Showing posts with label Naturalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Naturalism. Show all posts

02 September 2016

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism

In this essay I will outline John Searle's approach to philosophy of mind. I've been making use of it for most of this year, but wish I'd read The Rediscovery of the Mind twenty years ago, because Searle cuts through a lot of the confusion to outline a workable philosophy of mind. I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic outline seems to me to be the best set-up for thinking about and exploring the mind. 

At the outset we need to make the distinction between a philosophy of mind and a science of the mind. A philosophy is a broad brush-stroke approach to a subject, which sets out the basic premises and presuppositions on which to approach studying and understanding the subject in more detail. Scientific theories seek to account for the known facts and guide a research program. Our philosophy of mind attempts to make the results of our science of the mind comprehensible; to create a meta-theory in which the relevant scientific theories fit together and are consistent with other scientific theories. Philosophy provides the framework in which to understand the results of science; and science informs the framework of the philosophy. I'll try to say something about where I see Buddhism fitting into this below. It's important to state unequivocally that at present we do not have a complete version of either a philosophy or a science of the mind. However, Searle is adamant, and I entirely agree, that we have have good enough versions of both to be getting on with. 

I had heard of John Searle as a philosopher of language many years ago when I tried to look into the mechanics of mantra. It seemed at the time that pragmatics (what mantras do) was a far more fruitful line in inquiry that semantics (what mantras mean). I naturally came across Searle in this context because he helped to define the field of language pragmatics. Much later, in 2014, I happened to listen to a lecture by him at Cambridge University (via their YouTube channel). In his lectures, Searle is direct and confident. He states the conclusions he thinks are obvious with none of the obfuscation I usually associate with philosophy. He's trying to clarify the issues, not to confuse his audience. In every lecture I have seen he invariable comments, Dr Johnson-like, on freewill: "I decide to raise my arm, and look [raises his arm] the damn thing goes up" (with that emphasis). I like this. Recently, I have gone back to Searle and read a couple of his books, The Rediscovery of Mind and The Construction of Social Reality; and I've listened to some other lectures. Searle's lectures on consciousness seem to invariably cover the same ground, most of which was in The Rediscovery of the Mind. The view has been updated to some extent over the years and linked to a theory of social reality, but from the mid 1990s on, Searle has been pointing out how confused most philosophy of mind is, restating his own philosophy of mind, and wondering aloud what all the fuss is about.

Part of my attraction to Searle is that he takes a straightforward approach to the subject and provides a meaningful entry point for me to join the discussion - he writes with clarity and explains jargon terms. I still have to use my dictionary from time to time, but the argument itself is presented in an accessible way. And yet what he is saying is quite a lot more radical than he tends to get credit for, particularly his critique of scientific materialism as a form of Cartesian dualism! Searlean philosophy seems quite compatible with Naturalism more generally and with the structure antireductionist philosophy I've been exploring recently. 

~ What is Consciousness? ~

Searle's standard definition of consciousness can be found in many books, articles, and lectures. It goes like this:
Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes of sentience or awareness. Consciousness, so defined, begins when we wake in the morning from a dreamless sleep - and continues until we fall asleep again, die, or go into a coma, or otherwise become 'unconscious'.
Searle says that consciousness has a "first-person ontology", by which he means "a first-person mode of existence. That is to say when it exists, it only exists for one person, privately, and is not accessible to others. I will offer challenge this assertion when I deal with the mind-body problem below.

For Searle consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon. He says that consciousness is wholly caused by neural activity in the brain. Remember that this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Searle is saying that the best explanation, really the only plausible explanation, we have is the neurobiological one - which is a structure antireductive view. This does not mean that we have a fully worked out scientific description of consciousness in terms of neurobiology. We don't. But there really is no other type of explanation that is plausible in the current state of our knowledge about the world at mass, energy and length scales relevant to the question. If consciousness happens, it must happen in the brain, and this is why it is not a public event. It's first-person in the same way that biological processes like respiration and digestion are first-person. The glucose, amino-acids and other nutrients liberated by digestion from the food I ate are only available to me; similarly the conscious states produced by the functioning of the brain are only accessible to me. This distinction will be important when we look at the implications of Searlean philosophy for Buddhism. 

For a long time the science of consciousness was actually hampered by philosophers. One cannot study consciousness, for example, if one believes that it doesn't exist (a belief broadly referred to as eliminativism). Those who believe that consciousness is an illusion, often end up not studying consciousness at all. Or they focus on the question of how a non-conscious organism came to have the highly sophisticated mechanisms for creating illusions of having conscious states. Searle points out that the apparent illusion is a conscious state, so it cannot be considered as non-conscious. The eliminativist approach seems like a cul de sac. Nor can one study something if one believes that it cannot be studied, which is a surprisingly common claim amongst intellectuals. Ironic that the object of which we can claim no facts enables us to claim this one meta-fact. What is the epistemology behind this ontological claim? How can one know this? With all the obfuscation and confusion, it has been difficult to convince the mainstream of scientists that consciousness exists, is something that can be studied, and is worth studying. We're really only just beginning to get serious about studying consciousness a few decades after the study began. Before this, no one studied consciousness. 

One of the attractions of Searlean philosophy of mind, is that it encourages rather than discourages scientific study of conscious. For Searle the existence of consciousness is an unequivocal and rather trivial matter. Of course we have conscious states. However, as we will see, consciousness is irreducibly subjective and the subjectivity of conscious seems to have confused scientists who are committed to the belief that reality can only be objective. The ostensible reason for this is to avoid Cartesian dualism.
"The bankruptcy of the Cartesian tradition, and the absurdity of supposing that there are two kinds of substances of properties in the world, "mental" and "physical", is so threatening to [philosophers] and has such a sordid history that we are reluctant to concede anything that might smack of Cartesianism. we are reluctant to conceded any of the common sense facts that sound "Cartesian", because it seems that if we accept the facts, we will have to accept the whole of Cartesian metaphysics." (1992: 13) 
There are two ironies here. Firstly Searle is routinely accused of being a dualist despite saying that he finds dualism absurd; he points out that scientific materialists in avoiding talking about or studying the consciousness qua subjective reality, effectively reify the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. I'll say more about this below.

 Searle (1992: 127ff) elucidates a dozen features of consciousness, but in (2000) he highlights three that are distinctive of consciousness: qualitativeness, subjectivity, and unity.


Each experience we have, has its own distinctive qualities, though some experiences have shared qualities. Thomas Nagel (1974) argued that we could have perfect knowledge of the physiology of a bat and still not know what it was like to be a bat. Since then philosophers have used this idea that there is "something that it is like" to have an experience in contradistinction to the physical apparatus which underlies the experience to highlight the importance of the quantitativeness of consciousness. Conscious experience is not encompassed by knowledge of physiology. Of course in 1974 there was no serious study of consciousness to speak of and the knowledge of neuro-physiology was considerably less detailed than it is now.

Some philosophers have coined the word qualia for this aspect of consciousness. Sometimes they distinguish qualia from other kinds of mental experience. However, Searle argues that all conscious states have a qualitative aspect - there is always "something that it is like" when having or being in a conscious state. Therefore qualia is just a fancy word for conscious states, which doesn't really add anything to the discussion. Indeed, it could be said to confuse the issue by making it seem that a conscious state and the qualitative aspect of a conscious state are two different things. They aren't.

Whatever we call it, there is something that it is like to be in a conscious state, or to have a conscious experience. And this is part of how we define a conscious state. By contrast there is nothing that it is like to have a non-conscious mental state, such as the kind of non-conscious processing of visual data from the eyes before an object in the visual field becomes conscious.


Because there is always something that it is like to have a conscious experience, it follows that someone is having the experience. Consciousness is always someone being conscious of something. Buddhists are doubtful about there always being a someone and I will deal with this issue below. For now I will just say that I conclude that even non-dual experiences are subjective in the sense of being someone's experience. Consider the other possibilities: i.e., that an experience is everyone's experience; that the experience in one person's brain is someone else's experience; or that an experience can be no-one's experience (if it is no-one's experience it is not an experience at all, but another kind of event). So consciousness is subjective in the sense that there has to be someone whose mind is experiencing the conscious state or it is not conscious. 

A problem here is Searle's assertion that the fact that consciousness is subjective amounts to consciousness having what he calls a first-person ontology. By "ontology" in this context he means "mode of existence" and he makes a distinction between this and the fundamental ontology. I see this broad use of the word ontology as a weakness in Searle's philosophy. The fundamental ontology is similar to my own view: the universe is made of one kind of stuff (the view is called substance reductionism). The modal use of the term ontology with respect to consciousness invites misunderstanding. And Searle is frequently misunderstood as either a reductionist or an ontological dualist with respect to consciousness (he is neither). On the other hand consciousness excites such emotional and polarised responses, especially amongst professional philosophers, that it is almost impossible that any given statement about consciousness will not routinely be misunderstood by those with a different idea.

