Showing posts with label Enlightenment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Enlightenment. Show all posts

05 June 2016

Substance & Structure

This is a long-read (~ 5000 words) polemical essay about parts and wholes; about analysis and synthesis; about substance and structure. It's about the tension that exists between modern ways of thinking about these things and traditional Indian Buddhist ways of thinking about them. About why the traditional ways of thinking about them are a philosophical and practical disaster.

In 2009 I wrote about the Vajirā Sutta which contains one of the most famous similes in all of Buddhist teaching, i.e. a being is made up of skandhas in the same way that a chariot is made up of wheels, axles, etc. We take this to imply that a being is no more than the sum of its parts. Similarly any complex phenomenon (saṃskāra) is merely the sum of the simple phenomena (dharma) that make it up.
This argument may also be familiar to us via the allegorical story of the axe (or shovel). The man in the story says that this is his favourite axe. "Of course," he adds, "I've replaced the handle several times and the head also." The clever Buddhist leaps to an Aha! at this point because man has trapped himself in a foolish error (one that we apparently make constantly), which is to consider this to be the same axe. We assume that it cannot be the same axe if all its parts have been replaced. After hearing this little parable, the maxim "everything changes" is trotted out, heads nod sagely, and it's game over for common sense. We never question the explicit reductionist assumptions, that come to us from ancient India, that complex objects are merely the sum of their parts and no more. This essay questions that assumption, and tries to show that it is wrong.

The idea that we don't exist except as the minimal sum of our parts and no more is so counter-intuitive that it makes very little headway in most people's minds. A few nihilists are attracted to the idea that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts, but I think most people find nihilism a bit off putting. Indeed the Western way of thinking leans towards the opposite conclusion, that things are considerably more than the sum of their parts with a large dose of woo. This is, for one thing, why we find the afterlife so plausible. Ironically, both of these central Buddhist doctrines require us to be greater than the sum of our parts, even though this contradicts the story of the chariot. It is yet another incoherence at the heart of Buddhist metaphysics. 

The Axe

If I replace the head and handle of an axe, is it still an axe?
It is, right?
My starting point for this essay is to ask if anyone would dispute that the axe in the story is still an axe? Or, having replaced the parts of the axe, has it become something other than an axe? I think most people would agree that the combination of an axe-handle and an axe-head together, aligned in the right way, would always make an axe. No matter how often we change the parts. Potential there is always an axe and as long as we continue to supply axe-heads and axe-handles, there always will be an axe. Not an unchanging axe, to be sure, but the axe will exist in every sense of the word as we use it in English (though not in Pali or Sanskrit, but we'll come to this). 

This point is often lost in the telling of the parable. We get out of it what we want to get out of it, which is confirmation of our existing belief in the contingency of the world. What we do not see, due to this confirmation bias, is the important point that no matter how many times we replace the parts with other suitable parts, the object is still an axe. And if the axe is still an axe, no matter how many times we replace the parts, then there is an invariance that is not accounted for by our reductive Buddhist theory. Something is not changing. But that something cannot be found by reducing the axe to its parts! In fact, the act of reducing the axe to its constituents obliterates the something and apparently allows us to claim that it never existed in the first place. So then, what were we chopping our wood with before we broke our axe?

Another view is that the axe is not simply the sum of its parts. It functions because its parts are put together in a particular way. In other words it can function as an axe only because it is structured or organised as an axe. Any appropriate materials can be used. A stone-headed axe is still an axe, because it has the same structure and is used for the same function. So any composite object, including a human being, is greater than the sum of its parts because structure gives those parts a unity and allows them to function (to be causal) in ways that are not implicit in the mere materials. Steel and wood can be structured in a variety of different ways to make objects with different functions - related tools for example (saw, chisel, hammer, adze, spear, arrow, etc). But steel and wood could be make into something entirely different. A clothes-peg for example. A desk. A picture frame. In these examples the parts also have structure. Structure can manifest at different levels. And structure at one level need not influence structure at another - having shaped a steel blade and a wooden handle, we are still free to configure them as different tools depending on our desire.

As early as 1843, John Stuart Mill was making the same point about chemistry (see Mill 1868). To use an example from one of his later contemporaries, the properties of a water molecule cannot be understood by adding together the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In the chemical reaction that creates water from hydrogen and oxygen something new has come into being. It is not new in substance, since we know that it is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But it is new in structure and function. Water is greater than the sum of its parts. It interacts with the world in ways that a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen cannot, in fact water is utterly unlike a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. George Henry Lewes (1875) introduced a new term for these new properties: emergent. Complex objects have emergent properties that are not inherent in their constituents, but only emerge when the parts are welded into a structured whole.

The point is that this is true also of our bodies. We replace atoms, molecules and cells as we go along, so that the elements that make up our bodies now, are different from those which made it up when we were born. Although some brain cells tend to remain throughout our lives once they appear. Similarly though the cell is the fundamental unit of living things, not all cells are identical in the way that all electrons or carbon atoms are identical. Just as identical and interchangeable atoms make up a variety of different molecules, there is no reason for evolution not to create infinite variety based on the basic structural features of the cell, e.g. brain cell, nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell etc. The structures of lipids, proteins and nucleic-acids are important, but they don't fundamentally limit how cell might diverge (as long as it has the basic structural features of a cell).

The principle I am describing has several different names, the two most common are structure antireductionism; and emergentism. Some form of antireductionism seems to have been adopted by Aristotle, but J S Mill's explanation of it is the starting point for a more serious modern discussion of the principle. I became aware of this coincidentally after starting to read a series of blog posts on The Brains Blog by William Jaworski, who was aiming to provide an introduction to his book Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind (2016). Searching for background on his argument, I found an excellent introduction to the subject by Richard H. Jones (2013), whose work on translating the Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka works I have cited in the past. Jones is a thoughtful writer who seems to write at the right level for someone like me. The book is genuinely introductory in that it doesn't seem to assume too much prior knowledge of the subject, but its also focussed and serious and takes me deeper into the subject. Jones tries to present all sides of the argument, while clearly favouring a view that might be called substance reductionist & structure antireductionist. 

