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Buddhism and Cognitivism

Buddhism and Cognitivism:

a Postmodern Appraisal

John Pickering.

Psychology Department

Warwick University

Coventry, U.K., CV4 7AL.


Cognitivism, presently the major paradigm of psychology, presents a scientific account of mental life. Buddhism also presents an account of mental life, but one which is integral with its wider ethical and transcendental concerns. The postmodern appraisal of science provides a framework within which these two accounts may be compared without inheriting many of the assumed oppositions between science and religion.

It is concluded that cognitivism and Buddhism will have complementary roles in the development of a more pluralist psychological science. In this development it will be necessary to address what are the values that are implicit in science.


Buddhism qua religion, and psychology qua science might be expected to have little in common. Religion is framed as assertions of transcendental truth and depends for its authority on shared faith in revelation. It is thus and to that extent absolute and final. Science on the other hand is framed as theories of material truth whose authority rests in the degree to which they can withstand disproof. It is thus and to that extent relative and provisional. Science deals in public and explicit facts while religion deals with private and tacit beliefs. While science is taken to be value-neutral natural philosophy, religion transmits and re-casts a system of values. Accordingly, while religion can be relatively unconcerned about the mundane world, science, secure in its unique authority, takes no more account of religion than of any other system of culturally relative myth. It seems, then, that any significant interaction between the two is unlikely.

In the postmodern era, this caricature of the modernist divide between science and religion has far less force. A shift is taking place towards a more pluralist arena within which due weight is given to other cultural discourses which recognize the subjectivity of the human condition as well as objectivist science. Such a move, at the turn of the present century, echos the pluralist stance of William James who, at the turn of the last, found no difficulty in pursuing psychology as the Science of Mental Life while at the same time addressing the Varieties of Religious Experience.

There are at least two reasons why the assumed opposition of science and religion can be set aside when Buddhism and scientific psychology are considered. First, Buddhism is not a religion in the same sense as the Abrahamic religions to which the modernist division of science and religion applies most directly. It is especially inappropriate to identify Buddhism with faith, revelation, an immortal soul and a personified Creator. There is neither a Creator, nor soul in Buddhism and inasmuch as anything like faith or revelation is concerned, it is the confidence that certain teachings provide the means to know important facts of human existence. Since these teachings must be personally explored and tested, Buddhism is also a practice, an empirical mental culture which has been developed by systematic investigation rather than fixed by faith in revelation. It is in this sense that Buddhist and scientific psychology can be placed in relation and compared.

Second, psychology is not a science. Not, that is, in the modern positivist sense, because of the essential subjectivity of its central phenomenon, consciousness. Despite the enigmas of contemporary physics, modernist science continues to assume that its subject matter is independent of the human mind. It is this that makes it possible to believe that a positivist program can be pursued. Of course, the mind can be treated as if it were a material object. Indeed, most psychological studies of perception, memory are, in general, objective in the conventional positivist sense, and for most of its history psychology has marginalised phenomenology as part of a positivist program.

But this is to study the vehicle of mental life rather than the thing itself. To deal with the mind appropriately means that psychology needs to be fundamentally rather than incidentally concerned with consciousness. But consciousness, the principal and unique justification for the existence of psychology itself, is essentially a phenomenological matter, which means that it cannot stand as a science in the modernist, positive sense. If psychology abandons consciousness then it will be crucially incomplete. If it does not, then it perforce becomes a special case within positive science.

Scientific psychology presently takes cognitivism as its principal paradigm, replacing the behaviourism that dominated the discipline up to the late 1950's. In what follows, 'cognitivism' will be used as a collective term for what are variously refered to as, the information processing approach, functionalism, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, the cognitive approach and a variety of of other related terms. Cognitivism seeks a unified, formal theory of the rational component of psychological functions such as language, perception, memory and thought. The principal means to develop this formal theory is to describe the operation of the brain in computational terms. This is not just a metaphor. The brain is not studied "as if" it were carrying out some sort of computation. Instead, it is assumed that what the brain does can be formalised in terms of computational theory.