To me the first-person/third-person distinction is epistemic rather than ontic, by which I mean that it is not a matter of modes of existing, since all existing is of one type, so much as it is of modes of knowing. That consciousness is subjective, means that it can only be known from a first-person perspective. Any given conscious state is only instantiated in one brain. It can only be known from the point of view associated with, or created by, that one brain. Searle himself insists, consciousness is wholly caused by neurobiological processes, which suggests that the ontology of consciousness is not distinct from the ontology of any other biological process. Indeed, as we will explore below, elsewhere Searle is insistent that there is no ontological distinction between mind and body. I'm nowadays doubtful about the notion of causation. However intuitive and natural it seems, causation is still a metaphysical concept, rather than one that is native to physics. That said, consciousness is at the least an emergent property of a functioning of the brain (however that happens). 


Searle describes consciousness as a unified field. All of our senses are working all the time (if they are working at all). Sense experience is to us as water is to a fish. Most of the time we don't even notice that we move through a unified field of sense experience. Searle identifies two dimensions to this process. A "horizontal" dimension in which mental events are unified over short stretches of time (I discussed this issue in my essay, The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016). The "vertical" dimension takes in all the various features of my sensory experience across the different modes, i.e. visual, aural, tactile, etc. By unified we don't mean uniform. Conscious states certainly have features and structures, but they occur in a unified context.

While we can certainly be aware of particular facets of experience at any given time, these facets appear to us to be embedded in a unified field. In neurophysiology this is known as the Binding Problem. The division of labour in the brain is completely transparent to us, we are presented with this unified field of perception and it's not yet clear how this happens. 

Unity can be most striking when it fails. In some patients who have their corpus callosum severed as a way of treating epilepsy, thereby isolating the two halves of the brain, unity can become a duality. The different halves of the brain can operate as two independent unities. In the so-called "out-of-body" experience, the unity of consciousness also breaks down so that the sense of being embodied becomes disconnected from the visual perception of the body, so that people appear to themselves to be floating above themselves looking down at their own body. The illusion is vivid and compelling, but it is an illusion. 

This modern view of the unity of consciousness conflicts with the understanding of consciousness that was developed Buddhists and enshrined in the various versions of Abhidharma. I've dealt with this recently (The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016) so I don't propose to go over it again.

Other qualities

Included in the list of other features of consciousness are: intentionality; centre/periphery relations, mood, pleasure/unpleasure dimension, gestalt structure, finite modalities, familiarity, overflow, boundary conditions.

Intentionality does not mean "will" in this context, but the fact of conscious states have a referential content (perhaps referentiality was a neologism too far for philosophers?). Most conscious states refer to something: we are conscious of something, or about something. As Searle (2000: 6) says "If I have a normal visual experience, it must seem to me that I am actually seeing something". In hallucinations, it still seems to us as though we are seeing something. The hallucination still has intentionality.  

However, Searle thinks that states such as "undirected anxiety" are not intentional. I'm not convinced by this, nor by his treatment of mood (1992: 140-1; 2000: 6-7). Emotion is not a conscious state like thought, but also involves physiological arousal triggered by the actions of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, which functions autonomically, i.e. it is non-consciously self-governing. As Gerald Mandler (1984) has pointed out:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts

(cited in Fine 2006: 43)

Searle seems to lack this important insight and I think his exposition on intentionality suffers because of it. A good deal of what makes an emotional state is our awareness of physical feelings in the body associated with states of physiological arousal, and our attribution of meaning (emotional thoughts) to those feelings. The attribution of meaning to experience is a deep a difficult topic, in the case of feelings in the body as much as any other kind of experience. Anxious thoughts can be triggered by states of arousal that are not linked to any obvious external stimulus; but in this case the thoughts are intentional in Searle's sense, because they refer to the feelings of arousal. Thoughts themselves can also stimulate the autonomic nervous system. I can easily think myself in a panic, in the complete absence of any external threat. 

Searle (1992: 140) suggests that moods may be non-intentional, but again, as in the the example of anxiety, the conscious thoughts we have are a response to feelings in the body that result from the workings of the autonomic nervous system. My view is that mood is itself is not a conscious state, because it is probably more a matter of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Awareness of experiencing a particular mood is a conscious state and because it is awareness of something, it is intentional.

Two related features of consciousness are the gestalt structure and centre periphery relations. Within the complex unity of perception some things stand out. In my essay The Citta Bottleneck, I cited the example of degraded images that are more or less impossible to decode until one is told what they are, at which point the objects become comprehensible. This leads to the insight that expectation is central to perception. However, the crystallisation of an image out of noise is also a good example of the gestalt feature of consciousness. Our senses produce a lot of information all at once and our brain processes and filters this mass of information so that some aspects of it stand out. What stands out is presumably determined, ultimately, by evolution. The brain that causes the right aspects of the noise to stand out as signal, is the brain that survives. Another way of looking at this, is that our brains are extremely efficient pattern recognition engines. So within the field of perception some things and patterns stand out. But we also have the ability to shift our attention within this unified field structured by gestalt relations. We can focus on different aspects of experience: now I'm formulating a sentence, now I'm listening to the drum beat of the Massive Attack tune I'm listening to, now I'm thinking it's time to get ready to meet my friend for an outing.

These two features are, to the best of my knowledge, completely absent from Buddhist accounts of mind and difficult to fit into those accounts. I think this is because Buddhists privilege altered states of consciousness over everyday states. Whether this is a valid manoeuvre remains to be seen.

Another feature that Searle identifies that is present in Buddhist accounts is the pleasure/unpleasure dimension (to use Searle's terms) to experience. Although he doesn't make much of it, Searle suggests that we can always answer questions like "Are we having fun?" The Buddhist account of this dimension is (unusually) more developed than Searle's, though I will link it to other modern thinkers that give a modern perspective. This dimension is important because we are attracted to the pleasant and averse to the unpleasant. This can of course manifest in trivial likes and dislikes of the the kind that Buddhists seek to eliminate. However, more fundamentally, it is what drives all seeking and avoiding behaviours: seeking food, seeking shelter, seeking company, seeking a mate; avoiding danger, avoiding poisonous substances, avoiding conflict, avoiding predators. These responses to the pleasure/unpleasure dimension of experience are clearly not trivial, and not very well dealt with in Buddhist accounts.

Having outlined some of the major features of consciousness states, I now want to try to show how Searle tackles a perennial problem in philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem. 

~ The Mind-Body Problem ~

The essence of this problem is the puzzle of how something like the mind can affect changes (or actions) in something like the body and vice versa. The problem is based on the idea that the mind and body are fundamentally different. 

There are broadly speaking two popular approaches to the mind-body problem. One group adopt an eliminativist stance and try to explain away consciousness. In other words they try to account for consciousness without any reference to consciousness, and instead try to explain how we function without consciousness. This argument takes many forms, the leading contenders are forms of materialism, such as Behaviourism. Proponents of eliminativism often claim that consciousness is an illusion, but this tends to leave us scratching our heads about why would we have the illusion of consciousness. What would the evolutionary argument for the development of the complex brain architecture required to support the illusion of consciousness? But more importantly, Searle asks how we would distinguish the illusion of consciousness from a conscious state? Indeed, an illusion, to be an illusion, must itself be a conscious state. The having of the illusion is itself tantamount to consciousness (since the illusion is qualitative, subjective, and part of a unified field etc). In the end Occam's razor applies and it is far simpler to just acknowledge that we have subjective conscious states. 

The second approach is to adopt some form of ontic dualism. In this view consciousness is a distinct kind of substance from matter. Again this kind of argument takes several forms, and it is particularly popular amongst religious intellectuals. The religieux, amongst other things is stuck trying to explain the afterlife. No afterlife is possible unless something survives the death of the body, and by definition that something cannot be physical because we know in great detail what happens to the physical aspects of a human being after they die: the body is broken down by microbial and chemical means and recycled. Some prominent philosophers, notably David Chalmers have returned to dualism despite the scientific consensus against it and despite the absurdity of the idea. 

Proponents from both eliminativist and dualist camps frequently argue that consciousness can never be understood. Which strikes me as a premature conclusion at best. Certainly, if we define something as unknowable, that can only hamper efforts to study it. As an axiom it seems to be a deadend. We ought only adopt deadend axioms when all other possibilities have been exhausted and we are very far from that eventuality at present. 

