Throwing Away the Ladder

Saturday April 3, 2010


It’s the day before Easter, and I’m sitting outside in the sunshine with a pot of Chinese tea, trying to convince myself that it’s warm enough not to be holed up inside. There’s an April chill in the air, and I suspect that the cold will be cumulative, so I’ll make this post relatively short. Still, it is nice to see the sun again, and to sit here listening to the birds twittering and bumble bees chugging around and the distant sounds of traffic and barking dogs. And it’s nice to be away from my philosophy books for a while, after quite a few days of intensively reading about all things Wittgenstein for a book I’m working on (which is one – but only one – reason for the title of this post).

What I want to write about here, however, is not Wittgenstein, but something I came across a couple of days ago whilst reading the New Scientist. Last week’s edition carried a brief article which asked the intriguing question how many ways can we be conscious? The article suggested that consciousness is not a simple either/or business (either we are conscious or we are not), but that there is increasing evidence that the kinds of things the brain does are much more intricate and many-layered than this.

Now the idea that there are different kinds of consciousness is one that is familiar within the Buddhist tradition, where there are all kinds of rankings of states of mind, for example the familiar list of hierarchically-ranked dhyānas. The idea of a hierarchy of consciousness is one that I think is deep-rooted in us. It appears in the New Scientist article as well, which ends by saying “consciousness is looking increasingly like a ladder rather than a light switch.”

This tendency to see consciousness hierarchically may, however, be the very thing that gets in the way of understanding the real implications of what is going on here. After all, it’s all very well to loaf around all day in the “higher” states of dhyāna, and these may indeed feel higher as one sits on one’s cushions. But it is not clear in what sense they could be considered “higher” if we wanted to do something more practical like pilot a plane or perform brain surgery. I’d choose a brain surgeon with ordinary everyday bog-standard consciousness (whatever that might be) over fourth-dhyāna consciousness (whatever that might be) any day…

Leaving aside metaphors of ladders and ideas of hierarchy, the fact that what we designate as “consciousness” is not one but many things, that there is a multiplicity of different kinds of mental states, and that our binary opposition “conscious/unconscious” is not up to the task of talking about this multiplicity of states, is one that should give philosophers of consciousness pause. What, after all, is philosophy of consciousness actually about, if we start finding that our notion of consciousness itself begins to fragment in this way?

# · Jayarava

Hi Will.

I’m also reminded that with reference to consciousness the Buddha seems to have always talked in terms of arising. I’ve been arguing for a while that pratitya-samutpada primarily applies to the arising of mental processes. There are certainly conditions for this, and consequences afterwards, but the focus is on the arising of consciousness.

Another model of multiple types of consciousness is that consciousness is named after the sense it occurs in relationship to: sight/audio/olfactory/gustatory/tactile/mental-object -consciousnesses. With the last processing input from the first 5, as they produce mental objects in response to contact.

The image of a ladder may be applied also to what Sangharakshita called the spiral path (h actually had a helix in mind); and Bhikkhu Bodhi called transcendental dependent-arising (following the Pali commentarial tradition): this is also primarily about the arising of mental and hedonic states.


# · roni

Hi, Jayarava. May I add Bhikkhu Bodhi’s explanation here? I think it’s a wonderful exposition. www.accesstoinsight…. Greetings from a Hungarian Buddhist :)

# · David Chapman

The idea that there are discrete “levels” or “states” of consciousness goes along with the (usually implicit) idea that there is a unitary “mind”. Presumably a unitary mind would have only one, unitary sort of consciousness at a time.

While the unitary mind conception is persistent, it is clearly false. Neuroscience teaches that the brain is a big messy kludge, with innumerable interacting semi-indendent parts, so we should be unsurprised that the mind is the same way. (As you argued yourself a couple years ago in an insightful essay that I really mean to reply to at length someday.) “Consciousness” does not seem to be localizable in one part of the brain; it’s a loose name for various forms of interaction between parts. The article you reference suggests that there are many “states of consciousness”, but more important is that any one “state” is actually a complex dynamic process, involving several different things observing each other.

One of the things I meant to say about that essay of yours is that you might find interesting the work of Marvin Minsky. He was one of the founders of cognitive science. His research program for 50+ years has been based on asking “how can intelligence arise out of unintelligent pieces?” (As it must unless one takes a hard dualist line on the mind-body problem.) The tag line for his work is “society of mind”. His general answer is that there can’t be a unitary “mind” or “self”; explanations must be couched in terms of complex interactions between less-intelligent pieces. One of the issues he addresses is why the illusion of unitariness is persistent. This may have some relevance to the issue of anatman.

Presumably the same general argument goes for “consciousness” as for “intelligence”.

Best wishes,


# · Kate

Hi Will,

Here’s me with my simplistic point of view again.

As you say consciousness is a ladder. You can rise up it (with practice) and down it as you choose. When you are able to reach higher states of consciousness it’s easy to come back down again to do your brain surgery. I would rather have a brain surgeon who has the ability to reach those higher levels of consciousness when he chooses, as I feel that his at-will connection with the Buddha consciousness can’t fail to have a positive effect on him, maybe including increasing his surgical skill (?).


# · Will

Hi, Kate. What I’m saying, I think, is that to see consciousness as a ladder may be to force the various phenomena into an evaluative framework that may not help us to think about the various things that our minds do. Having said this, you spotted the slightly questionable move that I made in the piece above. We might not want a surgeon who was in dhyana operating on us; but we might prefer a surgeon who was capable of that degree of mental stillness and absorption.

I should look at more of Marvin Minsky’s work, David. As you say, the idea of a “society of mind” may have some bearing on the idea of anatman.

Thanks for bringing up the five sense consciousnesses, Jayarava, which is useful in this context (at least as a way of talking about different kinds of consciousness that are not ranked in a hierarchy). I’m not sure what a mental object is, though. I’ve been sitting here trying to see if I can find any, and I’m not sure I can. Having said this, I’m not sure I can’t. They seem like fairly robust phenomena, but they dissolve, as the Gelug folks say, under analysis.

# · icra ihaleleri

Thank you very much for sharing. To help me..

# · Seinbeetre

Its the same mistake over and over again.
There is no ladder and neither is there a hierarchy accept from the subjective point of view of being in one of those states of mind(consciousness).
Its the same with ethics. Just stop judging things as good, bad, worse or better. A rock is a rock just like a human shooting a human is a human shooting a human. It only becomes undesirable in our world of mental constructs.

One of the biggest strengths and at the same time weaknesses of humans is to constantly have to group and order things. There is no order but the order imagined in our minds. Enlightenment is being in a state of mind when the mind does not judge or classify.

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