In a previous blog (August 2014, ‘Second Day at the IABS: Pramāṇavāda’), Elisa kindly gave a summary of the paper I gave on ‘Contrasting Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Buddhist Explanations of Attention’ at the Vienna IABS conference. I’ve written up the paper and am attaching it here with a request for feedback. Identification of literature that I do not mention but could beneficially consult, plus comments of any other kind will be gratefully received.
Elisa’s summary ended with the following amusing, but also very consequential remark:
“The Buddhist view … assumes that among the possible objects we can direct our attention to, the “winner” is just the most powerful one.
However, I wonder how I could focus my attention on Alex’ talk for its whole length, given that there were many attractive people in the room… It is hard not to imagine that some central ruler decided to ignore them.”
A bit of context. Elisa’s remark was responding to a section of the talk entitled, ‘Competitions for Attention’. When any number of potential things are available to be attended to, what is it that determines which one ‘wins’, i.e. succeeds in being attended to? The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika answer is a relatively straightforward one: it is the self that arbitrates, and comes down on the side of one among the various candidates. It then puts its decision into action by dispatching the manas to the location of the sense-faculty whose object it has chosen to attend to. For Buddhism, by contrast, these competitions for attention can be decided without any top-down arbitration.
I separated out two different kinds of case.
There are all sorts of things in one’s visual field at any one moment; there are also potential objects of other senses – noises, smells etc. What is it that determines what will be attended to? Here it is quite easy to come up with some principles that obviate the need to appeal to top-down arbitration. A sense-object that poses a threat to the individual will grab its attention more than a simultaneous one that does not. An object of desire will attract attention to itself more than one for which the subject has no strong feelings.
I’m guessing it might have been this that gave rise to Elisa’s thought. For if the Buddhist view is that ‘strength of pull’ from the object is what decides the winner, and if attractive people are exerting a ‘stronger pull’ than the lecture, then the fact that the lecture can nevertheless ‘win’ is a problem for the Buddhist view.
B) Cognitions other than Perception
Here I took as my starting point the passage in the 9th chapter (pudgalaviniścaya) of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya where Vasubandhu asks us to imagine that the idea of a particular woman arises in someone’s mind-stream; what will be attended to next, i.e. what will the content of the next moment of consciousness be? It will depend on what latent impressions are contained in that mind-stream, as these will determine what the primary associations are to that woman. Vasubandhu indicates some principles as to which out of a number of different associations are likely to come to the surface. Out of the many associations to the particular woman, those which are common, intense or recent are most likely to be activated, since those latent impressions will be more powerful than the latent impressions of less common, less intense or less recent associations.
But even if there is a common, intense or recent latent impression available and on the point of reaching fruition, it will be interrupted by the advent of a powerful bodily sensation or external perception; in that case the emergence of an association to that woman will be inhibited.
So this too is relevant to Elisa’s point. For here too Buddhism feels no need to appeal to any top-down arbitration. There is no self making a choice about where to send the manas. There is simply a competition in which the most forceful candidate emerges as the winner.
[At this point in the talk/paper I gave/give two analogies to make this absence of top-down arbitration plausible: a running race and a conversation. I won’t go into that here.]
I then stated:
Someone may object: But surely there are occasions in which the subject of consciousness does get involved, considers different options, comes to a decision about what to attend to, and then attends to it.
My response was that Buddhism allows for, and can explain such cases. What happens there is that the content of one, or more, moment(s) of consciousness is the weighing of different options, the content of the next is an intention to attend to one out of the options, and the content of the next is a focus on the chosen option. But this is not top-down control, it is a horizontal process of unfolding. Let us say that the options are to think about the novel one was reading earlier, to make a to-do list, or to learn a grammatical paradigm. If Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika top-down control from the self were involved, then once the decision has been taken that the learning of the grammatical paradigm is the most urgent and desired task to attend to, slips of attention as the mind wanders are difficult to account for. For if attention were under the sole control of the self, it would never move away from an object until ordered to do so by the self. If, by contrast, the competition is decided upon by a momentary intention, it is quite understandable why this will sometimes be unsuccessful in placing the attention on the grammatical paradigm for more than a few moments: understandable, because there is no such thing as a self keeping a manas focused on the chosen subject-matter until it is satisfied.
Indeed it is the heterogeneity that the Buddhist model can accommodate that is one of the things in its favour: it can accommodate both cases in which there is no involvement of the subject of consciousness and cases in which there is, whereas the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika model implies that the self is never not involved.
