This is typical of an autoimmune condition: the system eats itself up. Consequently, it's beginning to dawn on people that looking for AIDS vaccines is a complete waste of time. From my point of view, the right approach is first to understand the nature of this global regulation. One hint of how to do this is to look for ways to reconnect the system. In this regard, autoimmune diseases are seen as a deregulation, a condition that cries for more connectedness, rather than as a condition susceptible to treatment with a vaccine. For example, look at drug addiction in terms of a social disease: Drug addicts are in some sense an autoimmune disease of society, because they end up destroying segments of society. What those people need is to be given support, jobs, and family care; you reconnect them back into the society. One approach we study is to provide new, normal antibodies that help to re-create the network. We are researching more sophisticated ways of doing this, but we need to have a pointer on where to go. Vaccines are not the answer.
I'm interested in establishing empirical correlations between a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice and scientific work. Western tradition has avoided the idea of a selfless self, of a virtual self. This egolessness, or selflessness, is truly the core of Buddhism. Over the past two thousand years, the Buddhists have developed philosophical, phenomenological, and epistemological sophistication, and they have invoked this intuition in a very hands-on way. We can use these insights much like people in the Renaissance used Greek philosophy to try to understand the science of Galileo.
Buddhism is a practice, not a belief, and every Buddhist is, in some way, lay clergy involved in the way a scientist is involved in his or her work, or in the way a writer's mind is involved in writing, present in the background, all the time. People today have the leisure and sophistication to practice what before was only practical for monks. Buddhism affects Western culture through the individuals who practice it, through people who occasionally take it up as an escape. Buddhist ideas are prevalent throughout our culture in physics and biology, for example, the basic ideas are Buddhism in disguise.
My view of the mind has been influenced by my interest in Buddhist thought. Buddhists are specialists in understanding this notion of a virtual self, or a selfless self, from the inside, as lived experience. This is what fascinates me about that tradition. Dan Dennett, incidentally, has come to the same conclusion in his own way. But while Dan focuses on the cognitive level, my own approach is to think about several biological levels, as I have mentioned, perhaps because I'm influenced by the broad idea of nonrepresentationalist knowledge. In my reality, knowledge coevolves with the knower and not as an outside, objective representation.
I see the mind as an emergent property, and the very important and interesting consequence of this emergent property is our own sense of self. My sense of self exists because it gives me an interface with the world. I'm "me" for interactions, but my "I" doesn't substantially exist, in the sense that it can't be localized anywhere. This view, of course, resonates with the notions of the other biological selves I mentioned, but there are subtle and important differences. An emergent property, which is produced by an underlying network, is a coherent condition that allows the system in which it exists to interface at that level that is, with other selves or identities of the same kind. You can never say, "This property is here; it's in this component." In the case of autopoiesis, you can't say that life the condition of being self-produced is in this molecule, or in the DNA, or in the cellular membrane, or in the protein. Life is in the configuration and in the dynamical pattern, which is what embodies it as an emergent property.
I find it fascinating to apply this same line of analysis to my own mind, in the cognitive domain. My own sense of self, "me," can be seen in the same light. I have to be relentless to hold on to my identity. These ideas help us to come to a real appreciation of what it means to have an identity to comprehend what we think of as our own mind. My mind has the quality of "being here" so I can relate to others. For example, I interact; but when I try to grasp it, it's nowhere it's distributed in the underlying network.
Let me add that this emergence and nonlocality has nothing to do with the current hype about quantum mechanics and the brain. That stuff is perhaps an interesting hypothesis to entertain, but it has no scientific evidence behind it. On the other hand, I'm talking about thirty years' worth of results in cognitive science. I'd go one step further and dispute the typical physicist, who believes that he or she is dealing with fundamental reality. A physicist will say that we're made of atoms. Such statements, while true, are irrelevant. The statement "You're looking at me" doesn't have the same weight as statements concerning the cellular level. There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions. We have to abandon the enormous deadweight of the materialism of the Western tradition, and turn to a more planetary way of thinking.