L&S Curricular Connections

Big Ideas Courses

Letters and Science 124

Consciousness: Buddhist and Neuroscientific Approaches

Philosophy and Values

Twenty-five years ago the Dalai Lama suggested that a dialogue between Buddhist practitioners and Western scientists interested in the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the world might lead to new ideas and be of benefit to both the Buddhist and scientific communities. While science and religion are not generally considered to be natural collaborators, the dialogue that ensued quickly gained momentum and catalyzed new strands of research, most notably in the area of the neuroscience of meditation and emotion. Coming from our two disciplinary perspectives (Buddhist studies and neuroscience) we have found ourselves intrigued, excited, and at the same time critical of the Buddhism/science dialogues. We will, in our own way, carry on this dialogue among ourselves, first by laying the necessary groundwork in our respective fields, and then by exploring areas of convergence and divergence around certain themes. The process will include reflection on fundamental epistemological and metaphysical commitments in both traditional Buddhist thought and contemporary biological sciences.

The first half of the semester will present, in alternating weekly lectures, basic concepts and assumptions in the fields of Buddhism and neuroscience as they relate to the study of mind and consciousness. On the Buddhist side this will include lectures on the origins and fundamental tenets of Buddhism, including Buddhist cosmology, soteriology, and metaphysics; Buddhist philosophy of mind, self, and consciousness; and Buddhist meditation theory. On the science side this will include central concepts of contemporary neuroscience, as they have developed within the historical trajectory of Western science, including evolutionary biology, chemistry, and physics; nervous-system structure and function and approaches to linking brain physiology to notions of mind, self, and consciousness; and Western science perspectives on the mind-matter relation more generally. The second half of the semester will explore areas of convergence and divergence, focusing on such themes as: (1) varying accounts of the emergence of self and mind (both evolutionary and phenomenological perspectives), (2) the problem of free will and determinism, (3) the origins of life and the distinction between sentience and insentience, (4) death, and (5) the meaning of life.

David Presti faculty profile
David Presti (Neuroscience)
Robert Sharf faculty profile
Robert Sharf (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

Terms Offered

  • Spring 2017
  • Spring 2014