Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts

12 February 2016

The Myths of Religion and Being Bauddha.

No doubt there are innumerable definitions of religion from many different points of view. In 2015 I wrote an essay, The Complex Phenomenon of Religion (25 Sept 2015), mapping out some of the key ideas that I see as underlying religion and how they interrelate to create religion. The foundational ideas being: supernatural agency, morality, and ontological dualism. These ideas are intuitive to most people, or at least (to use Justin Barret's term), minimally counter-intuitive. I tried to show how each of these ideas entails others and thus starting from our intuitive conclusions about the world, we are drawn into a complex and self-confirming worldview. Morality or a just world entails an afterlife because the world of the living is patently unfair. An afterlife is itself intuitive for various reasons, but particularly made possible by ontological dualism, the idea that our soul or mind is distinct from our body. And this dualistic conclusion is intuitive to many people because of, for example, out-of-body experiences, and so on. All of the main features of religions, including Buddhism, emerge from various interactions amongst these basic intuitive conclusions and generalising from experience.

Another way to look at religion, is to see it as based on a series of interrelated myths. Myths are stories that express the values of a society in symbolic terms. A characteristic of many of these stories is that, as well as embodying our intuited conclusions about the world, they include minimally counter-intuitive elements that make them interesting and memorable. Figures like founders of religion are often essentially human, but capable of miracles or other superhuman feats for example. The main myths that I have identified are:
  • The myth of a just world
  • The myth of an afterlife
  • The myth of paradise
  • The myth of the golden age
  • The myth of the immortal founder
  • The myth of eternal truths
My project for the last few years has been focussed on demythologising and demystifying Buddhism. In short I have attempted to show that these myths no longer make sense of Buddhism in the light of what we currently know and understand about the world we live in. As of yesterday (Thur, 11 Feb 2016) we live in a universe permeated by gravity waves and direct detection of blackholes. Part of my project has been showing that the intuitive concepts that underlie religion are not true; that many of the ideas that seem intuitively right to us, are in fact wrong. Unfortunate many religieux struggle to understand science, especially those who write books and blogs about Buddhism and science. One of the problems for science communicators is that the new knowledge is frequently counter-intuitive or at least quite difficult to understand (look at the comments section of any newspaper coverage of the LIGO announcement of gravity wave/blackhole detection. Very few lay people really understand Quantum Mechanics for example, though it frequently (and almost inevitably erroneously) comes up as providing confirmation of Buddhist philosophies. This, combined with the weight of our established beliefs, means that many of us are reluctant to accept the new knowledge on face value, except in rare cases when it seems to confirm our beliefs (though in many cases the apparent confirmation amounts to wishful thinking). 

As time has gone on I have found more and more holes in the Buddhist account of the world, while at the same time finding the Buddhist account of experience more compelling. Buddhists get the world almost entirely wrong, but they get experience almost entirely right, and combine this with a number of techniques for exploring experience (though let's be clear there is nothing scientific about this exploration). The opinion about the world makes some people say that I am not really a Buddhist, since for them Buddhism is primarily about assenting to a set of dogmas; the latter opinion is for me the crux of the matter and why I am still a Buddhist. 

"Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience."


- Satyapriya
I was having a discussion with a friend and mentor recently and he mentioned one of his conclusions about what Buddhism is. He said, "Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience." I concur. The problem Buddhism sets out to solve is that we seek happiness without any clear idea of what happiness is or what might make us happy. And thus we go about it all wrong. The basic assumption of civilisation is that happiness is achieved through maximising pleasurable experience and minimising painful experience. And yet it has been clear for at least 2 millennia that this does not work. Part of the problem is civilisation itself. We evolved desires to motivate us to perform certain behaviours: desire motivates us to seek out food, after consuming it we experience satiation and sense of reward (so the behaviour is reinforced). Under modern conditions, finding food entails almost no effort, we always have access to food, and it is laden with sugar, salt, and fat. Since we don't eat to satiate hunger, but for pleasure instead, we seldom experience satiation and reward is connected to consumption itself. As a consequence more and more of us are fat and getting fatter. The desire for food, the reward of eating it, and the sense of satiation all seemed to be fundamentally warped by civilisation. The same can be said of sex, work, and almost every other facet of life. So Buddhism (at least originally) set out to disrupt these habitual responses leading to hyperstimulation through prolonged periods of withdrawing attention from sensory experience, and to discovering that there is life beyond the world of the senses.

We might contrast this with a Tantric approach to Buddhism. In the words of David Chapman: "It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality." I'm intrigued by Chapman's writing about Tantric Buddhism (in this and a number of recent related blog posts) and his argument that perhaps Tantra would form a better basis for "lay Buddhism" than renunciation. On face value this is an intriguing proposition, since in fact even many dedicated people are not practising renunciation and the practised associated with it. I'm going to look into this, however, at present I'm not convinced that a turn toward experience is viable because most people are habitual hedonists (motivated by pleasure seeking). To my mind there is too much evidence from outside of Buddhism that supports the idea that our basic problem is seeing happiness in terms of pleasure. Arguing that an habitual hedonist will escape this trap by turning toward experience is a bit like arguing that an alcoholic can be cured of their addiction by turning to the bottle. Like many Tantrikas, I still think that renunciation and reordering of our relationship to experience is a prerequisite to turning towards experience.

A third possibility which interests me at the moment involves re-examining the context of addiction. In his book Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari describes a new approach to addiction which focusses nor on the chemical properties of the drug, or the character of the addict, but looks at the environment of the addict. People who are well embedded in a social context, who experience the love and support of friends and family, and who live in a conducive physical environment, do not, in most cases, get addicted. Most people (Hari suggests 90%) use recreational drugs without getting addicted, just as most people drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. So why do only 10% become addicted. Hari argues that it is because of their social context, that people become addicted because they are isolated or alienated from a supportive social context. Alienation is, of course, a feature of modern urban life. With respect to intoxication with experience this would mean focussing not on experience itself, but taking an indirect to the addiction to sense pleasure by working on environmental factors that support addiction. As far as I know, no one has applied this kind of logic to the problem that Buddhists are trying to solve, though many of us are concerned with creating supportive contexts for practice (saṅgha). One of the issues that Hari seems not to deal with is the problem of people who may not be addicted, but who none-the-less make poor choices and decisions while influenced by drugs.

As interesting as these other approaches may be this essay is going to continue to explore my main theme: turning away from experience qua source of happiness. 

When we sit down to meditate we may well still be seeking experience, or we may well still see mediation as focussed on experience. But the acme of meditation—emptiness—is an end to experience. From the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas (MN 121, 122, see also SN 41.6) through into the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras there has been this powerful theme of practices in which we bring all experience to an end. We stop experiencing our body and the physical senses, and then we stop having mental experiences; and simply dwell in what remains. We do not experience ourselves as a self or the world as a world, or any distinction between the two. However, in this state of emptiness we continue to be and to be aware of being aware. This approach to emptiness, in which emptiness is more than simply a critique of experience or an ideal, but which is instantiated as the absence of experience seems very promising. My view is that the (earlier) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are attempts to put this experience of no experience (or perhaps an experience with no content) into words, to use metaphors and abstractions to explain what the absence of experience is like and what the consequences of it are like. But one cannot experience this absence of experience while seeking an experience. One must allow experience to die away, or as my friend put it, die to experience. And there is no doubt that this is far more difficult than it sounds. Many people find it terrifying because from one's first person perspective, one ceases to exist, or at least discovers that one's existence was always contingent and that when one stops paying attention to the conditions that underlie it, self stops arising.

