Showing posts with label Rebirth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rebirth. Show all posts

20 May 2019

Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered: An Inquiry into the Buddhist Myths of a Just World and an Afterlife

My new book is finished and now on sale.
Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered: An Inquiry into the Buddhist Myths of a Just World and an Afterlife. Visible Mantra Press. £29.99. Purchase online.


In this book, Jayarava combines historical scholarship with philology and philosophical enquiry to re-examine the religious myths of the just world and the afterlife as they manifest in Buddhism, i.e. karma and punarbhava or rebirth. 
Taking a multidisciplinary approach he begins with an exploration of the psychology of religious beliefs, seeking to understand why the supernatural is ubiquitous across all human cultures. Drawing on evolutionary psychology, linguistics, and cognitive metaphors the book outlines a theory of religious belief which explains why belief in the supernatural continues to seem intuitive and natural to so many. 
The central part of the book looks in detail at historical instantiations of the karma and rebirth doctrines. Some early inconsistencies led to doctrinal innovations and polemical tracts, but no consensus on karma or rebirth ever emerged amongst Buddhists of different sects. Modern Buddhists sects have very different views on the details of karma and rebirth, even while insisting on the just world and afterlife myths per se. 
A critique of Vitalism opens the way to reconsideration of karma and rebirth from a contemporary point of view. Scientific inquiry shows that, although they remain plausible to many, the just world and afterlife myths are no longer tenable in any form.


This book consists of six main sections, each consisting of several chapters.

Before getting into the more detail, I attempt to present some recent ideas on two subjects that will always be in the background as we assess religious doctrines. In the opening remarks I note that one of Dharmacarī Subhuti’s criteria for religious belief is that it be compatible with reason. The first section of the book, Compatible With Reason, explores what reason is and how it works. This is important because classical theories of reason are now acknowledged to be inaccurate and misleading. So establishing some basic understanding of reason is important before setting off.

Chapter 1 is an introduction and chapter two is this outline. Although I expect readers will already be familiar with karma and rebirth, in Chapter 3, Karma & Rebirth: The Basics, I give a bare outline of the two doctrines. This chapter can be skipped over by the well informed. 

Chapter 4, Of Miracles, reviews David Hume’s discussion of miracles and his method for evaluating testimony regarding miracles. Hume lays down some ground rules for reasoning about the claims made by religious people. Since both karma and rebirth break the laws of physics, and can be considered as miracles, Hume’s criteria are highly relevant to the criterion that belief be compatible with reason.

In Chapter 5, Facts and Feelings, I explore the neuroscience of decision-making. Classic theory of reason suggests that emotions play no role in reasoning. Contrarily, research by Antonio Damasio shows that emotions, or at least the interplay of emotional and cognitive processes, play a central and decisive role in reasoning. Break that link and we are unable to make decisions. Importantly the salience of information is encoded by emotions, by how we "feel" about it.  Belief involves decision-making, so understanding how we make decisions is important to this discussion.

Staying on this theme, in chapter 6 An Argumentative Theory of Reason, I review recent research by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier that attacks the classic theory of reasoning from a different direction. Mercier and Sperber point out that most people are very poor at solo reasoning tasks, but that they do much better in small groups. Reasoning, in this account, is not our first line approach to constructing arguments, but only comes into play when we wish to critique or deconstruct someone else’s argument. When reasoning, we all employ confirmation bias, but as a feature rather than a bug.

Bringing this section to a close, in Chapter 7 Reasoning and Beliefs I try to show how Chapters 5-7 constitute the beginnings of a theory for understanding religious belief. Using an example taken from a heterodox economist, I look at how beliefs distort the way that we interpret new information.

In the next section, Religion is Natural, Chapters 8-13, I expand on the theory of religious belief and look at myths such as the just-world and the afterlife. The central proposition here is that religious ideas are intuitive and thus seem “natural”. They are therefore understandable. Such myths emerge from our evolutionary psychology. The two ideas have some distinctive features, but they are closely related. Chapter 8, The Horrors of Life, deals with the myth of the just world. I tackle the idea of justice, the problem of evil, and related ideas such as the moral universe. The desire for an ordered and regular world is entirely understandable for a self-aware species trying to scrape a living in a capricious environment. However, I argue that our experience of the world should convince us that the world is not just. Rather it is amoral and indifferent to us. Chapter 9 looks at the myth of the afterlife and how it interacts with the myth of the just world. The afterlife is how religions get around the injustice of the world. Justice is delivered in the afterlife and often in the form of “balancing”. The image of the balance is literal in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which perfectly illustrates the concept. However, karma is also seen in terms of metaphors of accounting and balancing the books.

When thinking about Buddhist myths of the afterlife I thought it would be useful to see it against the broad backdrop of other afterlife beliefs. However, I found that most discussions of the afterlife do not look at the structural features of the afterlife per se, but rather discuss beliefs according to each religion. They thus fail to see that the afterlife is few variations on a theme. In order remedy this, Chapter 10, A Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs, takes a broad approach to the afterlife based on features rather than religious beliefs. There are two basic kinds of afterlife: single destination and cyclic. Buddhism is a hybrid of these: cyclic if you do nothing, and single destination if you practice Buddhism.

Chapter 11 explores Thomas Metzinger’s conjecture that out-of-body experiences might have given rise to the idea of a soul. Several kinds of experience, which we might broadly call religious, make the idea of a mind-body duality seem plausible or even inevitable. I argue that a mind-body duality is necessary for any afterlife to take place. Something about the mental life of the person has to survive the death of the body for there to be an afterlife. However, mind-body dualities have long been abandoned by scientists for good reason: all the evidence we have refutes such a duality.

Nevertheless, in Chapter 12 Secret Agents, I explore the thesis for belief in mind-body duality and supernatural agents put forward by Justin L. Barrett. Barrett argues that evolution has primed us to hold just such beliefs as an indirect consequence of survival mechanisms. For example, it is important to distinguish agents from objects because in nature agents are often prey or predator, or in some way dangerous. And it is better to err on the side of mistaking objects for agents than vice versa. It is better to avoid 100 sticks that look like snakes but are not, than to fail to avoid a single venomous snake.

Finally, in this section, in Chapter 13, Metaphors and Embodied Cognition, I introduce the theory of cognitive metaphors developed by cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson. This allows us to deconstruct the language associated with religious experiences. How we (unconsciously) frame our experiences through language, through the conventions of our society, affects the way we interpret our experiences. In particular, the language of the mind-body duality is deeply embedded within English along with a raft of related metaphors. Understanding the language of religion is a key to understanding what makes religion seem plausible.

We now have a working theory of religious belief and a number of useful tools for evaluating information we may encounter. In the section Evolution of Rebirth & Karma, Chapters 14-18, I begin to explore karma and rebirth directly. Beginning in Chapter 14, Rebirth Eschatologies, I revisit the category of cyclic afterlife beliefs and flesh out how such beliefs work. I explore the notions of “this world” and “the next world” as we encounter them in early Buddhist texts. I note that Buddhists often use the word loka, i.e. “world”, to mean the world of experience.

In Chapter 15, Rebirth in the Ṛgveda, I review work by Polish Scholar Joanna Jurewicz, on the first accounts of rebirth in India. Although, classically, rebirth is thought not to be mentioned until much later, Jurewicz points out that a Ṛgveda verse does seem to mention being reborn amongst one’s family. It seems likely that a cyclic afterlife was a regional feature of India rather than specific to any one religion.

There is some evidence that both rebirth and karma developed over time in Buddhism. In Chapter 16, with help from Gananath Obeyesekere, I explore this development and outline the changes that seem to have occurred overtime. The point is that the belief in rebirth did not emerge fully formed and that change over time was an important feature of the Buddhist belief system. Buddhist eschatology incorporates a number of elements from Brahmanism (devas, asuras, pretas). I follow this up in Chapter 17, Escaping the Inescapable, by showing how Buddhist karma changed over time. In particular, I look at a post-canonical change from karma being inescapable, to the institution of practises that allowed Buddhists to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Finally, in this section, in Chapter 18, I deal with the figure of Yama and the idea of Hell. Yama is a figure Buddhists adopted from Vedic religion. Originally, he is a promethean hero who is celebrated as the first man to discover the route to rebirth amongst the ancestors in the afterlife. This Yama lives in the sky. The Buddhist Yama is the king of Hell, a place of torment and torture for people who have lived extremely immoral lives. The emergence of Hell as a concept, let alone a place, is an interesting phenomenon. I explore the sparse evidence on the subject and the question of how the hero became king of Hell.