Currently in terms of substance it is clear that physics accurately describes the world we live in. But structure reductionism is an abject failure in accurately describing our world. It explains nothing. On the other hand structure antireductionism has some unsettling consequences. It says that every single new level requires its own rules: water does not simply have emergent properties, but these emergent properties are real and this level of reality requires its own explanation. This might be the death knell for the great unification project that has been a characteristic of Western knowledge production since the ancient Greeks.

The usual Buddhist point of view is this: we are simply the sum of our parts (often those parts are the skandhas); and the parts that make us up are constantly changing; so we don't exist in a permanent sense. And ancient Indian Buddhists always use "exist" to mean permanently existing without alteration or any possibility of change. So if we are arguing against an ancient Indian Buddhist then this is demonstration of an existing but yet changing entity is to them an oxymoron. The statement that an axe can exist but also change is self-contradictory. This reductionist argument based on the skandhas (or dhātus or whatever), which is self-consistent, is seen as a powerful confirmation that our Buddhist views reflect reality, but it entirely leaves out the question of structure. It does not acknowledge that a person persists over time as a structure, if not as a collection of the same parts, then as a series of parts making up the same structure. Because Buddhists were committed to this reductionism, they could not acknowledge the way that structure makes complex objects greater than the sum of their parts. Most Buddhists still cannot. However, this Buddhist form of structure reductionism has all the same problems as the structure reductionism of scientists. It doesn't work.

What Arises In Dependence on Conditions?

Rightly speaking it is dharmas that arise in dependence on Conditions. And dharmas are the object of he manas, or mind-sense. It is problematic to apply this Buddhist theory to objects themselves when it really only applies to our experience of objects. In other words, what arises in dependence on conditions is precisely experience. This is made explicit in the Vajirā Sutta in the last lines of simile that are almost always left out when citing this tex:
Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti
For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.  
This sentiment is echoed in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (cited here in its Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions):
Pāḷi: ‘Dukkhameva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī’ti
Skt.: duḥkham idam utpadyamānam utpadyate | duḥkaṃ nirudhyamānaṃ nirudhyate |
Chinese: 苦生而生,苦滅而滅。
P: “Arising is only disappointment arising. Ceasing is disappointment ceasing.”
S: Arising is this disappointment arising; ceasing is disappointment ceasing.
C: Disappointment arising, arises; disappointment ceasing, ceases.
Experience here is not characterised as duḥkha or unsatisfactory; it doesn't have unsatisfactoriness as a quality; experience is duḥkha. In this context experience is synonymous with the world (loka) of experience. In early Buddhist texts duḥkha and loka are ways of talking about the same thing, which was first noted by Sue Hamilton (2000).

The parts that a person or indeed the world is supposedly made up from, the skandhas, turn out to be more like the apparatus of experience or the experiencing factors. So Buddhists usually misapply there own most significant formula to "reality" and try to make pratītyasamutpāda an theory of what exists (ontology) or worse, a Theory of Everything (TOE) that exists. It does the job badly. The skandhas are far too flimsy to represent the world or even objects in the world, and 4 of the five are mental and thus nothing to do with the mind-independent world anyway. Given that it describes experience well and the mind-independent world badly, I give the early Buddhists the benefit of the considerable doubt and assume that it was intended to only describe experience. The parts (skandhas) are aspects of how our minds create our experiential world from sense impressions of the world. The possibility of mind-independent reality is left open and never addressed by early Buddhists, though experience really only makes sense if there is one.

In other words, pratītyasamutpāda is not a theory of what exists or how the world works, but a theory of what experience is and how it works. It says nothing about the axe per se. On the other hand this is exactly how most Buddhists in history have taken pratītyasamutpāda.

Structure and Scale

Recently I started asking myself a question about what is real. Not in an "I can't tell what's real, I'm going mad" kind of way, but in a reflective philosophical way. In particular, I've previous written about the importance of scale on how we understand the world. The rules that apply on one scale may not apply on another. There are obvious examples of this. The kinds of objects that we can perceive with our naked senses follow laws described in classic mechanics and chemistry. However at the nano-scale, these rules are not followed and another type of mechanics, quantum mechanics, are required to describe their behaviour. This was so far from being intuitive that in 200,000 years of anatomically modern humans, it is less than a century since these new rules were first described in detail. 

If we fire a rifle into the air, the bullet gradually, smoothly slows down due to friction over-coming inertia. Gravity makes the bullet describe a parabolic curve, though one that is gradually compressed as it slows down. If I shoot a mass-less photon into the air will travel in a flat curve that is determined by curvature of space, but which at the surface of the earth may appear to be a straight line. A photon does not experience drag in the atmosphere, but will keep going until it collides head on with something, at which point it will undergo an instantaneous transition to a different energy level that is a multiple of some constant (a quanta in other words).

Bullets do not behave like photons and vice versa. There is a discontinuity between the different scales so that different fundamental laws apply. This was the point of my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29.10.2010). What applies to a sub-atomic particle does not apply to a cat; and vice versa. The cat is a metaphor. Matter at the nanoscale is governed by probabilities, with some real limits on what we can know via Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. For example, the more precisely we specify the position of a particle, the less we can know about its momentum; and vice versa; and similarly with other pairs of quantities. Matter at the macro-scale, in sharp contrast is governed by cause and effect and we can very precisely specify both position and momentum for any macro object. Matter on the nano-scale is discreet and digital (quantised), matter on the macro-scale is continuous and analogue. And so on. 

