Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

August 30, 2015

Since I am going to the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, I thought I should share an essay I wrote a while ago.
Q: What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

The stated goal of our enterprise is to create an intellectual milieu where Indian philosophical ideas and theories play an influential role in the development of the cognitive sciences. Therefore, we need to make Indian philosophical ideas available in a form attractive to the average cognitive scientist, a task easier said than done. As we all know, the typical cognitive scientist, while paying lip service to Hume and Kant, really doesn’t care that much about Western philosophy, so why should he care about Indian philosophy? In fact, if developments in what have been called “experimental philosophy” and “neuro-philosophy” are to be taken at face value, it is philosophers who should take cognitive science and psychological experimentation seriously, not the other way around. The working cognitive scientist seems to have concluded that as the science has matured, it is the philosopher’s job to systematize and popularize the field but not to add anything of substance.

In this bleak scenario how can one motivate a cognitive scientist to study Indian philosophy and learn some of its fundamental concepts and intuitions? A typical response might be to say:

  1. That cognitive science has created its current edifice on the backs of many generations of western philosophizing about the mind.
  2. These metaphysical intuitions and theories play an enormous role in determining what hypotheses are considered, what experiments are done and what conclusions and interpretations are drawn from the data.
  3. Not only do these metaphysical presuppositions play a role in “purely” scientific theorizing about the mind, they also guide our technological metaphors, such as robots, intelligent computers etc. Ideas about artificial intelligence which have been enormously influential in cognitive science, as well as captured the popular  imagination, also embody these metaphysical presuppositions, physicalism being the most important one.

 

Even if one agrees with these claims (and certainly many cognitive scientists will do so) I believe that a rational reconstruction of the metaphysical presuppositions of cognitive science will not change the field all that much – the bookshelves of every university bookstore in the west is full of critiques of cognitive science and consciousness studies as well as alternative approaches drawing inspiration from various sources, ranging from Quantum Mechanics to Buddhism.  So far, these critiques have hardly made a dent on mainstream cognitive science, which, if anything, is heading towards ever more reductive neural and biological explanations.

I believe that the problem lies not in the overt philosophical commitments of cognitive scientists, but rather in the tacit and unconscious ways in which these commitments are embodied and enacted in the day to day practice of cognitive science. The cognitive scientist who agrees that reductionism is a problem will still automatically look for brain areas in which cognitive functions are localized. Perhaps that makes his paper more acceptable to the journal to which he plans to submit his findings (which itself shows how physicalist metaphysics has utterly penetrated the intellectual economy of cognitive science), or more likely, he does not know what other kind of explanation and exploration of the mind is even possible. The availability of ever more powerful imaging, physiological and genetic technologies for probing the mind make it “natural” for the cognitive scientist to pursue the reductive route to success. This deep co-dependence between physicalist and mentalist metaphors for the mind, mathematical and mechanical technologies and “viable” theories of the mind and consciousness needs to be researched carefully, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that:

  1. Cognitive Science (and modern science in general) has developed in close contact with the development of sophisticated mechanical and mathematical techniques that have provided scientists with the most productive metaphors for the mind.
  2. This vicious circle has to be broken if one is to move out of blindly reductive approaches to cognition.
  3. Breaking this circle will require a rethinking of the nature of machines as well as mathematics and logic, where mechanical and logical systems are seen as open, embedded, embodied systems rather than as isolated, syntactic and abstract systems. Furthermore, this rethinking will have to be fleshed out (both figuratively and literally) as research programs so that future generations of students and researchers will learn how to do mathematics/logic/cognitive science differently.
  4. Indian philosophy will play a crucial role not because its ideas are interesting (which they are) but because we think that its various philosophical lineages embody different but equally critical and rational traditions of exploring the mind.

