Showing posts with label Mystical experience. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mystical experience. Show all posts

07 December 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part III: Applications

In this three-part essay, I've argued against the idea of a single, overarching metaphysical truth as conceived in the Perennial Philosophy. I characterised it as an eclectic and syncretic form of religiosity that eschews the organised part of religion. At the heart of Perennial Philosophy lies the matter-spirit duality that has retarded progress in thinking about religion, religiosity, and religious experiences. And this duality is itself based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between epistemology and ontology: i.e., mistaking experience for reality. The single metaphysical truth is not the conclusion of Perennial Philosophy, it is the intuitive premise on which it is based. Religious experiences merely confirm this intuition. This is not to say that people do not have experiences that are outside the usual range of waking awareness. Altered experiences are relatively common.

In order to better place these kinds of experience in a naturalist setting, I introduced the idea of a spectrum with pure subjectivity at one end and pure objectivity at the other. Religious experiences, in the Perennialist understanding, point to some form of pure objectivity, but I began to suggest that they are more like pure subjectivity.

In Part III, I will try to show how we can make sense of, and find value in, altered experiences without accepting the premises of either traditional religion or of modernist forms of religiosity. I will argue that Buddhism employs methods that involve increasing subjectivity. Thus, any knowledge gained is not concerned with the nature of reality, but with the nature of experience. And, crucially, that this form of knowledge is useful and valuable to anyone who attains it.


Meditation

There are so many different approaches to meditation that any generalisation is bound to fall short. I'm going to say that the paradigm for meditation is sitting still, eyes closed, focusing on some aspect of experience (aka an ālambhana or object of meditation). Of course, some people prefer to meditate walking, with eyes open, or with no particular focus. Generalisations always admit to exceptions and are thus limited in scope. For the moment I want to work within this limited scope in order to make the subject manageable for an essay. So when I refer to "meditation" below, I am referring to this paradigm.

In meditation then, we withdraw our attention from the sensory world. As we focus our attention on the object it appears to expand to fill up our awareness. The sensory world appears, from our point of view, to fade away. By this I mean, in Buddhist terms, that deprived of contact (sparśa) the mental objects (dharmas) associated with objects don't arise. One may pass through a threshold so that this minimal experience becomes stable. The object remains present in our minds without distraction, but the experience may be accompanied by quite intense physical/emotional resonances: traditionally called rapture (prīti) and bliss (sukha). Whatever we call this threshold or the experience of stability, with practice we can cross over and sustain it more or less at will.

Going deeper, all bodily sensations fade away leaving us in a state of profound equanimity that is traditionally referred to as samādhi, a word that I understand to mean "integration" (the word has a more general sense as well, but I will use it in this specific sense of profound integration). Our usual awareness flits constantly from object to object, accompanied by conscious perceptions, reactions toward or away, urges to act, and associative thinking. Samādhi is characterised by awareness being one-pointed (ekodibhāva). Generally speaking, in this state there is no awareness of the world or of our body. It is a happy and contented state to be in.

One of the interesting side-effects of a lengthy period of samādhi can be a subsequent lack of motivation to do anything; a kind of lassitude with respect to the world. Normally we feel all kinds of competing desires and want to do all kinds of things as a result. Such desires may be attenuated by samādhi. In the absence of desires, there is no motivation. Even usually powerful urges like hunger might not have much effect for a while after a lengthy period of samādhi.

The fading away of the world raises an old question. What happens to the world when we do not perceive it? Before going anywhere with this we need to address a prior question: what is meant by the world here? In a number of discourses, the Pali suttas discuss the idea of ending the world without going anywhere (I studied these discourses in my unpublished essay Is Paticca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything). It turns out that by "world" (loka) we can mean three things in Sanskrit and Pali:
  1. the world as everything that exists;
  2. the world as a metonym for the people in the world; and
  3. the world as it is represented by our minds.
And when the Pali texts are talking about bringing the world to an end, they are using the third definition. So the question in a Buddhist context is more precisely this: what happens to perceptions of the world when we do not perceive the world? The answer is nothing happens. Percepts simply fail to arise. When we are not in contact with an object, then no perceptions of that object will be presented to our minds. We will not be aware of that object. This is an epistemological point. It speaks to what we know. It says nothing whatever about the existence or non-existence of the object. Indeed, the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15) explicitly says that in this context, existence and non-existence don't apply.

Incidentally, we can also say that nothing happens to the world in the more general sense as well. Contrary to popular belief, the world does not depend on our attention, at least this is what mainstream physicists tell us. Consciousness plays no role in the universe. If one person sitting in a hall of 100 people enters samādhi, the world carries on for the 99 who are not in samādhi. Meditation is localised. Your meditation does not affect my experience (in the moment).

Where does this put us on the subjective/objective spectrum? Simply closing our eyes cuts off visual perception of the world and pulls us back from shared experience. Absorbed in the object of meditation with no sensory cognitions, we enter states of increasing subjectivity. Not pure subjectivity perhaps, but there is very little overlap and perhaps nothing that fits in the middle ground. In meditation, as described, we lean toward the subjective pole of experience and away from the objective pole.

Imagine that a skilled meditator enters a stable state of withdrawal, but they go deeper, until passing through more and more subtle thresholds, they find themselves in a state where no sensory cognitions arise and no mental cognitions arise. Experience as we generally understand this term has stopped for that person. There are no sense impressions reaching their conscious minds at all and no thoughts about anything. Unlike states of sleep or anaesthesia, they are still aware. When there are no longer any objects registering the sense of being a subject, i.e., the experience of selfhood, itself tends to fade away. There are no physical sensations registering, so there is no way to orient themselves in spacetime. There is awareness but it is not intentional, i.e., not directed at anything, because nothing is presenting itself to awareness.

We might call this state, following the Pali suttas, "emptiness" (suññatā). Nothing from the objective world impinges on awareness in emptiness, there is not even a sense of subject/object duality. So one has gone over to the subjective pole as far as one can go; this is pure subjectivity, or as close to it as one can get. And it is as far from pure objectivity as one can get. It is precisely from this experience of pure subjectivity that we are asked to believe, as Buddhists, that knowledge of the true nature of reality emerges.

It is true that having been in emptiness, one's perceptions may change, sometimes permanently. One of the most common changes that people notice is an absence of self-referential thinking. Sometimes this is referred to as being egoless.

Egolessness

There is a circular discussion that I've been having with a colleague for a couple of years now. He reports that he has no sense of self. His world is just a field of experience and there is no sense of ownership or a special perspective on the field. He goes further and states unequivocally that arising and passing away no longer characterises his field of experience. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of other people with whom I can compare notes on this. Doing so with one of them, he pauses, introspects for a few seconds, and then offers, "Yes, it can seem like that".

As far as I can tell, both colleagues are enlightened in the traditional sense. And there are a bunch of other people around who are credibly enlightened. Or something very like it (I'm not much interested in the traditional definitions or quibbles over them). Their stories differ in some respects and coalesce at others. But here we run into problems. What seems to happen with the awakened is that after awakening they confirm the accuracy of the doctrine they learned before awakening. So in the case of, say, a Vedanta practitioner like Gary Weber, he confirms absolute being (brahman as described in the Upaniṣads). This means that the world is completely deterministic and events just unfold as preordained. There is no such thing as free-will. But awakened Buddhists confirm something completely different: there is no absolute being, the world is largely deterministic but there is a chink through which we can escape because we have some freedom of will. Theists who experience awakening confirm that they have experienced communion with God or been in God's presence. Mystics that they have experienced the ineffable. And so on.

At a stretch, one may extract something common from all these accounts so that they appear to confirm the Perennial Philosophy. This is simple confirmation bias. The fact is that when you look at the accounts they are all different. Their methods push them towards the subjective pole and any knowledge they gain is more or less purely subjective. Just like a meditating Buddhist.

People who claim to have no ego or no first-person perspective find it difficult to acknowledge that whatever events or changes that have occurred are subjective. They still have a pair of eyes that receive photons and a brain that turns electrochemical signals into an experience. And the experience they have is just their experience and no one else's. I have previously used John Searle's example of nutrition obtained from food. When we eat food we absorb nutrients from it and these are not available to other people. If the Buddha has lunch, Ānanda does not feel full.

