Showing posts with label Fundamentalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fundamentalism. Show all posts

13 July 2012

Semmelweis Reflex

Ignatius Semmelweis

ONE OF THE REAL BENEFITS of living in the UK is the BBC, a non-commercial network of TV and Radio stations. I'm a fan of Radio Four which is fairly high-brow in its approach to culture and science. Some years ago I learned about Ignatius Semmelweis on Radio Four.

Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician working in Vienna in the mid-19th century. His claim to fame is that he realised that doctors were spreading Childbirth Fever to women during childbirth, a disease which was frequently fatal. He recommended that doctors wash their hands in a chlorine solution before attending to each patient. In particular he made interns in his hospital who had been dissecting cadavers wash their hands before touch living patients. He obtained a definite decline in cases of Childbirth Fever and saved many lives. However, despite the clear benefits, his idea was so radical and preposterous that until Louis Pasteur established 'germ theory' in the 1870's, after Semmelweis had died, his hygienic practices were not widely taken up. Semmelweis published his findings in medical journals of the day, and wrote about this theory in a book, but made little headway. It's thought that doctors found his theory unbelievable. Trust in empiricism was still relatively new amongst scientists, and in those days doctors were not scientists. At the same time doctors were gentlemen and found the very idea that their hands were "dirty" and caused disease unseemly and unbecoming.

Today there was a magazine program which included Joanna Kavenna who published a novel, The Birth of Love, on the themes of childbirth and motherhood. Semmelweis is a character in the novel. While being interviewed on the subject of creatively she mentioned something called the Semmelweis Reflex. The Semmelweis reflex is a knee jerk rejection of a new idea because it is unfamiliar. There's a nice definition on Wikipedia:
Semmelweis Reflex (or effect) "is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms."
It's so easy to feel that we understand things. With understanding comes a feeling of being in control, or at least not too much at the mercy of events. It has to be said that medicine is vastly improved by understanding, though modern medicine certainly has its limits. People who wish to limit the influence of science will often point out the limitations of science, though on the whole the people that I see doing this seem woefully ignorant of science and in no position to judge it's limits.
Click image to embigg
One place we might expect to find a well developed Semmelweis Reflex is in the sphere of religion. Religious people are not known for welcoming new information, especially when it contradicts there beliefs. When Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859 the response from Christians was a Semmelweis Reflex. Evolution continues to be the watershed issue for Christianity, especially in the United States. In the USA there is an ongoing battle to have Christian supernatural ideas given equal or better status as evolution has in the education system.

On the right is a modified version of a diagram showing a simplified version of how Christian responses to evolution have evolved over time (based on a diagram that seems to be endemic on the internet. I found it here). My version attempts to show the relative chronology vertically. In the late 18th and 19th centuries we saw several attempts to incorporate evolution into Christianity, especially after Darwin. There were those, of course, who simply refused to look at the data, refused to read On the Origin of Species, and refused to consider changing their views. What we then see is the emergence, mainly in the last 20th century a series of increasingly sophisticated approaches involving outright rejection of evolution. If the Semmelweis Reflex can be sustained over 150 years it seems as though 'reflex' is not quite the right word any more. Indeed unlike Semmelweis's case, the establishing of facts (paralleling Pasteur) doesn't seem to have initiating the overwhelming change in behaviour that it did in the case of hand washing amongst doctors.

Another classic Semmelweis Reflex can be seen in economics. Mainstream economists completely failed to predict the disastrous global financial crisis which began in 2007, and has become a depression one the scale of the 1930s. But there are a number of heterodox economists who did predict it. My favourite is Steven Keen of the University of Western Australia. He realised in 2005 that private debt was rising exponentially in Australia, with similar trends in the entire Western World. Neo-classical economic models ignore private debt, since they see credit and debit as cancelling each other out. In fact Neo-classical macro-economic models make a number of outrageous assumptions about complex systems, such as linear behaviour (the classic supply and demand graphs) and the concept of equilibrium which finds expression in the oft voiced trust that left to itself the market will find it's level. But anyone that knows anything about complex systems is that their behaviour is never linear, and never approaches equilibrium. Economists, sincere as they may be, are completely deluded about the extent to which their models fit reality. Progress in a discipline like economics comes one funeral at a time. In other words these hoary old economists are simply not going to change their minds, come what may. Our best hope it to outlive them and hope they don't cause too much damage in the mean time.