I've written about this before in an essay from 2008 on communicating the Dharma. In two suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 45.11 and 45.12) the Buddha is describing spending time reflecting on his awakening. He says:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
"I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening."
In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā).
So evaṃ pajānāmi... chandapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chandavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāpaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāvūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca avūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca avūpasanto hoti, saññā ca avūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca vūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca vūpasanto hoti, saññā ca vūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; appattassa pattiyā atthi āyāmaṃ, tasmimpi ṭhāne anuppatte tappaccayāpi vedayitan ti.
"I know this... the condition of desire is experienced, the condition of the suppression of desire is also experienced; the condition of thinking is experienced, the condition of suppression of thinking is also experienced; the condition of perception is experienced, the condition of the suppression of perception is also experienced. There is suppression of desire, and thinking, and perception and on that account there is experience. There is stretching out to attain the unattained, and in this also experience on account of the unattained."
I surmise that this experience with no content was probably also known to Brahmin meditators. They described it in Sanskrit as saccidānanda, i.e. being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). But they associated this state with Brahman, the absolute consciousness of the universe. Absolutes are problematic. Modern day Advaita Vedantins will still argue on the basis of belief in an absolute, that there is no free will. If there were free will it would undermine the absolute. Partly influenced by Sāṃkhya philosophy they see the world as māyā—a creation of mind—and as such it has only relative existence. In the absolute sense it does not exist, only Brahman exists. It's important to remember that existence in ancient India (including in Buddhism) was always associated with permanent, unchanging existence. Temporary, contingent, or mutable existence are all contradictions in terms. If something is temporary, contingent, or mutable then "existence" does not apply. And this in turn also seems to have influenced Buddhists who were trying to mitigate the turn to Realism in the Abhidharma project, giving rise to the idea of Two Truths (the word satya has strong ontological implications and can just as well be read as reality as truth). In Sāṃkhya thought there are two basic conditions: puruṣa which is passive, permanent, and real; and prakṛti which is active, impermanent, and unreal. The world of experience is prakṛti (literally "nature") and it is māyā, a creation of mind. It is not real. Buddhists called this pole of experience samvṛti-satya, usually translated as "relative-truth" though more literally saṃvṛti means closure or concealing (so it could mean "concealed reality"). Progress is made by rolling up manifestations of prakṛti and leaving only puruṣa as a passive observer. Buddhists called this paramārtha-satya or "ultimate-truth" (or "revealed reality"). Again the Sāṃkhya may well be informed by the experience of emptiness, but interpreted as a kind of absolute. Very few accounts of Indian philosophy tie it to experience and this is a catastrophic mistake which leads to confusion.

Where Buddhism is different from Sāṃkhyā, Vedanta, and Advaita Vedanta, at least some forms of Buddhism, is that it rejects the very idea of absolute existence (this is made explicit, for example in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, SN 12.15, extant in Chinese and Sanskrit versions, as well as quoted by Nāgārjuna and his commentators). Everything we experience arises and passes away and therefore cannot be absolute or related to an absolute. This is one reason why I have a problem with the Two Truths Doctrine. It appears to contravene this more fundamental Buddhist axiom. What Buddhists seem to believe, at least originally, was this state of no experience achieved temporarily in meditation could be made permanent in the afterlife. Nirvāṇa meant not being reborn, not being reborn meant possessing no sense faculties, therefore having no experience. Nothing comprehensible arises. Thus questions about what a Tathāgata experiences after death are avyākṛta "undetermined". As I've pointed out the Mahāyāna eventually rejected this as an ideal because by necessity a Buddha was uninvolved in our lives post-parinirvāṇa. They redefined the goals of Buddhism (See my alternate history of Mahāyāna).

This is an important role that the myths of religion play, i.e. as interpretive frameworks for experience. On the basis of apparently similar experiences, someone raised in a Vedantic tradition comes to very different conclusions to someone raised in a Buddhist tradition. The versions of religious myths we internalise form the basis of how we interpret the experiences we have as a result of doing religious exercises. And this seems to be the case even for people who have insights into the nature of experience - they see their experience as a confirmation of their belief system. In this sense, the intellectual context within which we practice is very important. We know that it is entirely possible to draw the wrong conclusions from individual experience. In fact it is probable that we will do this, all the time. We all do this with respect to pleasure for example. We enjoy it and so we unconsciously think more of it will lead us towards happiness. But it doesn't. 

Some of the received myths now seem counter-productive. The strong ontological dualism involved in the myths of an afterlife, for example, might lead one to think of one's mind as a more real and permanent phenomenon than is either true or helpful. Absolutes always seem to be a bar to further progress. Once one believes oneself to be in contact with an absolute then the motivation to change or make progress almost by necessity ceases. One can go no further than the absolute. The fact that an absolute ought to be, by it's very definition, out of the reach of the human organism is avoided by the narratives surrounding mysticism. To touch the absolute one has to have a mystical experience. In this we invoke a capacity for experience which is not related to our relative senses or mind - another twist in the story of ontological dualism. Something absolute must reside in us (an ātman in other words) which is able to appreciate and perceive the Absolute in the universe. This kind of talk ought to have no place in Buddhism, which rejects all absolutes, though it does appear and not simply in the Vedanta inspired Tathāgatagarbha, but in the most embarrassing places (Triratna Dharmacārins will know what I mean). We have to place all such dualisms in a basket labelled, "false conclusions and generalisations from experience" and move on.

Over the centuries different approaches to insight into the nature of experience have developed. Some schools emphasise the dangers in seeking emptiness through concentration techniques. These techniques produce bliss and rapture as early side-effects and these can be intoxicating in themselves. The argument is that spending a lot of time in dhyāna is analogous to weaning people off alcohol by giving them heroin, it's counter-productive. So some schools eschew the development of concentration and instead try to look directly at the arising and passing away of experience. There's no doubt that this can be an effective method, but it usually works best when the meditator has a good deal of concentration practice behind them, enabling them to have a relative stable and happy mind and not to simply get lost in habitual distraction without noticing it.

On the whole most Buddhists have found some balance between samatha and vipassanā approaches to meditation work best. Samatha stabilises the mind and gives us a sense of well-being that is not dependent on circumstances. And insight undermines our sense of self in relation to experience and our sense of a subject/object duality (though again I think the word "reality" is out of place in this discussion). Samatha enables us to pursue insight more effectively than a one-sided approach.

On the other hand how many Buddhists are seriously pursuing insight in this way? One in a thousand? What proportion of Buddhists are genuinely awakened people? A small handful at best? To die to experience goes against every instinct and to even get the point where we commit to doing so is rare. Most of us are still "doing research", as they say in AA. We're researching the possibility of achieving happiness through pleasurable experience, the way an alcoholic researches the possibility of happiness through drinking booze.

Someone who is not only willing to, but actively trying to die to experience and die to themselves may not really need all the myths and mumbo-jumbo. Emptiness, the experience of no experience, is it's own reward. Though observation suggests that insight doesn't liberate anyone from confirmation bias. On the other hand the rest of us are still wallowing in intoxication with the senses. We eat too much, drink too much, and stimulate our senses too much to ever attain the depths of concentration required except perhaps on long retreats (and even then our retreats are often quite indulgent). So we need to tell motivational stories based on the myths. The Pali Canon is full of stories of people seeing the light while the Buddha is telling an edifying story. They refer to it as gaining faith (saddhā) in the Tathāgata. Sometimes the stories are logical discourses on the progress one makes through rigorous practice culminating in liberation; sometimes the stories are motivational accounts of other practitioners who have done what needed to be done. And so on. But all of these stories reference the religious myths of Buddhism.

Any thoughtful person is dissatisfied with modern life. Civilisation is a two-edged sword. We benefit in so many ways from civilisation, but it also makes us sick by skewing our perceptions and our relationship to experience. Look around at the obesity epidemic, the drug and alcohol problems, the rising levels of mental health problems. The downsides of civilisation began to be apparent in India right around the time that the second urbanisation was getting going (ca 7th Century BCE). Civilisations in many places in the world gave rise to similar conditions it seems. Prophets began to pop up who basically criticised the pursuit of happiness through pleasurable experience. Some turned puritanical, urging us to spurn pleasure and torture ourselves as an alternative (early forms of Jainism fit this mould). Some responded with hedonism. Some regarded the whole world as an illusion which ought not to be taken seriously. Many variations of dissatisfaction were expressed as new sets of values; new variations on the religious myths.

It so happens that in India religious seekers had discovered meditative techniques which culminated in this state of emptiness and this powerfully informed their approach to religion. But emptiness is not easy and it never was a practical path for 99.9% of the population. Sub-optimal options had to emerge for those who bought into the rhetoric but who had already committed themselves to family, career, and ownership - i.e. to success in ordinary human terms of having a spouse, offspring, and material comfort that could be passed on to the next generation. And versions for the peasants who might aspire to having a family, but who would never be successful materially and whose families were locked into poverty by social conventions that ensured that the wealthy retained control of their wealth. Different versions of the Buddhist myths emerged to cater for people in different walks of life.


Conclusion

In this essay I've tried to show the role that our foundation myths play in Buddhism. However I've also tried to show how these myths are also a liability for Buddhism because they are based on false conclusions based on intuition. We certainly still need to employ our critical faculties, even with respect to the awakened, or especially with them as they most likely feel they have "direct confirmation" of their beliefs and are more firmly trapped in confirmation bias than most people. Most essentially, we need to be on guard against any form of absolute. We ought to insist that we are investigating experience and we are not investigating "reality", keeping in mind what these terms meant in the context of Buddhism in India. Statements about reality that are generalisation from meditative experience are untrustworthy, and probably wrong (no meditator ever predicted gravity waves for example). Where myths score highly is that they do sometimes communicate values more effectively than non-symbolic modes of story telling. Generally speaking, values need to be embodied and enacted to have meaning. We need to see what it is like for our values to inform how we live. Ideally our mentors will be doing that. 