It is this effort after a unified formal theory that shows the degree to which cognitivism inherits the positivist program of modernist science. The effort is to perfect, through a program of theory development, computer simulation and empirical investigation, a unified, formal and mechanistic account of a particular level of mental life, that is, of rational cognitive processing. Once developed, this account will help to understand how other aspects of mental life, including intentionality, the emotions and subjectivity, are produced and supported by this level. This program has been very productive during the second half of this century and presently cognitivism exerts a great influence over most of psychology and over related disciplines.

Happily, unlike behaviourism, cognitivism does not reject consciousness. This, over the past decade or so, has made its way back towards the top of the psychological agenda. It would thus seem an appropriate time to consider the interaction that might be possible with Buddhism, where consciousness has been the focus of investigation for some twenty five centuries. We shall start by identifying some Buddhist sources and specifying in more detail the aspects of cognitivism with which they might be compared.

Buddhist texts and cognitivism.

Although Buddhism and cognitivism are situated within very different cultural and metaphysical frameworks, both deal with the workings of the mind, the mind body relationship and the nature of human action. Perhaps most significantly here, both present systematic systems of psychological enquiry. Accordingly, some attempt to bring the two into relation can be made so long as there is proper regard for what may and may not be compared.

The sources that have been used here are mostly early Buddhist texts. The developments of later periods has not obscured their fundamentally psychological nature. However, Buddhism addresses the transcendental context of the human condition and cannot be treated as if it were a Western scientific theory; there is no such thing as Buddhist psychology apart from Buddhism in toto. The psychological teachings of Buddhism must also be considered together with the practices of mental culture within which these teachings are comprehensible. Even so, the psychological content of early Buddhism is patent and deals with everyday cognitive processes such as perception, attention and feeling. This is what will here be called Buddhist psychology and which will be compared to cognitivism.

Buddhism presents, to a very rough approximation in Western terms, a phenomenological psychology founded on process metaphysics. Human mental life is portrayed as caught up in samsara, or the cycle of conditioned and illusory existence. The interplay of physical and mental causes are set out in the doctrine of dependent origination which describes the arising and the sustaining of the ego: a centre of awareness, affect, sensation, discriminative awareness, thinking, volition, action and consciousness. The real nature of samsara is obscured by ignorance, craving and frustration which distort psychological processes and lead to actions that, unless skilfully managed, entangle human beings more deeply in the cycle of conditioned existence. The result is that experience of the human condition is primarily one of dissatisfaction. The cure is to understand that the psycho-physical processes underlying the flow of human experience are not psychological absolutes, but skills that may be improved. Thus the purpose and character of Buddhist psychology is fundamentally therapeutic. The objective being to become more skilled in managing human mental life and to promote more satisfactory living.

Even from such a condensed account, it is clear that Buddhism presents many sharp contrasts with cognitivsm. While these place limits on integration between the two, they are no bar to quite detailed comparison. Broadly speaking, the more productive comparisons have not attempted to assimilate Eastern to Western views or vice versa but rather to place the two within a more inclusive context.

This integrative stance is in line with the postmodern appraisal of science in general and to psychological science in particular. A postmodern, pluralist psychology can reduce the assumed opposition between cognitivism qua science and Buddhism qua religion. Instead, it becomes possible to explore their similarities and contrasts as a mean to creating a more complete and developed science of the mind. Accordingly, the next section examines some ways in which cognitivism and Buddhism might interact.

Models of interaction.

Comparing Buddhism with cognitivism may be to make some sort of category error, in which case no significant interaction is to be expected. This null case inherits the assumed incompatibility of Buddhism and cognitivism from the modernist separation of scientific realism from religious transcendentalism. There is a prima facie case for the null model in, for instance, the clear methodological contrasts. The methodological stance of cognitivism is public and objective theory development. Buddhist practices are essentially individualistic, phenomenological and based on historically grounded teachings. Practices that might be represented in Buddhism as verification might, from a scientific point of view, be seen as indoctrination.

Given these and many other differences we could simply conclude that there can be no significant interaction. This may in time turn out to be the case, but as a way of proceeding, or not proceeding, it has little to recommend it. It is becoming clear that many assumed barriers to interaction result from a projective distortion of Buddhist thought which over-emphasises transcendence and obscures its empirical content .

