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Cosmology & Consciousness Conference 2011

Cosmology & Consciousness Conference Abstracts

Life & Consciousness in the Universe

Are We Alone? The Search for Life in the Universe

Dr. Chris Impey bio
University Distinguished Professor, Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona

One of the most profound questions humans can ask about their relationship to the cosmos is whether or not we are alone as sentient beings on a habitable planet. In the past decade, astronomers have shown that planets form readily around Sun-like stars, and about 100 million habitable planets are anticipated in the Milky Way galaxy. It's not yet known if any of them host life, but unless the events on Earth that led to life and to intelligence were a series of flukes, we are unlikely to be alone. The modern search for life and intelligence is described, along with possible outcomes, and implications for our self-image and our relationship to the larger universe.

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Life & Consciousness in the Universe

Geshe Jangchup Choeden bio
Gaden Monastery

If we don't understand role of life and Consciousness in Universe then we may end up in doing lot of harmful things instead of good. What is life and what is Consciousness? When these things started? Where and how do these thrive? Is it possible to improve life and consciousness? If yes, how to improve them? These are tough questions. Different contemplative traditions and field of science tried to define the term "Life and Consciousness" yet there is no common agreement on the topic. How life and consciousness evolved in the Universe? Is a point pondered by great thinkers for thousands of years, yet there is no clear cut universally acceptable answer to this question. Somehow, many contemplative traditions of India have strong culture of study life and Consciousness, primarily to achieve (common human goal) happiness. It appears the mainstream community of scientist focused a lot on search of life outside the planet earth but ignored study of consciousness for long time. Somehow, many western psychologist inspired by eastern culture has tried to address importance of the study of Mind and Consciousness but research done in the field by them till today is limited. From Buddhist point of view Universe is just one whole township build up by building blocks of Consciousness and Matter. Out of them Consciousness has exceptionally greater and important role than matter in order to achieve common human goal happiness.

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The New Anthropocentrism

Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan bio
Professor, Indian Institute of Science

The end of anthropocentrism is one of the signature achievements of science; starting with Copernicus, we have progressively shifted the center of the universe away from human beings. As of now, we are just yet another species in yet another planet in yet another solar system in yet another galaxy (not yet another universe, though that might happen too). Human beings are no more than one object among an infinite array of non-human objects. When it comes to subjectivity, the same logic leads us in the exactly the opposite direction. As Descartes pointed out, the push towards objectivity is mirrored by a push towards certainty which leads us inexorably towards cogito ergo sum. In other words, the totally objective universe is mirrored and represented in my completely isolated and subjective consciousness. There is a dialectical relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. The more we dethrone anthropocentrism in the name of objectivity, the more we introduce subjectivity through the back door via consciousness and first person experience. Consequently, the mind sciences suffer from trying to reconcile subjectivity with objectivity while our conceptual framework prevents us from doing so. I think it is time to reintroduce a common-sense anthropocentrism. For one, it is obvious that I view the world through my eyes, not someone else's. The best we can obtain in terms of objectivity is positional objectivity; i.e., the maximally objective position from where I am. Secondly, our embodied knowledge systems – as opposed to the abstract Cartesian one – are designed to know the world here and now. In my presentation I will suggest an approach to the human world that is dialectical in the Madhyamika or Advaitic sense of that term and show how the interdependence of the subject and the object leads us towards a solution to some of the vexing questions in the mind sciences.

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Nature of Mind & Consciousness

Is Consciousness Produced by the Brain?

Dr. Bruce Greyson bio
Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia

Most Western neuroscientists assume that consciousness is produced in some way by the brain, although no mechanism has been proposed by which physical processes could produce thoughts, feelings, or sensations. However, there is a large body of empirical evidence suggesting that consciousness sometimes occurs in the absence of any brain activity. For more than 40 years, scientists at the University of Virginia have been studying phenomena that challenge the belief that consciousness is produced by the brain, including memories of past lives and "near-death experiences," in which complex thoughts, perceptions, and feelings occur while the brain is severely impaired, and experiencers report encounters with deceased persons and accurate perceptions from a visual perspective outside the body.