Searle deals with this mess by going back to Descartes. Descartes was looking for a way to satisfy both the mechanistic views emerging from the nascent physical sciences of his day and the necessity to make room for God. He did this by formalising a kind of dualism that had existed for a long time:  i.e. that a human being consists of two parts: a body and a mind, formed from difference kinds of stuff (substance dualism; or substance antireductionism). Body was an expression of matter; mind was an expression of soul. The body functioned like a machine; the mind was where God came into it. I've previously looked in some detail how the language and metaphors associated with this dualism interact to create a particular kind of worldview (Metaphors and Materialism. 26 Apr 2013). 

Nowadays, it is only religious intellectuals who feel the need to make room for God and the physical sciences themselves have showed that mechanistic views of physics only apply when classical mechanics applies and classical mechanics is a special case of a more fundamental non-mechanistic (in fact probabilistic) understanding of science. Many physicists and neuroscientists still talk as though the world is mechanistic, but they are confused on this score. This can be distinguished from other interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as Everett's "many worlds" interpretation which is deterministic, but not mechanistic. Many worlds is deeply counter-intuitive as most quantum theories are. The key problem with mechanistic views is that mechanisms cannot exhibit emergent properties, even in complex mechanisms the properties are simply the sum of the the properties of their parts. 

Searle observes that scientific materialism, which portrays itself as the antithesis of dualism, is in fact underpinned by Cartesian dualism. Materialists divide the world into matter and mind, just as Descartes did, but they then claim that only matter is real and that mind is not real (that it can be reduced to matter). The claim that only matter is real only makes sense if we assume that mental phenomena are ontologically distinct from material phenomena. Searle denies that this distinction is valid. Idealists also divide the world into two, but they say that only the mind is real and discard matter. Some nihilists complete the picture by dividing the world into two and denying the reality of either. This observation might be my favourite thing about Searle. 

In other words the mind-body problem is still essentially a Cartesian problem. Proponents of materialism and idealism are making an (erroneous) ontological distinction between mind and body. If we truly reject Descartes, then mind and body are not, and cannot be, ontologically different. I go a bit further with this than Searle does. Searle makes the distinction between a first-person consciousness and a third-person reality an ontological difference: he makes a distinction between a first-person ontology or mode of existence and a third-person ontology.

Searle often compares consciousness as neurobiological process to digestion. I find this analogy apt, but I want to emphasise that digestion is encompassed by the same ontology as everything else. Reality is ontologically monistic. I know that Searle agrees with this, and sometimes he speaks of the "fundamental ontology", but I still think his use of the word ontology is too vague. The fact that the nutrients that I get from digestion are only available to my body does not change the ontology of the process. All events are local, so the localisation of consciousness in my brain is not particularly significant in or of itself. To my mind the grammatical person with which we observe the phenomenon is an epistemic matter, not an ontological one. It is true that consciousness is only available to be known as a first-person phenomenon, but if we eliminate Cartesian dualism as an option, then there cannot be an ontological distinction. It is a problem of what can be known, not what exists. I think this may be why some commentators mistake Searle for a dualist or a materialist (the two views he is openly and vehemently critical of).

On the other hand I can see how tempting it is to conclude that because something is so epistemically distinctive and localised that there must be an underlying ontic distinction. It's a kind of "no smoke without fire argument". The epistemic difference seems to intuitively point to an ontological difference. One thing we have learned in the last 400 years is that reality is often counter-intuitive. And in this case, while there might be emergent properties involved, the ontology is the same in each case. 

Thus the mind-body problem is, in Searle's views, based on a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. And that misunderstanding is the same one formalised by Descartes, i.e. that the mind and the body are ontologically different. This misunderstanding leads to the mistaken idea that we have to produce a special account for how mind and body interact. In fact, philosophically, we know how they relate, mind is an emergent property of the functioning brain. There is no reasonable doubt about this. Scientifically we are still gathering evidence and developing explanations, but so far the evidence we have all points in the same direction. If evidence starts pointing in some other direction, I'm quite capable of changing my view and don't see the point of being a tooth-fairy agnostic in the meantime.

Hopefully this brief outline gives a flavour of Searle's approach, though of course to really get what he's on about you have to read his books and watch his online lectures. Hopefully some one will read this and do just this. As always when I'm thinking about such things, one of my concerns is how this impacts on Buddhist belief. In the next section I comment on one aspect our discussions about awakening, particularly the contemporary discussions.

~ Consciousness and Awakening ~

In recent years a number of people have "come out" as awakened to some degree and there have been public discussions on the experience of awakening as well as more focussed programs for those genuinely seeking awakening (as opposed to those who want to be Buddhists). This is all for the good, partly because it allows us to recalibrate our expectations based on first-hand accounts of the experience rather than only referencing highly unreliable myths and legends. I'm appreciative of those people who have contributed to this recalibration. However, I'm also critical of the philosophy that appears to accompany the discussions, because, all too often, it is still rooted in the medieval adaptations of the original Iron Age Buddhist orthodoxies.

One of the things that is widely agreed upon seems to be that awakening consists in breaking down the distinction between objective and subjective points of view. This is often discussed as a realisation that subject and object don't exist. I think we need to take a step back from this. One of the observations that Searle makes is that the subjective/objective distinction has two senses: an epistemic sense and and ontological sense, i.e. a sense concerned with modes of knowing, and a sense concerned with modes of existence. I've already suggested that the epistemic/ontic distinction is not entirely clear in Searle's exposition on mind and body, so if nothing else this should alert us to how difficult it can be to be clear on this distinction. It seems to me that awakened people seem to be unclear in discussions of the subject/object distinction.

I've now described several times my philosophy of collective empirical realism. This is the idea that accounting for what everyone knows (for epistemology generally) without there being some kind of ontic support (a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality) seems extremely unlikely. Explaining experience without such a reality seems overly complicated and difficult. A mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality is the simplest explanation for experience. And while we do not have direct access to this reality, by comparing notes we can infer a great deal about it, which is what scientists do. And since science produces accurate and precise descriptions of what we observe in the world, the world cannot be very different from how we perceive it to be when we eliminate the various cognitive biases and logical fallacies we are prone to. This is collective empirical realism - i.e. a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality as described by inferences drawn from the collaborative interpretation of empirical evidence. Individuals are in a difficult position because of how perception and reason work. The individual sees the world in terms of transcendental idealism, i.e. a world that is constructed by the mind, on the basis of sense experience, memory, and expectation. An individual reasoning in the absence of other people is prone to fall into cognitive bias and/or logical fallacy. For this reason the individual who generalises from their own experience is unlikely to accurately describe the mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality. And yet this is exactly what the awakened tend to do! 

Let us assume that Devadatta* has an experience of awakening in which his ability to distinguish subject from object breaks down. When conscious Devadatta now experiences an undifferentiated field of experience, which has some features, but to which distinctions like inner/outer; me/not-me; or subject/object don't seem to apply. It is more or less impossible for anyone to imagine what this experience is like unless they too have it. 
* Devadatta is the equivalent of Joe Bloggs in Indian works of philosophy generally. The name means Given by God and is thus cognate with the English name Theodore.
This change is frequently presented with some reference to reality. The awakened, we are told, see reality, the nature of reality, the true nature of reality, or even the True Nature of Reality. Granted that the experience is profound and wonderful, but claims about the nature of reality are ontological claims and they are still based on generalising from personal experience. 

In fact I think this reasoning is flawed. Think for example of how Devadatta physically sees. Photons are still reflected from objects and into the eyes of Devadatta, focussed on his retina, and processed in his brain; his brain integrates a whole bunch of  disparate streams of information to create a unified field of consciousness (the binding problem q.v.), only now the features of his conscious states are radically different. Reality in this sense has not changed, nor can it have been revealed, because Devadatta is no more seeing reality directly than anyone who relies on human eyes and a human brain is seeing reality. What has changed is what Devadatta makes of the information being presented to his consciousness by innumerable non-consciousness processes. Devadatta may argue that the model of the world now in his head is better than the one he previously had, but clearly the world has not changed or we'd all notice it. The change is private in the sense that it is contained within Devadatta's skull. His model of the world is now radically different, but physics still applies. The subjective/objective distinction is an epistemological distinction, not an ontological distinction.

Devadatta's brain now produces thoughts without an "I" or an internal monologue about experience. But such thoughts as Devadatta has are still his thoughts, even if he does not experience a sense of ownership. They are happening in one brain and not other brains. The view from his eyes is not the view from my eyes. When pushed, the awakened people I have quizzed on this admit to only having access to one set of eyes and thus to having a physical location in space and a particular perspective on the world. It's just that they experience no sense of ownership or privilege of that perspective. And again, this is an epistemic issue, not an ontic issue.