The postmodern turn also encourages a move away from the null model. Recent discussions reveal that cognitivism is an eclectic arena in which different approaches to the mind may be brought into relation with one another. More broadly, it is now clear that science is more intimately embedded within a wider framework of cultural influences than was previously thought. Science is a type of collective cultural perception, rather than an isolated logical edifice. More specifically, Whiteheadian organicism is explicitly cited as a more appropriate philosophical base for a postmodern science. Process metaphysics is clearly more appropriate to organic sciences like biology and psychology and opens the door to a more detailed interaction with Buddhism. Partly as a result of these shifts in the view of science in general and of cognitivism in particular, there has been a recent upsurge of dialogue between Buddhism and scientists, including cognitive scientists.

The null model is unproductive and perpetuates the assumed incompatibility between religious and scientific accounts of the human phenomenon. This historically imposed difficulty need not hinder more productive models which assume that significant interaction is possible Once more specific issues are considered, for example the role of consciousness and the relationship between cognition and affect, the possibilities for interaction expand.

A more productive model of interaction might be to take Buddhism and cognitivism as offering complementary perspectives on the mind. Where one treats the mind as an external object the other treats it as something to be known through subjective experience; one emphasises individual investigation while the other adopts the collective consensual style of modernist science and so on. Complementarity may be appropriate in studies of meditation and other altered states of consciousness where Buddhism offers techniques to create altered states of consciousness while the West has technological means to study them. Here, Buddhism have a rich vocabulary while the West has powerful means to operationalise that vocabulary.

Jung found in Buddhism a significant complement to those elements of psychoanalysis, religion and science from which he synthesised his own views and practice. He was, however cautious on how far this synthesis might go. His view was that the over-rationality of Western scientism has created a collective psychic need for the mystical and transcendental elements supposed to be the essential characteristic of Buddhism. This makes it difficult for Buddhism to be appraised in the West without projective distortion. Thus Jung, while supporting the comparison of psychoanalysis and Zen, suggested that such work would be limited by deeply rooted differences in the cultural and psycho-historical contexts of the two subjects.

Another alternative to the null model is to propose that Buddhism and cognitivism will be found to resemble each other in some respects, even if theoretical grounds for this will be difficult to discover. Naturally, some degree of resemblance is to be expected. Equally, however, since the metaphysical basis and methods of the two systems are so different, it may not be possible to decide whether this resemblance is superficial or otherwise. Resemblances are easily identified, but explanations are more difficult to find. There are, for example, numerous studies of the resemblance between early Buddhist practices for behaviour change and contemporary Western psychotherapeutic techniques, especially behaviour therapy. Nonetheless it is unclear just how far this resemblance can be accounted for theoretically.

Of course, where therapeutic aims are to be fulfilled, resemblances may be accepted on pragmatic grounds. For instance , the similarity between Rational Emotive Therapy and therapeutic techniques based on Buddhist practices are clear, but are simply acknowledged without being analysed in any detail. Resemblances have also been identified in behaviour modification and psychoanalysis. It is no accident that these cases concern therapy. The essence of Buddhist psychology is therapeutic and significant correspondences with Western psychotherapeutic theory and practice are thus not so surprising, given their pragmatic character. What is perhaps more surprising is that the basis for these correspondences is often relatively precise objectives concerning changes in cognitive function.

However, progress beyond resemblance may be possible in respect of cognitivism given that it is underpinned by a more explicit theory. Perhaps the strongest alternative to the null case would be the claim that it is possible to put Buddhism and cognitivism into precise correspondence, despite apparent differences. Furthermore, Buddhism has had little or no recourse to physiology or to relatively technical matters such as information theory or formal linguistics. Also apart from these obvious differences there are less obvious but not less significant ones. For example, cognitivist methods are for the empirical development of a theory. Buddhist practices of mental culture are not for development of a theory but for its experiential verification and use. Buddhism changes slowly and, in as much as it transmits fundamental teachings, may even be said not to change at all. By contrast cognitivism, like any science, changes incessantly. Buddhism relies heavily on the experiences of exceptionally trained individuals while cognitivism relies on objective data, often averaged over groups of ordinary people. Although many studies of Buddhism and Western psychology have appeared all are cautious about precise correspondence between, say, specific psychological structures or the timing of mental events.

