Showing posts with label Vitalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vitalism. Show all posts

08 May 2015

What can the Turing Test Tell Us?

Alan Turing's contribution to mathematics, cryptography and computer science was inestimable. Not only did he shorten World War Two, saving thousands of lives, he advanced us onto the path of digital computers. His suicide after being coerced into hormone treatment is a massive blot on the intellectual landscape in Britain. It is an enduring source of shame. Turing's work remained classified for decades because of the fear that war might break out again and knowing how to break the complex codes used by the Germans was too valuable an advantage to throw away. Nowadays, cryptography has advanced to the point where keeping Turing's work a secret no longer confers much advantage.

Turing was prescient in many ways. Not only did he set the paradigm for how digital computers work, but he understood that one day such machines might become so sophisticated that they were indistinguishable from intelligent beings. He was the first person to consider artificial intelligence (AI). Thinking about AI led him to construct one of the most famous thought experiments ever proposed. The Turing Test is not only a way to distinguish intelligence, it is actually a way of thinking about intelligence without getting bogged down in the details of how intelligence works. For Turing and many of us, the argument is that if a machine can communicate in a way that is it indistinguishable from a human being, then we must assume that it is intelligent, however it achieves this. It's a pragmatic definition of intelligence and one that leads to a practical threshold, beyond which all AI researchers wish to pass.

However underpinning the test are some assumptions about communication, language, and intelligence that I wish to examine. The first is that all human beings all seem to be considered good judges for the Turing Test. I think a good case can be made for considering this a false assumption. The second is the assumptions that mere word use is how we define not only intelligence, but language. Both of these are demonstrably false. If the assumptions the test is built on are false, then we need to rethink what the test is measuring, and whether we still feel this is a sufficient measure of intelligence.

Turing Judges.

The idea of the Turing Test is that a person sits at a teletype machine that prints texts and allows the operator to type text. The human and the test subject sit in different rooms and use the teletype machines to communicate. A machine can be said to pass the Turing Test if a human operator of the teletype cannot tell that the subject is not human. This puts word use at the forefront of Turing's definition of what it means to be intelligent. 

Human beings use of language is indeed one of our defining features. Animals use faculties that hint at a proto-language facility. No animal uses language in the sense that we do. At best animals show one or two of the target properties that define language. They might for example have several grunts that indicate objects (often types of predator), but no syntax or grammar. There has been significant interest in programs that sought to teach apes to use language either as symbols or gestures. But most of this research has been discredited. Koko the gorilla was supposedly one of the most sophisticated language uses, but her "language" in fact consisted of rapidly cycling through the repertoire of signs, with the handler picking the signs that made most sense to them. In other experiments subtle cues from handlers told the animals what signs to use. More rigorous experiments show that chimps can understand some language, particularly nouns, but then so can grey parrots, some dogs, and other animals. Crucially they don't use language to communicate. In fact a far more impressive demonstration of intelligence is the ability of crows to improvise tools to retrieve food, or the coordinated pack hunting of aquatic mammals like orca and dolphins. So animals do not use language, but are none the less intelligent. 

Humans are all at different levels when it comes to language use. Some of us are extraordinarily gifted with language and others struggle with the basics. The distinctions are magnified when we restrict language to just written words. This restriction alone is doubtful. Language as written language, even if used for a dialogue, is only small part of what language use consists of. A great deal of what we communicate in language is conveyed by tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures, or body posture. Those people who can use written language well are rare. So a Turing judge is not simply distinguishing a machine from a human, but is placing a machine on a scale that includes novelists and football hooligans. What happens when the subject responds to any question by chanting "Oi, oi, oi, Come on you reds!"? Intelligence, particularly as measured by word use, is not a simple proposition. 

The Turing Test using text alone would be more interesting if we could define in advance what elements would convince us that the generator of the text was human. To the best of my knowledge this has never been achieved. We don't know what criteria constitute a valid or successful test. We just assume that any generic human being is a good judge. There's no reason to believe that this is true. As I've mentioned many times now, individuals are actually quite poor at solo reasoning tasks (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason). Reason does not work the way they we thought it did. Mercier & Sperber have argued that at least one of the many fallacies that we almost inevitably fall prey to—confirmation bias—is a feature of reason, rather than a bug. M&S argue that this is because reason evolved to help small groups make decisions and those who make proposals think and argue differently to those who critique them. On this account, any given individual would most likely be a poor Turing judge. 

Humans beings evolved to use language. Almost without exception, we all use it without giving it much thought. Certain disorders or diseases may prevent language use, but these stand out against the background of general language use: from the Amazon jungles to the African veldt, humans speak. The likelihood is that we've been using language for tens of thousands of years (See When Did Language Evolve?). But writing is another story. Writing is unusual amongst the world's languages, in that only a minority of living languages are written, or were before contact with Europe. Writing was absent from the Americas, from the Pacific, from Australia and New Guinea. The last two have hundreds of languages each. Unlike speaking, writing is something that we learn with difficulty. No child spontaneously begins to communicate in writing. Writing co-opts skills evolved for other purposes. And as a consequence our ability to use writing to express ourselves is extremely variable. Most people are not very good at it. Those who are, are usually celebrated as extraordinary individuals. Writers and their oeuvre are very important in literary cultures.