In the Section, Conflicting Traditions of Rebirth & Karma (Chapters 19-23) I focus on Buddhism. When we explore the Buddhist tradition in detail we find a range of conflicting opinions and theories about karma and rebirth. In this section, I rely frequently on internecine polemics written by Buddhists about other Buddhists. However, I begin in Chapter 19, Karma & Dependent Arising, by outlining a problem that seems to have driven a great deal of later doctrinal speculation and innovation. I show that as they stand in the suttas the doctrines of karma and of dependent arising are incompatible. One requires that consequences follow actions are a considerable remove, and the other denies the possibility of action at a temporal distance. Sectarian solutions to this problem are associated with the various Abhidharma schools. They all attacked each other’s theories and never reached a consensus. Opposition died out along with the sects that vanished with the decline of Buddhism in India beginning by about the 7th Century. The conflicts often centred on three key ideas, which I treat separately: in Chapter 20, The Antarābhava or Interim State; Chapter 21, Manomaya kāya, and Chapter 22 Gandharva. In each case I show that these ideas were hotly contested amongst the different Buddhist sects. Each was quick to point out the flaws of the others. All views had valid criticisms levelled against them.

I finish this section in Chapter 23, The Problems of Seeking Singularity, with some reflections on how we look at history. We are usually taught some tidy version of history in which there are differences, but these are only on the surface, beneath which is a broad and deep unity. An actual reading of the historical texts reveals intractable disputes on many fronts. As with the distorting effect of religious beliefs generally, how we approach history affects how we interpret it.

In the section on Vitalism (Chapters 24-28), I take a long digression. A reader could skip this whole section and move onto the next without losing the main thread. Why include several chapters critiquing vitalism in a book on karma and rebirth? As already noted, the idea of a mind-body duality underpins all myths of the afterlife. Similarly, the afterlife underpins the just-world myth, since justice is delivered after death. Just so, the idea of Vitalism, that life is engendered by some external “spark” underpins our views of life and death. In Chapter 24, I introduce Vitalism as The Philosophy That Wouldn’t Die. Vitalism has a long history in the Western world. It takes in ideas about spirits and life. However, vitalism has been abandoned by scientists and most philosophers because the evidence refutes it and it has less explanatory power than more recent ideas.

In Chapter 25, Crossing the Line Between Death and Life, I outline modern attempts to understand the origins of life. I try to show that we are now at the point where, given the conditions, life was no accident, it was inevitable. Chemistry follows a kind of slope of energetic feasibility. Under the conditions of the early earth, the chemistry of metabolism was the most energetically feasible path. It was followed by replication and life, as we know it, got started and has never ceased. No supernatural elements are required for life.

In Chapter 26, Spiritual, I return to the methods of cognitive linguistics. I take apart the concept of “spiritual” and highlight specific frames and the associated metaphors. The whole thing is based on medieval ideas about life. Language does change, but it can be deeply conservative. The language of “spiritual” is anachronistic and references frames that are not relevant to the Buddhist project.
Chapter 27, The Antarābhava as a Vitalist Concept, revisits the idea of the interim state in light of the critique of vitalism. The interim state depends on mind-body dualism and vitalism. If vitalism is not a helpful way of looking at the world (anymore), then neither is the interim state a helpful way of trying to understand life and death.

To close out this section, in Chapter 28, The Science of Reincarnation, I review some of the arguments made for reincarnation by a group of Western researchers, whose “evidence” consists entirely of interviews with young children. The methods employed are deeply flawed and the resulting conclusions don’t explain anything. The “scientists” simply assert that reincarnation is the only explanation for the stories told by infants. Worse, for Buddhists, they assert a form of reincarnation consistent with Hindu conception of a soul travelling from body to body, and inconsistent with the metaphysics of Buddhism.

The final section of the book, Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered (Chapters 29-31) draws together all these many threads and argues that when we consider all the evidence that karma and rebirth are simply not plausible. I begin, in Chapter 29, Objections to Naturalism, by making a defence of naturalism. Experience suggests that those who reject my arguments often do so on the basis that they do not believe in naturalism. I try to anticipate and neutralise these objections to clear the way for the reader to take in the following arguments confident that they are grounded in reality. However, I also note that many of the strongest arguments against karma and rebirth are not scientific, but historical. The chaos of conflicting views already outlined never did produce a consensus.

Chapter 30, On the Impossibility of an Afterlife, recapitulates and expands on the most popular essay on my blog (it has twice as many page views as the second most popular essay). The basic idea comes from an argument outlined by physicist Sean Carroll. I take a slightly different approach to Carroll, but the conclusion is much the same. The laws of physics, and particularly the laws of thermodynamics, rule out any afterlife in which any information about us is preserved. There is simply no possibility that rebirth can be a genuine phenomenon. As a myth, it has informed Buddhism for centuries, but it does not survive scrutiny.

The argument in Chapter 31, The Logic of Karma, is one that I developed independently. I show that the Buddhist theories of karma that we have available all fail to explain how actions can be connected to consequences over time. The explanations are all flawed and it is very easy to show how. This leaves us with no viable theory of karma. Since there can be no afterlife in which moral and immoral acts are balanced out, the idea of karma leading to better and worse rebirths is already in tatters.

The myth of the just-world and the myth of the afterlife are just myths. They are not real. We are born once, live one life, and after death, there is nothing. I understand that the conclusions I arrive at will be shocking and repugnant to some Buddhists. In technical terms, the view is ucchedavāda or “annihilationism”. This is traditionally a wrong view, but we now know that it is the inescapable conclusion of understanding how our world works. There is no life after death.

Despite this, I see no reason to succumb to nihilism. The world is not just, but human beings and human societies can be. There is no afterlife, but that simply means that our actions in this life count for more, not less. Life becomes more meaningful in this view, not less. Everything we do counts. If we are to leave a positive legacy as a result of our one life, then we have to work hard to make a positive difference. There is no scope for drifting or vagueness. The imperative to change ourselves and to change the world, is all the greater. But in the end this is how things are. Deluding ourselves with fantasies that life is fair or that we will not die, only gets in the way of facing up to our responsibilities.

Other Words

So this is my book. It is what it is. It started life as essays on this blog that appeared over a number of years. It is therefore eclectic in scope and content. Had I set out to write such a book my choice of terminology might have been more consistent. My interest in the secondary literature might have been more comprehensive. Also I have to emphasise that despite my enthusiastic engagement with this subject, I am an amateur and and outsider. I have all the usual foibles of the autodidactic. These will be obvious to the professional scholar, though I hope that they will find something here to provoke thought and rethinking.

There have been very few attempts to see Buddhism in a broader context. Buddhism scholars tend to discuss sectarian Buddhism in isolation even from other sects of Buddhism. My experience of comparative religion tracts is that Buddhism is vastly simplified and homogenised before being compared to other religions and even then there is little in the way of critical thinking. So the approach here is quite unusual, especially to a general reader who is used to reading books on Buddhism which are written by starry-eyed enthusiasts and scholars who are critical only in a very narrow sense. I used to be starry-eyed too - some of my early blog essays attest to this. But then I really started reading Buddhists texts and to really pay attention to what they said. And gradually I began to see clearly. I went from being starry-eyed, to becoming a star-gazer in the tradition of Galileo Galilei.

And this book is one result of that.

My next writing project is a book provisionally entitled The True History of the Heart Sutra. To some extent it will begin to answer some of the questions left open by Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered. What is Buddhism without these doctrines? My short answer is that it's experience and the investigation of experience, especially the experiences of the dissolution of the self and the cessation of conscious sensing and cognising. These experiences are subject to very different interpretations from the complete denial of being to affirmation of absolute being; from transcendental liberation to a rigid form of determinism.