If an egoless person perceives, say, a red apple, that perception is not mine. It is not yours. It is not everybody's experience. And it is not nobody's experience. It is an experience that one person is experiencing. It is their experience. It is therefore subjective. Whatever they say about how they perceive experience or themselves, the experiences that awakened people have are still particular to one individual. They are still only accessible to the individual whose sense organs are creating the signals to the brain. It does not matter how the individual conceptualises and communicates about it. If you genuinely don't perceive a subject in your field of experience then this will not be an easy argument to get your head around. If you mistake the subjective for the objective, if you argue, for example, that the pure subjectivity of emptiness is actually pure objectivity, then your understanding of this situation will be compromised. Which may be why the awakened appear to be so bad at philosophy, on the whole.

In some conversations I've had, I have pointed out that the egoless person is still able to have a conversation. They know who is speaking and can parse heard sentences into meaning (which requires temporal sequences of sounds being processed into language). They know that the ideas in their head as a result of hearing someone speak are not the same as the ideas that come from their own thought processes. Thus, you can ask them "how's it going?" and they reliably convey information about their own state of well-being and do not try to answer from some other point of view.

To "parse" a sentence is literally to state the parts of speech for each word. It comes from the French plural of "part". But we can use the term generally for any process by which we sort information into categories in order to make sense of it. For example, in every two-way conversation the participants have to accurately parse all utterances into "I said" and "the other said". In other words, we have to keep track of who said what. There is simply no way around this. If a person is able to converse successfully, then they are, minimally, parsing the utterances into their own and the other persons. They have to parse the concepts and the grammar of the utterance. Then they have to construct some kind of appropriate utterance in response.

I'm reminded of John Searle's idea of background capabilities. Although societies have rules and we do have to learn them, becoming a competent citizen (or whatever) requires that we internalise the rules. In Searle's language, we develop dispositions for action that largely conform to the rules without having to consciously reference the rules. I cover this in the 5th of 5 essays about Searle's ideas on social reality: Norms Without Conscious Rule Following (28 Oct 2016).


Some Other Accounts of Emptiness

When I was learning Sanskrit, one of the texts I read in class was the Sāṃkhyakārikā (SK), a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. This outlines what is called a dualistic worldview: the duality is between puruṣa and prakṛti. Puruṣa is the eternal, passive conscious observer while prakṛti is the ephemeral active phenomenal world. The usual state of affairs is that consciousness is caught up in the play of phenomena and treats them as real. Thus, people do not see the true nature of phenomena or their own true nature. However, through religious practices one can roll back the phenomenal world until prakṛti is in the quiescent state called pradhāna "first". At this point, puruṣa is no longer assailed by phenomena and one's true, eternal nature can be realised.

Anyone attuned to the language of modern Buddhism ought to hear the resonances here. A lot of us talk about Buddhism in Sāṃkhya terms. And no one questions this or asks how the Sāṃkhya vocabulary made its way into Buddhist discourse.

I suggest that what Īśvarakṛṣṇa called pradhāna is the same as, or at least equivalent to, śūnyatā. Meditation techniques were widely known and practised across India in the first millennium BCE. There are hints that formless meditations were widespread, for example, in the stories about the Buddha's early career in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26). It seems that some techniques were shared across different sects. Both pradhāna and śūnyatā are described as states in which the practitioner becomes a passive observer of a quiescent state in which no phenomena are arising or ceasing, a state in which all sense of orientation in spacetime is lost, giving one a sense of timelessness (no beginning or end). These are classic "mystical" or "religious" experiences.

Another parallel to this can be found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.9. In Olivelle's translation (15)
In the beginning this world (idaṃ sarvaṃ) was only Brahman, and it knew itself (ātman), thinking "I am Brahman" (ahaṃ brahman). As a result it became the Whole (idaṃ sarvaṃ). Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realizes this, only they become the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans... This is true even now. if a man knows 'I am Brahman' in this way he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, "he is one, and I am another", he does not understand.
The Vedanta interpretation of this suggests that awakening is merging with Brahman, where Brahman is conceived of (a priori) as absolute being. There are various expressions of this, ahaṃ brahamaṃ, "I am Brahman"; tat tvaṃ asi, "You are it"; and so on. Brahman is said to have three characteristics: saccidānanda; i.e., being (sat), awareness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). The last is particularly resonant with Buddhist descriptions of cessation or emptiness, although the very idea of Brahman is criticised in the early Buddhist canon, especially the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13).

This suggests that we need to take a fresh look at certain types of altered experience.


Altered Experiences

Although the term "mystical experience" is in widespread use, to my mind the term suggests acceptance of certain premises that I think are up for discussion. I will, therefore, refer to "altered experiences" as an attempt at something more neutral. Altered experiences come in a great deal of variety and not all of them overlap with the idea of mystical experiences. In trying to tabulate them researchers have come up with various related qualities that might apply to altered experiences. There are 100 different qualities in the States of Consciousness Questionnaire, but many researchers now used a revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire with 30 items drawn from the 100. The qualities are grouped into categories like internal unity, external unity, ineffability, transcendence of space and time.

One of the prominent target qualities is interpreting the experience as "ultimate reality". This highlights the deeply problematic nature of the idea of altered experiences. Our approaches to them are interpretative. Both experience and interpretation are ontologically subjective, so there is no easy way to probe these. If someone tells us they experienced "ultimate reality" we cannot easily know what they mean by that. One would have to do extensive research into the way a person thinks about reality to really know what they meant by reality in the first place, let alone what ultimate reality might mean for them. Ironically, the very concept of ultimate reality is highly subjective. And interestingly, ultimate reality appears to be different for different people, which tells us at least that whatever the experience is, it is not ultimate.

The hyperreal sense that one has of these types of experience is a quality of the experience. And we have to emphasise that this is not a shared experience, so the hyperreality of the experience places it at the subjectivity end of the spectrum: hyperreality is an illusion. There are two main occasions for altered experience: in a religious context, which usually involves indoctrination and heightened expectation; and in drug taking in which a drug molecule interferes with the normal working of the brain, often by suppressing the operation of centres which coordinate information. Expectation is highly influential on how we interpret what we perceive and can even directly affect what we perceive. The illusion of hyperreality is simply that, an illusion. It is certainly an altered state of consciousness, but if anything it is less real. Some will argue that it is more real because it seems more meaningful. But meaning is not intrinsic to experiences, meaning is subjective. We make meaning.

And think about it. If I take some psychedelic drug and my perceptions of the world change, do your perceptions change? No. They don't. The drug is ingested and works by a molecule interfering with the activity of the brain either as agonist or antagonist. And when the molecule is metabolised then the effects wear off. Ultimate reality can't wear off.

Some of the experiences are framed in mystic terms when they needn't be. For example, if you lose your sense of orientation in space and time, because you have lost out awareness of the reference points that make this possible, you have not, as the questionnaire suggests "transcended space and time". You just lost your awareness of them. No one ever transcends space and time in any real sense. You may think you are transcending space, but no one around you can tell what is happening in your head at that moment. So the feeling of losing track of spatial boundaries and orientation is just that losing track. As freaky as this experience may be, no transcending takes place.

It is entirely possible that someone might transcend their sense of self or their attachment to certain types of experiences. Subjectivity can be transcended, but objectivity can only be lost track of. There are a whole raft of ways of saying that you find it difficult to communicate your experience afterwards. But this can hardly be surprising if you lose awareness of cognitive processes in the altered state. In Thomas Nagel's terms, there is nothing that it is like to be in a state of emptiness.

Another prominent target property is a sense of connectedness or oneness. Why is this so prominent and why does it feel so meaningful? The boundaries of selfhood are obviously part of a brain-generated self-model (a la Thomas Metzinger) and they can break down under a variety of circumstances, some of which are not at all mystical. I've often cited the example of Jill Bolte Taylor's account of her stroke. It's a very moving account of the beauty she experienced as those boundaries dissolved. On the other hand, she was having a major stroke and it took her eight years to rehabilitate. Another reference to connectedness that I've often cited comes from Ariel Glucklich's book The End of Magic. He describes our basic state of well-being as involving a sense of interconnectedness. That sense can break down due to illness and what the Tantric healers of Varanasi try to do is revive that sense of connectedness.

