Showing posts with label Metaphysics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Metaphysics. Show all posts

09 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 2. In And Of The World

In part one, I argued for a mind-independent world, though I critiqued calling this world "reality" or projecting onto it human longings or idealisations. The mind-independent world is not "transcendental" or "absolute", it is neutral. And we do have some idea of what it is like, so it is not ineffable. I want to continue by considering humanity's place in this mind-independent world and exploring the nature of experience. 

In And Of The World

For the longest time we considered ourselves to be apart from the world. There was the universe and there was us. And we were special. So special that the universe was made just for us; and/or we were made to decorate the universe. And typically this specialness was fractal - at whatever level you look, people believed something along the lines that they were "God's chosen people". This has led to untold conflict and suffering as "the chosen ones" sought to convince others of their specialness by killing, raping, pillaging, and/or enslaving them. I'm this writing in the aftermath of a series of religiously inspired mass murders in London (mind you, I'm also against our government committing similar murders in the Middle-East).

Our discoveries about the world have dissolved us into the world. What we have learned has reduced any distinctions between us and the world; between us and other animals; and between different tribes amongst us. We are very much in and of the world. We're pretty much all alike, tell the same kind of stories about the world and ourselves, have the same kinds of longings. Most people's needs are actually pretty simple: shelter, food, sex, and community. The more we look, the less special human beings are. We just happen to be better at a particular combination of functions that are widely found in the living part of the world; and to have co-opted some key functionality to other tasks (such as shape recognition being adapted to reading).

I make the distinction between experience and a mind-independent world (sometimes I say "experience and reality") because it's a useful way of talking. The distinction is methodological, to some extent epistemological, but not ontological. From my point of view, your mind is independent of my mind, but it is not independent of the world; indeed, it counts as part of the world. You have a similar frame of reference with respect to other people. And with all due respect to the psychonauts exploring the far reaches of mind—who say, for example, that they "have no self"—their sensory field is still created by their senses not mine, and they still only have access to their thoughts and only have motor control over their bodies. Even if they don't feel a sense of ownership, they still have to acknowledge the physical limitations of being embodied and the applicability of natural laws. I think they know this, but struggle with conditioning which prompts them to see their experience as reality. Our minds are not little motes of non-world, are not separate from the world, but are merely subsets of the world.

John Searle makes the distinction between objective and subjective modes of being. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology, but it can be useful in emphasising this point about mental activity. What happens in our minds is only directly accessible to us, which is why we might say that it has a subjective mode of being. The neural activity that generates the mental activity is itself objective. It's only the emergent results that are subjective (i.e., accessible only to our own minds). The analogy I use is that the nutrients from the food we eat are only accessible to our bodies, because when we ingest them the chemical processes of digestion take place inside our bodies. Similarly, the processes that produce minds take place inside a body and the results are only directly accessible within that body. So mind is subjective in the same way that digestion is subjective.

Just as we have an objective science of digestion, there is no reason we cannot have an objective science of mental activity. Although I predict it won't be through reductive methods and theories. Reductionism is fine for exploring substance, but it destroys structure and mind is all about structure and the emergent properties of structures. We've scarcely begun to explore antireductive methods of understanding reality, because most of us (including Buddhists) are still obsessed with the successes of reductionism. To the best of my understanding, enlightenment doesn't change any of this.

What A Mind Does

Minds (all minds) do work in a distinctive way. Our ideas and images need not be real or conform to the laws of nature. I can imagine a pig with wings. I may mentally give it many details so that it becomes incredibly vivid in my mind's eye. However, at no point in this process does a pig with wings exist. I can even infect your mind with my image, by describing the pig with wings to you. Now you have a pig with wings in your mind too. But there is still no pig with wings in the world. Imaginary objects are not bound by the same rules as real ones. One couldn't just stick wings on a pig an expect it to fly. For example, birds have many specific adaptations that enable them to fly, including hollow bones, feathers to create an aerofoil, musculature to produce the required power, and so on. Our mental images and creations don't have to deal with these physical limitations. We can be fairly sure that any animal that plays or dreams has the same interesting capacity, to some extent.

I think most scientists and philosophers now believe that, despite the freedom of mental content, the mechanisms that generate that content do follow the laws of nature. Even though we're not quite sure how it's done, we've ruled out other possibilities. For example, there is no need, no room, for a supernatural explanation of mental activity. We can be confident that mental activity is an emergent property of a living brain. Not absolutely certain, but as certain as we can about anything. We leave open the possibility that miraculous testimony might one day be backed up by miraculous evidence, but until then we focus on what seems overwhelmingly likely.

Any living body that has a functioning brain will display far more complex behaviour than one without, and the motions of that body will deviate from the norms dictated by simple physics. If you stand me and a bowling ball at the bottom of the stairs in my house, the bowling ball will never spontaneously go upstairs; whereas I do this all the time (as do my landlady and her cats). Some aspects of having a mind are obvious from the outside. If I go upstairs empty handed and return with a coffee mug, it's no great stretch of the imagine to speculate that I went up stairs for the purpose of getting that mug and that I am now going to do some mug-related activity like making coffee or washing up. You can infer how my mind works based on your previous knowledge of me, on your general knowledge about people, and on how your own mind works. This procedure is not unerringly accurate, but good enough at the level for which we evolved the capacity (i.e., to enable a small-to-medium, mutually-dependent social group to thrive). We can model how each other feels through noting and imitating facial expression, tone of voice, posture, etc., though experience suggests we're less good at attributing motives. These forms of mind-reading apply for social mammals and even work both ways between us and domesticated animals, to some extent. 

In John Searle's terms, some parts of the world have a subjective mode of being (i.e., mental activity), and some have an objective mode of being. However, I think Searle goes wrong at this point. He argues that our experience of things that have an objective mode of being is "direct" (a favourite word amongst Buddhists). In other words, he consciously adopts a naive realism. There is so much evidence against naive realism that one boggles that such a clever guy, who has made such major contributions to how we understand ourselves, would go off the rails at this point and argue for something as daft as naive realism.

Not only is our mental activity a small part of the world, but the mental activity we are aware of is a small part of the overall activity. Our brain is constantly processing and producing information, but just occasionally it shunts something into the part of the brain that deals with self-awareness. The conscious part of our mental activity is just the tip of the iceberg, though, again, we tend to privilege this part because we identify with it as special. The "direct" quality of perception is an illusion. And the best evidence for this is the large number of perceptual illusions we are prone to. Experience is never direct. However, many Buddhists claim that they can, through mental exercises, perceive "direct experience". In this case they mean "direct" in an entirely different sense that is more to do with stripping away any conceptual overlays. Voluntarily shutting down one's higher brain functions produces a certain way of perceiving experience that aficionados recommend, but there is nothing direct about it.

So this is the situation that we find ourselves in. We live in a particular kind of world, but we are also wholly in and of that world. A tiny part of the world is dependent on, and only accessible to, my mind; but for the most part the world—the incomprehensibly vast universe covering dozens of orders of magnitude—is independent of any mind.*
* If the reader is still thinking, "But what about the need to observe the cat in the box?", I direct them to my essay, Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29 October 2010). 

Experience as Simulation

My view is also a form of realism; we might call it a qualified realism. I take seriously what scientists tell me about how I perceive the world. Early Buddhists seem to have got this at least partially right: experience is not simply the subjective domain of the world, it is what happens when the objective and subjective domains overlap. I follow the representationalists (especially Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger) who argue that our brains form virtual models of self and world, and that these are what we experience, or that these are experience (in which case they correspond to the five skandhas of the Buddhist tradition). My seeing a form is mediated by a large number of brain areas that process vision, but also with areas that recognise what things are, that name attributes, that create emotional responses, and that inform me of how I might interact with what I'm seeing. To perceive something is to infer knowledge about it, but also to infer possible interactions, and so on.

One of the key methods in neuroscience to date is to tally all the ways in which perception, cognition, and our sense-of-self can go wrong and then try to infer what the mind must be like to be able to go wrong in that way. When one takes all the evidence into account there is no other plausible explanation: perception and, particularly, our perception of a sense-of-self, are virtual rather than real. "Virtual" here means, having all the properties and functions of a real thing, but not being physically instantiated. The brain is a reality emulator. The sense of having a first-person perspective on experience can break, or we can shut it down through meditative techniques. Unfortunately, if this happens to us, it tends to lead to unwarranted metaphysical speculation. In particular, for Buddhists, the shift in perspective is interpreted as an insight into the nature of reality. Religieux indoctrinated with different views take this experience as meaning something else, such as being one with God or merging with the absolute.

Experience is an emergent property of living, embodied brains. Experience only exists, to the extent that it exists at all, as a product of our interactions with a mind-independent world. In this, experience is unlike the world, i.e., experience is dependent on our minds. It is presumably more efficient to employ a model of the world because the sheer volume of incoming information would otherwise quickly overwhelm us and render us incapable of action or reaction. After all, this is why humans employ models when dealing with complex situations.