06 May 2016

Karma and Rebirth: The Basics

For a couple of years now, I've been working on turning some of my essays into a book on Karma and Rebirth. It's slow progress, but the book is currently about 175,000 words with quite a bit more material to integrate. One of the things that I have not done is include a basic introduction to the subject. I was thinking readers of the book would already be Buddhists and so have some understanding of the subject or, if they needed an introduction, that they could read a book like Nāgapriya's, Exploring Karma & Rebirth (2004).

In the process of researching some of the gaps I've identified, I started to wonder if it might be better to have some kind of basic overview of the subject that is tailored to this book. For example, I nowadays locate Buddhism in a continuum of religious belief regarding such fundamental myths, as the just-world (or moral universe), the afterlife, the immortal founder, religious superheroes, and so on. Buddhists tend to have definite ideas about each of these myths and since I'm setting out to disrupt those ideas, why not make this clear and give some idea of why I would want to.

Composing my own introduction would also help to locate Buddhism in an appropriate historical and cultural context. Most other books on these topics pay too little attention to the religious spectrum and have a tendency to treat Buddhism as historically and culturally unique. On the other hand I try to keep up with and participate in the latest research on the history of Buddhism in India, so my introduction could incorporate information that has recently come to light.

There are so many different approaches to karma and rebirth, especially if we consider historical positions that are no longer current, and this historical perspective is important in the argument I develop in the book. Almost every detail of the various sectarian theories is disputed by other sects. For every detail that one might cite as being an aspect of the Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth, there are always seem to have been contradictory views. Several well known texts, e.g. Kathāvatthu, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and many less well known texts, record disputes amongst the sects over doctrinal details, especially the mechanics of karma and rebirth. Some of these disputes are purely historical and almost no one remembers them or bothers to mention them. They occasionally receive attention from scholars of Buddhist doctrine, but the results of these studies tend not to end up in the kinds of books that Buddhist practitioners read. And to complicate matters we are seeing a rise in the production of sophisticated sectarian apologetics for taking the traditional myths of Buddhism as authentic or statements of fact. Religious leaders whose positions in life depend on articles of faith are feeling the challenge of secularism and science and responding with spirited defences of their superstitious beliefs.

The story of just how contested these doctrines were in the past is very important to those of us who wish to contest them in the present, because it undermines the false certainty that we often meet in traditional presentations of the Buddhist religion and modern apologetics. All too often the discussion about belief is shut down by those who wish to define a Buddhist as "someone who believes in karma and rebirth". And if you don't believe then "you are not a Buddhist". One of the leaders of the Triratna Movement, for example, has said "Without conviction that these are the essential mechanics of life, one will not practice the Dharma." (Subhuti 2007). I have (anecdotal) reason to believe that about half of our Order disagree with Subhuti on this point. I disagree with him. Many of us practice the Dharma convinced that karma and rebirth are nothing to do with the mechanics of Buddhism, let alone the mechanics of life; and an even larger number practice with unresolved doubts on these issues (i.e. with no conviction one way or the other). The untold history of disputes over these myths is important because it allows dissenters to see that they too are part of a long tradition of dissent. 

The attitude to Nāgārjuna is instructive. He was very critical of the mainstream views of his day and attempts to show that those views on karma and rebirth are incoherent. He particularly raises what I call the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, the problem that in karma theory, the consequences (phala) of an action necessarily occur long after the conditioning action cease, contravening pratītyasamutpāda, which requires the presence of conditions for causation to occur. Nāgārjuna banishes the whole business of karma and rebirth to the domain of relative truth (saṃvṛttisatya). From an ultimate perspective (paramārthasatya), according to Nāgārjuna, there is no karma, no agent (kartṛ), no result (phala), no one who experiences the result (bhoktṛ), and no rebirth (MMK 17.30). Now, I've read a number of explanations of this approach and they all baulk at accepting Nāgārjuna's dismissal of karma and, contradicting Nāgārjuna, restate the Mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example David J. Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
In other words, Nāgārjuna's ultimate rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. The dismissal has to be rationalised. For Kalupahana, raised in Buddhist Sri Lanka, the idea that the "relationship between action and the consequence" might break down seems to be inconceivable, although it is very difficult to construct any meaningful connection when we take a Buddhist approach, as my book shows. Nāgārjuna himself has shown that there is no way to connect action to consequence without resorting to eternalism. Belief trumps every other kind of argument in religion. And this may be why the metaphysically exuberant Yogācāra ideas about karma and rebirth eclipsed Nāgārjuna's metaphysical reticence outside of scholastic circles. Last time I raised this, someone pointed out that the Doctrine of Momentariness (kṣaṇavāda) gets around the problem, but this is debatable and I'll briefly say why below. 

In Buddhist arguments about karma and rebirth, metaphysical innovations and speculations abound, with most aimed at defending the doctrines from some internal threat as objections are raised from within the Buddhist community. As objections to doctrines of karma and rebirth appeared, those doctrines were modified in response. Many Buddhists see the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda as the central Buddhist doctrine, the most identifiable idea associated with of Buddhism. In fact, this doctrine was frequently modified to deal with inadequacies in the doctrines of karma and rebirth, as in the Abhidharma "dharma" theories. If any doctrine is central to Buddhism it is that karma leads to rebirth and awakening means no more rebirth. Historically, karma was the priority.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth that are taught these days are the homogenised result of a few centuries of critical enquiry in early Common-Era India, followed by centuries of rote repetition of the surviving doctrines. There are four main versions of these doctrines in the modern world: Theravāda, Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, and Pure Land, though the view that any one person espouses may not respect the boundaries suggested by these labels. Modern views are often eclectic and syncretic. In the book I try to outline the most prominent Indian Buddhist theories of karma and rebirth including the four above as well as Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika views. Most sectarian views involve dismissing other sectarian views as incorrect, leaving almost nothing agreed upon beyond the bare fact that Buddhists believe in karma and rebirth.

This means that writing a completely non-controversial account of karma and rebirth that takes an historical perspective turns out to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. My approach to introducing karma is to set out what I think the uncontested or uncontroversial aspects of the doctrines of karma and rebirth and then proceed to outline the points of contention. The latter takes a lot more space than the former and forms the bulk of this essay.

Karma and Rebirth Defined

My attempt at a non-controversial definition of Buddhist karma and rebirth is as follows:
Karma is the Anglicised word for the process that links consequences (phalavipāka) to actions (karman), as well as the actions themselves. Because karma does not immediately manifest as consequences, it accumulates over time. The main consequence of karma is rebirth (punarbhava), but karma may also manifest as sensation (vedanā). Rebirth is governed by a theory of how experiences arise, i.e. by dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Enlightened people don't make new karma. When enlightened people die they are not reborn.
The doctrine of karma is the Buddhist version of the just-world myth and like other versions is tied to an afterlife in which the injustice of this life is balanced out. This myth produces a cognitive bias, in the Wikipedia definition:
"The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance." 
If we replaced "just-world hypothesis" with "Buddhist karma" in this statement, we would have a serviceable definition of karma. All the major religions have a version of this myth. And yet the world clearly is not fair or just. Evil actions go unpunished and good actions go unrewarded. The idea that actions always have timely and appropriate consequences is debunked by lived experience. And this inevitably leads religions to link the myth of the just-world with the myth of the afterlife. Judgement and reward in the afterlife is how religions rationalise an unjust world.

The doctrine of rebirth is the Buddhist version of the Myth of the Afterlife. This myth is correlated with the cognitive dissonance associated with the knowledge of our own inevitable death. Life "wants" to go on, self-conscious beings consciously want to live forever but come to understand that they die. In the tension of the irresistible force (life) meeting the immovable object (death), the afterlife is born and thrives.

