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I recently stumbled upon a fascinating series of conversations on consciousness in the New York Review of Books by an MIT Fulbright scholar named Riccardo Manzotti. That series led me to his The Spread Mind website, his How to Locate Consciousness in the Physical World video, his Why Consciousness and World are one and the same book and two of his philosophical¹ cartoons².

Three (of many) of his ideas are as follows:

  • Consciousness is the object one is conscious of.
  • A physical entity exists if and only if it is the actual cause of something else.
  • The past is not defined until it produces an effect, but once it does, the past has been defined since it occurred originally.

I'm certainly not yet an expert in Buddhism but these three ideas alone seem to have a likeness to Buddhist teachings, namely: nonduality, not-self, dependent origination and cause-condition-effect. Yet, he was specifically asked in one of the NYR conversations if he was familiar with Buddhism and he indicated that he was not.

Are the above three ideas of his equivalent to, similar to, a subset of, or compatible with those of Buddhist teachings?

Any input that anyone would be kind enough to provide would be especially appreciated. Thank you.

  • This doesn't match Theravada Buddhism. However, I've seen Richard Gere expressing his view in an interview with Stephen Colbert, that the world is not independently real but is a projection of the mind. Apparently, this is from the Tibetan mind-only school. – ruben2020 Jan 17 '18 at 1:47
  • This points: "Consciousness is the object one is conscious of. A physical entity exists if and only if it is the actual cause of something else. The past is not defined until it produces an effect, but once it does, the past has been defined since it occurred originally." are actually "nice" food for good thoughts and to improve good understanding, or? Especially for Abhidhamma lover. – Samana Johann Jan 17 '18 at 7:52
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    @AndreiVolkov Further to Samana Johann's comment, perhaps this question could be reopened if the OP edited it to be of the form I found this thing that sounds Buddhist to me. Here is one or more quotes from it: <blockquote> and <blockquote> with <hyperlinked citation for each quote>. The author doesn't claim to be Buddhist, but I ask whether these quotes sound Buddhist or agree with Buddhist doctrine ... can you point to Buddhist references which agree with or disagree with these quotes? That would be asking about Buddhism, and be a specific self-contained question (focused on block-quotes). – ChrisW Jan 17 '18 at 11:06
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Firstly I think you should beware of doctrines which sound similar but for different purposes.

For example, you know Newton's law of gravitation? That force is proportional to the inverse square of the distance between two objects? I once read an SF story in which characters, who had "lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition"), when they read this law, assumed that it was talking about "love" -- i.e. that people are more attracted to each other when they're closer together!

I think that's an example of one law (or doctrine) sounding the same as another, but actually being very different.

Without trying to read about and understand "Spread mind" I can't assess whether it's in any way, nor whether it's fundamentally, similar to Buddhism.

Now, looking only at the surface meaning of the words you quoted ...

Consciousness is the object one is conscious of

I think that one of the Buddhist doctrines suggests there is ...

  • Sense object (e.g. the thing seen)
  • Sense organ (e.g. the eye)
  • Sense consciousness
  • Contact between the above

... and that all of these are necessary for there to be a sight. Similarly for the all 6 senses ("6" because "mind" is treated as one of the senses ... the mind is a sense organ which perceives "mind objects" e.g. ideas).

See e.g. saḷāyatana for further details.

A physical entity exists if and only if it is the actual cause of something else

I guess this reminds me of Heisenberg, i.e. that you can't be aware of something (so it might as well not exist) unless it has an effect on (and incidentally is affected by) something observable.

Maybe it also reminds me of light cones.

In a Buddhist context I suppose I'd understand it to mean we should discount many things as unreal (or not existing) because they don't cause something else. For example, if I'm worried about the monster under my bed and ... wait for it ... I'm not eaten ... I'm conscious of breathing ... then the "monster" didn't actually cause anything and thus doesn't exist as a physical entity.

Buddhism has a lot to say and not all of it agrees with the quoted statement: for example it might say that actions or intentions cause things; or that physical entities are maybe not "entities", but are mere "aggregates" (and temporary aggregates) of other things.

Another fundamental doctrine is that anything which exists because it's caused (or when the conditions exist for its existence) will cease when its cause no longer exists (or when the conditions for its existence cease).