Importantly, Devadatta still only has access to his own thoughts and not to mine and vice versa. So Devadatta's non-dual consciousness still has a first-person epistemology. The contents of Devadatta's awakened mind are still only accessible to Devadatta, even if he no longer believes in Devadatta or feels any privilege in his experiential field. And as wonderful as it might be to be awakened there is still this limitation on how experience is understood and communicated about by an embodied mind. However, the Awakened seem confused about the epistemic/ontological distinctions and mistake their perception for reality. Unfortunately this category error has always been a millstone around the necks of Buddhists because we give priority to the views of the awakened, even though they fall prey to this cognitive bias and the logical fallacies that it entails. In short the awakened need to have a few non-awakened philosophers around to talk things over with because they seem to lose perspective on experience along with the subject-object distinction. Without the dualistic perspective, they mistake their experience for reality. This is understandable, because when one stops making dualistic distinctions it must seem even more intuitive than for a dualistic mind to assume that experience is reality. But we must insist that experience is not reality. It cannot be. 

~ Conclusions ~

Searle seems to have produced a coherent, self-consistent, and plausible philosophy of mind a quarter of a century ago. It is not the only such philosophy produced in this time frame, but it has some major advantages over the competitors that I'm aware of. Searle not only rejects mind-body dualism, but he identifies where the competition have retained a tacit commitment to dualism. He accepts the existence of consciousness and treats it as the subject of a philosophy of mind. Even if consciousness were some kind of illusion, the illusion itself would be a conscious state. 

Searle does not pretend to be a scientist of the mind, though he is clearly informed by scientists. He is seeking to establish a framework within which science can proceed by asking pertinent and intelligent questions and produce comprehensible answers. If we proclaim that mind has a different ontology from the body, or that mind does not exist, then our questions about mind tend not to be pertinent or intelligent and our answers to important questions are not simply counter-intuitive, but completely implausible. 

Once we thoroughly purge our ontology of dualism, then the mind-body problem evaporates. This is surely one of the most attractive features of Searle's philosophy. There are other features of his philosophy which I have not touched on. For example I have not dealt at all with his debunking of the idea of the brain as a computer. To my mind this is an applied problem and not fundamental to the philosophy. He responds to the proposal "the mind is a computer" by pointing out reasons that this cannot be the case. What is central to his philosophy are those elements that are asserted positively, such as that reality is monistic; that consciousness exists and has certain features, and so on. 

The main weakness I perceive in Searle's philosophy is in the area of his reference to the mind having a "first person ontology". I understand what he means by this. He means that conscious states occur in relation to a single brain and they are accessible, if they accessible at all, to only one person (at present any way). I presume to correct Professor Searle here by arguing that this is in fact an epistemological distinction. 

We may not have arrived at a finished product for a philosophy of mind, but my feeling is that Searle has come very close to the mark and that we need now only sort out the details. Searle's philosophy fits into the broad category of Naturalism. Naturalism is by far the best approach we have and we are a very long way from exhausting the possibilities it throws up for exploring and understanding our world. But we should not mistake Naturalism for a simple philosophy. My version of naturalism involves a ontology that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; an epistemology that acknowledges that individuals see the world in terms of transcendental idealism, but asserts that collective empirical realism allows us to make accurate and precise inferences about the immanent (but not supernatural) reality, the sense impressions of which our brains present to us as conscious states that are qualitative, subjective, and unified. I take this all to be settled at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to everyday human life (or to the unaided human senses), but to be incomplete at the extremes of scale. In cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology we have the unfolding story of the world. In anthropology, psychology, and sociology we have the story of humanity's place in that story. All local myths and legends are superseded by this story. 

Unless civilisation is destroyed by some cosmic scale cataclysm, Buddhism will have to eventually come to terms with Naturalism.  Towards this end, I've been developing two kinds of critique of traditional Buddhist ideology. Firstly an historical critique based on intra-Buddhist disputes over doctrine (to the best of my knowledge this approach is unique); and secondly the more direct critique drawing directly on Naturalist philosophy and science that highlights the internal contradictions and logical incoherence of traditional Buddhist doctrines. As a sideline I'm also interested in how systematic misreading of Prajñāparamitā and related texts has led to a cult of paradox and nonsense in Buddhism and how that appeals to the Romanticism of Buddhist modernists.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for synthesis between Naturalism and Buddhism. 


~ Bibliography ~

Fine, Cordelia. (2006) A mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Icon.

Mandler, G. (1984). Mind and Emotion: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. W. W. Norton.

Nagel, Thomas. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50. Online:

Searle, John R. (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, 1994 (pb).

Searle, John R. (2000) Consciousness. Annual Review of Neuroscience.23(1):557-78. Online version pagination begins at p.1.

12 August 2016

Buddhism and Naturalism

Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 
In the four previous essays I have been outlining a philosophical framework for thinking about the world. This is something I never thought I'd do as I don't really like the way philosophers beat around the bush. Of course just being educated and then reading widely as an adult one picks up bits and pieces of philosophy by osmosis. And everyone has a worldview that is shaped by upbringing, culture, and all that. But I've never studied philosophy systematically. Those who have studied philosophy will no doubt see this attempt as naive and superficial. It is intended as a first attempt at a synthesis of the kind of ideas that are required for a coherent philosophy. Of course the arguments about philosophy are literally endless and there is probably no way to resolved many of them. So in the end a philosophy that everyone agrees on is just a fantasy. So, this is my version of the fantasy.

My approach to studying Buddhisms in the last 10 years has been more along the lines of the history of ideas, especially with respect to the early phases of written texts. I've highlighted the intra-Buddhist clash of ideas over many centuries in Indian Buddhisms. I've also written a good deal about how some Buddhist ideas interact with some ideas in modernity. What I've been trying to do in the previous four essays is outline a philosophical framework for understanding and discussing life, the universe, and everything. The view falls roughly under the rubric of Naturalism. My quick definition of Naturalism is that the universe has to be understood without any reference to anything supernatural. I think for Buddhism to be relevant long term, it will have to come to terms with Naturalism in some form because it accurately describes the world we live in.

This last essay in the series is another long read of more than 5000 words (I'm thinking of changing the name of the blog to Too Long Didn't Read). It has four parts: firstly, a recapitulation of the main elements of the philosophy I've been exploring in the last four essays; then a section on the historical critique of traditional Buddhism; followed by a section on the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhism; and finally some comments on what a Naturalistic Buddhism might look like and some suggestions for future development (particularly in expanding the philosophy into the social sphere via ethics into economics and politics).

Note that this series of essays have been about processing new information in order to rewrite a chapter in my forthcoming book. I'm planning to go back to finishing the book and will probably not resume regular blogging till 2017. Once I get essays written on ethics, politics, and economics, I may put these essays on Naturalism out as a separate book.

~ Elements of A Naturalistic Philosophy ~


Generally speaking my approach to epistemology, to knowledge of the world, is Collective Empirical Realism. Individuals see a universe consistent with Kant's Transcendental Idealism: knowledge comes via experience, which incorporates a priori metaphysical overlays like space, time, and causality in order to help us make sense of experience; we cannot know the world "directly", without these overlays. However, by carefully comparing notes about experience with other people, we can isolate the purely subjective and metaphysical elements of experience, and infer what reality must be like. In other words we can reverse engineer the type of immanent reality required for us to have the kinds of experiences we do. I've since learned that Kant, from whom we get the idea of Transcendental Idealism, also proposed a form of empirical realism. However, I think Kant was working too early in the history of science to really appreciate the power of empiricism: he missed out on evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and DNA for example. Modern empiricism has allowed us to predict the existence of many kinds of entities before they were observed by any human being. 


If there is a genuinely transcendental reality beyond (under or above) this one, then we could not experience it. Even if we did experience it, the experience itself would be incomprehensible and we would not know we had experienced itWe can say nothing about such a reality. But it is not necessary for such a reality to exist and we are not required to believe in it to make sense of our experience. All we need is an immanent objective reality to complement our subjectivity, i.e. something to be conscious of. This immanent objective reality need not be ideal, noumenal, or supernatural (and isn't).

The ontology of this immanent reality can be described using a combination of substance reductionism and structure antireductionism. To the best of our current knowledge, the universe is fundamentally made of quantum fields; but these fields are made into objects with many layers of complexity that are real by virtue of their irreducible structure. These real, complex objects have emergent properties, that is to say, complex objects have properties that cannot be explained by aggregating the properties of their elements. The parts break down, ultimately into quantum fields, but complex wholes can be greater than the sum of their parts.

Lower level descriptions can only generalise about higher levels and lower level properties do no propagate upwards through the hierarchy. For example, while at some lower levels of description the universe is completely deterministic, this has no bearing on higher levels or lower levels. Higher level properties such as freewill, morality, aesthetics, and consciousness, are completely compatible with low level determinism. Nothing need be explained away, because structures are real and have emergent properties.


