A Buddhist vs. a Materialist on Consciousness

Written on November 30, 2013. Written by .

This is a hypothetical conversation between a Materialist (who believes that consciousness arises from the physical world), and a Buddhist (who believes that everyone shares one consciousness).

Buddhist: How many consciousnesses does one person have?
Materialist: One.
Buddhist: What part of the body is responsible for the consciousness?
Materialist: The brain.
Buddhist: If someone’s brain is split in half by severing the corpus collosum, are they still conscious?
Materialist: Yeah, I’ve heard of those split-brain people. They are still conscious.
Buddhist: Is the consciousness located in one side?
Materialist: I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.
Buddhist: So there are two parts that can’t communicate, but are both conscious. Doesn’t that mean that there are two consciousnesses?
Materialist: I guess so.
Buddhist: Well if there are two consciousnesses, then were there also two before the brain was split in two?
Materialist: Well, maybe when they are connected they fuse into one consciousness.
Buddhist: Interesting. So if you take two conscious things and connect them in a certain way, they become one consciousness? What kind of connection would that require?
Materialist: The connection would have to provide some way to share conscious experiences.
Buddhist: What does “sharing conscious experiences” mean more technically?
Materialist: Inducing another mind into neural activity that corresponds to some conscious qualia.
Buddhist: Could that be done remotely? For example by implanting a radio to neuron interface into two people?
Materialist: Yeah, I don’t see why not.
Buddhist: Well, aren’t our eyes just like radio to neuron implants operating on a different frequency?
Materialist: Yeah, though they are input only. And it isn’t clear if they are transmitting the right information to qualify as sharing consciousness.
Buddhist: True, but if two people are looking at the same object, they will both experience a related conscious experience. And though their eyes are limited in output capabilities, they do have speech and movement.
Materialist: It’s still not the same as the connection between the left and right brains of one person. The number of neural connections is so much lower.
Buddhist: That’s true, but our senses are so fundamental to consciousness. Can you imagine what conscious would be like if you had no senses? A connection through our senses can be significant regardless of the number of neurons involved.
Materialist: Even if it is significant, I’m not sure if I would say that two people have “one consciousness” just because they are sharing and mixing their conscious states through their senses.
Buddhist: It seems to have all the properties you suggested, at least qualitatively.
Materialist: I guess it’s a quantitative distinction. I do see that there is a kind of overlap, but at the same time there is still separation.
Buddhist: That’s what we call non-dualism.

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