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Focus on - November 2023

Dialogue between science and contemplation: exploring shared territories

With the ambition of restoring a global model of reality - which includes objective and subjective domains - the opportunity to study the phenomena of the mind takes shape not only indirectly, through neural correlates and behavioral manifestations, but from first-person experience. Addressing this type of inquiry necessarily requires a comparison with the contemplative traditions and their very rich compendiums of knowledge.

It is almost a truism to say that the evidence we can draw on about subjective phenomena can never be objective. Excluding telepathy, consciousness remains an irreducibly first-person phenomenon (Searle, 1992); we have no means of obtaining objective accounts of the experience of others. first-person (Searle, 1992); we don't possess objective tools to access the experience of others (for example measuring the pain, fear or happiness of the other) which, therefore, can only be transmitted to us through a subjective report.

Even though our account of subjective mental phenomena cannot be an objective one, it can still be empirical and produce knowledge, and it is precisely upon this foundational grounds that many traditions of introspective thought articulate (from Mengzi and Aristotle in the third century a.C. to the modern project of naturalizing the mind in Descartes and Berkley). In the West, it is the birth of quantitative introspective methods in the mid XIX century that opens the way to scientific psychology. The first scientific psychologiss like Helmholtz (1856-1962), Fechner (1860-1964) and Wundt (1869-1902) tried to answer questions like: how much time ought to separate two stimuli so that they may be experienced individually? What is the minimum intensity threshold for a stimulus to be consciously perceived? What mathematical relation exists between the intensity of the stimulus and the resulting sensation? (The Weber-Fechner law happens to state that this relation is a logarithmic one). Even if, ever from the beginning of modern psychology, non-introspective methods have been central to its inquiry (i.e. performances on memory tests or reaction times), the initial features of the field were crucially molded by introspective thought. Later on, with behaviorism and early cognitivism, introspection would have encountered epistemological resistance in the neo-positivist fashion but even so, it would be fair to affirm that its methods were never really abandoned; Ericsson and Simon (1984-1993) employed think-aloud protocols and reports of the immediate past in their famous study of problem solving; other researchers have emphasized the role of introspective methods in the study of imagery (Marks 1985; Kosslyn, Reisbert and Behrmann 2006) and emotions (Lambie and Marcel 2002; Barrett et al. 2007); subjective or introspective reports also played a vital role in studying the neural basis of conscious activity (Rees and Frith 2007; Prinz 2012; Koch et al. 2016; Varela 1996).

In recent decades, the theme of introspection and its heuristic tools is returning insistently to the center of attention and academic debate (see for example the rise of "consciousness studies", Jack and Roepstorff, 2003, 2004) converging towards the renewed interest of the natural sciences in experience and the subjective. At the same time, all over the world, contemplative traditions approach precisely this form of introspective observation in a range of practices (and associated systems of thought) capable of transforming human experience, inducing alterations in cognitive processes and, decisively, of restoring to the first person perspective a voice in the discourse on consciousness and understanding of reality.

Cover: detail of May Picture, by Paul Klee, 1925 – The Public Domain Review

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Religioso e spirituale
Naturalized Buddhism for westerners can encourage a form of bad conscience: it can seem to us that adhering to Buddhism restrictedly to the practices considered to be secular, we can be spiritual without being religious, whereas without realizing we're moved by typically religious drives.
Religioso e spirituale
Focus on November 2023
Naturalized Buddhism for westerners can encourage a form of bad conscience: it can seem to us that adhering to Buddhism restrictedly to the practices considered to be secular, we can be spiritual without being religious, whereas without realizing we're moved by typically religious drives.

More in Focus on

Naturalized Buddhism for westerners can encourage a form of bad conscience: it can seem to us that adhering to Buddhism restrictedly to the practices considered to be secular, we can be spiritual without being religious, whereas without realizing we're moved by typically religious drives.
Amy Cohen Varela is Chair of the Board of Directors of Mind & Life Europe and has been involved in Mind and Life since its inception.
Serme Khen Rinpoche Gesce Tashi Tsering (born 1958) is the abbot of Sera Mey Monastic University in India. From 1994 to 2018 he was a resident Tibetan Buddhist teacher at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London.
Dr. Davidson is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. He's influential for the bearings of his research on emotion and the human brain.
Angelo Gemignami is a physician, psychiatrist and psychologist, currently teaching neuroscience at Pisa University, director of the surgical pathology and molecular medicine department; director of the neuroscience, mindfulness and contemplative practice master course and of the clinical psychology branch in the pisa university hospital ward.
Now that the Buddhist traditions confront themselves with cognitive neuroscience and other natural sciences, trying to build up or expand an edifice for studying the mind and conscious experience, it seems vital to stand for the legitimacy and self-sufficiency of Buddhist traditional thought, maintaining critical distance from the prestige (and thus privilege) the scientific apparatus holds in modern western society.
From the XIX century on, Buddhism has been called to confront challenges and opportunities collateral to the religious and cultural structure that characterized it in the pre-modern period.