This creates a problem for determinists. Determinism is a product of structure reductionism. In the structure reductionist view, everything can be explained by breaking the world down into its components and describing how those components behave. At present, the best explanation seems to be that the world is fundamentally made of a number of interacting quantum fields (not that I understand quantum field theory!). The interactions of these fields is what leads us to see particles and forces when we look at the universe at the appropriate scale. Quantum mechanics describe the behaviour of individual particles that are the manifestations of quantum fields interacting, but quantum mechanics is not deterministic, it is probabilistic. The matter that we can perceive with our senses does not, despite what certain "spiritual types would have us believe", follow the same rules as the particle does. The probabilistic quantum world does not determine the macro world. This means for example, that deterministic arguments against freewill fall short if they are rooted in structure reductionism. Within introducing any woo factor, determinism is simply not a convincing explanation of higher levels of structure and organisation. Determinism does not predict emergent properties. 

Another major discontinuity occurs at larger scales when classical mechanics also fails to provide a good description of matter and we must shift to using relativistic descriptions. And finally at the scale of the whole universe some unknown force is causing the universe to expand at an increasing rate. When we look at galaxies they are accelerating away from each other and we do not understand why this is, though we refer to the phenomenon as "dark energy". And the thing about these distinctions of scale is that they have almost no effect at different scales. Clever chemists can make some large molecules behave as particles, under special conditions, which is no doubt interesting as it blurs the boundaries between levels. But, at the macro-scale we typically interact with at least sextillions (1021) of molecules at a time and we never see probabilistic behaviour. To our naked senses there is no observer effect, no tunnelling, no entanglement, no (self)interference, and so on. Similarly when we look at the world with our naked senses we do not see curved spacetime or have any reason to see space and time as related. Space looks flat. Everyone thought it was flat until 1919, when English scientist Arthur Eddington disproved this proposition by observing the bending of the path of photons passing close to the sun. This could only be explained by the curvature of spacetime itself (the first of many successful tests of the accuracy of Einstein's General Relativity). 

Another way I have developed for looking at the problem is that lower level physical laws are more general; higher level laws are more specific. So there are physical laws that govern atoms, that describe and circumscribe the nature of chemistry, e.g. thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc. Such laws describe the possibilities at the next level of complexity, but they do not specify which of the possibilities will manifest, or how that level will appear to us. Of all the possible molecules, only some occur naturally in the set of conditions set by the conditions on the earth, one of the main contributions comes from the higher level level of interconnected ecosystems of organisms (or Gaia, if you like). Though it is a debatable proposition as to whether higher level structures are capable of downwards causation. Similarly the laws that govern the emergent properties of cells describe and circumscribe the nature of evolution, but they do not specify which species will evolve at any given time. Evolution is governed by higher level laws like natural selection. Perfect knowledge of the first cells would not give us the ability to predict what life on earth would look like at any point in time. It would only allow us general knowledge about life now. For specific knowledge we have to go to higher levels. Higher levels must be studied in their own right and though they are circumscribed by lower level laws, the emergent properties of higher levels are not determined by lower level laws.

Another potential confusion for Buddhists is that the act of analysis, the success of analysis as a method, does not validate reductionism. The success of analysing experience into skandhas does not validate the doctrine that there are only skandhas and nothing else. Antireductionists generally acknowledge the usefulness of analysis. In understanding a cell it is helpful to know how and of what the structure is composed. Just as in understanding water it is useful to know that its parts are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms; or that an axe is made from head and handle. Reductionism requires us to accept that the whole is only the parts, and that all levels collapse to the lowest one we can imagine. It is clear that this is a bar to understanding the behaviour of wholes. It is one thing to say, for example that the brain is made of atoms, it is another to say that a full knowledge of quantum mechanics is sufficient to understanding human behaviour. The further apart the levels are, the less likely this proposition seems. Emergent properties, and emergent laws, manifest at every level of complexity: atoms don't behave like quarks, molecules don't behave like atoms, cells do not behave like molecules, organs do not behave like cells, organisms do not behave like organs, organisms with brains do not behave like organisms without brains. At no point does perfect knowledge of a lower level ever lead to a full understanding of a higher level (or vice versa). 


I'm often appalled by how simplistic Buddhist arguments about philosophy are (and I am far from being the world's most sophisticated philosopher!). All too often I see all scientists written off as "Materialists" or "Physicalists" for example, and all of their knowledge judged as irrelevant to the Buddhist project. I've complained about this before (see Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism. 8 Aug 2014). No consideration is given to issues of how individual scientists might approach substance, structure, theory, or method. When I read someone like founder of the Triratna Order, Sangharakshita, complaining about scientists insisting on a "mechanistic" view of the world, I cannot help but be depressed that his knowledge of science seems to stop at the end of 19th Century. Similarly with many other prominent contributors. 

Yes, there are some scientists who are structure reductionists and as such make ridiculous claims about the success of mechanistic or deterministic views, or dismiss freewill, and so on. To be fair very few physicists are taught philosophy, so they don't really know how to think. On top of this prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking dismiss philosophy as irrelevant, while indulging in hedgerow philosophy of the worst kind. That said, more characteristic of our leading scientists is a more nuanced view of what they do and what the universe is like. For example, the success of quantum physics has undermined all claims to a mechanistic universe and this is generally acknowledged. Einstein infamously complained that he found the idea of a probabilistic universe objectionable. But Einstein was wrong, the quantum level is probabilistic, though of course this does not mean that the macro-world is probabilistic. We know that it isn't. Silly problems, like the singularity at the beginning of the universe are now widely accepted by scientists as problematic - as Sean Carroll recently tweeted (with added emphasis), 
The Big Bang “model” (hot expanding universe) is true; the BB “event” (early singularity) is just conjecture." 
(The Big Bang singularity isn't even sensible conjecture. There are no singularities in quantum mechanics. Could be a first moment of time.) 
All too much of what passes for intellectual discourse in Buddhism is bad philosophy and bad science. I've written about the various problems I've found in closely examining Buddhist doctrines. I find very few Buddhists (or Buddhist Studies scholars for that matter) are at all interested in such problems. And I've also written quite a lot on why people continue to find religious ideas intuitive and even compelling. So it's not surprise to me that I meet resistance when I talk about problems in Buddhist doctrine, but it can still be quite frustrating.

