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While reading Why I am not a Buddhist by Evan Thompson, I came across this quote:

The category mistake is tied to a fundamentally unstable way of thinking about who you are in relation to your brain. On one hand, you're separate from your brain, because you can learn to control it through mindfulness training. Training you mind changes your brain. On the other hand, you are your brain, because your mind is taken to be fundamentally what your brain does. You need to train your brain for mindfulness to become a lasting mental trait. One way of thinking is dualist; the other is materialist. Western culture is presently caught up in the back-and-forth oscillation between these two extremes.

To get beyond them, we need a way to understand how you're not your brain without your being separate from it. The embodied and enactive approach in cognitive science gives us this understanding: you are an embodied being, and your brain enables your cognition to take place, but your mind isn't the same as what happens in your brain. Your mind includes the rest of your embodied being embedded in the world and in relation to others.

It seems to me that Thompson is saying that "a thing cannot affect itself", and that is the foundation of the contradiction in the idea of "changing yourself through mindfulness". I like his idea of embodied cognition, but I don't see how it's true that "a thing cannot affect itself".

Thompson seems to assume this idea without question. He does not even say it explicitly. Is this a settled debate in philosophy?

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    How are you getting "a thing can't change itself"? I would say it's more like, a reflection in the surface of a pool, is neither the thing being reflected, nor the pool. Look at the ancient metaphor for sunyata, also called dependent origination, emptiness, and interbeing en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra%27s_net Consider Chalmers 'fading qualia' thought experiment & more generally digitising minds. Your mind is what your brain does, but other things could in principle do the same thing.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 2, 2021 at 16:10
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    "A thing cannot affect itself " has nothing to do with what Thompson is saying, explicitly or implicitly. He says you are not your brain not because of some metaphysical axiom, but because already your body is more than your brain. That's the point of embodied cognition, the minding happens outside the brain as well. He literally says that in the second paragraph.
    – Conifold
    Nov 2, 2021 at 19:50
  • I probably misread Thompson on this one. I agree that his point is not whether a thing cannot affect itself, but whether enbodied cognition is a better description of our relationship with our minds. I think the part that trips me is ` One way of thinking is dualist; the other is materialist. Western culture is presently caught up in the back-and-forth oscillation between these two extremes.` I don't see how being able to control my brain means I'm separate from it. Or how that is in conflict with the idea that I AM my brain. Nov 2, 2021 at 20:24
  • So I'm not arguing against his point in the chapter (that mindfulness is a characteristic of PEOPLE not BRAINS, and that's clear to see from the lens of embodied cognition) but nitpicking on a vague implication that caught my eye. And it caught my eye because I could not solve it myself. Nov 2, 2021 at 20:27
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    I do not think Thompson suggests that X controls Y means (implies) they are separate. He describes it as one of two possible (and traditional) interpretations, the "dualist" one, and then offers a third alternative "to get beyond them". As opposed to X being separate from Y, or X being "fundamentally what Y does" ("materialist" interpretation), what Y does can be a subset of what X is, but only a subset. So X is distinct from Y (satisfying "dualist" intuition that "X controls Y" does not make much sense if X is identical to Y), but not separate ("materialist" intuition).
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2021 at 8:11

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Here is my reading of this passage. Thompson does not suggest that "X controls Y" means (implies) that X and Y are separate, but he does present it as one possible interpretation, the "dualist" one, when X = mind and Y = brain. The intuition behind it is, presumably, that "X controls Y" does not make much sense if X is identical to Y. This is not quite "a thing cannot affect itself", for the thing can have parts which might affect each other, but it is hard to see mind and brain as "parts".

On the other hand, we have the "materialist" intuition that X is "fundamentally what Y does". But if mind and brain are the same thing under different descriptions, it is, indeed, hard to understand how one can "control" or "affect" the other (although, obviously, they will be correlated).

Thompson's point is that embodied cognition gets us beyond these two alternatives and, in part, accommodates both intuitions. Mind is not just your brain (even ignoring the difference between "is" and "does"), simply because already your body is more than your brain. And the "minding" happens outside of your brain as well. As opposed to X being separate from Y, or X being "what Y does", we have that what Y does is a subset of what X is, but only a subset. Mind is distinct from brain (satisfying the "dualist" intuition), but not separate from it and still having a material substrate (satisfying the "materialist" intuition). We now have genuine parts that can affect each other.

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Short Answer

Briefly, in the analytic philosophical tradition, particularly among philosophers of mind, there is a general recognition that the self is distinct from the mind (parts of which are subconscious) and the brain (which is inaccessible to thought other than conceptually). This is stated in the quotation:

To get beyond them, we need a way to understand how you're not your brain without your being separate from it. The embodied and enactive approach in cognitive science gives us this understanding: you are an embodied being, and your brain enables your cognition to take place, but your mind isn't the same as what happens in your brain.