We can make a methodological distinction between experience and reality, with some caveats. Firstly, "reality" is used in the value neutral sense that I have described; and, secondly, we have to acknowledge that ultimately experience is an aspect of reality, i.e., that part of reality, with a "subjective mode of being", that only we have access to. However, roughly speaking, experience is our personal world; while reality is the public world that we all share. For each of us there is an epistemological distinction between self and world (our thoughts are clear to us, others' thoughts are opaque). And it can be useful to talk as though these were separate as long as no one is confused about the context.

Buddhism, Experience, and Reality

While the ancient Greeks were busy speculating about "reality", in ancient India they had figured out that if you completely ignore sense experience, there is a class of experiences that one can have that are unlike any other. By focussing internally, one can withdraw into a state of peaceful bliss. This is not only very evocative of mind-body dualism, sky-beings and all that, but it also gives the meditator a totally new perspective on experience. Reflecting on experience, especially in the light of being aware while experience stops and then restarts, can result in permanent changes to how we experience the world. The first-person perspective can drop away, leaving us operating in a field of experiences without a subjective reference point. Those who do experience the world in this way describe it in glowing terms.

For many Buddhist traditions this luminous experience is reality. Part of my project is pointing out that it isn't. Selflessness is still experiential, or at least involves a perspective on, inferences from, and interpretations of experience. Granted, the luminosity, or selflessness, or whatever, are unlike anything humans normally experience, but they are still experiences being had by a person. The interpretations of the significance of these experiences are so very obviously culturally determined, that calling it "liberation" in any ultimate sense is clearly going beyond the data. One may well be free of certain types of conditioning as a result, but intellectually many well-worn ruts still exist and channel the thoughts of the "enlightened". Typically, the liberated person judges their experience to confirm the doctrine that they have been indoctrinated with. Thus, the liberated still appear to suffer from confirmation bias. I've recently come across work by Jeffery A. Martin, which I have yet to fully evaluate, but at the very least he appears to have a useful vocabulary for this kind of experience, which he calls "non-symbolic". Enlightenment in his terms would be persistent or on-going non-symbolic experience. I think this may turn out to be a very useful of talking about enlightenment to disentangle it from the legacy terminology of Asian tradition (not to mention unhelpful English translations of such terminology).

Unfortunately, the non-symbolic experience is so engrossing and all encompassing, that those who have it are often supremely confident in their interpretations of their experiences. They are often unwilling to contemplate any other interpretation. I accept that at least some of the people who claim to have no self really do have a different experience of the world, but I'm unwilling to accept their metaphysical/ontological claims on face value.

Experiences of the non-symbolic type led Buddhists to develop an influential discourse that begins with a simile: "form is like an illusion" (rūpam māyopama). Here "form" represents all of the five branches of experience, i.e., form, sensations, perception, volition, and cognition. These are how early Buddhists conceptualised the processes required to have experiences. So we could read this as, "experience is like an illusion". The skandhas are still not a bad list, even if the definitions of the items have become overly vague. Many people find the skandhas provide a useful methodological focus for reflecting on experience. "Illusion", here, translates the Sanskrit and Pāḷi word māyā, which comes from a root (√) meaning "to create", and is related to the creative power of gods. In Buddhist myth, for example, the Buddha's mother is called Māyā, which probably means something like "Creatrix" (it's a Brahmanical name with Brahmanical religious connotations). However, in Buddhist texts māyā usually refers to something conjured up, usually by magic, which deceives the mind into thinking it is real, when it is not. 

How can we understand the idea that experience is like an illusion? In the context I have been outlining, we can say that experience, is like an illusion to the extent that it is unlike the mind-independent world. In other words, the question about experience and illusion only makes sense when the contrast between solid objects and ephemeral experience is clear.

I had an insight into this on a long retreat some years ago. I was standing with a friend, both of us looking at a 100m vertical rock face. And I said, "but it doesn't change". My friend's response was "close your eyes". In that instant of closing my eyes, the rock did not change one iota; but my experience of the rock changed completely. My experience changed from a primarily visual one to a primarily mnemonic one (I had a fresh memory of seeing the rock). When I opened my eyes again and switched back to a visual experience, the rock was again apparently unchanged, but my experience changed completely. It's not that everything changes, although, of course, it does. It's that experience is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial. In fact, experience can completely cease, leaving us alive and aware, but not aware of anything. This is not reality, but is better described as the experience of the cessation of experience (nirodha or nibbāna).

The idea of a mind-independent world is not explicitly endorsed by any Buddhist text. However, the early Buddhist model of perception requires that there be what we would call an "object", but which they called a "foundation" (ālambhana) that is not encompassed by their idea of mind. The foundation is contrasted with the sense faculty (indriya) and sense cognition (vijñāna). In other words, the foundation for perception is independent of the mind. However, nothing is ever said about the nature of the foundations of perception. It is merely a background to the act of perception and the focus is entirely on the cognitive aspects of the act. However, it does mean that a mind-independent world is entirely consistent with the early Buddhist model of perception.

The philosophical position that the world is an illusion is common in other Indian traditions (especially in Sāṃkya-darśana and the traditions it influenced such as Vedanta and Patañjali's Yoga ). However, this position is not practical and long ago ceased to be interesting. In fact, we know that the world is not an illusion. The world is real, in the value neutral way I have described. Experience can certainly deceive us about the world, but this is a commentary on experience, not on reality.

The world is not an illusion or even like an illusion. Quite the opposite. The world is the (relatively) stable reality against which the concept of "illusion" has meaning. We contrast experience with the world and discover that, unlike the world, experience is like an illusion - virtual, fleeting, unsatisfactory, insubstantial. This is an epistemological distinction. The ontological argument that mind and body, or mind and world, are substantially different or made of different stuff is untenable. Everything is a manifestation of one kind of stuff and reductionism is the right method for dealing with questions of stuff or substances. However, structures made from stuff are also "real", i.e., existent and causal. Reductionism fails at this point precisely because the associated methods destroy the very structures we wish to study. 

Summary So Far

In Part 1, I argued for a mind-independent world. Or at least I summarised arguments that I have previously made at greater length, based on ideas I have drawn from various sources, especially Sean Carroll, Richard H Jones, and John Searle. I argued that this mind-independent world is value neutral, that it doesn't fit the narratives developed over centuries in which the world mirrors projections of human desires. The world is not absolute, transcendent, ultimate, divine or any of that. It just is what it is.

In this part I have tried to show that our relation to this world is not separate or unique, but integrated and of the same type. However, I also noted that our experience is not like the mind-independent world. Indeed, it is the contrast between experience and the world that helps up to makes sense of the Buddhist claim that experience is "like an illusion". This is a distinction I think few Buddhists will easily accept, because most of us are deeply indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite: either some form of idealism in which the mind literally creates the world; or that experience is the world. I see the standard Buddhist narratives as problematic and in the next part I will explain why. In the briefest possible terms, Buddhism as it stands is not compatible with the laws of nature. There could hardly be a worse situation for Buddhists.


02 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 1. A Mind-Independent World

Is the world real or an illusion? This question reverberates throughout philosophy and religion. In Part One of this essay I reiterate arguments in favour of the existence of a mind-independent world. A mind-independent world exists (is real) and is neutral with respect to us. I discuss and problematise the terms objective and reality as misleading. In particular, "reality" is a poorly defined and culturally loaded term. In Part Two, I locate human beings inside this mind-independent world and discuss the Buddhist simile that makes experience "like an illusion". This sets the scene for exploring some implications of a modern worldview for traditional Buddhism. Buddhists have staked a claim on "reality" that is not valid or plausible. Buddhist methods give us access to knowledge about the mind and perception; but they do not give us insights into a mind-independent world. Buddhists define "reality" for the same reasons that everyone does: subjectification of people and creation of (priestly) hegemonies. But, as science progresses with describing a neutral mind-independent world, this creates a credibility gap for Buddhism with respect to reality. Our fall-back is to truthfully claim to have useful insights into experience. If we do not fall back, we risk being proving us wrong (and we are wrong). 

A Mind-Independent World

It's seven-thirty in the morning, I'm sitting at my desk about to set out on another literary journey. Behind me, the sun is rising into a partly cloudy sky, and I can feel warm sunlight on my right shoulder. A gentle breeze is wafting through the neighbourhood, and out of the window I can see shrubs nodding in time. I'm getting a waft of frankincense smoke and there's classic Salmonella Dub in my headphones. There's a slightly bitter note on my tongue from my morning coffee, half of which still sits by my keyboard going cold.

Is this scene that I've just sketched real? Or is it all an illusion? Or is it something else? What do I even mean by "real"? These are philosophy questions, and for some people the answer doesn't seem to matter. We can get on with our lives without ever answering these questions. I used to not care that much, but I gradually got drawn into thinking about such questions, partly because so many Buddhists seemed to have such obviously wrong answers to these questions that they were peddling as the ultimate truth. Was I completely missing the point or were they?