The universe evolves according to patterns that can be discerned and described. Lower level patterns are amenable to being expressed mathematically, while higher level patterns have to be expressed in narratives. One of the great patterns that we observe in biological systems is evolution by natural selection. The current mainstream view of Evolution is NeoDarwian, it combined Darwin's natural selection with gene theory to create a synthesis. However NeoDarwinism is also a politically motivated theory (though the motivation was probably unconscious). It also combines, for example, metaphysical reductionism, with some remnants of Victorian Imperialism and Neoliberal ideology, so that evolution is portrayed as a kind of fight to the death, winner takes all, kind of situation in which "selfish genes" compete for expression in phenotypes (actual organisms). Competition is seen to drive evolution at all levels, just as it does in free market economics. NeoDarwinism is basically late-Victorian laissez-faire economics applied to biology. Selfishness is the defining characteristic of humans in this model, and the greatest virtue is pursuing self-interest. In fact synthesis, symbiosis, hybridisation, mutually beneficial communities, and cooperation are essential to evolution, but these qualities are typically excluded from NeoDarwinian accounts of evolution on ideological grounds. Far from being selfish, genes are in fact always cooperative and could not work at all except as cogs in the wheel of a genomic machine. Even the genome cannot be said to be a unit on its own, because without the cooperative machinery of the cell to copy genes and build proteins, the gene could not exist. In all likelihood metabolism preceded genetics in the evolution of life. Genes are part of a complex web of interconnected processes within which they cooperate with other genes to help perpetuate life. In the final analysis, the basic unit of life is irreducibly life itself. Which is essentially what James Lovelock was getting at with his Gaia Hypothesis: life as a whole regulates conditions on the earth to create conducive conditions for life. In fact this idea of everything interacting with everything else seems to be a fundamental principle of the universe.

The primary metaphor of the NeoDarwinian consensus on evolution is the linear, binary branching tree. Such a metaphor utterly fails to convey the importance of symbiosis, hybridisation, and interspecies cooperation. A better metaphor is the braided stream - which allows for tributaries and recombination as well as other dynamic processes. Our very cells are tightly bound symbiotic units in which several kinds of bacteria have lived in permanent association for billions of years. Our bodies are large-scale bound communities of cells. We also have a loosely bound community of symbionts in our gut and on our skin. Human beings are a fundamentally social species. The unit of humanity is not the individual human being, but the village or its modern equivalent.


A major stumbling block for work on consciousness is the (ironically) unconscious Cartesian dualism implicit in Scientific Materialism and its ideology of metaphysical reductionism. In dualism proper, one divides the world in the matter and spirit, or mind and body, and posits that both are real. In physicalism, one divides the world in two, accepts the matter/body side of the equation as real, but denies the spirit/mind side. Additionally metaphysical reductionists believe that all properties can, in principle, be reduced to properties of quantum fields. Idealism accepts the mental side as real but not the body side. Nihilism does not accept either as real, but may still involve the fundamental split. 

When we reject Cartesian Dualism, then the idea of an ontological distinction between matter and spirit, or mind and body, becomes meaningless. Mind and body are not ontologically different (here I diverge from Searle who uses the word ontology more broadly than I do). However, we might still find epistemic differences: we might find perceptual differences, for example. We might feel we can distinguish them for the purposes of discussion. However, the legacy of philosophy is that it is very difficult to discuss the epistemic differences without inadvertently making, or at least implying, an ontic distinction.

Just as Einstein unified space and time so that we now talk about spacetime as a single unified entity with four dimensions (three spatial and one temporal), so we can talk about the mindbody as a single entity with two dimensions, one mental and subjective and one physical and objective. Under a truly monistic ontology there is, and can be, no mind-body problem. The mindbody has a real, subjective, first-person aspect and a real, objective, third-person aspect. Because the generation of consciousness is localised in the brain, it is not available to other observers.

In this view of Naturalism consciousness is a high level property of animal bodyminds. Human consciousness is produced primarily in the brain with support from the whole body. We still don't exactly how this happens, but other possibilities have been ruled out. Consciousness is qualitative, subjective, and has a unified field. Searle says it has a first-person mode of existence, that is, it only exists as someone's consciousness. We cannot explain consciousness without reference to consciousness. Consciousness exists and is irreducibly first-person.

There is no reason that we cannot have epistemically objective knowledge of an ontologically subjective domain. This distinction is explored in Searle's The Construction of Social Reality. For example a object might be made of plastic and metal: this is an ontologically objective fact. But that it is a screwdriver is true only relative to an observer who can conceive of such a tool. The conception is ontologically subjective. However, we know that it is a screwdriver and this is epistemically objective, despite the ontologically subjective nature of the conception of a screwdriver. This applies to any and all objects whose definitions are only true relative to an observer, which includes many social institutions like government or money. Money is almost completely abstract in developed economies: we use real tokens for it, but money only exists relative to our belief in what has value. In other words, money is ontologically subjective, but we clearly have epistemically objective knowledge about money. No one argues that it is impossible to know the value of a £20 note, even though that value is not ontologically objective.

Recent research on how the mind works shows us that we have traditionally misunderstood the function and role of reason. Inner experience has two registers: one is largely a product of the central nervous system, while the other involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems along with the endocrine system. Roughly speaking the first corresponds to what we perceive as mental experience; while the second corresponds to emotional experience. We think thoughts, but we feel emotions and moods. The distinction is both epistemic in the sense that the different kinds of experience are qualitatively different and produce different kinds of knowledge; but also ontologically in the sense that they are instantiated in different parts of the bodymind.

One of the interesting facts that emerges from this is that decision making combines the two systems. The accuracy of a given fact is something we evaluate mentally, but the salience of the fact for decision making is evaluated emotionally. What we call reasoning, in fact involves both of these processes and is thus not the purely abstract mental activity our ancestors took it to be. Howe we feel about information is as important as what we think about it. Those skilled in the art of persuasion make use of precisely this distinction and focus on creating or destroying salience to achieve their aims while minimising the role of accurate facts. This is why a good deal of advertising is short on facts and long on making you feel good about the product.

But in addition to this, a vital component of understanding human beings is our social nature. Reasoning, for example, seems to have evolved to enable small groups to optimise decision making. In this view confirmation bias when presenting a case for one course of action is a feature not a bug. Various protagonists present all the information they can muster for a course of action, and the group looks for weakness or flaws and compares the cases and comes to a decision. This explains the odd fact that individually, human beings score routinely very poorly in tests of reasoning.


A counterintuitive conclusion from science is that there is no causality. For Kant cause & effect was an a priori judgement that we overlay onto experience to make sense of it. In Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism, the universe simply evolves according to patterns without any causes or effects. However, because we are volitional beings (we have consciousness, wills and desires) and because of the way we interact with the world, it makes sense to describe the universe evolving in patterns in terms of causes and effects. As a higher level approximation of the world, it works well because many of the patterns we observe are consistent with cause & effect on some level (just as motion in a weak gravitation field is consistent with Newtonian physics). In human social relations there are certainly actions & consequences, but to characterise the complexity of this domain as simple cause & effect is misleading.

The lack of cause & effect is problematic for modern philosophy, primarily because causality is central definitions of reality. So Searle, for example, defines consciousness as "wholly caused by neurophysiology", but also says that consciousness functions causally and is thus real. Ironically physicalists try to avoid the latter conclusion because they fear being accused of Cartesianism, whereas in asserting the physical and attempting to eliminate the mental, they confirm that they are crypto-dualists. Searle describes his view is structure antireductive, but causally reductive, though this kind of subtle distinction seems to be lost on his detractors who tend to see him either as a dualist or a physicalist. However, if causality is an a priori judgement, per Kant, or a generalisation from early experience of exerting our will, as I have suggested, then it cannot be involved in our definitions of what is real because it is not intrinsic to reality.


This worldview incorporates a number of principles: the ontology involves a monistic naturalism, a single, natural world, which encompasses substance reductionism, and structure antireductionism (a hierarchical, layered reality with a fundamental substance and real emergent properties); while the epistemology combines transcendental idealism and collective empirical realism (experiential reality has various psychological overlays to help us make sense of experience; but by comparing notes we can eliminate the purely subjective elements of experience and infer what the immanent reality must be like in order for us to have the experiences we do). The combination allows both an objective world and subjective consciousness. Nothing is explained away, but not everything is explained (yet). It may be that some things remain inexplicable (think of the halting problem in computing - some things are not computable by a Turing machine, so some problems may be insoluble by a human brain). A transcendental reality, anything like the Vedic Brahman or Plato's Ideal, may well be possible, but knowledge of it, directly or indirectly is not. So the possibility remains open, but there is nothing more we can say about it and such an thing is not required to explain any experiences we have. Aesthetics, morality, intentionality, and consciousness are integral high level components of this worldview: neither explained away, nor mystified. This worldview is disenchanted, there is no magic, no breaking the laws of physics. But it is also one in which there is scope for awe and wonder. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. 

