KARL JASPERS FORUM

TA109 (Bhatt)

 

Commentary 7

 

 

ABHIDHAMMIC  PERCEPTION

by William A. Adams

16 November 2008, posted 22 November 2008

 

 

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Prof. Bhatt’s essay on Buddhist theories of knowledge, logic, and language had more than I could absorb from one article so I will confine my comments to the first topic, an outline of perceptual cognition. 

 

I am not a Buddhist scholar and I have only the most superficial knowledge of the history of Buddhism, virtually no awareness of its various schools, and zero understanding of Sanskrit and Pali.  So my remarks on Prof. Bhatt’s essay may fairly be considered the drool of an idiot. 

 

Nevertheless, the article was presented to the KJF by Dr. Muller for consideration and discussion.  I take that as permission to risk inadvertently treading on toes of wisdom or accidentally offending sacred cows (assuming cows can be offended).  I hope to have my wayward ideas corrected in subsequent discussion.  

 

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The first section of Prof. Bhatt’s essay is a list of ten cognitive processes that constitute perception and cognition of objects in the world.  The essay does not directly give a source for that material, but I assume it is from the Abhidhamma, which was mentioned, and so that would date it from about the third century BCE, if I am not mistaken.

 

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Nearly all these ten cognitive steps are recognizable to me, as someone who has studied cognitive psychology and phenomenology. I will ruthlessly and shamelessly interpret the ten steps into my modern, western conceptual categories as a way of trying to understand what is presented.

 

It would be fruitful to draw from this cognitive sequence, implications for ontology and epistemology, to see if one metaphysical framework or another is supported. Alas, by the time I had mapped the ten Buddhist categories to my own, I was already over 3000 words, so I will count myself lucky to have simply understood what was written, leaving for a later time the drawing out of implications.

 

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The first Abhidhamma cognitive state, “Bhavanga”, is supposed to be comparable to dreamless sleep.  It is not just pre-reflective, but consciousness with no apparent content at all, impermeable to introspection. It is in that sense, a non-experience, the absence of psychological experience.  

 

I am not sure that this state of Bhavanga prevails “immediately prior to the appearance of any type of object”.  I believe that would  suggest an inappropriately passive account of how perception works.

 

 From ancient times, through Aristotle, up through Helmholtz and even among today’s representationalists, it has been assumed that perception (or at least, sensation) is passive reception of physical energy from the world and its transduction into neural energy. 

 

I am quite sure that view is wrong. There is sufficient evidence to support the alternative view that perception is an active, exploratory, cybernetic process.  (See for example, Gibson, 1966 and 1979; Powers,1973, Noe, 2004).  The eye is not a camera; the ear is not a tape recorder; the mind is not a wax tablet awaiting impressions. 

 

The implication that perception is passive is so wrong that I assume the ancient writers intended a different meaning, perhaps one more compatible with my view.

 

In phenomenology, “the object” is the phenomenal object, that which is given to consciousness.  Where it came from, whether sensation, memory or imagination, hardly matters (it matters a little). The important thing is that the mental object is at stage center, trembling in nervous anticipation of being analyzed to death. 

 

Prior to its phenomenal givenness, many complex cognitive acts transpired.  Working backward through that chain of events, one finds a point of non-dual consciousness that is virtually content-free, compatible with the emptiness of Bhavanga. However, I would not say that Bhavanga occurs immediately prior to the object being given in consciousness.

 

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Step two in the Abhidamma process is Bhavanga-calana (BC), a “vibrated” state of mind.  A vibration is an oscillation, and that requires two poles and some process that alternates between them.  The poles can be separated in time, space, voltage, or in this case, as the separate mental categories of subjectivity and objectivity.

 

I define the most rudimentary consciousness with content as a bipolar consciousness (Adams, 2005). If any of the three components is missing,  subjectivity, objectivity, or the process between them, there is no consciousness with knowable content, which is how Bhavanga was defined.

 

Why did Bhavanga have no content?  Because there was no object, and without an object, the bipolar structure is missing and no oscillation is possible. 

 

With the “appearance” of an object juxtaposed to subjectivity, the sufficient condition for the most rudimentary knowable consciousness is restored.

 

However, between steps one and two there are at least three intermediate steps not described in the Abhidhamma account.

