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Abhidhamma as a paradigm for consciousness studies

Chitta - Chetasika - Rupa (Reply to Raul Banerjee)

[Raul Banerjee]
(Wed, 24 Jan 2001)
Prof. Chalmers ... advises us to factor the entire phenomena into three related streams, 1. conscious experience - 2. cognitive functions - 3. material events. Again, he states as a fundamental postulate the one-to-one isomorphism between conscious experience and its allied cognitive functions.

(Mon, 29 Jan 2001)
Buddha had now three mutually causally interacting streams (chitta - cetasik - rupa) and modeled their causal interactions by proposing a set of 24 bridging relations and the concept of 'generalised contact'. Briefly chittas and cognitive functions, specifically volitional energy are related by reciprocity in that each chitta is invariably associated with its volitional energy from genesis to decay. The Reciprocal Relation however does not hold between the chitta-cetasik combine and its associated material events. If the chitta does not arise simultaneously with a material event then how does it interact with organised states of matter. To this the model held that the chitta could make direct 'contact' with certain material configurations specifically the sensitive surfaces of sense organs. Since the chitta-cetasiks are tied by the reciprocal relation they do not have independent degrees of freedom, so we can talk of two streams that of chitta-cetasiks and material events. So the picture which emerges is that when the two mutually irreducible streams move into 'contact' their respective geometries (one spatio-temporal and the other temporal) are constrained. An analogy might help. When two macro-molecules associate with each other the conformational freedom of their interacting residues are constrained. However, one of the biggest problems with the model was its concept of pathways. What were the causal determinants of the structure of a pathway?

[Peter Mutnick]
Although I find this discussion very interesting, I have a problem reconciling some of it with what I understand to be the Buddha's teaching. Let me explain the discrepancy. First of all, I accept the relation to Chalmers claimed by Banerjee. But there is a very interesting result, namely that chitta and chetasika are regarded as nama in relation to rupa. Buddhism clearly places the irreducible elements of consciousness and cognitive function at the noumenal base of the physical world and in that way reconciles the efficacy of consciousness and cognitive function with the causal closure of the physical world. This is entirely compatible with post-quantum Cartesian ontology, which mandates a thought-like noumenon for physical reality, but entirely incompatible with pre-quantum Cartesian ontology, which makes thought be in essence distinct from the physical reality of matter.

So, the conclusion seems clear: insofar as chitta and chetasika are correlated and brought into relation with rupa, there is causal closure of the physical world and more of a relation of identity than of interaction or contact between nama and rupa (mind and body, but corresponding counterintuitively to thing and idea, respectively). This oneness of mind and body is of course an axiom of Zen practice, for instance. Before going into what I consider to be Buddha's doctrine of contact, let us take a further look at the essentials of Banerjee's view.

[Raul Banerjee]
(Wed, 24 Jan 2001)
In the Indian analytical tradition specifically in the Abhidhamma and Nyaya a generalised form of 'contact' is proposed to model interactions between mental and physical entities. In the Abhidhamma view the flow of our conscious experiences can ultimately be resolved to chittas defined as a conscious pulse of infinitesimal duration. Each chitta rises and falls and is then replaced by the next chitta. No two chittas can superpose and it pleases commentators to say that in the blinking of an eye a million chittas rise and fall. The Abhidhamma model then proposes that this stream of chittas can make direct contact with six classes of cognitive objects: 1. sensitive surfaces of sense organs, 2. subtle matter, 3. chittas, 4. cetasiks, 5. concepts, and 6. nirvana. All external objects of sense whether visual, auditory, tactile etc. corresponding to the five sense organs are considered gross. The only gross physical organisation a chitta can make direct contact with are the sensitive surfaces of sense organs. Again a chittaic stream can interact with other chittaic streams and their related cetasiks. An unusual feature of the Abhidhamma model is to class concepts as cognitive objects. The model thus proposes an objective field of concepts analogous to the visual field. As a visual object makes contact with the eye similarly a concept as a cognitive object makes direct contact with a chitta.

[Peter Mutnick]
This notion of chitta as an instantaneous pulse is very good and corresponds entirely to the mental pole of a Whiteheadian actual entity. Whitehead declined to use the term "consciousness" for his actual entities only because the pure consciousness implied by the term "chitta" is quite far from the Western conception of consciousness. If anything, it corresponds to the "mind-stuff" conception of consciousness, considered and rejected by William James.

