise to another conscious state.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay. I mean, also I think the first argument you mentioned there from Vasubandhu is a good example of how to turn an Occam's razor style argument into a more kind of aggressive argument, which actually shows that something doesn't exist. Because what you say is, 'well, we don't need this for any kind of theoretical reason. And there's a reason we shouldn't posit things that we don't need' - it's not just to kind of be more economical in our theories. 'It's because what it means to exist is to be causally efficacious' or something like that. And so you sort of bootstrap from the Occam's razor style argument to an argument against the existence of the self.

Monima Chadha: Yes, and I think, you know, aggression is a feature on both sides of the debate. The Hindus are no better when they're debating with the Buddhists. I remember one, you know, an exchange we were having in the philosophy East and West, and one of the Buddhist philosophers who did not agree with my view, you know, was making points. But the Nyaya philosopher who did agree, Stephen Phillips, who's a professor in Texas, said 'Chadha might not be right, but against the Buddhists, everything is fair.'

Peter Adamson: That's a long running strategic observation. I guess that it's, I mean, it seems to me that it's pretty clear how the Buddhists will explain one of the phenomena we mentioned before, which is this thing about memory, because in a way that just falls under their general account of how we can explain the apparent persistence of objects over time, right, they just appeal to causal connections between sort of fleeting, momentary phenomena. I personally find it harder to see how they can answer the other phenomenon we mentioned, which is this thing about the unity of consciousness. So just to reiterate there, the idea was that we need a self, because without a self, there's no sort of center of awareness or consciousness that can direct its attention to all the different kinds of cognitions that are going on for me at any one moment, never mind what happens from one moment to the next. How can the Buddhists explain that?

Monima Chadha: I think they can. And let me try and explain this. So I mentioned that the Buddhist, again, let me clarify, I'm talking about the Abhidharma Buddhist school, because that's the school I'm most familiar with. This was a tradition in northern India. And I'm talking about the philosopher Vasubandhu in that tradition. And they introduced, later Vasubandhu introduces, this notion of storehouse consciousness - or in fact, he gets it from the Yoga Chara school in the Abhidharma tradition. And what the storehouse consciousness does is it kind of acts as a base, it interacts with all the other sensory consciousnesses. So what they say is there is a two way interaction happening between the sensory consciousnesses. So you know, the eye consciousness, the olfactory consciousness, the taste consciousness, if you like, and the storehouse consciousness, in the sense that the storehouse consciousness behaves like a base, which, which, you know, helps the other consciousnesses, and in turn those consciousnesses, so whatever objects they have, they feed that back into the base. So there is a two way interaction happening. So all the sensory consciousnesses share this common base, if you like. But this base is not a persisting thing. It's also, you know, a changing consciousness, like every other consciousness.

Peter Adamson: So it's almost like the Buddhists would say, I mean, just taking Vasubandhu as an example, but I guess it would be a more general Buddhist approach, would be to say, 'what you can do with your kind of transcendent, single self that's overseeing everything, we can do by appealing to the interrelationship between different components of the momentary person,' if we're willing to use the word person. Is that basically the idea?

Monima Chadha: Yes, that's exactly right.

Peter Adamson: And speaking of the idea of a person, I mean, as you've said, they do accept mind in the sense of a momentary kind of cognition. And is that is that so just taking Vasubandhu as an example, something you've written about is that this momentary mind is really what does the work of a self or a person. So would Vasubandhu say that I am my mind, or would he not be happy with that kind of formulation?

Monima Chadha: I don't think the Buddhists would be happy with that kind of formulation, because the Buddhists don't like this notion of I, they want to say that the I is a fiction. It's an idea that we impose on what is really real. And this idea, this imposition, this conceptual imposition causes a lot of suffering, because with I comes me and mine and the notion of ego, you know, my self interest and so on.

Peter Adamson: So it's really a kind of, you might say the kind of reductionist or eliminativist account then, is that right? Because I mean, I mean, one, so for it to go back to Charvakya, again, they think that somehow mental life emerges from the elements, but they don't say, 'well, therefore, mental life is unreal.' They're happy to say that it's real. And it's a real phenomenon that really emerges from the elements. Whereas the Buddhists really want us to abandon all thought of the self of the I.