A seldom noticed feature of the Buddhism version of the afterlife is the bifurcation into a metaphysical narrative and a moral one. Buddhist metaphysicians have always stressed that the relation between us and our rebirths is governed by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). This is first and foremost a description of how mental states arise, but is applied in all sort of other ways. Thus the one who acts is neither identical with or totally different from the one who experiences the consequences. The latter arises in dependence on the former. Buddhist moralists (often the same people in a different didactic mode) emphasise that actions have consequences for us. Many suttas and all jātakas explicitly relate how actions rebound on us in subsequent lives, or that what we now experience is the result of our actions in a past life. I conjecture that this moral version of the Buddhist afterlife is necessary because without a strong connection between action and consequence for the agent, morality is not possible. That this contradicts Buddhist metaphysics is not problematised in Buddhism teaching, it is simply that in switching from one mode to the other, Buddhists simply ignore the contradiction. I don't see this as a disputed teaching, since the ability to segue back and forth between metaphysical and moral discourses with respect to the afterlife seems to be universal.

Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma. 

Everything else about karma and rebirth seems to be complex and disputed. There are a number of main areas of contention related to karma and rebirth. The next section of this essay will set out these areas.

Historical Disputes About Karma & Rebirth.

1. Action at a Temporal Distance is Forbidden by pratītyasamutpāda.

Solving the problem of karma's requirement of action at a temporal distance produced a great deal of innovation over the centuries, but ultimately the Doctrine of Momentariness (kṣaṇavāda; DOM) won the day. DOM comes in various flavours, e.g. Theravāda, Sautrāntika, and Yogācāra. All DOM variations involve the invention of ad hoc entities or processes to account for the continuity between action and consequence, e.g. dharmas always exist (sarva-asti-vāda); a carrier in the form of a "person" (pudgala-vāda); a 'carrier' in the form of vijñāna (Johansson, Waldron); a carrier in form of ālayavijñāna (Yogācāra). The most radical solution to this problem is Nāgārjuna's, already mentioned above, which was relegate all such questions to the realm of saṃvṛttisatya.

The Theravāda DOM proposes 24 different types of conditionality to account for the ways that dharmas need to function in order to preserve a working theory of karma. And it seems to work as long as there is only one action in one lifetime (to my knowledge no presentation of the Theravāda DOM ever deals with more than one action). With two or more actions it fails to sustain a connection between action and consequence, primarily because of the fundamental axiom accepted by Theravādins that the mind can only allow one citta at a time (discussed further below). Other DOMs reduced this list to just four types of conditionality. The Yogācāra DOM invents a new kind of entity to solve the continuity problems (see 3. and 4. below), i.e. the ālayavijñāna or store-cognition.

There are a whole raft of related series of problems. If karma accumulates how does it remain latent or dormant for such a long time and then become active, particularly in a DOM when dharmas are always active, if short lived? How does a karma "know" when to ripen? If it does not interact with our minds while dormant, how can it then become capable of interacting? The DOM solves these problems by making dharmas always active. This removes any latency and the need to know when to ripen. Dharmas produce identical dharmas, so their effects on our minds are constant.

However there is still the problem of death. Which I deal with separately below.

2. Temporality

DOM versions all assert as axiomatic that the mind can only process one citta at a time, we'll call this the Serial Processing Axiom (SPA). This vitiates the DOM because it cannot account for how we perceive change or succession. For example we could not perceive music or language the way we do if consciousness was truly momentary and not persistent over at least the immediately past moment In practice both require us to retain in mind multiple sense inputs covering many seconds or even minutes. Because of SPA, momentariness fails to account for the phenomenology of cognition. And this may be why the first chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) is quite as tortuous as it is. Nāgārjuna, who apparently accepts SPA, is trying to account for the perception of change in a paradigm which cannot produce a coherent account. If we drop the axiom, then change is a simple matter of comparing the immediate past with the present - something that almost any animal with a brain is able to do. Mosquitoes and flies, for example, are adept at perceiving movement, making them very hard to swat.

Buddhist ideas in this area are also hampered by the reification of the grammatical categories present, past and future. The tendency was to talk about the past and the future as needing to have an ontological status. Nāgārjuna devotes a whole chapter of MMK to this thorny issue, but arguments over the reality or non-reality of past and future are doomed to failure. The trouble is karma. Indian Buddhists continued to struggle to relate present consequences to past actions - somehow an action in the past must continue to act as a condition for an event in the present, and present actions must be conditions for events in the future (else Buddhist morality fails). However, real and unreal do not apply in the domain of experience. The arrow of time is a notoriously difficult subject, but to be hampered by treating the past and the future as something other than aspects of experience makes it impossible. Past and future are all about how we experience a flow of events and the arrow of time.

Neuroscience does agree with Ābhidharmikas, and disagree with the sutta authors, that consciousness is not continuous and has a granular structure. However, it also suggests that the brain takes an appreciable time (ca. 250-500 milliseconds) for the brain to process sensory stimulations. Thus cognition is not momentary in the sense that the DOM argues for, but takes place over time. Neuroscience also argues for a massively parallel system of processing sensory data, in which our brains construct a gestalt from all the present sensory streams. 

3. Continuity During Sleep and Nirodha-samāpatti

This is another very specific problem within a DOM. If the required continuity between action and consequence is provided for by an uninterrupted series of conscious moments, then deep sleep and the cessation of mental activity in meditation when there is no consciousness of anything, present show-stopping problems. If there are no conscious moments, then connectivity between moments is broken and continuity between action and consequence is lost.

Theravādins and Yogācārins both adapted their DOM to account for this. The former invented the bhavaṅga-citta which they designed specifically to solve this problem: it's a post-hoc patch which only exists because of this problem. A bhavaṅga-citta is one a kind of mental activity that we are not aware of, hence it is sometimes translated as subconscious, though it should not be confused with the Freudian subconscious or the Jungian unconscious. The bhavaṅga-citta always has a single object which is set for life at rebirth by the re-linking mental activity (paṭisandhi-citta). It really only exists to provide for continuity and to interrupt if two moments of mental activity are potentially different, e.g. a kuśala mental event followed by an akuśala mental event requires the intervention of a bhavaṅga-citta which is avyakṛta or undetermined with respect to kuśala/akuśala.

Yogācārins also had to patch their DOM. In their case, the ālayavijñāna, was always present and provided the continuity at times when the mental lights were out. This drew the obvious criticism, that the ālayavijñāna was an ātman by another name, but Yogācāra weathered this criticism and persisted into the present. This pattern of post-hoc patches to theories is quite typical of the history of Buddhist ideas, especially where Buddhists were trying to explain their world rather than their experience.

4. Continuity Between Death and Rebirth

However, the potentially disastrous discontinuity for karma theory is death, because when a person dies their mental stream has to continue seamlessly in some other body in order to preserve the integrity of the just-world myth. Theravādins solved the problem of the death-discontinuity by making rebirth instantaneous, that is by defining reality to match theory. Death is defined in such a way as to deny the possibility of discontinuity. Here the reasoning is post-hoc, there cannot be an interruption of the stream of mental activity, therefore there is not an interruption. But this idea of instantaneous rebirth was hotly disputed.  

For Vaibhāṣikas, the idea that mental activity could cease in one place and instantly arise in another was illogical. Travelling from place to place takes time. Instantaneous travel was a miracle too far for them and so, along with other sects, they invented the interim realm (antarābhava) to account for the time it took. Unfortunately this gave rise to a whole new range of problems and disputes. Since the interim realm is not mentioned in any early Buddhist texts the status of it with respect to rebirth destinations (loka or gati) was called into question. If there was some kind of existence (bhava) between death and rebirth, what form did that existence take? Where the skandhas involved? How long did it last? Was there any contact between this interim realm and this world or the next?

Some modern Theravādins accept that there is an interim realm, which nullifies the traditional Theravādin orthodoxy regarding karma and rebirth. 

Some Buddhists took advantage of a mysterious form of existence attributed mainly to group (kāya) of devas called mind-made (manomaya), where kāya or sometimes nikāya means 'group'. Since kāya can also mean "body" some Buddhists reasoned that in the interim realm, the departed took the form of a mind-made body (manomaya kāya) which further came confused with the Hindu subtle body (liṅga-śarīra or sūkṣma-śarīra). Others noticed an obscure passage about conception requiring the presence of a gandharva. The gandharva is a minor deity in the Ṛgveda with possible roots in Indo-Iranian mythology, since a parallel term is used in the Old-Iranian language, though referring to something very different. Some Buddhists claimed that we take the form of a gandharva in the interim realm, though this sense of the word seems to be entirely unrelated to the divine musician of myth. Versions of the interim-realm existence involving a synthesis of these also exist, i.e. that the gandharva is a mind-made form. 