For me the scene is real and ongoing. Some things, such as the wall or my desk, are not perceptibly changing as I write and provide a static backdrop against which change stands out. While I write the scene is gradually shifting, the sun is moving, and the music playing out, and I'm hungry so will go down to the kitchen soon to get breakfast. I don't expect it to last and I don't expect it to be static, not even the wall, over the long term. Buddhists often seem to assert that I do expect it will last, that I do expect to the world to be static. But I don't. And I doubt anyone does or ever did. "Everything changes" is just a banal truism.

The idea that there is a world that is independent of my mind seems obvious, but so is the fact that it changes (and I haven't even started on science yet). Early Buddhists seem to have thought so too, but they were almost completely uninterested in that world, probably because they spent a lot of time doing religious exercises that mostly involved consciously withdrawing any and all attention from the sensory world until ordinary experience completely ceased (called, variously, yoga, bhāvana, etc). It is also true that they understood this state to have far reaching consequences - it liberated the practitioner from rebirth (punarbhava) and redeath (punarmṛtyu).

If there were not a world independent of my mind, it would be very difficult to explain certain things. Without it there is no common reference point for us to refer to. So, for example, my description of my early morning experience would not resonate, because the reader would not be able to relate to my wholly individual experience. What makes such a description evocative (as I hope it is) is the way that we can relate the words to our own experience of morning, the sun, warmth, etc. The words may well be merely conventional, but the experiences the words refer to are shared.

Take a tennis match at Wimbledon - two players, a referee, various other match officials, and a few thousand spectators. If there were no ball, independent of the players and the crowd, how would a tennis match make sense? How would players track and hit the ball back and forth? How would the referee adjudicate? How would spectators know where to look? If there were no mind-independent world, some far more convoluted explanation would be required to account for the kinds of coherence or simultaneity that make tennis comprehensible to everyone involved; and, mutatis mutandis, that make our everyday experiences comprehensible (to the extent that they are).

Whether we go by intuition, Occam's razor, Bayesian inference, or some other method, the existence of a world independent of our minds is the best way to make sense of our experience. All the other options force us to adopt absurd positions. This doesn't mean they are false, only that extraordinary evidence would be required to make them plausible and until that turns up we have a clear outright winner in the explanation stakes. The mind-independent world wins by a country mile.

What should we call this mind-independent world?


We tend to think of the world in terms of objects and actions. And because we can all agree on the general characteristics of objects, we sometimes call this the objective world, in contrast to our mind which is our private subjective world. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology. After all, if I am experiencing something that is real, then my experience is not entirely subjective, since it rests on an object and everyone who sees the object sees the same object. Similarly, all animals with brains make inferences about perception that mean that experience is never wholly objective, either. 

Benjamin Lee Whorf, in a still popular but controversial theory, proposed, in the mid-20th Century, that this way of dividing the world up was based in our language; i.e., it derived from the linguistic structures of nouns and verbs. He proposed that grammatical relations precede and define how we perceive the world. His evidence for this came from indigenous North American languages, particularly Hopi. Whorf claimed that at least one language community only conversed in verbs, suggesting that the noun/verb distinction was arbitrary. The details of Whorf's ideas would take us too far afield, but I highly recommend his essays on language - they are stimulating, and like many very bright people, even when he is wrong, he is wrong in interesting ways (to paraphrase Feynman). I think the consensus is that Whorf was wrong, though in a very interesting way. Language does have an impact on how we understand our world, but not to the extent he suggested. Grammar does not precede the world, but emerges from it, especially from the way that we physically interact with it. Objects are still objects and actions are still actions; they exist and happen without our being aware of them.

So the world is objective, in the sense that it's made up from structured objects, but it's not objective in the usual sense of the world. And calling the mind-independent world "the objective world" doesn't seem right to me. In any case, "objective" is defined relative to our minds, and the world we are talking about is independent of our minds. 


Another thing that we sometimes call this mind-independent world is "reality". Reality must be something like the sum total of all the real things and actions. But it's not a neutral term. Anyone who is "out of touch with reality" is either mad, ignorant, or in some other way defective. How we treat them varies from bad to worse. However, "real" turns out to be quite a difficult concept to define.

We have a number of synonyms: 'real', 'true', 'exist'; or 'abstract reality', 'truth', and 'existence'. They are all equally difficult to define. So a definition of one in terms of the others is no help. If the only access the individual has to knowledge is their senses, then reality is more or less impossible to define. Scholars are often guilty of solipsism in that they do try to define reality this way. In my way of thinking, something may be considered real if two or more people can perceive it and generally agree on its characteristics. But, of course, numerous examples show that even multiple people can be deceived - like the sunset illusion. Determining what is real requires sustained and persistent inquiry involving collecting empirical data, identifying and testing assumptions, and cross-referencing with other data. We undercut the sunset illusion by observing the motions of the other planets and concluding that they cannot be in orbit around the earth, and so on.

In reductive approaches to ontology, to be 'real', something has to be independently existent, not simply independent of our minds, but independent of anything else, as well. Following Patricia Churchland's discussion of freewill, we can call this "contra-causal independence". In this reductive approach, only the fundamental, unstructured (atomic) layer, at the bottom of the layers of structure is ultimately real. However, degrees may be admitted, because it is also implicit that parts are more real than wholes. When you analyse (i.e., break apart) everything down to the smallest units and cannot go any further, anything that is left is considered real. Atoms were so-named because they were thought to be indivisible (Greek: a-tomos). It's possible, if Fay Dowker and her colleagues exploring causal set theory are right, that spacetime is made up from Planck scale "atoms" as well. Time will tell whether this granular view of spacetime replaces the smooth image we get from relativity, but they did accurately predict the universe expanding at an accelerating rate.

This reductive view is flawed. Parts are not a priori more real than wholes. Reductionism is an ideology, not a philosophy. For example, structures are routinely as stable as (or in some cases more stable than) their parts, have unique properties not possessed by their parts, and, importantly, have causal potential. By most definitions, this makes structures real, also. As I have argued at length, following Richard H. Jones (see A Layered Approach to Reality), the only viable ontology is reductionist with respect to substance and antireductionist (or emergentist) with respect to structure. And this means that "real" extends over the whole of the layer stack - from the Planck scale to the universe as a whole. It's all real. 

"Reality" is a loaded term, not just because it helps us define who is mad or sane, but because whoever defines reality has a superior position and tends to exploit it to create a hegemony. When one says, rhetorically, "Look, the reality is.... ", one is asserting superiority over the interlocutor. If someone hits you with this, they are saying that, whatever it is that you are on about, you are completely wrong - you are out of touch with reality. The reality is the final word on anything. Fortunately, no one can agree on what reality is, at least for long. But how a society defines reality determines how some of its outliers are treated. The cultural baggage that comes with "reality" is so hefty that it makes the term unhelpful a lot of the time.

So, I tend to think in terms of a mind-independent world rather in terms of reality. A jargon term is only useful when there is an agreed definition. And reality is, ironically, not a unifying concept, but is contested with a view to owning the intellectual and moral high-ground. On the whole, the word is best avoided if one doesn't want to be drawn into interminable arguments with people whose only commitment is to winning arguments. But however we define reality, it does not alter the fact that there is a world that is independent of our minds.

The Nature of the mind-independent world.

One of the big problems we have in discussing the mind-independent world is that it seems to attract all of our psychological projections. I've already explored this with respect to the term "reality". One of the problems is that human beings want to live in a particular kind of universe, i.e., one that is fair and just. A fair and just universe allows us to anticipate what we need to do next and do it. It allows us to find the optimal path to navigate through life, avoiding pain and suffering. And if the world is just, then it must be perfect. And since the world we see is not perfect, in the sense that it is not just, then the perfect world must be either elsewhere (usually in the sky for reasons I have explained elsewhere) or hidden. Thus, depending on who you ask, reality may be:
  • occult (Latin for "hidden")
  • esoteric (Greek for "inner-circle")
  • mystical (from Greek myein "closed off")
  • supernatural (from Latin "above nature"; i.e., in the sky)
  • transcendental (from Latin "climb beyond"... i.e., into the sky)
  • absolute (from Greek "detached from"... free of imperfection)
  • perfect (from Latin "finished, made complete")
  • numinous ("divine will" from a Latin word meaning "nod", as in "nod of approval from God")
There is pie in the sky. Though ironically, the word sky itself comes from a Germanic word meaning "cloud, covering". However, there is nothing empirical to indicate that the mind-independent world is any of these things. There is no a priori reason why a mind-independent world should fulfil any of our human longings for perfection, justice, completion, longevity, or satisfaction. Nor is reality up in the sky. In fact, everything suggests that the mind-independent world is entirely indifferent to us and our longings. There is no perfection, no cosmic justice, no completion; we all die, and satisfaction is all down to how to live. The mind-independent world is neutral. 

