Showing posts with label Belief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Belief. Show all posts

30 October 2015

What is Buddhism? Who is a Buddhist?

A Triratna Buddhist Order
ordination ceremony,
Nagpur, India, 2008. 
A few months after getting involved with the Auckland Buddhist Centre in 1994, I happen to mention to an American work colleague that I was planning to go on a retreat. The chap conformed to many American stereotypes. He was the sort of guy who would repeatedly say, "I might be stupid, but I am ugly", and no one would laugh. On learning that I was planning to go on a Buddhist retreat, he enthused: "Oh I used to be a Boodist, I had my own scroll and everything". And at the time I had no idea what he was talking about. Later on, I learned that there are sects of Buddhism in which the chanting of sections of the Lotus Sutra (from a specially made scroll) is the main religious exercise they practice.

In the mean time I went on the retreat and found it very challenging, but also enjoyed aspects of it, particular the friendliness of the Buddhists. I began to read all of Sangharakshita's books. In his A Survey of Buddhism, written in 1954 while he was still living in India, he wrote that he thought that the Bodhisatva Ideal was the unifying factor of Buddhism. He subsequently changed his mind about this. In The History of My Going for Refuge (1988), Sangharakshita outlines why he thinks that going for refuge to the Three Jewels is the unifying factor of Buddhism:
"As the years went by I increasingly found that the more I related Buddhism to the spiritual life of the individual Buddhist the more I saw it in its deeper interconnections within itself, and the more I saw it in its deeper interconnections within itself the more I saw it not as a collection of miscellaneous parts but as an organic whole. This was nowhere more apparent than in the case of Going for Refuge, which I eventually came to see as the central and definitive Act of the Buddhist life and as the unifying principle, therefore, of Buddhism itself."
All Buddhists go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, if not explicitly then usually implicitly. If going for refuge is the unifying factor then what makes someone a Buddhists is not a belief or set of beliefs, but an action. And in this view, the Bodhisatva Idea is the altruistic dimension of going for refuge. It was this idea that underlay moving away from more traditional styles of ordination or initiation, and the adoption of the Dharmacārin ordination for members of the Triratna Buddhist Order ca. 1980.

This problem of who is a Buddhist and what is Buddhism is one that is something of a hot topic in these days of scepticism about religion. Traditionalists have opinions on this based on classical accounts of ordained and lay members of the Sangha. They tend to focus on beliefs as the basis for creating a dividing line. They see rejecting traditional superstition and supernatural beliefs as placing one outside the Sangha. For example, if one does not believe in karma and rebirth, then one is not a Buddhist. I have seen this kind of opinion from Theravādins, Tibetan Buddhists and from some of my own colleagues.

Other critiques emerge. For some years now blogger, David Chapman has been critiquing what he calls "Consensus Buddhism". Most recently he has pointed out that Buddhist ethics and liberal Secular Humanist values have converged. For his purposes, he characterises this as a simple, though tacit (and perhaps unconscious) adoption of liberal values by Buddhists. This allows him to argue that the ethics of Consensus Buddhism are not Buddhist. The polemic prepares the ground for his own alternative approach to ethics based on the writings of American developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan (Chapman's into here, see also Kegan's Awesome Theory Of Social Maturity). If we are going to coopt a set of values, he argues, then let it be a more rational and well thought out set. 

Scholar/practitioner Justin Whitaker also recently blogged on this subject and an interesting discussion ensued in the comments section between myself and philosopher Amod Lele. In discussing this problem of who is a Buddhist I realised something. If you were to introduce me to a person and they said "I am a Buddhist" what would that tell me about them? I realised that I would know nothing at all about them for certain. I would not know what they believed, or what religious exercises they performed.

Our mystery guest might be a Theravādin lay person from rural Sri Lanka. Their beliefs will be a mix of classical Theravāda and local folk traditions. They believe in the existence and power of local spirits and the necessity of cultivating merit for a good rebirth. In term of religious exercises, these are probably related mainly to propitiating local spirits and supporting monks.

Or they might be a Japan Zen priest who inherited control of the temple from their father and whose beliefs are also a somewhat eclectic mix. Like the Sri Lankan, they probably believe in and propitiate local deities drawn from the Shinto side of Japanese culture. The notion that we live in a degenerate age during which bodhi is not possible might be part of their belief system. They believe in karma and rebirth, and possible have a dash of Pureland Buddhism in the mix. Their religious exercises might range from chanting sutras in mangled Sanskrit, or more likely in Chinese or Japanese translation, and long periods of seated zazen. Or they might contemplate a koan and then have to answer the questions of their master. They also perform rituals.

Or they might be a sophisticated WEIRD urbanite, who doubts karma and rebirth, does not believe in spirits or any of that superstitious nonsense. Or a Pureland Buddhist who believes, on the basis of a promise made in a text, that after death Amitābha will appear to them and guide them to another universe in which the religious exercises of Buddhism are really easy and nothing will get in the way of bodhi. Or a Tibetan monk who believes that everything that happens is a result of karma and practices "secret" tantric techniques to transform themselves into a Buddha (or to transform their minds so that they see themselves as the Buddha they already are). They might believe in an ultimate reality. Or in the ultimate un-reality of all things. They might pursue austerity or believe austerity to be pointless. They might believe that we all have to make an effort, or they might believe that no individual effort will make any difference. They might emphasise the "historical Buddha" or de-emphasise the Buddha in favour of a deity of some sort.

If you search on google for images related to "buddhist" the results are dominated by monks in robes. But most Buddhists are not monks. Most of not ordained at all. Monks are probably only about 1% of the Buddhist demographic. Why, then, do monks dominate the popular imagination of Buddhism?

Very often I find I don't even share a basic vocabulary with another Buddhist. They may discuss the Dharma in the convoluted jargon of a Tibetan scholastic, or be blissfully unaware of any technical terms and subscribe to a just chant and be happy kind of approach. Sometimes it doesn't matter what I say because the other is a fan of non-dualist bullshit and simply negates everything I say and a conversation with them on the basis of our individual commitments to Buddhism turns out to be impossible.

The simple declaration "I am a Buddhist" gives me a probability of guessing what someone believes and how that manifests in their life of no better than chance. A statement that conveys no information is meaningless. In the case of the profession of "Buddhism", it might once have been meaningful, and within particular contexts may still be meaningful, but in general, the information is swamped by the noise of the huge variety of possible meanings of the words. I'm not even sure I remain convinced that Sangharakshita is correct to say that going for refuge is a unifying factor in Buddhism. The problem is that while going for refuge is an action, the reasoning and motivation for doing the action are so varied that the shared label may well be just as meaningless.

There is no gold standard for what makes a Buddhist. 

Who is a Buddhist when the statement "I am a Buddhist" appears to have no natural limits or boundaries; when they are dozens of mutually incompatible definitions of what "I am a Buddhist" connotes?

On the other hand, someone may argue that when they meet Buddhists they always find something in common. I would put this down as confirmation bias. As described by Mercier & Sperber's classic article (see my summary) confirmation bias applies when we hold a belief and go looking for reasons to support it. The purpose of this is to make a strong argument for our belief. Reasoning (i.e. thinking without confirmation bias) only works when we are arguing against someone else's proposition, and even then only when we are not too polarised (which leads to implacable opposition) and not too motivated to agree (which leads to groupthink). In this view, confirmation bias is a feature of group centred reasoning where each participant tries to put forward the best argument they can and the others look for and point out weaknesses.

If we go looking for confirmation of our view, we tend to find it. We tend to be uncritical of such confirming evidence, and having found any confirmation we stop looking. Without the argumentative dimension to trigger critical thinking about the ideas of others, humans tend not to use reasoning at all. Other processes, like confirmation bias, dominate cognition and lead us to weak conclusions. The success rate in solo reasoning tasks that lack an argumentative context can be as low as 10% (i.e. considerable worse that random guessing).

So the act of looking for and finding confirmation of our belief is a very poor basis for decision making. It's a very poor way to decide who is a Buddhist and who isn't. One of the problems we have in Buddhism is that scholars of Buddhism often seem to have an emic (or insider's) view of the subject. Confirmation bias afflicts a good deal of scholarship of Buddhism as well, especially with the advent of scholar-monks, so a tradition of critical scholarship of Buddhist ideas has yet to develop. When scholars study Buddhism they seem to go looking for certain features, such as a tendency to convergence and unity in the past (see also Evolution: Trees and Braids and Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution). Or they focus on describing Buddhism as it was, without applying modern critiques.