I've argued that Buddhism seeks a change in our values system so that we move away from seeking happiness through experience and move towards what my friend has called "dying to experience". There's nothing in experience that will make us happy. We can usually be persuaded of the logic of this statement with a little nudging, but most of us are still committed to researching the possibility that it is wrong. Although some of the myths of Buddhism help to communicate this new system of values, many of them are unrelated to it. Legacy beliefs in an afterlife and a just world seem to be a hindrance to communicating these values.

~~oOo~~


05 February 2016

Setting Ourselves Apart

Nihang Sikh
In this essay I will explore some issues surrounding our identity as members of a religious group (which might also be of interest to readers who aren't religious). Some of the opinions I'll express in this essay will be controversial. I'm not entirely convinced by liberal rhetoric on difference and tolerance. I do believe that we should be tolerant of difference, but when I look at the society I live in I have to admit that I might be in a minority. And given that a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority, of this society is not in tune with liberal rhetoric, what does that mean for religieux in practice? My purpose here is to try to understand issues of identification with a religious group and how that might play out in practice in the actual society I live in, rather than with reference to an ideal society that does not exist. Clearly there is a certain amount of intolerance towards minorities here. I think an evolutionary perspective on humanity helps us to understand why that might be, and at least to me, it suggests that our approach to diversity might be flawed. It's fair to say that this essay is a bit of a ramble and an opinion piece.


Evolution

I've written about evolution and human societies quite often now. The facts seem to be that human beings are evolved for living in small communities of up to 150 people. These communities may be part of larger units—multiples of 150—but larger units tend to fission for purposes of daily life, coming together on special occasions. This limit is imposed, according to research by Professor Robin Dunbar, by the ratio of neocortex to brain volume. Larger groups require more neo-cortex because we have to keep track of more relationships in real time (family, friends, lovers, feuds, alliances, etc). Other primates mainly use one-to-one grooming to ensure individuals are well integrated in the group and that it has overall cohesion. Our groups are now so big that we could spend all our time grooming and still not interact with everyone in our group. And we have to eat and sleep! So we evolved group activities to help balance our time budget. Cooking food also helped by making our food more calorie-rich, reducing our foraging time.

Some of our most important faculties, such as reasoning are designed to work in small groups. Our orientation to the world as a social primate, like all social animals, is safety in numbers and cooperation to achieve common goals. An aspect of this is that we are distrustful of strangers and intolerant of individual differences where they threaten group cohesion. Our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Individuals who were loath to work with us or who worked against us were bound to be neutralised either by assimilation back into the group, or by expulsion from it (or in extremis by being killed). One of the most powerful means of social control we have is isolation: shunning, exclusion, banishment. Ironically, loneliness is often a feature of urban life, especially as we get older.

In his book on the people living in the New Guinea highlands, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explains that a hunter-gather tribe there has a well demarcated territory in which they can forage for food. They usually have uneasy relations with immediate neighbours and encroach on their land at their own risk. To be caught outside your own territory is to risk being killed on sight. A person living in this environment would seldom, if ever, stray much beyond the traditional borders of their tribe. They would never meet their neighbour's neighbours. Of course New Guinea is densely populated compared to some other places. However, rather than clump and blend, the tribes there stayed small and distinctive, with hundreds of languages between them. They are vastly more culturally diversified than similarly sized countries in the rest of the world. Australia was similarly diverse before the arrival of Europeans. We are evolved to suit this kind of situation of small groups and strong in-group/out-group boundaries. Since then our culture has changed at a very much faster rate than evolution can keep up with.

About 10-12,000 years ago our communities began to clump together. This is usually associated with the invention of agriculture, though at first this was a relatively unsuccessful venture that led to reduced food availability. It took centuries of trial and error for settled agriculture to begin to produce enough food to be a more effective way of life than hunting and gathering. It's likely that domestication of herd animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, was a key move towards larger groups, since it makes more protein available in a more reliable way. As long as there is pasture, herd sizes can increase exponentially (according to Dunbar the limiting factor is rainfall). Once we worked out how to produce a food surplus that would support non-farming society members, the stage was set for a revolution in how we lived. Numbers in our groups began to swell beyond the limits of neocortex. Once a few members of our society were freed from the necessity of finding food they could specialise in other activities (though they still had to sleep and participate in community bonding activities). Civilisation began to emerge. By which we mean groups with large populations and institutions to enable them to live together: division of labour, kingship, land ownership, organised warfare, religion, etc.

In these early stages of our social evolution, religion emerged partly as a way of helping groups members experience themselves as connected to the others. As already mentioned, Robin Dunbar has argued that as group sizes increased in our early ancestors, our usual primate methods of group bonding became ineffective. The time taken for one-to-one grooming with every group member, for example, became more than the time available. A variety of many-to-many grooming substitutes had to evolve alongside our burgeoning groups. Amongst these were group laughter, singing, and dancing. Presumably story telling also played a part. The first anatomically modern humans to migrate from Africa almost certainly carried myths with them that then took root and survived in far flung places like New Guinea and Australia. These group activities result in the production of the endogenous opioids (or endorphins) that produce a feeling of well-being. Religion took the form of collective rituals, often involving group dancing, singing and story telling, and explicit shared beliefs. This helped the group to experience a sense of connection and common purpose. Rites of passage for children becoming adults often involved a shared ordeal that helped to bond group members. A distant echo of this is "hazing" and groups often haze new members to help bond them (ironically this may involved inflicting suffering or humiliation on them). One has to be willing to undergo hardship for the group. And lastly groups of people like to ensure that they look different to neighbouring groups. One of the ways that tribes of people, multiples of 150, identify each other is through distinctive clothing, symbols, or body modification. In small societies every one is marked the same way. Armies still use this concept in their adoption of uniforms, flags, and insignia.

However, many of us now  live in massive, multi-ethnic societies in which any number of sub-groups exist based on ethnic identity and/or religion amongst other things. And members of some of these communities are still going out of their way to identify themselves with their sub-culture through wearing special hats, special grooming practices (involving hair in particular), and/or adopting special clothing. The subculture might be based on ethnicity or religion or it might be based on something more abstract. And we might identify with more than one subculture.

A lot of the discussion in the UK at the moment is over how Muslims fit into Britain. Many Muslims feel bound to make strong statements of their identification with their religion often through grooming and sartorial statements, or through beginning their contribution to public debates with the words "As a Muslim...". They are Muslims first and they want everyone to know and acknowledge this. A few vocal people, who adopt the same identifiers, are openly critical of the British way of life and wish to impose a traditional Middle-Eastern form of governance (ironically if they got their wish they'd almost certain lose the right to freedom of speech). Some extremists argue for violent overthrow of the state and the culture, and some are currently plotting to kill British people to make their point. Muslim terrorists have succeeded in one major terrorist attack, ten years ago, and several other plots have been foiled. I'm using Muslims as an example because they are in the news. We Buddhists also get involved in flouting our religious identity, and not a few would love to overthrow the current government and impose some kind of Buddhist rule (though they are generally speaking more circumspect about this). I sometimes see monastics wandering around in their robes and shaved hair. Or one sees people with ostentatious jewellery: badges, mālās, vajra-necklaces,  monk's bag etc. I do it too some extent because I prefer to use my Buddhist name in most circumstances. To religious people, religious identity is important. And usually we want other people to know we are religious. If it's not obvious from our hair or clothes, we'll habitually bring it up in conversation. We're tedious like that.


Society & Tolerance

It's not that long since British people felt their society to be relatively homogeneous. Yes, it was riven by strong class divisions, but these divisions were familiar, and the classes were unified to some extent by their rejection of outsiders. Even today Brits are almost nostalgic for the version of the class system of the 18-19th century - witness the constant rehashing of stories set before liberalism took hold. British people will joke about incomers to some villages being treated as the "new people" for three or four generations. This is a joke based in reality. Some people are really like that.

In fact immigrants have long played a part in British society, though usually on a small scale. An almost continuous series of waves of immigration from Europe have arrived over the centuries. Some were completely absorbed (e.g. Huguenots) and some were not (e.g. Jews, Roma). For their own reasons Jews tend to retain their identity, live somewhat apart from the mainstream. Hasidic Jews are definitely separatist. Which brings us closer to my main point. Ironically this very practice of separatism has itself often been a trigger for prejudice against Jews. This is not a justification or an excuse. I'm not saying that it is right! I'm saying that anti-Semitism is a something that Jews still encounter and that sometimes they inadvertently trigger it.