 

For better or worse, if the archetypal image in modern western cognitive science is that of a computer, then the archetypal image of an ancient Indian cognitive science is the Yogi. One need not buy into orientalist notions of the exotic other to realize that there might be a underlying truth here. The yogi metaphor incorporates a subject-centric perspective on the mind while the computer metaphor simply does not. The ultimate (and emotionally satisfying) irony would be the demonstration that the real yogi is the Indian logician watching smoke billow from his lookout at the base of the mountain rather than the hippie meditator smoking dope at the top of it, but lets not get ahead of our story for the moment.

I would like to end this brief note with a nested series of strategies for a cognitive science research agenda grounded in Indian philosophy, where we begin by noting that:

  1. The soteriological background of Indian philosophy is post-embodied rather than dis-embodied, i.e., pure consciousness or freedom is conceived at the boundary of our embodied existence rather than as a spirit like substance, unrelated to the body that coexists and interacts with the body in some unknown and perhaps unknowable manner.  Therefore, the bugbear of dualism and the concomitant physicalist, reductionist response does not even arise. As a consequence, every major problem in cognitive science, from the nature of subjectivity to the possibility of conscious computers will be cast differently in a Indian approach to cognitive science. Furthermore, seeing our existence as constitutively embodied doesn’t commit us to materialist explanations of the mind, for our current conceptions of matter presuppose the very dualist metaphysics that we are trying to combat in this Indian approach. The possibility of post-embodiment (pure consciousness, moksa, nirvana), admitted by all Indian schools, acts as a counterweight to radical physicalism and reductions of the mind to the body or the body to matter.
  2. Furthermore, as dualism is discarded, we also start taking the subject of knowledge and consciousness as an embodied being more seriously. Instead of asking the question “what is consciousness” we ask “what is it for one to be conscious”. Knowledge is mediated by cognitions, which play an important epistemological role, without overly psychologizing knowledge. Furthermore, cognitions are neutral with respect to the subject-object divide (as I understand them anyway), in that they can be grasped by a subject and point towards an object with equal ease. Note that from a mathematical point of view, the subject is no more mysterious an explanatory construct than the object. In one case arrows go from the cognition to the object, and in the other the arrows go from the subject to the cognition. While my treatment of the mathematical aspects here is all too brief, I want to stress that avenues for further research can be opened up by formulating Indian philosophical notions in terms of appropriate mathematical concepts. One could go so far as to speculate that understanding the role of mathematics in cognitive science based on Indian philosophy will have important implications not only for Indian philosophy but also mathematics itself. The same goes for technology. While Indian philosophers did not use either of the two in their work, there is no doubt that any research effort now will have to engage with both of them, to the benefit of Indian philosophers, mathematicians and technologists.
  3. Finally, we need to engage with the issue of how Indian philosophy will transform the practice of cognitive science. Indian philosophy based cognitive science should break the codependence of cognitive science with syntactic symbolic metaphors as well as mechanical technologies. Not that technology should be shunned, but rather that certain unreflective uses of technology to reduce the mind to matter or the mind to syntactic computation should be set aside and the fundamental problems reconsidered. Here’s where we should start fleshing out concrete problems such as:
  • The problem of learning concepts from examples (by children primarily, but adults as well. Perhaps Dignaga has something to say about concept learning that the Chomsky’s and Fodor’s and Hempel’s have missed.
  • The possibility of analytic entailments that are still empirical (in arthapatti) can help us understand how we humans know that a cup in our hands is no longer on the table from which we picked it up. More generally, it gives us ways to understand knowledge that is both analytic, and innate in some sense, and yet deeply empirical and embedded in the world. Here Indian philosophy can say something important about the nature-nurture debate.  As in the case of mind-body dualism which is rejected in the Indian framework, nature and nurture are not opposing quantities either. Knowledge can be part of our nature and yet be utterly grounded in experience. I am interested in finding out how the basically empiricist attitude of Indian philosophy avoids the rationalist-empiricist divide in modern western philosophy and cognitive science, which I believe, closely parallels and influences the physicalist-dualist divide.