As I was writing this essay, an email about a new book from Wisdom Publications arrived. One of the blurbs begins:
"The [Dalai Lama] examines the meaning of key texts from the gospels, and finds similarities in Christian and Buddhist teachings, as well as correspondences between the lives of Jesus and Buddha."
If you go looking for similarities, you find them. This is not profound, it is simply a result of a failure to reason, probably caused by lack of effective opposition. One fawning and sycophantic review is included: "The whole book is a joy, an inspiration and truly deeply devout, while at all times light and pleasant, a perfect channel to convey profound realities and insights." Frankly this makes me want to puke. Unless you are very lucky, you find what you are looking for. I count myself moderately lucky to have discovered some problems in Buddhist doctrine, enough to rouse me from the stupid paralysis of the mind that seems so prevalent amongst Buddhists.

In order to address this problem using reason, we need to argue about what we believe with people who disagree with our view while having a shared commitment to discovering the truth. We need to test opposing views and see which stands up the best. But in religious contexts views are held strongly, i.e. associated with strong emotions, and polarisation or groupthink are almost the defaults. In these circumstances, we cannot expect people to reason effectively. They will either be anxious to disagree or to agree and this defeats reasoning.

With this in mind, my answer to the problem is that it seems that anyone who calls themselves a Buddhist, is a Buddhist. But most people find this an unappealing prospect. Certainly Amod Lele didn't seem to like this prospect (we seem to agree on very little). On the other hand, Justin Whitaker seems to be annoyed by those who disagree with him on where to draw the line between Buddhist and non-Buddhist when it involves excluding some people.

I think this is because when each of us says "I am a Buddhist" we have a frame of reference in our minds. In terms of George Lakoff's theory of categorization (see his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) we all have a prototype in mind when we hear the word "Buddhist" and when we come across examples of "Buddhist", we unconsciously compare it to our personal prototype and weigh up how similar it is. If the qualities of the example overlap sufficiently with our prototype then we can accept that the person is a Buddhist. I say, "personal prototype" as a rhetorical device because prototypes will vary from individual to individual, but in fact what constitutes the prototype of a category for any individual is largely determined by culture and experience.

The problem of who controls and arbitrates the categories of "Buddhism" and "Buddhist" is complicated by the imperialist tendencies of the WEIRD world. All to often we first impose our values on the discussion as a starting condition and then insist that the conclusions must conform to those values. It's quite clear that WEIRD values are modernist values that have very little to do with traditional Buddhist values except by accident. We tend to see our own values as universal values against which anything can be weighed. The fact is that this is another logical fallacy that leads to poor reasoning and weak decisions.

We want our heartfelt declaration to mean something to other people. We want "I am a Buddhism" to mean something to others. We want them to see us as special. We want the religious affiliation to say something about us. But we have no way of knowing what it communicates to anyone else. As often as not "Buddha" seems to bring to mind the Chinese folk hero Hotei who is erroneously called the "Laughing Buddha" - fat,  jolly, and trivial. 

There are some people who say that I (Jayarava) am not a Buddhist because I do not believe what they believe. They are entitled to that opinion and even to exclude me from their Buddhist activities on that basis. It usually doesn't bother me too much when someone says this because the belief system they profess usually seems pretty stupid to me and I think I've got the better end of the deal if they won't talk to me.

The fact is that we like to sit in judgement. "Stephen Batchelor is a Buddhist" or "Stephen Batchelor is not a Buddhist". My response is to wonder first why I should care about some random stranger's opinion on Stephen Batchelor. I can't see how either statement affects me. But then it matters for some Buddhists because they only have regard for the opinions of other Buddhists. A non-Buddhist cannot be expected to have anything interesting to say, especially on the subject of Buddhism! So delineating the category is important for people who think that way.

If I'm being thoughtful, I might wonder how they came to that decision because religious beliefs and decision making are subjects that interest me in the abstract. The actual decision is entirely irrelevant to my life and work, but there is an interesting process going on of someone defining their world through the decisions that they come to, that does interest me. It interests me because that's what we all do, but it's very difficult to study oneself doing it because so much of one's cognition happens unconsciously.

So these kinds of questions are really only interesting to me for the light they shed on the psychology of belief. I define "Buddhism" and "Buddhist" pragmatically. I suppose to some extent, I say that I am a Buddhist to reassure my colleagues and friends in the Triratna Buddhist Order, the religious community that I am a member of. As much as anything I am expressing my continued desire the belong to this community (See also Why I am (still) a Buddhist from 2012). In saying that I myself am a Buddhist, I no longer expect that to be meaningful to others, except to the extent that they will identify me with their existing prototype. I still largely share a prototype with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, but I expect that my prototype is very different to other Buddhists. Quite often as I express my views on traditional Buddhism, the result is so far from another person's prototype of a Buddhist that I seem outside the category to them. They experience cognitive dissonance. Which is fine. Buddhism is so varied that we'll probably always have this problem. About the best I can hope for is that my being a Buddhist might be the beginning of a conversation.

My understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist has been shaped in recent years by studying Buddhist doctrines and discovering the widespread systematic faults in them. And that study is a work in progress. I can see how doctrines fail to do what they were intended to do, but I cannot yet see the end result of spelling out just how bad Buddhist philosophy generally is. Right now I think we are all in the flames of transformation, and we cannot imagine how we will emerge from the conflagration.


21 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part II

Part I of this essay introduced Justin L. Barrett's ideas on reflective and non-reflective beliefs. Non-reflective beliefs are formed through experience of interacting with the physical world and unconsciously assimilated from people around us as we grow up. Reflective beliefs are thought through, but are shaped by non-reflective beliefs before we become aware of them. We find concepts plausible to the extent that they match our existing non-reflective beliefs. In part II we move on to discussing how supernatural beliefs fit into this basic pattern. 

Minimally Counter-Intuitive Concepts 

Belief in supernatural agents, gods or ghosts, does not require a special part of the brain. What is required is a concept that mostly fits our non-reflective beliefs, and thus feels intuitive, but that has a few counter-intuitive characteristics, enough to make it interesting and memorable. 
"These minimally counter-intuitive beliefs may be characterized as meeting most of the assumptions that describers and categorizers generate—thus being easy to understand, remember, and believe—but as violating just enough of these assumptions to be attention demanding and to have an unusually captivating ability to  assist in the explanation of certain experiences. "(Barrett 2004: 22)
Concepts that are maximally counter-intuitive are simply not believable.  Concepts that are maximally intuitive are believed without question and become part of the background. It is the concept that is mostly compliant with our non-reflective beliefs, but which violates them in an interesting way that captures our attention. Barrett offers the following examples: A dog that grows old and dies is unremarkable; but a shoe that behaved the same way would be a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Similarly an inanimate object that talks, an agent that can break the laws of physics, or a plant that eats animals are minimally counter-intuitive. Of course the latter really exists in the form of the Venus-flytrap. So being minimally counter-intuitive does not rule out the concept from being true.

A dog that talked might be minimally counter-intuitive, but a dog that wore a suit and ran a Fortune 500 company would be violate too many of our non-reflective beliefs and would be considered bizarre. Though this would work in a cartoon. Barrett asserts that what counts as bizarre varies according to individual experiences and cultural factors, but that whether a concept is minimally counter-intuitive does not vary. This is because all people have roughly the same collection of mental tools doing the categorising and describing that produce non-reflective beliefs. 

If a concept has too many counter-intuitive elements it seems implausible, but just enough makes the concept more interesting and memorable. And such concepts constitute a special group in Barrett's theory, precisely because they are interesting and memorable. Myths, legends, films and cartoons all play with this distinction. For example the talking wolf in the story of Little Red Riding-hood or the little bear in Goldie Locks are able to play an active role in the story and help to make the story memorable. Similarly for Pinocchio the wooden toy who becomes a real little boy. Many religious beliefs fall into the category of being minimally counter-intuitive, or are made up of minimally counter-intuitive elements. 

One of the key minimally counter-intuitive ideas is that death, the end of the physical processes of life, does not mean the end of mental processes. Children, for example, can readily conceive that death means the end of physical processes, but regardless of religious background, they tend to assume that mental processes continue independently of the body (Bering et al. 2005). So they are able to correctly assess that dead people no longer need to eat, but will assume that they still get hungry. This is very similar to the belief behind Brahmanical ancestor worship involving offerings of food and drink to the departed (preta). The offerings are transformed into smoke by the fire, the smoke drifts up into the sky where it nourishes the departed. Buddhists (rather cruelly) parodied the Brahmanical pretas as a class of tormented beings who can never slake their thirst or sate their hunger. Children of all faiths and none seem to reason this way about death from an early age. They do not see death as a full-stop, but assume that mental processes of the dead keep going, despite the death of the body. Many factors go to sustaining and reinforcing this kind of mind/body dualism. But underlying it are non-reflective descriptions of agents that do not rely on embodiment, so that unseen agents are minimally counter-intuitive. 