 

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Bhavanga-viccheda (BV) is step three, but I don’t think it is a separate state of consciousness. Rather it is a description of the transition just discussed between Bhavanga, and the vibrational Bhavanga-calana. 

 

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Step four is Pancadvaravajjana (PA).  In the PA state, the senses are “alert to receive the impressions of an object.”

 

That again is an inappropriately passive understanding of sensation. Alertness is not sufficient. A more complete description would say that the subjective pole of the vibrational system (BC) emits an intentional act directed at an object.  That intentionality is expressed in the whole person/animal as bodily exploratory activity.  It might involve, for example, eye movements, sniffing, licking, walking around. 

 

Research has shown that when exploratory activity is inhibited or restricted, sensation does not occur or is severely degraded.  The sense receptors must be actively exploring in order to extract the invariant features of the objective environment.  (See for example, work cited by Gibson, 1979 and Noe, 2004).

 

The description of the PA state acknowledges that consciousness must “turn toward an object,” and that, I believe is the critical point.  The inherent directionality of intentionality defines “turning to the object.”    

 

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 Step five, Indriya/Cakkhu vijnana,  (ICV), discriminates the sensory modalities. It is obvious that we have discriminable sensory modalities.  You cannot see out of your nose, no matter how hard you try. 

 

But there are two difficulties.  First, what is the list of modalities?  Shall we accept uncritically Aristotle’s list (vision, audition, gestation, olfaction, haptics)?  The writers of the Abhidhamma could have derived their own list of five senses.  

 

Researchers in perception now keep a different list of sensory modalities.  For example, temperature and pain receptors are completely different systems, even though they are embedded within touch. Vestibulation (balance) is a separate sense. And so on.  So one difficulty with focusing on the importance of the sensory modalities is that they are usually not well enumerated, as is the case here.

 

The second difficulty is that distinctions among sensory modalities may be a product of haphazard evolution but not critical to how perception works.  Recent research on sensory substitution demonstrates that blind people experience genuine visual phenomena when they learn how to use an optical system that vibrates their hands (Google “sensory substitution” for details).  Blind users of  such vibrotactile systems can navigate novel environments and track the speed and direction of moving objects. This research is in early days, but it seems clear that as J.J. Gibson insisted, “You don’t see with your eyes!”

 

The  ICV description says “the object causes a sensation in the eyes.”  Does it matter if the receptors are in the eye?  If the reflected light triggers activity in a manufactured optical sensor which then triggers vibrotactile stimulation to the hands, that can work almost as well as a retina. 

 

Typically the eye responds to light, the cochlea to sound pressure, and so on, but I wonder if that is important. As long as a person has the opportunity to explore the environment by whatever means available, perception can result.  The doctrine of modal sensations may be a red herring.  

 

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The sixth step is Sampaticchana citta, (SC), wherein the mind discerns the presence of an object without identifying it uniquely.

 

Mechanical and electrical activity at the sensor now has become an awareness in the mind.  I think this reading must be wrong, for two reasons.

 

First, jumping the body-mind gap is not scientifically reasonable.  There is no conceivable way that physical processes of the receptors can become an intangible mental discernment.  It is not even allowed by the laws of physics, because no physical process can cause a nonphysical event.  This is the famous “hard problem” that plagues any physicalist world view.

 

It is unclear from Prof. Bhatt’s presentation what the Abhidhamma’s “position” is on the mind-body problem.  If the intent is not to imply that the sensory systems are physical processes, then what are the definitions of terms like “light” and “eye”?  If the perceptual system includes a nonphysical mind, then we have a dualism that must confront the gap.

 

The second problem with this description is that stimulation of the receptors does NOT invariably lead to discernment of an object in the mind.  Research on inattentional blindness makes this point dramatically. (See well-known demonstrations at http://viscog.beckman.uiuc.edu/djs_lab/demos.html ). 

 

We do not see what we are not attending to.  You can be sitting at a red light, staring at the signal when it turns to green and the cars behind you start honking.  You were looking right at it, the stimulation was reaching your retina but “you just didn’t see it.”  So I have doubts about the causal claim implicit in the description of stage SC. 

 

However, I think there is a better way to read stage SC.  According to Brentano (1874), each intentional act contains within it the seed of its object. He called this seed the “inexistent object,” because it is not quite a real object, only a quasi-object.  I have described it as a set of preconscious motivational specifications for an object (Adams, 2005).  It is a projection of a general outline for an object that, if it were perceived, would satisfy the intentionality of the act.

