Showing posts with label Ontology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ontology. Show all posts

05 October 2018

Quantum Bullshit

I was appalled recently to see that a senior professor of Buddhism Studies—whose work on Chinese Buddhist texts I much admire—had fallen into the trap of trying to compare some concept from Buddhist philosophy to what he calls "quantum mechanics". Unfortunately, as seems almost inevitable in these cases, the account the Professor gives of quantum mechanics is a hippy version of the Copenhagen interpretation proposed by Werner Heisenberg back in the 1920s. In a further irony, this same Professor has been a vocal critic of the secularisation and commercialisation of Buddhist mindfulness practices. The same problems that he identifies in that case would seem to apply to his own misappropriation of quantum mechanics.

As I've said many times, whenever someone connected with Buddhism uses the word "quantum" we can safely substitute the word "bullshit". My use of the term "bullshit" is technical and based on the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt (image left). I use "bullshit" to refer to a particular rhetorical phenomenon. Here is the anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which I think sums up Frankfurt's arguments about bullshit precisely and concisely:
“Bullshit is rhetoric without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false; only whether or not their listener is persuaded.”
What I am suggesting is that Buddhists who refer to quantum mechanics are not, in fact, concerned with truth, at all. A liar knows the truth and deliberately misleads. The bullshitter may or may not know or tell the truth, but they don't care either way. Their assertions about quantum mechanics may even be true, but this is incidental. The idea is to persuade you of a proposition which may take several forms but roughly speaking it amounts to:
If you sit still and withdraw attention from your sensorium, another more real world is revealed to you.
Certain Buddhists argue that a specific man sitting under a specific tree ca 450 BCE, while ignoring his sensorium, saw such a reality (Though he neglected to mention this). And then this thesis is extended with the proposition:
The reality that one "sees" when one's eyes are closed is very like the descriptions (though not the mathematics) of quantum mechanics.
I imagine that these statements strike most scientists as obviously false. The first hint we had of a quantum world was in 1905 when Einstein formalised the observation that energy associated with atoms comes in discrete packets, which he called "quanta" (from the Latin with the sense "a portion"; though, literally, "how much?"). Even this nanoscale world, which we struggle to imagine, is established by observation, not by non-observation. Equally, there is no sign in early Buddhist texts that the authors had any interest in reality, let alone ultimate reality. They didn't even have a word that corresponds to "reality". They did talk a lot about the psychology of perception and about the cessation of perception in meditation, within the context of a lot of Iron Age mythology. Given that there is no prima facie resemblance between science and Buddhism whatever, we might well ask why the subject keeps coming up.

I think this desire to positively compare Buddhism to quantum mechanics is a form of "virtue signalling". By attempting to align Buddhist with science, the highest form of knowledge in the modern world, we hope to take a ride on the coat-tails of scientists. This is still the Victorian project of presenting the religion of Buddhism as a "rational" alternative to Christianity. Generally speaking, Buddhists are as irrational as any other religieux, it's just that one of the irrational things Buddhists believe is that they are super-rational.

Had it merely been another misguided Buddhism Studies professor, I might have let it go with some pointed comments on social media. Around the same time, I happened to watch a 2016 lecture by Sean Carroll on YouTube called, Extracting the Universe from the Wave Function. Then I watched a more recent version of the same lecture from 2018 delivered at the Ehrenfest Colloquium. The emphasis is different in the two forums and I found that watching both was useful. Both lectures address the philosophy of quantum mechanics, but in a more rigorous way than is popular amongst Buddhists. Sean thinks the Copenhagen interpretation is "terrible" and he convinced me that he is right about this. The value of the lectures is that one can get the outlines of an alternative philosophy of quantum mechanics and with it some decisive critiques of the Copenhagen interpretation. Sean is one of the leading science communicators of our time and does a very good job of explaining this complex subject at the philosophical level.


What is Quantum Mechanics?

It is perhaps easiest to contrast quantum mechanics with classical mechanics. Classical mechanics involves a state in phase space (described by the position and momentum of all the elements) and then some equations of motion, such as Newton's laws, which describe how the system evolves over time (in which the concept of causation plays no part). Phase space has 6n dimensions, where n is the number of elements in the state. Laplace pointed out that given perfect knowledge of such a state at a given time, one could apply the equations of motion to know the state of the system at any time (past or future).

Quantum mechanics also minimally involves two things. A state is described by a Hilbert Space, the set of all possible quantum states, i.e., the set of all wave functions, Ψ(x). It is not yet agreed whether the Hilbert Space for our universe has an infinite or merely a very large number of dimensions.