Importantly, I believe it leaves open the possibility of radical transformation that Buddhisms speak about. It is a high level, structural change. However, I would add this caveat. The subjective/objective distinction has an epistemic and an ontic sense. Just because we change how we perceive this distinction, even if we can no longer perceive the distinction at all, does not mean that the distinction does not exist.

Over the last few years I have been developing two parallel critiques of traditional Buddhist doctrines. The first is based in history, the second in Naturalism.

~ The Historical Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

I've tried to show that the present flavours of Buddhism are based on partial accounts of Buddhisms that gloss over important historical disputes and disagreements. This is important because, historically, Buddhists never managed to come up with a coherent and internally consistent ontology, let alone an epistemology which might support it. There never was a Buddhist consensus. Instead a variety of quorums existed, which settled on views about important issues that were frequently mutually incompatible. It's apparent even in the early Buddhist texts that a plurality of approaches existed.

Despite this, the idea of a unified and coherent past dominates all present day presentations of Buddhisms, even if only when part of the myth of "original Buddhism". Virtually all accounts of the history of Buddhisms trace back to a founder (sometimes Gautama, sometimes the Dharmakāya Buddha) who presented a single, coherent account of the Dharma which then evolved into a wide variety of distinct lineages. However, as David Drewes has observed, the Buddha is an historical figure for whom we have absolutely no reliable historical information. This contradiction goes to the heart of problems with contemporary studies of Buddhisms, if only because leading scholars of Buddhism still do not acknowledged the fact. 

The evolution of Buddhisms on several fronts into distinct lineages is itself a black swan for those who claim origins in a singularity (i.e. a man named Gotama). If Buddhist original myths were accurate, the Buddhisms could not evolve into mutually exclusive branches of tradition because all lineages spring from the singular source of one man's mind and are informed by the unifying perspective of bodhi. But an examination of history shows that either bodhi must come in different, mutually incompatible flavours to account for the variety of lineages; or there was no single founder of Buddhism. Or both. Probably both. Buddhisms are, prosaically, the products of the human mind, rather than some transcendental reality.

In this critical vein, I have discovered and outlined a number of doctrinal problems that seem important:
  • Thinking of pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything;
  • The disconnect between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, which I call the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance
  • Problems with the solutions to ATD, particularly the Doctrine of Momentariness (The Logic of Karma, The Citta Bottleneck);
  • Textual and interpretational problems with the Heart Sutra and the Prajñāpāramitā literature generally. 
To the best of my knowledge, these critiques have no real parallel in the literature of Buddhist Studies. A few articles in philosophy journals take a critical approach, but these are usually so heavily laden with jargon that they are inaccessible to a general audience (and usually to me also). Buddhist studies takes a history of ideas approach which is critical only of modern exegetical methodologies. Buddhist Studies tacitly accepts Buddhism on its own terms and is not critical of Buddhism. Tellingly, Buddhist Studies scholars are critical of Therapeutic Mindful precisely because it diverges from the tradition in some way (not least of which is that practitioners charge for it). Some Christian scholars are critical of Buddhism, but the argument that Buddhism is wrong because it denies God, is of no interest. 

~ The Naturalist Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

My other critical approach to traditional Buddhisms has been based in Naturalism and in the natural correlate of this, the rejection of the Supernaturalism. To some extent the critique here is obvious: if we eliminate the supernatural then a lot of what constitutes core Buddhist belief or doctrine is vitiated. What I've tried to do is explain one one hand why Naturalism is the most plausible explanation of the world and why it trumps traditional narratives; and on the other how how it can be used in specific critiques of beliefs that are still considered broadly plausible by a majority of Buddhists. Additionally elements of Naturalist philosophy help to explain the dynamics of belief itself and why irrational or non-scientific believes persist in spite of evidence to the contrary.

As should be clear by now I do not equate Naturalism with scientific materialism. All naturalism is scientific, but not all science is naturalistic. I was always uncomfortable with, and now completely reject, metaphysical reductionism and cryto-Cartesian materialism. But in doing so I do not capitulate to dualism or Romanticism. Given that I do not believe in spirits, I find no place in my lexicon of naturalism for "spiritual" or any of its cognates, except in describing the mistaken views of religieux.

This approach seeks to identify and critique elements of traditional Buddhism that are or require elements over and above the natural: i.e. the supernatural. At the same time I have explored the evolutionary approach to the psychology of belief to show how belief in the supernatural is itself to some extent a natural product of how our minds work. The psychology of belief gives us insights into why supernatural beliefs seem intuitive and natural to some, perhaps most, people. This makes a compassionate approach to criticising beliefs possible. There is no call to mock people for their beliefs, even when we think that people are plain wrong. Investigations into the working of reasoning and the dynamics of persuasion also show that changing minds, for the evangelist, is not a simple matter of being in possession of some facts.

In this approach I have identified elements of Buddhist belief and placed them in a wider context. The doctrine of karma, for example, is a Buddhist variant on the more or less universal myth of a just world combined with the metaphor that morality is a form of accounting, and an afterlife: a positive balance in the karma ledger at death, means going to a good rebirth. Rebirth is the Buddhist afterlife. The Buddha is the mythical hero. These myths exists in a complex of other myths or a system of mythology (cf Witzel). We can tie these myths to outcomes of the psychology of belief and the brute facts of human lives. A good starting point is that we can say that all living things resist death. For human beings there is a conscious and urgent desire to go on living. But it is combined with the certain knowledge that our lives will end. The cognitive dissonance involved in this conflict provides the basis for a lot of religious thought and practice.

At the same time, certain types of relatively common experience, e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE) make the prior credibility of mind/body dualism high for most people. Particularly as the experience, and other's like it, are incredibly vivid and seemingly real. As Thomas Metzinger has observed, the naive observer, having had an OBE almost cannot help but become a Cartesian. It is likely that the idea of a detachable soul can be located in these kinds of experiences amongst the first anatomically modern humans, if not before. These kinds of beliefs formed directly from experience are what Justin Barrett calls non-reflective. We simply find that we believe these things without being aware of the process of coming to the conclusion. We may not even be aware that we have such a belief.

If we are faced with a dilemma involving certain death, then a detachable non-physical entity in which are sense of identity is invested is a very useful concept. It allows us to speculate that this element of our being does not die when the body dies, but is free to continue on existing. Thus we get a dynamic like this:
  • The fact of universal death creates cognitive dissonance. 
  • According to testimony, certain experiences appear to demonstrate that identity is not tied to the body, but can exist independently.
  • So the idea that something might survive the death of the body and continue to “live” seems plausible.
  • Emotional weighting of facts (salience) makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable.
  • Since the finality of death causes intense cognitive dissonance, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from probable/preferable to actually true; and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance created by the fact of death and been consistent with our other beliefs.
And it so happens that having a mind that can be detached from our bodies is very useful for solving another dilemma. Another fundamental myth in most religions, and certainly in Buddhism, is that the universe is fair. Philosophers call this a just-world belief, which as I say in Buddhism is called karma. I have speculated that the distinctive nature of Buddhist karma resulted from an interaction of a range of views including some from Zoroastrianism. The big problem for religious people with a just-world myth is that the world is obvious full of injustice. Everywhere we look the unjust prosper and the just do not. How can we sustain our belief in a just-world when all the evidence points the other way? The undying spiritual part of us comes to rescue. It opens up the possibility of an afterlife. And it is in the afterlife that the accounting for justice can play out. In the most iconic afterlife story, from ancient Egypt, the soul of the deceased is literally weighed in a balance with "the law" on the other side. A lawful life results in a light soul, which is then ushered into the presence of the gods for an eternity; an unlawful life results in a heavy soul, which is promptly fed to a hybrid monster and thus destroyed. Buddhists chose an impersonal accounting method (which may be an influence from Zoroastrianism), but the essence of the Buddhist afterlife myth is the same: the afterlife is a reckoning, a reconciliation of one's moral account. How one lives, determines one's fate after death.

Other more or less universal myths contribute to the overall flavour of Buddhism. They include: the myth of paradise; the myth of the golden age; the myth of the immortal founder; and the myth of eternal truths.

Naturalism unravels the skein of myth by insisting that we interpret experience in ways that are consistent with how we know the world to work. The out-of-body experience does not, in fact, involve a disembodied mind existing outside the body. The likely explanation is that the brain's integration of the streams of information that go to make up our sense of self are temporarily disrupted. The OBE is an altered state of consciousness, not the physical separation of mind from body. It happens in the brain and can be artificially induced in the laboratory. Under close scrutiny an OBE does not support dualism after all.