So one of my answers to Elisa is simply to re-iterate this point. If the problem the Buddhist model is being charged with is that it implies that the subject never gets involved, weighing options, choosing which of several candidates to attend to, and then attending to that, then the Buddhist model is not being fairly represented. This process can be described ‘horizontally’ rather than as a case of top-down executive commands issuing from, as she put it, ‘a central ruler’.
[In case someone objects that Buddhism is not entitled to talk of a ‘subject’ without committing themselves to an ātman: Dharmakīrti etc. often talk of the grāhaka, which is what I am reflecting here with ‘subject’. This grāhaka is nothing like an ātman: it is differentiated in every moment (so it is better if we talk of ‘subjects’) and it is simply consciousness (or one pole within consciousness), not some substance in which consciousness inheres.]
There’s an assumption in the intuition expressed by Elisa that in the absence of a self there would be nothing to keep the attention from continually wandering to the attractive people. But there is something: regular momentary intentions in the mind-stream.
The two models have different strengths. The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika model has a harder time explaining ‘attentional failures’ – when we (i.e. the self) want to concentrate on something but fail; for the Buddhist model this is easy. The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika model has an easy time explaining ‘attentional successes’ such as Elisa’s sterling attention during the lecture! Does the Buddhist model have a difficult time with this?
I said above that if the Buddhist view is that ‘strength of pull’ from the object is what decides the winner, and if attractive people are exerting a ‘stronger pull’ than the lecture, then the fact that the lecture can nevertheless ‘win’ is a problem for the Buddhist view. To give another potentially problematic example: someone experiencing intense pain in the dentist bites a bullet, decides to focus on that instead of the pain, and does so successfully in spite of the superior intensity of the pain.
I think there are two ways the Buddhist can go here.
1) Deny that the object’s ‘strength of pull’ is decisive. Maintain the view that the strongest candidate emerges as the winner, but clarify that ‘candidate’ here refers not to the object but to something internal to consciousness. So let’s go back to the earlier distinction between perception and other kinds of cognition. In the case of perception the reason that an object of desire ‘defeats’ other available objects for which the subject has no strong feelings is the strength of the subject’s desire for that object. The reason Elisa paid attention to the lecture was because her desire to understand the lecture was stronger than her desire to look at the attractive people in the audience. The reason the patient succeeds in paying attention to the bullet-biting rather than the tooth pain is that their desire to pay attention to the former is stronger than their desire to pay attention to the pain. That these desires are stronger is indicated by the fact that they succeed.
I said above that the case where someone decides to focus on the grammatical paradigm but succeeds only for some seconds before they start day-dreaming is hard to explain for the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. Isn’t it also hard for this Buddhist model? The Buddhist would have to say that although one ‘part’ of the mind-stream desires strongly to focus on the paradigm and succeeds for some seconds, a new and equally strong desire to daydream then comes to the fore (perhaps a product of the pain associated with the difficult and boring task of staying focussed on the paradigm). I don’t see anything incoherent in that account.
Regarding kinds of cognition other than perception. Here we encountered Vasubandhu’s idea that common, intense or recent latent impressions are the ones most likely to fructify. On this ‘strength model’ the explanation of this would be that they are imbued with greater strength or force than other latent impressions.
2) The second way the Buddhist could go is to drop the idea that the strongest candidate wins – whether ‘candidates’ are specified as objects or things such as desires or latent impressions that are internal to consciousness.
On this view the Buddhist can admit that the dental pain is the ‘strongest’ candidate (or even that the desire for the attractive people is more intense than the desire to understand the lecture), but explain the success of the bullet-biting (or lecture) as resulting from regular momentary intentions in the mind-stream to attend to the bullet-biting (or the lecture). On this view competitions for attending to A or B can be decided simply on the basis of what one intends to pay attention to, regardless of which one is ‘stronger’ in any sense.
It’s possible that there are other aspects of the intuition behind Elisa’s thought that have not yet been dealt with. Is there perhaps something about the phenomenology of the allocation of limited attentional resources that suggests an executive issuing commands? I think that the phenomenology is just as well captured by a model of regularly occurring intentions within the mind-stream as it is by that of an eternal, unchanging Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika ātman, a substance made of some kind of permanent ‘stuff’. (And the latter is susceptible to Dharmakīrti et al.’s powerful arguments against the ability of something unchanging to produce any kind of effect.) When cognitive scientists talk of an executive function they are certainly not committing themselves to this kind of ātman. What they are committing themselves to is quite easily capturable in Buddhist terms (momentary intentions) I think. But this might be considered to be quite a controversial claim, and I’m certainly stepping out of my comfort zone here.