The trouble is that if you are apart from the mainstream, then when times get tough the mainstream may well turn on you. This can happen in any number of ways. In contemporary Britain there is a backlash against people who accept welfare for example. It was relatively socially acceptable in the 1970s, but nowadays if one accepts welfare it is, for example, very difficult to rent a house to live in. All people who accept welfare are tarred with the same brush: lazy, unreliable, and criminal; whereas British people generally see themselves hard-working, steadfast, and honest. Fifty years ago the Brits described people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity using the same slurs. Before that it was the Irish. The Spanish have often been a target. As have all people of colour from Africa, America, Pacifika, and Asia. Outsiders, especially minorities, are easily portrayed as representative of the antithesis of in-group values. The English language has many apparently innocuous terms that were once ethnic slurs: French letter, Dutch courage, Wandering Jew, and so on; and even more outright terms of abuse, such as nigger, kraut, frog, dago, wop, spick, etc. The English will still depict the Scots as miserly (when in fact they were just poor, mostly because of the English). Within England the English make fun of the accent of Birmingham, or suggest that people from Norfolk are inbred. It's often done in a jocular way, with a nudge and a wink, but its done almost continually. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And the thing is that this kind of attitude is general amongst people I've met. In India the low caste Buddhists I know tell me that even the very low castes have other low castes that they look down on. Despite how caste has blighted their lives, they are still caste conscious. Where I grew up, people from Auckland are called jafas (after a sweet called a Jaffa). This is an acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. And we told jokes about Australians being stupid and immoral (they told more or less the same jokes about us). When I lived Auckland, my neighbours from mainland China confided in me that they "did not like Indians". The awareness and marking of difference seems to be ubiquitous. I would argue that it reflects an evolutionary outcome of being a social species: high in-group trust, low out-group trust.

I want to argue, against the liberal mainstream, that this distrust of strangers is not a bug of society, its a feature. Again, this is not an endorsement. It is an attempt to understand an apparently senseless behaviour in evolutionary terms. I believe that the better we understand our unconscious motivations, the better able we will be to overcome the conditioning. But the first step is admitting that most of us don't like strangers. If there is any doubt about this, I can cite various politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Tony Abbott, Marine La Pen, from around the world who represent a silently fuming body of people who are fed up with multiculturalism, tolerance, and immigrants; fed up with liberal values being pushed down their throats. The danger is that we don't understand this phenomena and fail to take adequate steps to counter it. We ought to be reflecting on our failure to effectively communicate evolution for example. If we believe that tolerance and migration are good, then we need to better understand why some people oppose it and why politicians who voice that opposition are increasingly popular at the moment. But too often liberals are not at all interested in how their opponents think. Rather ironically, they define conservatives as out-group and demonise them.


The Religious Other & Liberalism

This essay was sparked by reading a news item about a Sikh man who had been beaten up by a red-neck in America. The Sikh man's family had lived in their adopted town in the USA for over a century. And the man who beat him shouted, "Why are you here?" Chances are, the Sikhs migrated to America before the red-neck's family did! Any thoughtful American would already have concluded that they have more to fear from "white" Americans with guns than from any Sikhs. A quick trawl through the long list of mass shootings in the USA suggests that none of them were carried out by Sikhs. In fact one of the shootings involved a white American shooting up a Sikh temple and murdering many people. So it seems that a Sikh is significantly more likely to be the victim of mass murder than the instigator of it. So why would a red-neck target a Sikh man?

Part of my answer is to do an image search for "Sikh". The top 100 images are mostly of men with long beards, wearing turbans. The images are of Sikhs are mostly men, but from all walks of life. Importantly Sikhs often serve their adopted countries in the military (usually a high status job for red-necks). But a Sikh man is instantly recognisable as a Sikh. Sikh men ensure that they stand out as Sikhs. What I am suggesting is that if you were never educated about Sikhism, and most Americans are not, and at a time in history when the news was full of stories about foreigners who want to kill Americans, and all you saw was someone making a sartorial statement along the lines of "I am not one of you, I am a Sikh", then that might trigger a primal, aggressive response. I'm going to emphasise this point: this explanation is not an excuse, the point here is to try to understand why people become aggressive towards strangers and suggest ways to mitigate such reactions. 

I don't mean to single out Sikhs, it's just that the news story featured a Sikh man and they do often make this strong statement of setting themselves apart. Another group who often suffer this kind of abuse, in Britain at least, are Muslim women who insist on wearing full-face veils, something which is almost an anathema for mainstream British women who fought for the rights to be seen and heard, and are still fighting for equality. The British women I know find the wearing of veils and face coverings very difficult to empathise with. They are still concerned with finding an equal footing in society with men. They continue to fight inequality and discrimination and the veil seems to represent both. I recall quite an interesting radio interview with a British Muslim woman who became so fed up with hearing cat-calls from men that she decided to wear a full-face veil. She would go out covered from head to toe with only her eyes showing. But unfortunately this change in her appearance meant that cat-calls turned to sometimes violent abuse. It was awful. She was in an invidious position, but it was made considerably worse by her adoption of ostentatious religious garb that set her apart from the people around her. It was not an effective strategy. Anyone who looks, speaks, or acts differently from might become a target for hostility - where difference is entirely relative to the situation.

As I say, our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Who that enemy is, is also entirely relative. 

Liberals seem to naively expect society to just accept differences. To be sure, they have had notable successes in outlawing prejudice against people who are different in ways that they have no control over. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for example, which is not the same as saying that it has been eliminated. But for example, being sexually oriented towards your own gender carries far less stigma than it used to. We have also made it illegal to discriminate on some differences that are based on individual choices, such as political views (up to a point) or religious profession. Social liberalism has been a force for good in that it has helped minorities to emerge as equals in society. And it continues to have successes, in the form of marriage law reform for example, despite a decisive shift to the right in politics in Britain. But liberalism has to some extent steam-rolled these changes through. And under these circumstances there is always the risk of a backlash.

The Liberal response to all of the situations I've described: aggression towards a Sikh, cat-calls, and violent abuse is the same each time. Such things should not happen. Every one must be tolerant. Our laws reflect these values. But our streets, apparently, do not. We invent new crimes to make it clearer. Now if you abuse someone of a different race or sexual-orientation, that is not simply a violent crime, it is a race hate crime that carries harsher penalties than mere violence. We've defined a whole variety of hate crimes with harsh penalties. These offences often come with new labels. We mistaken refer to hatred of something as a phobia (or fear). I'm not sure this confusion of terms helps. Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam, it refers to a hatred of Islam. It's not born from fear, it's more likely born from disgust, the response to a stranger. Similar homophobia is not a fear of homosexuals. Personally I see theistic religion as a rather negative influence in society, though for some people it can be personally positive. Hate is probably too strong a word for what I feel. I'm certainly against theists having more say in society and would very much like to see the Church of England disestablished and a true separation between church and state. Nor do I hanker for a Buddhist state, since all the Buddhist states in history have been awful or even monstrous. In this sense I'm a secularist.

Making a law and punishing offenders is not the same changing the culture. A more successful strategy might be to welcome different people into public life. It's only in living memory that Britain allowed radio and TV presents to speak in regional accents. People of colour are still vastly under-represented in public life. And as we've seen some institutions, like the Oscars, seem determined to resist any liberal reforms that would make them treat women or Africans as being of equal status and value. TV is currently squeezing in a trans-gendered character where-ever it can, because this has become a cause célèbre. No reason it should not be a time for more awareness of this issue, but it's not as if we have solved the problem of under-representation in a broader sense. Women are still vastly under-represented in the higher echelons business and politics for example. The chances of an African American winning an Oscar are still minimal. And so on. Equality laws are not going to change things while, say, a woman only rarely gets a senior cabinet post in a British government (and this true of the cabinet of the only woman Prime Minster we've had as well).