With respect to a sense of connectedness, we may also reference Frans de Waal and his work on the dynamics of primate groups. As social primates, we are bound to our social group by empathy and reciprocity. Feeling "connected" is something that all social primates spend a lot of time on. About a third of wild primates' time is spent in mutual grooming. As Robin Dunbar has shown, humans have found more efficient ways to achieve cohesion in large groups where one to one grooming would take up far too much time (we also have to forage and sleep). In traditional societies we do this through communal singing, dancing, telling stories, and shared ordeals. Modern urban societies tend to rely on ersatz versions of these. As a young man, the euphoria of being part of a dense crowd at a rock concert, singing along and dancing was one of my favourite experiences.* The social lifestyle requires a heightened ability to feel connected with other members of the group. That we can isolate and over-clock this quality is hardly surprising.
* Speaking of which, I note with sadness the passing of Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, who were the best live band I ever saw.
There is something about human brains that allows us to have these kinds of experiences. We don't yet know what it is, but we have some interesting clues. For example, we know that certain types of task cause the sense of self to "shut down". The inhibition of ego is a built-in function.
“The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected,” says Goldberg, “and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited.” (Vince 2006)
This is presumably also related to the phenomenon known as flow, first noted by the magnificently named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Perennial Epistemology

The Perennial Philosophy is an argument about metaphysics, i.e., about existence and truth. What I have tried to show is that this presentation is orthogonal to reality. What mystics experience is not ultimate reality, but pure subjectivity, albeit with a quality of hyperreality. There is no doubt that this experience has attractive features, despite the fact that it tends to make for confused philosophy. It's not even true that altered experiences all have the same flavour. There are at least 30 different flavours of altered experience, perhaps as many as a hundred.

No matter what games they play with language, the awakened individual is still just one person having experiences. Awakening is one person's experience, even if they don't perceive themselves as a person. Given this and the methods used to attain this state, there is no possibility of a purely objective truth emerging from it. Yes, there are some common features of the experience itself. The commonality is not widely shared and is still not the middle ground, but towards the subjective pole.

If there is a workable Perennial Philosophy then it points to a variety of epistemic patterns rather than a single metaphysical truth. Perception is an activity of the brain and it can be disrupted in different ways to give a range of altered experiences characterised by as many as a 100 different properties in several categories.

One of the tendencies for those who have altered experiences is to see them in isolation. In a long conversation about insight with Vessantara he described the "Aha" moment and how it leads one to think along the lines of "this is it!". Without further practice, for example, one can become fixated on a particular interpretation of emptiness. If one keeps practising, then one reaches another "Aha" moment and realises that one's previous insight has been superseded. That was not it, but this, now, this is it. If one keeps practising then the same thing happens. Again and again. Until one realises that despite all the "Aha" moments there doesn't seem to be a definitive "this is it". The process simply keeps unfolding and one learns to relax about it and not to take the conclusions too seriously.

So, in effect, there is no one truth that is pointed to, except that whatever you believe to be the truth, turns out not to be, from another point of view. Perhaps this is why the mental state of emptiness came to symbolise a more general truth for Buddhists.

Even if we stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there is one metaphysical truth, no one ever seems to experience it; or everyone experiences it differently. Those who claim to have experienced the ultimate truth are, in fact, just stuck in their current phase of awakening and making a mistake. The mistake is primarily an epistemological mistake; it is a misinterpretation of an experience that is towards the pure subjective pole. The secondary mistake is to extrapolate an ontology from this mistaken view and the technical term for this is prapañca.

As I understand the Buddhist project, the idea is to suspend judgement and just pay attention to what we happen to be experiencing (without getting hung up on the past or the future). And, at the same time, to deliberately pursue experiences far towards the pole of subjectivity. The idea seems to be that we are supposed to turn this into a definite view, because repeated insights tend to deconstruct any views that develop about past experiences. There is nothing in this about the nature of reality or theories about the nature of reality. There is no metaphysical truth. We are not spiritual beings.

We are human beings, having human experiences. No more, no less.

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Vince, Gaia. (2006) Watching the brain ‘switch off’ self-awareness. New Scientist. 9 April 2006

30 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part II: A Spectrum of Experience

In Part I of this essay I concluded that the Perennial Philosophy "ignores historical processes, fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism." It is the second of these points that I wish to pursue in Part II. In particular, I will pick apart the claim of a metaphysical truth. Before I can do this, I need to introduce a way of thinking about experience that clearly distinguishes subjectivity and objectivity.

In the following diagram, I depict a model world with just four people. The field of experience of a person is represented by a coloured circle. 




 
The fields of experience may overlap with all others, with some others, or not all. It is assumed that people are able to communicate about their experience to about the same extent as their fields of experience overlap, because communication is a kind of shared experiential. I will present this as a general model of experience but also use it as a way of highlighting certain qualities of particular experiences.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified model created for rhetorical purposes. It does not perfectly represent a real person's field of experience. I will use the model to make analogies, but there are limitations. 

A general point is that most experiences are intentional. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the quality of "aboutness". So we think about our day, or see an object, or feel happy to see our friend. Experience is structured by this epistemic subject/object distinction (later I will posit that this must also be true of the awakened). The structure is reflected in universal features of language. All human languages enable us to identify objects and processes using nouns and verbs, and specifically to identify agents and patients (who is doing what to whom). 

Note that subjectivity, as I am using the word, is not the same as ego or self-referential thoughts. Subjectivity is a point of view forced on us by the architecture of our bodymind. No one else can see through my eyes. And even the awakened still only see through their own pair (I don't take stories of ESP literally). One may have an egoless subjectivity, because subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to all kinds of experience. By contrast I take objectivity to apply to any and all facts that are true without reference to our experience of them. In the normal scheme of things, all knowledge has an irreducible component of subjectivity, and it is really only collectively that we can infer objective knowledge, since comparing notes enables us to eliminate qualities that are only apparent to us.
1. Pure Subjectivity 

On the far left of the diagram, we see four fields of experience that do not overlap at all. These are four people in contact with four separate parts of the world, perhaps on different continents, and with no overlap of their sensory fields. In this artificial world, each person has only their own perceptions and while they can compare notes on experience, there is no apparent commonality and thus no possibility of agreement. It is as if they live in different worlds.

If this is a single experience, then all four people disagree on the nature of what happened. No two descriptions share any features.


An important class of experiences falls into this category, i.e., experiences where the object is apparent to us, but not to anyone else. Examples include, my private thoughts, or hallucinations (on which, see also my essay Realities).


2. Mixed Subjectivity

In the second left position, some of the fields of experience overlap. When they compare notes neighbours can find come commonality, but there is still nothing  that they can all agree on. There is no general sense of a shared experience. While red may agree to some extent with blue, and to some extent with yellow, blue and yellow have no common ground. As far as blue and yellow are concerned they are experiencing entirely different worlds.

With respect to a single experience we might say that some of the accounts partially overlap, but the opinions expressed about the experience are still largely unrelated to what others are saying.

As with pure subjectivity, there is no common point of reference. 

3. Middle Ground
In the middle all the experiential fields overlap to some extent. For the first time, there are some experiences that all four people in this world share. Note also that there is considerably more overlap generally. As well as all four sharing experiences, there are some experiences shared by three, but not the fourth. About one third of their experiences are available only to them.

For the first time, the four are able to agree on some details of a single experience. They will all agree that they experienced something similar, though they may still disagree on many details. We see here the beginning of objectivity, because comparing notes allows each observer to identify the aspects of the experience that are subjective and eliminate them from their account. However, a good deal of uncertainty remains for any knowledge inferred about the object.

4. Mixed Objectivity
In this state there is substantial overlap between all the experiential fields. About half of any given person's field of experience overlaps with all the others and less than a quarter is private to any one person.
The four are now largely in agreement on the core features of a shared experience, though they may still have their own opinions about it. In these cases, observers are able to infer knowledge about the object of experience with a high degree of confidence and begin to formulate descriptive and predictive theories about how objects behave to levels of accuracy and precision that are limited by their ability to measure. 