As Thomas Metzinger has said: 
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (Metzinger 2009: 78)
The separation of mind and body is a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Most of the time we experience our minds and bodies as inseparable. The out-of-body experience conflicts with this in an interesting and memorable way and it also consistent with our other non-reflective beliefs about death. We can go further, because this concept of being disembodied goes towards explanations of the world that address some of our deepest fears. If the thinking part of us can exist disembodied, then the Just World (or Moral Universe) Theory is a possibility, because life after death is a possibility. An afterlife is attractive and satisfying on all kinds of levels. So a complex of non-reflective and reflective ideas and concepts reinforce each other and make religious beliefs seem plausible, even though they contain counter-intuitive elements. It is this explanatory power that explains the success of religious ideas, despite the presence of counter-intuitive aspects. 

To summarise, a concept will seem plausible to us if it fits with many of our non-reflective beliefs (feels right), and also with our current reflective beliefs (makes sense). The relationships between reflective and non-reflective beliefs is recursive, a reflective belief seems plausible if it concurs with our non-reflective beliefs, but is also shaped by them to be more plausible. A minimally counter-intuitive concept fits with a large number of our non-reflective beliefs, but violates a small number of them. This feature makes the minimally counter-intuitive concept interesting and memorable. If the minimally counter-intuitive concept can also be put to use explaining mysteries, then it can seem extra-ordinarily plausible in our minds, despite the remaining counter intuitive elements. For example, religious miracles are implausible, but in the context of religious belief as a whole, this implausibility is what makes them interesting and memorable.

Of course many religious ideas, such as the Christian creator/law-giver/saviour God or Buddhist karma, are neither simple nor minimally counter-intuitive. Barrett offers two solutions to this problem.

Firstly a complex belief might be made up of parts that are minimally counter-intuitive. For example the idea of life after death is minimally counter-intuitive. The idea that morality can be understood via an accounting metaphor is broadly intuitive and seems to be common to many cultures (not least to Buddhist and Christian accounts of morality). And a just world is also a minimally counter-intuitive concept. So a complex concept such as a just world involving moral accounting in the afterlife, which is not itself minimally counter-intuitive, might not violate the principle because its parts are minimally counter-intuitive. And this this may be facilitated by the way we think about such things. When trying to think about karma we seem to take parts of it one at a time. Although Buddhism teaches that "actions cause rebirth"; we tend to think in terms of "actions have consequences" and a range of other partial concepts are are either intuitive or minimally counter-intuitive, so that the whole seems plausible.

Secondly systematic religious education (not to say indoctrination) and experience of religious practice might shift our non-reflective beliefs, so that what we feel to be intuitive may shift to accommodate what was previously felt to be counter-intuitive. For example we may not find "higher states of consciousness" an intuitive idea until we begin to meditate and start to experience them. The reinforcement that comes from being in a group dedicated to certain propositions cannot be under-estimated. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it:
"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."
However we've already seen in Part I of this essay, that under time pressure people tend to revert to non-reflective views about God. Some complex theological concepts crumble when people don't have time to be reflective. We may consciously take on religious beliefs for reasons other than their plausibility or implausibility. We may, for example, want to fit in with a community we find attractive. I think Barrett plays down, or overlooks, the importance of social factors of religious beliefs in his account.

We've already mentioned in passing that unseen agents meet the criteria of being minimally counter-intuitive (they are typical of agents except for the fact of being invisible). We must now consider in more detail how our brains process information about agents.

Finding Agents Everywhere

A key mental tool in religious beliefs is what Barrett calls the Agent Detective Device. What he means by this is the complex function of our minds which scans the environment for agent directed activity. This ability has clear evolution advantages. We need to be able to identify the presence of other agents. It is a key ability of social animals that we recognise others of our kind as agents of the same type as ourselves. Social primates, for example, work together to ensure that the group has gets enough food and is protected from predators. Predator detection is another key task for agent detection. When we're outdoors there are all kinds of sights and sounds, all constantly changing. Working out if the bump in the night is something to be afraid of, has clear survival benefits. And better to err on the side of caution and have a first approximation that the sight or sound is an agent, because taking evasive action from an inanimate object costs us little, whereas failing to take it against a predator might cost us our lives. This is why noises at night cause our hearts to race. That raised heart-rate prepares us for decisive action that may save our lives. For this reason Barrett refers to the Agent Detection Device as hyperactive, hence his acronym for it is HADD.

Barrett does not go into this, but it's seems that humans are not the only animals who do agent detection in this way. Mammals and birds also scan the environment for agents and tend to err on the side of treating movement as caused by an agent. This video of a cat being freaked out by a cucumber is both amusing and demonstrates the principle. The cat's owners have sneakily placed a cucumber behind it while it was focussed on eating. On seeing the harmless vegetable it launches into a spectacular defensive manoeuvre until recognition dampens the response. Similarly scarecrows deter crows because they set off the HADD.

One of the consequences of being predisposed to detect agency in the environment is that we attribute agency to things on very little evidence. Many a time we attribute agency to insentient and inanimate objects. Many people treat their computers as having agency for example, and this may be why artificial intelligence, in the sense of a human-like mind residing in a computer, seems so plausible to so many people. A sentient computer is minimally counter-intuitive, though scientists are not even close to creating an artificial mind. We also invoke Agent Detection in retrospect when we observe behaviour which is apparently goal seeking. Anyone who has sat around a fire, must have sometimes suspected that the smoke deliberately follows them wherever they sit. English people talk about the weather in a way that suggests they believe some moderately malign agent uses rain to torment them. Sometimes nature appears to pursue us, block us, or otherwise interact with us in a directed way. Our non-reflective fall-back is to seek an agent behind the action. Unseen agents are not entirely intuitive, but are minimally counter-intuitive.

Once an object is identified as an agent, or once a behaviour is identified as directed and therefore indicative of agency, it is passed to the Theory of Mind Device. The Theory of Mind Device recognises other agents as having a mind like ours, i.e. as having thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, memories etc. We model the inner life of the agent in order to predict what its next action will be and how we can best respond to that. With animals for example we predict whether it is likely to attack or retreat. We combine this with our knowledge of animals to predict the consequences of our own actions in these terms. This seems to be the evolutionary purpose of imagination, i.e. to model possible actions and consequences in order to determine a course of action. In the case of other members of our social group this ability to model potential actions and consequences is essential to being a group member.

Although Barrett does not say so, we might have extended his observation about hyperactivity of the Agent Detection Device, by observing that we are also predisposed to seeing all agents in human terms. In other words there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise non-human agents, to see their motivations for acting as being like our own. In the case of the dearly departed, we still identify them as agents, albeit disembodied, and our Theory of Mind Device describes what their inner life is like, and predicts what other kinds of properties the agent might have. Brahmins feed their departed ancestors because they understand that they themselves would hate to go hungry in the post-mortem gap between death and rebirth in heaven. It's not blind ritual or stupidity, as some Western scholars have ignorantly supposed, but empathy based on some very plausible suppositions that motivates the ritual behaviour in this case. That so many first world people fail to appreciate this and empathise with it, is more of an indictment of us, than of them. Which is not to say that ancestor worship is based on facts. It isn't. But it is a natural conclusion to come to and also expresses important values of caring for the community. 

Matthew Tyler Boden (2015) recently observed that supernatural beliefs do actually provide consolation. They help to explain why things occur and help people to understand themselves and the world (227). His 2015 study concluded:
The current study extends existing research by demonstrating that supernatural beliefs, broadly and peculiar beliefs, specifically, are considered adaptive in several ways, and the manners in and extents to which they are considered adaptive are associated with psychological benefits (229-30).
I know from long association with religious people of various stripes that part of the attraction of religious belief of any kind is the consolation it provides in the face of misfortune, old age, sickness, and death. 