Through careful observation and meticulous comparing of notes, scientists have begun to map out the characteristics of this neutral mind-independent world. Before the invention of the telescope and the microscope, we thought the world spanned about 7 or 8 orders of magnitude (i.e., roughly from millimeters to a few 10s of 1000s of kilometers). Now we know that the structures of the world can cover between 60 and 100 orders, depending on what we are measuring. For example length goes from the Planck scale (~10-35 m) to the universe as a whole (~1027 m) and thus covers roughly 62 orders of magnitude. My readers may well point out that the Indian imagination was more fecund and on a much grander scale than the Europeans of the same time. It is true that Indians imagined a much larger universe, but the mind-independent world we actually live in is nothing like the fantasies of Iron Age India.

We know that the neutral mind-independent world is made of certain kinds of stuff, but that the stuff combines in all sort of ways to create many layers of structure. As complex structures pile up, we find that emergent properties begin to dominate and that we have to adopt different descriptive paradigms. The stack of layers is not linear. So we can still usefully employ broad categories such as physics, chemistry, and biology (and the many sub-divisions of these), where each science has distinctive methods and theories that dominate their discourse. 

What the 'scopes told us was that there are domains of the world beyond what our senses can register. Quantum physics hints that there are domains that our minds cannot register, also. Our minds are tuned to navigate and survive in the macroscopic world. So most of us struggle with the extremes: time-frames in femto-seconds or millions of years; or lengths nanometers or parsecs. As well as an observable universe, we might also need the idea of a comprehensible universe. What lies beyond is the domain of specialists. But this we do know: in order for some entity or force to interact with our world, it, too, has to be observable. Either something interacts with matter and energy, in which case we can see and measure it; or it does not, in which case we can ignore it. And in the case of the mass, length, energy scales relevant to ordinary human lives (that narrow range of 7-8 orders of magnitude that we easily comprehend) we don't need anything extra to explain it. Physics is complete within these parameters (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry, especially links to Sean Carroll's arguments for this on his blog). There are new discoveries to be made at the extremes, but not in the middle where we live. The supernatural is an answer for which there is no longer any question.

One of the key functions of our mind is to recognise agentive behaviour in our environment. Julian Barrett has pointed out we are evolved to find agency in the world because it has survival value. It is better to avoid 100 imagined tigers, than to fail to avoid one real tiger. But this error in favour of seeing agency makes us animists; we see agency where it is not. Many animals are also animists in this sense (Guthrie) And some experiences—classically the so-called "out-of-body experience"—convince us that our own minds are not tied to bodies. This leads to mind-body dualism, which, despite the alterations of science, is still by far the most popular view in the general population. Body is physical, heavy, matter, bound, opaque, etc. Mind is the opposite; immaterial, light, luminous, free, transparent, etc. Freed of body at death, mind naturally rises up to the sky which it is like. The idea that our minds are just motes of sky/heaven/absolute, embodied for a time, and will return to the sky at death, is probably the most powerful idea humans have ever had. This is also why reality is so strongly associated with the sky also. It is both compelling and also completely wrong.

To some extent, I'm repeating myself here from previous essays. The repetition is for emphasis, but also because I am refining this argument as I go along. And it leads on to the second half of this essay which considers our place in the mind-independent world and the implications of this for Buddhism.


Part Two will follow on 9 June.

Background Reading

Substance and Structure

Substance & Structure (5 Jun 2016)
Buddhism and Existence (17 Jun 2016)
A Layered Approach to Reality.
Experience and Reality (17 Feb 2017)

Searle on Consciousness and Social Reality

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism (2 Sep 2016)
Components of Social Reality: Social Reality (I) (30 Sep 2016)
Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II) (7 Oct 2016)
Deontology: Social Reality (III) (14 Oct 2016)
Power: Social Reality (IV) (21 Oct 2016)
Norms without Conscious Rule Following. Social reality (V) (28 Oct 2016)

Evolution of Morality

The Evolution of Morality. Introduction and Deontology (18 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Reciprocity (25 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Empathy (2 Dec 2016)


Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.

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

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

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

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.


Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur".

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52].

06 November 2015

In Conversation about Karma and Rebirth

This post is to accompany an interview with me by Matthew O'Connell of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Most of what I said was first written in the web pages of this blog, so it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with my writing, but it might interest readers, especially those who don't know me, to hear me in conversation. We covered a good deal of ground as one might imagine with such a large topic. My book on the subject currently stands at about 170,000 words over 500 pages. I'm editing it now, but can't say when it will be finished.

We talked a lot about my discovery that karma and rebirth can't work based on any of the traditional models. Matthew focussed particularly on my essay, There is No Life After Death, Sorry, which recapitulates Sean Carroll's arguments against any afterlife based on the equation he is now calling The Core Theory:

"It’s a good equation, representing the Feynman path-integral formulation of an amplitude for going from one field configuration to another one, in the effective field theory consisting of Einstein’s general theory of relativity plus the Standard Model of particle physics." (Now available as a tee-shirt in the USA).
What we need to understand about this equation is that at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant human experience, we can describe the behaviour of matter and energy very, very accurately. No extra force needs to be added to explain any observed behaviour of matter and energy on these scales. If there were other forces, of any kind, that could affect matter on this scale (and thus be part of our experience of the world), then we'd have seen some evidence of them in the millions of experiments carried out to date. If they cannot affect matter then they are of no interest as they cannot make a difference to us.

I also talked a little bit about how karma contradicts dependent arising, i.e. what I have called the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, and how the several solutions to this problem do not stand up to scrutiny. These have been the subject of a number of recent essays that can be found under the heading Karma and Rebirth. In fact I've put a lot more more effort into this kind of argument than I have the science-based argument.

Karma and Rebirth Have Never Worked

Matthew, in an attempt to move the discussion along, begins to ask me, "So, if we get rid of karma and rebirth...". As you can hear, I interrupt at this point because something occurred to me that I had not thought of before. It's not that we "get rid" of anything. I don't advocate getting rid of karma and rebirth. At no stage in Buddhist history have we ever had a workable theory of either karma or rebirth. We cannot get rid of what we never had it to begin with. 

We never had a workable theory of karma. Our theories of karma always contradicted dependent arising. Even when Buddhist intellectuals tweaked dependent arising to come up with the Theravāda doctrine of momentariness or the bīja/ālayavijñāna theory of the Yogacārins (which currently dominate the Buddhist intellectual landscape), what I've shown is that even these more sophisticated versions of the karma doctrine do not work as explanations (See The Logic of Karma). Other explanations such as the sarva-asti-vāda or the pudgala-vāda, which were popular in North India for a time, did not work either though they were ingenious alternatives to the explanations that by accident of history are familiar to us today. The ingenuity doesn't become apparent until one realises what they were grappling with, i.e. action at a temporal distance. It is such a huge problem, and yet the Buddhist world suffered a collective case of amnesia about it. Once it was the driving force in the development of the most influential schools of Buddhist thought, with at least two schools taking their name from their solution to the problem. Without understanding the problem many of the major developments in Buddhist thought don't make any sense.

We never had a workable theory of rebirth either. Rebirth either destroyed the connection between action and consequence, thereby destroying the possibility of morality; or it proposed a definite and substantial continuity which allows for morality, but is eternalistic. If the person who experiences the consequences is not me, then I won't care (as much) about the consequences. If it is me, then I seem to be altogether too substantial in an impermanent universe. Early commentators and systematisers tried to get around this by arguing that it is neither me or not me (e.g. Milindapañha), but this simply fails to meet any reasonable criteria for a workable morality (See Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics?). As far as morality is concerned, it has to be me. But according to Buddhist metaphysics, it certainly cannot be me. The result is an intellectual stalemate. Not that Buddhists ever admit this. No, they seamlessly segue between non-continuity when talking about metaphysics, and continuity when talking about ethics without anyone ever noticing what they are doing. I listened to and read Buddhists doing this for about 20 years before I realised that they were doing it. We can charitably chalk this up to pragmatism, but it does mean that dependent arising cannot explain rebirth or morality.

Dependent arising, the explanation for how mental states arise, cannot explain karma, rebirth, or ethics. This is already clear from Buddhist śāstras composed in the period ca 200-400 CE. Nāgārjuna says as much in his second-century work the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 17.1-6). Unfortunately for Nāgārjuna, his radical alternative of treating the whole shebang as like an illusion never caught on in the mainstream. I think his solution, while metaphysically more tenable, pragmatically could not be used as the basis of a system of morality. It required that awful Buddhist fudge: the Two Truths. The Two truths formalises the me/not-me hedge and makes it a feature rather than a bug. But any Buddhist theory couched in terms of existence or non-existence, let alone any absolutes, is faulty.

