Message Boards Message Boards


Why I am here (in both senses!)

Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/10/18 10:09 PM
Warning - long

For a while now I have been thinking about how the mind functions, particularly with regard to goals, memories, emotion and rationality.  I was really surprised to find that the Buddha and the Yogacara school had examined this issue, so comprehensively, so long ago, and that the answer was dependent origination.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have bridged the gap between dependent origination and modern science. This seems more important than ever, now that we face the possibility of artifical beings created by modern science. It is my belief is that nothing is more relevant to the challenge of AI than dependent origination.

So here is an attempt to bridge the gap between science and dependent origination.  This is the puzzle that has motivated much of my spiritual journey.  Please, enjoy, disregard, criticise, interact, ignore etc according to your own mental fabrications.  Sorry about the didactic tone - it's just a byproduct of the detailed reasoning, not a sense that I have necessarily got it right.

First, a minimalist western take on the mind

Elements that are required for the operation of the mind are as follows.

1. We have sense organs and sensory cortexes that undertake initial processing of the sense data. We have sensory stores, working memory and long-term memory to store sensory data and concepts.

2. Our long-term memory is based on networks of associated concepts, with the networks formed from neurons and ganglia.  Retrieval may be of single concepts (defined by their associations to other concepts, and called recognition memory) or a set of linked concepts located in time and space (called narrative or episodic memory). 

3. We also have (a) brain structures that create affect (liking/aversion) in response to an evoked concept, (b) brain structures that permanently encode that affect against specific concepts (Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis), and (c) brain structures that evoke desire (maybe in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, seen here as a separate from Somatic markers, as desire is more intentional whereas Somatic markers or feelings are more evaluative).

4. We also have brain structures that encode goals and develop responses to facilitate achievement of those goals.  At a basic level this includes reflexes that maintain the comfort of the organism, but also includes fulfilment of evolutionary drives and learned behaviours to achieve conceptual goals. 

5. We solve problems and achieve our conceptual goals through recursive searches to match up sensory stores, working memory, and concepts retrieved from long-term associative network memory, with imagined desirable future states.  

6. Then, and this is key, some episodic memories are overlaid with a biographical marker, to create a biographical memory. This biographical marker is hypothesised as being similar to Damasio’s somatic marker, but applied by a presently unknown brain structure.  At the most basic level this marker is the perception of the organism boundary, or epidermis, but at a more complex level it also includes conceptual ideas of time, space  and self. Something similar is discussed in the DhO as a selfing process.

Once you have biographical markers overlaying memory traces, you also have the basics of grammar. This is because you have a subject (memories associated with self), object (memories associated with other), and verb (the generalised concept of the interaction, such as running, eating, procreating, etc).  My hypothesis is that the grammar of biographical markers is the evolutionary basis of all of our other grammars, namely language, mathematics, deliberative narrative problem solving, and even science.

Next, Interpreting the doctrine of dependent origination

We do not understand our minds, so we incautiously allow the illusory concept of self to arise and be reinforced by our sense consciousness, mind structures, learned behaviour, and goals.

First, the basic form of the conceptual mind is established

From ignorance come mental fabrications of the biological and mental self located in time and space.
From fabrication of the self comes the grammar of consciousness, being subject (self), object (other) and verb (action).
From this comes the need for concepts (names and forms) to fill up the grammar of consciousness.
From the need for concepts, the output of the sensory cortexes is turned into things, or proto-concepts.  The six sense media.

Then, the conceptual mind operates

From matching sensory output to internal concepts, the mind arises (or the world arises). Contact
From the mind’s perception of the world comes affect - attraction, repulsion, or neutrality.  Feeling
From affect comes the long-term encoding of somatic markers onto concepts. Craving
From continued activation of somatic markers comes long-term encoding of generalised desires. Clinging
From generalised desires come intention, leading to uncontrolled feedback on concepts, goals and behaviors. Becoming
From this uncontrolled feedback comes the entire mass of Stress and Suffering. 

So “we” are just the product of an out of control feedback mechanism for the organism.  Although, I still find that kind of miraculous.

Finally, how this applies to practice

Buddha identified clinging as the key problem, but also that this depends on the whole chain of origination. So it can be attacked at many points. Renunciation attacks the goal component of feedback.  Vajrayana tantric actions contradict the embedded generalised desires.  Mindfulness attacks the intention/feedback.  Noting first attacks intention/feedback, and then attacks sensory encoding.  Reflection on the mental fabrications of the mind attacks both selfing and contact.

You can also interpret phenomena in the light of this process.  Here are some hypotheses that could conceivably be tested.