5. Pure Objectivity
At this end of the spectrum, the sensory fields of each of the four completely overlaps with the others. Nothing about the experience is private or hidden from the others. Of course this never occurs in nature because we all have our own views and thoughts that are inaccessible to others. But in discussing the perennial philosophy we need this extreme because it encompasses the category of absolute truth or pure objectivity.
 
This is the one experience that everyone has in exactly the same way and that cannot be distinguished between them. Every detail is perfectly aligned. Any knowledge about this kind of experience is entirely shared by anyone who has the experience: the observer has perfect knowledge of the object and completely understands everything about it and they know that the others know. In other words, this is what a metaphysical truth would be like.

General Comments
 
This, then, is the model and how it works on two levels: the general level of the extent to which experience is shared (from not at all to completely) and the level of agreement amongst people about a specific experience. I hope it is obvious that most of our experiences are in the middle ground. We share experiences to some degree with the people around us, but most of the people are not around us, so our sensory fields do not overlap. With respect to any given shared experience we can usually agree on the core features and some of the details, though there is always room for subjective, not to say idiosyncratic, conclusions and opinions.
For example, if I lean over the fence and ask my neighbour how the weather is and they say it's cloudy and raining, when I am experiencing clear skies sunshine, I will intuit that one of us us out of touch with reality, or they are feigning it for some rhetorical purpose, perhaps humour.
If I am sharing a meal with someone who likes searingly hot chili and is very much enjoying it, but I dislike the burning sensation, then we are having the same experience but interpreting it differently. There's overlap, but it's slight.
What can seem to be pure objectivity can still be wrong. For example, for thousands of years, people have watched sunsets. Their body tells them that they are at rest via multiple sensory channels (kinesthetic, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, visceral). If I am at rest and there is perceptible movement of an object, then the only logical conclusion is that the object is moving. However, in the case of the sun, we know this is wrong. The fact is that we are moving relative to the sun, but the acceleration is so small that it does not register on our senses, giving us a false impression. I have called this the sunset illusion. We still talk about the sun "setting" even though we know that it does not because it feels right.  There are many other kinds of sensory illusions, as well. These are oddities of how our senses work and how the brain interprets signals from nerves and presents a picture to awareness. Such illusions are important to keep in mind when thinking about metaphysical truth, because, obviously, such a truth could not fall into this category.

Similarly, what can seem to be pure subjectivity can still have an objective component. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they are not out to get you. Sometimes people will insist that we can't know how they feel, but of course we can. Emotions are universal and we do know how things feel. What we cannot replicate are the thought patterns that accompany emotions. Emotions themselves are relatively simple and can be boiled down to about seven or eight basic moods. And they are highly contagious precisely because we are empathetic: we literally experience the emotions of others. And empathy is universal in social mammals.

In practice, our individual knowledge of the world is always coloured by the physical nature of our senses and the architecture of our brains. Pure objectivity is never attained under normal circumstances. Mystics argue that it can be obtained under extraordinary circumstances and Perennial Philosophy rests on this claim. 

If there is a single overriding metaphysical truth, then in principle at least, it must fit my definition of pure objectivity, and to experience it would be to have 100% overlap with everyone else who experiences it. All descriptions and definitions of it would be identical because experiencing it would not involve any subjectivity. Indeed, the complete agreement on the truth could be seen as the defining feature of the Perennial Philosophy. Proponents assert that religieux completely agree on a core of common beliefs and that all religions point to (if they do not actually teach) this single absolute truth or Truth.

In my view, however, this is an impression created by a biased and highly selective reading of religion and mysticism. The supposed common core of beliefs is more like a collection of vague statements of values expressed in woolly terms. I have already pointed to a better explanation based on the necessary characteristics of social mammals: empathy and reciprocity. The social lifestyle requires these. As the social lifestyle becomes more sophisticated and groups grow larger, these two qualities lead to mores and to morals. Once we can think abstractly about our mores, we discover morality and we can begin to tease out ethical principles. Without the evolutionary argument for commonality, we tend to look to explain it by appealing to some external agent, such as metaphysical truth. Having a better explanation helps, but it does not eliminate the bad explanation. This requires a different strategy. 


The proposition I will defend is that all human experience occurs on this spectrum (or something analogous to it). Some philosophers of mind will counter that all experience is entirely subjective and inaccessible to others. But if this were true we'd never agree on anything. And on some things we find an extraordinary degree of agreement. Ask anyone at all, anywhere on the planet, about gravity and they will describe something similar because the experience of having weight is more or less the same for everyone. Put anyone in microgravity and they will struggle to orient themselves, and their physiology will change. Gravity is an objective fact and the only uncertainty about it is in the tooth-fairy agnosticism category (aka philosophy). We might explain things in different ways, but the phenomenology is so similar as to be beyond coincidence. We all know the experience of weight.

How the spectrum applies and the point of it will become clearer if I outline the examples that made me think of it. I will do this in part III. At the heart of my criticism of the Perennial Philosophy is a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at a purely objective state or the knowledge that pertains to it, via purely subjective methods or experiences. Indeed, this seems to me to be self-evidently false. 


~~oOo~~

23 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part I

In this essay (in several parts) I will deconstruct the so-called Perennial Philosophy and present an argument that we have, in effect, been looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope, at altered experiences. Rather than a single metaphysical truth, there are, in fact, a range of epistemic facets and subjective phenomena that point to common features of the human brain and human societies. In effect, God is made in man's image. However, I will argue that we are not constrained to accept the narratives of mysticism on their own terms. We can choose a different framework and find meaning and value in the absence of the articles of faith that drive the Perennial Philosophy.

Returning to the telescope metaphor, it can be entertaining to look through the wrong end, but the revolution in knowledge comes when we look through the right end. Distant objects are brought virtually closer, enabling us to discern with greater accuracy the features of the world around us.

I begin, in Part I, by critiquing the premise of the Perennial Philosophy as a form of eclectic and syncretic religiosity based on perennial misunderstandings. In part II, I will propose that experience forms a spectrum along an axis defined by two poles: subjectivity and objectivity. I've been wary of these terms in the past, but I think we can employ them here to good effect. The spectrum will provide us with a unifying construct or hermeneutic with which we can understand different approaches to religiosity. In Part III, I will apply this hermeneutic to subjects of interest to Buddhists: meditation, egolessness, and mystical experiences. I try to show that a purely subjective method cannot lead to ontologically objective facts. However, the experiences that arise in the process of pursuing these methods, can help us draw inferences about the human brain and human societies.

We can sum this up as "We are human beings having human experiences. Nothing more, nothing less." 


The Perennial Philosophy

The Western roots of the Perennial Philosophy are often traced to the Renaissance and the renewed interest in Neoplatonism and alchemy at that time. The central idea is that there is a single metaphysical truth to which all religions and mystical traditions point: "The One" of Neoplatonism. The term philosophia perennis seems to have been coined by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716).

Of course, this project is helped when the main religions that intellectuals have to examine are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of these emerged from Semitic cultures and thus share not only ideas, attitudes, and practices, but have considerable overlap in their holy books and even, to some extent, recognise each other's prophets. The God of all three is essentially the same god (El) under different names. Additionally, they were all influenced by Zoroastrianism, particularly in adopting the combination of one god and one prophet.

Perennialism got a boost in the 18th Century when Westerners began to explore Indian religions. The Vedantic abstract, absolute being, or Brahman, seemed to be much the same thing as the abstract, absolute being, the One, of Neoplatonism. Looking at summaries of Neoplatonic ideas, they look suspiciously like Vedanta and some scholars have suggested a real influence which seems prima facie plausible.

Unlike European Christianity, the religions of India have always been very open to ideas, attitudes, and practices from other religions. There has long been a general attitude of eclecticism in Indian religions. Islam and Christianity have both taken root in India, but are not Indian religions. For example, Vedic and chthonic gods appear in the early Buddhist texts, while Śiva appears in several later texts. In the Vaiṣṇa religion, the Buddha is an avatāra of Viṣṇu, while Vedanta is influenced by classical Buddhism. The eclecticism and syncretism of Tantra is even more pronounced. While such observations and the terms "eclecticism" and "syncretism" carry negative connotations in Abrahamic religious contexts (and thus in Europe and its colonies), we have to see them as virtues of Indian religion.