So to chose writing as the medium of a test for intelligence is an extremely doubtful choice. We don't expect intelligent human beings to be good at writing. Many highly intelligent people are lousy writers. We don't even expect people who are gifted speakers to be good at writing, which is why politicians do not write their own speeches! Writing is not a representative skill. Indeed it masks our inherent verbal skill.

In fact it might be better to use another skill altogether, i.e. tool making. A crow can modify found objects (specifically bending wire into a hook) to retrieve food items. Another important manifestation of intelligence is the ability to work in groups. Some orca, for example, coordinate their movements to create a bow-wave that can knock a seal off an ice-flow. This is a feat that involves considerable ability at abstract thought, and they pass this acquired knowledge onto to their offspring. The ability to fashion a tool or coordinate actions to achieve a goal are at least as interesting as manifestations of intelligence as language is.

Language and Recognition.

My landlady talks to her cats as though they understand her. She has one-sided conversations with them. Explains to them narratively when their behaviour causes her discomfort, as though they might understand and desist (they never do). She's not peculiar in this. Many people feel their pets are intelligent and can understand them even if they cannot speak. Why is this? Well, at least in part, it's because we recognise certain elements of posture in animals corresponding to emotions. The basic emotions are not so different in our pets that we cannot accurately understand their disposition: happy, content, excited, tired, frightened, angry, desire. With a little study we can even pick up nuances. A dog that barks with ears pinned back is saying something different to one that has its ears forward. A wagging tail or a purr can be a different signal depending on circumstances. A lot of it has to do with displays of and reception of affection. 

Intelligence is not simply about words or language. Depending on our expectations the ability to follow instructions (dogs) or the ability to ignore instructions (cats) can be judged intelligent. The phrase emotional intelligence is now something of a cliché, but it tells us something very important about what intelligence is. A dog that responds to facial expressions, to posture and tone of voice is displaying intelligence of the kind that has a great deal of value to us. Some people value relationships with animals precisely because the communication is stuck at this level. A dog does not try to deceive or communicate in confusingly abstract terms. An animal broadcasts its own disposition ("emotions") without filtering and it responds directly to human dispositions. Many people would say that this type of relationship is more honest.

There's a terrible, but morbidly fascinating, neurological condition called Capgras Syndrome. In this condition a person can recognise the physical features of humans, but their ability to connect those features with emotions is compromised. Usually when one sees a familiar face there is an accompanying emotion that tells us what our relationship with the person is. If we feel disgust or anger on recognition, then we know them to be enemies, perhaps dangerous and we act to avoid or perhaps confront them. If the emotion is joy or love then we know it's a friend or loved one. In Capgras the emotional resonance is absent. With loved ones the absence of that emotion is so strange that the most plausible explanation often seems to be that these are mere replicas of loved ones, or lookalikes. The lack of emotion in response to a known face can be incapacitating in the sense of disrupting every existing relationship. In the classic novel, The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers, the man with Capgras is able to recognise and respond to his sister's voice on the telephone, but does not feel anything when he sees her. The same is true for his home and even his dog. The only way he can explain it is that they are all substitutes cleverly recreated to fool him. Only he isn't "fooled" which creates a nightmarish situation for him. 

The problem, then, with the Turing Test is that it is rooted in the old Victorian conceit about reason being our highest faculty. Reason was, until quite recently, considered to float above the mere bodily processes of emotion. In other words it was very much caught up in Cartesian mind/body dualism and the metaphors associated with matter and spirit (See Metaphors and Materialism). Reason is associated, by default, with spirit, since it seems to be distinct from emotion. We now know that nothing could be further from the truth. Cut off from emotions our minds cannot function properly. We cannot make decisions, cannot assess information, and cannot take responsibility for our actions. The Turing test assumes that intelligence is an abstract quality, separable from the body. But these assumptions are demonstrably false.

What Kind of Intelligence?

I've already pointed out that language is more than words. I've expanded the idea of language to include the prosody, gesture and posture associated with the words (which as we know shapes the meaning of the words). An ironic eyebrow lift can make words mean something quite different than their face value. The ability to use and detect irony depends on non-verbal cues. This is why, for example, irony seldom works on Twitter. Text tends to be taken on face value, and attempts at irony simply cause misunderstanding. This is true in all text based media. In the absence of emotional cues we are forced to try to interpolate the disposition of the interlocutor. Getting a computer to work with irony would be an interesting test of intelligence!

