Life & Consciousness in the Universe

Are We Alone? The Search for Life in the Universe

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

CCC_ChrisImpey_2011Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department at the University of Arizona, in charge of academic programs. His research is on observational cosmology, gravitational lensing, and the evolution and structure of galaxies. He has over 160 refereed publications and 60 conference proceedings, and his work has been supported by $20 million in grants from NASA and the NSF. As a professor, he has won eleven teaching awards, and has been heavily involved in curriculum and instructional technology development. Impey is a past Vice President of the American Astronomical Society. He has also been an NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, and the Carnegie Council on Teaching’s Arizona Professor of the Year. Impey has written over thirty popular articles on cosmology and astrobiology and authored two introductory textbooks. His has published three popular science books: The Living Cosmos (2007, Random House), How It Ends (2010, Norton) and How It Began (2012, Norton). He has three more popular books in preparation. He was a co-chair of the Education and Public Outreach Study Group for the Astronomy Decadal Survey of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has participated in the Science for Monks program since 2008.

Life & Consciousness in the Universe

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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Geshe Jangchup Choeden, Gaden Monastery

CosmologyConsciousnessConference2014_bannerKhen Rinpoche Jangchup Choeden is abbot of prestigious Gaden Shartse Monastery, located in State of Karnataka, South India. For many years, he learned Buddhist philosophy under the great masters and abbots of the monastery. In the year 1997, he was awarded the Lharampa Geshe and later in 2007 he received Ngagrampa in Tantric studies from famed Gyuto Tantric University. He is fluent in many languages and has traveled extensively to teach Dharma throughout America, Europe and Asia. Before becoming the abbot of the monastery he held several administrative posts at the monastery, including the General Sectary of the Education Development Project. In 2009 His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed him the abbot of the Monastery. Completing two years in the post of the abbot of the monastery, he has supervised a successful visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Gaden Shartse Monastery in February 2011.

The New Anthropocentrism

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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Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan,Professor, Indian Institute of Science

CCC_RajeshKasturiranganRajesh Kasturirangan research interests are in cognitive science and philosophy of mind. His current work relates to applying a combination of philosophical argument, mathematical techniques and empirical observations to classical problems in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind such as the semantics of natural languages, the epistemology of beliefs and the structure of intentionality and consciousness.

Nature of Mind & Consciousness

Consciousness Produced by the Brain?

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

CCC_BruceGreysonBruce Greyson, M.D., is the Chester Carlson Professor of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He was a founder and Past President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and for 26 years edited the Journal of Near-Death Studies. Dr. Greyson graduated from Cornell University, received his medical degree from the State University of New York Upstate Medical College, and completed his psychiatric residency at the University of Virginia. He held faculty appointments in psychiatry at the University of Michigan and the University of Connecticut, where he was Clinical Chief of Psychiatry, before returning to the University of Virginia, where he has practiced and taught psychiatry and carried out research since 1995. His research for the past three decades has focused on near-death experiences and has resulted in more than 80 presentations to national scientific conferences, more than 100 publications in academic medical and psychological journals, and several research grants and awards. He is the co-author of Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (2007), and co-editor of The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives (1984) and of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (2009).

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

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

CCC_GesheLobsangTenzinLobsang Tenzin Negi, Ph.D., is the founder and director of Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc., in Atlanta, GA, and a Senior Lecturer in Emory University’s Department of Religion. He also serves as Director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, a multi-dimensional initiative founded in 1998 to bring together the foremost contributions of the Western scholastic tradition and the Tibetan Buddhist sciences of mind and healing. In this capacity, he serves as Co-Director of both the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative and the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies. He also developed Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), a compassion meditation program that is currently utilized in a number of research studies, including an NIH-funded study examining the efficacy of compassion meditation on the experience of depression. Dr. Negi, a former monk, was born in Kinnaur, a small Himalayan kingdom adjoining Tibet. He began his monastic training at The Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and continued his education at Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India, where he received his Geshe Lharampa degree, the highest academic degree granted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in 1994. Dr. Negi completed his Ph.D. at Emory University in 1999; his interdisciplinary dissertation centered on traditional Buddhist and contemporary Western approaches to emotions and their impact on wellness.

Limits of Knowledge & Knowing

The Boundaries of Science

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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Dr. Paul Doherty, Exploratorium

CCC_PaulDoherty_2011Paul Doherty is a PhD physicist who graduated from M.I.T in 1974. He then became a professor of physics at Oakland University for a dozen years. For the last 25 years he has been a scientist at the Exploratorium. In 1992 he was the founding director of the Center for Teaching and learning at the Exploratorium. He is now a senor staff scientist and the co-director of the Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium. In 2002 the national Association of Science Teachers presented him with the Faraday Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. Dr. Doherty has authored many books including the Exploratorium Science Snackbook, and the million-selling Explorabook. In 2011 he taught a science course for Tibetan monks in India.