- A sense of spaciousness or hollowness is interrogation of the biographical marker of the epidermis.
- A sense of non-duality is interruption of the biographical marker of the epidermis.
- Advanced levels of insight are interruption of the biographical marker concepts of time, space, and self. 
- A sense of emptiness is weakening of conceptual recognition (name and form).
- Perception of the acquired object is a weakening of conceptual recognition (name and form).
- The deeper fast strobing or dit-dit-dit-dit sensory experience is a weakening of the relevant sensory cortex.
- Insights into no-self create weakening of fabrication, consciousness, name and form.

And, a couple of other points.

It is interesting that in the Sutras, the Buddha is constantly explaining concepts by their associations or synonyms. This is precisely consistent with modern theories of conceptual network memory.  But he got there more than 2000 years earlier.

In Damasio’s theories, emotions are seen as physical bodily reactions, whereas thoughts about those emotions are called feelings.  This doesn’t perfectly match up to Buddhist thinking, but it is worth noting that according to this theory perfectly enlightened ones will still have emotions, as these are bodily things, but they will no longer have mental feelings about those emotions.

Kahneman hypotheses two types of thinking;  fast, emotional, intuitive (Type 1) and slow, deliberative, conscious (Type 2).  But this doesn’t quite add up with Damasio’s claims that people weigh up somatic markers in a emotional, intuitive, slow, deliberative unconscious way.  I think this shows that we may be better off deliberating with our gut at times. The alternative of conscious narrative thinking seems to specifically facilitate becoming, and is also relatively inefficient due to the limitations of working memory.

Aliens or AI robots might have different mind structures, and so could be completely beyond our comprehension.  Or, the chain of dependent origination may be an essential feature of sentience, so aliens and robots may be just like us, and deserve precisely the same consideration.  Who knows?  Or, super intelligence could be achieved by adding additional levels of recursive working memory to enhance problem solving ability.  So smaller fish might have no working memory.  Pigs and apes might have one layer of working memory.  Humans might have two recursive layers of working memory, geniuses three, and omniscient beings ten.  How long until we build a goal directed computer with five layers of recursive working memory?  Gah!

Finally, I am reaching the conclusion that dependent origination is the ultimate dharma, and everything else is an application of part of it.  So this might help people to see where I am coming from, in my attempts to break beyond particular practices.  To me, most practices are particular paths through the trees.  My desire, to which I am still clinging, is to understand the whole forest. Metaphorially, if we can see the whole forest, then will know how to plant another one. We could then create AI responsibly and with loving kindness, instead of thoughtlessly, dangerously and perhaps cruelly.

With metta, Malcolm


RE: Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/11/18 5:18 AM as a reply to Not two, not one.
Disclosure : i am Data Science and Machine Learning Developer

Some Notes on Robots :
- For machine to be self aware , we need to program in self , even with the best machine learning algorithm that can out match best minds like AlphaGo
there is nothing about self.
- Even if can outperform all out daily activities , there is not such thing as self , it is not self aware , it dosen't expect any reward for any outcome.
- Even if we can add all the Sense doors and how to react to each senses , machine will still be selfless
( most senses are already there in our smart phone : Can listen , Can respond to Touch , Can See) .
Self is not necessary for Evolution of Robots.
We will keep it this way , AI without Love or Hate or anything. Just Selfless AI will be fine.

For Aliens , Buddha have very interesting teachings of 4 other wordly physical intelligent beings, that belongs to Material Human Realms but stays in different planets,
with varying lifespan and Intelligence , beauty , facial strutures (The triangle face ones -- may be the Greys?? , the square ones , Flat ones ).
I am not sure why Westerners on Internet have not heard about this teaching yet it is in Tripitaka and Myanmar Buddhist Monks often teaches about those.

Earth is known as South Planet , There are 3 other planes.
North planet is most beautiful with highest life span of , AFAIK around 1000 human year life span, higher technology than Current world ,
Sentiments beings are much more intelligent and such.

RE: Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/13/18 3:12 AM as a reply to Not two, not one.

Finally, I am reaching the conclusion that dependent origination is the ultimate dharma, and everything else is an application of part of it.  So this might help people to see where I am coming from, in my attempts to break beyond particular practices.  To me, most practices are particular paths through the trees.  My desire, to which I am still clinging, is to understand the whole forest. Metaphorially, if we can see the whole forest, then will know how to plant another one. We could then create AI responsibly and with loving kindness, instead of thoughtlessly, dangerously and perhaps cruelly.

Hi curious,

I think you've got your analogy of paths, trees and forests mixed up. ;-)

But joking aside, I think Dependant Origination/Dependant Arising/Dependantco-arising (DO)  is where it's at. The trick of most techniques of insight are, I think, to get one to a place where all the links can be seen directly  (as they can be seen to co-arise in an instant all at once). Though some approaches might not be spoken about or taught as explicitly dealing with DO as a whole, if you are observing vedana, citta, dhammas, or kaya (as in most if not all insight approaches), you are observing its  "parts." If you get to sankharauphekkhanana (11th stage) in the progress of insight, the 1st link in the chain of DO is dealt with. The entire field of experience of/in which DO operates and the first link of avijja of it all will eventually collapse when seen with an all encompassing panoramic specific neutrality/equanimity.  