For the moment, the expectation of precise correspondence is not realistic. A mixture of resemblance and complementarity covers the present situation. It may be possible to move closer to a correspondence position in future. The questions is: how might this move be made? The next section examines how Buddhism might influence the development of cognitivism.

Buddhism and the development of cognitivism.

Cognitivism, like any science, is in a constant state of development. Specific, peripheral issues turn over rapidly while more general, central topics such as memory, perception and reasoning remain comparatively stable. Although subject to more measured development, these central topics, along with a distinctive methodology, maintain cognitivism's persistent identity. The lively activity of peripheral topics combined with longer term movements of the central ones gives the development of the whole an amoeba-like character. While movement of the central issues to some extent generates the activity in more peripheral ones, the peripheral topics are more reactive to the wider intellectual milieu, and transmit directive influences back to the centre. These influences include the image of science on which cognitivism models itself. This image is changing. The modernist unitary discipline, dominated by reduction and Cartesian mechanism is giving way to a postmodern pluralist discourse in which reduction is balanced by emergence and mechanism is tempered with Whiteheadian organicism.

Following the amoeba analogy, the development of cognitivism can be said to be the resultant of a complex of internal and external forces or indicator. It thus may be asked how Buddhism might play a role as either an internal or external indicator. As an internal indicator Buddhism might, in conjunction with contemporary research, be involved in the generation and testing of theoretical alternatives. As an external indicator Buddhism might contribute to the general direction of research and to the development of a more pluralist methodology. Illustrations of both these roles can be found.

Buddhism as an internal indicator.

An example of how Buddhism might act as an internal indicator is provided by the issue concerning the relationship of cognition and emotion. Until quite recently this question has been regarded as something that would have to be left until the cognitive bedrock of mental life had been located. As a recent historian of cognitivism puts it, there has been: "..... the deliberate decision to de-emphasise certain factors which....would unnecessarily complicate the cognitive scientific enterprise. These include the influence of emotions ....".

Cognitivism marginalises emotion as one of a number of factors that are somehow outside of cognition proper, that is, not necessary parts of it but rather optional adjuncts to it To consider these factors at the same time would be to obscure the rational foundations of cognition. Implicit in this approach is an ordering of objectives. First some understanding of basic cognitive mechanisms must be achieved; this is why a formal computational theory has been one of cognitivism's major objectives. After this, it is assumed, it will be possible to show how these mechanisms underpin other aspects of mental life, including, eventually, awareness and feelings. It is not that emotion is irrelevant, nor that it is a false category of mental life, rather it is that emotion is taken to be necessarily subsequent to basic cognitive mechanisms such as recognition, memory and judgement and these, therefore, must be understood first. The phenomenological world and its emotional accompaniment must wait its turn.

Cognitivism's treatment of emotion is predominantly concerned with its rational precursors and how it functions as an adjunct to processes such as attention, decision making or memory. A clear position on this issue is taken by Lazarus who suggests that cognitive interpretation necessarily and always involved in emotional responses and that, as he puts it, 'cognitive appraisal (of meaning or significance) underlies and is an integral feature of all emotional states.'

However, a number of objections have been raised against this view, from the very earliest periods of modern psychology and in more recent times, both from within cognitivism specifically and also from other perspectives, such as psychoanalytic theories of development. Even those taking a cognitivist line occasionally consider emotion as a deus ex machina to be invoked when pure rationality runs into difficulties. For example, the problem cognitivism has in accounting, mechanistically, for the ceteris paribus reasoning that is the hallmark of natural intelligence has led to the suggestion that emotions are involved in selecting between competing objects of attention or lines of inference. Likewise, cognitivists who have considered creative thought, often recognise that it is guided more by emotions and aesthetics than by reason and logic. Here, emotion is necessarily bound up in cognitive processes as they occur, not as something that emerges as a post hoc by-product. Thus, in sharp distinction to the position of Lazarus, Zajonc offers substantial support for the view that cognition is not the necessary precursor to all emotional reactions.

These positions on the relationship between emotion and cognition are clear and distinct. On the one hand emotion is taken to be involved in cognitive processes in such a way that cognitive evaluation is taken to be a necessary precondition for emotional experience. On the other, questions of order or precedence have relatively little meaning. Buddhism has a discriminative position on this issue, but before turning to it, is first worth considering another theoretical dichotomy, this time concerning conscious awareness.

