Last Friday Georges Dreyfus came to give a talk at Chula on “Self and Subjectivity: A Middle Way Approach” where he argued for a role of Yogacara in solving a dilemma in current philosophy of mind. It was quite well attended. Around twenty-five people came, which is a bit unusual for talks as difficult and technical as this one.
The problem for Georges, and also for philosophy of mind in general, is how to account for the mind and consciousness. On the one hand there’s the Cartesian dualist position, which holds that mind does exist and that body does exist. The problem for this position, as is well known, is how to explain how the two interact with one another. If mind and body are two distinct substances, then how one can influence the other. On the other hand, there’s the “reductionist” one a la Daniel Dennett. Here mental facts reduce to physical ones. The fact that I am conscious, for example, is reducible to my brain states. My brain states’ being in such and such pattern constitutes my having this type of mental phemenomena. For Dreyfus this account is also unsatisfactory because it is materialistic and could not account for the obvious fact of our being conscious and especially our subjective phenomena.
So Dreyfus would like to propose a “middle ground,” so to speak. Based on an interpretation of the Yogacara, especially that of Vasubandhu, he argued that, instead of consciousness being intentionally related to an outside object, consciousness does relate to some kind of its own representation. So instead of the direct realist picture where the mind perceives external object tout court, the mind does relate to representations of external object without being directly related to them. This is a key idea in Vasubandhu, and is quite common in the Yogacara’s account of how perception does in a way alter the very nature of things perceived. For example, for us human beings water appears as what it is to us, namely as clear liquid we can drink, bathe in, and so on. But for the hungry ghosts what appears to us as water appears to them as pus and urine. But what is what the water really is? There is no answer to that because what appears to a being is as real to them as it can be. “Pus” and “urine” are as real to the hungry ghosts as “water” appearing to us.
So instead of consciousness being either dualistically there, or reducible to physical states, it depends very much on interaction with the physical so much so that they neither are wholly reducible to matter, nor are they totally distinct as Descartes had it.
The Yogacara has been consistently charged with being idealistic. If there is no way out for consciousness except relating ultimately to itself in the form of the representation, then there is no way for consciousness and the physical world to meet. By proposing the “reflexive” character of consciousness (rather than the “reflective one which presupposes ontological existence of external objects), the Yogacara has a relatively easier time accounting for how what we perceive and how we perceive are intimately connected.
This is very heady stuff. Perhaps we should understand this better if Georges did give something to us to read. But unfortunately he did not, so that will be a subject matter for the future.