5. When and How Does Karma Ripen?

Karma is always closely linked to rebirth, in the sense that rebirth is the major consequence of karma. But there are variations on this. At least one sutta tells us that all karma is discharged at rebirth. Each time the slate with wiped clean. Other texts, especially the Jātakas, make it clear that karma in past lives can continue to manifest after many lives. Other texts seem to imply that karma may ripen in the moment or at least in this lifetime.

An early medieval Theravādin analogy for karma was with the regularity associated with seeds and plants. Karma produces appropriate results the same way that a rice seed produces a rice plant (bīja-niyāma) and produces it in a timely fashion, just as fruits ripen in due season (uju-niyāma). See comments on analogical reasoning below.

Rebirth is said to be in one of five realms. Or six realms. The realms of the devas and asuras were originally counted as one, which makes good sense because in all of the stories the devas and asuras all live and fight in heaven (svarga). However, Buddhists seem to have lost the sense of the Brahmanical myths that their early founders had incorporated and so separated devas and asuras into two different realms. Though this makes a nonsense of the existing myths, it does make for a slightly more sophisticated eschatology, in that more afterlife destinations allows the myth of the just world more freedom in addressing the wrongs of this world, for example, some texts says that people who are jealous go to the asura realm after death; whereas people who are saintly go to the deva realm. Other realms are associated with particular dispositions: greed with hungry-ghosts, ignorance with animals, anger with hell.

6. Is Karma Inevitable?

This question was the subject of my 2014 Journal of Buddhist Ethics article. As far as the suttas are concerned karma must inevitably ripen. It is inescapable. But for later Buddhists this strict criterion is negated or deprecated. Buddhists, especially in the Mahāyāna texts, introduce the idea that one can escape one's karma in a variety of ways. This is highlighted in the different versions of the story of the meeting between King Ajātasattu and the Buddha. In Pāḷi the King is doomed by his patricide to a long stay in hell. In other versions surviving in Chinese, the King is so blessed by meeting the Buddha that his karma is partially or wholly nullified and he does not end up in hell, but in one version is in fact liberated. I know of no recorded disputes on this major change in Buddhist doctrine, but as far as I know the inevitability of karma is still a tenet of Theravāda orthodoxy (though as we have already seen there are many unorthodox Theravādins), thus there is a potential dispute.

In my article I pointed to the Tantric practice of reciting the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra as the acme of the breaking of the inevitability criteria. Now, however, I realised that Pure Land Buddhism completed negated karma much earlier by allowing that anyone who is dedicated to awakening and brings Amitābha to mind to be reborn in Sukhāvati where the conditions are so favourable that liberation is guaranteed.

7. Is Everything That Happens Due to Karma?

The early Buddhist answer to this was an emphatic no. Many other factors are involved in conditioning our experience of the world. However, modern Theravāda apologists sometimes argue, following Tibetan Buddhist versions of karma, that those other types of condition only arise because we are born in a particular world (loka) and that rebirth is driven by karma, therefore ultimately all experience is the result of karma. 

8. What Constitutes an Authority in These Disputes?

In these debates about the details of karma and rebirth there was often a contest around what constituted an authority. For example the tradition Theravādin argument against the interim realm was that it is not mentioned in the suttas. The counter-argument put forward by Sujato is that certain passages may be interpreted as veiled references to the interim-realm. On the whole the Pāḷi Canon is not shy about the supernatural, so why it should be vague about the interim realm is unclear. Of course Buddhists continued to produce texts and as time went on the issue of the authenticity of newer compositions emerged. Abhidharma texts and śāstras such as the Yogācārabhumi or the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya began to be far more important and more authoritative for later Buddhists.

On the other hand sometimes logic did make an appearance (as in the argument about travelling through space instantaneously). More often reasoning was analogical, with analogies being largely drawn from nature. The problem of Action at a Temporal Distance was addressed by the analogy of the seed for example.  If one could argue that an unseen process, like karma, was exactly analogous to a natural process, like a seed becoming a tree, then that would suffice to settle matters in ancient India.

Modern Contributions

So far we have mainly outlined the unresolved traditional issues, with only a few references to neuroscience. The nature and extent of these traditional disputes are not well understood in the mainstream Buddhism of today. They are explored in a number of modern scholarly publications, but even there the importance of these disputes seems to be underplayed. To my mind these disputes are incredibly important to the history of Buddhist ideas because they undermine the consensus presentation of karma and rebirth as historically uncontroversial. In fact, almost every detail of the various ideas related to karma and rebirth is disputed, sometimes hotly and intemperately. Buddhists want to have karma and rebirth, but they cannot figure out how to make them work. Problems such as those outlined above become drivers of innovation and change in Buddhist doctrines. Modern apologists for karma and rebirth mostly don't understand the problems and thus don't address them, or at least are not able to address them in ways that would appeal to people outside their sect.

The fact that these matters were never satisfactorily settled in ancient India is highly relevant to modern discussions of the salience of karma and rebirth. This is because those who, like Subhuti, assert that practising the Dharma requires such convictions, gloss over the historical fact that conviction requires a coherent basis and there is no coherent version of karma and rebirth to base such conviction on. Conviction in this case requires ignorance of, or insensitivity to, these historical disputes. In other words any belief in karma and rebirth has to involve taking certain propositions on faith. 

These are the conclusions we come to from exploring the history of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, something very few sectarian Buddhists have done. We have not yet raised the question of how science affects the plausibility of karma and rebirth.

The very word 'science' activates the missile defence systems of Buddhists: the Materialist is a person-to-person missile that obliterates all arguments from science. Similarly with the Scientism or Reductionist missiles. Cluster-bomb-like attacks like Relativism or Cartesian Dualism are also activated and ready to be deployed. Tackling such objections from anti-scientists leads down a road in which the details of what we know about the universe are called into question and that becomes the subject of the debate rather than the beliefs in question. In a sense it is fair enough. Epistemological questions (how do we know something) are important, but they cut both ways. I am happy to explain how I know that the world at one scale is made up of atoms and that the forces that govern atoms are so well understood that no supernatural forces are relevant to questions of karma and rebirth (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry). If only a dualist could explain to me how they know that mind is made of some other stuff and how it manages to interact with material stuff. None can.

Really getting to grips with these kinds of meta-disputes takes a lot of time and energy. I have written some relevant essays and will be expanding on these as my book takes shape. I plan to tackle Relativism in a forthcoming essay. But let us, for the sake of brevity, stipulate that enough doubt has been cast on the objections that I may continue to explore the implications of science for karma and rebirth. I've been looking at this for some time now. I wrote a series of essays on Vitalism for example, and tried to show why Vitalism and Cartesian (matter/spirit) Dualism are a bad theories, i.e. that they don't make accurate or precise predictions.

But in the long run the laws of thermodynamics are decisive. There is simply no way for the information contained in the atoms of our bodies to be transmitted to a fertilised embryo in some remote womb. In order for this to happen the mainstream models of matter and energy, which are incredibly accurate and precise, would have to be completely replaced by another set of theories that were at least as accurate and precise, and yet allowed for some supernatural influence. Unfortunately the people attacking the science arguments are not themselves scientists and have no interest in replacing the laws of physics.

My understanding is that we now understand enough about physics and chemistry to rule out any relevance for supernatural entities or forces interacting with our world. They either can't interact or they interact so weakly with the atoms in our bodies that they are undetectable and thus cannot observably affect our minds. There is no observed behaviour of matter at the scales relevant to karma and rebirth that requires any more explanation than what the standard models provide. In addition, though study of the mind is still in its infancy, we also know enough to know that no experiences require any supernatural or matter/spirit style dualism to explain. Supernaturalism, Dualism and Vitalism just don't offer us any insights into the world or our experience. As theories they don't make accurate or precise predictions, and they have little in the way of explanatory power. We can confidently set them aside and get on with trying to understand the world through mainstream physics and chemistry. 