Mandler contrasts two positions on the cognitive determinants of conscious experience. One, which he labels the identity view, takes consciousness to be an unprocessed reflection of autonomous cognitive operations. This position derives from theories which identify conscious experience with the input to the currently most dominant of a large number of independent, competing cognitive subsystems. This suggests that consciousness is post hoc, and that the workings of cognitive mechanisms autonomously determine the phenomenological flow. This recalls Thomas Huxley's comment that consciousness was as causally significant to the workings of the mind as the steam-whistle was to the progress of a steam locomotive. Such views of conscious experience portray it bobbing in the wake of self-determining cognitive mechanisms.

By contrast, a second view, which Mandler labels the constructivist position, presents consciousness itself as the autonomous element and the origin of freely chosen adaptive action. Under this view, most conscious states ".....are constructed out of ... preconscious structures in response to the requirements of the moment ... phenomenal experience is a construction ... " that is, a form of narration under personal control. This view takes consciousness to be part of human agency which composes other cognitive products into a phenomenological flow according to need. This is more in line with what folk psychology takes consciousness to be, the point of emergence of a flow of autonomous, self-directed action.

Of course, autonomy is a difficult matter. Consciousness, like cognition in general, is context bound both in the immediate sense of the internal and external conditions supporting it and in the longer term sense of the cultural patterns which influence it. Thus, while the contents of awareness may be autonomous to some extent, they nonetheless necessarily reflect the possibilities for action afforded by perceptual input, as has been emphasised by phenomenological psychology.

We now have two illustrations where Buddhism may help to decide between theoretical alternatives. In the first case, the question is whether cognition is emotion's only begetter or whether, following Pascal, we accept that emotion can have equally important precognitive roots. In the second case the question is whether conscious experience is a passive record of prior cognitive events or whether it is a form of narrative whose moment to moment structure is subject to tacit needs and socio-cultural beliefs.

With respect to the first case, Buddhism holds that although cognitive evaluation and recognition are precursors to emotion in certain cases, it is also clear that in a more significant sense, emotion is taken to be precognitive. Buddhist sources emphasise that emotion is a necessary accompaniment to all stages of the mind's workings. More importantly again, is the first result of sensory contact with the world. The emotional tone of all sensory and mental experience is the motor of mental life and the flow of human experience. The first consequence of sensory contact is said not to be sensation, recognition or awareness or any other cognitive activity but an emotional reaction. This supports a view of emotion as implicit any psychological process; emotion and cognition are necessarily interlinked. This casts doubt on the marginalisation of emotion on grounds of methodological hygiene. Emotion is primary, not secondary; as Langer claims: "Feeling .... is the mark of mentality". Donaldson too, in discussing the limitations of cognitivism's treatment of emotion, argues for more attention to Buddhist views.

Turning to the second case, it is clear that Buddhism draws something like the distinction between the identity and constructivist positions on consciousness While biophysical activity is recognised as necessary enabling condition for mental experience, a fundamental Buddhist principle of is that conscious awareness is structured according to values, views and needs, much as the constructivist position maintains. Indeed, since the flow of conscious experienced is thus liable to be distorted by craving and attachment this can become a source of error and suffering. Buddhist practice aims to free consciousness from these distorting influences so that, as the following quotation from the Suttas states: "In the seen there will just be the seen, in the heard, just the heard; in the sensed, just the sensed and in the cognised, just the cognised."

Buddhist teaching and practice have as their aim the more skilled management of consciousness and a lessening of emotionally distorted reactions to promote psychological insight and growth. In line with the constructivist position, Buddhist psychology implies that rather than being a passive record of cognitive mechanisms, the contents of consciousness are actively fashioned. Conscious experience is a construct not a trace.

To summarise, Buddhism promotes the image of emotion as a parallel accompaniment to cognition rather than a product of cognitive discrimination. It also promotes the image of consciousness as the active component in the construction of mental states and not the passive, post hoc trace of autonomous mental mechanisms. Thus we have two illustrations of Buddhism having a position on theoretical alternatives within cognitivism, that is, acting as an internal indicator.