For the STEM people, there's a useful brief summary of Hilbert spaces here. If you want an image of what a Hilbert Space is like, then it might be compared to the library in the short story The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges. (Hat-tip to my friend Amṛtasukha for this comparison).

Mathematically, a Hilbert Space is a generalisation of vector spaces which satisfy certain conditions, so that they can be used to describe a geometry (more on this later). One thing to watch out for is that mathematicians describe Hilbert Spaces (plural). Physicists only ever deal with the quantum Hilbert Space of all possible wavefunctions and have slipped into the habit talking about "Hilbert Space" in the singular. Sean Carroll frequently reifies "Hilbert Space" in this way. Once we agree that we are talking about the space defined by all possible wave functions, then it is a useful shorthand. We don't have to consider any other Hilbert Spaces.

The second requirement is an equation that tells us how the wave functions in Hilbert Space evolve over time. And this is Schrödinger's wave equation. There are different ways of writing this equation. Here is one of the common ways:

The equation is a distillation of some much more complex formulas and concepts that take a few years of study to understand. Here, i is the imaginary unit (defined as i2 = -1), ħ is the reduced Planck constant (h/2π). The expression δ/δt represents change over time. Ψ represents the state of the system as a vector in Hilbert Space -- specifying a vector in a space with infinite dimensions presents some interesting problems. Ĥ is the all important Hamiltonian operator which represents the total energy of the system. And note that this is a non-relativistic formulation.

We owe this formalisation of quantum theory to the fact that John von Neumann studied mathematics with David Hilbert in the early 20th Century. Hilbert was, at the time, trying to provide physics with a more rigorous approach to mathematics. In 1915, he invited Einstein to lecture on Relativity at Göttingen University and the two of them, in parallel, recast gravity in terms of field equations (Hilbert credited Einstein so no dispute arose between them). In 1926, Von Neumann showed that the two most promising approaches to quantum mechanics—Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger's wave equation—could be better understood in relation to a Hilbert Space.

[I'm not sure, but this may the first time a Buddhist has ever given even an overview of the maths in an essay about Buddhism and quantum mechanics.]

By applying the Born Rule (i.e., finding the square of the Wave Function) we can find the probability that any given particle will be found in some location at any given time. A common solution to the wave equation is a map of probabilities. For example, the probability plot for an electron in a resting state hydrogen atom looks like this (where shading represents the range probability and the black in the middle is the nucleus). And btw this is a 2D representation of what in 3D is a hollow sphere.



If we give the electron more energy, the probably map changes in predictable ways. An electron bound to an atom behaves a bit like a harmonic oscillator. A good example of a harmonic oscillator is a guitar string. If you pluck a guitar string you get a complex waveform made from the fundamental mode plus harmonics. The fundamental mode gives a note its perceived pitch, while the particular mixture of harmonics is experienced as the timbre of the note. The fundamental mode has two fixed points at the ends where there is zero vibration, and a maximum in the centre. The next mode, the 2nd harmonic takes more energy to produce and the string vibrates with three minima and two maxima - the pitch is an octave above the fundamental.


Using the fleshy parts of the fingers placed at minima points, it is possible to dampen extraneous vibrations on a guitar string and pick out the harmonics. Such notes have a very different timbre to regular notes. An electron bound to an atom also has "harmonics", though the vibrational modes are three dimensional. One of the striking experimental confirmations of this comes if we split sunlight up into a rainbow, we observe dark patches corresponding to electrons absorbing photons of a precise energy and becoming "excited". One of the first confirmations of quantum mechanics was that Schrödinger was able to accurately predict the absorption lines for a hydrogen atom using it.



And on the other hand, after we excite electrons in, say, a sodium atom, they return to their resting state by emitting photons of a precise frequency (in the yellow part of the visible spectrum) giving sodium lamps their characteristic monochromatic quality. The colour of light absorbed or emitted by atoms allows us to use light to detect them in spectral analysis or spectroscopy. For example, infrared light is good for highlighting molecular bonds; while green-blue visible and ultraviolet light are good for identifying individual elements (and note there are more dark patches towards the blue end of the spectrum).