Though my take may have evolved since I wrote about it last year, this is where I started exploring post-centrepoint dropping from experience.

2 cents
Edited a bit (again)

RE: Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/12/18 11:58 AM as a reply to Nikolai ..
Dependant Origination/Dependant Arising/Dependant (DO) co-arising is where it's at.

I agree - D.O. is definitely the key.

RE: Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/12/18 10:26 PM as a reply to Not two, not one.
Hi curious,

So I've been through three cycles of wild enthusiasm for AI, followed by application to problems of practical interest, followed by despair as the favored technique of the day came up against problems that it couldn't solve, then the gradual (or sometimes rapid) loss of interest, since I started working in the IT industry in the early 80's. Right now, I think things are still in the wild enthusiasm phase, and I have to say that the current set of techniques (neural nets and machine learning) seem to have legs which the earlier ones didn't. It remains to be seen whether neural nets will eventually encounter a problem that they can't solve, and it will be back to the drawing board. But in any case, machine consciousness is pretty far off IMHO.

That said, I think it is not too out of place to be talking about "ethical AI" (ethics being the first Buddhist training) which some folks are. A self-driving car killed a woman in Arizona due to a programming error. There are a couple of other cases where robots have killed people, in most cases, because the person got in the way of a robot that was doing some kind of work, which I suppose isn't much different than a person getting in the way of any other kind of heavy machinery, like a backhoe, and accidently being injured or killed. And of course there are Terminator style military drones, which I'm sure the militaries of countries with money are looking at. Coming up with an ethical protocol, kind of like Issac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" is entirely appropriate. The solution to the problem of lethal military drones is to develop an  international treaty against lethal military drones, like the protocols against chemical weapons.

Finally, there have been some proposals about extending human rights to artificial beings. Before we do that, I think we need to examine the track record of a case where that has already been done, namely in the US, where in the late 19th century the Supreme Court extended the Bill of Rights, which originally applied only to people, to companies as "artificial persons". IMHO, it has been a complete disaster and led to corruption in the political system and other serious problems that threaten the rights of real persons. I am sensitive to the arguments of those that claim that otherwise, conscious machines will end up being slaves, but until they can prove to me that a machine is conscious and that it suffers from not being given human rights, I'm not going to support it because the danger is too large that machine rights will be used in a similar way that human rights for corporations has.

RE: Why I am here (in both senses!)
5/16/18 5:50 PM as a reply to Not two, not one.
Sorry for the late reply - I've been a bit busy with other commitments. Anyway thanks very much for the comments.

Phyo Arkar - thank you for sharing that fascinating teaching on aliens!  That is really interesting.

Also, Phyo Arkar and SVMonk - as you say machine 'intelligence' is not very far progressed, and it is helpless without a human operator.  I hope that you are both right, and that it will be a long time before we create autonomous, adaptive, self-conscious, goal-directed machines.  My worry is that researchers or hackers might be able to do it using a version of DO, but that this would cause the artifical beings to suffer.  Then it may take another Buddha to bring the dharma to the beings that we unskilfully create!

Chris, Nikolai, thanks so much for confirmation that this is a useful direction.  It was a big help to realise that the Buddha's description of DO could be split into two -  the creation of the mind, and the operation of the mind - then things made much more sense.  Nikolai, your descriptions also helped (thanks!). This made me realise I had a lurking duality about the sense doors, thinking that contact was with the "outside" world rather than between sense media and concepts. It will take me a while to process that new view.

Nikolai, thank you also for your kind linking to the sutta.  I think my cogitation would be nothing but a distraction were noting the only path to liberation.  However, I have finally located the sutta that describes the other paths to liberation. The 26th sutta of the Discourses of Five lays out five bases of liberation, and makes it clear that any one of them can be sufficient alone. These are (in reverse order):

1 - Grasping an object of concentration and penetrating it with wisdom.
2 - Pondering, examining and mentally inspecting the Dharma.
3 - Reciting the Dharma in detail.
4 - Teaching the Dharma to others in detail as s/he has heard it and learned it.
5 - Being taught the Dharma.

So while Mahasi-style noting is clearly covered by (1), there are four other routes.  Interestingly, (4) is part of the western graduate school approach to learning.  Also (2) was the route that initially benefitted me.  I have the impression that there is still a minority of people who gain insights by methods other than (1).  My intuition is that much of the Path of Insight and most of MCTB still applies for 2-5, but that some of the experiences and the initial progression can be quite different.