Making sense of this relationship, then is one of the central challenges of the philosophy of mind; the self which is taken to be self-conscious and have experiences has to relate somehow to both the mind writ large and the body. Trying to understand how the self has qualia and phenomenal experience that are related to the mind and the brain is known as the hard problem of consciousness. On this topic, including whether if it's a philosophical problem, there's little agreement, and certainly, no response deemed widely to have dissolved the problem. Mindfulness by Buddhism, Western psychology, and cognitive science is generally taken as an attempt for the self to become more aware of the range of phenomenal nature of experience and to use that knowledge for personal betterment.

Long Answer

To shed some light on this circumstance, note that it is intuitively acceptable to claim that 'my brain' and 'my mind' imply by intension 'I have a brain and a mind'. That is to say, that the 'I', the ego, or the self has parts of which the mind and the brain can be counted. Notice that the following phrases in English are also comfortable:

  • I struggled to keep my mind from wandering.
  • I must have left my brain at home today.
  • I am of two minds on the subject.

What should we make of these SVO constructions where there appears to be a self manifesting philosophical intentionality over what appears to be both a physical and an abstract part through the act of possesive predication? In other words, are we declaring that somehow experience necessarily involves having a bunch of parts, some physical and some not, which are particulars of this universal category of the self? Is it just metaphorical language not literally true, or does it denote some greater metaphysical reality and form the basis of some sort of ontological declaration? As you might guess, it depends on metaphysical presuppositions.

Generally, the 'I' or the conscious self is presumed to be different from both the mind and the brain. The nature of the relationship among these three concepts, 'self', 'mind', and 'brain' are distinct and have distinct, but related entries in dictionaries and encyclopedias. This is easily demonstrable by the sensibility of a simple claim such as:

I'm working on myself in therapy to improve both my mind, through talk therapy, and my brain, through medications. I'll be a better person if I can regulate my thoughts and ensure that my brain functions properly.

What's going on here? Let's follow the linguistc turn into what contemporary linguistics suggests. It's that the three concepts have different prototypical definitions which are generally subscribed.

The self is an individual person as the object of its own reflective consciousness. Since the self is a reference by a subject to the same subject, this reference is necessarily subjective. The sense of having a self—or self-hood—should, however, not be confused with subjectivity itself.6

The mind is the set of faculties responsible for mental phenomena. Often the term is also identified with the phenomena themselves.29 These faculties include thought, imagination, memory, will and sensation. They are responsible for various mental phenomena, like perception, pain experience, belief, desire, intention and emotion.

A brain is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system in all vertebrates and most invertebrate animals.

How is it then, that mindfulness is a path to self-improvement? Strictly speaking, if one has more knowledge about one's states, one can simply choose better. Think about it this way. The mind has portions that are called subconscious, but the fact that the self has the capacity to move awareness to different objects of the mind, from feelings to beliefs to arguments to pain, means that the self can neglect important states of the mind that might have an effect on the self's experience. A person may be convinced of a truth intuitively, but upon the self's reflection on some of those perhaps unexamined beliefs or feelings, the self may then move to new beliefs. In the language of philosophy, mindfulness affects propositional attitudes of the first and second degree. As the self grows more sophisticated in beliefs, then psychological "problems" may dissipate. This in fact is the philosophical basis of a therapeutic strategy known as ERP.

Can a thing change itself? Well, the argument implicit in the distinction between self, mind, and body is yes; that is to say, that the self has to consciously and reflectively choose to make choices and change. This is one of the core tenets not only of Eastern Buddhism but also of existential therapy and other humanistic approaches to psychotherapy. Are these settled philosophical matters? Not among all camps of philosophers, psychologists, and self-improvement gurus, but it is common enough that it is often presumed in these circles. The question about ontological first principles, is never really settled, however, the widespread adoption of the language, such as the presented definitions, and practices generally presume these ideas.

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There is nowhere in the quote claiming that something cannot affect itself. In fact people affect themselves all the time, one way or another (eg by educating themselves, or doing body-building).

The author simply points out what he sees as a category mistake, in the phrasing of some texts on mindfulness.

The category mistake is tied to a fundamentally unstable way of thinking about who you are in relation to your brain.

The texts may very well use a wrong description, but does not follow that the method will not work.

One may point out, as a response, the mahayana doctrine of

nirvana = samsara,

thus no fundamental duality exists.

Or that

one already possesses the buddha-nature,

one is simply not aware of it. Like when one is not aware that is dreaming. But it is perfectly possible to have a lucid dream.

So there is really nothing to change, nothing to affect, only become aware of what is already there.

Note: The embodied cognition approach is not contrary to what buddhists claim (at least some of the Zen flavor).

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"who you are in relation to your brain"

I'm just going to make the point that in order to know "who you are in relation" to anything, it seems a good idea to know who "you" are, period.

The answer to that is actually very complex, because each person "is" their experiences, their habits, their body including their brain, their thoughts, the way they are viewed by others, their actions and accomplishments, their living space, their nearest and dearest friends, relatives, and significant others ... where does it end?

Perhaps the main reason "who you are" is so complicated is that it is entirely unclear where this kind of answer to the question should end.

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