This particular problem is one that ought to really shake Buddhists. Buddhism is both substance and structure reductionist. The substance reductionism, which distorts a model which was originally a description of experience into an ontology, is incoherent. It is possibly the worst description of the universe that has ever been seriously considered. It is one thing to reduce experience to dharmas or cittas, but to try to reduce the whole world, everything, to dharmas? That leaves us confused. Dharmas are not good candidates for the ultimate substance of the world because they are irreducibly subjective. But worse, where they do make predictions about the world, they are demonstrably wrong. If we restrict this theory to the epistemic domain, or what we can know about the world, then some of the claims made stand up. But Buddhists insist that it applies to the ontic domain, to what is. Subjectivity probably does affect how the world looks to us, does not determine how the world is. But in practice what we find is that Buddhist theories of what the world is made of are just wrong. Most Buddhists hold a dualist or vitalist view in which consciousness is a distinct substance. This view is no longer tenable. And it turns out that the world is made of particles and/or energy. Buddhist is just completely wrong about the substance of the world. Buddhist substance reductionism might have worked as psychology, but as ontology it is laughable.

The structure reductionism of Buddhists causes most of us to believe that complex objects do not have emergent properties, but can be considered as admixtures of the properties of their constituent parts. In this view, a being is no more than the the combined properties skandhas. Since, emergent properties are so much a part of modern discourse I imagine that many Buddhists would be concerned to know that their worldview denies the very possibility of emergent properties. Especially those who are enthused by general systems theory (often via Joanna Macy's book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems). Perhaps the late invention of interdependence solves the problems caused by denying emergent properties (without which general systems theory doesn't work), but I don't see how this helps. Mutual causality still reduces all structures to the simple additive properties of the constituents, so it does not allow for emergence of new causal entities. Ironically, various Abhidharmas did invent different kinds of causality to try to solve the problem of maintaining continuity between action and consequence, but as we've seen this explanation fails (see The Logic of Karma. 16 Jan 2015). And in any case they still reduce all forms of causality to one.

But the really great disaster of Buddhist philosophy is the insistence on equating existence with permanence. This is an error of such great proportions and such catastrophic consequences that it is hard to over state it or forgive it. That most people who talk and write abut Buddhism never address this foolish criteria or adjust their language to account for it is another indictment of out intellectual culture. If we only remove this unnecessary restriction then, at the very least, we can dispense with the tortures of studying Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka, which are entirely framed within this unworkable ontology. And the world would be a better place for it.

What I wonder is how Buddhists ever came to be so triumphant about their philosophy. How does a group with such a grossly defective view of the world end up trumpeting their superiority over all comers? It's a joke right? I've said this before, but the Emperor has no clothes! And the scholars who are supposed to be objective about Buddhism are all so in love with it that they don't see it either. Since more and more monastics, with explicit commitments to medieval religious worldviews, are infiltrating academia, this situation is only going to get worse. Worryingly, the same scholars are often part of a movement that seeks to impose the teaching of Indian "philosophy" on university philosophy departments!

Something is rotten in the state of Buddhist philosophy. There's just no mileage in the kind of reductionism that is axiomatic in Buddhism. At the very least we need to think in terms of structure antireductionism and emergent properties, and this involves at the least rejecting traditional reduction to the skandhas. It would also help to clarify the way in which substances reduce, not to subjective mental constituents, but to objective quantum fields. Do I even need to repeat that I think that Buddhist claims to understand the true nature of reality are laughable?

Of course the remaining uncertainty over how to think about consciousness is going to make it difficult to really deal a death blow to traditional Buddhism - it will cling to life by claiming to have understood and explained consciousness (though it doesn't). Clearly the brain itself is subject to substance reductionism, it's made of matter. Substance reduction is completely useless for producing plausible theories of consciousness. But how the structures of the brain produce a first person perspective is not understood. If it is to be understood, it seems that a structure antireductionist approach is the most promising. And since Buddhists are structure reductionists, it seems unlikely that they will have much to contribute.

Buddhists need to take stock of what they believe. We need to stop papering over the cracks and being flattered by the attention that we get from outsiders. We need to hold our hands up and admit that, as sophisticated our intellectual defences are, we don't really understand much at all. Where we think we do understand, we often seem to be deeply confused and flailing.



Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jaworski, William. (2016). Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford University Press.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lewes, George Henry. (1875). Problems of Life and Mind. Vol.2. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turber.

Mill, John Stuart. (1868). A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive; being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. 2 Vols., 7th ed. London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer. [First published 1843.]

04 November 2011

Emotions in Buddhism

IN A LENGTHY WRITTEN exchange with a colleague on the subject of citta it became clear that there is something unusual about the way early Buddhism treats emotion. To begin with there is no word in Pāli or Sanskrit for "emotions" as a separate category of experience. On the other hand there are words for distinct emotions such as fear (bhaya), anger (koda, rosa), hatred (dosa), joy (ānanda, pamojja), sadness (domanassa, soka) and so on. So emotions are concepts in themselves, but do not form a natural category different from other kinds of experiences. However the received tradition is that ancient Indians treat emotions under the heading of 'mind'. Alongside this we frequently find the suggestion that citta ought to be translated as 'heart'. I want to look again at this.

When I wrote about citta back in March 2011 (Mind Words) I bent my definition to include emotions. I am not so sure now. To recapitulate: citta comes from the root √cit which I defined thus: "√cit concerns what catches and holds our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards [or away from] on the other." My colleague had consulted Margaret Cone, the Pāli Lexicographer and author of the new Dictionary of Pali, about her dictionary definition and she replied that citta means 'thinking, thought, intention'; with no mention of emotion. This raised the concern that emotions were being "left out", which is quite an interesting proposition. Are emotions being left out here?

