Apologies for the length of the upcoming quotation, but since you find your statement convincing, it would be worth a few minutes of your time to read.
A short while ago you were good enough to send me a copy of Triangle with an article 'Anatomy of Consciousness' by the late Prof. Sir Geoffrey Jefferson F.R.S. I sent you my comment upon it in a couple of lines in a postcard; this, of course, was totally inadequate, but I did not at that time find it convenient to say more. I know that I shall now again risk being incomprehensible to you, but I regard the current orthodox attitude of science to the question of consciousness as being such an obstacle (particularly for medical men) to the understanding of the Buddha's Teaching (and even to a no more than ordinarily intelligent and wholesome understanding of life) that it is a risk I am cheerfully prepared to take. (And, after all, nothing obliges you to read what I have to say if you don't wish to.) It is a matter of regret to me that, though I have been so well treated by so many doctors in Ceylon, and have found them, as people, so friendly and easy to talk to, I am yet quite unable to get beyond a certain point with them and discuss things that really matter. Always there arises a barrier of uncomprehension, and I perceive that, even though I am still being listened to, communication is no longer taking place. No doubt the question is not easy, but it must be faced; and this article 'Anatomy of Consciousness' seems to offer a convenient point of departure for a discussion.
Prof. Jefferson, in his article, tells us that 'consciousness depends upon (or 'is the sum of')[a] the activities of the whole intact nervous system, central and peripheral'; and the article clearly takes it for granted that an elucidation of the nervous system and its workings, if it were complete, is all that would be required for a total understanding of consciousness. 'We shall agree in the belief' says Prof. J. 'that whatever mental qualities human beings display during consciousness are derived in the end from the millions of cells in the cortex and from infinitely elaborate internuncial connections with subcortical structures.' This is certainly the generally accepted view in scientific circles.
Two assumptions are implicit in this attitude. The first is that between each possible state of the nervous system and each possible state of consciousness there exists a one-to-one correspondence. With this assumption we shall not quarrel (though a practical demonstration of its validity obviously offers certain difficulties). The second assumption is that the working of the nervous system strictly obeys the established laws of science, and in particular those of physics and bio-chemistry.
A physiologist (or neurologist), clearly enough, is bound to make this second assumption: it is the assumption of every man of science that the results of his investigations can be arranged in an ordered pattern exemplifying regular laws of behaviour, and furthermore that these laws of behaviour hold not only in the restricted field of his own investigations but universally in all branches of science to which they may be applicable. Thus, for example, the biologist accepts without question the laws established by the experimental chemist as well as those established by people who have investigated the behaviour of electricity; and the theoretical physicist assumes that, ultimately, the behaviour of all things whatsoever can be accounted for in terms of certain fundamental laws that are his special field of study. Failure to make this assumption, it might seem, must obviously lead to chaos—what hope of understanding the order of the universe and man's place in it unless we assume that the universe is ordered (i.e. that the same experiment repeated at different times and in different places will always give the same result)? What hope for suffering humanity if vaccination (for example) had purely random effects, producing immunity from smallpox in one, precipitating the measles in another, and simply giving a slight squint to a third? Medicine would be impossible unless cures could be predicted with some confidence. Besides, in view of the astonishing successes of modern science (and medical science in particular), what sane person could possibly be tempted to doubt this assumption—does not the success of the scientific method abundantly justify the assumptions it makes?
To begin with, doubting of this scientific assumption (supposing that it is necessary to doubt it) does not necessarily land us in chaos. To deny the universality of the order discovered by science and embodied in its laws is not by any means to deny that science discovers any order at all. Nor is it to deny that there is any universal order. If, as may be thought, there is a universal order of more fundamental nature than that revealed by science (though quantum theory, in a muddled way, is partly aware of it),[b] we can quite well allow the scientific order a limited validity within this universal order. (Logicians, whose task it is to investigate such matters, are well aware that the laws of science are only probably, not certainly, true.) 'Things' we may say 'obey the laws of science...except when they don't.' Or, to be more precise, 'the laws of science are less uniformly valid in one region than in another.' Details are not necessary here; what is important is the general idea.