With regard to "race" it's important to emphasise that skin colour is a particularly bad determinate of relatedness. Skin colour is simply a measure of how close to the equator your ancestors lived. If they were from the tropics, you'll have dark skin. If they were from higher latitudes you'll have pale skin. It's all to do with how much vitamin D one can synthesise and it changes quite rapidly - just 5000 years and your skin will change to suit. Humanity is all one species by any definition of the word. That said, the human population of, say, Africa is far older and thus far more genetically diverse than the rest of the world. Thus any two Europeans with pale skin are far more likely to be related than any two African people with dark skin. It's only legacy thinking that makes us think of dark skinned people as homogeneous. Of course in countries where Africans were transported as slaves, the slave population became a melting pot. The whole concept of "race" is bankrupt and more or less meaningless. The fact that Britain uses "black" and "white" as ethnic terms still makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, because the terms are meaningless (no one in the world is either black or white), but also because they preserve the prejudice of the recent past and reflect continuing discrimination against people with brown skin.

An important issue in Britain is immigration. In 2015 around 100,000 people emigrated to the UK. That's a town the size of Cambridge, where I live. Providing housing, infrastructure, and services to another 100,000 people, at a time when government spending continues to fall is stretching the resources of the country. If it happens every year, and it does, then we have a major problem here. Research seems to show that migrants taken as a whole make a net contribution to the economy, but even so the government is still cutting spending on things like the National Health Service, which struggles to cope with serving the needs of the present population. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of Europe, Britain continues to attract economic migrants, both temporary and permanent. And European law says that we cannot place barriers in the way of the movement of labour within the Union. This has led to the leaders of the country to offer an in-out referendum in which the citizens can vote to leave the European Union. The issue of identity and where we belong (and how we treat outsiders) is playing out in national and international politics also. 

Britain has also seen a number of high profile terrorist attacks on our soil. These were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. And we are told that a large number of plots to commit acts of terror are foiled on a regular basis by the security services. Some of these result in public prosecutions. And yet we are being drawn further into wars in the Middle East that appear to be fuelling the fundamentalist recruitment drive. The media that reports these situations has a vested interest in promoting negative emotions. The media thrive on our fear, anger, and disgust. And we, collectively, seem only too willing to feed the troll. The local terrorists are ostentatiously Muslim. There is a legitimate fear of religious fundamentalism amongst Muslims inspiring violence against British citizens. Some say that such people are "not Muslims". But this is facile. Islam, like every religion is split into sects that disagree on who is in charge and who is an authority. Appeals to the authority of the Koran are meaningless unless we accept the premise that it is God's word. Even then, what God meant is open to interpretation - God always seems to like to leave room for different readings. In the end it is men who decide what God's will is. The terrorists are Muslims. Very much so. The fact that other Muslims disagree with them is interesting, but not definitive, even if the British Prime Minister co-opts that view for his own ends. 


Rights

And amidst all of this are religious people who insist on asserting their religious identity over and above any other aspect of their identity. Like many groups who are insisting on their "right" they seem to unconcerned with unforeseen consequences. They have a right and it is up to the rest of us to protect that right of theirs, whatever it may cost us. In Britain I observe that there is a general unwillingness to think that one's actions might have consequences, especially if the actions are an expression of some right. If one is claiming a right then the consequences are not the responsibility of the individual. Society is seen as a guarantor of rights. And if our behaviour involves risk then it is up to society to eliminate that risk. So many people here go out at night and binge drink so that they completely lose control of themselves. And these people expect to be safe. But they are not safe. In many cases they might not even be safe doing what they are doing if they were sober. They are definitely at risk when falling down drunk. And yet they assert they have a right to be safe, whatever risks they may take. And complain when the government treat them like children. Sadly in the Cambridge News today is the story of a bright young Cambridge University student who was killed by a car: it was 1:30am, she was very drunk, wearing dark clothes, walking in the middle of the road, on a major arterial road, when she was struck by a car. The driver was going under the speed limit and watching out for cyclists with no lights (very common in Cambridge). 

Having been a victim of violence I sympathise to some extent, we all want to feel safe when we go out at night. But while society has yet to eliminate violent people, wouldn't it be more prudent to take reasonable precautions against becoming a victim of violence? Is there any rational or realistic expectation of eliminating violence from society? I can't imagine it myself. Is it realistic to expect everyone to obey the law all the time? Not really. So why would anyone expect to act as though they lived in a utopia? Of course we don't want to simply blame the victim. That's not what I'm getting at. But if you are in a minefield, there's no point in complaining that mines are illegal and immoral. One must take practical steps to get get out of the minefield without getting blown up before complaining. Nor am I saying the campaigning is pointless. We have seen a good deal of positive social change in my lifetime. What I'm talking about is a culture of entitlement. The idea that we are entitled to live in a utopia. That we ought not to have to make an effort to defend our rights from those who would deny them to us. It's the sense of entitlement that I don't understand. 

Talking about these things is difficult because if one expresses a dissenting opinion one tends to become a target for trolling. Labels get thrown around and thinking through the issues gets replaced by an enforced orthodoxy. And anyone who dares to dissent from this orthodoxy is characterised as evil. Lately the trend is to label anyone who argues with the liberal mainstream as a Nazi. Its as if we've forgotten the mad imperialism that brought the whole of Europe and half the world into an all-out war characterised by massive loss of life and destruction of property. We've forgotten that the Nazis attempted genocide, murdering sex million Jews. The Nazis were not simply authoritarian or dictatorial or anti-liberal. They were mass murderers on a scale that's hard to imagine. We trivialise the word Nazi at our peril. Once we trivialise a phenomenon like the Nazi's we raise the risk of it happening again: and this at a time when far-right groups are making steady gains in some European countries. 

There's a worrying trend to argue that people should not be allowed to say things that liberals disagree with. That one should not be allowed to say things that people might take offence at. Recently the British parliament actually spent time debating whether or not Donald Trump, a major investor in the UK economy, should be allowed to visit the UK. The reason was that he'd just said that his policy would be to stop Muslims entering the USA until there was some way to be sure they were not terrorists. This was shortly after the Paris bombing, where one of the bombers had entered France as a refugee. Many people argued that Trump should not be allowed here any more. The fact that this was a debate suggests that we have lost sight of what freedom of speech means. Trump can say what he likes. Our fear can only be that people will take him seriously. Why would we fear that? Of course the Trump the irony is that apart from one egregious example (9/11) most of the murderous attacks on American soil, the mass-shootings, are by non-Muslims and Americans of European rather than Middle-Eastern origin. Their problem is not so much religiously inspired terrorism as it is gun crime.


Setting Ourselves Apart.

If we religieux wish to set ourselves apart then we need to be realistic about the possible consequences of this. Out-group members may well receive harsh treatment, especially at times when there is economic or political upheaval. Arguing that this is not fair is childish. The world is not fair. People are what they are. Liberalism has certainly made some progress in the West, but our society is far from perfect, and many places are profoundly anti-liberal. We do not live in a utopia and probably never will. (I've written about this before: Living in a Non-Utopian Universe, 12 Sep 2014)

On the other hand I don't think it's true to say that religious people have more in common with each other than with non-religious people. The shared values that we have tend not to come from religious profession, but from the wider society. Religion is paradoxical in this sense. Since any one religion is always a minority these days, identifying with it to the point that one feels one must make a public statement of identification makes for a stronger sense of belonging to the religious community, but of being more set apart from society generally. If one also characterises society as generally evil or misguided, then the "us & them" effect is even stronger. Do we ever think about what we are sacrificing in order to experience a strong sense of belonging to our religious group?

Setting ourselves apart amidst a larger community is a two edged sword. A common enemy does bring people together, but we run the risk of becoming that common enemy and uniting people against us. This ought not to surprise us. At the level of our adaptation to pre-civilisation lifestyles, this makes perfect sense. It's part of our of survival strategy. As admirable as liberal values of tolerance inclusivity, and egalitarianism are, by setting ourselves apart we run the risk of testing how deep those liberal values go. And all too often they don't go very deep. So it might be worth religious people asking themselves, is it worth it. Can we get that feeling of belonging without all the public displays of affiliation and overt tribalism? Or is the acknowledgement of strangers really that important to us? 

One thing we need to think about is why some people are happy to define their in-group as "humanity" and why for some it is so much narrower. Why for some people seeing a man in a turban is a delightfully exotic sight, and for another it is a trigger for violence. And we really urgently need to drop any moral rhetoric along the lines of "because they are stupid". Sometimes people are stupid. But pointing this out never really helps. We need to try to get beyond our own simplistic, moralistic judgements and really connect with the values of others. That we might not share those values makes this difficult, because all of us find it difficult to embrace someone who's values are different from ours. But until we understand those values we will not make a connection of the kind that can bring change.

~~oOo~~


See also

25 September 2015

The Complex Phenomenon of Religion.



It's 25 years today since my father died. His death was one of the events that got me thinking about life, death, and all that. I dedicate this essay to:

Peter Harry Attwood (1935-1990).