With respect to life after death I have essayed Sean Carroll's compelling argument that no such thing is possible. There is simply no way to pass on the information that constitutes "us" from our living body to another. This applies as much to the Buddhist afterlife (in its various mutually incompatible forms) as to any other. I've also shown that the basic logic of the mainstream Buddhist versions of karma is flawed and that the account of karma is incoherent.

Using George Lakoff's theory of metaphors, I looked at how the matter/spirit duality played out in the language of spirituality. This idea is echoed in Searle's critique of subliminal dualism in scientific materialism.

A common misperception is that science confirms traditional Buddhist beliefs, particularly quantum physics. I have tackled claims about Buddhism and quantum mechanics, and tried to show that the any apparent similarity between the two is due to naive misreadings of the implications of quantum mechanics. In the thought experiment created by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen Interpretation, two mistakes are common. The first is to reify the metaphor of the cat; the second is to misinterpret the "observer" as requiring a conscious being when it really refers to an interaction with another particle. This is part of a larger theme in which science threatens the beliefs of religieux and the response is to co-opt science as a new source of authority. Because science is now the accepted authority in many areas of life, non-scientists are often engaged in making their discipline "scientific". So I studied "Library Management" at university, but many such courses are now called "Library Science". Buddhists are partly able to get on this bandwagon because, from early on, Westerners have been systematically substituting Modernist ideas for Buddhist ideas and presenting them as tradition. Currently one can seek to add credibility to a crackpot idea by prefixing it with neuro- and or discussing it in terms of (usually bogus) neuroscience.

I wrote a series of essays exploring the idea of Vitalism. This theory of life which posits a "life force" as making the difference between living and non-living matter has long been discredited amongst scientists, but it remains viable amongst people who believe in an afterlife and/or other supernatural phenomena. This kind of disparity crops up again and again. Scientists and/or philosophers will abandon an idea as unworkable, implausible, or plainly false, and yet the idea survives in the general population. 

By the way, I have read Owen Flanagan's book on Buddhism and Naturalism, but frankly I found very little of interest in it, so these essays owe nothing to him, but strike out in a different direction. I've subsequently learned that Flanagan has a rather unfortunate and dismissive view of Buddhism.

So this is an outline of Naturalism, the historical critique of traditional Buddhisms, and the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhisms. Where does this leave us? 

~ Boundary Conditions for a Naturalistic Buddhism ~

This form of Naturalism places a number of boundary conditions on any theory about the world or part of the world, and thus on how modern Buddhists might explain the world. In particular we can make a Heart Sutra-like list of excluded possibilities. The natural world that we live in has and can have:
  • No supernatural
  • No vitalism
  • No panpsychism
  • No teleology
  • No cause and effect
  • No afterlife
  • No just-world hypothesis
  • No moral absolutes
  • No direct access to reality
  • No metaphysical certainty
A lot of people will wonder if Buddhisms can survive under these conditions, because the vast majority of Buddhist ideas come under one of other of the excluded headings.

However I see no reason that Buddhism cannot adapt. On one hand we can clarify when narratives are intended as parables, allegories, and metaphors and stop taking them literally. On the other hand the practical tasks for Buddhists: practising generosity, behavioural restraint, and meditation will remain unchanged. Many will benefit from the positive social environment that Buddhisms can foster (though no guarantees on this front!). And some will continue have significant epistemic breakthroughs into a world without a clear subjective/objective distinction or strong sense of selfhood. Perhaps the number will increase as more people who have this experience come forward to teach systematic approaches to achieving the goal. Buddhism defined in terms of what Buddhists do, will hardly change at all.

Buddhisms are a high level approach to life. Buddhisms say nothing about physics, chemistry, or biology and can say nothing about these lower levels. They are related to other high level, subjective, and epistemic features of human life such as aesthetics, morality, intentionality, perception, and consciousness. While the effects of Buddhist practices may have third-person consequences (in the sense of positive communities, longer life, happier individuals and other external criteria), largely the effects are in the first-person arena. Indeed ultimately the goal of a modern naturalist Buddhism is to transform the first-person perspective so that it is no longer ego-centred. The only caveat is it is a first-person perspective. The dissolving of the epistemic subjective/objective distinction is a private experience that occurs in one persons brain, does not result in the dissolving of the ontic distinction in the sense of public reality. They may well lose a sense of self, but do not gain access to the thoughts of others (except in fairy tales), or break down the epistemic boundary in anyone else. Awakening is always centred in a single person's brain and only changes how that individual interprets their experience. It gets confusing because people who undergo the change claim it is an ontological change (they see the real world as it really is) and deny their own selfhood, but I believe they are mistaken about this. Nothing about Buddhist practice, which largely concerns exploring the nature of experience, points to the possibility of gaining insights into the nature of reality. It may seem to them that they uncover an immanent reality which is obscured, but this is also a poor explanation for the change.

In becoming awakened one does not become the ultimate expert on reality. Indeed, one of the most experienced meditators I know has said that one continues to have breakthroughs and believe that this time one has seen the ultimate truth, only to discover some time later that it was just another perspective on experience. It's not until one has experienced many such breakthroughs that one stops getting sucked into this naive interpretation each time. And in fact reality, in the sense of the immanent reality that we experience, is best described in terms of the hot big bang theory of cosmology, the atomic theory of matter, and the evolutionary theory of biology.

The next step in a systematic approach to recasting Buddhism for the modern world is to look to an ethical system. I had though of bypassing this and writing about politics and economics, but I realised that one cannot have a coherent political view or economic program without a solid ground in morality. We need a general theory of social interactions before we can look at sub-domains within the domain. My inclination here is to start with Robin Dunbar's observations on the key factors that enabled humans to evolve such large social groups. At the moment I am finding John Searle's approach to what he calls "social reality" interesting, and hope to get on to following up David Chapman's account of Robert Kegan's stages of development. Lakoff's account of the moral basis of political views is also interesting and helpful for understanding the modern dynamic of Western politics, especially the progressive/conservative dichotomy. The idea is to describe a social philosophy that gives us principles for creating and sustaining healthy societies that are conducive to well being, that don't have to be imposed by force. To date I think some of us have tackled ethics to some extent, but no one seems to go beyond that.

To date Buddhist doctrines have been largely focussed on individuals or on "all beings" in an abstract way. Without any theory whatever on how we form societies, how we operate them and govern them, we take on that aspect of life in an intellectual vacuum. This may be why so many nominally Buddhist nations produce extremely authoritarian and oppressive forms of government. It is surprising and alarming, for example, just how many Buddhist countries are now or have recently been military dictatorships. Different large Buddhist organisations in the West handle their internal organisation and governance differently, with few common features. To the best of my knowledge none have any kind of doctrine regarding political or economic matters. There is no systematic Buddhist theory of how to run a society. 


07 February 2014

Good and Evil

Anubis weighs the soul of the deceased (left) against a feather representing the law (right).
A few weeks ago one of the blogs I read posed the question: If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good? The author went on to discuss some research that he thought addressed this question, though here I am more interested in the question itself. As Buddhists we might say that the question does not concern us because we don't believe in gods anyway. But for the purposes of this essay I'm going to treat karma as a god, a supernatural entity that does not have any human or anthropomorphic form, but which carries out precisely the same function as any god concerned with human morality.

Where Do Moral Gods Come From?

Briefly my theory of morality begins with hunter-gatherers living in Africa ca. 100,000 years ago. They lived in small, close knit bands that most likely rarely got above 150 members, or when they did, split into two or more new groups. The number 150, along with other numbers that emerge from studying natural group sizes for different types of human association, arose from Robin Dunbar's work on how neocortex size is correlated to group size in various animals (See Bibliography). 150 is the average number of close relationships that an average anatomically modern human being can keep track of. Groups both smaller and larger can and do form with varying degrees of intimacy. For example much larger groupings are possible when members are only called on simply to recognise the others. I suggest that below the "Dunbar Number" a group is easily able to keep track of each member and their behaviour. In particular small groups, living closely together have accurate knowledge of who is obeying groups norms and who is not. Above the Dunbar Number and group members begin to lose track of who is doing what, even though they probably still know who everyone is and a great deal about them.

Thomas Metzinger has argued, on the basis of his own out of body experiences, that it is entirely natural for humans to have a dualistic point of view on body and mind. Indeed he says that having had an out-of-body experience it's almost impossible not to become an "ontological dualist": that is to believe that consciousness is entirely separable from the body. Though to be clear Metzinger himself does not believe that consciousness leaves the body during the experience, but suggests that signals which convey information that contribute to the sense of self lose integration. The result being that we experience our visual point of view shifting away from our felt sense of embodiment. Experiments have shown that it is relatively simple to shift the point of view away from the body by confusing the senses in, for example, virtual reality environments. Out-of-body and similar 'mystical' experiences are fairly common and, in a pre-scientific world must have contributed to a worldview in which matter and spirit are seen as two different substances or realms (See also Metaphors and Materialism). Thus for most people, even many who don't believe in God, the idea of spirits and a spiritual realm seem quite natural.