However, Banerjee's inherited notion of the manyness of the chittas is not quite right, as can be seen by examining the notion in the context of the Whiteheadian scheme. It is rather the case that, as Whitehead avers, "the many become one and are increased by one". This implies that in its present actuality, the actual entity cannot even be compared to others, for it is uniquely one within its own actual world. It is only in retrospect, from the point of view of a subsequent actual entity, that it can be regarded as one among many. So, it is rather the case that in the blinking of the mind's eye, a million past subjects are integrated in the present subject (chitta). For the essential fact of an actual entity is that it is present and defines the present - it cannot be regarded in its pure actuality as part of some other present.

As for Buddha's doctrine of contact, it comes from his teaching on the chain of causation (pratitya-samutpada). The chain begins with ignorance (avidya) concerning the momentary nature of being. So, the chitta is from outset bracketed or excluded from consideration. The entire process then occurs between the chetasika and the rupa. It is rather like the Oedipal complex in psychoanalysis. The rest of the chain goes: samskara, vijnana, vedana, nama-rupa, shadayatana, sparsha, trishna, upadana, bhava, jati, jara-maranam. The first three of these are types of chetasika and they combine to constitute nama in relation to rupa. The fifth refers to the six bases of the senses, including the psychic sixth sense.

This is a rather mystical notion in that it postulates the senses to be a kind of ground state of all existence - they are the base upon which the rest of the edifice is built. But more than that, from the causal sea of the senses arises none other than the deific essence itself. This is conceived in three terms: sparsha (contact), trishna (craving), and upadana (clinging). The whole cause of suffering can really be seen right here in the reaction of the sentient being to contact with the material world. If one instead recognizes Gautama and Kurma as the personifications of Sparsha and Trishna and Purushottama as the true subject, signified by Upadana, with whom one should never lose contact, then one can "let go and let God" and one's life will become sublime, or so the teaching goes.

So, the doctrine seems to be that the senses as a ground state conceal a subjective essence that is indeed the subjective essence of material form. The objective existence, signified by Bhava, Jati, and Jara-maranam, is an afterthought to the subjective essence, which is an excited state of the vacuum, or the viable void. The terms signifying the *a priori* chetasika and rupa elements should be understood as a matrix for existence actualized only by the arising of the subjective essence, and yet contact with material form means the contact of the grounded essence with the material elements of the matrix.

So, there seem to be a number of modes of the functioning of the universe. On the one hand chitta and chetasika are both extra-physical (ala classical ontology) and contained within the physical as its noumenal aspect (ala quantum ontology). This is in keeping with von Neumann's principle of the psycho-physical parallelism, although it does not seem to be the way he applied the principle. Only Heisenberg seemed to grasp that the thought and consciousness of the observer had somehow become the noumenal essence of physical reality. Hence he could suggest that the observer chose not only what experiment to perform, but what result to record.

On the other hand, however, chetasika is itself only the "thinking consciousness" and not the truest companion of chitta. The truest companion, or guru, is chaitanya, or "spiritual consciousness". The full process theory of Whitehead can only be implemented by adding to the subjective prehensions of chitta the superjective expansions of chaitanya. This mode of the universe pertains to self-realization, free from ignorance (avidya). Finally, of course, there is the state of bondage, presaged by ignorance (avidya), but this is actually a very interesting mode, which contains the Buddha's doctrine of contact as the highest expression of his compassion. For Buddha is, after all, a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, or an Avatar of Ishvara, as believed by the Hindus.

These modes of the functioning of the universe are the so-called modes of nature: tamas, rajas, and sattva. There are two minds, alternatively signified by the term "nama" in nama-rupa: the complete or unlimited mind, constituted by the chitta and all the types of chetasika, and the incomplete or limited mind, constituted by only the samskara, vijnana, and vedana types of chetasika. The former is identical to rupa, with nothing left over, while the latter leaves quite a bit to be desired and is hence the cause of endless sangsara, which can however be mitigated if one accepts God as one's constant companion through all tribulation. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, has dubbed the complete or unlimited mind the analytic mind and the incomplete or limited mind the reactive mind. He has also acknowledged that the essence of the person, or the subjective essence, is not mind at all, but spirit. Niels Bohr's favorite poetic passage was the following: "Truth dwells in the deep, and the full mind alone is clear."

Peter Joseph Mutnick 1949 - 2000