Mind or Brain?

Andy Karr on the nature of consciousness—and what it means for scientists and spiritual seekers.

Andy Karr
31 January 2024
Photo by Michael Dziedzi

That little voice that’s narrating your experience as you read this—is it in your mind or in your brain? At first glance, this might seem like a stupid semantic question. But it cuts to the heart of a weighty dilemma for modern science that also has profound implications for Buddhist practice. 

Common sense tells us that brains and minds are not the same. Brains are physical. Minds are not. More generally, it seems obvious that matter and mind are different things. This commonsense intuition has been enshrined in Western philosophy since at least the time of Plato and Socrates. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes elaborated this distinction as a duality of substances: matter is spatially extended, and mind is “a thing that thinks.”

The intellectual tides of modernity began to turn against dualism toward the end of the nineteenth century. As the natural sciences, with their emphasis on objective phenomena, demonstrated remarkable powers over the natural world, scientists and philosophers began to ridicule the idea of a mental substance. The emerging premise, that whatever causally contributes to physical events must be physical, led many to assume that mind must be reducible to matter, or that mind is just what the brain does. This is a metaphysical belief known as materialism or physicalism.

Late in the twentieth century, the materialist tide started to recede, as challenges to the dominant materialist/physicalist narrative accumulated. Various philosophers of consciousness pointed out an unbridgeable explanatory gap between brain and mind. David Chalmers called this the “hard problem of consciousness” and described a series of thought experiments that suggest that mind is a fundamental property of nature. Galen Strawson wrote this about materialism: “There occurred in the twentieth century the most remarkable episode in the history of human thought. A number of thinkers denied the existence of something we know with certainty to exist: consciousness, conscious experience.”

The early Buddhist schools also divided reality into mental and physical phenomena. Around the beginning of the Common Era, this view was challenged by the emergence of the Mahayana. Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, used reasonings to show that all phenomena are dependently arisen appearances, empty of any nature of their own. Later, Asanga and Vasubandhu, founders of the Yogachara tradition, went further. They showed that all phenomena are merely cognition, free of the duality of subject and object, matter and mind.

These Mahayana insights mirror those of contemporary thinkers who point to the primacy of mind, reasoning that all of science exists only within people’s minds, and that science’s observations, theories, and models are not part of the furniture of reality. As philosopher and cognitive scientist Evan Thompson put it, “There’s no way to step outside consciousness and measure it against something else. Science always moves within the field of what consciousness reveals; it can enlarge this field and open up new vistas, but it can never get beyond the horizon set by consciousness.”

Buddhist practice helps us determine what causes suffering and what causes suffering to decrease, so that we may forsake the causes of suffering and choose the causes that decrease it. Contemplative science, through its third-person methodologies, can enlarge our conceptual understanding of these causal relationships, but putting this knowledge into practice will always be a first-person affair. It’s through working with the mind that we transform our experience.

The ultimate Buddhist goal is not just reducing suffering; it’s fundamental liberation from the chain reactions that bind us in samsara. Liberation comes from recognizing the nature of the mind that’s the source of both bondage and liberation. Looking directly at the mind is beyond the domain of science. It’s first-person investigation, the heart of meditation.

Now, try a little experiment. Look directly at your own experience. Do you experience a brain or the mind?

This article is from the March 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Andy Karr

Andy Karr

Andy Karr is a Buddhist teacher, author, and photographer who offers profound insights into dharma and mind. Karr trained under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche before moving to Paris in 1979, where he co-founded the first Shambhala Centre in France. Karr is the author of Into the Mirror and Contemplating Reality and the coauthor of The Practice of Contemplative Photography. He continues to teach meditation, the Mahayana view, and Mahamudra. Learn more at www.andykarrauthor.com