On reflection I decided that emotions are not being left out, but they are being defined differently from how we define emotions. From the early Buddhist point of view experience has a bodily component (kāyika) and a mental component (cetasika). This much is clear from the Salla Sutta (SN 36.6, PTS S iv.207), which makes a distinction between bodily pain, and mental suffering: the arahant has the former, but not the latter. [1] Now, we know that emotions too have a felt bodily component, and hence we often use 'feeling/feelings' to talk about or describe emotions: "I feel happy", "how are you feeling" etc. And we know that emotions have a mental component and that this mental component is what distinguishes emotions from other types of bodily sensation (i.e. proprioception, the normal operation of the viscera, or physical touch).

Likewise from the point of view of physiology emotions are indistinguishable from each other. Cordelia Fine summarises some the research on this in her entertaining little book A Mind of Its Own. She points out, for instance, that the mechanism that makes our heart race with fear, exhilaration or plain physical exertion is the same in each case. The body has very limited responses to stimulation. Fine sums it up with this equation:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts.

Arousal, it turns out, comes in one flavour but differing intensities. Arousal simply prepares the body for activity. If you are shaking fear, or anger, or trembling with anticipation of reward it's all just arousal. And what makes the experience distinct is the accompanying thoughts.[2]

Now this view of emotion is quite consistent with the early Buddhist model which seems to see emotions as agitation accompanied by thoughts. The Pāli word for empathy is anukampa: literally 'to tremble along with' i.e. to feel what someone else feels. In the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta we find that one aspect of the highest blessing is:
Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na kampati;
Touched by objects of experience, his mind is not agitated. (Sn 47)
Considering lokadhamma recall that loka is our experiential world, and a dhamma is the object of manas, hence my translation as 'objects of experience'. So what usually happens when we have an experience is agitation (kampati) of our mind (citta). Interestingly when the word emotion first entered the English language from French in the 16th century it meant 'agitation'. So what has changed?

I think what changed was first the 18th century European Enlightenment, followed by the Romantic reaction against it, which itself found expression in the Psychoanalytic movement. I think this partly because I've read David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and agree that these are some of the main influences on the modern world generally, and have deeply influenced the presentation of Buddhism around the world since the 19th century. McMahan includes Protestantism as well, but we can leave that aside for now.

Partly due to Enlightenment propaganda we see the period before the emergence of science as one of rampant irrationality and superstition. (Though this was countered in the popular imagination by the Romantic idea of the "noble savage", and in fact superstition and irrationality are still rampant!) Enlightenment thinkers began to apply objectivity and reason to many problems, and discovered they could solve many of them. Whatever else we say about Newton, Locke, Hook & co. we must acknowledge their great achievements. So great was their success that they and their successors began to see reason as superior to emotion. To them the universe seemed like a giant clockwork machine that they could take apart and fully understand. To be fair this notion was not new to them, but was originally a product of theological thinking about 'the music of the spheres' and the 'great chain of being' which had been around for centuries. Enlightenment thinkers were consciously disenchanting the world, and felt more free as they did so: free from the irrational leadership of the Church which feared reason and knowledge, and free from the small fears which ruled every day life. Soon they began to be free of the fear of diseases like Smallpox as well. And free from some of the uncertainty of life. We enjoy these freedoms largely without acknowledgement these days, and with apparent resentment amongst many Buddhists (who seem to hate scientists, perhaps because they have been so successful?).

However the disenchantment cultivated by Enlightenment figures left some people feeling that such a mechanical universe was lacking something. In England especially poets began to celebrate the mystery of the cosmos, and especially to revel in the unreasoning and irrationality of flights of emotion. They sought to topple reason from the pinnacle of human endeavour and replace it with emotion. The Romantics indulged in all kinds of emotions, and produced art, literature and music designed to stimulate strong emotions - everything from love to horror. And they took all kinds of mind altering substances for the intense experiences they produced. They did not let society tell them how to live - the heroic individual and their emotional life ruled. For Romantics the exotic and mysterious provoked the kinds of emotions they enjoyed, so they cultivated an interest in them - the intellectual was seen as dull and lifeless. They also worshipped nature and valued the natural world, or at least an idealised notion of it. In many ways the morality 1960s was simply a late flowering of a seed planted by the 18th and 19th century Romantics (and just as misguided). This focus on emotion seems to underlie the idea that emotions are a particular category of human experience, and one of very high value.

In some ways we can see the Psycho-analytical movement as an attempt to reconcile these two rather monstrous cultural forces. Freud certainly saw himself as a scientist, and his subject of study was the emotional life of the patient. History has shown that Freud, while a gifted observer and writer, was no scientist. Only recently are neuroscientists starting to put psychology on a proper scientific footing. But Freud and his successors have profoundly influenced the way we view emotions. Emotions are hypostasized and become a special category of experience, distinct from thoughts and simple body sensations. Thoughts convey reason, while emotions are an expression of our mysterious 'soul' or 'spirit', a Romantic expression of our true nature. If we are to understand ourselves, the Psychologists tell us, then we must understand our inner emotional life; we must delve into the sources of our emotional reactions. It is because of the Romantics and Freud that we believe that an unexpressed emotion represents a danger to our well-being. As William Blake said:
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
This is very far from either the early Buddhist view, or the emerging consensus from neuroscience. Buddhists texts are constantly telling us to use reason to keep our emotions in check. We are to avoid stimulating agitation by withdrawing our attention from sensory stimulation. This aspect of Buddhism is notably unpopular in Romantic Western Buddhism. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that saṃsāra is all bad. We just want to enjoy ourselves a little: by which we seem to mean to stimulate the emotions: be it joy, or horror. Unfortunately for us Western Buddhism is mainly lead by people from the Baby Boomer generation, and from that part of it which saw the Hippy movement, with its Romantic hedonism, self-absorption, self-indulgence, and intoxication, as a good thing. Renunciation is anathema to the Romantic.