Modern science also shows us that dependent arising is not a good explanation of how matter and energy work either. I play down the role of science in critiquing karma and rebirth because in my experience Buddhists simply dismiss any inconvenient science as "Materialism" and stop paying attention. Such critiques are often seen as attacks on Buddhism itself, which Buddhists take rather personally. But the critique is there, it's quite comprehensive and compelling. The main problem for Buddhists who wish to deny it, is that they end up having to re-write the laws of physics. And I have yet to see any Buddhist even try to do this.

Sometimes, even within the same anti-science context, science can be seen as the saviour of Buddhism. Buddhists do this in two main ways. The first is through drawing false analogies, usually between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. I've dealt with this problem at some length before in two essays that try to debunk the kinds of claims that Buddhists make (see under Quantum Mechanics).

The second way is looking for confirmation of our beliefs in the empirical results of studies of the brain and behaviour under the influence of Buddhist practices. As far as I can tell this research is certainly worth pursuing. But the field is rife with confirmation bias and needs to find some rigour. We need to pay attention to study design (especially sample size), start doing pre-registration of studies, and publication of negative results before we can get too excited. The buzz word in this kind of work is reproducibility. We are not there yet. And even if we were the evidence is for a fairly mundane form of efficacy. Meditation causes measurable changes in the brain that probably affect how we perceive ourselves, other people, and the world in general. It has nothing to say about karma, or rebirth. 

Modernists Responses to the Crisis in Buddhist Doctrine

One of the ways that Buddhist Modernists negate some of the criticism of traditional Buddhism is to read inconvenient aspects of Buddhism as allegorical. They argue that we have to understand rebirth as an allegory, a symbol of some psychological process that plays out in our lives. A fine example of this is an essay by Alan Peto I stumbled on recently. In Is Buddhism Bewitched With Superstition? Peto puts forward exactly this kind of argument about superstition. However, in reading his argument I realised that while his central values were modernist, he none-the-less was endeavouring to justify his Modernist readings in traditional Buddhist terms.

There was the inevitable reference to the Pāḷi Canon, for example, in which the character of the Buddha is portrayed as reprimanding his followers for being superstitious (the word used is actually maṅgalika, but superstitious is not too bad a translation). This is read literally, rather than allegorically, as The Buddha telling his followers to abandon superstition. "Basically, the Buddha is saying that we should not fall into the trap of superstition, but instead pursue and gain wisdom." So if it fits our preconceptions, read it literally; if it does not, then take it as allegory.

Because there is a canonical injunction against it, the argument goes, there is no superstition in Buddhism, or at least in true Buddhism. In fact an injunction against something is evidence for the opposite, i.e. that it was widely practised. This leads us to the realisation that, in practice, Buddhists are really a very superstitious bunch. But how did pristine, rational Buddhism become infected with irrational elements? According to Peto, it is the creeping influence of "beliefs and traditions of society". Unfortunately there is simply no evidence for an originally rational Buddhism. That entity is a fiction of the modern imagination. As far as we know, Buddhism was never rational, did not decline over time. Indeed the opposite is evidence, major efforts went into making Buddhism more rational over time. Repeated attempts were made to solve the problems apparent in early formulations of Buddhism.

In another essay on rebirth, Peto tells us:
"While karma is referred to in popular culture as some sort of supernatural force (almost godlike) that determines your “fate”, but it is nothing like that at all."
Which is simply not true. Karma is the supernatural force that links willed actions and their consequences over time. It is supernatural because it cannot be accounted for by natural forces. In this case however, pre-modern Buddhists did see karma as a natural force. But mind you so were the miracles associated with the birth of the Buddha. So were the various spirits (benign and demonic) which abound in the pages of the Canon. Peto actually doesn't tell us what karma is, if it is not a supernatural force, but he hints that it is like "cause and effect" (which is not the traditional Buddhist view, but one clearly influenced by modernism). This particular allegory works because cause and effect is something that everyone intuitively understands and non-reflectively believes. Our understanding of cause and effect grows out of our experience of gaining control of our limbs as infants and learning how to use them to manipulate objects in the world. But karma is in fact nothing like this. Karma not only defies our modern understanding of cause and effect by separating the two ends of the relationship in time and space, but defies the traditional understanding for the same reasons! The consequence of the action is stored up until the end of your life, and then it manifests as the arising of vijñāna in another, embryonic, being either in the moment after death or after some time in a kind of limbo.

How this is achieved is unclear. For example, according to most schools of thought, the skandhas are definitely not transferred. So it is not personality, intelligence or experience, that are transferred, nor strictly speaking could it include memories (which are covered by the skandhas). And yet somehow the results of our actions are visited upon that embryo as it lives and dies. 

The approach falls well short of coherence. Modernism is applied unconsciously and inconsistently to patch the inconsistent tradition with inconsistent results. This is perhaps the biggest problem of Modernist Buddhism, i.e. the failure to fully embrace Modernism and apply it consistently.


Does the fact that so far no model of Karma and Rebirth works mean that there is no model that can possibly work? Probably. We've had 2000 years to think about it. The brightest minds of Buddhist history thought about it. And got nowhere. Now we are in a worse situation, because we must also consider science. Physics shows that there are strict limits on how matter and energy can behave and that these limits appear to be universal. At the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to human experience, this means that no afterlife is possible. So rebirth is ruled out, except as allegory and I side with those who find allegory distasteful. Of course it is always possible that someone will turn up with reliable evidence that the Core Theory is wrong. But anecdote is certainly not going to cut it as evidence in that argument. And any new evidence that would allow for an afterlife would require a whole new understanding of physics and chemistry. Again, this is possible, but nothing like this is on offer at present. What's on offer is philosophical (i.e. ontological) dualism, which states as an axiom that the mind is not to be understood through studying matter and energy. But dualism is also ruled out by the Core Theory. If the other stuff could affect our body and, in particular, our brain then it would be obvious to detectors other than the brain - there are only so many ways to influence matter;. Matter itself shows no signs of being nudged by forces other than the four so far identified (of which we can observe two unaided by machinery: gravity and electromagnetism). 

Many people get to this point in the discussion and the same question arises as Matthew asked me: "Now what?". I didn't answer that question very well in the interview I thought, so this is my attempt to do better.

So, "Now what?"

Now we need to take stock. It is only fair that we allow time to consolidate our arguments and for people to catch up if they wish. When you undermine someone's worldview to the point of collapse, a good deal of what they value suddenly must be reassessed. This is not easy and must take time. Many people will be so strongly committed to the traditionalist view are not interested in a major reassessment of their life and work, especially not on my say so. I expect virtually all people who've made life-long vows of celibacy, or those who make their living from traditionalist Buddhism, will be in this camp.

I think we have to take the psychology of belief seriously and not expect everyone to drop everything just because we have better facts. My case study for this has been the problem of communicating evolution, which in many respects has been disastrous. According to some surveys, only about half of Britons believe in evolution. Less Americans. Buddhists who agree with me about karma and rebirth ought to take evolution as a cautionary tale. We can easily screw this up, by failing to express enough kindness towards the people whose views we disagree with. My role in this is to establish new facts. I'm not a diplomat or a politician.

The problems we face are not yet well enough understood. My work, for example, only scratches the surface and my ability to persuade people is quite limited. People who are smarter and/or better connected need to be exposed to my conclusions and to test the logic of my argument. My book on this material might help with that, but I ought also to write something more pithy for an academic journal and see if I can get it through the editorial and review processes. At the very least I'd like to write something about the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance for a journal. Other's need to take my ideas and see if they stand up to scrutiny. Not just in the sense of accusing me of Materialism (believe me this happens all too often), but by looking again at my primary sources, at the Kathavatthu, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (which ideally involves being able to read Pāḷi, Chinese and Sanskrit; though all three are translated into English); and at my secondary sources (particularly David Bastow and Collett Cox). Someone needs to assess how well or how badly I've understood the sources, and either way to develop the ideas I'm proposing here. But the reality is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. That dynamic is almost entirely lacking in Buddhist scholarship even when the idea is put forward by a well know scholar with qualifications and a teaching post in a university. Most scholars are too busy pursuing their own avenues of research to spend time criticising the work of others. 80% of social science journal articles are never cited at all, so the problem goes beyond Buddhist Studies. Though I may say that David Drewes is a positive example of someone who does engage in this way. 

Interviews like the one for Imperfect Buddha Podcast are valuable in the sense that a friendly discussion of challenging material is possible, and the discussion reaches a new audience. Most of the time I don't go around trying to upset people, so I tend to pull my punches when talking to them if I think they are unlikely to agree with me. I have only one or two friends with whom I can be completely unguarded about what I say on these subjects. Some people I know have quite strong views themselves, often developed over decades. I tend not to insist on my own conclusions at the expense of another's. Something about the dynamic of the interview allowed me to state my conclusions without hedging. To put it out there in a more public way. And that felt good. Maybe there will be some response from IBP's audience that I could never get from my blog. Matthew says his own beliefs might have shifted as a result of talking to me. That's more than I could have hoped for.