To conclude I would like to say that cognitive science is perhaps the only scientific discipline in which one can think of concrete, systematic and possibly revolutionary interventions based on an understanding of Indian philosophical concepts. Unlike the physicist who sees Vedanta at work in Quantum Mechanics but has no way in which to flesh out his intuition (right or not) in the mathematical language that physicists respect, I can see how Indian philosophy can work its way into the details of cognitive science. Whether that happens or not will be mixture of luck, hard work and creativity, but it is definitely worth a shot.

 

Experience isn’t subjective

April 27, 2012

This is the first post in a series deriving from a conversation with Frode on the 26th of April.

From Descartes to Nagel, there is an argument that consciousness is utterly subjective, that another person cannot feel my pain. A mild version of this argument is obviously true: you are not standing where I am standing, you do not see the coffee cup in front me in exactly the same way that I do. However, this mild argument for the exclusivity of consciousness isn’t particularly troubling. After all, I don’t see the world the same way as I did a minute ago as soon as I move from one location to another, or even turn my head. But there is a clear sense of continuity from one frame to another. Contrary to William James‘ intuition, we do not experience the world as a blooming buzzing confusion. One of the key insights of modern perceptual science is the continuity, coherence and stability of perceptual experience despite the dynamic character of the input to our senses.

Why is the transition from one organism to another in space any bigger than the transition within an organism in time? Unless you assume that the self is an impermeable entity, there is just as must reason to believe that my experience is continuous with yours as there is to believe that my experience is continuous with my own past experience.  Of course, one can never experience exactly what another person experiences, but that standard of exactness and certainty is too high a standard. As long as my experience is continuous with yours, your consciousness is accessible to me even if I don’t see the very same thing as you do.

Only if you believe, as Descartes probably did, that the self is impermeable and that the only form of valid knowledge is certain knowledge that we are stuck with the isolated subjectivity of consciousness. Knowledge of others’ experience that is continuous with their subjectivity rather than an exact replica of their experience is still enough for a science of experience.

 

Doing Justice to an Idea

June 16, 2011

This piece is part of an ongoing response to Amartya Sen’s book that continues the discussion of reason, emotion and ethics from the seminar I taught last year.

Introduction. Amartya Sen’s “The Idea of Justice” (IOJ from now on) is arguably the most awaited and critically acclaimed work of ethics of the twenty first century. In IOJ, Sen has combined sympathy for those who suffer injustice with an impressive analytic framework combining philosophical argument with social science theory. Throughout the book, Sen defends the role of public reasoning while drawing inspiration from emotional sources such as compassion. Sen walks a tight rope between deductive theories of justice that start from transcendental axioms and moral relativism that doubts the existence of universal principles. Sen’s approach is robustly “this-worldly;” he would rather reduce actual injustice than defend a theory of perfect justice.

Sen argues that we are better off looking at relative, comparative and localized conceptions of justice that improve freedoms rather than articulate a state of absolute freedom. In Indian terms, it is Dharma rather than Moksa that is the proper topic of theories of justice. Through his reasoned defense of this-worldly justice, Sen has set a high bar for his opponents, both transcendental theorists in the Rawlsian mould and relativists who believe that there is no hope for a universal theory of justice. Of these two, Sen’s main opponent throughout the book is the ethical transcendentalist.

As the title of the book suggests, Sen’s book is an extended response to John Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice.” Consequently, Sen’s primary focus is on principles and institutions that govern human relations in the realm of justice. In his attempt to walk the tightrope between transcendentalism and relativism, Sen introduces several important theoretical ideas such as the impartial spectator and the role of public reasoning. Sen uses these concepts to argue that we can achieve universal ends without transcendental means, while still remaining open to the possibility that there might not be a unique set of universal ends.