But is it necessary to doubt the scientific assumption? Are we obliged to reject the simple and convenient view of the universal validity of science for the undeniably more complicated and tiresome view suggested above? Imagine that, by accident, you rest your bare arm on a hot stove. You will undoubtedly lift your arm in a hurry. Why? Because contact with the hot stove is painful, you may say. But this won't do at all. What we want is an account of the changes that took place in your nervous system from the time your arm was rested on the stove to the time it was raised; and this account must be in strictly scientific terms. Pain, however, is not a scientific term. We can speak of an electrical or chemical impulse travelling along a nerve up your arm to your brain; for these are all things that can be publicly observed (in theory at least) by each one of a team of physiologists who are experimenting on you. But the pain you feel is strictly private: not even in theory can the team of physiologists observe it.[c] (You can tell them that you feel pain, of course, but this does not make the pain public: what is public here is the sound of your voice, and the meaning of the words you utter is quite irrelevant—to allow that your words are meaningful is to beg the whole question.) A physiologist can observe an impulse moving up your arm, but he cannot observe a pain moving up your arm; only you can do that (if, for example, a red-hot needle is moved on your skin from the elbow to the shoulder; but not, of course, if your nerve is stimulated at a stationary point, when all you will feel is a stationary pain). This means (and I shall emphasize it by underlining it) that a physiologist must make no reference whatsoever to feeling (pleasure, pain, indifference) in his account of human behaviour. If he fails to abstain he abandons scientific method.
A physiologist is bound to maintain that the pain you felt when your arm was against the stove had nothing at all to do with the immediately subsequent removal of the arm from the stove (nor with your remarks about it); he must maintain this because he is obliged to claim, if he is to be consistent, that he can fully account for the movement of your arm (and the sound of your voice) in terms of neural mechanisms alone and without any reference to the pain. And if feeling plays no part in our actions we must count it a fortunate coincidence that the state of the nervous system to which the painful feeling of a burning arm corresponds happens to be one that brings about removal of the arm from the hot surface: if the converse were true, and the nervous system pressed the arm down still harder on the hot surface, we should have a pretty miserable time of it. Imagine it: each time we felt pain we should find the neural mechanism making the body do the very thing that aggravated the pain; and perhaps we should find ourselves recoiling from pleasure 'as if we had been burned'. But no; our bodies, by some happy chance, do just what we should wish them to do—when there is pleasure the body acts in such a way as to prolong it, and when there is pain the body takes action to bring it to an end. Or can it possibly be that feeling does, after all, dictate—to some extent at least—what our bodies shall do? Were we perhaps wrong in so categorically rejecting your original explanation that you raised your arm because contact with the hot stove was painful?
Or consider the case of a man who takes alcohol. Are the motions of buying the bottle, opening it, pouring the contents into a glass, and finally swallowing, wholly to be accounted for without any reference to the fact that he finds it pleasant to be intoxicated? Certainly, there is good experimental evidence that our behaviour will accommodate itself, after a short period, to a change of environment in such a way as to give us the least possible discomfort in the altered circumstances.[d] This is the principle upon which the conditioning of reflexes depends—a rat is repeatedly made uncomfortable by an electric shock if he behaves in a certain way, and, in consequence, 'learns' to behave in a different way.
But if we are to allow, as clearly enough we must, that feeling is capable of affecting the state of the nervous system (either by determining a specific action, such as raising the arm off a hot stove, or by conditioning a fairly lasting change in behaviour), then we shall find ourselves obliged to abandon the postulate of the universal validity of the laws of science. So long as feeling depended upon the state of the nervous system and the state of the nervous system upon scientific determinism, all was well; but if, in addition, the state of the nervous system must be admitted to depend upon feeling, then (at least in the eyes of science) we enter the realms of chaos; for feeling, not being publicly observable, is not a scientific entity, and cannot therefore be governed by any laws of science, and the behaviour of the nervous system, accordingly, ceases to be wholly rational. In short, the living body, and the nervous system in particular, are regions where the laws of science are manifestly less uniformly valid than elsewhere.