Buddhism as an external indicator.

Given the postmodern context in which psychology will develop, Buddhism may also act as an external indicator in a number of ways. One example is the rebalancing between reductionism and holism. Cognitivism, following the model of positivist science, generally favours the former. Complex mental effects are to be understood by reduction to simpler causes such as neurological or information processing mechanisms. The reason being that were the mind to be addressed from the holist perspective, its component parts would be obscured. Only a thorough knowledge of these supposed components will do for a proper science of the mind; adopting cognitivism as the unified theory of psychology will avoid the discipline degenerating into mere relativistic phenomena collection.

But reductionism has consequences. Not only are cognitive processes to be decomposed, hampering proper phenomenological engagement with them but also cognition must be isolated from other aspects of mental life such as affect and volition. Such an approach is only justifiable if it is accepted that cognitivism model itself on those sciences where analytic reductionism has proved effective. But, as is proposed here, the subject matter of psychology is unique in a way that rules out taking other sciences as a model in this way. Therefore, this justification for analytic reductionism fails.

Following the postmodern turn, a more even balance is being sought between reduction and holism, particularly in the biological sciences. Reduction on its own cannot disclose the nature of organic systems, and it is clear that the mind is intimately bound up in such systems. The fragmented human image created by modernist science has long been resisted by some psychologists and there are indications that cognitivism is approaching a time of fundamental change and re-assessment. Over the last two decades there have been calls for psychological research to be re-contextualised in a framework of human motives. For example, even though most research on cognition and emotion is still heavily biased towards the primacy of cognition, there are now moves towards treating cognition and emotion together. While there are signs of change such as these, the position is still significantly short of the Buddhist view of emotion and cognition as inextricably entwined at the heart of the human psyche. It should be noted, however, that this view has in fact been been a clear if minor thread in Western psychological thinking, with roots stretching back through Spinoza and Vico.

There are also signs that Buddhism is indirectly contributing to a shift in the balance between reduction and holism within cognitivism itself. The search for formal laws of rational mental life has lead to the decontextualisation of cognition. Recent critiques advocating a more naturalistic, phenomenal approach are apt to cite Buddhist thinkers and philosophers who were influenced by Buddhism.

In the postmodern era, psychology is moving towards a holist, contextualised view of mental life. Experience and its biophysical vehicle are seen as different aspects of one system with mutually evolved parts. Such a view resembles the doctrine of dependent origination and is in line with developments within Western science more generally.

Buddhism advances a non-dual view of mind and brain and of the necessary integration of cognition with the emotions and the will. As a consequence, it rarely treats cognition in isolation since it does not operate in isolation. To do otherwise would perceive boundaries where none exist. The doctrine of dependent origination holds that the flow of experience is bound up with the activity of the body and the mind in a dynamic cycle of interacting causes. The emergent and self-maintaining structures produced by this cycle participate in what Whitehead has called the 'creative advance of nature'. Since there is such an affinity between process metaphysics and Buddhism, it is not surprising that Buddhist psychology emphasises that cognition, emotion and the will participate together in this creative advance. The purpose of this emphasis on the continuity and interdependence of psycho-physical causality is to increase awareness of the cycles of causation, both mental and physical, within which the mind arises and is sustained.

Critiques of modern psychology and its reductionist assumptions often note the weakness of its account of psycho-physical continuity and the negative image of the human condition it promotes. Postmodern psychology will be postcognitive psychology; a pluralist discourse in which cognitivism will participate with other traditions to create a more complete science of the mind. It is in this spirit that it has been suggested here that Buddhism may interact with cognitivism and thus play a role in the development of postmodern psychology. The final section of this paper looks briefly at one issue that this role may raise, which is the moral dimension of scientific psychology.

Consequences of interaction.

The interactions discussed here suggest Buddhism may interact with cognitivism as a kind of metatheory. However, given the diversity of Buddhism on the one hand and the volatility of cognitivism on the other, it is unrealistic to expect to reach any final state which resolves the incompatibilities and confirms the similarities between them. Rather, continuing efforts can be made to seek in Buddhism both an internal and external indicators for the development of postmodern science of the mind.