I find these theoretical concepts important, but feel that he hasn’t taken them far enough, i.e., that the scope of this-worldly reasoning is much larger than Sen’s response to Rawls. This essay is not a critique of Sen’s main argument against Rawls or his defense of public reasoning as a bulwark against relativism. My response to IOJ does not start with Sen’s positive arguments; instead I want to understand what he has omitted and why. In particular, I want to understand why Sen, despite mentioning the Buddha’s call for mercy to animals twice, has written a book that is almost entirely about the human world. Further, I believe that this-worldy ideas, suitably modified, provide a framework for addressing injustices against the non-human world. Human beings can be impartial spectators not only when it comes to evaluating other humans in other cultures, but also in evaluating the treatment of non-humans by humans. Neither geography nor biology is a rationally defensible barrier to justice.

A Summary of Sen’s Arguments. Sen has two guiding principles that he uses throughout the book: plurality and locality. Plurality is the notion that when it comes to practical reasoning, there is no single justification for an act or event, and neither is there is a hierarchy of reasoning that leads to a “best structure,” which, in the Rawlsian case will be the best institutional arrangement for a just society. An event of justice or injustice can have several rational arguments in its favour, as he shows when he cites Burke’s arguments for impeaching Hastings. Similarly, the evaluation of justice claims can have competing, well founded and irreconcilable reasons, as he shows in the example of the three children.

Locality is the notion that considerations of justice are always located in a time and place, in a particular society and relative to the demands of particular groups of people, the last of which he expands later in his exposition of positionality; positionality being a particular form of locality. Locality also leads to other consequences; it motivates a comparative approach to justice because, one set of justice claims can be evaluated with respect to a similar set of justice claims in societies that are co-located. Similarly, the locality of justice claims can be used to motivate the impartial spectator, a spectator who sits on the fence between different bounded domains (that might be societies, communities etc) and evaluates their practices objectively.

Public reasoning and rational defences of ethical intuitions helps us dislodge parochial assumptions, not only about other people and cultures but also about other species. The important part of public reasoning is that you should be able to reason it out with anyone, even those whose assumptions are different from yours (which can be particularly important if the public includes everyone in the world, and not just those from your culture). Public reasoning can quickly lead to interesting ethical situations. Consider the following situation:

Suppose there is a community X that believes girls should not be educated beyond class 10th, for two reasons tied to marriage. First, highly educated girls have fewer marital prospects since they have fewer choices of grooms. Second, if a girl does not get married by age 15, she will rapidly lose customers in the marriage market. Consider a girl G and an imagined dialogue between the father of the girl (FG) and an outsider (O):
O: You should let her study further.
FG: But she needs to get married now or else she will never get married. A very good family has made an offer. We can’t afford to ignore such offers.
O: But what about her own aspirations? Why can’t she do what she wants?
FG: But she doesn’t know what she wants. She is good at studies, but she also knows that she will lead a much better life in the family that has made an offer than if she chooses to pursue her studies.

Herein lies the problem. Let us see it as explicitly as possible. Let us call the community C, marriage M and Education E. Then, in the preference ordering of C, we have:

For women, M ≥ E

Now, given a particular G and FG, they have to make a decision about E versus M. Now there is a dilemma, which can be stated as follows:

For G, E ≥ M, i.e., other things being equal, G prefers education to marriage. However, she also knows that M will bring her more long term wellbeing (if you include the other dimensions of life, such as material welfare, social acceptability etc). Therefore, other things are not equal. Further, let us suppose that the collective welfare of all women in C is furthered if E ≥ M, i.e., if women as a whole are well educated. However, in a single case (G here) she might pay too heavy a price for bucking the system. What are G and FG to do? What is the right thing for the outsider, O, to say?

This brings us to the second point of public reasoning, which is positional objectivity, PO. A reasoner has to take into account the fact that only certain choices are available to her because of her being embedded in a time and place. While G and FG above might prefer if they had lived in a society where all women are encouraged to be educated, they actually live in a society where that is not the case. The PO reasoner is constantly juggling between the space of all possible choices and the space of choices actually available. Public reasoning is needed to make sure that the most objective decision is taken given the circumstances. Comparative evaluation of different societies can help us expand the scope of choice (hence increasing our capabilities) but the space of actual choices isn’t infinitely flexible.