In conclusion early Buddhism had a very different view of emotions than the view current in the Western World. Emotions were not a distinct category of experience, though I would argue that most of what we call emotion these days does fit into the broad category of papañca (though even the definition leans towards the mental rather than physical). Therefore the Buddha has no position on emotion, and emotions as a category play no part in his methods. Yes, we cultivate metta, but note that in the locus classicus, the Karaṇīyametta Sutta it is the mind (mānaso) that includes all beings, not the heart. Yes, we cultivate pamojja; and yes we suppress anger. But there is no theory of emotions as a distinct type of experience. At best emotions simply agitate us, and can be divided into those that fool us into craving, and those that fool us into aversion.

We Buddhists have long had critiques of materialism. We understand to some extent the influence of Scientific Rationalism. We also have some understanding of the influence of Protestantism. But we seem to have almost no notion that we are influenced by the Romantic movement, or by the German philosophical counterpart Idealism. Most Buddhists get interested in Psychology to some extent since it seems to related to what we do, but we have no sense that it channels Romanticism. There is no traditional critique of Romanticism perhaps because it wasn't a traditional view, whereas some form of materialism always was. Western Buddhists (and I may say the Triratna Order in particular) desperately need to develop a critique of Romanticism because it is such a powerful influence on how we see ourselves and the world, and its unchallenged assumptions impede our progress in the Dharma. This is not to say that we should reject Romanticism out of hand, only that we should be aware of the history of these ideas and how they influence our worldview.


  1. The kāyika/cetasika distinction occurs in other places as well, e.g. M i.302, iii.288-90; S iv.209, iv.231; v.111; A i.81, i.137, ii.143.
  2. That these different kinds of thoughts are handled by different brain structures using different neurotransmitters doesn't change the facts of the physical manifestation in the rest of the body produced by the sympathetic nervous system and a narrow range of hormones.

Further Reading:

28 January 2011

Love and the Ordered Universe

The idea that the universe is non-random, above all that the universe follows rules analogous to human social rules that we can understand and follow in order to get along, is one of the most pervasive human myths and an important idea in most religions. Indeed we could define myth in this sense as a story or narrative which conveys the sense of an ordered universe, and in what way the universe is ordered (i.e. myth is descriptive); and religion as attempts to ensure we follow the laws implied by an ordered universe (i.e. religion is prescriptive). In ancient India this order was called first ṛta and then dharma.. In some tellings of Greek myth first there was khaos - an unordered, unstructured void - and then the ordered universe, the kosmos, was brought into being.

Since the European Enlightenment it has been discovered that mathematical models can describe aspects of the world very accurately. Simple equations such as F=ma or E=mc2 tell us a great deal about how matter behaves, and what to expect from it in the future - matter appears to 'obey' these 'Laws'. In the course of my education I studied these physical laws in great detail, and personally demonstrated many of them. But along the way I began to see that my education in science consisted in being presented with a series of increasingly sophisticated models, none of which was true in any absolute sense, and none of which did much for my angst. The Laws of physics are useful and accurate descriptions of matter under most circumstances, but they do not meet every need.

Just because we perceive order, does not mean that there is order. Hopefully readers will recall the movie A Beautiful Mind. It no doubt romanticised the experience of madness, and yet it highlighted something about the human mind. Our mind sees patterns - we are pattern recognition sensors of the highest sensitivity. In fact we tend to see order where there is none. Give a human being a random array of points of light (like, say, the stars) and we fill it with a bestiary and a pantheon that reflects everything that we care about. Given random events we will see connections. In the movie John Nash becomes obsesses with and delusional about patterns, but this was a natural faculty gone haywire, not simply a product of madness.

One could also say that religion is simply our collective hopes and fears writ large and projected out onto the universe: our worst fear is that the universe is devoid of rules, or else utterly determined by rules; the hope is that there are enough rules to make life predictable, not too many as to make it stultifying. We want to be free to act, to choose, to experience novelty; but not too much. We want to know that the sun will rise each day, that the seasons will appear in due course, that the crops will grow and ripen; that we will have enough food and water, that predators will not carry us or our loved ones away etc. Most of these are not very sophisticated and reflect our evolved biological needs rather than our intellectual longings. Our societies overlay this with a veneer of sophistication, but our actual needs haven't changed in millennia, just the strategies for meeting those needs. As social primates it's important for us to establish social rules and hierarchies and for everyone to keep to them in order to fulfil our social needs. Hence we see the personified forces of nature as a celestial society, or as in ancient China as a celestial empire. The gods of course are not observed to obey the same social rules as humans, but never the less we discern order amongst them and do what we can to facilitate that order through sacrifice and prayer (all gods are similar in needing to be propitiated in order to behave - rather like over-sized toddlers). Many gods are effectively alpha-male primates in the sky - demanding submission and the best food. It seems irrational until you look at, say, chimp behaviour (I highly recommend reading Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man for instance). Part of the reason that apparently irrational religion is so very popular is that it speaks directly to deep human needs.

I wonder if this mismatch between our basic biology and intellect may be behind the mismatch between ordinary people and intellectuals? Recently I watched TED video of Richard Dawkins exhorting his audience to militant atheism. One of the points he makes is that amongst members of the American Academy of Science less that 10% believe in a god. When you compare that to members of the public it's more like 75% of people believe in a god. Dawkins quotes (ex)president Bush as saying an atheist could not be a patriot. Atheism is, however, the largest category of religious belief in the USA after Christianity - outnumbering Judaism, Hinduism and all other religions put together. But atheists have no political voice in the USA. I thought that was a very interesting point.

Intellectuals can generally see that the idea of a creator god is not credible, and it is interesting that Christian intellectuals back off from anthropomorphic versions of god even when they cannot give up the idea altogether. Ordinary people are harder to convince because they still project their hopes and fears onto the universe. And they want the universe to care. A caring universe is often personified as a loving mother or father (I don't recall any culture describing the universe/nature as a favourite aunt or uncle for instance).