Indeed trying to assess the internal disposition of the hidden interlocutor is a key aspect of the Turing Test. Faced with a Turing Test subject I suspect that most of us would ask questions designed to evoke emotional responses. This is because we intuit that what makes us human is not the words we use, but the feelings we communicate. Someone who acts without remorse is routinely referred to as "inhuman". In most cases humans are not good at making empathetic connections using text - which is why text-based online forums seem to be populated with borderline, if not outright, sociopaths. It's the medium, not the message. Personally I find that doing a lot of online communication produces a profound sense of alienation and brings out my underlying psycho-pathology. Writing an essay however is far more productive exercise than trying to dialogue in text. Even the telephone, with it's limited frequency range, is better for communicating, because tone of voice and inflection communicates sufficient to establish an empathetic connection. 

So if a computer can play chess better than a human being (albeit with considerable help from a team of programmers) then that is impressive, but not intelligent. The computer plays well because it does not feel anything, does not have to respond to its environment (internal or external), and does not have any sense of having won or lost. It has nothing for us to relate to. Similarly, even if a computer ever managed to use language with any kind of facility, i.e. if it could form grammatically and idiomatically correct sentences, it would probably still seem inhuman because it would not share our concerns and values. It would not empathise with us, nor us with it. 

I suppose that in the long run a computer might be able to simulate both language and an interest in our values so that in text form it might fool a human being. But would this constitute intelligence? I think not. A friendly dog would be more intelligent by far. Which is not to say that such a computer would not be a powerful tool. But we'd be better off using it to predict the weather or model a genome than trying to simulate what any of us, or any dog, can do effortlessly.

An argument against this point of view is that our minds are tuned to over-estimate intelligence or emotions in objects we see. So we see faces in clouds and agency in inanimate objects. So an approximation of intelligence would not have to be all that sophisticated to stimulate the emotions in us that would make us judge it intelligent. For example, in movies robots are often given a minimal ability to emote in order to make them sympathetic characters. The robot, Number five, in the film Short Circuit has "eyebrows" and an emotionally expressive voice and this is enough for us to empathise with it. So perhaps we will be easily fooled into believing in machine intelligence. But this means that simulation of intelligence is insufficiently impressive because people are easily fooled.

This point is brilliantly made in the movie Blade Runner. The Voight-Kampff test is designed to distinguish "replicants" from humans based on subtle differences in emotional responses. The replicants are otherwise indistinguishable from humans. The test of Rachael is particularly difficult because she has been raised to believe she is human (the logic of the movie breaks down to some extent because we do not learn by Deckard persists in asking 100 questions if Rachael is answering satisfactorily). Ridley Scott has muddied the waters further by suggesting that the blade runner, Deckard, is himself a replicant, though based on the original story and the context of the film this seems an unlikely twist.

So there are two major problems here: what makes a good Turing test; and who makes a good Turing judge. The whole set up seems under-defined and poorly thought out at present. My impression is that passing the Turing test as it is usually specified is a trivial matter that would tell us nothing about artificial intelligence or humanity that we do not already know. 


It seems to me that we have many reasons to rethink the Turing Test. It seems to be rooted in a series of assumptions that are untenable in light of contemporary knowledge. As a test for intelligence the Turing Test no longer seems reasonable. On one hand the way that it defines intelligence is far too limited. The definition of intelligence it uses is rooted in Cartesian Dualism which sees intelligence as an abstract quality, not rooted in physicality, not embodied. And this is simply false. Emotions, as felt in the body, for example, play a key role in how we process information and make decisions.

As much as anything our decision on whether or not an entity is intelligent or not, will be based on how we feel about it, how interacting with it feels to us. We will compare the feeling of interacting with the unknown entity, to how it feels to interact with an intelligent being. And until it feels right we will not judge that entity intelligent.

In Turing's day we simply did not understand how decision making worked. We still thought of abstract reasoning as a detachable mental function unrelated to being embodied. We still saw reason as the antithesis of emotion. Now we know that emotion is an indivisible part of the process. We must now consider that reason itself may not have evolved for seeking truth, but merely for optimising decision making in small groups. At the very least, the lone teletype operator needs to be replaced with a group of people; and mere words must be replaced by tasks that involve creativity and cooperation. A machine ought to show the ability to cooperate with a human being to achieve a shared goal before being judged "intelligent". The idea that we can judge intelligence at arms length, rationally, dispassionately has little interest or value any more. We judge intelligence through interaction, physical interaction as much as anything.

As George Lakoff and his colleagues have shown, abstract thought is rooted in metaphors deriving from how we physically interact with the world. Our intelligence is embodied and the idea of disembodied intelligence is no longer tenable. As interesting as the idea may appear, there is no ghost in the machine that can be extracted or instantiated and maintained apart from the body. Any attempts to create disembodied intelligence will only result in a simulacrum, not in intelligence that we can recognise as such.