The postmodern turn has seen a critical re-assessment of science. Instead of the uniquely powerful investigation of nature, the idea is now about that science is but one of many culturally supported knowledge systems. Philosophers propose a range of views of science as an epistemological craft or practice with its own culture and fashions. Science is no longer privileged, scientific theories and the methods generated by them are not absolute and cummulative. They are provisional and subject to radical revision; not just in the Popperian sense of disproof, but in the deeper sense of being metaphors for a reality that cannot be directly known.

Science has meaning within a particular condition of culture. This hermeneutic stance is perhaps more true for psychological science, given the essential subjectivity of its subject, than it is for the biological or physical sciences. Even highly formalised cognitivist theories, such as those of Marr and Nishihara on early visual processing, are probably beyond the reach of objective disproof. They may, nevertheless, be productive when placed within a larger interpretive framework.

Generally speaking, philosophers of cognitivism have dealt with the plausibility of its findings and their implications for classic issues in the philosophy of mind. They have been less concerned with the effects of its efforts to adopt the methods and assumptions of positivist science. One of these effects is a tendency to develop elaborate theories of isolated parts of the mind while at the same time down-playing the nature of the whole. As one critical observer has put it: "modern psychology ... remains a system of observations and hypotheses, already compromised in advance by the fact that those who practice it are ignorant of the profounder nature of the phenomena they set out to study".

Now cognitivists might respond that rather than being ignorant of the mind's profounder nature, they merely have realistic aims. Furthermore, reductive methodology can be justified because of its success in other sciences. Accordingly, psychology seeks to isolate and formalise a particular level of mental life rather than to examine the mind in toto and at a more naturalistic grain.

But this is to import into psychology what Whitehead called 'the fallacy of misplaced concreteness' and to suppose that scientific explanation must necessarily be in terms of formal descriptions of atomistic particulars set in a static framework. As Whitehead put it, nature cannot be held still in order to be observed. Doing so obscures aspects of nature carried by patterns of organic relations, and the mind is just such an aspect. While reductionism is effective for disclosing the vehicle for these patterns, it is of strictly limited use in understanding how they participate in the activity of the whole. Such parts as reductionism discloses need to be contextualised in an framework or image of how the whole system acts. Within such a framework the physical, biological and psychological dynamics of the natural order are understood as parts of a mutually evolved system of organic relations. There is no need to search within this system for a particular level of organisation with privileged causal status,. Cognitivism's computational theory or the fundamental material grain of reality that was the grail of classical physics are chimerical objectives for science, since they correspond to nothing in reality.

Postmodern science is revising the place of the human phenomenon within the natural order. The eclipse of modernist science has created a productive metaphysical vacuum. Within it is growing the image of the mind as bound up with intrinsically self-organising patterns of biological and physical order. The human phenomenon is increasingly a focus in areas of science as diverse as cosmology and chemistry. Both Heidegger's analysis of technology's impact on human experience of the environment and Bergson's views on the experience of time are being re-examined, in respect of their implications for epistemology and psychology. Most importantly, Whiteheadian process philosophy is recognised as particularly appropriate for describing the mutually evolved network of organic causation within which mental life arises and is sustained. Appreciating this network more fully will provide a framework with in which the restrictive dichotomy between monism and dualism can be replaced by a mutualist view.

The mutualist view is that mind, brain and the patterns of activity which link them are supported within a web of mutually evolved organic relations. Although evolution is not an issue in many forms of Buddhism, this mutualist view has a great deal in common with the process metaphysics that is compatible with all forms. Accordingly, interaction with Buddhism could promote a broader organic contextualisation of cognitivism. It is significant in this context to note that recent critiques of cognitivism have objected to the neglect of the biological context of cognition.

As well as any theoretical changes that interaction between Buddhism and cognitivism would entail, it would also raise the issue of the moral dimension of psychological science . As Bohm has put it: "A postmodern science should not separate matter and consciousness and should not therefore, separate facts, meaning and value."

Presently a common view is that science only deals with epistemic values. If moral or ethical values do become attached to science, they are side effects of its influence on human concerns. Ethical, utilitarian and other non-epistemic values are secondary and contingently rather than necessarily attached to science. It is the uses to which science and technology are put that have moral consequences; thereby, and only thereby, does science enter the moral arena. Cognitivism, inheriting this positivist model of science, thus implicitly takes itself to be the rational and systematic acquisition of intrinsically value-free knowledge.