Some Europeans, being blind to historical processes in the evolution of religion, especially the lateral transfer of ideas, and primed by Neoplatonism, saw similarities as confirmation the idea that all religions point to a single metaphysical truth. Once the idea took root, then all kinds of cognitive biases kicked in to make it seem increasingly likely.

This is the problem that we face again and again in trying to understand religion. Theologians seek supernatural explanations; they do scholarship to confirm their faith, rather than to discover the truth. Buddhism Studies has the same problem. We know the outcome of this method because we know the articles of faith from which it sets out. If anyone adopts the axiom that all religions point to the same truth, they filter the evidence to highlight anything which supports this view and to eliminate any contradiction. The exact shape of the articles of faith is of secondary importance in this process. Belief persists for reasons unrelated to the external forms of religion. For example, in a previous essay, I adapted Justin L Barrett's argument about why people believe in God, to a Buddhist context by applying it to karma and rebirth (the twin myths of the afterlife and the just world).

As well as commitments to the supernatural, to an afterlife, and to a just world fallacy, humans also have a strong desire to discover unity in diversity, convergence on a single entity, event, or cause; a single overarching truth; the nature of reality; a prime mover; a first cause; a creator god, and so on. The problem is that, as with technical standards, there have always been many singular absolute truths to choose from.

Like many subjects in the modern philosophy of religion, the Perennial Philosophy really begins with a horrified reaction to the notion of a mechanistic universe that emerged in the early days of the scientific revolution, but throws the baby out with the bath water. This reaction took slightly different forms in different places: English Romantic poets, German Idealist philosophers, and American Transcendentalists. All contributed to shaping the Perennial Philosophy.


Framing

It is because of the Transcendentalists, in particular, that we discuss "spirituality" as a distinct subject. Before the Transcendentalists, and particularly Emerson, the word "spiritual" really only applied to the church. But now we all have a "spiritual dimension". And hence the French Idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin could assert in the 1960s:
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
This could be straight from the mouth of Vivekananda or Ramakrishna. It fully embraces Cartesian mind-body dualism, but in metaphorical terms is framed more as a matter-spirit dualism. On the cognitive metaphors and entailments of this kind of dualism see an earlier essay of mine Metaphors and Materialism. (26 April 2013). We can sum up the kinds of metaphorical language used by citing pairs of terms that describe each substance:
Matter is: cold, dead, inanimate, fixed, passive, low, below, dull, opaque, dark, heavy, dense, viscous, illusory, material, limited, finite, mundane 
Spirit is: warm, alive, animated, changing, active, high, above, bright, translucent, luminous, light, airy, fluid, real, immaterial, unlimited, infinite, transcendental
Matter is associated with the earth, the nadir; with the body, with physical laws, with death and the non-living 
Spirit is associated with the sky, the zenith; with the mind, with mental agency, with life and the afterlife
Religion and religiosity employ these dual cognitive metaphors unconsciously and it shapes the attitudes of religieux. Heaven is above and Hell below. Matter is all about constraint and suffering whereas spirit is about liberation and bliss. And it leads a hatred of the body and bodily functions, a rejection of the material world, and this life. And by contrast a love of the immaterial and imaginary and a longing for the afterlife (in which everything has the qualities of spirit).

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was around near the beginning of the mechanistic universe idea. It made a lot of sense and he could not simply ignore it. But he was constrained in his acceptance by a desire to leave open the door for God. And he did this by formalising an intuition that almost everyone has, what we now call mind-body dualism. Yes, he said, matter does follow a mechanistic pattern, but spirit remains free from this and the acme of spirit is God. Even with the decline of mechanistic thinking, it was clear that matter was far from inanimate and that the supernatural realm of spirit had nowhere to hide. The line between chemistry and biology became thinner and then disappeared, leaving Vitalism (the theory that spirit animates matter) completely discredited amongst intellectuals. Folk Vitalism, along with folk Dualism continue to flourish amongst ordinary people.

I cited Teilhard de Chardin earlier. What he intends to say is that we are not "mere matter" attaining the qualities it supposedly lacks from the ground up, but that we are spirits trapped in physical bodies.  Such virtues as we have come from wholly from spirit. In this dualistic view, spirit is the animating substance—the life's breath—that brings life to dead matter. Matter can never have the qualities of spirit, and where those properties are present, then the conclusion is that spirit must be present. Human life is seen, egocentrically, as the paradigm for where matter and spirit overlap. Animals (literally, "that which breathes") have considerably less spirit.

In the essay on matter-spirit dualism, I pointed out that as a chemist, I saw matter as typically having most of the attributes of spirit: light, colour, energy, etc. Chemistry consists partly in studying these qualities and partly in persuading different atoms to interact and form new compounds. I grew up around volcanoes and they also force one to think about matter rather differently: hot, active, high, light, fluid, and so on. The matter-spirit dualism is dependent on seeing stone as the prototype for matter - dull, grey, cold (to touch), inanimate, hard; very like a corpse in rigor mortis (though if we only waited a few days, we would find that a corpse continues to change as life at a different scale recycles the components of the body). In effect, the dualist has to be ignorant, or to deliberately blind themselves to the animated qualities of matter. Some dualists attribute those qualities in matter to the presence of spirit everywhere (a theory called Panpsychism).

The monist view is that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe. Mind and matter might be epistemically different, but not ontologically. As John Searle pointed out, the usual definition of "materialism" accepts a dualistic split of the world into matter and spirit, and then proceeds to define one as real and the other as unreal. This is not monism, this is just lopsided dualism. Most of the critiques of materialism that I have seen take this straw man approach.

Monism proper does not accept a matter-spirit ontological distinction at all. Therefore, a monist cannot reduce one to the other (since that is still lopsided dualism). The qualities that we would like to separate are, in fact, found everywhere. All light is a perturbation in the electromagnetic field, it is not a quality of spirit. If we see light it is because photons are hitting our retina. If we experience light in the absence of this it because the visual centres of the brain are active on their own and we are hallucinating. Meaning comes from interpretation and we are not constrained to interpret experience according to any paradigm.

But these metaphysical observations are complicated by epistemic distinctions that pervade our experience as a result of our different sensory modes. For example, we perceive mechanical vibrations differently than we perceive vibrations in the electromagnetic field. We might conclude, as the ancients did, that light and sound are two different things. But on examination we realise that the different perceptions are due to senses tuned to respond to vibrations at very different scales. In other words, the major difference in our perceptions of light and sound are epistemic, not ontic. Light and sound do not point to two different substances, but to the different behaviour of one substance at different scales. And our perceptions themselves, according to monists, are not because of two substances (mind and body) but are due to two modes of perceptions: perceptions are stimuli represented in the brain coming into relationship with our virtual self-model. Thoughts in the form "I see you" are representations rather than realities, even though there may well be real entities corresponding to "I" and "you" (by which I mean two organisms).

The legacy language matter-spirit dualism still has a strong influence on how we discuss such subjects and it is all too easy to mistake the epistemic use of terms such as "mind", "body", or even "I" as indicating an ontological commitment that was not intended. Since the epistemic/ontic distinction is seldom made clear (or clear enough), confusion about what monism says is rife. The continued popularity of ideas like the Perennial Philosophy is partly dependent on this philosophical and linguistic confusion. Professional philosophers have no vested interest in clearing things up. Their job is to undermine certainty by producing alternative explanations whether or not it is helpful to do so. The nature of intellectual discussion unconstrained by evidence allows for this to continue indefinitely, even in the face of our complete understand the physics of everyday experience. What philosophers don't seem to realise is that you can win the argument and still be wrong.


Huxley

Perennialism is part of a trend that included Theosophy. They were both eclectic and syncretic approaches to religiosity that drew especially on Vedanta. They both suggested the possibility of a rational religiosity opposing it to irrational religion. The idea of a rational alternative to religion is a theme of religiosity in Europe and to some extent America from the mid-19th Century onwards. This is because of the inroads made by science. Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and has come to represent a broader seachange amongst English speaking intellectuals. Edwin Arnold's epic poem about the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, became a bestseller just 20 years later, even though in the early 19th Century Buddhism was roundly denounced as a heathen religion.