Buddhists will often smugly claim this as their own insight, though most Buddhists I know are crypto-dualists (most believe in life after death and karma for example). I've argued at length that the Buddha's insight was into the nature of experience and that he avoided drawing ontological conclusions. Thus, although we read the texts as being a critique of doctrines involving souls, the methods of Buddhism were always different from the methods of Brahmanism. The Brahmins sought to experience the ātman as a reality, and from the Upaniṣadic description ātman could be experienced as a sense of oneness or connection with everything in the world (oceanic boundary loss). Buddhists deconstructed experience itself to show that nothing in experience persisted and that therefore, even if there was a soul we must either always experience it, or it could never be experienced, and since we start off not experiencing it, no permanent soul can ever be experienced (which is not a comment on whether or not such a soul exists!). Therefore the experiences of the Brahmins are of something other than ātman. Only after Buddhists had started down the road of misguided ontological speculation did this become an opinion about the existence of a soul. So the superficial similarities between ancient Buddhist and modern scientific views is an accident of a philosophical wrong turn on the part of Buddhists. They got it partly right by accident, which is not really worth being smug over.

History shows that we must proceed with real caution here. Our Western views on intelligence have been subject to extreme bias in the past and this has led to some horrific consequences for those people who failed our tests for completely bogus reasons. We must constantly subject our views on intelligence to the most rigorous criticism and scepticism we are capable of. Our mistakes in this field ought to haunt us and make us extremely uncomfortable. This is yet another reason why tests for intelligence ought to require more interactivity. If we do create intelligence we need to know we can get along with it, and it with us. And we know that we have a poor record on this score.

The Turing Test seems not to have been updated to take account of what we know about ourselves nowadays. The test itself is anachronistic. The method is faulty, because it is based on a faulty understanding of intelligence and decision making. We are not even asking the correct question about intelligence. With all due respect to Alan Turing, he was a man of his time, a glorious pioneer, but we're moved on since he came up with this idea and it's had its day. 


See also: Why Artificial Intelligences Will Never Be Like Us and Aliens Will Be Just Like Us. (27 June 2014)

13 February 2015

Harvey's Early Buddhist 'Life Principle' or 'spirit'.

National Geographic
In his book The Selfless Mind, Peter Harvey (1995: §6.5-6.12) makes a persuasive case for an early Buddhist 'life principle' (jīva) in the Pāli texts which is not permanent, but provides the necessary continuity between lives to allow karma to operate. As I read the later Buddhist traditions this jīva was universally repudiated and dropped from eschatological discourses, which has made me reluctant to admit the role implied for jīva in the early texts. This essay will explore this case, offer some criticism based on the texts, and re-examine it from a contemporary point of view. Ultimately I don't find Harvey's case compelling.

Jīva is from the verbal root √jīv 'live' which is cognate with Greek bio, Latin vivere (whence vital), and Old English cwic 'alive' (hence "the quick and the dead"). Jīva is a verbal noun, literally meaning 'living, alive' and it's used across many Indian traditions to mean 'that which causes a being to be alive', i.e. as spirit in the Vitalist sense. Most obviously it is the difference between a living being and a dead one, and this is important in the passages cited in The Selfless Mind.

Harvey is able to cite a number of passages in which the jīva is unchallenged and concludes that this amounts to an endorsement. I think this method is dubious. At the outset we must be cautious about who is consenting to what in these texts. For example if, say, Kumāra-Kassapa apparently accepts the reality of a jīva, does this amount to a Buddhist view? The Buddha is often portrayed taking the Socratic approach of stipulating his opponents beliefs and then introducing other themes, often through questions, which take the discussion in a different direction causing the belief to be either overturned or made irrelevant. Quite often the Buddha contrasts metaphysical theories by drawing attention to aspects of experience. But this absence of argument against an opposing metaphysics does not amount to an endorsement of the view. We should not mistake method for doctrine; or absence of disagreement for an endorsement. 

Harvey focusses on just such an issue: the identity of body (sarīra) and jīva. His first point (§6.5) is that the Mahāli Sutta contains a series of passages which say that a person who can attain any of the jhānas would not even ask the question. Harvey then segues into a discussion of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta passages about the mind-made body (DN i.76-77) from which he concludes
This suggests that one who is proficient at meditation is aware of a kind of life principle in the form of [viññāṇa]* (perhaps with some accompaniments), this being dependent on the mortal physical body.
* Harvey idiosyncratically, and I would say confusingly, translates viññāṇa as "discernment" throughout his book. Emphasis is in the original 
The catch here is that the manomayakāya is never, to my knowledge, equated with jīva across the entire extended literature of Buddhism. Thus it seems that Harvey is here introducing a new idea that does not occur in the Canon, but he is attributing it to the Canon. He reinforces this conclusion by pointing out that some beings with mind-made bodies do not eat solid food, but feed on joy. He leaves out that these 'beings' are in fact a particular species of deva. So the view is Harvey's rather than the suttakāras and it depends on devas being both real and representative. This conflation of manomayakāya and jīva is not justified on textual grounds.