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Does One Need to be Conscious to Have Consciousness? : Buddhist & Neuroscientific Perspectives on Consciousness

Geshe Lobsang Negi bio
Professor, Department of Religion, Emory University

Neuroscientific approaches to the problem of consciousness are quite recent, and there is still no consensus among this community as to what qualifies as "conscious" or "consciousness". The Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, has concerned itself for millennia with the nature and functions of consciousness. As dialogue between the Buddhist traditions and modern science continue to grow, it is important that we clarify and carefully track the range of meanings associated with the term "consciousness". Whereas consciousness often refers to a minimum degree of self-awareness in modern science, the term carries a broad range of meanings in the Buddhist tradition. This talk will attempt to flesh out these important distinctions to help lay the ground for future dialogue.

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Limits of Knowledge & Knowing

The Boundaries of Science

Dr. Paul Doherty bio

The field of quantum physics, specifically Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the "role of the observer" in quantum experiments has extremely salient intersections with the Buddhist theory of Interdependent Origination, a profound teaching in Buddhism on the causality of perception and phenomena.

Interactive lectures and activities will explore connections between the two traditions. Monastics have deep questions about the atomic world and will have an increased capacity to discuss the profound findings of quantum physics as a result of the course.

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New Directions in the Dialogue Between Buddhism & Science

Dr. David E. Presti bio
Senior Lecturer, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of California, Berkeley

What can be said about the nature of the human mind, and about how mind is related to the physical properties of the brain and body? What can be said about the nature of physical reality, and about the structure of the observed universe? How might consciousness and cosmology be related? Twenty-five years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama initiated a dialogue with western scientists directed toward developing a deeper understanding of the most profound questions about existence. His Holiness drew attention to how the nature of mind and the nature of the reality are central questions both in contemporary science and in Buddhist philosophy. And since the investigative approaches in western science and in Buddhism are complementary, perhaps interesting new ideas might come from engagement in conversation. Indeed, fruitful new research directions in neuroscience and in psychology have come from this dialogue. Still, within the western scientific tradition, an understanding of how mind is related to everything else in the physical universe presents a deep puzzle. It may be that a paradigm shift in the metaphysical framework of western science will be necessary to take us to the next phase of more deeply understanding the nature of mind and consciousness and how they relate to the rest of physical science. How might such a paradigm shift even be envisioned? We will consider the following features: (1) that such a shift may include an experiential dimension present as a fundamental feature of reality, similar to the present status of space, time, and energy; (2) certain phenomena, considered anomalous within the current framework of western science, may point the way toward a new framework; and (3) quantum mechanics, the very successful fundamental physical theory describing the behavior of matter and energy in western science, may contain hints as to the nature of the new framework. This broad arena of discourse may be one in which the evolving Buddhism-science dialogue may forge powerful new collaborations.

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Awareness, Emotion & Behavior

The Relationship Between Sensory Consciousness & Mind Consciousness

Geshe Nyima Tashi bio
Sera Jey Monastery

In Buddhism there is an emphasis on the existence of the sixth sense – mind consciousness, and its functions regarding how the subject (the perceiver) engages the object (of perception). The perception of the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch all function through this mind consciousness, and without the mind consciousness there would be no perception. My talk will explore the Buddhist explanations of direct perception and the different levels of perception. Some of these are seemingly incompatible with modern neuoroscience, and I will try to share my understanding of mind and mental factors with some big ideas of neuroscience.

