Buddhist science spends a lot of time on why external reality is in essence a delusion. And modern physics, psychology and brain science also struggles with questions such as whether the brain creates consciousness (or rather, whether consciousness is the activity or even just a side-effect of the brain’s activity). And self-consciousness may or may not be separable from perception.
I spent some time this morning reading edge.org – where, once a year, a whole lot of thoughtful people, each of whom is also well-known in their field of practice, are asked to give their answers to some fundamental question. I was reading the 2005 question, which I found had sparked a bunch of interesting reactions.
And yesterday I spent some time discussing DroppingKnowledge.org with a friend. The premise of Dropping Knowledge is to have brought together 112 individuals from around the world, with diverse backgrounds, to answer 100 important questions. Most of the questions were about the future of the world, the individual and society. All 11,200 “answers,” at three minutes each, were captured on video and are searchable and playable online. It’s a fascinating experiment.
At edge.org (“Edge-The World Question Center”), the 2005 question was “WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?” Well, for me, I wonder a lot about how much my brain can actually do and how much requires the crutch of external memory – my experience of the world and of my cognition is that I could not function without what I call external memory – which in my case consists of books and computers and searchable knowledgebases (some of which I create, and I some which are created by others). I can use those external resources pretty creatively, but without them and relying solely upon my brain, I’d have a difficult time of it. And so I particularly liked Stephen Kosslyn’s answer in which he describes what he calls Social Prosthetic Systems – among other things he says
“… our brains are limited, and so we use crutches to supplement and extend our abilities. For example, try to multiply 756 by 312 in your head. Difficult, right? You would be happier with a pencil and piece of paper—or, better yet, an electronic calculator. These devices serve as prosthetic systems, making up for cognitive deficiencies (just as a wooden leg would make up for a physical deficiency).”
And he continues by extending the concept to social systems…well, you should read his words not my paraphrases, so I will not quote him further here. My contention is that much of what we have to accomplish in educating people is to help individuals understand the limits of their own cognitive (and memory) abilities and find ways to interface with memory and cognition-devices in the external world so they can effectively and productively learn – and I mean learn and learn and learn for an entire lifetime – and make use of what they have learned.
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 You are surprised that I use the term Buddhist science? Part of the obtaining of a geshe (or geshey) degree is study that includes the Buddhist version of scientific inquiry and exploration. “In general, the [geshe] curriculum of study covers the five major topics-the perfection of wisdom, philosophy of the Middle Way, valid cognition, phenomenology and monastic discipline. These five are studied meticulously by the dialectical method using Indian texts as well as Indian and Tibetan commentaries to them, often textbooks unique to each monastic tradition, for a period of fifteen to twenty years. On completing this training, a monk is awarded one of three levels of the degree of Geshey (Doctorate of Buddhist Philosophy), Dorampa, Tsogrampa and Lharampa, of which the highest is the Geshey Lharampa degree.” From The Gelug Tradition at tibet.com.
 External reality: the things that we perceive and think of as actually being outside our bodies or beyond our senses – the things that we see outside there beyond our eyes, or the things that cause us pain when we touch them. If we are the perceiver, then external reality is the perceived.