The next piece of evidence Harvey puts forward is the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṇga version of the so-called "snake skin" simile, though he cites only the muñja/reed aspect of it (§6.6). (Compare my citation of the same passage in Manomaya Kāya: Pali Texts) The language surrounding these comments is carefully hedged, but the way Harvey continues, he is clearly convinced that what he says is true. His conviction is partly what makes the section so convincing on first read. The problem here is that we know that historically the Jains did believe in a jīva so we ought not be surprised to find a Jain sūtra discussing jīva. The surprise is that Harvey believes that this may throw light on the Buddhist view of jīva. The lack of a jīva in Buddhism has typically been seen as one of the features that distinguishes the two śrāmaṇa systems. So citing a Jain sūtra here can only confuse the issue. The Jain jīva does nothing at all to establish a Buddhist jīva.

We next move to the Pāyāsi Sutta (DN 23) which portrays a debate between a Prince of Kosala called Pāyāsi (§6.7). The text describes Pāyāsi as having developed an evil ideology (pāpakaṃ diṭṭhigataṃ) of this type:
natthi paro loko, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi sukaṭakkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko 
There is no other world, no reborn beings, and no fruit or result from actions well done or badly done. 
Harvey describes this view as "materialist" though this seems to be a misnomer. Before considering broader issues, we need to comment on the word opapātika. This is an adjectival form from upa√pad with the suffix -ka. The noun form is upapatti meaning 'reborn'. The word is taken to mean 'reborn with no visible cause' presumably on the grounds of usage or commentarial exegesis, and this is the usual translation. But the literal meaning of opapātika would be something like 'rebirth-able'. So sattā opapātikā on face value ought to mean that 'beings who are subject to rebirth', and in Buddhism that rebirth is dependent on ones actions. Thus Pāyāsi is not a materialist per se, his argument is not ontological but eschatological. If we must label the view then it is annihilationist. He doubts the afterlife, rebirth and karma - just as many modern Buddhists do. 

Now Prince Pāyāsi has come up with some enchantingly macabre ways of testing the idea of a jīva. He describes having a man sealed up in a clay pot, baked until dead, and then unsealed. And as the pot is unsealed the mouth is carefully watched to see if anything exits which might be the jīva and nothing is seen. In earlier essays about the manomayakāya I argued that it is always rūpin (possesses form) and thus must be visible. However Harvey uses this passage to argue that the jīva must be invisible. Thus jīva and manomayakāya cannot be the same thing, contra what Harvey has argued previously. Not seeing the jīva escape, Pāyāsi refuses to believe in it, which seems fair enough. As unsavory as his experiments are, Pāyāsi is an early empiricist. He's rather like Dr Duncan MacDougall, who weighed dying patients to see if there was a difference between the living and the dead.

At this point Kumāra-Kassapa (Harvey mistakenly has Mahā-Kassapa) offers a counter-argument. He argues that the princes attendants do not see his jīva entering and leaving his body while he sleeps, so why would he expect to see it entering and leaving a dead man. This is a very poor counter-argument for a life principle. For a start it equates sleep with being dead! Harvey appears to overlook that the life-principle is supposed to leave the sleeping person. If jīva really were a vitalistic life principle then this would be a contradiction. Thus jīva must mean something different here and the passage in fact contradicts Harvey's argument for a life principle.

It is important to note that the Buddha doesn't appear in this sutta. Usually if a monk says something important, the sutta will have the Buddha reinforce it at the end. Here, unusually, this does not happen. So whose views are being asserted here?

In the next section (§6.8), Harvey notices some similarities between this Pāḷi text and passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, especially BU 4.4 which is one of the earliest descriptions of rebirth in the Vedic Canon.  Harvey's translation of this passage is idiosyncratic and it's worth consulting the Sanskrit or perhaps Olivelle's translation to see this. For example the verb ut√kram does not mean 'ascend' but 'depart'; and anu-ut√kram similarly means 'to depart or follow after'. Harvey's mistake is a too literal rendering of the etymological meaning. 

It might have been interesting for Harvey to consider the previou section of BU (4.3) since it deals with dreaming. BU 4.3.9 says that a person (puruṣa) can be in one of two places: this world (idam lokam) or the other world (paraloka). But the dreamer stands at the place where the two meet (sandye), he is like, amongst other things, a fish that swims between the two banks of a river. In BU it is this puruṣa (aka ātman) that transmigrates from this world to that world, and the dreamer is in a kind of liminal state between worlds. This leads onto BU 4.4 and the description of rebirth. Here we find another simile that is taken up by later Buddhists (non-Theravādins), i.e. the caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass and reaching our to another and pulling itself over. The movement of the ātman to a new body is just the same according to BU. But of course as with the Jain argument, the (well known) Brahmanical belief in a transmigrating ātman is not evidence for a Buddhist jīva. If anything we see the texts being rather scathing about ātman, though we must be cautious here because no view on the ātman is ever put into the mouth of a Brahmin in the Buddhist texts. 