Once the ideas have been more rigorously tested and refined, and once a lot more people with a stake in the game are on board, then would be the time to start exploring what to do next. I'd prefer to see us coming up with something cooperatively, than for Buddhists to continue atomising. If we get dozens or hundreds of competing models then it will take a very long time to sort out which is best. In my mind what Buddhism lacks is something like Sean Carroll's Core Theory. With a modern Buddhist Core Theory we could explain how our practices work to bring about positive change. The way that mental states arise and pass away will most likely be at the heart of our Core Theory. This is also extremely unlikely. 

The likelihood is that in 50 years time I'll be long dead and all this will be forgotten. And I will have changed nothing. Life is absurd, eh?  


My thanks to Matthew and Stuart of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast for their interest and the opportunity to talk to them and their audience about my ideas. 

26 September 2014

The Nature of Reality?

The purpose of #meditation is to cultivate a mind that is a suitable instrument to discover the ultimate nature of reality. #buddhism— Culadasa (@Culadasa)
September 6, 2014 (Twitter)

We're still selling Buddhism in terms of absolutes. We're still telling people that if they want to discover "the ultimate nature of reality" then we can help them with that. I used to go along with this kind of hyperbolic rhetoric, but a few years ago I started asking what it meant and realised that not only did it not mean anything much, but that early Buddhist texts were replete with arguments against absolutes of this type. Indeed the idea of selling Buddhism as a way to discover the "ultimate nature of reality" is specifically parodied most obviously in the Tevijja Sutta (compare my paraphrase of part of the text).

The persistence of this way of talking about what we Buddhists do and what we seek is interesting. Anyone who wants to argue that Buddhism is not a religion needs to take a long look at this promise of absolute knowledge. It has a distinctively religious feeling to it. So what is the problem with this? I will draw on two sources for my critique: conversations with meditators who appear to have considerable experience of insight; and Buddhist texts.


We need to pay close attention to what deep practitioners say when discussing the effects of Buddhists practices. Those who have the most experience of putting Buddhism into practice are our best source of information on what it feels like to practice Buddhism. Serious meditators I know talk about the insights they gain in a fairly consistent way. And at the outset I would say that none of them talk about their experience in terms of discovering the nature of reality.

In meditation we observe our mind at work. In other words we observe experience. There seem to be several kinds of insight: insights into impermanence of experience generally; insights into impermanence of the experience of being a self; and insights that pertain to the apparent subject/object duality of experience.

I know many people on meditation retreats report periods where they lose their sense of self altogether. One sees a flower and has no sense: "I am seeing a flower." The experience of seeing the flower seems to be without a particular point of view or evaluation. There is just a flower and seeing. I've had glimpses of this kind of perception myself, so I trust the people that report it in far more depth. It's also widely described in other contexts - particularly by Jill Bolte Taylor describing her experience of having a stroke.

One of my teachers explained to me, from his own meditation experience, that the subject/object duality that characterises experience is not native to experience, but imposed on it. However, when we were talking about this recently I observed that this did not affect certain physical facts. Breaking down the subject/object duality for example did not affect his field of view: he could not see what I was seeing through my eyes, because his own eyes were facing in a different direction. I could see what was behind him and he could not. Thus even at this quite deep level of realisation there are still limitations on experience that insight does not erase. Physics, in effect, still applies. It's just that what comes in through the eyes is experienced in a radically different way because something in.

Thus it seems to me that even those who are gaining insights through meditation are not gaining insights into reality per se, not as we usually define reality anyway. They are not gaining insights into the nature of objects, or a world, independent of an observing mind; nor (even) are they gaining insight into the nature of the observing mind. They are not gaining insights into an underlying substrate upon which objects depend either. At least this is not what meditators talk about. The shift in perspective seems to produce insights into the nature of experience. This is exactly what we'd expect from studying early Buddhist texts, so let's look at them next.

Scholars & Texts.

There's a simple question it's important for Buddhists to ask.
Where does reality come in the skandhas?
Traditional narratives tell us the skandhas are everything. So is reality form? Is it sensation? Perception? Intention? Cognition? Is it in a combination of some or all of the skandhas? If reality is something we can gain insight into, if insight into reality is the goal we aim at, then we ought to be able to understand reality in terms of the skandhas. Or if not the skandhas then perhaps the āyatanas - the āyatanas are also said to be everything (Sabba Sutta). However I've yet to see any description of reality in terms of the skandhas. It's hard to see how the idea of reality, as we usually meet it, is compatible with the skandhas

Reality is a word that implies something real. And as we know (or any of my readers ought to know by now) there are a number of critiques of the very notion of 'real'. I usually go back to the Kātyāyana Sūtra (which I've studied in Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions). With respect to "the world" (loka), however we understand that word, reality (astitā) and unreality (nāstitā) don't apply. They don't apply because when we examine the world we see arising (samudaya) and cessation (nirodha). Reality is denied by cessation. Nothing that can go out of being can be considered real in this view. Unreality is denied by arising. Nothing can come into being if it is unreal. Even a cursory exploration of experience shows us experiences constantly arising and passing away. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: 394, n.182)
What about nibbāna? Isn't nibbāna associated with seeing reality? There are a number of "seeings" that are associated with nibbāna. And here seeing is a metaphor for knowing, since Indic languages have the same metaphor as we do in English: see what I mean? During his nibbāna the Buddha is said to have seen his own past lives and how they played out according to karma. And he saw the past lives of all beings doing the same. Lastly he saw the extinction of the āsavas in himself (i.e. the desire for sense pleasure, the desire for eternal being, wrong-views about experience and ignorance about the nature of experience).

The beginning of insight is labelled yathābhūta-jñānadarśana. Sometimes people take yathābhūta as consistent with reality. The word is etymologically a bit vague: bhūta is a past participle of 'to be'. I've tried to explore what it means, but taken in context there's no reason to suppose it means 'reality'. When we translated it as "things as they are" it's important to ask what is meant by "things". My first inclination these days is to answer "mental events". To talk about the "reality" of mental events is something we already know that early Buddhists thought was unhelpful. Reality and unreality don't apply.

One might also gain knowledge of vimukti - liberation from the three akusalamūlaraga, dosa and moha. Or knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (kāma, bhāva, diṭṭhi, and avijjā). But we can hardly translate this into reality. The three unskilful roots or their opposites are hardly reality. They are mental events. As are the āsavas. So in these traditional accounts of nibbāna one is having insights into one's own mental events and processes.  And in fact this is exactly the way that present day meditators describe their breakthroughs as well. There is a great deal of consistency between the two sources of information.

The criticism in the Tevijjā Sutta is extremely apposite here. In the text Brahmins are portrayed as teaching the way to the state of "companionship with God" (brahmasahāvyatā). But on questioning none of the Brahmins or their teachers had ever known this state for themselves. And the basic principle is that one cannot teach what one does not know. The Buddha stands them on their heads by saying the he does know, and Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought) has read this as a sophisticated shift in levels referring to the brahmavihāra meditations. Cf. the Mettā Sutta. In other words the Buddha substitutes the Brahmanical goal of literally dwelling with God in heaven after death and the appropriate funeral rituals (including cremation), for the Buddhist meditations in which one suffuses the directions with positive emotions. A literal reading of brahmasahāvyatā would allow for no return in any case - like nibbāna it was a way off the wheel of birth and death (though note that Mahāyāna practitioners did not allow the Buddha to escape, but forced him to return as saviour, which constituted a major departure from early Buddhism). The Buddha was consistent in that he could teach something he knew, but he was being ironic in related brahmavihāra with brahmasahāvyatā - the two words are close synonyms but are used entirely differently in the two religious milieus. 

I've never met a meditator who had personal knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality. Even those people with deep insight simply don't talk in those terms unless they slip into repeating dogma - its not the natural language of insight. 


In order to make Culadasas's axiom consistent with early(ish) Buddhist philosophy we'd need to rephrase it along these lines:

The purpose of meditation is to cultivate a mind that is
a suitable instrument to discover the nature of experience.

Discovering the ultimate nature of reality is not the purpose of meditation, or at least it wasn't traditionally. It is not what meditation is good for in practice, in the sense that meditators don't report knowledge of the nature of reality. What's worse is that when Buddhists do start to talk about the nature of reality they very often have obviously naive views that are rooted in reading certain types of books, rather than being grounded in experience. Or they expound the nature of reality in one breath and then tell us that reality is ineffable in the next (which is simple confusion). There are more interesting discussions of how the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda might describe reality, but it's been a few years since I found this kind of discussion compelling. The resultant reality is far too vaguely defined, ambiguous and poorly understood to be of much use to anyone. It's better to refrain from treating pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything and apply it in the domain of experience where it makes most sense.