 

This inexistent quasi-object, also called a “self-object” (Adams, 2007), is compatible with the Abhidhamma’s description of stage SC.    

 

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Santirana citta (SNC) is the seventh step, in which the discerned quasi-object  is investigated, with the aim of identifying its nature.

 

I think this step is redundant with step 4 (PA), which entails active, intentional exploration and investigation, physical and mental. 

 

Even in prelinguistic humans and non-human animals, there is a considerable amount of non-conceptual, or proto-conceptual investigation and categorization of features of the environment (See for example, Bermudez, 1995; Klatzkey et al., 2008; Margolis and Laurence, 2007). 

 

 

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Votthapana citta (VC) is the eighth step, in which the quasi-object is resolved into a full-fledged discriminated object that can be named.

 

At face value, this step implies well-developed, linguistic, conceptual capacities of discrimination and identification that are only present in the highly socialized mature person, and that seems like a special case of the more general process. 

 

While high level cognitive processing does occur, and is the essence of phenomenological analysis, this is either redundant with other descriptions of investigation (Step 4, PA), or it should be deferred to a separate discussion of post-perceptual cognitive analysis.  

 

As for the mention of free will in step VC, I will avoid addressing that to keep this comment as short as I can.

 

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Step nine is Javana citta (JC), a valenced attitude of mind toward the object. The object is apprehended with valence, either positive or negative, which results in the subject either accepting or rejecting it. 

 

This description associates valence and morality, a connection I agree with but which I will avoid discussing in this comment.  It is also stated that this step of cognition takes seven times longer to complete than most other steps.

 

There is a lot to consider here. I agree that every perception, and indeed every cognition, is valenced according to how well it satisfies the intentional act that led to it. Satisfaction is the complement of intentionality. 

 

Subjectivity accommodates the intentionally targeted object to itself,   metaphorically annexing it, transforming it from object to subject.  That destroys the object qua object.  Hegel called this process “sublation.”  I call it accommodation (Adams, 2005, 2007).  Subjectivity accomplishes accommodation by redefining the boundaries of self and not-self, so that the object is now included as part of self.

 

To the extent that the targeted object is a self-object, that is, an object recognizable by subjectivity as a projected objectification of itself,  accommodation and satisfaction are more complete.  That defines positive valence. The converse would be negative valence. 

 

In everyday terms, we might see our own image in a photo and exclaim, “Hey, that’s me!”  That would be a moment of self-recognition and positive valence. We easily recognize our own creative products: “I made that.”  We say, “That is my signature, my car, my town, my idea, etc.”   Self-objects are more readily recognized than not-self objects, whether they are physical or mental.

 

I have oversimplified this cognitive step in the interests of brevity, but I would add that the difference between thinking and introspection is precisely this step.  If one does not make an explicit comparison between the self and the not-self aspects of the object, one is merely thinking about the object.  If one does make the comparison explicitly, one not only accommodates the object but ascertains one’s noetic relationship to it, and that is the quality of introspection.   

 

What about the claim that the JC step takes seven times longer than most other cognitive steps?  We have few metrics for timing mental processes.  The 19th century  Donders interference design was a landmark in mental chronometry (see www.chss.montclair.edu/psychology/museum/mrt.html). Nevertheless, using behavioral reaction as an index to the duration of mental events is fraught with interpretive error. 

 

More recently, researchers like Libet (2004) have used verbal reports to index mental timing, but I think that method is even more difficult to interpret than reaction time measures. 

 

I used an introspective method described in Adams, 2007, to determine that transitions between mental states take no time (zero), but the mental states themselves endure for measurable durations. For example, I clocked (very roughly) 1/3 second duration for each of three consecutive states: VC, JC, and VC again. This is clearly a topic that needs a lot more investigation.  

 

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The last cognitive step in perception, according to the Abhidhamma, is Tadalambana citta (TC).  The description of this state does not reveal much: “functioning on the object.” 

 

Read literally, it could be taken to refer to instrumental action toward the object, such as making a verbal report, pressing a buzzer, or mnemonic encoding.  However those are consequences or follow-ups of perception , not really part of the perceptual cognition itself.