Religion is sometimes portrayed as a simple phenomenon. As a simple crutch for the weak, as a "violent" control mechanism and so on. Although these kinds of criticisms sometimes contain a grain of truth, in fact religion more generally is a complex phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of a number of qualities, characteristics, or abilities that humans possess. In this essay I will try to outline a set of minimal common features of all religions and link them to an evolutionary account of humans.

The diagram below attempts to summarise some of the key factors involved and to show how these factors interact to produce the basic phenomena of religion. However, any given religion may include many more elements and be considerably more complex that this summary suggests. At the end of the essay I will add a few comments about Buddhism as a religion and about what makes Buddhism distinctive (or not).




Religion seems to minimally involve supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife. I have argued that belief in all these is "natural", by which I mean they are emergent properties of the way our brains work. I do not mean that these are necessarily accurate intuitions in the sense of being true. However, as ideas which have guided human behaviour they have been very successful in helping us go from being just another species of primate, to the highly sophisticated cultures we live in today (and I include all present day human cultures in this). What follows is not a critique, but a description. There are possible critiques of every point, both in the conclusions of religieux and of the reasons for things that I am proposing here. But I want to outline a story about religion without getting bogged down in the critique of it. In most cases I've made the critique previously. 

Supernatural agents emerge from a combination of such properties of the brain such as pareidolia (the propensity to see faces everywhere); agent detection and theory of mind (Barrett; see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth Are Still Plausible?). Fundamental to the supernatural is ontological dualism and the matter/spirit dichotomy.

Theory of mind is tuned to make living in social groups feasible and means we tend to see other agents in human terms (anthropomorphism). Supernatural agents are human-like in their desires and goals, and counter-intuitive only in that they lack a physical body. Because this is minimally counter-intuitive it makes supernatural agents more interesting and memorable. Thus, human communities tend to be surrounded by a halo of supernatural agents. Lacking bodies, supernatural agents may possess associated abilities, such as the ability to move unhindered by physical obstructions, but they are often located in some physical object, such as a tree, rock or home. Those who can bridge the two worlds of matter and spirit we call shaman. Though of course spirits also operate in the two worlds, if spirits remained wholly in their spirit world they would be a lot less interesting. For some reason the spirit world seems inherently leaky. Shamans interpret and use knowledge gained from spirits to guide decision making in the material realm. Supernatural agents can become gods and when they do, shamans become priests.

Fundamental to this account of religion is the social nature of human beings. Any account of religion which rejects the social nature of humanity or demonizes the basic structures and functions of human groups is simply uninteresting (so that is almost all psychology and most of social theory inspired by French philosophers). Unfortunately in this libertarian age there is a tendency to take a dismissive or critical stance on human groups. Social living is undoubtedly involves compromises for the individual. But the evolutionary benefits massively outweigh any perceived loss of autonomy. What's more human social groups look and work very much like other primate social groups. This has been apparent since Richard Leakey sent three young women to Africa to study chimps, gorillas and baboons in the 1960s. The most revealing of these studies was Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees at Gombe stream, which showed chimp groups to share many traits with human groups. As social animals our behaviour is tuned towards being a member of a group, as it is in all other social primates.

Robin Dunbar showed that the average size of group that a social animal generally lives in, is correlated with the ratio of the volume of neo-cortex to the rest of the brain. For humans this predicts an average group size of ca. 150, a figure for which there is now considerable empirical support. The Dunbar Number represents a cognitive limit, beyond which we cannot maintain knowledge of each member of a group, their roles in hierarchies, mating preferences, past interactions, that is the information we need to be a well informed group member. In practice humans typically organise themselves into units of about 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500 and so on. Groups of different sizes serving different functions and operating with differing levels of intimacy and knowledge. As well as collecting information through observation, we use theory of mind to infer the disposition of other group members. The smallest viable unit of humanity is probably the 150 sized group.

Social living depends for it's success on the active participation of all group members and social norms. Norms are primarily to help the group function effectively. But they may work indirectly, for example to help strengthen group identity "We are the people who....". If social animals were, as economists claim, fundamentally selfish, then groups could not function. We are adapted to being cooperative. But there are temptations to freeload or break other group norms. Up to around the 150 number, groups maintain norms by simple observation. Everyone knows everyone else's business. 

Anthropomorphism allows us to relate to non-human beings as part of our group. We also have the ability to empathise with strangers, though empathy evolved to help us understand the internal disposition of other individuals or small groups. Empathy is personal, which is why we humans still have trouble comprehending large scale disasters without some Jarrod Diamond has noted that in places like the highlands of New Guinea, where the population is almost at a maximum density for hunter-gather lifestyles and thus competition for resources is intense, that tolerance of strangers is low (which is also true of other primate species). In many instances, strangers are killed on sight. However surpluses and trade between groups makes tolerance of strangers more feasible. Thus the factors which lead to civilisations (i.e. much larger groupings) also facilitated tolerance of strangers. Ara Norenzayan has argued that religion with "Big Gods" was a major factor in enabling the large scale cooperation implied by civilisation. Large groups mean that keeping track of each group member becomes more difficult. Monitoring compliance with behavioural norms starts to break down. 

Social groups which perceive an active halo of supernatural beings incorporated into their daily lives may rely on these supernatural agents as monitors of group norms (Norenzayan). In which case the role of the shaman is also expanded. The beings involved in monitoring are likely to become more active and present. They may begin to play an active role, for example punishing transgressive behaviour. Because supernatural agents are already counter-intuitive in lacking physical bodies, they can easily evolve in this direction. Those involved in monitoring the social sphere have a tendency to become omnipresent (the better to see you) and, as a result, omniscient. Once they start dishing our punishments they can become omnipotent as well. Thus ordinary supernatural agents can become gods.

Once gods emerge they typically require more elaborate acknowledgement, rather like a dominant member of the tribe gets first preference in food and mates. A group may enact elaborate and costly rituals aimed at securing the cooperation of spirits and gods. Making sacrifices (in the sense of giving scarce resources) helps to encourage participation in group norms (see also Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Costly sacrifices bolster the faith of followers. Those who officiate at such ceremonies are likely shaman initially, but become focussed on interpreting and enacting the will of the gods rather than spirits in general. In other words they become priests. The prestige of priests rises with the prestige of the gods they serve. Along with sacrifice, priests may introduce arbitrary taboos that help define group identity. As Foucault noted, the power of the group or leaders to shape the subject is matched by the desire of the subject to be shaped. As members of a social species we make ourselves into subjects of power; or even into the kind of subjects (selves) that accept the compromises of social lifestyles. As social primates we evolved to participate in social groups with hierarchies. On the other hand evolution no longer entirely defines us - we did not evolve to use written communication for example (which is why writing is so much more difficult than talking).

We have a tendency to think in terms of reasons and purposes - teleology. In teleological thinking, things happen for a reason. We exist for a reason. The world exists for a reason. Things happen for a reason. In modern life we often seek reasons in individual psychology. In the past other types of reasons included supernatural interference and magic. The stories we tell about these reasons for events become our mythology. Even so we are left with questions. If we are here for a reason, we want to know what it is (because it is far from obvious to most people). If following the group norms or the prescriptions of gods is supposed to make everything run smoothly, then why does it not? If gods are members of our tribe and can intervene to help us, why do they not?

Despite the emphasis on keeping group norms and associating this with the success of the group, life is patently unfair. We can be the very best group member, keep all the rules, and yet we still suffer misfortune, illness, and death. The world is unjust. But we tend to believe the opposite, i.e. that the world is just, that reasons make it so. If everything happens for a reason, then bad things also happen for a reason. But what could that reason possibly be? The meeting of injustice and teleology is extremely fruitful for religion, but before getting further into it we need to consider the afterlife.

The matter/spirit dichotomy seems to emerge naturally from generalising about human experience. Some people have vivid experiences of leaving their body for example which, on face value, would only be possible if the locus of experiencing is separate from the physical body. The very metaphors that we use to talk about aspects of lived experience tend to frame the matter/spirit dichotomy in a particular way. Matter is dull, lifeless, rigid. Spirit is light, lively, and infinitely flexible. Matter is low, spirit high. And so on (see Metaphors and Materialism). We understand life through Vitalism: living beings are matter made flexible by an inspiration of spirit. Spirit in many languages is closely associated with the breath—spiritus, qi, prāṇa, ātman, pneuma—perhaps the most important characteristic of living beings in the pre-scientific world.