A passage from the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) uses the same verbs: ut√kram 'departure' and ava√kram 'arrival' to describe the arrival or descent of viññāna into the mothers womb (§6.9). Indeed we've seen this passage in the discussion of gandhabba because it is the same one that is used to justify linking viññāna and gandhabba; and it is used by Harvey and others to argue that it is viññāna that transmigrates, not as an entity (for this would contravene other injunctions) but as a process. Here Harvey equates the process of viññāṇa transmigrating with the jīva. But we've already seen that conflating ideas and words that the Buddhist texts themselves do not is a doubtful methodology. Other Buddhist texts specifically deny that viññāṇa can transmigrate. The reason is simply. Viññāṇa arises in dependence on conditions and ceases when the conditions cease. One of those conditions is a set of functioning sense organs. If we are arguing that viññāṇa can arise independently of the body then we will have another major philosophical problem on the scale of making karma work. And we have seen that all of the major sects of Buddhism rejected the early Buddhist model of karma and substituted their own revisions. 

Invoking other parts of the Pāyāsi/Kassapa debate doesn't help Harvey's argument either (§6.10-11). Kassapa in particular argues that living things are lighter than dead things, just as hot iron is lighter than cold iron. This is simply false - the heat of iron does not affect its weight - even if it might have been accepted in ancient India as a fact. From this section Harvey draws out some key resemblances between the analogies discussed in the Pāyāsi Sutta, and despite the reservations identified harvey concludes (§6.12):
It can thus be seen that the 'life principle' or 'spirit' accepted by the 'early suttas' is 'vitality, heat and [viññāna]', or perhaps [viññāna] and the subtle 'mind-made body'. It consists of conditionally arisen changing processes, which are not identical with the mortal body, nor totally different from it, but partly dependent on it.' (95) 
All the scare quotes are in the original and with good reason. Harvey presumably knows that his conclusion is contra to Theravāda monastic orthodoxy, if not local Theravāda folk beliefs. Rather than arguing that jīva exists with the body as condition (a statement nowhere found in Pāli) most exegetes argue that the question of identity between jīva and sarīra is unanswerable. The inference we usually draw is that this is because the jīva doesn't exist. The Pali texts certainly understand that a dead body and a live body are different. 'Living' in this context is sometimes indicated by the related term jīvata (e.g. SN iv.214; MN iii.107). However where jīvata is used adjectivally, jīva is almost always a substantive noun. Harvey is certainly orthodox to argue that it must be a process, but this is not a point made in Pali, certainly not in the texts that he cites. There is no suggestion, for example that Kumāra-Kassapa understands jīva as anything other than an entity. Certain Pāyāsi believes jīva to be an entity. The texts Harvey cites in support of his idea of a non-substantive jīva all seem to disagree with him, well perhaps not all

One of the examples Harvey gives appears to argue that jīva must be a process, though none of the others do. This is the fire stick simile. An apprentice fire-worshipper is left in charge of the fire with no idea of how a fire is made. Instead of rubbing the fire sticks to rekindle the fire using friction, he tries to get fire out of the sticks by cutting them up with an axe (consistent with the view that things are made up of the four elements). Now, Harvey argues that this means that "the life principle is not a separate part of the person, but is a process which occurs when certain conditions are present." (94) However this simile is not about the jīva at all, but about the paraloka. The conclusion of the section of the sutta is:
Evameva kho tvaṃ, rājañña, bālo abyatto ayoniso paralokaṃ gavesissasi.
Just so, you, Prince, are foolishly, senselessly and unwisely seeking the other world.
Which is to say that this is an argument about trying to understand the other world by analysing this world. Like many dualists Kassapa is saying that a reductionist analysis of this world does not yield information about the other world. Since in most cases early Buddhist texts are reluctant to even discuss dualist views, let alone endorse them, then we have reason to be doubtful about this passage. Whose view is this? Given that it's never attributed to the Buddha, and given that we nowhere else find anything like this view attributed to the Buddha we ought to be cautious in reading this as an orthodox view. In any case Harvey has misinterpreted this passage and it is the only one that evinces support for the position that the jīva is a process rather than an entity. Quite clearly in these texts, as in Jain texts, the jīva is an entity. The Buddhist arguments against such entities are so well known as to need no rehearsing. Such entities are not possible in Buddhist metaphysics. 

I'm persuaded that one can find discussions of a jīva in the suttas. I'm not convinced that there is any argument for a jīva in the early texts. Next Harvey's argument strays into the territory of antarābhava which I have discussed at some length on this blog, so I'll stop here. 


