Saturday, I went to the panel on Buddhism and Philosophy of Mind, which was announced as involving “our” Christian Coseru, Mark Siderits and Jonardon Ganeri. In fact, Ganeri could not make it (“obviously he did not feel fit for the match” commented Coseru at the beginning, among general laughter), but this had the beneficial consequence that there was a whole slot free for discussion.
Given that discussions are the ingredient I most enjoy at conferences and that at the IABS there was usually not enough institutional time for them (although many interesting discussions took place, as usual, during the breaks), I cannot but appreciate their extemporaneous decision.
Siderits talked about what Indian scholars call svaprakāśa– and paraprakāśavāda, equating them with reflexivism and not reflexivism. These answer the problem of how are cognitions cognised. According to Nyāya, they are cognised through a higher order perception (henceforth HOP), which they call anuvyavasāya, so that for each cognition a cognition of it is possible:
M (object: blue)
M* (object: M)
Please note that this possibility does not imply that for each cognition there needs to be a cognition of it.
By contrast, Pramāṇavādins from Dignāga onwards, uphold that cognitions are reflexive. Coseru went into further details about what this means and stressed the fact that this reflexivity (or svasaṃvedana) cannot be a further condition. Rather, it can only be an aspect of the same cognition of a given object.
While Coseru played the role of the supporter of the reflexivity view, Siderits showed some of the possible objections to it. One of them goes back to Nāgārjuna itself (although I have to admit that I could not tell where he discusses it), namely that there are no reflexive acts throughout the world. The reflexivity of cognitions would be an absolute unicum. Now, if you have read some Indian epistemology, you will immediately think of a counter-example, namely the light, which can illuminate itself while illuminating other things. But the example does not hold, Siderits-Nāgārjuna explained, since the light is not something which can, stricto sensu, be illuminated, since in order to be illuminated an object needs to be able to exist also in the darkness, which is not the case with the light.
A further objection is contained in a syllogism by the Mīmāṃsaka Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (7th c. ca.):
One does not cognise one’s cognition, because it is a cognition, like Maitra
(Maitra is a proper name used to mean “a certain person”). The point here is, in Siderits’ interpretation, that we have seemingly two different ways to know about consciousness. In the case of ourselves, we come to know that we are conscious through a simple act of introspection (which is, let me add, an undeniable token of an intrinsically valid cognition, since it is inimaginable to think that one could be wrong in ascribing consciousness to oneself). But introspection cannot work in the case of other people’s consciousness. We can only infer that other people are conscious by observing their behaviour, most notably their bodily movements.
So, it seems that we have to do with two widely different concepts, and that consciousness must have two different meanings, and, thus, be two different things. This brings us to either solipsism (which is in fact embraced by later Pramāṇavādins) or to the view that cognitions are not directly cognised.
Last, Siderits pointed to the fact that the non-reflexive theory harmonises with some findings in cognitive sciences, namely that there is a high-road and a low-road system in our brain. The latter does not need one to be aware of what it cognises. For instance, if one throws us a stone, we will bend on the opposite side immediately, before being aware of the stone.
I have been working on Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā and am thus biased in favour of non-reflexivism, but I wonder: Reflexivism is needed within the Buddhist framework, where there is no central ātman who can treasure past cognitions and make memory, etc. possible. But why preferring this option if one does not need to accept momentariness and the non-self theory?
This post is a part of a series on the IABS. For its first day, see here. For the first part of the second day, see here. For the second part of the second day, see here. For the third part of the second day, see here. For the third and forth days, see here. Please remember that these are only my first impressions and that all mistakes are mine and not the speakers’ ones. In this case in particular, I hope Christian will not feel offended and will rather correct what I wrote.