The universe described by scientists seems not to care about us. I had an important realisation about this some years back when I used to surf on the rugged West Coast beaches near Auckland, New Zealand (especially Piha). These beaches are potentially dangerous and every year several people drown there, though with care they provide excellent surfing and swimming. The waves just roll in to their own rhythm, and they do not hesitate to drown the incautious. The sea does not glory in killing people, or regret one getting away. The sea is completely and utterly indifferent to us. When you float around on it for hours at a time, several days a week for a couple of years this becomes apparent. The ocean is magnificent, beautiful, fascinating, and thrilling, but it is not alive, not sentient. The ocean does not care, because it cannot. Caring is something that humans do.

I believe the universe is like this also. The universe does not care about us. It is not an ethical universe (i.e. it has no bias towards 'good') but one which is not aware at all, let alone aware of us and our needs: the universe is largely inanimate and driven by physics and chemistry. This might sound bleak or hard, scientists are often accused of being cold, but I'm not finished. Because the wonder is that self-aware beings can and do care. Sure, other animals experience consciousness and emotions so some extent. I don't deny that. But humans have this ability to rise above circumstances that no other animal possesses. We have an ability to be altruistic not possessed by other beings - for instance we help strangers, and can turn enemies into friends. In effect it is humans that provide the love, the caring, and the emotional warmth in the universe because they are products of consciousness, especially self-consciousness.

In response to one group of Brahmins who were concerned about the afterlife (Tevijja Sutta DN 13), the Buddha described a series of meditations in which one radiates positive emotions for all beings. One first of all radiates general goodwill, friendliness, love. One makes no distinctions between any beings, but imagines all beings everywhere being happy and well. Then we imagine that all people in need getting what they need, all the ill and unhappy beings becoming well and happy. Then we imagine ourselves celebrating along with everyone who has good fortune. And finally we radiate equanimity - a pure positivity not dependent on circumstances, but which arises out of our identification with all beings everywhere. What finer use of the imagination is there? It is no coincidence that the Buddha named this group of practices brahmavihāra (dwelling with god) and said of them that dwelling on the meditations was like dwelling with, or perhaps as, Brahmā (the creator god - usually depicted with four faces looking in the cardinal directions). The name was probably aimed at Brahmanical theists whose religious goal was brahmasahavyata 'companionship with Brahmā'. In response to concerns about the afterlife the Buddha simply teaches us to love without bounds in the here and now (as the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta says).

The Buddha's point is much the same as I have been saying. The universe, god if you will, is not the source of friendliness, love, caring, compassion. We are. Love is a human quality that emerges from our consciousness. It is up to us to provide this quality. It's a big job, and so we must set about it systematically, and collectively. Else we may fail, and we all know what that failure looks like. Fortunately we have ways of developing these qualities, and we have exemplars to inspire us. All we need do really is allow ourselves to be inspired, and have a go at the practices.

14 January 2011

Buddhist Atheism and Darwin

Since being contacted by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist podcast for an interview (an enjoyable experience), I've been taking more interest in the theme of non-religious Buddhism as an adaptation of Buddhism to Western Culture. I've watched a Stephen Batchelor video on YouTube, and read various articles. Batchelor is a voice of reason and I appreciate his contribution. At the same time I've discovered that I very much enjoy Richard Dawkins' polemical approach to religion.

Not long ago I changed my strap-line for this blog to "Western Buddhism... the Buddhist Enlightenment colliding with the European Enlightenment" which reflects my growing interest in how we adapt Buddhism to Western culture in a way that honours both. Though now a Buddhist and writer, I grew up secular and focussed by education on science. I have a B.Sc in chemistry from Waikato University, NZ. However, during my studies I realised that a detailed knowledge of the theory and practice of science was not enough. I was still largely unhappy, even depressed, most of the time, despite getting good grades in my chemistry classes. I did some shopping around before becoming a Buddhist and joining in with the Triratna Community. Buddhism seemed to offer what I was missing, and a large part of that was a community of people with coherent, well articulated, but also lived values. I found at the Auckland Buddhist Centre back in 1994.

In this post I want to look at one kind of rhetoric used by religions adapting to new cultural surroundings, and contrast that with how Charles Darwin changed the Christian Church forever. In the Hindu tradition there is a popular narrative about Gautama the Wake. He was in fact the ninth avatara of Viṣṇu, and he manifested in order to stop Hindu's from carrying out animal sacrifices, to reform the Hindu class system so as to allow the śudra class to be liberated. Hindu's therefore see Gautama the Wake as a reformer from within. I have met people, both in the West and in India, who hold this view in all seriousness and who tried to convince me of it. Of course no Buddhist takes this seriously. The lie is so great and so bold that we hardly know where to begin to refute it. However the avatara story is not rhetoric intended to convince Buddhists that really they are Hindus. No, the rhetoric has a primarily internal audience. This is a story that is mainly told by Hindus for Hindus.

Buddhists have used precisely this tactic. I've already pointed out that despite the efforts of many scholars (with K. R. Norman and Richard Gombrich at the forefront) to find parallels and echoes of the Upaniṣads in early Buddhist texts, that the early Buddhist portrayal of Brahmins suggests a slim and superficial knowledge - a second-hand caricature - rather than a true critique (See especially Early Buddhism and Ātman/Brahman). It might make sense to see the Buddhist critique of Brahmins as similarly intended for an internal audience, especially in light of the historical failure to convince many Brahmins. Later on we see other aspects of Indian religion being absorbed by Buddhists: Sarasvatī and Śrī in the Golden Light Sūtra; Śiva in the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, and again in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha where Śiva is converted to Buddhism and becomes a dharmapāla (often the form of Mahākāla). Indeed if you look at the periphery of the early Tantric Buddhist maṇḍalas you will find all manner of deities from the Vedas and Pūraṇas, some of whom like the ḍākiṇī who go on to become quintessentially Buddhist! So Buddhists have long employed this same kind of rhetoric, critiquing other religions for an internal audience. I think it helps to strengthen group coherence, and faith in one's chosen path, especially perhaps under adverse circumstances.