The problem with public reasoning is that it is an elite activity; only a few have access to it, for it requires training, access to knowledge, and objectivity, all of which are often absent from those who are the most likely victims of injustice. A person whose house is set on fire is likely to feel the injustice keenly, but may not have the calm to reason about his fate objectively. Children, mentally disabled people and the entire non-human world are incapable of public reasoning. How can they represent their interests? The representation of non-humans necessitates a theory of asymmetric ethics; the impartial spectator and the public reasoner can both be incorporated into a theory of asymmetric ethics that helps us expand the scope of justice to non-humans.

The role of public reasoning in the analysis of justice is similar to the role of language in the analysis of emotions. A sympathetic observer of non-human emotions might be able to put in language what a dog or cat cannot do for himself. Similarly, a sympathetic observer of injustice to the non-human world should be able to articulate the injustice being done to non-humans. An opponent might say, why should we bother if the other species simply does not feel the injustice as we do? Is it OK to raze trees to the ground if the tree does not feel any injustice upon being cut down? Is injustice to trees a derivative ethical dilemma, dependent on the loss to human well-being caused by the razing of forests? An inquiry into these questions leads inexorably towards an analysis of the life-world of non-humans.

The Non-human Life-World. Some of the most powerful calls for justice have come when sympathetic human observers enter into the life-world of other cultures and other species. From slavery to genocide, the sympathetic outsider is an important catalyst for ethical change. Colonial rulers often assumed that the colonized peoples lacked an essential human capacity; sympathetic descriptions by western scholars started the process of questioning the cognitive and affective uniqueness of European people. I believe that non-humans are in a similar position now, in that a sympathetic human observer will recognize that non-humans have the capacity to make judgments of value, undertake practical reasoning experience emotions. In other words, they too inhabit a world of experience that centers around their own fullness of being. Ironically, exceptionally cruel experiments done on animals by Seligman and others have shown how non-human actions are based on how they evaluate the world with respect to their own welfare, and not based on purely bodily or physiological indicators. Further, these actions aren’t based on objective states of the world, but on the animal’s evaluation of the world. Similarly, subjective reports about animals by sympathetic observers who clearly try to enter into the animal’s perspective have shown that non-humans are ‘centres of experience’. Naturalistic observation are an accepted paradigm in evolutionary biology; if Darwin could argue his case for evolution using observations alone, why should we shy away from using similar observations to guide our ethical responsibilities?

It is true that there are challenges in understanding the non-human life world, a world in which they act out of a sense of their well-being. The problem is often compounded by the fact that we interact with non-humans in a situation where they have lost all control over their lives and they have given up all hope. Further, nonhumans, like human children, are rarely aware of their own goals etc, i.e., they lack awareness of how the world is valued by them and their lack of language prevents them from reporting on their goals. Nevertheless, the lack of reflexivity and language is not an impediment, as long as humans can use language to report nonhuman experiences faithfully. Given that scientific as well as literary language has been able to describe strings, black-holes and other equally remote entities in the objective realm, why should non-human experience be a fundamental block? We need a better phenomenological terminology than is currently available to describe the life-world of non-humans. A well-crafted and rationally defensible phenomenological taxonomy will be central to both the philosophical as well as the scientific enterprises of understanding the non-human life world.

What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

June 10, 2011

Since I am going to the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, I thought I should share an essay I wrote a while ago.

Q: What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

The stated goal of our enterprise is to create an intellectual milieu where Indian philosophical ideas and theories play an influential role in the development of the cognitive sciences. Therefore, we need to make Indian philosophical ideas available in a form attractive to the average cognitive scientist, a task easier said than done. As we all know, the typical cognitive scientist, while paying lip service to Hume and Kant, really doesn’t care that much about Western philosophy, so why should he care about Indian philosophy? In fact, if developments in what have been called “experimental philosophy” and “neuro-philosophy” are to be taken at face value, it is philosophers who should take cognitive science and psychological experimentation seriously, not the other way around. The working cognitive scientist seems to have concluded that as the science has matured, it is the philosopher’s job to systematize and popularize the field but not to add anything of substance.