Rationalists would have us replace religion with science. However, science is not always consoling or it is so complex that is does not help to explain to ordinary people why things happen. Also it explains how things happen, but not why. Science suggests that things just happen according physical laws and mostly without agents. This is not consoling (even to me and I love science). But worse, this view conflicts with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. If the question is how we should act with respect to other people, then a solid grounding in Newtonian mechanics is no help. General Relativity is more accurate, but still no help. Nor does Quantum mechanics shed any light. The "sciences" which might shed light on these subjects, i.e. the social sciences, are often hardly science at all. They routinely come out with simple truisms. I recall for example, seeing a scientific article that concluded that "time heals". Or they are deeply counter-intuitive - we want to have sex with one parent and murder the other. Or the vacillate between contradictory conclusions depending on the fashion of the day. From the point of view of the person in the street, the scientists cannot seem to make up their minds about anything. Whereas religious ideas seem "time tested and true", though this is an illusion since religious people argue more than scientists about what constitutes truth, and are prone to drastic direction changes inspired by revelations. From this point of view it starts to become clear why scientists have failed to persuade all, or even most, religious people to abandon religion. I would argue that the rise in secularism is not driven by people embracing science, but by a creeping nihilism. Not by finding meaning in physics, but by deciding that there is no meaning. And this is reflected in the growing prominence of Utilitarianism and Popularism in politics. 

What people actually believe is almost always a potpourri of ideas from a range of different sources. Modern Buddhists are unconsciously, but powerfully, influenced by the currents of modernity and have often tacitly adjusted traditional beliefs about karma and rebirth to fit with these currents. Many people are surprised when I tell them what the Pāḷi texts actually say about karma and rebirth. Very few, for example, seem to have grasped that the principle vipāka of kamma is punabhāva or rebirth. The Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon does not teach that "actions have consequences", so much as he teaches that "actions cause rebirth". 

A real problem with disembodied agents is that they have a superficial explanatory power and fit into our non-reflective beliefs about life. The fact that there are also counter-intuitive aspects to the belief is not, according to Barrett, a reason not to believe. Without specific training on how to observe events, we may miss the real extent to which a belief conflicts with the facts. An example I have used before, is that I know people who live in a "haunted" house. Many people who have lived there describe having met supernatural entities in the night-time. On face value a concept of a disembodied agent disturbing their sleep explains the situation. Then we read a description of sleep paralysis and realise that these particular hauntings are all classic examples of sleep paralysis, which does not involve any outside agency or disembodied mind. And yet some of my haunted acquaintances are reluctant to accept the sleep paralysis explanation because they are invested in the ghost: in a community of Romantics the supernatural interpretation is an important sources of kudos and social capital; having seen a ghost makes it more likely that the person will be seen as incrowd; but it also bolsters the non-reflective beliefs about the matter/spirit split and the afterlife. As Metzinger points out such experiences can be compelling in themselves, but they also often occur in a milieu where they fit hand in glove with other beliefs. Confirmation bias, that built in feature of reasoning, ensures that we treat confirmation of our beliefs differently that contradiction. We're likely to dismiss contradiction as irrelevant. 

We have particular ways of reasoning about agency. Most of the time it is transparent to us. We are aware of the results of this cogitation, but not the process. Agency Detection and Theory of Mind work unconsciously and produce non-reflective beliefs that both form the basis of comparison for reflection and also shape the reasoning process itself. With some introspection and a will to challenge conventional views we can have insights to some extent into how our minds work. What Barrett is doing is applying knowledge gained from neuroscience to construct a plausible narrative of how we navigate our world.


I find this account of belief in supernatural agency very helpful. It shows that belief in such agency is neither stupid nor crazy. It's not that believers are somehow inferior and non-believers superior. Religious belief is consistent with our non-reflective assumptions about the world, it is minimally counter-intuitive (or based on minimally counter-intuitive concepts), and emerges from the normal functioning of our minds. It is natural to have supernatural beliefs. Taken with ideas on how we make decisions, I think we begin to see why religious beliefs, like karma & rebirth, seem so plausible to so many people; and why simply arguing against them, or presenting "scientific" facts is not sufficient to change people's minds.

Karma & rebirth fit many of our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Although they contain counter-intuitive elements, these are not so great as to cause doubts in most people's minds. Indeed they make the concepts minimally counter-intuitive and thus more interesting and memorable. The explanations offered by karma & rebirth seem very satisfying. Many of my colleagues in the Triratna Order and acquaintances in the wider Buddhist world find that karma & rebirth both fit intuitively with their non-reflective beliefs, or as they say it both "feels right" and "makes sense". Rebirth seems consistent with how the world works for many people, especially if they have no training in Empiricism, and even for some who do. Karma, especially the more modernist "actions have consequences" style of karma belief, even more so. This is precisely what Barrett's theory predicts with respect to karma & rebirth. Arguing that karma & rebirth are counter-intuitive is not productive at this point, because it is precisely because the counter-intuitive elements that make them seem so plausible.

I follow Damasio in understanding the process of decision making as involving assessing our emotional responses to concepts. When a concept is consistent with non-reflective beliefs it feels good. When it conflicts with non-reflective beliefs, it feels bad. Feeling good, is more or less the same as feeling true. With minimal introspection we know what feels right, what feels intuitive, and we decide reflectively what seems true. Our reflective beliefs are shaped by and cohere with our non-reflective beliefs. If we ourselves or those close to us have experiences which can be interpreted as confirming our reflective beliefs as well, then we are ready to accept this. And as Metzinger points out in the case of out-of-body experiences, these kinds of experience are relatively common and extra-ordinarily persuasive. More so amongst a community of meditators.

In this way of thinking about the way we understand our world and make decisions, we also find the seeds of dissatisfaction and disappointment. While the "feels good = right" equation might have worked for pre-civilisation human beings, it does not work once we start living with the hyper-stimulation that comes with moderate levels of civilisation. And this may be why the upsurge in religious thinking in India is associated with the second urbanisation in the Central Ganges Valley.

The European Enlightenment bequeathed us two methods of approaching the world. The first was to pay close attention and to use instruments to get closer to the object, along with  standardised forms of measurement of increasing accuracy. The first such instruments used glass lenses to magnify objects, allowing us to see in more detail. We naturally seek to identify the regularities in our experience, so simply by paying close attention we improve the accuracy of our theories of the world. But the killer app for empiricism is not measurement per se, it is the second method, comparing notes. It is the comparing of notes that undermines the generalisations that any one person makes based on their experiences. Having multiple witnesses comparing measurements does indeed reveal the nature of the universe in a way that is almost impossible for the individual. The process of unravelling that nature is far from being finished, if only because each advance tends to also improve the accuracy and precision with which we can observe and measure. And limits of this improvement have yet to be reached.

The Enlightenment approach to understanding the world led to a devaluing of individual experience to some extent. Because if you are the only person who notices a phenomenon then it gets demoted to being an illusion at best and an hallucination at worse (presuming the witness is genuine and credible). This product of the Enlightenment provoked the reactionary Romantic attempt to revalorise individual experience. Romanticism is very influential in the English speaking world and has influenced how we see the arts especially. More particularly there are very strong threads of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, which are dominant because so few Buddhists have direct experience of practising Empiricism and so many have been taught to think of Empiricism as an enemy. Romantics like to validate individual experiences, the more unusual the better. The individual who has a peculiar experience is automatically seen as confirming the existence of a non-material world (essentially a world of spirit - see  Metaphors and Materialism). For a Romantic, unexplained phenomenon have the power of undermining reason and pointing to mysticism that cannot be explained by Empiricism because the experience is purely individual. 

It's important to understand the dynamic at work in the human mind, the inseparability of mind and body, of thoughts and emotions, the dynamic of what makes a plausible concept. Firstly it is important when we set out to examine our own conditioning and the views which shape our understanding of the world in order to free ourselves from intoxication with experience. Secondly, when we try to persuade religieux of our empirically derived point of view. In the first case this is a powerful tool for self understanding. We can see how views are like a gravity well into which we unconsciously fall and which takes a great effort to escape from. In a sense there is no such thing as a dispassionate point of view for the unliberated. What we must try to do is loosen the grip of views, by trying to see how views shape our world (our world of experience). It can takes years of practice to begin to see how the views we were conditioned to accept non-reflectively as children shape us, and to become disillusioned and disenchanted enough to set them aside. In the second case it means that we have to be extremely patient with people who do not share our views. Religious beliefs are some of the most intractable views there are, since they stem from our deepest desires and aversions. Arguing is unlikely to help. A Buddhist with no training in Empiricism, a strong conditioning in Romanticism, and a stock of personal experiences and anecdotes based on doing Buddhist practices, is not very susceptible to the argument I make here. I do not expect most Buddhists to be even interested, let alone convinced. None-the-less I think for those with experience of, or interest in, Empiricism, this argument provides a powerful explanation for the situation we are in vis-à-vis more traditional religious believers. We are more likely to understand them, than they are to understand us. And thus the onus is on us to be understanding.