 

Alternatively, one could read TC as the infinitesimal moment at which the object is accommodated to subjectivity.  At that moment the object ceases to exist as part of the landscape of objectivity because it has become absorbed into subjectivity, thus eliminating one pole of the structural requirement for bipolar, or vibrational consciousness (BC, Step 2). 

 

Without that polarity, perceptual cognition (indeed any kind of normal cognition) can no longer function and ceases to exist at that moment, throwing us back to step one, Bhavanga,  whereupon the cycle repeats.

 

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Summary:

I have interpreted Abhidhamma’s ten cognitive steps of perceptual cognition according to scientific research and introspective analysis, as a way of comprehending what was presented. 

 

Adams Step

Adams Description

Abhidhamma Step


1

Nondual, non-polar consciousness of  non-experience

Bhavanga – Step 1


2

Unipolar subjectivity is motivated to address alterity

Not covered, or possibly Step 3 (BV).   


3

Unipolar subjectivity projects a creative act of self-objectification in a directed intentional act lacking commitment to exploratory action.

Not covered


4

Unipolar subjectivity inhibits its self-projection with an act of self-alienation.

Not covered.


5

The disavowed intentional gesture becomes a reified quasi-object constituted of what was formerly subjectivity.

Step 6 (SC)


6

The inexistent quasi-object is sufficient to re-establish conditions for ordinary cognition.

Step 2 (BC).


7

Subjectivity emits an ordinary, full-fledged intentional act targeted at the “new” object, a self-object now embedded in the context of objectivity.

Step  4 (PA)


8

Subjectivity discriminates the targeted object from its context. 

Step 8 (VC)


9

Subjectivity assesses the valence of the targeted object in its context, either explicitly (introspective mode) or tacitly.

Step 9 (JC)


10

Subjectivity accommodates the object to itself by redefining itself.

Step 10 (TC)


1

The polarity between subjectivity and objectivity is momentarily destroyed and ordinary cognition ceases, a return to Step 1.

Step 1 (Bhavanga)

 

A re-statement  of Step 2 (BC)

Step 3 (BV): establishment of bipolor consciousness from nondual consciousness.

 

Not covered as a separate step, although implicit in my interpretation of Step 4 (PA), which entails exploratory action.

Step 5 (ICV): identification of sensory modality

 

Not covered as a separate step, although implicit in my interpretation of Step 4 (PA), which entails exploratory action.

Step 7 (SNC): intellectual investigation of the object

 

At the end of this comparison, I am amazed that people in the third century BCE could have analyzed perceptual cognition to this level of detail without the benefit of scientific research.

 

While I am not satisfied that the two analyses are compatible, I am surprised at how many points of similarity there are.  Where there are important differences, I am motivated to investigate further.

 

There is more to consider in Professor Bhatt’s paragraphs [6] through [10] but in the cause of brevity, if that cause is not already lost, I forego. 

 

Finally, a reader may legitimately ask, who am I to question third century Buddhist scholars on such matters as this?  I am nobody.  But this is my story and I’m sticking to it.  

 

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REFERENCES

 

Adams, W.A. (2005). What Does It All Mean? Exeter, U.K.: Imprint Academic.

 

Adams, W.A. (2007).  Empirical Introspection.  Unpublished manuscript. Available online at http://members.bainbridge.net/~bill.adams/e-introspection.htm#Empirical%20Introspection

 

Bermúdez, J.L (1995). Ecological perception and the notion of a nonconceptual point of view.  In Bermúdez, J.L., Marcel, A. & Eilan, N. (Eds.) The Body and the Self.  Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press, 153-173.

 

Brentano, F. (1973). Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original published in 1874).

 

Gibson, J.J. (1969). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

 

Gibson, J.J. (1979).  The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

 

Klatzky, R.L., MacWhinney, B., & Behrmann, M. (Eds.). (2008). Embodiment, Ego-Space, and Action.  New York: Psychology Press.

 

Libet, B. (2004). Mind Time. The Temporal Factor in Consciousness Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (2007). Creations of the Mind: Theories of artifacts and their representation.  New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Noe, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

Powers, W. (1973) Behavior: the Control of Perception. Piscataway, N.J.: Aldine.   

 

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Bill Adams

     e-mail <bill.adams(at)bainbridge.net>