It just goes to show that even argument made at some length and with supporting citations from Pāli cannot be taken on face value. The method used by a scholar making a claim must be scrutinised. Confronted with a counter-intuitive theory we must look for flaws in the logic of the argument, such as unreasonably conflating two ideas that are not explicitly conflated in the texts, such as citing evidence that does not show what it purports to show. I fear that this section of Professor Harvey's otherwise excellent survey of way "self" is used in the texts, suffers from classic confirmation bias. Only evidence supporting the proposition that there is a transmigrating "process" is considered, and no contrary evidence is cited.

The texts clearly and consistently speak of jīva as an entity, rather than a process and it is in this very idea that the roots of the Buddhist rejection of jīva lie. Of course a transmigrating "process" would rescue Buddhist karma & rebirth doctrines from inconsistency and indeed incoherence and thus we can see the attractiveness of such a belief. Sadly for this theory, what we lack is any explicit reference to the jīva as dependently arisen that might show that this is something Buddhists believed, rather than a clever, modern way to avoid the problems inherent in rebirth.

It's true, of course, that most Buddhists are Vitalists, almost by necessity since Buddhist morality depends on it. I've explored this at some length in a series of essays on Vitalism. And there are plenty of texts which, for example, seem to show a personal continuity between lives, even though a strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics elsewhere denies the very possibility. I've explored this fundamental contradiction in my essay Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics. But there is no sign that they explicitly adopted a jīva to try to resolve this problem. Continuity seems to be a pragmatic device for teaching morality rather than a core belief.


11 July 2014

The Antarabhava or Interim State as a Vitalist Concept

Soon after I became involved in the Triratna Movement (the FWBO as was) in 1994, I remember speaking to one of the Dharmacārins about my experience with my father's corpse three years earlier (I mentioned this in my earlier essay on the Life's Breath). In response to my observation that "there was something missing" from Dad's corpse, he replied that what was missing was "consciousness". In retrospect its not at all clear what he meant by that. However, like many of my (now) colleagues in the Order he was particularly influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Tödröl (TBOTD). The TBOTD is openly Vitalist and it is "consciousness" that makes the passage through the bardo. Consciousness is in scare-quotes because I'm not entire sure what is meant and going on early Buddhist ideas it cannot be vijñāna, even though I suspect that it's vijñāna that is meant. In all early Buddhist models vijñāna is an event rather than an entity.

Vitalism and the Interim State.

In the story of the TBOTD, one's "consciousness" leaves the body, hangs around for a bit and then goes through a series of "experiences" (the bardo of becoming) before either being liberated or being reborn in one of the realms of rebirth. Experiences also has to go in scare quotes because the standard Buddhist model of cognition contact relies on the āyatanas and these rely on the nāmarūpa. Nāmarūpa is widely understood to mean a human body equipped with sensory faculties and a mind.

In the bardo between death and life, which can last 49 days, the consciousness appears to have identity and faculties, it is a being, an entity in every respect, except that it lacks a material body. Thus the book is not only Vitalist, but eternalist as well. I suspect that the popularity of the TBOTD is that it forms an interface for the Vitalist views we inherited from Christianity (the idea that each person has a soul that survives death) and the Buddhist view of no-self which is so often interpreted to mean that "there is no self".

Nor are Tibetans the only Buddhists who accept an antarabhāva - an interval between death and rebirth (literally, an in-between or interim state; a liminal existence). Even some Theravādins find the idea attractive even though Theravāda orthodoxy rejects any interim between death and rebirth. See for example Sujato's exploration of the in-between state, where he says:
"From this we can conclude that the Buddha, following ideas current in his time – for Vac­chag­otta was a non-Buddhist wanderer (parib­bā­jaka) – accepted that there was some kind of interval between one life and the next. "
Sujato relies on a self-published study of early Buddhist texts by Piya Tan: 'Is Rebirth Immediate? A study of Canonical Sources.' Tan, a prolific translator and commentator working outside mainstream ecclesiastical and academic establishments, takes the sparse textual nods towards an interim state and combines it with Vitalist accounts of so-called out-of-body (OBE) and near-death experiences (NDE) to find confirmation of the reality an interim state. Here we see the dangers of uncritical emic approaches to religion. Tan has an explicitly and uncritically Vitalist view and thus, with all due respect, the fact that he finds a Vitalist reading of NDE and OBE convincing is not a reason to accept his conclusion. On the contrary it ought to make us suspicious.

We can set aside the Vitalist reading of out-of-body experiences (OBE). They are dealt with in detail by Thomas Metzinger in his book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.Adopting a Vitalist interpretation of such experiences does not account for the phenomenology of OBEs. Metzinger provides a thorough, often first-person, account of OBE's. He highlights faults in Vitalist interpretations, while his Representationalist account provides a deeper understanding of both the phenomena and the mechanisms involved. The fact that Metzinger is able to apply his theory to induce the experience (and variations on it) in a laboratory (where he works with neuroscientist Olaf Blanke) suggests that his is the better explanation by quite a wide margin. The OBE is best understood as a breakdown in the integration of the streams of information that go to make up our first person perspective - the felt sense of self, becomes disconnected from the visual sense of self, and we make sense of how this feels by saying that we float above our body. There is no doubt that the experience is genuine, vivid and compelling. But the Vitalist explanation doesn't do as good a job as the Representationalist explanation. 