It seems to me increasingly vital that we Buddhists make a distinction in what our goals are. The early Buddhists, at least, were clear that they sought to understand experience. When we say that we aim at insights into reality we are simply barking up the wrong tree. Nothing about the Buddhist methods will shed light on reality. Buddhists have little or no contribution to make regarding the understanding of reality. But Buddhist methods certainly do shed light on the nature of experience, particularly the first person perspective experience, and they certainly do provide some people with a sense of freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour. The trouble is that Buddhists find their own narratives about reality compelling.



Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

Cima, Rosie. How Culture Affects Hallucinations. 22 Apr 2015.

Damasio, Antonio. (2006) Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.

14 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part I of II.

This essay summarises and explores some idea from Justin L. Barrett's short but important and influential book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004). Barrett's book is not simply an account of the psychology of theism in evolutionary terms, but goes into the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs more generally. He identifies several cognitive processes or functions that contribute to religious style thinking and locates them within a social and psychological context that lends religious concepts plausibility for the individual. We will focus here on Barrett's ideas on the plausibility of religious beliefs, which I will apply to the two beliefs central to the Buddhist religion: karma and rebirth. 

Barrett's work forms a cornerstone of my understanding of the psychology of religious belief. In my view, belief in just world virtually entails belief in an afterlife in order to balance out all the blatant unfairness and immorality (unrewarded goodness and unpunished wickedness) that we see around us. All religious afterlife beliefs are basically the same in that they amount to a post-mortem balancing of the moral books, whether this happens in one go, or through repeated rebirth, or reincarnation. Buddhism combines both of these two basic approaches: rebirth, unless one does something about it, and liberation from rebirth, if one has done what needed to be done (kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ). The afterlife is attractive anyway because the fact of inescapable death is so disturbing to a living being. Additionally an afterlife is made to seem plausible by phenomena such as the so-called out-of-body experiences, and many kinds of meditative experience, which seem to point to disembodied mind (ontological dualism). Combined, these factors suggest how religious beliefs, particular beliefs about universal morality and an afterlife, arose and became so ubiquitous in human cultures. Karma is our Buddhist myth of a just world, and rebirth is our myth of the afterlife required to allow fairness to play out. There are more and less sophisticated versions of these two myths, they all share these basic features.

However, we no longer live in traditional societies. We live in post-Enlightenment societies in which technological marvels are routine. When I was a child, ideas like video phones, personal communication devices, powerful personal computers, a universal repository of knowledge, automatic translation, and so on were the stuff of science fiction. Now, they are all rolled into one small handheld device. Science has transformed our understanding of the world: theories such as evolution, plate tectonics, relativity, classical & quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, genetics, bacterial-pathogenesis, are not incidental or trivial. They are powerful explanatory paradigms that accurately predict the behaviour of the world at different scales, even when, as with relativity and quantum mechanics we know the theories to be incomplete. In large measure the Ptolemaic/Christian worldview, with its false presuppositions and superstitions, has been superseded in Europe and its (former) colonies. Why then do religious beliefs continue to seem plausible to so many people, even outside the confines of classical organised religion? Why do some people abandon the superstitions of Christianity only to embrace the superstitions of Buddhism? We can situate this question inside of the larger question that Barrett addresses about why other kinds of religious belief, particularly belief in gods, persist into the modern era and to resist incursions by new knowledge about the world. 

Evolutionary Psychology & Mental Tools

Barrett's viewpoint comes under the rubric of Evolutionary Psychology. The basic idea is that the brain, and therefore the mind, is modular and these modules evolved and bestowed fitness (in the special sense meant by geneticists) on homo sapiens as a whole. For many years now neuroscientists have noticed that damage to certain parts of the brain produce a deficit in the functioning of the mind. For example damage to the occipital lobe of the brain affects vision in variety of ways. I've often cited Hannah and Antonio Damasio's work on injuries in the ventro-medial-prefrontal cortex and how they affect decision making (see Facts and Feelings). 

A recent article  by Alfredo Ardila (2015) highlights this approach in a very interesting way. When we lose the ability to speak it's called aphasia. There are two kinds of aphasia due to brain damage: Wernicke's-type, associated with brain damage in the temporal lobe, and Broca's-type associated with damage in the frontal-subcortical region. Wernicke's aphasia affects the lexical/semantic aspects of language, while Broca's affects grammar. This suggests that the two aspects of language evolved separately, i.e. that we have one language module that deals with words, and another that deals with how words fit together to make sentences. Ardila proposes a staged evolution of language in which animal style communication evolved very early; it was followed by a gradual build up of verbal signs for things or actions in hominids as our cognitive capacity increased. Only with the advent of anatomically modern humans did we begin to use grammar to create strings of words with distinctions between nouns and verbs, and so on.  This is consistent with Robin Dunbar's outline of the evolution of brain capacity and social group size and the theory of language evolution that he proposes (Dunbar 2014; see also When Did Language Evolve?). 

There are some vigorous critiques of the modular theory of Evolutionary Psychology, but it seems incontrovertible that the brain is divided into functional areas with different tasks and that it must have evolved to be that way. Sometimes another part of the brain can take over the function following an accident, especially in young people. There are of course the curious cases where people grow up with vastly reduced brain volumes due, for example, to childhood hydrocephalus, but have apparently normal brain function. In these cases brain volume can be as little as 5%-10% of typical. The reduction in volume has to happen early in life, and it's not clear how the number of neurons is affected (might their be the same number squeezed into a much smaller volume?). We also see people with severe epilepsy surviving radical brain surgery, where have the neocortex is removed, but again that part of the brain has been disabled from an early age and the brain has adapted to work around it. Mostly brain damage, in adults at least, results in permanent dysfunction. Whether this physical modularity translates into more abstract 'mental tools' of the kind that Barrett talks about, is moot, but it seems plausible.

A caveat to be aware of is that while science journalists like to see these areas in the brain as operating in isolation—witness the brouhaha about the so-called "God spot" (now refuted)—in fact the whole brain is active all the time, the whole brain is involved in producing experience and directing our activities. Some areas clearly do perform specific tasks, but they do so as participants in a system, and often a system within a system. And not only do we have to keep the whole brain in mind, we have to see the brain as situated in a body that also contributes to experience through the peripheral nervous system and sensory organs. Recently David Chapman and I discussed this issue and he argued that we need to acknowledge that cognition has a social dimension as well. I'm sympathetic to this view, it's consistent, for example, with Mercier and Sperber's Argumentative Theory of Reasoning, with Robin Dunbar's Social Brain Hypothesis, and other more systemic ways of thinking about life, but it takes us beyond the scope of Barrett's work and Chapman himself has yet to commit his ideas to writing (nudge, nudge). However once, I've spelt out this part of my psychology of belief, the obvious next step would be to attempt some kind of synthesis.

Barrett outlines some different types of mental tool. Some categorise sensory information, into objects, agents, or faces, for example; whereas others describe such objects once they are detected. Barrett highlights what he calls the "Agent Detection Device" (ADD) in his writing. This is the function of the brain that allows us to distinguish an object that is an agent, from one which is not: a rat from a rock; a snake from a branch. Ordinary objects in particular follow rules of movement that are bound by the laws of physics: a bird moves differently than a missile. We have an intuitive sense of the different ways that agents move compared to non-agents. An important agent describer is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). Having recognised an object as something that initiates its own actions, the ToM attributes to it a host of mental properties suitable to an agent. For example, agents have motivations or desires that set them in motion (emotion; from Latin ex- 'out' + movere 'to move'); they act to achieve goals; and so on. Understanding this allows us to interact creatively with agents in a way that is not required with non-agent objects and that enhances survival (e.g. trapping animal food or avoiding predators). As we will see, the ADD and ToM are central to Barrett's understanding of belief in gods.

In Barrett's theory, the mind is furnished with many categorising and describing tools which operate unconsciously and impose structure and order on our perceptions so that we can make sense of them. What we actually become aware of, out of the vast array of sensory inputs, is the product of considerable real-time processing that shapes how we perceive the world. 


Barrett identifies two kinds of belief: reflective and non-reflective. He argues that most beliefs are of the non-reflective kind. They arise from assumptions about the way the world works, automatically generated by the unconscious functioning of our various mental tools (especially categorisers and describers). We often don't even think about non-reflective beliefs, to the point where we may not know that we have a belief. And non-reflective beliefs are transparent to us, which is to say that we are not aware of the process by which we come to have a non-reflective belief. These are simply the beliefs that we deduce from interacting physically with the world and unconsciously assimilate from our family, peers, and society.