The publication of Aldous Huxley's book The Perennial Philosophy in 1945 took the subject to a much wider audience. The novelist's book has the characteristic eclecticism and syncretism of other expositions on the subject and was particularly inspired by his reading of Neo-Vedanta, a form of Hinduism which itself incorporated ideas from the Perennial Philosophy. Again, the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas contributes to the impression of a deeper unity that would be better categorised as syncretism.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, the infamous champion of evolution who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest". He was educated at Eton, the elite private school, and attended Oxford University (at that time also an elite private institution), and was from that generation who saw Europe almost destroyed by two all-out wars that killed millions of people and consumed vast amounts of resources for no obvious benefit. In WWII both sides specifically targeted civilians, killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. He himself could not fight due to his poor eyesight. Traditional forms of authority were falling apart, the Church had lost its relevance, and the sun was setting on the age of European Empires. The various churches continue to struggle to be relevant on many fronts: the discrediting of the supernatural by science, the scandal of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests, the failure to treat women and men as equals, the failure to accept a spectrum of sexuality as valid, and so on. Huxley was known as a social satirist, but soon descended into writing dystopian novels beginning with Brave New World in 1932. The Perennial Philosophy thus strikes a rather optimistic note in his oeuvre.

The desire for diverse religions and traditions to be unified under one rubric reaches an apex with the theology of Ken Wilber, termed "Integral Theory". And it is not an unworthy goal. After all, the divisions of religion are implicated in many intractable conflicts around the globe. On the other hand, pinning the blame on religion is often a false flag operation for what are effectively economic or political wars. However, Perennialism and the desire for human unity is not a purely Western phenomenon. From time to time, new dispensations which unify and supersede existing religious traditions have emerged in many different places. I've mentioned Neo-Vedanta. We could add Sikhism and Bahá'í. Note that early Buddhism is not perennialist. It does assert the Four Noble Truths, but it also asserts that all other religions are mistaken about them. The Buddha of the early Buddhist stories does not suffer fools or contrary views gladly. On the other hand, many modern Buddhists are also Perennialists. 

Perennial Philosophy has leaked from its container and contaminated the groundwater of popular culture. Common tropes like "all is one", "everything happens for a reason", "what goes around, comes around" may also have roots in specific religious traditions, but they were popularised by Perennialism. New Age approaches to religion seem less popular now than 20 years ago, but they were a manifestation of the same impulse to a unified religiosity without religion. There was a vast reservoir of people who felt the need to be healed. Too little was made of this, I think: the profound alienation of modern life, especially since the rise of Neolibertarian/Mercantilism, creates distress and disease that can't be treated by doctors. What is lost is a sense of connection to people and the world around us. Regaining that without knowing that it is missing is difficult. The current generation have moved on from the need for healing, to the need for protection from harm. This is especially true in America where mass school shootings are now an almost daily occurrence. University students now routinely deplatform speakers, demand trigger warnings, and so on. I find it quite understandable that they do not feel safe, but it is a shame that it has manifested as a closing of their minds.


Twin claims

Thanissaro makes an interesting point about the claims of Perennialism actually having two parts:
Perennial philosophers base their thinking on two claims. The first is a fact-claim: All the great religious traditions of the world share a common core of beliefs. The second is a value-claim: The commonality of these beliefs is proof that they are true. (Thanissaro. "Perennial Issues" Insight Journal. Summer 2010). 
I'm not entirely convinced about the distinction between as "fact-claim" and a "value-claim". Both of Thanissaro's claims are truth claims, one is based in an article of faith, the other on a deduction from the article of faith. Though there are two of them. This kind of reasoning is quite common and I want to briefly discuss two parallels.

Carl Jung makes a similar truth claim when he asserts the existence of the "collective unconscious". Myths around the world share a number of common themes and symbols. Jung sees mythic symbolism as common with dream symbolism and both as emerging from the unconscious mind. He reasoned, without a shred of evidence, that if there are collective symbols then there must be a collective unconscious in which these symbols reside (btw this is very similar to the reasoning that underpins the Yogācāra version of karma doctrine). However, in his book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, Michael Witzel has shown that if we look at the evidence more broadly there is a more plausible explanation. A relatively small group of story-telling people left Africa and populated the world beginning around 100,000 years ago.  They had a common core of myths, the story arc which they bequeathed to every human culture. Witzel's book represents the first comprehensive statement of a theory that is still in the progress of emerging. It is a rational explanation for something which previously only had an irrational explanation. Similarly, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's explanation of image schemas and how they influence thought via cognitive metaphors also explains why all humans have symbols in common. Our worldview is profoundly shaped by how our bodies interact with the world and how our brains present information to awareness.

The other example that comes to mind is the idea of universal values. Although the subject is a minefield, humans do seem to share a common set of values. These manifest in religion as common moral rules and ethical principles. For example, killing an in-group member is universally a bad thing under ordinary circumstances. For the killer, it creates an obligation or debt to the group (and especially to the family of the one killed) that must be (re)paid. Explaining this commonality in terms of an overarching metaphysical truth never satisfies. But it is not our only option. As I explored in my essays on the evolution of morality, all social mammals have two things in common, the ability to experience empathy and to practice reciprocity. Frans de Waal has argued that these two qualities are all that is needed to show how morality evolved in human beings and why it takes the form that it does. Morality, in the sense of having group norms, is universal in social mammals and at the same time specific to the group (and partly dependent on their environment). The basic principles that give social mammals a successful evolutionary strategy are the common core of morality and ethics. As Charles Darwin said:
"...the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals is would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community." (Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, 1871). 
Because of our common evolutionary history, all humans have recognisable forms of morality. And we can recognise something similar in other mammals, especially in those that are most similar to us, the chimps and bonobos. This is not a top-down morality imposed by a metaphysical truth or a god, but an emergent property of organisms living a social lifestyle that ensures their survival. Morality is naturally selected for. For example, a truly selfish species would soon die out because a social lifestyle requires individuals to put the group first more often than not. Any species where members put their own needs first would not benefit from a social lifestyle and would evolve a more solitary lifestyle (as some mammals do) or die out.

The common core of beliefs is an article of faith for Perennialists, but is it true in the way that they want it to be? That is to say, is it the result of an overarching metaphysical truth? In fact, this seems quite unlikely to be the case.


A Common Core?

I've already pointed out that a good deal of religious commonality is down to the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas, attitudes, and practices between different religions. Vedanta was influenced by Buddhism (and vice versa), and in turn influenced Neoplatonism, which influenced modern Christianity, which shared common roots with Judaism and Islam (variants on the same religion), which came full circle and influenced Neo-Vedanta.

However, focussing on the similarities also obscures the vast differences. As a Buddhist, I argue that there is no god, no soul, no creation, no prophet, and no messiah. These are innocent enough mistakes to make for premodern people. But they are not real and maintaining such beliefs when we know better is reprehensible for followers and dishonest of priests. As far as the core beliefs of Buddhism go, I have nothing important in common with Christians, Muslims, or Jews (to the extent that I understand these theist religions), beyond a human commitment to morality which fits the pattern described above; i.e., that is an emergent property of a social lifestyle.

I know, however, that a Buddhist who is also a rationalist and naturalist is rare. Many people who profess Buddhism, in fact, have a prior commitment to matter-spirit dualism. This opens the door to seeming commonality with other religions if only because the framing of matter-spirit duality entails certain core beliefs. Some of my colleagues in the Triratna Buddhist Order are very definitely in the Dualist camp. Most of the Buddhists I meet on the internet are very definitely Dualists, including those who assert some form of non-dualism.

This matter-spirit Dualism, framed using similar cognitive metaphors and image schemas necessarily takes the same form everywhere. If one is inclined to believe in metaphysical truths, then here is the obvious candidate. However, I would say that matter-spirit dualism is something that we impose on experience. It is not imposed on us by reality. In other words, this is not a metaphysical truth in the sense that is implied by the Perennial Philosophy.