I believe that we are already seeing something similar over the issue of rebirth. I think I've done a pretty good job of outlining why rebirth is implausible, and have added some other points since publishing my blog Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient (27.1.12). The case is quite strong, and those willing to consider the evidence I've marshalled on the whole seem to agree with me. But then they almost certainly already agreed and were not convinced by my arguments. At best people appreciated my enthusiasm and thoroughness. So I'm preaching to the converted, which is not entirely satisfying because it's not a real test of my argument. And it needs testing.

On the other hand as people who commented, and as discussions elsewhere on the internet, have made clear, those who disagree with me seem unwilling to examine my argument in detail and point out flaws or inconsistencies. What they do is fall back on what they know, and a literal reading of Pāli suttas. I haven't seen objections on the basis of Mahāyāna scripture, for example, though it may exist. Most of these reactions simply restate the mature theory of kamma and rebirth as they were taught it, ignoring the inconsistencies in the presentation, and say that it must be taken as a whole or not at all. In other words they are having a Semmelweis Reflex.

The point is that neither side seem to be really thinking about the issues and weighing the evidence. They're just taking sides because it fits their ideology or doesn't. Rebirth is integral to the Buddhist tradition--it is assumed at every step. The fact that it does not seem plausible on the basis of what we now know leaves us with a difficult task. I don't think anyone has really got to grips with it yet. Most rebirth deniers just seem to be dodging the issue. On the other hand I see fundamentalism as the kiss of death for Buddhism in the modern West, because it will be seen in the light of religious fundamentalism more generally. If fundamentalism continues to gain ground it will certainly alienate the mainstream of Western Society who seem heartily sick of religious dogma.

The problem needs to be addressed on two levels. We need to be clear about the facts, both from the tradition and the new facts emerging from scientific and historical investigation. But we also need to look at the level of values and salience. For the fundamentalist the tradition has enormous gravitas that affects the way that salience is assessed. Many fundamentalists have tipped the scales so far that science carries no weight. Every scholar, author and academic finds their own theory more salient than any other, though the good ones remain open to persuasion. In other words we need to try to communicate the facts, but at the same time the value of these facts. Obviously for someone like me scientific knowledge has great salience. Not only can I not ignore it, but I actively seek it out, and make it a priority to learn new things. This is not true of many religious people, and so we must frame the debate carefully.

There is also an ethical issue involved in deliberately attacking someone's belief system. One can very easily stray into violent behaviour. If someone is not receptive to us, we cannot force them to listen without doing violence to them. Making people receptive to us usually means making an empathetic connection with them first. This involves understanding and appreciating what they value and why. In order to change someone's mind we have to be able to imagine ourselves in their shoes. And very few non-religious people seem willing or able to do this.

Of course many people will prefer to stay out of the discussion. People say they are happy with their beliefs and have no desire to convince anyone of anything. Sadly this kind of cop-out see to be a modern default setting. I would argue that both religious and secular ideas are laced with an imperative to be in dialogue with others and to help other people understand your point of view. Buddhism is one of the great proselyting religions, and it's imperative is to teach other people how not to suffer. Inherent in a secular view is the betterment of humankind through knowledge. People can't better themselves if thy remain ignorant.

But this is not a call to take sides. Far from it. This is a call to empathise with your neighbour, and to treat them as you would be treated by them. Without first establishing empathy their can be no communication. Empathy doesn't need to be learned, we're all born with the ability. But we learn to suppress it with respect to outsiders and that needs to be unlearned.


23 April 2010

What is Buddhism?

Mahapajapati aiding at the Buddhas birth

Mahāpajāpatī (right) assists at the birth of the Buddha, seen emerging from his mothers side. Gandhāra sculpture.