In this bleak scenario how can one motivate a cognitive scientist to study Indian philosophy and learn some of its fundamental concepts and intuitions? A typical response might be to say:

  1. That cognitive science has created its current edifice on the backs of many generations of western philosophizing about the mind.
  2. These metaphysical intuitions and theories play an enormous role in determining what hypotheses are considered, what experiments are done and what conclusions and interpretations are drawn from the data.
  3. Not only do these metaphysical presuppositions play a role in “purely” scientific theorizing about the mind, they also guide our technological metaphors, such as robots, intelligent computers etc. Ideas about artificial intelligence which have been enormously influential in cognitive science, as well as captured the popular  imagination, also embody these metaphysical presuppositions, physicalism being the most important one.

 

Even if one agrees with these claims (and certainly many cognitive scientists will do so) I believe that a rational reconstruction of the metaphysical presuppositions of cognitive science will not change the field all that much – the bookshelves of every university bookstore in the west is full of critiques of cognitive science and consciousness studies as well as alternative approaches drawing inspiration from various sources, ranging from Quantum Mechanics to Buddhism.  So far, these critiques have hardly made a dent on mainstream cognitive science, which, if anything, is heading towards ever more reductive neural and biological explanations.

I believe that the problem lies not in the overt philosophical commitments of cognitive scientists, but rather in the tacit and unconscious ways in which these commitments are embodied and enacted in the day to day practice of cognitive science. The cognitive scientist who agrees that reductionism is a problem will still automatically look for brain areas in which cognitive functions are localized. Perhaps that makes his paper more acceptable to the journal to which he plans to submit his findings (which itself shows how physicalist metaphysics has utterly penetrated the intellectual economy of cognitive science), or more likely, he does not know what other kind of explanation and exploration of the mind is even possible. The availability of ever more powerful imaging, physiological and genetic technologies for probing the mind make it “natural” for the cognitive scientist to pursue the reductive route to success. This deep co-dependence between physicalist and mentalist metaphors for the mind, mathematical and mechanical technologies and “viable” theories of the mind and consciousness needs to be researched carefully, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that:

  1. Cognitive Science (and modern science in general) has developed in close contact with the development of sophisticated mechanical and mathematical techniques that have provided scientists with the most productive metaphors for the mind.
  2. This vicious circle has to be broken if one is to move out of blindly reductive approaches to cognition.
  3. Breaking this circle will require a rethinking of the nature of machines as well as mathematics and logic, where mechanical and logical systems are seen as open, embedded, embodied systems rather than as isolated, syntactic and abstract systems. Furthermore, this rethinking will have to be fleshed out (both figuratively and literally) as research programs so that future generations of students and researchers will learn how to do mathematics/logic/cognitive science differently.
  4. Indian philosophy will play a crucial role not because its ideas are interesting (which they are) but because we think that its various philosophical lineages embody different but equally critical and rational traditions of exploring the mind.

 

For better or worse, if the archetypal image in modern western cognitive science is that of a computer, then the archetypal image of an ancient Indian cognitive science is the Yogi. One need not buy into orientalist notions of the exotic other to realize that there might be a underlying truth here. The yogi metaphor incorporates a subject-centric perspective on the mind while the computer metaphor simply does not. The ultimate (and emotionally satisfying) irony would be the demonstration that the real yogi is the Indian logician watching smoke billow from his lookout at the base of the mountain rather than the hippie meditator smoking dope at the top of it, but lets not get ahead of our story for the moment.