The wave function applied to the electron in an atom gives us a map of probabilities for finding the electron at some point. We don't know where the electron is at any time unless it undergoes some kind of physical interaction that conveys location information (some interactions won't convey any location information). This is one way of defining the so-called the Measurement Problem.
rugby ball

I have a new analogy for this. Imagine a black rugby ball on a black field, in the dark. You are walking around on the field, and you know where you are from a GPS app on your phone, but you cannot see anything. The only way to find the ball is to run around blindly until you kick it. At the moment you kick the ball the GPS app tells you precisely where the ball was at that moment. But kicking the ball also sends it careering off and you don't know where it ends up.

Now, Buddhists get hung up on the idea that somehow the observer has to be conscious, that somehow consciousness (whatever that word means!) is involved in determining how the world evolves in some real sense. As Sean Carroll, says in his recent book The Big Picture:
“...almost no modern physicists think that 'consciousness' has anything whatsoever to do with quantum mechanics. There are an iconoclastic few who do, but it's a tiny minority, unrepresentative of the mainstream” (p.166).
The likes of Fritjof Capra have misled some into thinking that the very vague notion of consciousness plays a role in the measurement problem. As far as the mainstream of quantum mechanics is concerned, consciousness plays no part whatsoever in quantum mechanics. And even those who think it does have provided no formalism for this. There is no mathematical expression for "consciousness", "observer", or "observation". All of these concepts are completely nebulous and out of place around the wave equation, which predicts the behaviour of electrons at a level of accuracy that exceeds the accuracy of our measurements. In practice, our experiments produce data that matches prediction to 10 decimal places or more. Quantum mechanics is the most accurate and precise theory ever produced. "Consciousness" is the least well-defined concept in the history of concepts. "Observation" is not even defined.

In the image of the black rugby ball on a black field in the dark, we don't know where the ball is until we kick it. However, a ball and a field are classical. In the maths of quantum mechanics, we have no information about the location of the ball until we physically interact with it. Indeed, it appears from the maths that it's not physically in one place until information about location is extracted from the system through a physical interaction. And by this we mean, not a conscious observer, but something like bouncing some radiation off the electron. It's as though every time you take a step there is a possibility of the ball being there and you kicking it, and at some point, it is there and you kick it. But until that moment, the ball is (somehow) smeared across the whole field all at once.

Put another way, every time we take a step there is some probability that the ball is there and we kick it, and there is some probability that the ball is not there and we do not kick it. But as we step around, we don't experience a probability, and we never experience a ball spread out over all locations. Whenever we interact with the system we experience the ball as being at our location or at some specific other location. Accounting for this is at the heart of different interpretations of quantum mechanics.


Copenhagen

What every undergraduate physics student learns is the Copenhagen Interpretation of the measurement problem. In this view, the ball is literally (i.e., in reality) everywhere at once and only adopts a location at the time of "measurement" (although measurement is never defined). This is called superposition - literally "one thing on top of another". Superposition is a natural outcome of the Wave Equation; there are huge problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of how mathematical superposition relates to reality.

Firstly, as Schrödinger pointed out with his famous gedanken (thought) experiment involving a cat, this leads to some very counterintuitive conclusions. In my analogy, just before we take a step, the rugby ball is both present and absent. In this view, somehow by stepping into the space, we make the ball "choose" to be present or absent.

Worse, the Copenhagen Interpretation assumes that the observer is somehow outside the system, then interacts with it, extracting information, and then at the end is once again separate from the system. In other words, the observer behaves like a classic object while the system being observed is quantum, then classical, then quantum. Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption of Copenhagen is simply false.

In fact, when we pick up the cat to put it in the box, we cannot avoid becoming entangled with it. What does this mean? Using the ball analogy if we kick the ball and know its location at one point in time then we become linked to the ball, even though in my analogy we don't know where it is now. If someone else now kicks it, then we instantaneously know where the ball was when it was kicked a second time, wherever we happen to be on the field. It's as though we get a GPS reading from the other person sent directly to our phone. If there are two entangled electrons on either side of the universe and we measure one of them and find that it has spin "up", then we also know with 100% certainty that at that same moment in time, the other electron has spin "down". This effect has been experimentally demonstrated so we are forced to accept it until a better explanation comes along. Thus, in Schrödinger's gedanken experiment, we always know from instant to instant what state the cat is in (this is also counter-intuitive, but strictly in keeping with the metaphor as Schrödinger outlined it).