Even if the facts are in evidence, the conclusions we draw are highly dependent on how we think. Axioms, for example, are inevitably reproduced by a process of deduction. Explanations that do not resort to magical thinking or mind-body dualism or any of the other faults that go with the Perennial Philosophy are generally better in the sense of providing more accuracy and precision. Where we do not yet have an explanation, it is better to admit we don't know than to make something up.

However, the example of the common core of empathy and reciprocity makes this discussion more complex because in these two qualities of social primate group interactions we do have something like a common core. We can easily see how a species with these minimal qualities might evolve a moral culture alongside its genetic evolution, if that meant living in ever larger groups, surrounded by and having to deal with strangers most of the time.

Moral rules do vary from group to group, even family to family within a large society, but the form that moral rules take emerges from a common background so there are similarities. For example, because it is based on reciprocity, morality is often framed as an accounting exercise (on this subject, I highly recommend George Lakoff's essay: Metaphor, Morality, and Politics). The classic religious image of an afterlife reckoning is the one from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (which I have mentioned many times before). In the image, Anubis is weighing the soul of the scribe, Ani, in a large balance. On the other side is an ostrich feather representing the law. Of course, Ani is armed with spells to make his soul lighter, but the principle is that one who has lived in accordance with the law (the moral norms of Egyptian society of the day) will have a light soul and will ascend to the realm of the gods ruled over by Osiris. Anyone with a heavy soul will be devoured by a hybrid animal monster. The idea, as with all such stories, is to encourage the living toward normative behaviour with a carrot and stick approach.

Thus the common ideas of God as absolute being, the human messenger who conveys the message, and the apparently similar moral rules can all be explained in ways that do not involve the supernatural at all, let alone a single metaphysical truth. But, and this is important, there are commonalities. There are shared ideas and qualities that give the impression of a common core of beliefs. These do not prove Perennialism; on the contrary, they show that Perennialism is simply a mistake as a result of not seeing enough of the picture and/or not seeing it clearly enough. Our commonalities are evolutionary rather than supernatural. Evolution emerges not as a single metaphysical truth, but as an embodied paradigm that explains how humans come to have common qualities both at the genetic (including phenotypic) and social levels.


Conclusion

Perennial Philosophy is simply bad philosophy. It ignores historical processes and evolutionary processes, it fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and it asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism. The supposed metaphysical truth that religions point to can be explained as confirmation bias. Calling such a belief system a "philosophy" bestows a veneer of respectability and rationality on a form of modernist religiosity at a time when organised religion is widely viewed negatively. It is ironic that Perennial Philosophy is quite individualistic given the central proposition.

That said, philosophy generally seems far too open to speculation in the absence of evidence and to be burdened by tooth-fairy agnosticism. Philosophy is all about prolonging arguments by introducing hypothetical objections to everything. It almost always assumes a solipsistic point of view. I have been talking with a friend about the trolley problem, for example, and as classically posed it eliminates the social context.  In fact, morality is irreducibly social. If we are weighing up moral choices we may ask questions like:
Who will see me act?
Who will know about my choice and who might find out?
How will my peers react to my decision?
Moral philosophers try to eliminate such considerations and leave a human being making decisions in isolation. Some of us may think of such considerations as themselves immoral, but this would be a distortion based on an idealisation that is far from the reality of being a social primate: we are moral  precisely because we are social, because we can empathise and understand reciprocity. Furthermore, we acknowledge that social isolation is detrimental to both mental and physical health and think of solitary confinement as a cruel punishment. Quite a lot of moral philosophy seems to be based on these kinds of false assumptions about the social nature of humanity. Contrast this with the idea of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that reasoning is a group activity (explaining why individuals do poorly at solo reasoning tasks).

A pragmatic approach to knowledge, grounded in empiricism, and which takes account of the social nature of knowledge is more empowering for human beings. We can always change our minds, but mostly we need to get on with our lives using the best heuristics we have. Of course, we cannot agree on what the best course of action is a lot of the time. In any rational consideration of reality, this would undermine the Perennial Philosophy. However, because of matter-spirit dualism, it leads us to think of humans as evil, which is extremely counterproductive.

The subject I have not yet touched on is that some kinds of experience seem to support the bad theory of a single metaphysical truth, especially the so-called "mystical" experiences. These cannot be ignored, but again, we don't have to accept how Perennialists frame the discussion. In order to reframe the discussion, in the next part of the essay I will introduce a simplified model with characteristics that illustrate my approach. This aims to show that the supposed metaphysical truth of the Perennial Philosophy sits at one end of a spectrum and the methods used to try to realise that truth all point to the other. Then, in Part III, I will explore the example of meditation and how it moves us away from objectivity towards pure subjectivity. The goal we pursue in meditation is not reality or the discovery of the nature of reality. Instead, we pursue an understanding of the nature of sensory and cognitive experience and, in fact, the cessation of experience is the highest attainment of these methods.

~~oOo~~


25 February 2013

Insight, Peak Experience and the Supernatural

It's important to be clear that in critiquing the conceptual explanations of experience, as I did in my essay Thinking it Through, I am not denying experience itself. People have experiences. Clearly people have experiences in very many contexts which fall into the vague category of "mystical" experiences - a sense of boundlessness, feelings of transporting bliss, a sense of connectedness, the loss of a sense of self, apparent separation of the self from the physical body, and so on. I certainly do not deny that people have such experiences. To some extent I've had similar experiences. What I don't do is invoke the supernatural to explain and interpret such experience.

It was reading Thomas Metzinger's account of his out-of-body experiences that finally convinced me that a supernatural explanation is never preferable.  Metzinger realised that although he initially was drawn to a supernatural perspective on his OOBEs that there was a simple (and to both him and me) a preferrable explanation which invoked the way that the sense of self is constructed in the brain by integrating several streams of input. An OOBE occurs when the integration breaks down. It's definitely worth reading his account (especially before commenting!) though the very brief summary in New Scientist Magazine 23 Feb 2013 may suffice. (I recommend getting hold of this issue and reading the articles on self!) I finished reading The Ego Tunnel and I simply did not believe in the supernatural any more. It was a relief. It means there are some things I can't explain yet, but there is no principial problem with that, and in most cases the lack does not affect my daily life. Though not having a satisfactory explanation for a phenomena does often make us uncomfortable - the human mind abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does. For many people a supernatural explanation is preferable to no explanation, despite the many weaknesses of supernatural explanations.

We are capable of having extra-ordinary experiences. We all have them to some extent. At their highest pitch these experiences are radically transformative. One can't have a mystical experience, it seems, and remain the same. It is a watershed where one realises that there is another mode of experience that is unlike ordinary waking experience in its beauty, peace, happiness; unlike dream awareness in that it is coherent and consistent; unlike unconsciousness in that there is awareness. I think Jill Bolte Taylor does a pretty good job of describing this mode of awareness in her TED talk about her stroke: beautiful, expansive, unifying, inclusive, blissful. She stresses the word beautiful several times. Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "opening the doors of perception" for such experiences based on his experimentation with hallucinogens and they do help us to see our world anew.

Many writers have noted such experiences across the full range human cultures. These experiences seem to be available to any human being. Sometimes they come spontaneously; sometimes they are induced through intense austerities or meditation; and sometimes through the use of hallucinogens. The mystical experiences that result become the touchstones for religieux, even if only vicariously (for a large but unquantified proportion of religieux - my guess would be 99%).