I would like to end this brief note with a nested series of strategies for a cognitive science research agenda grounded in Indian philosophy, where we begin by noting that:

  1. The soteriological background of Indian philosophy is post-embodied rather than dis-embodied, i.e., pure consciousness or freedom is conceived at the boundary of our embodied existence rather than as a spirit like substance, unrelated to the body that coexists and interacts with the body in some unknown and perhaps unknowable manner.  Therefore, the bugbear of dualism and the concomitant physicalist, reductionist response does not even arise. As a consequence, every major problem in cognitive science, from the nature of subjectivity to the possibility of conscious computers will be cast differently in a Indian approach to cognitive science. Furthermore, seeing our existence as constitutively embodied doesn’t commit us to materialist explanations of the mind, for our current conceptions of matter presuppose the very dualist metaphysics that we are trying to combat in this Indian approach. The possibility of post-embodiment (pure consciousness, moksa, nirvana), admitted by all Indian schools, acts as a counterweight to radical physicalism and reductions of the mind to the body or the body to matter.
  2. Furthermore, as dualism is discarded, we also start taking the subject of knowledge and consciousness as an embodied being more seriously. Instead of asking the question “what is consciousness” we ask “what is it for one to be conscious”. Knowledge is mediated by cognitions, which play an important epistemological role, without overly psychologizing knowledge. Furthermore, cognitions are neutral with respect to the subject-object divide (as I understand them anyway), in that they can be grasped by a subject and point towards an object with equal ease. Note that from a mathematical point of view, the subject is no more mysterious an explanatory construct than the object. In one case arrows go from the cognition to the object, and in the other the arrows go from the subject to the cognition. While my treatment of the mathematical aspects here is all too brief, I want to stress that avenues for further research can be opened up by formulating Indian philosophical notions in terms of appropriate mathematical concepts. One could go so far as to speculate that understanding the role of mathematics in cognitive science based on Indian philosophy will have important implications not only for Indian philosophy but also mathematics itself. The same goes for technology. While Indian philosophers did not use either of the two in their work, there is no doubt that any research effort now will have to engage with both of them, to the benefit of Indian philosophers, mathematicians and technologists.
  3. Finally, we need to engage with the issue of how Indian philosophy will transform the practice of cognitive science. Indian philosophy based cognitive science should break the codependence of cognitive science with syntactic symbolic metaphors as well as mechanical technologies. Not that technology should be shunned, but rather that certain unreflective uses of technology to reduce the mind to matter or the mind to syntactic computation should be set aside and the fundamental problems reconsidered. Here’s where we should start fleshing out concrete problems such as:
  • The problem of learning concepts from examples (by children primarily, but adults as well. Perhaps Dignaga has something to say about concept learning that the Chomsky’s and Fodor’s and Hempel’s have missed.
  • The possibility of analytic entailments that are still empirical (in arthapatti) can help us understand how we humans know that a cup in our hands is no longer on the table from which we picked it up. More generally, it gives us ways to understand knowledge that is both analytic, and innate in some sense, and yet deeply empirical and embedded in the world. Here Indian philosophy can say something important about the nature-nurture debate.  As in the case of mind-body dualism which is rejected in the Indian framework, nature and nurture are not opposing quantities either. Knowledge can be part of our nature and yet be utterly grounded in experience. I am interested in finding out how the basically empiricist attitude of Indian philosophy avoids the rationalist-empiricist divide in modern western philosophy and cognitive science, which I believe, closely parallels and influences the physicalist-dualist divide.

To conclude I would like to say that cognitive science is perhaps the only scientific discipline in which one can think of concrete, systematic and possibly revolutionary interventions based on an understanding of Indian philosophical concepts. Unlike the physicist who sees Vedanta at work in Quantum Mechanics but has no way in which to flesh out his intuition (right or not) in the mathematical language that physicists respect, I can see how Indian philosophy can work its way into the details of cognitive science. Whether that happens or not will be mixture of luck, hard work and creativity, but it is definitely worth a shot.