Most hunter-gatherer societies seem to practice some form of animism. That is to say they see the world around them as a alive with non-corporeal life and/or they attribute sentience and intelligence to non-human living beings of both the animal and plant kingdom. One of the reasons for this may be the so-called Hyperactive Agency Detector that we all possess (see Barrett 2004). This function allows us to interpret agency, but it is tuned in such a way as to allow us to see agency where there is none. In the weather for example, or in the sun and moon. We also have a propensity to see patterns - this is a strong point for all mammals but is well developed in humans and some others. The most common patterns we see are faces, a phenomenon known as Pareidolia. Perception and interpretation of facial expressions is one of the most important skills we develop. The lack of this ability, as with some people who have Autism, can make social interaction very difficult. For a view on how Pareidolia might have affected the development of religion, see Guthrie (1995). Michael Witzel's (2012) work on comparative mythology shows that myths involving gods in human form, and a general view of the universe as alive and populated with sentience, or even the universe itself as sentient, were in place when the ancestors of all modern humans moved out of East Africa 65,000 years ago. So within the "group" we have to allow for a number of relationships with ancestors, gods, and other disembodied beings. I'm not sure what to call these relationships: super-social?

At some, as yet unknown, size threshold groups of humans begin to experience anxiety about the group norms. If there are too many breaches of the group norms, or too many people are not following them, then either the norms need to shift or the people need to be brought into line. Group norms have a strong survival value for hunter gather groups. They help the group to sustain its identity, ensure ease of communication, and effective collective actions. So when group norms are undermined there is reason to be anxious. However since group membership extends to the supernatural realm it might well seem obvious for group members to call on the non-corporeal members of their group, who are not bound to the world of matter or it's constraints, to keep and eye out for infractions and even to take corrective action. 

In Witzel's theory even our oldest Pan-Gaean myths show influence from the shaman. The job of the shaman is to act as interpreter or translator between the two realms of matter and spirit. The shaman can cross the boundaries of the two realms and return with knowledge and messages. Similarly some spirits can have an effect in the world of matter. However neither is at home in the world of the other and the shaman is at peril in his or her journeys. The spirit cannot stay in the realm of matter, but can only visit for short periods. Similarly they can only weakly interact with matter (and not at all if a scientist happens to be observing). 

It may come about that over time one particular spirit comes to be acknowledged as superior in their ability to observe and keep group members within acceptable norms. Perhaps they are then formally invested with this role and become an overseer god. With the rise of monotheism all the various functions of gods, including this one, were aggregated into a single cosmic father-figure who is at once creator, law maker, overseer and judge. 

One of the main problems with this worldview is one that we still have today. People who are wicked (i.e. do not obey group norms) often seem to avoid any negative consequence. And similarly people who are good (i.e. obey group norms) often meet with considerable suffering and misfortune. This is patently unfair. And one solution to it is the story of judgement in the afterlife.

It's not known exactly when we started believing in an afterlife, but archaeologists begin to find grave goods intended for use in the afterlife around 45,000-40,000 years ago. This around the same time that cave art begins and modern humans began to move into Europe and the Chinese interior. Witzel proposes that the myths that characterise what he calls Laurasia began to be composed  at this time also. Sadly Michael Witzel's book on myth does not really deal with the afterlife. But we can take Egyptian Anubis, who has the head of a jackal, as a representative of the afterlife judge. Anubis, like most judges, is impartial. He weighs the soul of the dead against the law and if it is lighter they go on to join Osiris in heaven, and if heavier they are devoured by a monster from a dark netherworld. Thus even if the wicked are seen to get away with murder in this life, the group can be confident that their norms will be upheld in the final analysis. All debts are paid. The universe has a moral order. This view of morality as accounting is one that George Lakoff has used to help describe the values of the political spectrum (See also: Moral Metaphors), but it adds to the overall picture of why an afterlife judgement might seem necessary. 

The afterlife gods, such as Anubis, care about good and evil because we care about them. The gods of any particular society care about group norms in precisely the same way that that society cares about them. And they are a final arbiter of good and evil - impartial and impersonal. Underlying this quest for fairness seems to be the idea of the ordered universe - cosmos rather than chaos. Although humans often crave novelty, novelty is only good when seen against a backdrop of stability and sameness. The values of groups are conservative. The ideal for us would be an generally ordered universe into which a small amount of novelty regularly found it's way.

The question of whether the universe is ordered or not ordered continues to unsettle us today. It is a question at the heart of all the physical sciences. Unfortunately just when we think we've got everything sorted out and have decided that the universe is ordered in a particular way some novel information pops up to disrupt that sense of order. As yet we are still undecided on just what the nature of the universe is. We see regularities at many different levels that can be used to predict behaviour, but generally speaking these only work on one level. On the human level Newtonian mechanics adequately describes how bodies move. But the description breaks down at different levels: very much larger (since it doesn't take into account dark energy) or on very small scales (since it can't be reconciled with how very small bodies behave). But for our ancient ancestors there seems to have been no doubt that the universe was ordered and that "moral accounting" works and is effective.

There are some behaviours that are more or less universally frowned on amongst humans. Killing a member of one's own group is one example. But on the whole good and evil are locally defined. Killing members of other groups is almost always fine, though how we define our group has gradually been extended. As a society we include a very wide range of people under the umbrella of our laws, though most of the actual individuals are still pretty parochial. One of the major social issues for the UK is immigration from non-English speaking, and particularly non-Christian countries. Many ordinary English people struggle to see immigrants as part of their group. The term "integration" comes up again and again in public discourse. Some political parties make considerable political capital from exploiting this issue.

For most of the time our concerns are with the minutiae and trivia of daily life. Extreme breaches of the rules are shocking. More so in worldviews which announce that their rules are absolute and universal. A complete repudiation of the rules is sometimes referred to as "pure evil", though clearly in this view there can be no such thing as pure or impure evil.

Buddhist Morality in a Nutshell

For Buddhists the norms of good and evil are well defined in terms of both motivation and consequence. Where the motivation is attraction and grasping, or aversion and pushing away, the consequence will be evil. Where a consequence is unexpectedly evil we either look for an unconscious motivation, or an evil action in a past life (and here again we strike the problem of eternalism). The ideal Buddhist doesn't react with attraction or repulsion towards sensations. Thus they do not create any new karma, though sometimes even the awakened must still suffer the consequences of actions already performed, as we see in the case of Aṅgulimāla.

Karma as a moral god has undergone some changes over time. I'm attempting to get this aspect of my theory published at present and waiting to hear back from the journal editors. Karma starts off as an impartial force that ties consequences to be experienced with actions performed. Initially the consequences of actions could absolutely not be avoided, though they might be mitigated. Gradually Buddhists "discovered" that certain practices could help them sidestep karma, for example: confession (vidūṣanā); opposition (pratipakṣa); restoration (patyāpatti); and seeking refuge (āśraya) (Caturdharmaka Sūtra via the Śikṣāsamuccaya p.160). This ability to avoid the consequences of actions fundamentally changes the metaphysics of karma.


So this is an outline of the mechanics of how morality might work. In line with Owen Flanagan's use of the term, I'm starting to think of this approach as "Naturalism". This is a general theory that tries to account not only for Buddhist morality, but for all morality. It's a theory that could be tested in a variety of ways and makes certain predictions about the nature of morality and religion in human beings. And this brings us back to the initial question:

If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good?

What I hope this exposition shows is that the question is not a valid one. Our gods care about so-called right and wrong, about anything at all, only to the extent that we do. And this is also true for Buddhists. The non-anthropomorphic supernatural moral force (i.e. moral god) of Buddhism, karma, is primarily designed to ensure that Buddhists conform to Buddhist norms. Buddhist morality is incompletely yoked to the pursuit of altered states of consciousness that are transformative for the reason that a guilty conscience is a source of distraction. Concern with conformity to morality and etiquette--the latter dominates the life of most monastics for example--is at least equally important in most Buddhist traditions.


Barrett, J.L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God?Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). 'Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.' Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J 
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1998) 'The Social Brain Hypothesis.' Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (5): 178–190. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5%3C178::AID-EVAN5%3E3.0.CO;2-8/pdf
Guthrie,Stewart. (1995) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press
Lakoff, George. (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.
Metzinger, Thomas. (2010). The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the SelfBasic Books.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.