Leading members of my Order have been struggling with how to convey this kind of experience. Recently Dharmacārī Subhuti has been experimenting with different kinds of language. A year ago he  spoke at an Order gathering about numinous experiences, and confused this with a noumenal realm behind experience, and it was a relief to see him abandon this attempt. These terms are loaded with unhelpful connotations. More recently he has suggested that there is something he cumbrously calls a "supra-personal force" (a term associated with sociologist Max Weber, but also used by psychologist Erich Fromm - Subhūti doesn't cite his sources). The "supra-personal force" is experienced as acting from an egoless perspective. Subhūti's prototypical example being the weeks after the death of Dr Ambedkar when Sangharakshita did his bit to rally Ambedkar's supporters and felt as if "something were working through me" (this period of his life is recounted in his memoire In the Sign of the Golden Wheel). At the peak of experience, the ego melts away and we act on the basis of this "supra-personal force" rather than our own will. Any artist who has created something will most likely be able to describe the feeling of something coming through them as they create. When I have experienced this it is as though I was merely a conduit for something which emerged on a canvas for example, and I could view it quite dispassionately because it did not seem to be "mine" and in a way the whole seemed unrelated to my dabbing paint on a particular part of it. The suggestion is that this feeling is analogous to the egolessness experienced by mystics and meditators. Sangharakshita has also modified a commentarial list -- the fivefold niyama aka the five niyamas -- to provide another name for this "supra-personal force", i.e. dhamma-niyama. It's now common for my colleagues to speak of "the Dhamma-Niyama" as we used to speak of "the Absolute" or "the Unconditioned". I'm not necessarily endorsing any of this, by the way, but I do find it interesting that the traditional ways of discussing mystical experiences are being re-invented by my senior colleagues drawing (without acknowledgement) from various modern(ist) forms of discourse.

There are two important facts embedded in the preceding statements: mystical experiences can be induced by massive left-brain strokes; and they can be induced by chemicals. Indeed we know from experiments conducted in labs that strong magnetic fields which disturb brain activity in certain spots also produce similar experiences; and can add epileptic seizures and migraine to the list of triggers. Even the most ardent proponent of the supernatural must grant that these mystical states have a physical correlate in the brain. The brain is always involved in experience and thus always involved in mystical experiences. Whether this is causal or epiphenomenal or something else is not so important to my argument, I merely wish to state that as far as can be determined there is always a cerebral correlate to experience. I'd be willing to reconsider if someone can show me evidence of the counter, i.e. an experience with no brain correlate, but I'm not currently aware of any such evidence. Direct changes in the brain--through injury or drugs--do change perception and/or personality and/or awareness, and the descriptions of such changes are often indistinguishable from descriptions of mystical experiences.

All of these experiences come under the general banner of 'insight' in Buddhism. But it is reasonable to ask: "in-sight in-to what?" The most general answer is that the mystic has insight into the "nature of reality" and the claim is that the mystical experience is somehow more real than other kinds of experience. The idea being that reality is in fact more like a mystic vision and that other kinds of experience is poor substitutes. I suppose it is inevitable that peak experiences change the way we perceive the world. The peak experience seems to expand possibilities, and even opens new fields of endeavour for us. We know from first hand experience that we can be more, and for some that can be very inspiring. And most people are never the same after their mystical experience - it brings a radical shift in perspective. I've know one or two people dissipate their lives in trying to  recreate that peak experience and never quite managing it.

Humans seek out peak experiences is many ways: meditation, drugs, and extreme situations or activities of various sorts. Starvation and painful austerities have often proved popular and effective triggers. People are often willing to risk injury or death in search of a peak experience. And we often dine out on recounting the peak experiences of our lives, or if our lives are very drab we may simply recount the experiences of others. Buddhists with special teachers are prone to the last. It seems that the peak experience defines us in some way. That peak experiences seem more real because they are more intense. Ironically the pursuit of intense experience of any kind merely blunts our sensibilities, which is a consequence of being embodied in an organic feedback system. Either we reach satiation and stop, or if we persist we experience less and less pleasure from our activity and must seek out more intense forms of stimulation. This may be why pain becomes fascinating as an intense experience. As the Buddha said, we mistake the painful for the pleasant.

How we interpret experience, especially peak experience, is heavily culturally determined. We are not free to interpret experience in any old way. We make sense of the world on the basis of some built in concepts such as causality and time (though these are also to some extent culturally determined); and in terms of concepts we learn through our memberships of various groups: family, school, peers, religious groups, etc. So if we have a mystical experience we will understand it in terms of our previously accumulated categories and concepts. Though the experience itself may give us new categories and concepts.

Thus many of my friends have experienced sleep paralysis and all of the creepy sensations involved, but because they live in a house that is supposedly haunted, they describe the experience as involving the ghost(s) of the house. Some are quite convinced they have experienced a disembodied spirit, some are more sceptical but favour the ghost story, and none have been receptive when I point them to the well documented phenomenology of sleep paralysis.

The belief in ghosts or disembodied spirits comes from our pre-scientific past and has persisted through to the present. Ghosts and other entities which survive death are prominent themes in modern literature and film. The ghost belief forms a complex with the prominent stories of the haunted house which is listed in more than one book as "one of the most haunted houses in Britain". The experience of sleep paralysis is certainly unnerving, but why the resistance to the idea that it might just be sleep paralysis? Why does belief persist in the face of plainer, simpler facts? I addressed this in some depth in my essay Facts and Feelings. Beliefs alter the salience of facts so that when we come to weigh things up, certain facts are deemed by us to be more weighty or more important. (Recent research suggests that those with supernatural beleifs find sleep paralysis more distressing - ScienceBlog). Thus the ideas of a ghost outweighs the idea of sleep paralysis for a whole complex of reasons. And not least of which is the impression that being visited by a ghost comes with a certain notoriety and even popularity and everyone wants to hear your story and marvel at your fortitude in dealing with it. Who wants to give that up?

I'm arguing that peak experiences are just like this. We no doubt have experiences. There is no doubting the sincerity of the people who describe these experiences. But for some it is a meeting with god, for others a glimpse into reality, and still others it is non-dualism or egolessness or brahman. There is a clear coherence in the phenomenology of the experiences themselves, but there is no coherence in the phenomenology of the interpretation except in relation to culture. The interpretation is generally in terms of categories we already have.

However sometimes we have experiences for which there are no convenient explanation. In the modern world we cast about, often in popular literature or on the internet, until we find someone or something who can explain what happened. Thus for instance the people who are sincerely convinced that they have been abducted by aliens. Often such inexplicable experiences are what lead us to religion in the first place. Scratch a Buddhist and you often find a trauma.

The sad fact is that however much we pursue such experiences most of us will not have a mystical experience. Even amongst long term meditators (and I know dozens of people who have been meditating for more than two decades) such experiences are relatively rare. Certainly meditation can give us all peak experiences, and I've my share of those, but the mystical or visionary experiences that transform, even radically transform the practitioner are elusive. Most long term meditators are certainly admirable people, but they are refined versions of themselves, rather than egoless or saintly or whatever. For most of us the path produces slow growth and evolution, but not revolution. Personally I mourn the loss of the value placed on cultivating virtues that has come with our societies struggling free of superstition and supernatural religions. I admire people who consciously cultivate virtues such as generosity, harmlessness, contentment, empathy and heightened awareness. So I don't see it as a problem, nor as any great surprise, that most people are not saints.

In my search for better explanations and interpretations I certainly do not mean to devalue the experiences themselves. In some cases my approach does take away the personal kudos attached to an experience like sleep paralysis because my explanation is at first glance more mundane. But only at first glance, because sleep paralysis reveals a fascinating side of our embodied minds and has its own value. It raises all sorts of questions about our embodied minds, and those who explore such questions are producing the most tantalising results.

vanillin
When I was a youngster (in the 70s) we used to call vanilla ice-cream 'plain'. We'd be asked "Do you want chocolate ice-cream or plain?" As I got older however I began to appreciate that vanilla is a delightful flavour in its own right, and when I first smelt a real vanilla orchid pod I though I had died and gone to heaven. Serrendipitously, in my third-year organic chemistry lab I was handed a vile of white powder and, with no clues, required to identify the compound before the end of the term. So I analysed it (using chemical methods and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Infra-red spectroscopy) and it turned out to be 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde or vanillin (right) one of the main compounds associated with the smell and taste of vanilla -- artificial vanilla essence is basically an alcoholic solution of methyl- and ethyl-vanillin. If I had a greenhouse I would grow the vanilla orchid. Vanilla ice-cream is my favourite these days. My kind of explanation need not lead to a grey world which lacks meaning. It is not plain compared to the chocolate of the supernatural. My world is full of wonder and colour. Also full of questions to be answered. Life is deeply puzzling. But I no longer feel any need to invoke the supernatural in response to questions and puzzles.