Scientific theory and observation is certainly incomplete. We do not understand everything about our world or our minds. But we understand a good deal. What is seldom acknowledged by advocates of failed supernatural theories is that they have even larger explanatory gaps. The supernatural is always a worse explanation for an experience than a natural explanation or no explanation. Some things do remain unexplained and thus it is always better to admit ignorance than to assert that something can be explained when it cannot. The supernatural fails to explain what it purports to explains. There is no longer any good reason for a well-informed and thoughtful person to believe in the supernatural.

I have also explored at length why religious and/or supernatural beliefs remain plausible to so many. Religious ideas do seem intuitive or at least minimally counter-intuitive to many people, but this is not a reason to believe in them. However, this need not lead to intolerance, which is irrational. Religion is more or less universal amongst humans and acknowledging this costs us little. Nor does it change the essential task set out by Buddhism, i.e. to transcend our view of ourselves as isolated individual selves and the harmful behaviour associated with this view.

Apart form the traditional versions of karma and rebirth there are versions that have been modified to be more compatible with modernism. So for example a version of karma that appeals to many modern Buddhists is that repeated actions form habits that make us more likely to behave in the same way again and shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. Buddhist practice in this view is about identifying habits and trying to eliminate them. This certainly seems to work and I have argument against it per se. But it has almost no relationship with traditional Buddhist views on karma and rebirth and I think we are still getting to the point where such views will be wildly acknowledged in the Buddhist world. My view is that considerable deconstruction of Buddhist doctrines is still required.


Having looked closely at Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth over time, my conclusion is that, that no traditional version of them is coherent on its own terms. I emphasise the latter because, although I am sometimes known as a science enthusiast and accused of being a Materialist, I have carefully evaluated these Buddhist doctrines while trying my best to take the tradition at face value. The logic of the doctrines does not stand up to a sustained inquiry, the different versions all contradict each other and such plausibility as the doctrines retain seems to rely on sectarian readings which ignore historical disputes. But even granting the stipulations of sectarianism, still, no version of karma and rebirth is coherent.

In the light of modern science I would go further. The forces that govern matter and energy at the scales relevant to the discussion of karma and rebirth are well enough known and precisely enough specified, that no just-world or afterlife theory is possible and thus no version of them will ever be plausible. And this is a problem for Buddhism as a religion. It's a problem for those people who insist that to be a Buddhist one simply must believe against all evidence to the contrary. And that creates a kind of paradox, because honesty is one of the first principles of Buddhism and another important principle is that Buddhists do not rely on blind faith (though this is more honoured in the breach than in the observance). If we are honest and ask for evidence then the belief-system collapses.

And I believe this is the point we have reached. The belief-system of Buddhism is breaking down from within and being bypassed by secular presentations of Buddhist techniques (including, but not limited to Mindfulness therapies). My intention is to actively participate in the ensuing discussion about what Buddhism looks like in the post-deconstruction era.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986). Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Nagapriya. (2004). Exploring Karma & Rebirth. Windhorse Publications.

Subhuti. (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism With Beliefs. Privately circulated. 

06 November 2015

In Conversation about Karma and Rebirth

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

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

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

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

Karma and Rebirth Have Never Worked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernists Responses to the Crisis in Buddhist Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So, "Now what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

21 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part II

Part I of this essay introduced Justin L. Barrett's ideas on reflective and non-reflective beliefs. Non-reflective beliefs are formed through experience of interacting with the physical world and unconsciously assimilated from people around us as we grow up. Reflective beliefs are thought through, but are shaped by non-reflective beliefs before we become aware of them. We find concepts plausible to the extent that they match our existing non-reflective beliefs. In part II we move on to discussing how supernatural beliefs fit into this basic pattern. 

Minimally Counter-Intuitive Concepts 

Belief in supernatural agents, gods or ghosts, does not require a special part of the brain. What is required is a concept that mostly fits our non-reflective beliefs, and thus feels intuitive, but that has a few counter-intuitive characteristics, enough to make it interesting and memorable. 
"These minimally counter-intuitive beliefs may be characterized as meeting most of the assumptions that describers and categorizers generate—thus being easy to understand, remember, and believe—but as violating just enough of these assumptions to be attention demanding and to have an unusually captivating ability to  assist in the explanation of certain experiences. "(Barrett 2004: 22)
Concepts that are maximally counter-intuitive are simply not believable.  Concepts that are maximally intuitive are believed without question and become part of the background. It is the concept that is mostly compliant with our non-reflective beliefs, but which violates them in an interesting way that captures our attention. Barrett offers the following examples: A dog that grows old and dies is unremarkable; but a shoe that behaved the same way would be a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Similarly an inanimate object that talks, an agent that can break the laws of physics, or a plant that eats animals are minimally counter-intuitive. Of course the latter really exists in the form of the Venus-flytrap. So being minimally counter-intuitive does not rule out the concept from being true.

A dog that talked might be minimally counter-intuitive, but a dog that wore a suit and ran a Fortune 500 company would be violate too many of our non-reflective beliefs and would be considered bizarre. Though this would work in a cartoon. Barrett asserts that what counts as bizarre varies according to individual experiences and cultural factors, but that whether a concept is minimally counter-intuitive does not vary. This is because all people have roughly the same collection of mental tools doing the categorising and describing that produce non-reflective beliefs. 

If a concept has too many counter-intuitive elements it seems implausible, but just enough makes the concept more interesting and memorable. And such concepts constitute a special group in Barrett's theory, precisely because they are interesting and memorable. Myths, legends, films and cartoons all play with this distinction. For example the talking wolf in the story of Little Red Riding-hood or the little bear in Goldie Locks are able to play an active role in the story and help to make the story memorable. Similarly for Pinocchio the wooden toy who becomes a real little boy. Many religious beliefs fall into the category of being minimally counter-intuitive, or are made up of minimally counter-intuitive elements. 

One of the key minimally counter-intuitive ideas is that death, the end of the physical processes of life, does not mean the end of mental processes. Children, for example, can readily conceive that death means the end of physical processes, but regardless of religious background, they tend to assume that mental processes continue independently of the body (Bering et al. 2005). So they are able to correctly assess that dead people no longer need to eat, but will assume that they still get hungry. This is very similar to the belief behind Brahmanical ancestor worship involving offerings of food and drink to the departed (preta). The offerings are transformed into smoke by the fire, the smoke drifts up into the sky where it nourishes the departed. Buddhists (rather cruelly) parodied the Brahmanical pretas as a class of tormented beings who can never slake their thirst or sate their hunger. Children of all faiths and none seem to reason this way about death from an early age. They do not see death as a full-stop, but assume that mental processes of the dead keep going, despite the death of the body. Many factors go to sustaining and reinforcing this kind of mind/body dualism. But underlying it are non-reflective descriptions of agents that do not rely on embodiment, so that unseen agents are minimally counter-intuitive. 

As Thomas Metzinger has said: 
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (Metzinger 2009: 78)
The separation of mind and body is a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Most of the time we experience our minds and bodies as inseparable. The out-of-body experience conflicts with this in an interesting and memorable way and it also consistent with our other non-reflective beliefs about death. We can go further, because this concept of being disembodied goes towards explanations of the world that address some of our deepest fears. If the thinking part of us can exist disembodied, then the Just World (or Moral Universe) Theory is a possibility, because life after death is a possibility. An afterlife is attractive and satisfying on all kinds of levels. So a complex of non-reflective and reflective ideas and concepts reinforce each other and make religious beliefs seem plausible, even though they contain counter-intuitive elements. It is this explanatory power that explains the success of religious ideas, despite the presence of counter-intuitive aspects. 

