Now and Zen: A Way out of Cartesian Materialism

Presented at
Towards a Science of Consciousness 2003, Prague

Keywords: Cartesian materialism, Zen, First-person practice


The most common view of consciousness entails the idea that things can come into or out of consciousness and that at any time each person has “contents of consciousness”, as though consciousness were some kind of container or space. This is Cartesian materialism, “the view that nobody espouses but almost everybody tends to think in terms of” (Dennett 1991 p 144). It can be seen in such common phrases as “the contents of consciousness”, “entering consciousness”, “the moment of awareness” and many more.

Such phrases are popular because consciousness seems like that. But if people really think it is that way they should admit to being Cartesian materialists and defend their position. Alternatively they should stop using such misleading phrases and drop the idea that anything can be said to be “in” consciousness “now”.

This idea is difficult to drop because it seems so natural, but there are two ways to do it. 1. The purely intellectual route (such as that taken by Dennett) and 2. The route of personal transformation.

I shall discuss this second route using the example of Zen. The practice of Zen meditation and mindfulness leads to experience without a self who has it, and without a time, now, at which it happens. Experience like this makes it easy to drop Cartesian materialism and to explore possible alternatives.

A first-person science is not possible, but this example suggests that first-person practice may have an important role to play in any third-person science of consciousness.


Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston and London; Little, Brown and Co.