As you move about the world during your day, you become quantum entangled with every object you physically interact with. Or electrons in atoms that make up your body become entangled with electrons in the objects you see, taste, touch, etc. Although Copenhagen assumes a cut off (sometimes called Heisenberg's cut) between the quantum world and the classical world, Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption is nonsense. There may well be a scale on which classical descriptions are more efficient ways of describing the world, but if one atom is quantum, and two atoms are, and three, then there is, in fact, no number of atoms that are not quantum, even if their bulk behaviour is different than their individual behaviour. In other words, the emergent behaviour of macro objects notwithstanding, all the individual atoms in our bodies are obeying quantum mechanics at all times. There is no, and can be no, ontological cut off between quantum and classical, even if there is an epistemological cutoff.

In terms of Copenhagen, the argument is that wave function describes a probability of the ball being somewhere on the field and that before it is kicked it is literally everywhere at once. At the time of kicking the ball (i.e., measurement) the wave function "collapses" and the ball manifests at a single definite location and you kick it. But the collapse of the wave function is a mathematical fudge. In fact, it says that before you look at an electron it is quantum, but when you look at it, it becomes classical. Then when you stop looking it becomes quantum again. This is nonsense.

In Schrödinger's cat-in-the-box analogy, as we put the cat in the box, we become entangled with the cat; the cat interacts with the box becoming entangled with it; and so on. How does an observer ever stand outside a system in ignorance and then interact with it to gain knowledge? The answer is that, where quantum mechanics applies, we cannot. The system is cat, box, and observer. There is no such thing as an observer outside the system. But it is even worse because we cannot stop at the observer. The observer interacts with their environment over a period of years before placing the cat in the box. And both cat and box have histories as well. So the system is the cat, the box, the observer, and the entire universe. And there is no way to get outside this system. It's not a matter of whether we (as macro objects) are quantum entangled, but to what degree we are quantum entangled.

This is a non-trivial objection because entanglement is ubiquitous. We can, in theory, speak of a single electron orbiting a single nucleus, but in reality all particles are interacting with all other particles. One can give a good approximation, and some interactions will be very weak and therefore can be neglected for most purposes but, in general, the parts of quantum systems are quantum entangled. Carroll argues that there are no such things as classical objects. There are scale thresholds above which classical descriptions start to be more efficient computationally than quantum descriptions, but the world itself is never classical; it is always quantum. There is no other option. We are made of atoms and atoms are not classical objects.

Carroll and his group have been working on trying to extract spacetime from the wave function. And this is based on an idea related to entanglement. Since 99.99% of spacetime is "empty" they ignore matter and energy for the moment. The apparently empty spacetime is, in fact, just the quantum fields in a resting state. There is never nothing. But let's call it empty spacetime. One can define a region of spacetime in terms of a subset of Hilbert Space. And if you take any region of empty spacetime, then it can be shown to experience some degree of entanglement with all the other regions nearby. In fact, the degree of entanglement is proportional to the distance. What Carroll has suggested is that we turn this on its head and define distance as a function of quantum entanglement between regions of spacetime. Spacetime would then be an emergent property of the wave function. They have not got a mathematical solution to the wave equation which achieves this, but it is an elegant philosophical overview and shows early promise. Indeed, in a much simplified theoretical universe (with its own specific Hilbert Space, but in which Schrödinger's wave equation applies), they managed to show that the degree of entanglement of a region of spacetime determined its geometry in a way that was consistent with general relativity. In other words, if the maths works out they have shown how to extract quantum gravity from just Hilbert Space and the wavefunction.

Other questions arise from this critique of Copenhagen. What is an "event"? What is an "observation"? The problem for Buddhists is that we assume that it has something to do with "consciousness" and that "consciousness" has something to do with Buddhism. The first is certainly not true, while the second is almost certainly not true depending on how we define consciousness. And defining consciousness is something that is even less consensual than interpreting the measurement problem. There are as many definitions as there are philosophers of mind. How can something so ill-defined be central to a science that is all about well-defined concepts?


More on Interpretations

In 2013, some researchers quizzed physicists at a conference about their preferred interpretation of the measurement problem. This gave rise to what Sean Carroll called The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics:


Sean Carroll comments:
 
I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the results of this poll should be very embarrassing to physicists. Not, I hasten to add, because Copenhagen came in first, although that’s also a perspective I might want to defend (I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person). The embarrassing thing is that we don’t have agreement.

Just 42% of those surveyed preferred Copenhagen - the account of quantum mechanics they all learned as undergraduates. Mind you, Carroll's preferred interpretation, Everett, got even less at 18%. However, it may be more embarrassing than it looks, because there are multiple Everettian interpretations. And note that several existing interpretations had no supporters amongst those surveyed (the survey was not representative of the field).