In your recent letter you said that you see that there is not much use in your studying paranormal phenomena because you find yourself trying to explain and understand them on a scientific, rational, basis; and you don't think this can really be done. You are quite right, of course, in thinking that these phenomena cannot be explained on a scientific basis; but this is the very reason why they should be studied. Certainly, they cannot be explained or understood in a hurry, but this is no great matter; the important thing is that they afford striking and varied evidence (both spontaneous and experimental) that the laws of rational science are not universally valid. And it is failure or refusal to accept this fact that so effectively blocks the way to progress in clear thinking of a fundamental nature.
The achievements of the rational methods of science have been so striking, and the methods themselves are so beautifully simple and tidy, that there is a natural tendency on the part of rationalists to make the wholly irrational assumption that reason (or science) is capable of accounting for everything. Indeed, this assumption is so very nearly an axiom (except in isolated pockets—see footnote b) that the strongest emotional resistances are encountered by anyone who ventures to question it. Yet there is a failure of rational science that is still more striking than the most striking of its successes; and that is...to account for itself.
Without the scientist there is no science; but science cannot, without inconsistency, admit the existence of the scientist; for the scientist is a man, and a man is not to be explained if feeling is ignored; and feeling is outside the domain of science. Science, however, in its claim to universal validity, is unwilling to recognize this; and a bastard entity has been brought into existence to make this claim seem valid. This bastard entity is sensation. Prof. Jefferson says 'When we analyze in physiological terms alone...' and then proceeds to speak of '...the classical pathways by which sensation reaches the thalamus and finally the cerebral cortex'. Sensation, in Prof. J.'s view, is a purely physiological term. This means that it is nothing more nor less than an electrical or chemical impulse (I believe there is still some uncertainty in this matter) travelling along a nerve. Under no circumstances, then, can the word 'sensation' be taken to mean 'feeling'. But obviously this is just what it does mean in ordinary usage. A painful sensation is a painful feeling, or more simply, a pain. And this being so, the word 'sensation' cannot possibly be a physiological term. But the physiologist, by using it as if it were a physiological term, manages to fuse two strictly incompatible meanings into a single word, and this gives the illusion that the two meanings are the same. We saw (para. 1) that Prof. J. uses the two expressions 'to depend upon' and 'to be the sum of' as if they meant the same thing, and this is nothing else than the very ambiguity we have been discussing, but in another form. To be just, I don't suppose that the Professor is aware of the duplicity; he is deceiving himself in good faith, in company, no doubt, with almost all his colleagues; for the ambiguity is so convenient and so unobtrusive (to a non-philosophical eye, at least) that it would be regarded as ridiculous, if not positively heretical, even to point it out, let alone to object to it. Nevertheless, it is with the help of this piece of verbal legerdemain that the pleasing illusion of the universal validity of rational science is maintained.[e]
It must now be remarked that the current scientific interpretation of the word 'consciousness' is itself inadequate (quite apart from the fact that consciousness is just as much beyond the domain of science as feeling). From Prof. J.'s article (as well as from other sources) it is evident that 'consciousness', for the scientist, means 'rational thought' or 'awareness of what one is doing or thinking'. The Professor seems to exclude 'automatic or conditioned behaviour' from conscious activity, and this is in accordance with current scientific opinion. But conditioned behaviour, as we noted before, involves feeling (pleasure or pain); and to exclude this feeling from consciousness is to invite confusion. (Does an unconscious pain hurt? If you say 'yes', I ask 'how do you know, seeing that you are not conscious of it?' If you say 'no', I ask 'then how can you tell it is a pain and not a pleasant feeling?, how do you know there is any feeling at all?') This restriction of consciousness to rational thought is simply a prejudice of rationalism; and in the Buddha's Teaching it is specifically stated that consciousness (viññāna), feeling (vedanā) and perception (saññā) are inseparable—whenever there is any one of them there are all three. But to understand this a more subtle and intelligent approach to consciousness (or, more generally, to experience) is necessary.
The mistake is to approach consciousness by way of the body. But rational science, being essentially the study of what is public, namely matter, has no alternative. The laws of science are the laws of matter, and if these laws are universal then consciousness (whatever it may be) must necessarily be subordinate to matter. What science overlooks, and cannot help overlooking, is the fact that in order to know the body it is first necessary to be conscious of it—the body is an object (amongst other objects) of consciousness, and to seek to investigate consciousness by way of the body, instead of the other way round, is to put the cart before the horse. Consciousness comes first, and if it is to be known it must be studied directly (that is to say, by immediate reflexion). This matter has been stated clearly by J.-P. Sartre, who, in his principal work dealing with consciousness, writes more than 250 pages out of a total of 700 before mentioning the body at all. This is what he says.