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The Neurology of Self-awareness & Buddhist Perspective

Dr. Sisir Roybio
Physics and Applied Mathematics Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

The developments in modern brain research attracted the attentions of present day scientists towards the epistemological issues associated to the age old theories of self-awareness developed in Ancient Indian traditions. At first, we need to understand: what is self or how self is being generated in the context of modern neuroscience? The first step in this direction is to resolve mind-brain problem. The present speaker follows the approach of Llinas regarding the relationship between the brain, body and the external world. According to this approach mind is considered as one of the "global functional state generated by brain" and the idea of "mind-brain" continuum is the key concept in this framework. The main hypothesis is that this "mind" or "mindness state" which may or may not represent external reality has evolved as a goal-oriented device that implements predictive/intentional interactions between a living organism and its environment. It is to be mentioned that prediction may be localized in the brain but does not occur at only one site of the brain. However, the predictive functions must be brought together into a single understanding or construct. The pertinent question "what pulls these functions together? Or what is the repository of predictive function?" Here, we call self which is the centralization of prediction According to this view the self can exist without awareness of its own existence. For the nervous system to predict, it must perform a rapid comparison of the sensory-referred properties of the external world with a separate internal sensor—motor representation of those properties. A novel approach called internal geometry or functional geometry associated to Central Nervous System (CNS) has been proposed and developed by Llinas and his co-workers to understand the functional role of neurons and their circuits related to predictability of brain. This development sheds new light on the issue of "self" or "generation of self" and "self-awareness".

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Body, Mind, & the Three Nyepa

Dr. Pema Dorjee bio
Senior Advisor, Mentseekhang, Dharamsala

The three nyepa (long, tripa and badkan) emanate from the three mental poisons (desire-attachment, hatred-anger and closed mindedness), and the three mental poisons from the self-grasping ignorance. These three nyepa act as a bridge between body and mind and activate the physical, mental and vocal activities of a person. These are also responsible for different kinds of human temperaments and emotion etc. These Nyepa in a balanced state are the seed of diseases while in an imbalanced state are the cause of all kinds of physical and mental diseases. In a nutshell, our body, mind and the three nyepa are all interrelated due to their common connection with the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space)

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Sleep: A window to evaluate neurophysiological correlates of higher states of Consciousness

Dr. P.N. Ravindra bio
Associate Professor, Department of Physiology, Neuroscience, Sri Siddartha Academy of Higher Education

Consciousness and its underlying psycophysiological attributes has been the greatest intellectual challenge for a spectrum of neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers. Waking, sleeping, and dreaming states are the three distinct states of consciousness that are routinely experienced and defined psycophysiologically. The waking state brings about a conscious experience with a subjective sense of awake, aroused, alert, or vigilant. These attributes during the waking state are associated with distinct activity with definite EEG wave patterns. Deep sleep state is induced due to functional differentiation with external stimuli. However, the literature on contemplative practices describes many other conscious self-aware states which are neither completely awake nor asleep. There are experimental evidences which have indicated that during meditation practices, EEG has a distinct feature of a unique state "with both restful and alertness." The trait effect of such distinct state is also demonstrated during deep sleep, with a distinct alpha-theta pattern along with delta waves, which aid in a rich subjective higher state of conscious experience termed as, "Transcendental Consciousness."

Such a higher state speaks volumes about the other possible ways of neural networking (thalamo-cortical interaction) that can take place which are neither in a tonially depolarized state (as in awake) nor a burst mode or hyperpolarized state (like that of sleep). How a thalamocortical network would get into such an intermittent and how such state is sustained is an intriguing question.

A thalamocortical system can integrate information by bringing about the synchronization of different areas of the brain, thus modulating the neuronal networks. Earlier studies have demonstrated that expert meditators can bring about such functional integration by inducing a high amplitude gamma synchrony, which is brought about by meditation practice. The extent and degree of the conscious experience is correlated to changes in neural activity. Emerging evidence has clearly demonstrated that a meditation practice brings about brain plasticity changes in neural networking. From our studies, we have demonstrated that long term mindfulness meditation practitioners retain SWS even in old age, thus establishing the plasticity changes and efficient information processing in the thalamocortical network. Hypothetically, these plasticity changes induced about by meditation practices probably would aid in getting acess to the other neural networks that would otherwise be insulated by routine conscious mundane experience.

The probable way how the different degrees of thalamocortical communication induced by meditation practices, along with plasticity changes, would aid in accessing another consciously occult network, thus bringing about a higher conscious state and experience, is the most challenging task and discussed in the presentation.

Watch the Presentation on YouTube! (48 minutes)

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