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  • Buddhism and Techno-Physicalism:Is the Eightfold Path a Program?
  • Mark Siderits

Indian Buddhism is decidedly anti-physicalist in outlook. While the Buddha himself seems to have left open the nature of the relation between the bodily and mental constituents of persons (the rūpa and nāma skandhas), the Abhidharma schools clearly espouse a dualism1 about the mental and the physical, and the idealist Yogācāra of course denies that there exists anything other than mental events. But recent developments in material culture seem to threaten the availability of any view about mentality other than the physicalist one that the mind is just a sophisticated program running on the wetware of the brain. These developments include advances in neuroscience and in the computer modeling of various cognitive activities. But perhaps more important than these is the proliferation throughout the culture of the metaphor of mind as computer. Several recent films, for instance, have featured the conceit that what we take for reality might in fact be virtual reality, with the role of deceiver played by some form of artificial intelligence.2 In the philosophy classroom we may be tempted to rely on these devices when we teach the arguments found in such texts as Descartes' Meditations or Vasubandhu's Vimśatikā. But while they do help students see that reality might be quite different from what we ordinarily take it to be, they cannot convey the anti-physicalist force of these arguments. For if the reality behind the appearance of ordinary waking experience is not dream images (as in Vasubandhu's version) or illusions created by an evil genius (as in Descartes' version), but is instead the computer stimulation of neurons, then our inability to rule this out would give us no reason to deny (with Vasubandhu) the existence of physical objects, or to affirm (with Descartes) the existence of the mental as something distinct from the physical.

Spiritual traditions such as Buddhism have confronted the specter of physicalism in the past. Often the threat is seen as stemming from the development of new technologies that make physicalism seem more plausible. The premise of this essay, though, is that the current form of techno-physicalism may prove more difficult to resist than earlier episodes.3 Of course, it might be that when intricate clockwork mechanisms first became widely available in the seventeenth century, people found the metaphor of mind as clockwork equally persuasive. But suppose that this is not so, and that the computer metaphor is especially powerful, so that any other view about persons besides the one that we are just our bodies and brains comes to seem implausible to most people. Would this prove especially damaging to the Indian Buddhist tradition?

In answering this question we should be careful to distinguish between physicalism and what is sometimes popularly called materialism. On the use of [End Page 307] "materialist" I have in mind, materialism is the view that the only worthwhile goal for persons is the attainment of material possessions and wealth. Physicalism makes no such claim, for it is not a theory about the good for humans. Physicalism is a strictly metaphysical view, namely that all that exists is physical in nature. Of course, it might be thought that if physicalism is true, then the only kinds of goods that there can be are material goods of the above-mentioned sort. And it is true that most spiritual traditions—Buddhism included—have stoutly opposed a "materialistic" ethic of this sort. But it does not at all follow from physicalism that these are the only sorts of goods on offer. There is nothing in physicalism per se to keep one from claiming, for instance, that helping those in need is of far greater value than acquiring wealth and material possessions. Of course, we shall want to know what evidence there is to support such a claim. But consistency requires that we ask this of the dualist as well. Why should it automatically be thought that a dualist view about our constitution is better positioned to defend a nonmaterialistic ethics than a physicalist view?

There are spiritual traditions for which a sort of body/spirit dualism does...