This post is my response to something posted on Smiling Buddha Cabaret, which has become one of my favourite Buddhist blogs since I stumbled on it late last year. In "an open letter to the owner of Buddhism", NellaLou seeks permission to be the kind of Buddhist she wants to be, since it seems she has been criticised by other Buddhists about it (reading between the lines). The internet world is full of well-read censorious one-track fundamentalists who seem more interested in what Buddhism is not, and like nothing better to denounce ideas and attitudes as not Buddhism, and those putting forward these ideas as not Buddhist. It has always struck me as a tedious thing to do. Having fallen foul of these twits I'm in sympathy with NellaLou and thought I'd contribute to the cause in my own way.

Once when the Buddha was living in the gabled hall in the large grove outside Vaiśālī his maternal aunt and foster mother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī came to visit him. [1] She was about to set off on a solitary retreat and asked the Buddha for something pithy to reflect on. The Buddha gave her eight pairs of antonyms which he told her define what the Dhamma is and is not. These were:
  1. sarāga/virāga - passion/dispassion
  2. saṃyoga/visaṃyoga - attachment/detachment
  3. ācaya/apacaya - accumulation/divestment
  4. mahicchatā/appicchatā - ambition/satisfaction
  5. asantuṭṭhi/santuṭṭhi - discontentment/contentment
  6. saṇgaṇika/paviveka - society/solitude
  7. kosajja/vīriyārambha - idleness/invigoration
  8. dubbharatā/subbharatā - burdensomeness/helpfulness
Then he said. Gotamī: if a teaching causes you to move towards (saṃvattati; lit 'converges') the former then you can be sure that this is not the teaching, not the discipline, not the instruction of the instructor; but if the teaching causes you to move towards the latter then you can be confident that this is the teaching, it is the discipline, it is the instruction of the instructor.

While I do understand the nature of irony, allow me to give a slightly earnest answer to NellaLou. I think this kind of text shows that as well as trying to pin things down, there is a trend in Buddhism which holds the doctrines and practices loosely. Here we have the Buddha saying basically "anything that works is the Dharma". I would qualify 'works' here with the caveat that it has to definitely lead to the positive side of the equations given.

We could also see the fundamentalist cant in the light of the obvious borrowings throughout the history of Buddhism - from Vedism, from Jainism, from Hinduism, from Śaivism, from Taoism, from Shamanism, etc. We have historically been able to reform, innovate and incorporate because conservatives and fundamentalists have not always held sway. However I think it's easy to overstate the influence of online fundamentalists - I find the real Buddhists and Buddhologists I meet tend to be friendly and open. It's probably worth pointing out that our central doctrine in Buddhism is that EVERYTHING CHANGES! I think conservatives and fundamentalists lose sight of this, and perhaps even fear change.

Now although there are eight terms a number of them are synonyms - it can be quite difficult to see whether an entirely different concept is intended, or if a synonym is being used for reinforcement (a very common Pāli rhetorical strategy). Although I've gone for a single word in each case, it should not be assumed that the English precisely conveys the Pāli - far from it. Take the word rāga in sarāga/virāga 'with/without passion'. What's intended here is something like 'uncontrollable excitement'. It is not passion in the contemporary sense of 'positive enthusiasm' for something, but in the archaic sense of a strong emotion or event which overtakes us against our will - the Passion of Christ refers to his torture and horrible death on the cross for instance; and the passion of various saints refers to their martyrdom. So rāga is passion in this negative sense.

The pairs saṃyoga/visaṃyoga and saṇgaṇikā/paviveka are related: they value independence and individuality over dependence and groups. Following Sangharakshita we tend to use this word 'group' pejoratively in the Triratna Buddhist Order - it represents the lower evolution, the herd, the mob, the submerging of the individual will rather than it's sublimation. "The group is always wrong"... "the couple is a group of two" etc. The Buddha certainly valued individuality and emancipation from the herd mentality. He often encouraged his followers to leave behind family, status, career and social groups and to pursue enlightenment alone in the wilderness. There is only misery in those kinds of attachments (cf From the beloved). We can of course take this too far because the spiritual community can come together on a different basis, which I discussed in my post on the Russian term sobornost.