Barrett does not say anything about a relationship between non-reflective beliefs and Kant's idea of a priori judgements, but the similarity is noticeable. Non-reflective beliefs, in Barrett's view, encompass physical facts such as the belief that an object in motion will continue along its inertial path, objects fall under the force of gravity unless supported, or that physical objects cannot pass through one another. Such beliefs emerge, at least in part, through experience, which is then reflected in the way language works (See Lakoff & Johnson). So such beliefs are a priori, in the sense that they are prior to information arriving in conscious awareness and the process of forming them is transparent to us and therefore out of our control. We cannot help but understand experience in terms of our non-reflective beliefs. This certainly seems to correlate with Kant's idea of a priori judgements.

Reflective beliefs are the kind that we learn or decide for ourselves after consciously assessing the available information and making a decision. According to my own understanding (see Facts and Feelings, 25 May 2012), decision making involves weighing the merit of various bits of information. The salience of information is assessed by the emotions we associate with them. Thus my understanding is not that these reflective beliefs are "rational" in the old sense of that word. Contrarily such beliefs may well seem "intuitive", or "feel right" and this may be more important than other assessments of value. Given recent observations on the process of reasoning (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) we need to be a bit cautious in how we understand the idea of "reasoned beliefs". Individual humans are quite bad at reasoning tasks, falling easily into dozens of logical fallacies and cognitive biases (including several dozen memory biases). If a misconception is repeated often enough it can come to seem the right thing through sheer familiarity (politicians and advertisers rely on this fact). Reason and rationality have to be see in this light, though Barrett was not writing with these ideas in mind. 

There's nothing about reflective or non-reflective beliefs that guarantees accuracy or truth, nothing that guarantees that we when act on them they will produce expected results. However I would add that the kinds of non-reflective beliefs that describe the way objects move, for example, are so reliable a guide to results that we need never question them, unless perhaps we are sent into space where gravity is so much weaker that we must learn a whole new set of reflexes. Non-reflective beliefs serve the purpose of unconsciously directing our actions in ways that help us to survive. As long as the subsequent behaviour has survival value, evolution doesn't care what the belief is or whether it is true. Survival value is the primary value of the system that causes us to form beliefs. Truth is optional.

Distinguishing these two types of belief is important for Barrett's theory. He's going to argue that reflective religious beliefs, such as the belief in God, rely heavily on non-reflective beliefs. He notes that when tested with plenty of time, people give good accounts of their reflective beliefs. But put under time pressure they tend to fall back on non-reflective beliefs. So for example when describing God at leisure, people are consistent with mainstream theology. God is able to be everywhere at once (omnipresence), to read minds, to know without seeing (omniscience) and so forth. But under time pressure the same people were more likely to attribute human limitations to God, such as having only one location in space, not always aware of our motivations, and needing to see in order to know.
"People seem to have difficulty maintaining the integrity of their reflective theological concepts in rapid, real-time problem solving because of processing demands (11)
The relationship between reflective and non-reflective beliefs in complex. Barrett identifies three major ways in which they are related.

1. Non-reflective beliefs may as a defaults for reflective beliefs. For example, handed an unfamiliar object and asked if we think it will fall when held up and released, our non-reflective understanding of how the world works will inform our answer in the affirmative. Barrett's other example in this category involves a girl stealing apples. Non-reflective belief, drawing on our mental tools for describing agents in the relation to food, lead us to unconsciously conclude that she is hungry. But perhaps we also recall that the girl earlier mentioned a horse that will allow you to pet it in return for apples. In this case we might choose the alternative hypothesis that the girl is bribing the horse with apples in order to pet it. Non-reflective beliefs also form our views about the horse as agent in relation to food, but having two options means we must reflect on the possibilities. In this case may rule out the default option (girl is hungry) but non-reflective beliefs still provide the default.

Something Barrett does not comment on here, but which he might have, is the phenomenon of the Attribution Fallacy. Social Psychologists note that we assign motives to agents, but that we almost always assign internal motives without reference to external circumstances: we understand agents to be preferentially motivated by internal considerations. If a girl is taking apples without asking, breaking established norms, then we typically assume she's doing so deliberately and knowingly, i.e. that she is stealing the apples (a moral judgement); that she is therefore "a bad girl". Walk along a British high street for five minutes and you're bound to hear a parent shout (or indeed scream) "naughty!" at their small child. And given the inconsistency with which the word is used, that children cannot help by grow up confused about what "naughty" means (leaving aside the etymology!). Barrett's example suggesting that we might conclude that the girl is hungry is charitable at best, and perhaps a little naive. Maybe if it were only one apple. If we witness repeated unauthorised taking, our conclusion tends towards moral judgement. What we do not do is cast around for other reasons. For example the girl may be suffering from peer pressure to steal apples, bending to the will of older peers, or trying to impress them in order to fit in. Or she may be trying to get attention from parents distracted by their marriage break up. These may be mitigating factors once our judgement is formed, but our judgement says that the responsibility still lies with the girl (or if she is very young with her parents). We tend to assume that wrong deed is carried out due to bad motivations, whatever else might be true. Even if we understand the actions of other agents through introspection - for example, by speculating what might motivate us to act in that way - we still do not seem to take environmental factors into account, but simply project our own emotions onto the agent.

In this sense the case for non-reflective beliefs being our default seems to me to be rather stronger than Barrett suggests. This could also be why first impressions are so hard to shift. First impressions are based solely on non-reflective beliefs. In the next part we will consider more closely the kind of non-reflective beliefs that make karma and rebirth seem plausible as reflective beliefs to many Buddhists.

2. Non-reflective beliefs make reflective beliefs seem more plausible. When our reflective beliefs coincide with the non-reflective beliefs generated by the mental tools that unconsciously describe the world, then there is a sense that the belief is more reasonable. When this happens we may say that it seems "intuitively right" or perhaps that it "feels right". This sense of rightness may be difficult to explain, since it is based on how well a reflective belief fits with our non-reflective beliefs (which are transparent and frequently unconscious).

In physics, classical mechanics largely coincides with non-reflective belief. Classical mechanics largely describes the world we can see with our eyes and thus any mathematical expressions are likely to be intuitive (to feel right). Relativity is somewhat counter-intuitive because it involves unimaginably large magnitudes of velocity, mass, and length, and tells us that time is relative to the frame of reference. Quantum mechanics by contrast, the description of the behaviour of subatomic particles, describes a world that no one can see or even imagine, and as a result is deeply counter-intuitive. Sometimes even scientists will refer to this as "quantum weirdness".

What seems intuitive, by which in Barrett's terms we mean "that which our non-reflective beliefs make plausible" is a very significant aspect of religious belief. For example, consider the passage I have often cited from Thomas Metzinger's book The Ego Tunnel
"For anyone who actually had [an out of body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body." (p.78)
Many of us, especially those who meditate, have experiences that lead us towards ontological dualism. One of the great meditation practitioners and teachers I have known makes exactly this point, i.e. that his meditative experience makes it seem incontrovertible to him that cognition is not tied to the body. It is this kind of non-reflective dualism, based on the "realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence" of these types of experience, in which our mind appears to be distinct from our body, which makes religious ideas (spirits, afterlife, gods) more plausible. Experience causes us to form non-reflective beliefs (e.g. mind/body dualism) that make our reflective beliefs (e.g. rebirth) seem more plausible. For many Buddhists, for example, rebirth is quite intuitive, quite an obvious proposition. It seems naturally plausible. Our non-reflective beliefs about the nature of our minds, the possibility of mental activity without a body, and the powerful desire for continuity combine to make a reflective belief in rebirth seem plausible and likely. Of course that a view seems plausible, even when the majority think so, does not make it true. It's not even a valid criteria for judging the truth of the belief.