New Directions in the Dialogue Between Buddhism & Science

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

CCC_DavidPrestiDavid E. Presti is a neuroscientist at the University of California in Berkeley, where he has taught in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology for nearly twenty years. For many years he also worked as a clinical psychologist in the treatment of addiction and of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco, where he treated thousands of individuals for these conditions. His areas of expertise include the chemistry of the human nervous system, the effects of drugs on the brain and the mind, and the treatment of addiction. He has doctorates in molecular biology and biophysics from the California Institute of Technology and in clinical psychology from the University of Oregon. He teaches large undergraduate courses at UC Berkeley on the subjects of “Brain, Mind, and Behavior”, “Drugs and the Brain”, and “Molecular Neurobiology and Neurochemistry,” as well as small seminar classes on “Music and the Mind” (for freshmen) and “From Synaptic Pharmacology to Consciousness” (for molecular-biology and neuroscience graduate students), and has received multiple University awards for teaching. His primary research interest is the relation between mental phenomena (such as what is called consciousness) and brain physiology, the so-called mind-body problem.

Awareness, Emotion & Behavior

The Relationship Between Sensory Consciousness & Mind Consciousness

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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Geshe Nyima Tashi, Sera Jey Monastery

CCC_NyimaTashiGeshe Nyima Tashi was born in the year 1961 and became a monk of Sera Monastery at the age of 12. Geshe Nyima completed his formal monastic training in 1998. Following receiving his Geshe degree, Geshe Nyima worked for his monastery for 4 years in the department of philosophy and dialectic studies where he also served on the exam committee. Geshe Nyima attended the first science workshop organized by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 2000, and since this time has attended over a dozen workshops organized by the Library. Geshe Nyima. Geshe Nyima has also been active in bringing science education to his monastery and has served as the coordinator for the Science Meets Dharama program.

The Neurology of Self-awareness & Buddhist Perspective

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

CCC_SisirRoySisir Roy is Professor, Physics and Applied Mathematics Unit and Professor-In-Charge, Physics and Earth Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. His research is on Foundations of Quantum Theory, Quasar Astronomy and Cosmological Debates, Modeling Brain Function and Cognitive Activities. He has over 100 referred publications in international journals and 20 conference proceedings. So far he has published 10 research monographs and edited volumes. Recently he has published a book called “DEMYSTIFYING THE AKASHA: Consciousness and the Quantum Vacuum” jointly with Prof. Ralph Abraham, University of California, USA . The authors discussed the implications of 21st century physics and various metaphysical issues in the context of Indian Philosophy. He has published a paper with provocative ideas entitled “The prediction imperative as the basis for self-awareness” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society jointly with Prof. Rodolfo Llinas, New York University School of Medicine, USA. The epistemological issues related to the ideas presented in this paper might have deep connection with Tibetan Buddhist views. He has participated in Life and Mind Conference in Dharamsala as well as an international conference related to Education system of Sikkim patronized by H.H. Dalai Lama in 2010.

Body, Mind, & the Three Nyepa

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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Dr. Pema Dorjee, Senior Advisor, Mentseekhang, Dharamsala

CCC_PemaDorjeeDr. Pema Dorjee was born in the year 1950 in Tibet and an alumnus of Central School for Tibetans Darjeeling, Dr Pema Dorjee completed his medical studies at Mentseekhag in 1974 under the renowned professor Dr Barshi Phuntsok and internship under the guidance of Dr Yeshi Dhonden, the former personal physician to his holiness the Dalai Lama. Dr Dorjee has served as Chief medical officer at various branch clinics of the institute in India. He has travelled extensively to the Tibetan settlements in India, giving consultation to patients and giving health care talks. Besides being a successful medical practitioner, Dr Dorjee has many achievements to his credit such as being a successful author, a keynote speaker to many conferences, a recipient of many honors, and the first chairman of the Central Council of Tibetan Medicine and the General Secretary of the institute. Doctor Dorjee has been serving this institute from the last 30 years and as a Tibetan medical practitioner from the last 35 years. At present he is the advisor and one of the governing members of the institute.

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

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.

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

CCC_PNRavindraAssociate Professor, Department of Physiology, Neuroscience, Sri Siddartha Academy of Higher Education. Dr. Ravindra is medical neuroscientist with MD (Physiology), PhD in Neurophysiology. His area of interests is in evaluating the neurophysiologicall underpinnings of meditation practices and its trait effect especially during sleep. He gives regular Mind Body Medicine workshops and counseling sessions for general public,medical fraternity and patients. He has publications in high reviewed journals and has research collaboration with various groups in meditation studies. In recognition his research he has been bestowed with prestigious National award from Physiologist and Pharmacologist society of India.