The greatest injustice seems to be that our breath leaves us, i.e. we die. All living beings act to sustain and maintain their own existence, their own life. Self-consciousness gives us the knowledge of the certainty of our own death. In a dualistic worldview, death occurs when the spirit leaves the body. The body returns to being inanimate matter (dust to dust). In this worldview, spirit is not affected by death in the same way as matter. Indeed spirit is not affected by death at all. Once the spirit leaves the body a number of post-mortem possibilities exist: hanging around as a supernatural agent; travelling to another world (to the realm of the ancestors for example, or to paradise); or taking another human form. The precise workings are specific to cultures, but all cultures seem to have an afterlife and the variations are limited to one or other of these possibilities.

Something interesting happens when we combine normative morality, teleological thinking, and the afterlife. If things happen for a reason and one of the main reasons is our own behaviour and there is injustice, then it stands to reason, that our own behaviour is (potentially) a cause of injustice. We link behaviour to outcomes. And if everything happens to a reason it's hard to imagine the morally good not being rewarded and the morally wicked not being punished. And if something bad happens, then maybe we have transgressed in some way. In which case a shaman or priest must consult the unseen, but all seeing supernatural monitors (this is incidentally why the Buddha had to have access to this knowledge). This world, the material world composed primarily of matter, is manifestly unjust. By contrast, an afterlife is very much a world of spirit and as the basic metaphors show, the world of spirit is the polar opposite of the world of matter. If the world of matter is unjust (and it is) then the world of spirit is by necessity just. The rules of the afterlife must be very different. Gods hold sway there for example. Gods whose reason for being is to supervise the behaviour of humans. So it is entirely unsurprising that the function of an afterlife, in those communities which practice morality, is judgement of the dead. This happens in all the major religions, and dates back at least to the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Here we have, I think, all the major components of religion. And they emerge from lower-level, relatively simple properties of the (social) human mind at work. Thus religion is a natural phenomenon. It is not, as opponents of religion like to assert, something artificial that is superimposed on societies, but something that naturally emerges out of anatomically modern humans with a pre-scientific worldview living together. If chimps were only a little more like us, they too would develop like this. Neanderthals almost certainly had religion of a sort. The naturalness of religion predicts that every society of humans ought to have religion or something like it. And they do, except where people are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD people are psychological outliers from the rest of humanity. But WEIRD culture is build upon layers of religious culture, with Christianity superimposed on early forms of religion (and perhaps several layers of this). Again, for emphasis, the naturalness of religion does not mean that a religious account of the world is either accurate or precise. It is certainly successful, depending on how one measures success, but as a description of the world the religious view tends to be flawed making it both inaccurate and imprecise. 

Religious communities have some distinct advantages over non-religious communities in terms of sustaining group identity and encouraging cooperation.  The Abrahamic religions certainly have many millions of followers, and the followers of these religions have established a vast hegemony over most of the planet. On the other hand Christianity seems to be waning. Religious ideologies are giving way to political ideologies. Communism was one such that is also on the wane. Neoliberalism seems to have survived the near collapse of the world's economies to continue to dominate public discourse on politics and economics. Liberal Humanism seems to be a potent force for good still, though as we have seen it cannot be successfully linked to Neoliberal economics. 


Buddhism

There are those who argue that Buddhism is not a religion. This is naive at best, and probably disingenuous. Buddhism has all the same kinds of concerns as other religions, all of the main components outlined above—supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife—and many of the secondary components as well. In many ways, Buddhism is simply another manifestation of the same dynamic that produces religious ideas and practices in other groups. Sure we have an abstract supernatural monitor, but karma does exactly the same job as Anubis, Varuṇa, Mazda, or Jehovah in monitoring behaviour. It's merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. WEIRD Buddhists play down the halo of supernatural beings, but traditional Buddhist societies in Asia all have folk beliefs which involve spirits (e.g. Burmese nat) and many similar animistic beliefs, such as tree spirits (rukkhadevatā) are Canonical. 

David Chapman (@meaningness) and I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter a few days ago (storified). DC noted that some of those who are opposed to secularisation of mindfulness training, are concerned about disconnecting mindfulness from "Buddhist ethics". They seem to argue that the problem is that mindfulness without ethics is either meaningless or dangerous, or both. DC's point was that there was nothing distinctive about Buddhist ethics and that, in the USA at least, what masquerades as "Buddhist" ethics is simply the prevailing ethics of WEIRD North America. So to argue against mindfulness being taught separately from Buddhist ethics is meaningless. For example Tricycle Magazine has run positive stories on Buddhists in the US military. If soldiers can be Buddhists, then Buddhist ethics really do have no meaning. Indeed there is nothing very distinctive about Buddhist ethics more generally, nothing that distinguishes Buddhist ethics from, say, Christian ethics. Sure, the stated rationale for being ethical is different, but the outcome is the same: love thy neighbour. (David has started his blog series on this: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud).

Certainly Buddhism is not the only religion to use a variety of religious techniques for working with the mind, including concentration and reflection exercises. Mediation was a word in English long before Buddhism came on the scene (noted ca. 1200 CE). Arguably all the practices that we associate with Buddhism were in fact borrowed from other religions anyway (particularly Brahmanism and Jainism). According to Buddhism's own mythology, meditation was already being practised to a very high degree before Buddhism came into being. The Buddha simply adapted procedures he had already learned.

So is there anything about Buddhism as a religion that is distinctive? Some would argue that pratītya-samutpāda is distinctively Buddhist. However too many of us portray conditioned arising as a theory of cause and effect, or worse, a Theory of Everything. It is certainly a failure as the latter, and far from being very useful in the former role (the words involved don't even mean caused). Since almost everyone seems confused about the domain of application of this idea, one wonders whether Buddhists can lay claim to the theory at all. If Buddhists make pratītyasamutpāda into an ontology then pratītyasamutpāda would hardly seem to be Buddhist any longer. Nowadays, Buddhists all seem to think that having read about nirvāṇa or śūnyatā in a book makes one an expert on "reality".

DC and I tentatively agreed that any distinction that Buddhism might have is probably in the area of cultivating states in which sense-experience and ordinary mental-experience cease, what I would call nirodha-samāpatti or śūnyatā-vimokṣa etc. It is these states in particular that seem to promote the transformation of the mind that makes Buddhism distinctive. It's just unfortunate that we have so many books about these states, and so many people talking about them from having read the books (and writing books on the basis of having read the books), and so few people who experience such states. The thing that distinguishes Buddhism is something that only a tiny minority are realistically ever going to seriously cultivate, and probably a minority of them are going to succeed in experiencing. So Buddhism in practice, for the vast majority consists in beliefs and activities that are not distinctively Buddhist at all - loving your neighbours, communal singing, relaxation techniques, philosophical speculation, propitiation of supernatural agents, and so on.

And while some people are having awakenings, the level of noise through which they have to communicate is overwhelming. Buddhists have adopted so much psychological and psycho-analytic jargon that Buddhism as presented can seem indistinguishable from either at times. One gets the sense that today's "lay" Buddhism is closely aligned with the goals of psychologists. Not only this but we also get a lot of interference from pseudo-science, Advaita Vedanta, and home grown philosophies.

So, to sum up, religion is a natural phenomenon. It emerges from, is an emergent property of, a brain evolved for living in large social groups. A religious worldview makes sense to so many people, even WEIRD people, because it fits with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of this as another religious worldview. But this does not mean that a religious worldview is accurate or precise, or that a secularised version of religion is an improvement on religion per se. Secularised versions of Buddhism are simply religion tailored for WEIRD people. It is more appealing to secularists who none the less feel that something is missing from their lives (because they are evolved to be religious). If Buddhism is distinctive, it is distinctive in ways that the vast majority of people will never have access to.

The main point I take from this is that religion is comprehensible. People who hold to religious views are comprehensible. While I think religious views are erroneous, I can see why so many people disagree, why religion remains so compelling for so many people. I can sympathise with them. And while I'm not an evangelist, it does make it easier for me to stay in dialogue with, for examples, members of my family who are committed Christians. As with the problem of communicating evolution, part of the problem with religion remaining plausible is the sheer ineptitude of scientists as communicators - their remarkable ability to understand string theory, or whatever, seems to be matched by an astounding lack of insight into their own species. And philosophers, whose job to is make the world comprehensible, have also largely failed. They both fail on the level of making new discoveries comprehensible and on the level of communicating why new discoveries are important. And when they fail, priests and other charlatans step into the gap, and that too is understandable. 

~~oOo~~

References to particular works or thinkers that are not linked to directly can be checked in the bibliography tab of the blog. 