Monima Chadha: Yes, I think that's right. And they want us to abandon all thought of the I, because they think it's going to bring you pain and nothing more.

Peter Adamson: And finally, just in conclusion, how do you see all of this contributing to the contemporary debates in philosophy of mind? I mean, obviously, some of the issues and concerns we've discussed, for example, this desire to be liberated from suffering. I don't remember ever going to a talk by a contemporary philosopher of mind and having the philosopher of mind start talking about liberation from suffering. So that seems like at least a different kind of motivation. But do you think that there is a contribution from these ancient debates that could help us maybe reframe the contemporary discussion or in some other way contribute to it?

Monima Chadha: I think so. I think and that is what, you know, is basically my interest in studying Buddhist philosophy. So here's an idea. You said, you know, they're not concerned with liberation. Obviously they're not concerned with liberation, but they are concerned with the notion of moral responsibility. They're concerned - and with moral responsibility comes the idea of an agent of action. In the Buddhist way of thinking about things, if you give up on the notion of persons or self, you also give up on the notion of an agent of action. And the Buddhists are quite happy to say that, you know, what is the work? Let me, you know, let me sort of give you a detailed argument from Vasubandhu's text, which explains that we don't need a self says: 'you know, suppose that is, you know, you see a mango, what happens? There's a sense perception of a mango, a desire for mango arises that, you know, causes you form an intention to get that mango that causes certain bodily actions to happen. And you procure the mango and you satisfy the desire. Where is the agent in all this? You know, there's an interaction between mental and physical states and that explains the action. Why do we need an agent?' So for them, you know, moral responsibility, which is certainly something the philosophers of mind are interested in, they're interested in the notion of moral responsibility. They're interested in the notion of agency. There's huge discussions about, you know, the sense of agency. The Buddhist just says the sense of agency, or at least let me say more carefully: some Buddhists want to say that the sense of agency is also an illusion and there is nothing that we need to account for. There is responsibility that can be taken care of by the causal relations, but we don't need to posit these agents, you know, which are the bearers of moral responsibility.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, actually, given that so much of contemporary philosophy of mind does tend in the limitivist or, you know, at least a kind of supervenience theory kind of direction, that, you know, there seems to be a lot of interest in how far we can get away from these traditional more Cartesian ideas about the self or the mind. Can we reduce it to something purely material and so on? And so in a way, even if the Buddhists came from a very different kind of original set of motivations, their drive to eliminate apparent mental phenomena in some ways actually fits into the contemporary debate very nicely.

Monima Chadha: I think so. And I think there are other contributions they can make. You know, one is the idea of the, there isn't, you know, for the Buddhist, I think if you think carefully - there's not just the conscious state and the unconscious states. There is, you know, degrees of conscious awareness. There's levels of consciousness. And I think that's an idea that contemporary philosophy, you know, contemporary philosophy of mind and even the sciences of the mind can do with looking at more carefully. You know, what are the degrees of conscious awareness? Rather than just saying, you know, you are either conscious or unconscious. So for example, right now, one is conscious of, you know, one's body, not directly conscious of, but the moment I mention it, you know, I suddenly, it comes into my awareness and it probably has come into yours as well. So that's the kind of, that's another idea. And I think it's not only the Buddhists who can make contributions here. I think even in the Hindu tradition and the Vedic tradition, you know, there is a very fine grain taxonomy of conscious states, dream states, deep dreamless sleep, what happens to consciousness and deep dreamless sleep. And that's ideas that are coming into contemporary philosophy and sciences of the mind. They're dealing with these ideas. What do we say about deep dreamless sleep? What do we say about dreams? What do we, you know, is there consciousness or not? And there is evidence to say there is degrees of consciousness there. So I think, you know, there are a whole lot of ideas that can inform current debates. So it's not just an interest in the history of philosophy. I think there is a potential to make contribution to the contemporary debates. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.