Perhaps some may be surprised that we have treated the problem of knowing without raising the question of the body and of the senses and even once referring to it. It is not my purpose to misunderstand or to ignore the role of the body. But what is important above all else, in ontology as elsewhere, is to observe strict order in discussion. Now the body, whatever may be its function, appears first as the known. We cannot therefore refer knowledge back to it, or discuss it before we have defined knowing, nor can we derive knowing in its fundamental structure from the body in any way or manner whatsoever. (EN, pp. 270-1; B&N, p. 218)
And Sartre goes on to point out that whatever knowledge we have about our own body is derived in the first place from seeing other people's bodies. As a doctor this will be evident to you—you know about the structure of your own heart not from having dissected it but from having dissected other people's bodies in your student days. Knowledge of our own body is thus very indirect, and this is particularly true of the nervous system.
The foregoing remarks are generally applicable to all those medical men—perhaps the majority?—who have allowed their scientific attitude towards medicine (which is admirable in its proper place) to affect and infect their general outlook on life, so that they now quite fail to understand what it is to be an existing individual. But more especially these remarks apply to those among them who think of investigating the Buddha's Teaching. It might well happen that a doctor, reading the Suttas for the first time, and coming across such a passage as this:
There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lights, bowels, entrails, gorge, dung, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil-of-the-joints, urine <S. XXXV,127: iv,111, etc.>
would think to himself, 'As anatomy, this is hopelessly inadequate; any first-year student knows a hundred times as much; and besides, there is no sort of order about it'; and he would congratulate himself that medical science has made such enormous progress since the Buddha's day. His first reaction would thus be to dismiss these primitive notions as trivial and obsolete. Then, turning the page, he might encounter this passage:
He regards matter—or feeling, or perception, or determinations, or consciousness—as self. That is a determination.... In an uninformed commoner contacted by feeling born of nescience-contact, monks, there is craving arisen; thence is born that determination. Thus, monks, that determination is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen; and that craving too is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen; and that feeling too is impermanent, determined, dependenty arisen; and that contact too is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen; and that nescience too is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen. <S. XXII,81: iii,96-7>
Our doctor finds this altogether incomprehensible—there is nothing about it in the textbooks, not even in those on the shelves of the psychiatry department—, and concludes that, presuming it does actually mean something, it is quite beyond his powers of understanding. Thus his second reaction is baffled humiliation. In this way he oscillates between the opposite poles of superiority and inferiority to the texts, and is unable to find anything on the same level as his own understanding—it is all either beneath him or above him. The trouble is, as no doubt you will have gathered, that our doctor has got things the wrong way round. He is accustomed, on the one hand, to elaborate and intricate descriptions of the body and its workings (whole textbooks—whole libraries, no doubt—are devoted to the heart and the kidneys), and on the other hand he has never been required to digest anything more than the most artless pronouncements about consciousness. And this is because medical science puts the body first and consciousness (if considered at all) afterwards.
But the Suttas put consciousness first and the body a bad second, for reasons that I hope to have made clear; and it is to be expected that statements about consciousness will be complex and those about the body simple. If our doctor can manage to reverse the order of his thinking (which needs practice), he may stand some chance of finding the Buddha's Teaching at least partly intelligible instead of wholly baffling and frustrating. The first passage quoted above is, of course, not a primitive attempt at anatomical description, but is designed to lead a person to disgust with the body; and exact physiology is obviously out of place. The second passage is, admittedly, of extreme difficulty; but the Dhamma, I am afraid, is difficult, and it serves no useful purpose to pretend that it is not. (Those booklets that presume to explain the Dhamma on a scientific basis do the greatest possible dis-service to seriously interested enquirers. It is far better for a man to understand that he does not understand the Dhamma, than it is for him to believe falsely that he does understand it. The former attitude may encourage progress, the latter can only obstruct it.) It is in the hope of clearing away at least some of the preliminary obstacles to a right approach to the Buddha's Teaching that I have written this to you.