We asked Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia’s research chair in Chinese thought and embodied cognition, about the rewards and opportunities available when science engages the contemplative traditions.
So-called “first generation” cognitive science was very much influenced by rationalist, disembodied models inherited from the past few hundred years of Western philosophy. According to thinkers like Descartes or Kant, human cognition is primarily concerned with abstract, amodal concepts, which are manipulated by conscious algorithms and then correlated in some way with sets of objects in the world. This view shaped the early cognitive scientific models that focused on “brains in a vat,” or cognition as platform-independent information processing.
The nice thing about scientists is that, although they are often saddled with incorrect or misleading initial assumptions, eventually an accumulation of empirical evidence can force them to change their views. Cognitive scientists fairly quickly began to realize that the disembodied, representation-only model of cognition didn’t make much evolutionary or neuroscientific sense, and they began casting around for other models. Interestingly, one source of inspiration they alighted upon was Asian thought, particularly Asian contemplative traditions. These traditions never went down the weird rabbit hole of disembodied thought and have always been about using embodied techniques to train the body, the emotions, and the imagina- tion. In many respects, their views of the embodied mind anticipated the relatively recent embodied or enactive movement in cognitive science.
The “embodied cognition” movement is now firmly entrenched in contemporary cognitive science. Since a few thousand years of very bright people focusing on a problem or set of problems can often produce interesting and useful results, cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that the techniques for self-cultivation, meditation, mindfulness, imagination extension, and ritual practice developed in Asian contemplative traditions have much to teach us about the integrated body-mind, the inextricable connection between emotion and reason, and the ways in which cultural training interacts with the embodied mind. Cognitive science stands to gain many powerful and unexpected insights, and the contemplative traditions themselves can only be enriched by being regrounded in a contemporary naturalistic framework. This sort of conversation strikes me as one of the more promising and exciting ways forward in the various fields of which I’m a part.
Edward Slingerland holds a BA from Stanford in Asian Languages, an MA from UC Berkeley in East Asian Languages, and a PhD in Religious Studies from Stanford University. His research specialties and teaching interests include Chinese thought, religious studies, cognitive linguistics, ethics, evolutionary psychology, the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences, and the classical Chinese language. He is currently a professor of Asian Studies, and the Canada research chair in Chinese thought and embodied cognition at the University of British Columbia.