I've noticed this same tactic on the Secular Buddhist Facebook page where there is a running critique of traditional Buddhism in terms of what it gets wrong: basically traditional Buddhism contains some superstition and some untestable metaphysical beliefs, such as, and perhaps especially, a belief in karma & rebirth. In my Secular Buddhist interview, Ted and I talked about rebirth & karma and the difficulties they pose for contemporary Buddhists. I am personally very sceptical about rebirth (see Rebirth and the Scientific Method), but I have argued that a belief in karma linked with rebirth might have pragmatic value when seen in the right light as a motivation to be ethical (see Hierarchies of Values). Mind you, I see beliefs per se as rather secondary to practical matters - what motivates someone to be ethical is less important than the fact that they are ethical. Motivations get refined by practice.

Buddhist Atheists, or secular Buddhists, or whatever we call them, have a problem not unlike the problem of 'Christian Atheists' (people whose belief system is defined by not believing in the Christian God). I suppose most Christian Atheists would claim that they don't believe in any god, but the fact is that the most of the public dialogue revolves around the existence or non-existence of the Christian God. Christians still set the agenda. One of the things I see as vitally important for modern discourse (over which I have almost no influence; but, hey, everyone has an opinion) is that we who are atheists need to find some positive content and start talking about incessantly. We need to stop defining ourselves in terms of what we do not believe, in terms of opposition to the mainstream. God is irrelevant.

One of the reasons that Charles Darwin has been so successful is that he did not set out to criticise the Church or its members. He set out to observe nature, and presented positive evidence of what he found. He did not invent the evolution meme, but he decisively showed that it was the über-meme of biology. Of course it had massive theological implications, but he more or less left it to the Church to work them out. Ironically the Darwin Correspondence Project draws out the fact that Darwin had not intended to attack church doctrine:
"But Darwin was very reticent about his personal beliefs, and reluctant to pronounce on matters of belief for others. His published writings are particularly reserved or altogether silent on religion." - What Did Darwin Believe?
Darwin is a model for anyone who thinks a paradigm needs overturning. He didn't, as far as I know, complain about the lack of a level playing field, or the lack of political influence amongst the intelligentsia (as Richard Dawkins does in his 2007 TED presentation); and he did not directly attack church doctrine - he didn't need to. Though we still argue about implications of his finding, we cannot ignore them. Darwin destroyed the church doctrine of creation by merely presenting his evidence to the Royal Society and the world.

In a sense I'm not interested in reading that traditional Buddhism is getting it all wrong. I agree that an Iron Age tradition, whose most recent innovations are medieval, is unlikely to sit well in our Information Age. It's a given that ancient traditions are failing to live up to the present situation, because we who live in these times, who invented these times, can barely understand and cope with them. On the other hand traditional Buddhism clearly helps many people to lead more meaningful and fulfilling and ethical lives - just as Christianity still appeals to many good people.

On the other hand the idea that Buddhism is inherently in tune with a scientific worldview is not true either - it is rooted in old-world ideas that no longer make sense. Many of those responsible for presenting Buddhism to the Western audience since the 19th century have been passionate about the European Enlightenment rationalist legacy, and they have edited Buddhism to suit Western tastes. Aspects of Buddhism distasteful to the Western mind are often simply left out, glossed over, or explained away; and it's not until a closer association that we find that they are indubitably and perhaps indelibly present. It's not necessarily an intention to deceive, more like a strategy to attract people with what we already know attracts them, but to some extent it is a deception. One consequence is that some Buddhists still claim that the historical Buddha did not believe in any gods, but our own scriptures show him, on almost every page, conversing with gods from various religions. If he did not believe in gods, then who was he talking to?

What I want to see is evidence that leads to conclusions that change the way we think about life in general, from which we can work out the implications for Buddhism. I don't see this coming from Cosmology or Quantum Mechanics or any branch of physics. I think the parallels drawn to these disciplines are either prosaic or spurious. Probably we will find interesting results from ecologists, and evolutionary biologists - especially the followers of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, and if I had more time I would go back to Lovelock, and read Margulis (who argues that symbiosis and cooperation are more important drivers of evolution than specialisation and competition). For my money I think we will find compelling evidence to change the way we Buddhists think in the work of neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks, Antonio Demasio, V. S. Ramachandran, Joseph LeDoux; and their colleagues such as Thomas Metzinger (philosopher), and Martin Seligman (psychologist). I had not read anything in this area for some years, but have been working through Metzingers's recent book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. It's not always a joy to read, but the book has some very interesting things to say (more to come on Metzinger!). Clearly those who study consciousness and the mind are much closer to our interests than those who study matter.

Rather than railing against rebirth, karma, or any traditional beliefs (which I think will convert very few people) we would be better off to focus on talking about the implications neuroscience research. One fascinating instance of this is the unfolding discovery of just how intimately connected are consciousness and the brain - this area of study is surging ahead at the moment. The conclusion that mind and brain are inseparable seems increasingly obvious; and the idea of disembodied consciousness increasingly unlikely. I predict that actual rebirth won't survive as a viable meme for much longer except in marginal, fundamentalist sects. However symbolic rebirth as a myth (in the Joseph Campbell sense) may well continue to inform our lives. And we will understand the difference more clearly. The challenge will be presenting what is in fact a highly technical body of knowledge to a readership already overwhelmed by information, with a decreasing attention span, and not trained in the kinds of thinking required to truly grasp the implication of science.

The Darwinian approach of presenting a mass of positive evidence and allowing people to come to their own conclusions can change the world. Although an oppositional rhetoric (as described above) for an internal audience must have some value (or it would not survive), it won't reach beyond the borders of the converted - it is not useful for proselytising. In order to make changes in society, even in Buddhist society, one has to be clear that there is a better alternative, and I'm not sure that Buddhist atheists (or perhaps anyone who identifies with the label atheist) have found what that is yet - they know what they're against, but not what they are for. Or at least what they are for is actually part of the background of modern life (secularism, rationalism, materialism etc).