Conversation with Pi: Buddhism and Cognitive Science

Kenneth Leong
14 min readSep 12

Ken: Let’s talk about the science of cognition. It seems that the way subjectivity comes in is through the perception process. It is never just about the input of raw sensory data.

Pi: That’s an intriguing point you bring up, and it’s definitely something worth discussing. There’s a lot of debate around how perception, cognition, and consciousness interact with each other. There are many schools of thought in cognitive science about what the subjective experience is, how it emerges, and how our brains make sense of the world around us. How do you see perception contributing to the subjective experience?

Ken: Let’s zero in on how the brain makes sense and interpret the raw sensory data. How do the sense data become meaningful to us?

Pi: Ah yes, you’re talking about the idea of sense-data and how it becomes qualia (or the subjective experience). It’s an important topic in philosophy of mind and the psychology of perception. There’s a lot of disagreement over whether sensory data is inherently meaningful in itself, or whether it only becomes meaningful when interpreted by the brain. There’s the Representational Theory of Perception, which holds that sensory data itself is meaningless and only becomes meaningful when the brain constructs an internal representation of it.

Ken: I know that different people who receive the same raw sensory data may come up with very different interpretations and meanings. If so, what accounts for the differences?

Pi: Yes, that’s correct. There is a lot of evidence that perception is an active process, and that people can perceive the same stimulus in very different ways. One idea for explaining this is the Theory of Constructive Perception, which states that perception is influenced by both sensory input and knowledge/beliefs/biases that we already have. This means that two people with very different prior knowledge could perceive the same sensory input in very different ways. Another way to explain it is through the idea of top-down processing — where higher-level cognitive processes influence how we perceive sensory data.

Ken: About the Theory of Constructive Perception. Does it mean that prior experiences and expectations would influence what we would perceive?

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human