But Barrett missed out something important here. yes, non-reflective beliefs do make reflective beliefs seem plausible, but the flipside of this is that they also make some of them seem more implausible. Most people, of whatever faith, find an afterlife plausible. The new annihilationists who rest their reflective beliefs on science are historically unusual, and their beliefs are powerfully counter-intuitive to most people. This is a large part of why supernatural beliefs persist despite progress in science; and why, despite regular debunking, people with "psychic powers" are still able to draw crowds and make a lot of money. And why people can read detailed explanations of why an afterlife is implausible and just write it off without a second thought. One Reddit commentator took one look at my essay There is No Life After Death, Sorry and said:
"I consider this article completely and fundamentally false. The author is fairly clearly a materialist, but he does not succeed in proving anything, here." (Reddit /r/Buddhism
But when pressed the commenter concedes that they didn't really read the essay. The title conflicts so drastically with their non-reflective beliefs that without a considerable act of will they come to the inevitable conclusion that I am wrong without reading body of the essay. And rejecting my argument without ever having carefully considered it seems a reasonable stance. In effect it is demanded by their non-reflective beliefs. This is all too common amongst Buddhists, who ironically tend to have a very high opinion of themselves with respect to rejecting blind faith.

Important in Barrett's theory is that the lending of plausibility to concepts is not simply a passive process. Because these non-reflective beliefs are actively involved in processing the information that is presented to our conscious minds. Therefore the third way that the two kinds of belief interact is:

3. Non-reflective beliefs shape memories and experiences.  Our minds are actively involved in perception. It's not that we have a perception and then interpret it. In fact interpretation and perception are simultaneous processes. In Buddhist terms the processes that go into making up experience, the five skandhas, work together simultaneously to produce an experience. What presents itself to our conscious mind is partly the product of our non-reflective beliefs. This is true also of memories. Everything that we become aware of is being filtered through our system of producing non-reflective beliefs. Again we see the parallel with Kant's a priori judgements. There is no experience that is not understood through our pre-existing beliefs about the world, including such "metaphysical" notions as space, time, and causality. But again this process is transparent, so that we do not realise that what reaches awareness is already a compromise. 

Non-reflective beliefs, along with memories of past experiences, are the standard against which we judge all other beliefs. A conclusion that is consistent with a larger number of non-reflective beliefs, is (unconsciously) judged more plausible and is thus more likely to become a reflective belief. The process by which this happens "often amounts to a crude heuristic" (15). Although Barrett's description of this process is evocative, I think Damasio has identified more accurately how this process works. Damasio (2006) describes a process involving emotional weighting of facts to determine their "salience" (See Facts and Feelings). By scanning our emotional response to certain conclusions we can evaluate many possibilities at once and come to a conclusion quickly and unconsciously. Even reasoning seems to involve this process of assessing the salience of information through how we feel about it. Because the decision making process works by integrating emotional responses, it is effectively able to assess many possibilities at once and present the preferred option (the one we feel best about) to our conscious mind quickly, but transparently. We then find reasons to justify our decision.

A fascinating example of this surfaced, as I was writing this essay, from the blog of Joseph LeDoux, the world's leading expert on the neurophysiology of emotions, especially fear. His published work on the amygdala stated that damage to the amygdala weakens the ability to assess threats and of course one of the most accessible aspects of our response to threats is the feeling of fear. But this was taken to mean that the amygdala caused fear. This is an example of the fallacy that correlation equals causation, we actually alter what we read or hear so that it fits our preconceptions. As LeDoux says "When one hears the word “fear,” the pull of the vernacular meaning is so strong that the mind is compelled to think of the feeling of being afraid." In fact the amygdala "only contributes to feelings of fear indirectly." 

As Barrett puts it, "people rarely work through a logical and empirical proof for a claim, Rather, what I call 'reflective' tools typically do their calculations rapidly." In Barrett's view it is the consistently with a large number of non-reflective beliefs which tip us towards a reflective belief. To the extent that this fits with Damasio's decision making model I think it is accurate. However for Barrett's theory this aspect is important because it underpins his view on what makes for a plausible supernatural belief. This brings us to the subject of minimally counter-intuitive beliefs.



Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

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Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.

11 April 2014

Pulling Wings Off Fairies

On 7 January 1610 Galileo began a series of observations of Jupiter through his new telescope. He lived in a world in which people in Europe believed the earth was at the centre of a perfectly spherical universe, created by God ca 4004 BC. In this idealised view all the moving bodies of the heavens were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles around the earth. This view was synthesis of Christian theology, Platonic philosophy and Ptolemaic astronomy. What we might call the "Hellenic legacy" since all three sets of ideas were originally written in Greek.

On that night in 1610 Galileo saw four points of light in a line close to Jupiter. They were not visible to the naked eye, but relatively bright in the telescope. He continued to observe these new heavenly bodies and noted that they appeared to move against the back drop of stars similar to the way planets move. Then on 10 January one of them disappeared! And he correctly deduced that it must have disappeared behind Jupiter and that the four points of light were in orbit around Jupiter. He had discovered what we now call the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

A short time later he turned his telescope on the moon. Now the moon was thought to be a perfect sphere with a perfectly smooth surface. How they accounted for the visible patterns I'm not sure. But Galileo was able to deduce from shadows cast by prominences associated with what we now know to be craters, that the surface was from far from smooth.

The importance of these observations some 400 years ago cannot be overstated. They were cracks of imperfection appearing in the perfect world. If bodies were in orbit around Jupiter then the model of everything in orbit around the earth was refuted. If the moon was not a perfect sphere the whole universe might be imperfect. At the very least God's representatives on earth were wrong about the universe. The whole of Europe, and through it the world, was shaken by this simple act of observing. It's almost impossible for those of us who live now to understand the seismic shift that occurred. And of course Galileo was far from diplomatic in confronting Church leaders with these observations. He provoked an angry response and was not forgiven for almost four centuries in 1992 (long after the Church accepted the facts of his observation). Galileo was a man who pulled the wings off fairies to the horror of the Peter Pan's in the Vatican.


There is something about this conflict and not only because it has played out time and again. Supernatural, superstitious, and fantastic ideas were undermined time and again by repeated observation and deduction. Galileo and a few of his contemporaries were the thin end of a wedge that cracked open the perfect world and then shattered it. Momentum grew into the Enlightenment during which time everything that could be observed was observed. (Our translation of bodhi as "Enlightenment" is a conscious attempt at alignment of Buddhism with the European Enlightenment by 19th century scholars). 

Hooke's Micrographia.
Bodleian Library
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, usually known simply as "The Royal Society" was founded in 1660. In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia: or, Some physiological descrip-tions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. Hooke showed how how various creatures and things looked when viewed through one of the first microscopes. Worlds beyond the human scale began to open up in both directions.

Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. We still make use of his mathematics today. But Newton's observations had a major implication that is often overlooked. Heavenly bodies had to obey the same physical laws as earth-bound bodies. Newton was the first to propose a universal physical law that had its basis in observation. In effect he unified heaven and earth.

Although we think of Darwin as epoch making, he came some 200 years after Bacon, Hooke, Newton, Leibniz, and other great natural philosophers. By the time Darwin came along the djinn was well and truly out of the bottle. But Darwin's (and the almost always forgotten but equally creditable Alfred Russell Wallace's) work was in it's own way a seismological event. What they all did, in fact all they did, was to observe the world and pay attention to the way it actually worked rather than working from pure speculation. The balance of responsibility for understanding the world shifted decisively from abstract philosophy and theology towards natural philosophy (what we now call "science").

European abstract philosophy had imagined a perfectly ordered world. Of course this appealed to Christian theologians who worked this into their accounts of God's Creation. The dream of an ordered world is important everywhere - it's evident in Indian religions as well, including Buddhism. It is the one of the central themes of all the world's mythologies. A huge effort over tens of thousands of years has gone into creating stories about the order of the world. Things happen for reasons. Unfairness will be balanced out at some point. Death, the greatest unfairness, will be compensated for by an afterlife. Out of this impetus come the idealised stories of perfect worlds created by perfect gods. Of course to some extent these stories highlight regularities in the natural world: the path of the sun, moon, and stars; the seasons; generations and so on. 

Natural philosophy changed all this. The imperfections of the religious account of the universe was shown to be "not even false", but pure fantasy. The main strength of natural philosophy was that anyone could look for themselves and see it. No intermediaries, no priests are required. I've seen the Galilean moons of Jupiter through a small telescope, though not had the patience to watch them over a period of time. While on retreat in Spain in 2005, however I did watch the Planet Venus over about four months during which time it moved in relation to the background stars and even went retrograde (changing it's direction of motion). It's all there for anyone to see. In my science classes in secondary school and university I've reproduced most of the observations of those pioneering natural philosophers. I've seen what they saw. 

Facts and facts

There were of course some who resisted that change. In fact according to a recent survey about 10% of Britons prefer Young Earth Creationism to evolution, while only 25% are confident Darwinian evolution is "definitely true" and another 25% think it's "probably true." Half of Briton's don't believe in evolution at all (Guardian). We live in a highly pluralistic society. 