Reality is not something that meditation is going to help with. Meditation is ways about exploring experience and/or cultivating experiences. So often the Buddha is supposed to have said: I teach suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to end suffering. That's it. 

While I've explored the drift of Buddhist thought into the realms of ontology - of reality, what exists etc - in various essays now, I'm confident that, over the course of Buddhist thought, the methods and what they were capable of hardly changed at all (except for once when tantric practice emerged - but event that can be understood in terms of older paradigms with some thought). Of course Buddhist narratives did get caught up with ontological thinking and I expect that a closer examination would show that ideas about 'reality' emerged only once the concept of reality was admitted. This is certainly the drift of the changes wrought in response to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. And what happened was the doctrine decohered from practice for a time. 

Probably the horrendous fudge of the Two Truths helped to bring the idea of a paramatha-dhātu or -loka into being. When you combine ontological thinking with notions of parama it's probably inevitable. It's one of the reasons I disparage the Two Truths doctrine - it facilitates wrong views. I don't think it had any significance in the first 1000 years of Buddhism, but of course that still leaves it with a long history.

What we look for in the long term is a strong coherence between Buddhist practice and doctrine; in fact we look for doctrine yoked to and driven by practice. When that is missing we are due for reform. 


22 August 2014

Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda

Image: All Things Thai
One of my bigger projects at the moment is an article on the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. This is the contradiction between pratītyasamutpāda requiring the presence of a condition for the effect and karma which requires the manifestation of the effect long after the condition has ceased (with no intervening manifestation of the effect). 

Having dealt with the Sarvāstivāda approach to this problem it will be interesting to see how other schools managed. In this essay I'll look into the Theravāda Abhidhamma to see how they dealt with Action at a Temporal Distance. Where the Sarvāstivādins dealt with the problem explicitly, the Theravādins do so only implicitly, and spread the answer out so that it's not so obvious. Indeed it's so obscure that some respected modern scholars have missed it entirely!

It's fairly common to see Theravāda Dhamma books referring to the accumulation (āyūhana) of kamma over time. Other terms like latent tendencies (anusaya) and karmic formations (saṅkhārā) seem to hint at something similar. In particular saṅkhārā appears to be made up from an accumulation of cetanā. The problem here is that these kinds of answers simply shift attention without solving the problem. The question shifts from "where is kamma in the interim between cetanā and vipāka?"; to "where is anusaya or āyūhana?" If there is an accumulation of something, where and/or how does it accumulate; and why does it not affect the person until the karma ripens? Something happens to hold over the effect (vipāka) long after the cetanā that conditions it has ceased, in contradiction of the fundamental principle of conditionality. The standard answers are simply linguistic substitutions. Other commentators have noticed that there is a problem here.
"Questions about the persistence of latent dispositions and accumulation of karmic potential thus remain: once the cognitive processes are activated, are they transmitted through the six modes of cognitive awareness? If so, why do they not influence these forms of mind? If not, how do they persist from one moment of bhavaṅga-citta to the next without some contiguous conditioning medium? The bhavaṅga-citta does not directly address these persisting questions, adumbrated in the Kathavātthu so many centuries before. Nor, to my knowledge, do subsequent Theravādin Abhidhamma traditions discuss these questions in dhammic terms."
Waldron, William S. Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p.83.
The bhavaṅgacitta is like a resting state of the mind when there is no sense experience. Like sense cittas, the bhavaṅga-cittas are short-lived and one follows another in succession. Unlike sense cittas, the bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object as the paṭisandhicitta or relinking-mental event that was the first conscious event to arise in our freshly minted being after the final or death-moment conscious event (cuticitta) of our last being. Unlike sensory cittas, bhavaṅgacitta doesn't register as vedanā. Thus even when we are not consciously having experiences—such as in deep sleep or arūpa-jhāna—there is a steady stream of mental events that we are not aware of that provide continuity between moments of sense awareness. 

Waldron invokes the stream of bhavaṅgacitta (or bhavaṅgasota) but it's hard to see how it can  be responsibile for accumulation if each bhavaṅgacitta is identical. This difficulty had already been noticed by Professor Rupert Gethin (before Waldron):
" does not seem possible on the basis of what is said explicitly in the texts to justify the claim that the bhavaṅga carries with it all character traits, memories, habitual tendencies, etc." (30).
Gethin, Rupert. (1994) 'Bhavaṅga and Rebirth According to the Abhidhamma.' in The Buddhist Forum. Vol III. T. Skorupski and U. Pagel (eds.), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, pp. 11–35.
However Gethin is alive to the need for something to do this job or perhaps we should say, for this function to be carried out somehow. Since bhavaṅgacittas all have the same object they aren't much use for the kind of connectivity with accumulation we are looking for. But they are not a million miles away. Gethin finds it inconceivable that the great Theravādin commentators, Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala, had not considered the problem, and he ventures to speculate a little on how they might have solved it. Like Gethin, I'm interested that the great three seem not to have openly dealt with the problem in the way that Sarvāstivādins did. Buddhaghosa is nothing if not thorough.

For Gethin there are many similarities between bhavaṅga and ālayavijñāna (the solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance adopted by Yogacārins, based on the Sautrāntika idea of 'karmic seeds'). Thus he is willing to entertain the thought that the two at least "belong to the same complex of ideas within the history of Buddhist thought." (35). I agree on this last point. However I think we can go further.

Firstly a reminder that in Dhammavāda there are four kinds of dhamma: citta, cetasika, rūpa and nibbāna. Importantly for us, each citta though itself singular and occurring strictly in series, has a variable number of associated cetasikas. What the Buddha calls kamma is cetanā, which is classified as a cetasika. So each citta has associated with it a cetanā that makes it morally significant. Just to be clear a citta is a mental event and a cetanā is the intentional function of that mental event. With this in mind we can look at what some of the traditional sources tell us about the accumulation of kamma.

Buddhaghosa provides a quote from the Paṭisambhidāmagga that looks promising. At Visuddhimagga (Vsm) XVII.292:
Tenāha ‘‘purimakammabhavasmiṃ moho avijjā, āyūhanā saṅkhārā, nikanti taṇhā, upagamanaṃ upādānaṃ, cetanā bhavoti ime pañca dhammā purimakammabhavasmiṃ idha paṭisandhiyā paccayā’’ti (Ps 1.47).
Hence it is said: 'In the previous kamma-process becoming, there is delusion, which is ignorance; there is accumulation (āyūhanā) which is formations (saṅkhārā); there is attachment, which is craving; there is embracing, which is clinging (upādāna); there is volition (cetanā) which is becoming (bhava); thus these five things in the previous kamma-process becoming are conditions for the rebirth-linking here [in the present becoming]. (PTS Ps i.52). trans. Ñāṇamoli
Elsewhere the commentary on the Saṅkhārasuttaṃ, AN 3.23 (Mp 2.192), Buddhaghosa glosses the phrase kāyasaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti with:
Kāyasaṅkhāranti kāyadvāre cetanārāsiṃ:
The body-formation [is] "a heap of intentions in the body-door”. 
Abhisaṅkharotīti āyūhati rāsiṃ karoti piṇḍaṃ karoti.
The verb abhisaṅkharoti [means] he accumulates, he makes a heap, he makes a lump.”
This points towards saṅkhārakkhandha as the process by which cetanā accumulates. But I still don't see where this fits into the cittavīthi (or the track of mental events). A problem here is that kamma accumulations are not supposed to take effect until the kamma ripens, creating a vipāka. The idea that kamma accumulates as saṅkhārā is attractive, but there is a contradiction since the saṅkhārā is actively involved in the perceptual process. The experience of the vipāka is supposed to be a one-time thing: it ripens and we either experience it as vedanā or we experience it as gati (rebirth destination) and then it is expended. If it were not expended then there would never be a way to escape from previous negative karma. This is complicated because clearly habitual tendencies (positive and negative) are a phenomenon that everyone experiences. They're also centrally important in cultivating a Buddhist lifestyle and the pursuit of liberation from greed, aversion and confusion.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that a kamma stays active for a period and has an effect while active; and then once it is exhausted ceases to be active. But that's not what the texts describe. And the same limitations apply: the kamma qua event is short-lived and if it is to accumulate we have to find a way to pass on the effect without the continued existence of the condition. Effects are said to accumulate despite the absence of their conditions which, being mental events, exist only in the moment.

In Early Buddhist Metaphysics, in the chapter "Causation as the Handmaid of Metaphysics" Noa Ronkin summarises the 24 types of conditions as found in the seventh book of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭṭhāna. This seems to be the key to understanding the Theravāda response to Action at a Temporal Distance. The functions of accumulating and passing forward kamma are distributed amongst several different types of conditionality. The approach relies on the idea that dhammas can operate as a condition in many different modes. Twenty-four such modes are discussed in the Paṭṭhāna.