To summarise, a concept will seem plausible to us if it fits with many of our non-reflective beliefs (feels right), and also with our current reflective beliefs (makes sense). The relationships between reflective and non-reflective beliefs is recursive, a reflective belief seems plausible if it concurs with our non-reflective beliefs, but is also shaped by them to be more plausible. A minimally counter-intuitive concept fits with a large number of our non-reflective beliefs, but violates a small number of them. This feature makes the minimally counter-intuitive concept interesting and memorable. If the minimally counter-intuitive concept can also be put to use explaining mysteries, then it can seem extra-ordinarily plausible in our minds, despite the remaining counter intuitive elements. For example, religious miracles are implausible, but in the context of religious belief as a whole, this implausibility is what makes them interesting and memorable.

Of course many religious ideas, such as the Christian creator/law-giver/saviour God or Buddhist karma, are neither simple nor minimally counter-intuitive. Barrett offers two solutions to this problem.

Firstly a complex belief might be made up of parts that are minimally counter-intuitive. For example the idea of life after death is minimally counter-intuitive. The idea that morality can be understood via an accounting metaphor is broadly intuitive and seems to be common to many cultures (not least to Buddhist and Christian accounts of morality). And a just world is also a minimally counter-intuitive concept. So a complex concept such as a just world involving moral accounting in the afterlife, which is not itself minimally counter-intuitive, might not violate the principle because its parts are minimally counter-intuitive. And this this may be facilitated by the way we think about such things. When trying to think about karma we seem to take parts of it one at a time. Although Buddhism teaches that "actions cause rebirth"; we tend to think in terms of "actions have consequences" and a range of other partial concepts are are either intuitive or minimally counter-intuitive, so that the whole seems plausible.

Secondly systematic religious education (not to say indoctrination) and experience of religious practice might shift our non-reflective beliefs, so that what we feel to be intuitive may shift to accommodate what was previously felt to be counter-intuitive. For example we may not find "higher states of consciousness" an intuitive idea until we begin to meditate and start to experience them. The reinforcement that comes from being in a group dedicated to certain propositions cannot be under-estimated. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it:
"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."
However we've already seen in Part I of this essay, that under time pressure people tend to revert to non-reflective views about God. Some complex theological concepts crumble when people don't have time to be reflective. We may consciously take on religious beliefs for reasons other than their plausibility or implausibility. We may, for example, want to fit in with a community we find attractive. I think Barrett plays down, or overlooks, the importance of social factors of religious beliefs in his account.

We've already mentioned in passing that unseen agents meet the criteria of being minimally counter-intuitive (they are typical of agents except for the fact of being invisible). We must now consider in more detail how our brains process information about agents.

Finding Agents Everywhere

A key mental tool in religious beliefs is what Barrett calls the Agent Detective Device. What he means by this is the complex function of our minds which scans the environment for agent directed activity. This ability has clear evolution advantages. We need to be able to identify the presence of other agents. It is a key ability of social animals that we recognise others of our kind as agents of the same type as ourselves. Social primates, for example, work together to ensure that the group has gets enough food and is protected from predators. Predator detection is another key task for agent detection. When we're outdoors there are all kinds of sights and sounds, all constantly changing. Working out if the bump in the night is something to be afraid of, has clear survival benefits. And better to err on the side of caution and have a first approximation that the sight or sound is an agent, because taking evasive action from an inanimate object costs us little, whereas failing to take it against a predator might cost us our lives. This is why noises at night cause our hearts to race. That raised heart-rate prepares us for decisive action that may save our lives. For this reason Barrett refers to the Agent Detection Device as hyperactive, hence his acronym for it is HADD.

Barrett does not go into this, but it's seems that humans are not the only animals who do agent detection in this way. Mammals and birds also scan the environment for agents and tend to err on the side of treating movement as caused by an agent. This video of a cat being freaked out by a cucumber is both amusing and demonstrates the principle. The cat's owners have sneakily placed a cucumber behind it while it was focussed on eating. On seeing the harmless vegetable it launches into a spectacular defensive manoeuvre until recognition dampens the response. Similarly scarecrows deter crows because they set off the HADD.

One of the consequences of being predisposed to detect agency in the environment is that we attribute agency to things on very little evidence. Many a time we attribute agency to insentient and inanimate objects. Many people treat their computers as having agency for example, and this may be why artificial intelligence, in the sense of a human-like mind residing in a computer, seems so plausible to so many people. A sentient computer is minimally counter-intuitive, though scientists are not even close to creating an artificial mind. We also invoke Agent Detection in retrospect when we observe behaviour which is apparently goal seeking. Anyone who has sat around a fire, must have sometimes suspected that the smoke deliberately follows them wherever they sit. English people talk about the weather in a way that suggests they believe some moderately malign agent uses rain to torment them. Sometimes nature appears to pursue us, block us, or otherwise interact with us in a directed way. Our non-reflective fall-back is to seek an agent behind the action. Unseen agents are not entirely intuitive, but are minimally counter-intuitive.

Once an object is identified as an agent, or once a behaviour is identified as directed and therefore indicative of agency, it is passed to the Theory of Mind Device. The Theory of Mind Device recognises other agents as having a mind like ours, i.e. as having thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, memories etc. We model the inner life of the agent in order to predict what its next action will be and how we can best respond to that. With animals for example we predict whether it is likely to attack or retreat. We combine this with our knowledge of animals to predict the consequences of our own actions in these terms. This seems to be the evolutionary purpose of imagination, i.e. to model possible actions and consequences in order to determine a course of action. In the case of other members of our social group this ability to model potential actions and consequences is essential to being a group member.

Although Barrett does not say so, we might have extended his observation about hyperactivity of the Agent Detection Device, by observing that we are also predisposed to seeing all agents in human terms. In other words there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise non-human agents, to see their motivations for acting as being like our own. In the case of the dearly departed, we still identify them as agents, albeit disembodied, and our Theory of Mind Device describes what their inner life is like, and predicts what other kinds of properties the agent might have. Brahmins feed their departed ancestors because they understand that they themselves would hate to go hungry in the post-mortem gap between death and rebirth in heaven. It's not blind ritual or stupidity, as some Western scholars have ignorantly supposed, but empathy based on some very plausible suppositions that motivates the ritual behaviour in this case. That so many first world people fail to appreciate this and empathise with it, is more of an indictment of us, than of them. Which is not to say that ancestor worship is based on facts. It isn't. But it is a natural conclusion to come to and also expresses important values of caring for the community. 

Matthew Tyler Boden (2015) recently observed that supernatural beliefs do actually provide consolation. They help to explain why things occur and help people to understand themselves and the world (227). His 2015 study concluded:
The current study extends existing research by demonstrating that supernatural beliefs, broadly and peculiar beliefs, specifically, are considered adaptive in several ways, and the manners in and extents to which they are considered adaptive are associated with psychological benefits (229-30).
I know from long association with religious people of various stripes that part of the attraction of religious belief of any kind is the consolation it provides in the face of misfortune, old age, sickness, and death. 

Rationalists would have us replace religion with science. However, science is not always consoling or it is so complex that is does not help to explain to ordinary people why things happen. Also it explains how things happen, but not why. Science suggests that things just happen according physical laws and mostly without agents. This is not consoling (even to me and I love science). But worse, this view conflicts with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. If the question is how we should act with respect to other people, then a solid grounding in Newtonian mechanics is no help. General Relativity is more accurate, but still no help. Nor does Quantum mechanics shed any light. The "sciences" which might shed light on these subjects, i.e. the social sciences, are often hardly science at all. They routinely come out with simple truisms. I recall for example, seeing a scientific article that concluded that "time heals". Or they are deeply counter-intuitive - we want to have sex with one parent and murder the other. Or the vacillate between contradictory conclusions depending on the fashion of the day. From the point of view of the person in the street, the scientists cannot seem to make up their minds about anything. Whereas religious ideas seem "time tested and true", though this is an illusion since religious people argue more than scientists about what constitutes truth, and are prone to drastic direction changes inspired by revelations. From this point of view it starts to become clear why scientists have failed to persuade all, or even most, religious people to abandon religion. I would argue that the rise in secularism is not driven by people embracing science, but by a creeping nihilism. Not by finding meaning in physics, but by deciding that there is no meaning. And this is reflected in the growing prominence of Utilitarianism and Popularism in politics. 