Some people I know sincerely believe that when they die their "consciousness" will hang around their dead body for up to 49 days (as per the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and will be able to sense what is going on - i.e. to be aware of how people are reacting, what they are saying, and how their remains are being treated. Likewise they believe that living people are be able to "sense" the presence of the deceased and empathise with their emotional state. Then the deceased will be reborn as another being (mostly we presume human).

On the other hand my Mother believes that God created the world; that Jesus died for our sins; that God loves everyone and that there is a plan for everything that happens (and she's witnessed some pretty horrendous stuff). When she dies her soul will ascend up to heaven, and now that she's a Catholic she presumably believes in a bodily resurrection at some point as well.  

Neither belief is something that anyone can base on observation. We might have experiences around corpses that we interpret as a presence, or we might have a sense of love amidst horror, but someone with a different belief system is free to interpret these subjective experiences in different ways. And not everyone has these kinds of experiences. 

When Galileo observed points of light moving he interpreted them as "moons". Why is this different? Because even those with different belief systems could make the same observation, and unless they insisted on some irrational interpretation they would be forced to conclude that Jupiter has satellites. The moons of Jupiter are independent of the observer. They are objective facts. The spirit of a dead person as a phenomenon is apparently dependent on the belief system of the observer, and thus not an objective fact. Over the years experience has shown that if the potential observer of a super-natural phenomenon is a scientist then the effect is much less likely to be observed. This alone is telling. When the belief system of the observer determines whether or not they are able to observe the phenomenon then that is an entirely different order to the Galilean moons.

Now some will argue for what might be called a subjective fact. This would be a fact based on something that only the individual subject has observed. But we have another word for subjective experiences that cannot be confirmed by other people: hallucination. Wikipedia has a nice definition:
"A hallucination is a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus that has qualities of real perception. Hallucinations are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space."
Most of supernatural belief appears to be based on interpretation of experiences in which the stimulus is not apparent. As Thomas Metzinger said of his out of body experiences:
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (The Ego Tunnel p.78) 
But we note that Metzinger himself was eventually persuaded against this compelling dualistic explanation. Careful observation of the phenomena he experienced and comparing notes with other neuro-scientists showed that the experience was not in fact consistent with a truly disembodied consciousness. And the insights into the nature of our sense of self that follow from his exploration are more fascinating, to my mind, than any supernatural phenomenon.

It's important to distinguish looking for a naturalistic, objective explanation of an experience and the dismissal of it as a fantasy. Such experiences can be utterly compelling and deeply meaningful for those who have them. It's not stupid to believe in God or karma or whatever. There are many factors in our make up that make it such beliefs plausible. Justin Barrett argues, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, that we believe because it is entirely natural to believe. Note that he does not argue that it is correct or sensible, only natural. But it is rational given the kinds of judgements our minds make. So just attacking belief or mocking it are unhelpful.

If we publicly attack someone's belief system, if we start pulling wings of fairies, then we're being rude at best. Belief is not a simple matter. It's often the result of deep conviction. My understanding is that belief is very much tied into our system of values. When we attack someone's beliefs, we attack their values, or at least that is how they experience the attack. Aggression, I know from personal experience, diminishes the likelihood of communication. We may even choose to be rude to people on purpose to make them averse to us. Or may think that shock tactics will jolt someone out of their complacency. But on the whole I find this does not work. Shock most people and they respond with sharp aversion. Aggression is good for defending boundaries, but not for bridging them. On the other hand walking around any city in the world shows how people respond to being surrounded by strangers. We cannot be open to every possible encounter and it is often necessary to erect barriers to preserve one's sanity.

Shifts in World View 

Now this situation is complicated, especially in the USA, though keeping in mind that even in the home of Charles Darwin only about half the population accept Evolution on the evidence they're aware of. Fundamentalist Christians are vocally and vehemently protesting that their version of the what the world is like, based on a literal reading of an English translation of the Bible, ought to be at least on the same level as a description of the world that is independent of belief. They want everyone to learn about Creationism on the same level as Evolution.

If someone has started an argument, especially one that would so drastically affect how we educate children, then it's only fair that everyone gets to have a say and that everyone argues to the best of their ability. Once it becomes a high stakes debate, pointing out the weaknesses and flaws in the argument of the opposition is part of the process. If religious people are quietly and harmlessly getting on with their lives, then we ought to leave them to it. If they want to control public life, then a debate is necessary.

On the whole the moments that have changed my worldview, changed my life, have been encountering new information that contradicted my beliefs in a relatively neutral setting, often reading a book in or from a library, experiencing the resultant cognitive dissonance, and deciding to learn more about the subject on my own. It takes time and leisure to weight things up and consider the implications.

A shift in worldview is non-trivial. I can't make someone reconsider their views just by bombarding them with facts. Why are their so many climate change deniers? Partly because the facts have been presented in a confused and confusing way. The media, thriving on conflict, has given far too much air time to a small group of contrarians. The climate change message also partly fails because climate change activists have just bombarded people with a mass of facts disconnected from any attempt to connect with people on an emotional level. They try to drill facts into us, try to scare us. Climate change are expressing their own values and all too often appear to express contempt for any other values. And that is never effective.

If I stand on a street corner shouting out what I believe to be facts that have terrible implications (my views on politicians for example), then I will never convince anyone of anything, particularly not here in the UK! One does see street preachers doing this. It converts no one. But the going through the ordeal, being willing to experience the humiliation of being ignored at best or being abused by the public, is a signal to others that one's faith has high value. Research has shown that such sacrifices strengthen the faith of the faithful (see Martyrs Maketh the Religion). One could say exactly the same for Richard Dawkins' approach to arguing with religious people. It's an exercise is appealing to militant atheists, not a genuine attempt at dialogue or conversion. And of course militant atheists lap it up. Buddhist texts are often like this also - full of appeals to the faith of the faithful. I've discussed this in an essay called Martyrs Maketh the Religion (2010).


There is a clear and important distinction between knowledge and belief. More and more of us are placing our reliance on knowledge as opposed to belief largely because one is a demonstrably better guide to life than the other. But the issue is complicated. What counts as valid knowledge is and always has been disputed. Knowledge is a negotiated communal domain.

What Galileo and his successors did was establish ways of validating knowledge that went beyond the usual means of discussion about what seemed likely with the best arguer becoming the authority. They collectively established the possibility of independent, objective facts and the value of them. Philosophers still tend to see everything from an individualist point of view - knowledge in this view is inevitably subjective. But in fact we, humans, are communities. And for this reason we can establish objective truths: Jupiter has four large moons (and many smaller ones) and they are in elliptical orbits around Jupiter. There is no rational or reasonable objection to this. It's not my opinion or Galileo's, it is the observation of everyone who has taken the time to look. And it does not depend on a belief in Newtonian mechanics (the discovery predates Newton!).

It is 400 years since Galileo discovered that philosophers and priests had simply made up their accounts of the world and were wrong about it. In that 400 years more and more of the unseen world has become seeable. And in every case so far where a proposition can be tested, the abstract philosophers and priests have been shown to be wrong.

However, being in possession of knowledge is not sufficient. How we communicate knowledge is at least, if not more, important. Truth presented badly fails to be accepted (evolution and climate change being two important examples). Pulling wings off fairies is counter productive. Falsehood presented well may well become the accepted "wisdom". I've repeatedly argued that we judge the salience of facts by how we feel about them. Thus people may be understandably reluctant to believe the awful truth. We must try to find a way to connect with people before trying to change their minds. Sometimes, as a last resort, confrontation may be necessary. But people aren't persuaded by ridicule. On the contrary being willing to accept loss rather than inflicting it (i.e. martyrdom), is more likely to persuade people.

On the other hand we can also understand some of the frustration of natural philosophers. Having spent the last 400 years showing that priests are wrong about every testable proposition, we might wonder why anyone still listens to priests at all. Despite the fact that the unseen domain has consistently shrunk, it remains and while it remains priests (and those who pretend to the knowledge traditionally associated with priests) can claim to be experts on it.

And of course there are enduring imaginative stories about what might exist in an unseen domain so that it seems to be a larger domain than it actually is. If we believe in an afterlife for example, the then the unseen domain seems infinitely larger than the seen. Some people remain far from convinced that an accurate view of the universe is even desirable. Magical thinking, faith in God and all kinds of supernatural views still seem more attractive to many people. It has been four centuries since Galileo's observations, but this is a legacy stretching back at least 65,000 years so it might take a while yet before we sort it out.