21 June 2013

Cargo Cult Science

image from Suite 101 Cargo Cults
In an essay from 2011, Explanation vs Interpretation, I outlined an argument from a book called Rethinking Religion by Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley. The book is about two different knowledge seeking behaviours, how they clash, and how the authors proposed to reconcile them. The argument is very relevant in academia because of sometimes bitter disputes between the camps to which academics. I hinted at, but did not really have time to explore, the way this dynamic plays out in everyday life. In this essay I want to go back and see if I can draw out some of these threads.

The basic dichotomy is between two forms of knowledge seeking. Those who seek knowledge through explaining observable facts and formulating them into causal laws which interact and combine to form a robust and highly useful, but to date partial, view of the universe. Science is the epitome of this approach. The success of the scientific method has been such that it totally dominated modern life. Even the detractors of science take to the internet to denounce it. 

The other approach is to interpret events by assigning meanings and reasons to them. In this school of thought all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity, and science is merely another framework. This is the approach of religion and certain varieties of philosophy.  The idea of universal human rights emerges from this approach. It allows a great deal of freedom for speculation but also leads to orthodoxies. However interpretations don't interact and cohere like explanations and thus can conflict with each other. The usual dynamic is cycles of fragmentation and synthesis.

I've since revisited this dichotomy several times, but in particular in my essay Metaphors and Materialism where I suggested that there is a dispute about the existence of the substance broadly called 'spirit'. The scientist finds no evidence of spirit and thus excludes it from explanations, but the religious cannot understand human exist without it and it becomes central to interpreting human existence. That most Buddhists believe in spirit is interesting because a number of early Buddhist doctrines would seem to deny spirit.

Schrödinger's wave equation

If you do not understand this, you
do not understand quantum mechanics
I have also obliquely addressed this issue in my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat in which I sought to debunk the idea that quantum physics has anything to do with Buddhism. The way that Buddhists employ quantum mechanics is through an interpretation of the narrative accounts of some of the consequences of the science, ignoring the mathematics which are central to the science of quantum mechanics (the 'mechanics' part is a reference to the mathematical techniques which underpin the science). This is valid from an interpretationist point of view since science is merely one framework amongst many. Ironically such relativity often cites the so-called 'observer effect', outlined by quantum theorists, as justification of their subjectivism, though this is a rather gross misreading of the observer effect. 

This dynamic of the creative re-interpretation and co-opting of science is what interests me in this essay. It is sometimes called cargo cult science (this label was first suggested by physicist Richard Feynman). Decontextualised facts and figures washed up on the beach are thrown together to make an idol which forms the focus of the psychological needs of the spiritual tribe. The 'power' of science is co-opted by adopting the forms of science without the content or the founding assumptions. A new improved spirituality.

In this approach to interpretation there is a tacit acknowledgement of the success of science as a mode of knowledge seeking. Cargo cult interpreters seek ways of incorporating some of the success of science into their interpretation, but on their own terms as though facts can be detached from their context without any effect. I've said that ordinary people often experience science as a pernicious influence that destroys valued aspects of social and religious discourse and practice. There is a general confusion of values as religion has fallen under the steam-roller of science. Whether the link is causal or incidental I don't know, but clearly some people are seeking a more robust world-view that will not be so easy to overturn as when Darwin overturned the notion of all at once Creation. One strategy for this is to co-opt science itself.

Almost everyone will be familiar with presentations of "evidence" for the supernatural in form or another. In another essay, On Credulity, I explored the readiness of people to accept 'proof' of the supernatural. The spiritual suffer more than averagely from confirmation bias. Despite some high profile debunkings over many years, and the failure of all supernatural claims under strict  laboratory conditions, the spiritual folk latch onto any scrap of confirmation. To some extent I understand the belief in spirit. Recall that Thomas Metzinger says that after having an out of body experience (OBE) that "it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards." (See Origin of the Idea of the Soul). The belief is persistent precisely because experience suggests it. However, all Metzinger's attempts to explain his OBE in dualistic terms failed to account for it, and he settled on understanding it as a failure to integrate several streams of input related to the construction of our sense of self. 

The cargo cult is even more evident in the area of health. The popular media have science reporters who write stories on research with an emphasis on the novel and innovative. Unfortunately such journalists often have no respect for the scientific process. They publish attention grabbing stories without bothering to critique them, without waiting for other scientists to corroborate results. One example will suffice. At some point a journalist published a report on the amount of water a person needs to drink. This was taken up by alternative health practitioners and has become a dogma: a person must drink X litres of water every day or suffer ill-health. So now where-ever you go people have bottled water with them and compulsively sip at it. This is not obviously harmful, but it is a bit infantile and the bottles are not particularly environmentally friendly. The story emphasises that it must water and that anything other than pure water is in fact dehydrating. In fact research shows that it doesn't matter what liquid you drink - coffee is just as good at hydrating as water, and the very mild diuretic effect has a negligible effect on levels of fluid in the body. This is not a simple case of bad science. There is good science here as well. Humans do need to drink water and we can die from dehydration (for instance in cases of dysentery). But if we drink when thirsty, and drink to slake our thirst, then we will get the water that we need. And a cup of tea is just as good as water. There is no need to force ourselves to drink litre after litre of water, over-riding our natural thirsts. Of course this over-riding of natural appetites is part of a much broader problem faced by civilisation which has cropped up in my writing from time to time (most notably in my essay on pornography). The water bottle has become like a talisman and the water a sacrament. Although the behaviour draws on science it exists in a magical worldview. 

Part of the problem is that science is complex and difficult to understand. I recently read Stephen Hawking's new book the Grand Design which presents itself as answering "life's ultimate questions". His proposed solution, M-theory, is so complex that its equations cannot currently be solved. As I understand it the theory itself has yet to be fully described mathematically. Even if they are one day solved it's not clear how they will provide any meaningful results on the human level - one of the main criticisms seems to be that the theory does not make any testable predictions. The fiendishly difficult mathematics of M-Theory are, not surprisingly, entirely absent from Hawking's book. And yet like quantum mechanics the theory is mathematical. What is presented, rather ironically, is an interpretation of M-Theory. Hawking is forced to do this because even if the experts did understand it, the average person never will.

Unlike Hawking I don't think philosophy is dead, but I do think that scientists often make poor philosophers. I can't help but wonder what effect Hawking's existential situation has had on his views on free will and determinism, but I don't want to go too far down that road. What really struck me about the book was that the "answer" put forward by Hawking to the "ultimate question" was conspicuous by it's absence. Hawking does not address the question of how we should live, he is not interested in that question, and M-Theory has nothing to tell us about it. Nor does he address such questions as what life is. Far from answering life's ultimate questions, Hawking fails to even ask them. Thus even a hard-core materialist like Stephen Hawking seems to be inadvertently promoting cargo cult science. 

One of the ironies of cargo cult science is that it fixes results and doesn't leave them open to review. The religieux who idolise scientific results are still interested in absolutes rather than development. Once we have proved that the supernatural exists then we can just relax and get on with our seance. This positivist approach to science has largely been abandoned by scientists themselves, who generally set out to disprove something or other. The best result a scientist can hope for is to disprove the present paradigm in their field and become the next Einstein. But not so the cargo cultist. Having assembled their idol the last thing they want to do is probe it or test it, or dismantle it. Thus cargo cult science is not a homage, but a travesty. One sees this to some extent in the Kabat-Zinn style "mindfulness" clique. They are concerned to show that their approach is beneficial, and thus emphasise studies which show their practices in a good light - there certainly are many such studies now, but they seem suspiciously uniform in supporting mindfulness as a pancea.

Apart from the metaphysics why is this dichotomy interesting? Why are people in opposing camps at loggerheads? Part of the answer to this is politics and economics: or in other words influence and control of resources. These are just the basic social primate motivations. Those who control the narratives about what is important get to control access to resources. So the conflict is non-trivial. Those who co-opt science to make their own beliefs seem more attractive are competing for followers and support. In the market place of souls, science sells. But people also care about how resources are put to use in society. Professor Steve Keen is a heterodox economist who is relentlessly scathing in his attacks on the NeoClassical Economics which, through over reliance on interpretation over explanation, has lead the world to the brink of economic disaster. He has said on numerous occasions that the same economists who seem to have almost deliberately wrecked the world's economies are motivated by trying to make the world a better place.

All sorts of well-meaning people believe that their interpretation of the facts is the panacea and set out to implement policies based on their ideology. Buddhists are particularly prone to seeing Buddhism as a panacea - and this is a narrative with centuries of history for us. But without the element of criticism and dialogue which form part of the explanatory approach to knowledge, we always, always run into trouble that we cannot get out of.

~~oOo~~