Under her discussion of the pair proximity condition (antara-paccaya) and contiguity condition (samantara-paccaya), Ronkin says, "Every preceding thought moment is thus regarded as capable of arousing succeeding states of consciousness similar to it in the immediately following instant." (216). She further speculates that these two, almost identical, modes of conditionality were "probably necessary in order to account for the continuity of phenomena without relying on any metaphysical substance". (216) Buddhaghosa covers this subject in Visuddhimagga XVII.73-6 (Vol 2, para 598 in the VRI ed.) Buddhaghosa spends some time refuting an internal dispute regarding the need for temporal proximity. The fact that Theravādins were not united on this issue of temporal proximity is telling. It shows that they were actively considering the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance and divided over how to solve it. If we follow through the rest of the paccaya modes we find more specific links of this kind.

The decisive support condition (upanissaya-paccaya) allows a dhamma to self-sufficiently arouse a resultant dhamma, like the related nissaya-paccaya but not necessarily foremost and "it lasts longer, has long-term effect and implies action at a distance... The importance of the decisive support condition seems to lie in its accounting for more and spiritual progress: virtues like trust or confidence (saddhā), generosity (dāna), undertaking the precepts and others, all assist the occurrence of their long term results (the jhānas, insight, taking the path etc) as their decisive support, and these results, in their turn, condition the repeated arising of trust, generosity etc. (219, emphasis added). As the Paṭṭhāna says:
purimā purimā kusalā dhammā pacchimānaṃ pacchimānaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ upanissayapaccayena paccayo.
"All preceding wholesome dhammas are a condition by way of decisive support condition of all subsequent wholesome dhammas" (i.5)
Similarly for unwholesome (akusala) and undetermined (avyākata) dhammas. This section is covered in Visuddhimagga XVII 80-84. This criteria of self-sufficiency is interesting since it seems to flirt with something like svabhāva. Here though a dhamma is not a condition for itself, but a condition for another which we would expect to be parabhāva, a term we do find in Nāgārjuna's discussion of conditionality. This aspect requires some more research, but it looks like an all or nothing problem such as Nāgārjuna describes for svabhāva.

We also have:
Habitual cultivation (āsevana-paccaya)... "for example, developing a certain skilful thought once facilitates the cultivation of the same thought with a greater degree of efficiency and intensity... It therefore underlies the cultivation of right view, right speech and right action." (Ronkin 219)
Habitual cultivation is thus also responsible for memory without an agent that remembers. Ronkin places this observation in a note (242 n.118), with a reference to an article in two parts by David Kalupahana (1962) 'The Philosophy of Relations in Buddhism' University of Ceylon Review: 19-54; 188-208. Kalupahana re-visited this material in his 1975 book: Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Uni of Hawai'i Press), especially chapter VII "Causal Correlations". However compare:
"It is because of proximity-condition and contiguity-condition that we can remember past experiences, events which occurred many years ago." (38)
Gorkom, Nina van. (2010) The Conditionality of Life: An Outline of the Twenty-four Conditions as Taught in the Abhidhamma. Zolag.
This is troubling because the two commentators contradict each other. Buddhaghosa seems not to participate in this dispute. He mentions memory under neither heading. More research is required to untangle this knot, which only further emphasises the difficulty of dealing with the problems raised by Action at a Temporal Distance.

The kamma-paccaya occurs in two modes simultaneous (sahajāta) and asynchronous (nānākhaṇika)... and according to Ronkin:
"An asynchronous condition obtains when a past kamma comes into fruition in a manifest corresponding action. Although the volition itself ceases, it leaves in the mind latent traces that take effect and assist the arising of an appropriate action when the necessary conditions are satisfied" (220)
This is less satisfying because it does not explain the "latent trace" but I think the implication is clear enough in the light of the other passages. 


The picture is that each citta is not a simple event, but a complex one with many facets (cetasikā). And each citta conditions the next in a variety of ways (twenty four different ways according to the Paṭṭhāna). Theravādins envisaged that an aspect of conditionality would be the passing on of information from citta to citta, particularly the information relevant to karma: information about cetanā. And this process is perfectly conservative in order that karma can be 100% effective. There is no loss of information until the conditions amassed in a life-time manifest as a single vipāka. This takes place at the moment of death when death-moment conscious-event (cuticitta) occurs and conditions the paṭisandhicitta or 're-linking mental event'. By focussing on the information content the Theravādins avoided positing an entity for storing information. And by denying any interval between death and rebirth they avoided the complicated and unsatisfactory metaphysics of the antarabhāva or interim state. Thus information is conserved even though no entity is.

The idea of continuity with no entities, nascent in the suttas, is fleshed out in the Paṭṭhāna. It's not so clear what Buddhaghosa intended in Vism., though he bases his exposition on the same sources. Also some modern commentators seem to interpret functions like memory as being related to different kinds of condition.

I'm still slightly puzzled that this problem is so prominent elsewhere, and yet here quite submerged and difficult to get at. However, when one considers how initially disturbing is the notion that the two fundamental doctrines of Buddhism contradict each other it may be that at the same time as solving the problem they swept it under the carpet.

However, on first acquaintance this solution to Action at a Temporal Distance is far from satisfactory. If citta is a kind of dhamma then it ought to be unitary and simple. How does such a simple, momentary event operate as a condition in twenty-four distinct ways simultaneously? But then a citta is not a simple event after all, because it is always accompanied by cetasikas which are also dhammas. So is a citta a dhamma or not?

We still have no knowledge of how the final conscious event in one mind conditions a first conscious event in another mind. Handing on information within one mind is somewhat intuitive, but transmitting it to a spatially separate mind is quite counter-intuitive. Every single person has first-hand experience of the first, while experience of the latter is reported by a very few witnesses that we have every reason to doubt.

Traditionalists seem not to have an answer to this. The best they can do is to state that they simply cannot imagine conscious processes ceasing with physical death, and so it seems "natural" that conscious events continue to happen so their must be a transfer somehow. This is what all believers in an afterlife think: the afterlife is all about acknowledging physical death but denying mental death (a trait observed already in quite young children). So this refusal to allow for one's inner life to cease, certainly has a long pedigree and is widely accepted, but it doesn't ever answer the question of "how". Indeed the question of how can often produce hostile anti-intellectual responses which attack the idea that questions like this can be answered. The afterlife must be taken on faith and the answers to probing questions about the afterlife are never satisfactorily answered, which undermines faith.

Another question for this model is, how does the mind know that any particular citta is to be the last in this life and thus take on the function of cuticitta? That last citta has to perform a special function so it must "know" that it is the last citta. It implies a peculiar kind of determinism. But it also implies a very simplistic view of death. For the ancients death is consistent with the cessation of observable bodily processes, particularly the breath, which I have explained in my essays on vitalism is the quintessence of a living thing. However we now know that one can stop breathing for many minutes and be resuscitated (which is from the Latin and means "to summon up again"). In the West we have long associated death with the cessation of the heartbeat. But the discovery of brainwaves led to more precise definitions related to brain activity. However even this is far from precise. Identifying the last moment of consciousness is impossible. In the last couple of years fMRI scanners have enabled us to perceive mental activity in people who are in persistent vegetative states. 

A puzzling aspect of this model is the huge build up of information that would occur over a life time of responding to sensory cittas. If we have several cittas per second then the information being passed on from citta to citta grows exponentially (as we must "process" information about the information); especially if we consider that memory is a function of this process as well. Each citta passes on information about itself and information accumulated from all previous cittas. It seems implausible at best that such a process had sufficient bandwidth to transfer a lifetime's information in a fraction of a second, every fraction of a second without ever glitching. Let alone the information from uncounted lifetimes from the past.

We also need to acknowledge the obscurantism of the source texts. The Paṭṭhāna and the Visuddhimagga are both very difficult texts to read and comprehend. Which means that for the most part we are reliant on commentators to explain the intention of the authors. And the commentators apparently disagree.

Perhaps it is expecting too much of these very early theories to stand the test of time and the rigours of a modern philosophical inquiry? It's one thing to understand the Theravāda view on it's own terms, it's another altogether to accept it on those terms.

This inquiry raises important questions. We cannot both embrace modernity and these ancient ideas about mental functioning. Something has to give. I know many Buddhists are content to let it be modernity that gives way. Buddhist apologetics are proliferating at present in the face of the conflict. But there is always something two-faced about the rejection of modernity. We embrace modern medicine to stay alive while rejecting the idea that the mind is an emergent property of brain and body function, even though both are products of the same body of knowledge. How ironic that the internet is a prime tool for dismissing modern progress away from superstition towards reason. Perhaps this is because the internet is a sufficiently advanced technology that is seems like magic?

For the present we can just about have our cake and eat it too, but how long can this continue? Must we choose between anachronistic, superstitious, rejection of modernity; and a non-religious, humanist, scientific utopia? Or is their some middle ground?  


This essay began life as a discussion on the Dhammawheel forum.
Thanks to those who contributed to the discussion.