Buddhism may encourage us to try to stop causing more and more (which is called Saṃsāra), and to attain Nirvana (which is also called the "unconditioned" or uncaused, "timeless", and so on).

The past is not defined until it produces an effect, but once it does, the past has been defined since it occurred originally.

I don't know; Buddhism has some things to say about the past ... that what happens now depends partly on what happened previously ... but perhaps it isn't (or sometimes tries to encourage us not to be) overly interested in that.

To become "attached" to something past is a cause of suffering (if I love someone and become attached to them and they die, for example, that's kind of unfortunate; or conversely if I fight with someone and become attached to that fight and carry it around with me for the rest of my life, then that's too bad too).

Perhaps Buddhism is more interested in being mindful of (or in) the present, and the future.

Buddhism does suggest that there's been a lot of past (ever so many lifetimes), perhaps for salutary reasons.

Its doctrines about karma (actions sometimes have an immediate effect, sometimes a later effect) are barely comprehensible IMHO.

  • I really appreciate you taking the time to compose such a comprehensive and thoughtful response. It was very kind and generous of you. The one comment that you made about physical entities being merely temporary aggregates caused a real "click" of understanding. Thank you very much. – Josh Zltyn Jan 18 '18 at 18:44
  • Yes that's maybe what's meant by "emptiness". Maybe too we're supposed to beware that such a view (of things) might be independent of (or without) ethics, which are nevertheless important. – ChrisW Jan 18 '18 at 21:13
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Alright, I will take a stab at this.

(Disclaimer: unless I'm quoting a text, all of the following is my own personal understanding, based on my study of primary texts, commentaries, and practice of insight meditation, with or without guidance and confirmation of entitled lineage masters)

"Consciousness is the object one is conscious of."

In Buddhism, consciousness (vijnana) is experience of an object along with its context/background/environment. Vijnana is not a separate entity or substance cognizing an object. It is the very experience itself. Vijnana is necessarily interpretative in its nature. It involves grasping available "signs" or "features", retrieving past experiences matching the signs, and recognizing the object/situation, with experience arising as final state of this process of recognition. So far sounds pretty close to Mr. Manzotti's ideas.

A physical entity exists if and only if it is the actual cause of something else.

In Mahayana Buddhism, as explained specifically in Madhyamaka, entities do not have inherent existence. Instead, entities are considered abstractions, assembled by the mind by picking whatever criteria for identity and temporal/spatial boundaries that are useful in a particular context, with a label of name stamped on top. So from the Buddhist perspective, the actual existence underlying mind's modeling process cannot be characterized as being made of any fixed entities. Moreover, causation in Buddhism is considered a useful simplification, dependent on reification of the cause and reification of the effect. Instead, what we call "events" are in fact arbitrary points we call out in an otherwise analogue/continuous process of interaction and transformation. So from this perspective Mr. Manzotti's statement above sounds a bit superficial. I think he is hinting at his primary thesis of all existence without exception having relative nature, which Buddhism is in agreement with, but his talk about existing entities and actual causes sounds naive.

The past is not defined until it produces an effect, but once it does, the past has been defined since it occurred originally.

This seems to be the hardest of the three ideas for me to decipher. I think he is talking about determinism and free will, correct me if I'm wrong. From Buddhist perspective, the nature of the world is deterministic, as without determinism the mechanism of karma-and-its-effects would be unreliable, and it is. However, despite determinism, from the perspective of an individual being seeking Enlightenment, free will remains a real phenomena, and a useful perspective to have, since falling into fatalism would preclude skillful behavior and therefore Attainment. From the perspective of an enlightened mind, determinism and free will are not in conflict with each other as absolute and relative perspectives correspondingly. So in this sense we can say Buddhism is more or less in agreement with this statement, as in Buddhism we say that an effect of an action, once created, cannot dissipate by itself and will be experienced in a way it is to be experienced - and that at the same time, individuals have choice to act skilfully or unskillfully to create their own future.

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    I intend to respond further but for the moment I just wanted to thank you for the incredibly detailed and informative answer. I really appreciate it. – Josh Zltyn Jan 17 '18 at 18:08
  • On point 3, I believe it's "Schrödinger's cat", an interpretation of quantum phenomena where as long as no "observation" of an event is made, the event itself remains "unresolved" (grossly speaking, kind of like lazy evaluation, something I think you might be familiar :) – Thiago Jan 18 '18 at 0:28

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