In Carroll's account, Copenhagen has fatal flaws because it makes unsupportable assumptions. So what about the alternatives? I found Carroll's explanation of the Everett interpretation in this lecture quite interesting and compelling. It has the virtue of being parsimonious.

Just like other interpretations, Everett began with Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. But he stopped there. There are no special rules for observers as classical objects because there are no classical objects (just classical descriptions). In this view, the rugby ball still both exists and does not exist, but instead of the wave function collapsing, the interaction between the ball, the field, the observer, and the world cause "decoherence". If there are two possible outcomes — ball present at this location, ball somewhere else — then both happen, but decoherence means that we only ever see one of them . The other possibility also occurs, but it is as though the world has branched into two worlds: one in which the ball is present and we kick it, and one in which it is somewhere else and we do not kick it. And it turns out that having split in this way there is no way for the two worlds to interact ever again. The two outcomes are orthogonal in Hilbert Space.

While this sounds counterintuitive, Carroll argues that the many worlds are already present in the Hilbert Space and all the other interpretations have to introduce extra rules to make those other worlds disappear. And in the case of Copenhagen, the extra rules are incoherent. Everett sounds plausible enough in itself, but given the number of particles in the universe and how many interactions there are over time, the number of worlds must be vast beyond imagining. And that is deeply counter-intuitive. However, being counter-intuitive is not an argument against a theory of quantum mechanics. Physics at this scale is always going to be counterintuitive because it's not like the world on the scale we can sense. And at this point, it will be useful to review some of the problems associated with differences in scale.


Scale (again)

I've written about scale before. It is such an important idea and so many of our misconceptions about the world at scales beyond those our senses register are because we cannot imagine very small or very large scales.

We understand our world as classical. That's what we evolved for. Modern humans have been around for roughly between 400,000 and 200,000 years. But we discovered that there are scales much smaller than we can experience with our senses only about 400 years ago with the development of the microscope. As our understanding progressed we began to see evidence of the world on smaller and smaller scales. Each time we had to adjust our notions of the universe. At the same time telescopes revealed a very much larger universe than we had ever imagined.

Quantum mechanics developed from Einstein's articles in 1905 and was formalised mathematically in the 1920s. It has never been intuitive and it is so very far from our experience that is unlikely ever to be intuitive.

Humans with good eyesight can see objects at around 0.1 mm or 100 µm. A human hair is about 20-200 µm. A small human cell like a sperm might be 10 µm, and not visible; while a large fat cell might be 100 µm and be visible (just). A water molecule is about 0.0003 µm or 0.3 nanometres (nm = 10-9 m). But at this level, the physical dimensions of an object become problematic because the location in space is governed by quantum mechanics and is a probability. Indeed, the idea of the water molecule as an "object" is problematic. The classical description of the world breaks down at this scale. The average radius of a hydrogen atom at rest is calculated to be about 25 picometres or 25x10-12 m, but we've already seen that the location of the electron circling the hydrogen nucleus is a probability distribution. We define the radius in terms of an arbitrary cut off in probability. The estimated radius of an electron is less than 10−18 m (though estimates vary wildly). And we have to specify a resting state atom, because in a state of excitation the electron probability map is a different shape. It hardly makes sense to think of the electron as having a fixed radius or even as being an object at all. An electron might best be thought of as a perturbation in the electromagnetic field.

The thing is that, as we scale down, we still think of things in terms of classical descriptions and we don't understand when classical stops applying. We cannot help but think in terms of objects, when, in fact, below the micron scale this gradually makes less and less sense. Given that everything we experience is on the macro scale, nothing beyond this scale will ever be intuitive.

As Sean Carroll says, the many worlds are inherent in Hilbert Space. Other theories have to work out how to eliminate all of the others in order to leave the one that we observe. Copenhagen argues for something called "collapse of the wave function". Why would a wave function collapse when you looked at it? Why would looking at something cause it to behave differently? What happened in the universe before there were observers? Everett argued that this is an artefact of thinking of the world in classical terms. He argued that, in effect, there is no classical world, there is only a quantum world. Subatomic particles are just manifestations of Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. The world might appear to be classical on some scales, but this is just an appearance. The world is fundamentally quantum, all the time, and on all scales.