What people actually believe is almost always a potpourri of ideas from a range of different sources. Modern Buddhists are unconsciously, but powerfully, influenced by the currents of modernity and have often tacitly adjusted traditional beliefs about karma and rebirth to fit with these currents. Many people are surprised when I tell them what the Pāḷi texts actually say about karma and rebirth. Very few, for example, seem to have grasped that the principle vipāka of kamma is punabhāva or rebirth. The Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon does not teach that "actions have consequences", so much as he teaches that "actions cause rebirth". 

A real problem with disembodied agents is that they have a superficial explanatory power and fit into our non-reflective beliefs about life. The fact that there are also counter-intuitive aspects to the belief is not, according to Barrett, a reason not to believe. Without specific training on how to observe events, we may miss the real extent to which a belief conflicts with the facts. An example I have used before, is that I know people who live in a "haunted" house. Many people who have lived there describe having met supernatural entities in the night-time. On face value a concept of a disembodied agent disturbing their sleep explains the situation. Then we read a description of sleep paralysis and realise that these particular hauntings are all classic examples of sleep paralysis, which does not involve any outside agency or disembodied mind. And yet some of my haunted acquaintances are reluctant to accept the sleep paralysis explanation because they are invested in the ghost: in a community of Romantics the supernatural interpretation is an important sources of kudos and social capital; having seen a ghost makes it more likely that the person will be seen as incrowd; but it also bolsters the non-reflective beliefs about the matter/spirit split and the afterlife. As Metzinger points out such experiences can be compelling in themselves, but they also often occur in a milieu where they fit hand in glove with other beliefs. Confirmation bias, that built in feature of reasoning, ensures that we treat confirmation of our beliefs differently that contradiction. We're likely to dismiss contradiction as irrelevant. 

We have particular ways of reasoning about agency. Most of the time it is transparent to us. We are aware of the results of this cogitation, but not the process. Agency Detection and Theory of Mind work unconsciously and produce non-reflective beliefs that both form the basis of comparison for reflection and also shape the reasoning process itself. With some introspection and a will to challenge conventional views we can have insights to some extent into how our minds work. What Barrett is doing is applying knowledge gained from neuroscience to construct a plausible narrative of how we navigate our world.


I find this account of belief in supernatural agency very helpful. It shows that belief in such agency is neither stupid nor crazy. It's not that believers are somehow inferior and non-believers superior. Religious belief is consistent with our non-reflective assumptions about the world, it is minimally counter-intuitive (or based on minimally counter-intuitive concepts), and emerges from the normal functioning of our minds. It is natural to have supernatural beliefs. Taken with ideas on how we make decisions, I think we begin to see why religious beliefs, like karma & rebirth, seem so plausible to so many people; and why simply arguing against them, or presenting "scientific" facts is not sufficient to change people's minds.

Karma & rebirth fit many of our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Although they contain counter-intuitive elements, these are not so great as to cause doubts in most people's minds. Indeed they make the concepts minimally counter-intuitive and thus more interesting and memorable. The explanations offered by karma & rebirth seem very satisfying. Many of my colleagues in the Triratna Order and acquaintances in the wider Buddhist world find that karma & rebirth both fit intuitively with their non-reflective beliefs, or as they say it both "feels right" and "makes sense". Rebirth seems consistent with how the world works for many people, especially if they have no training in Empiricism, and even for some who do. Karma, especially the more modernist "actions have consequences" style of karma belief, even more so. This is precisely what Barrett's theory predicts with respect to karma & rebirth. Arguing that karma & rebirth are counter-intuitive is not productive at this point, because it is precisely because the counter-intuitive elements that make them seem so plausible.

I follow Damasio in understanding the process of decision making as involving assessing our emotional responses to concepts. When a concept is consistent with non-reflective beliefs it feels good. When it conflicts with non-reflective beliefs, it feels bad. Feeling good, is more or less the same as feeling true. With minimal introspection we know what feels right, what feels intuitive, and we decide reflectively what seems true. Our reflective beliefs are shaped by and cohere with our non-reflective beliefs. If we ourselves or those close to us have experiences which can be interpreted as confirming our reflective beliefs as well, then we are ready to accept this. And as Metzinger points out in the case of out-of-body experiences, these kinds of experience are relatively common and extra-ordinarily persuasive. More so amongst a community of meditators.

In this way of thinking about the way we understand our world and make decisions, we also find the seeds of dissatisfaction and disappointment. While the "feels good = right" equation might have worked for pre-civilisation human beings, it does not work once we start living with the hyper-stimulation that comes with moderate levels of civilisation. And this may be why the upsurge in religious thinking in India is associated with the second urbanisation in the Central Ganges Valley.

The European Enlightenment bequeathed us two methods of approaching the world. The first was to pay close attention and to use instruments to get closer to the object, along with  standardised forms of measurement of increasing accuracy. The first such instruments used glass lenses to magnify objects, allowing us to see in more detail. We naturally seek to identify the regularities in our experience, so simply by paying close attention we improve the accuracy of our theories of the world. But the killer app for empiricism is not measurement per se, it is the second method, comparing notes. It is the comparing of notes that undermines the generalisations that any one person makes based on their experiences. Having multiple witnesses comparing measurements does indeed reveal the nature of the universe in a way that is almost impossible for the individual. The process of unravelling that nature is far from being finished, if only because each advance tends to also improve the accuracy and precision with which we can observe and measure. And limits of this improvement have yet to be reached.

The Enlightenment approach to understanding the world led to a devaluing of individual experience to some extent. Because if you are the only person who notices a phenomenon then it gets demoted to being an illusion at best and an hallucination at worse (presuming the witness is genuine and credible). This product of the Enlightenment provoked the reactionary Romantic attempt to revalorise individual experience. Romanticism is very influential in the English speaking world and has influenced how we see the arts especially. More particularly there are very strong threads of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, which are dominant because so few Buddhists have direct experience of practising Empiricism and so many have been taught to think of Empiricism as an enemy. Romantics like to validate individual experiences, the more unusual the better. The individual who has a peculiar experience is automatically seen as confirming the existence of a non-material world (essentially a world of spirit - see  Metaphors and Materialism). For a Romantic, unexplained phenomenon have the power of undermining reason and pointing to mysticism that cannot be explained by Empiricism because the experience is purely individual. 

It's important to understand the dynamic at work in the human mind, the inseparability of mind and body, of thoughts and emotions, the dynamic of what makes a plausible concept. Firstly it is important when we set out to examine our own conditioning and the views which shape our understanding of the world in order to free ourselves from intoxication with experience. Secondly, when we try to persuade religieux of our empirically derived point of view. In the first case this is a powerful tool for self understanding. We can see how views are like a gravity well into which we unconsciously fall and which takes a great effort to escape from. In a sense there is no such thing as a dispassionate point of view for the unliberated. What we must try to do is loosen the grip of views, by trying to see how views shape our world (our world of experience). It can takes years of practice to begin to see how the views we were conditioned to accept non-reflectively as children shape us, and to become disillusioned and disenchanted enough to set them aside. In the second case it means that we have to be extremely patient with people who do not share our views. Religious beliefs are some of the most intractable views there are, since they stem from our deepest desires and aversions. Arguing is unlikely to help. A Buddhist with no training in Empiricism, a strong conditioning in Romanticism, and a stock of personal experiences and anecdotes based on doing Buddhist practices, is not very susceptible to the argument I make here. I do not expect most Buddhists to be even interested, let alone convinced. None-the-less I think for those with experience of, or interest in, Empiricism, this argument provides a powerful explanation for the situation we are in vis-à-vis more traditional religious believers. We are more likely to understand them, than they are to understand us. And thus the onus is on us to be understanding.

It seems to me increasingly vital that we Buddhists make a distinction in what our goals are. The early Buddhists, at least, were clear that they sought to understand experience. When we say that we aim at insights into reality we are simply barking up the wrong tree. Nothing about the Buddhist methods will shed light on reality. Buddhists have little or no contribution to make regarding the understanding of reality. But Buddhist methods certainly do shed light on the nature of experience, particularly the first person perspective experience, and they certainly do provide some people with a sense of freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour. The trouble is that Buddhists find their own narratives about reality compelling.



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Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

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