This view has, however, recently come under critical scrutiny. Part of the postmodern reappraisal of psychological science is the recognition that science inherently participates in the wider realm of culturally defined value. More deeply, the suggestion has been made that science taps a value system preceding that of human culture and one that is necessarily related to ethical and moral issues in ways that Buddhism has emphasised.

While the value dimension of cognitivism is contingent rather than necessary, the value dimension of Buddhism is necessary rather than contingent. Buddhism's concern with value arises from the doctrine of dependent origination and the place it gives to human action within the natural order. Human action is intrinsically value-laden by virtue of necessary cause and effect relationships that impose no qualitative break between physical, psychological and ethical matters. All action has a moral content over and above that stemming from any human code. Putting it broadly, there is no right and wrong but rather action and its consequences. Accordingly, Buddhist psychological insight is inherently value laden. It is in this sense that interaction between cognitivism, supposedly a value-free science, with Buddhism, an intrinsically value-laden practice, will raise moral questions.

Buddhism does not distinguish ethical and physical domains in the same way as Kant's distinction between physical laws and moral precepts. It may be for this reason that Buddhism often features in current discussions of environmental impact of technocractic culture. This impact has to do with running counter to patterns patterns of organic causality that presently lie outside the understanding of science and technology. These patterns include the causal links of mind and body which Buddhism maintains that it is possible to understand more fully by the training of awareness. This is one of the reasons why Buddhist psychology does not exist as a separate discipline: "....the nature of psychological phenomena cannot be completely separated from the underlying concept of reality in Buddhism - questions about the structure of the universe and the nature of man .....relate to physical and moral as well as psychological phenomena." The doctrine of dependent origination gathers mind, action and material reality within a single system. In this respect, Buddhist views will make a distinctive contribution to the debate on the values implicit in cognitivism and in science more generally.


This paper has emphasised how Buddhism may contribute to the development of postmodern psychology. It is clear, however, that influences will move in both directions, which may be to the advantage of Buddhism. Many Buddhist traditions rely so heavily on exceptional individuals that they tend to become arcane and authoritarian. This exerts an unhelpful selective influence on those who would take an interest in Buddhism. It discourages those who value the libertarian and humanitarian provenance of scientific culture and attracts those who seek, often uncritically, an alternative to an uncongenial scientific view. Informed interaction with cognitivism may serve to make Buddhism seem less esoteric to those who would otherwise reject it.

There is also the possibility that new and useful additions to Buddhist thought will occur. Cognitivism is, for example, more informed about the biophysical nature of the brain and offers a more innovative, open methodology for investigating the mind. Cognitivism, like any science, is in a permanent state of change while Buddhism is stable by comparison. While Cognitivism evolves rapidly through the conjectures and refutations of the scientific method, Buddhist teachings and practices change slowly, grounded as they are in a vastly more extended historical perspective. Buddhism, aiming to promote more skilful living, is practised as well as studied. Cognitivism, a supposedly value free inquiry into psychological reality, is studied rather than practised. Buddhism has the purpose of helping those who practice it to lead a more satisfactory life. Practitioners of cognitivism, by contrast, aim to add to knowledge of the mind qua object and do not expect to change much in the process. For cognitivism the theory changes while the cognitivist remains the same; for Buddhism, the reverse is the case.

In the postmodern condition, even such major differences are no barrier to exploring the many points of similarity which, apart from being productive, may also be desirable. Science has replaced religion as the modernist world view. In the process it has impoverished the image of the human condition within in the natural order. The Enlightenment may have removed a morass of repressive dogma, but a lot of security and comprehensibility of the world went with it. Instead of being special and valuable, the human condition is now merely an accidental and possible perverse complication in a universe which in reality merely comprises what Whitehead called the "meaningless hurrying of indifferent matter". Such a change cannot occur without psychological consequences. Enlightenment in the Buddhist sense is rather different. Bringing these two senses of enlightenment together in a postmodern science of the mind will help to replace human consciousness within the natural order.