Thinking in these terms leads to new approaches to old problems. For example, most physicists are convinced that gravity must be quantised like other forces. Traditional approaches have followed the methods of Einstein. Einstein took the Newtonian formulation of physical laws and transformed them into relativity. Many physicists take a classical expression of gravity and attempt to reformulate it in quantum terms - leading to string theory and other problematic approaches. Carroll argues that this is unlikely to work because it is unlikely that nature begins with a classical world and then quantises it. Nature has to be quantum from the outset and thus Everett was on right track. And, if this is true, then the only approach that will succeed in describing quantum gravity will need to start with quantum theory and show how gravity emerges from it. As I say, Carroll and his team have an elegant philosophical framework for this and some promising preliminary results. The mathematics is still difficult, but they don't have the horrendous and possibly insurmountable problems of, say, string theory.

Note: for an interesting visualisation the range of scales, see The Scale of the Universe.


Conclusion

Quantum mechanics is a theory of how subatomic particles behave. It minimally involves a Hilbert Space of all possible wave functions and the Schrödinger wave equation describing how these evolve over time. Buddhism is a complex socio-religious phenomenon in which people behave in a wide variety of ways that have yet to be described with any accuracy. It's possible that there is a Hilbert Space of all possible social functions and an equation which describes how it evolves over time, but we don't have it yet!

Buddhists try to adopt quantum mechanics, or to talk about quantum mechanics, as a form of virtue signalling -- "we really are rational despite appearances", or legitimising. They either claim actual consistency between Buddhism and quantum mechanics; or they claim some kind of metaphorical similarity, usually based on the fallacy that the measurement problem requires a conscious observer. And this is patently false in both cases. It's not even that Buddhists have a superficial grasp of quantum mechanics, but that they have a wrong grasp of it or, in fact, that they have grasped something masquerading as quantum mechanics that is not quantum mechanics. None of the Buddhists I've seen talking or writing about quantum mechanics mention Hilbert Spaces, for example. I'm guessing that none of them could even begin to explain what a vector is let alone a Hilbert Space.

I've yet to see a Buddhist write about anything other than the Copenhagen interpretation. I presume because it is only the Copenhagen interpretation that is capable of being shoehorned into a narrative that suits our rhetorical purposes; I don't see any advantage to Buddhists in the Everett interpretation, for example. Buddhists read — in whacky books for whacky people — that the "observer" must be a conscious mind. Since this suits their rhetorical purposes they do not follow up and thus never discover that the idea is discredited. No one ever stops to wonder what the statement means, because if they did they'd see that it's meaningless.

Thus, Buddhists who use quantum mechanics to make Buddhism look more interesting are not concerned with the truth. They do not read widely on the subject, but simply adopt the minority view that chimes with their preconceptions and use this as a lever. For example, I cannot ever recall such rhetoric ever making clear that the cat-in-the-box thought experiment was proposed by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen interpretation. It is presented as the opposite. Again, there is a lack of regard for the truth. Nor do Buddhists ever present criticisms of the Copenhagen interpretations such as those that emerge from Everett's interpretation. Other criticisms are available.

And this disregard for the truth combined with a concerted attempt to persuade an audience of some arbitrary argument is classic bullshit (as described by Harry Frankfurt). Buddhists who write about quantum mechanics are, on the whole, bullshitters. They are not concerned with the nature of reality, they are concerned with status, especially the kind of status derived from being a keeper of secret knowledge. It's past time to call out the bullshitters. They only hurt Buddhism by continuing to peddle bullshit. The irony is that the truth of Buddhism is far more interesting than the bullshit; it's just much harder to leverage for status or wealth.

~~oOo~~


Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

For those concerned about the flood of bullshit there is an online University of Washington course Calling Bullshit.

If you have a urge to learn some real physics (as opposed to the bullshit Buddhist physics) then see Leonard Susskind's lecture series The Theoretical Minimum. This aims to teach you only what you need to know to understand and even do physics (no extraneous mathematics or concepts).

09 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 2. In And Of The World

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

In And Of The World

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

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

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

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

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


What A Mind Does

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experience as Simulation

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

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

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

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


Buddhism, Experience, and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summary So Far

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

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

~~oOo~~

02 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 1. A Mind-Independent World

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


A Mind-Independent World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What should we call this mind-independent world?

Objective

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

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

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


Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Nature of the mind-independent world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~oOo~~

Part Two will follow on 9 June.


Background Reading

Substance and Structure

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


Searle on Consciousness and Social Reality

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


Evolution of Morality

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


Books

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

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

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

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. [Essay] http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

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

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

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

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


Videos

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

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.


Qualitativeness

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.


Subjectivity

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). 


Unity

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. 

~~oOo~~



~ 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: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/maydede/mind/Nagel_Whatisitliketobeabat.pdf

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 http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~paller/dialogue/csc1.pdf pagination begins at p.1.