Similarly there are some pairs dealing with our hedonic response to sense data: mahicchatā/appicchatā; asantuṭṭhi/santuṭṭhi. The first two revolve around the word iccha 'wish, desire' as an abstract noun icchatā 'wishfulness'. The negative side has much (mahā) of this, while the positive has little (appa). Similarly the second pair revolve around the word tuṭṭha 'pleased, content'. The negative is dissatisfaction, the positive is satisfaction - both appicchatā and santuṭṭhi could be rendered as 'contentment'.

Lastly we have kosajja/vīriyārambha and dubbharatā/subbharatā. These relate to how we contribute to society. The pair of idleness (kosajja) or invigoration (vīriya-ārambha) is fairly obvious. The last pair are more difficult. The base is bharatā from the root √bhṛ 'to bear' (and related to English words ending in -fer/-pher e.g. aquifer 'water bearer'; Lucifer 'light bearer'). The word is an abstract noun that only seems to occur in these two compounds. In this context it refers to being easy (su) or difficult (du) to support, probably with reference to bhikkhus who may require little or much from their supporters. In The Life of the Buddha Ñāṇamoli renders the pair as 'luxury' and 'frugality', [2] while Thanissaro opts for 'burdensome/unburdensome'. [3] I've gone for helpful as the opposite of burdensome because it coveys an active rather than a passive value: why stop at just not being a burden and when one can do something helpful? One who is idle is a burden so these terms are to some extent synonymous.

A small point of interest about satthusāsana which I have rendered as 'the instruction of the instructor'. Both parts of the compound (satthu and sāsana) derive from √śās which has a range of senses from 'chastise, punish'; through 'control, rule, order, command'; to the more benign 'instruct, teach'. From it we also get the word śāstra 'a text for instruction' (as distinct from śruti 'what is heard, a sacred text'). So we could have rendered it 'the command of the commander', or the 'teaching of the teacher'. In the case of Aśoka's edicts (i.e. sāsanā) we might go for 'the dictates of the dictator'.

This is a strange text in some ways. It is unusual that there is no response to the teaching from Mahāpajāpatī. We would expect her to have something to say, and it would not be unusual for her to disappear for a week or two and come back and report that she had 'done what had to be done' (i.e. become an arahant), though she does later become an arahant. Indeed this is a strange meditation practice and it feels like we're missing some important piece of the story. Mahāpajāpatī asks for something concise that she might dwell on alone, secluded, vigilant, ardent and resolute (ekā vūpakaṭṭhā appamattā ātāpinī pahitattā vihareyyaṃ). And the Buddha responds in a very abstract way. It's hard to see this would be helpful unless she had a problem of being too narrow in defining the Dharma, or was struggling to interpret conflicting interpretations (and as NellaLou has pointed out these issues are endemic in Buddhism). According to the Dictionary of Pāli Names this story occurs after her ordination (and the creation of the bhikkhunī saṅgha) when she is already a stream-entrant (sotāpanna).

What ever we make of the context, the attitude displayed in the sutta is a useful antidote to narrowness, conservatism and fundamentalism. 'Buddhism' is anything that genuinely leads to positive results as defined by the Buddha, i.e. anything that leads to: dispassion, detachment, divestment, satisfaction, contentment, solitude, invigoration, helpfulness. Of course we don't really need a text to tell us this, or to justify our practice to others if we feel we are genuinely practising, but I find it useful to show that even the conservative Theravādins preserved a tradition of openness and innovation.

  1. I'm working from the Saṃkhitta Sutta, AN 8.53, PTS A iv.280. Pāli Text from
  2. Ñāṇamoli. The Life of the Buddha. Buddhist Publication Society, 1984. p.107-108.
  3. Access to Insight. Gotami Sutta.