Searle and Buddhism on the Mind and the Non-Self

Today, 03:28 PM

In works such as Rediscovery of the Mind, and Mind, Language and Society, Searle holds famously that the mind is a biological phenomenon. He states: “Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.” I would like to argue in this paper that Searle’s view here does not necessarily contradict the Buddhist conception of mind and its close corollary the doctrine of Non-Self (anaatman), the idea of the chain series of causes and effects that all together constitute a purported entity designable as the mind, self or consciousness without thereby an inherent, enduring Self being posited. Furthermore, except for the Buddhist insistence on the actuality of the process of reincarnation, which Searle does not accept, the two positions share quite a lot in common. Two traditions of Buddhism, namely that of the Theravaada Abhidharma and the Mahaayaana, will be referred to in order to substantial the claims of Buddhism in relation with an analysis of Searle’s thought on the matter.

Searle’s view of the mind does not necessarily contradict the Buddhist teaching because Searle seems to be talking only about mind in its concrete manifestation, for example as the source of thinking, feeling, etc. Consciousness in Searle and in Buddhism in this case share many same characteristics together, most notably of which is that the content of consciousness is always changing and is intentional, and that one cannot find a deep core, the ‘homunculus’ inside the body or the brain. Another similarity between Searle and the Buddhist conception is that both reject Cartesian dualism.

However, there is one issue where Searle and Buddhism appears to be difference from each other and at first the gap seems so vast it is not reconcilable. The difference lies in the Buddhist teaching on the identity of the person or on the continuity of causal chains that constitute one’s karmic fruits that, depending on some important conditions, continues after bodily death. According to the scientific world view that Searle subscribes to, the mind is a function of the brain and consequently does not seem to survive the death of the latter. Nevertheless, I intend to argue here that Searle’s view does not necessarily preclude the possibility that consciousness might exist in some form after death of the brain. If he is willing to expand his epistemological apparatus somewhat and include the possibility of what Buddhists have consistently taken to be a source of knowledge, then his view and the Buddhist would be remarkably similar.


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