The mechanisms of near death experiences (NDE) are hotly debated, as is the definition of "death". There is almost no evidence of what is actually happening physically during the experience and the fact is that only about 10% of people whose hearts stop report such experiences. In all likelihood a combination of physical factors such as anoxia contribute to the NDE. As with other mystical experiences the interpretation depends on the outlook of the interpreter. People of various religions claim that near-death experiences confirm their religious beliefs suggesting that the interpretation of the experience by the person having it is culturally determined. The parallel with OBE suggests we should be looking to neurophysiology for an explanation.

Tan also cites Ian Stevenson. I've dealt with the flaws in the methods of one of Stevenson's colleagues, Dr Jim Tucker (in Rebirth and the Scientific Method), and the Skeptic's Dictionary provides a succinct critique of Stevenson himself. I think Buddhists ought to think twice about citing Dr Stevenson et al because what they seem to show the same being reincarnating again and again in the different bodies. In other words, Stevenson's work supports the idea of an ātman inhabiting different bodies. I'm surprised that so few Buddhists seem able to get beyond the fallacies and biases and assess this work critically from a Buddhist point of view. When religieux cite science as proof of their supernatural beliefs we should always be deeply suspicious. Science inevitably disproves supernatural beliefs. Which is part of what makes Naturalism so compelling as a worldview. 

Which brings us to the few hints at an anatarabhāva in the Pāḷi suttas. Some of the references are dubious at best. The infamous reference to the gandhabba in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38) and the Assalāyana Sutta (M 93) is open to all kinds of interpretations. No one really knows what it means. Tan translates as "being-to-be-born" but we have no idea why or how the word would mean that. My own opinion is that gandhabba here is an early typo for gabbha (Skt garbha) meaning "embryo", but the truth is that no one knows. Only a Vitalist would read it as "being-to-be-born" and we would class this as a form of eternalism similar to the pudgalavāda. However later in his text Tan equates gandhabba with sambhavesī which is, as he says, a rare future active participle meaning 'to/will be born'. For example in the Karanīya Metta Sutta we find the line:
Bhūtā va sambhavesī va, sabbasattā bhavantu sukhitattā.
born or will be born, may all beings have happiness.
But there's no need here to propose that sambhavesī means or even implies "in an interim state" unless we already believe that this is what it means. The clear intention here is beings who were born in the past (alive and dead) and beings which will be born in the future. There's nothing spooky about this. I don't have to believe in an interim state, or any afterlife belief, to think that human beings will be born in the future. And yet Tan concludes: "As such, sambhavesī here clearly refers to the intermediate being." No, that is not clear.

More interesting is the Kutūhalasāla Sutta (S 44.9). In Tan's translation of the final paragraph Vacchagotta (of the unanswered questions fame) asks about what fuels (upādāna) a being (satto) between bodies (kāya). The answer is:
“Vaccha, when a being has laid down this body, but is not yet been reborn in another body, it is fuelled by craving, I say. For, Vaccha, at that time, craving is the fuel.”
We know that Vacchagotta is a Brahmin, from his surname if nothing else, and anyway his question is framed in Brahmanical terms (what happens between bodies?). Interestingly the Buddha here also answers him in Brahmanical terms, but gives it a Buddhist kink: between bodies "a being" is based on/fuelled by craving. In the very next, well known, sutta (Ānanda Sutta SN 44.10) Vaccha asks about the self (attan) and whether it exists or not and does not receive an answer. Leaving both him and Ānanda puzzled. What the Kutūhalasāla Sutta represents is a partially digested lump of Brahmin theology with a touch of skilful means. It's inconsistent with the sutta that follows it and with many other suttas. How we deal with inconsistencies is important. The first step is acknowledge that it is an inconsistency, which neither Tan nor Sujato seem to do. Then we have to explain the inconsistency as an inconsistency, not as a standalone feature. Context is important.

What does this mean in practice? The general view in Buddhist texts is that vijñāna is an event that arises on the basis of sense object (ālambana) and sense faculty (indriya); but the models of dependent arising argue that sense faculties arise in dependence on nāma-rūpa, i.e. on the basis of a physical body endowed with mental faculties. To the best of my knowledge no parallel description occurs of the process in the interim state. Certainly craving fuels the process of becoming, so if someone were unshiftably wedded to their views (and Vacchagotta represents this type) then the only thing to do is introduce a Buddhist moral undertone. If someone, like Vacchagotta, believes in disembodied consciousness existing in an interim state and won't be talked out of it, then the best we can do is try to make them see that any existence in saṃsāra is based on craving. The idea that the Buddha always shares his interlocutors views, even when he uses their language, is doubtful. In the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) the Buddha claims to know God, God's kingdom and the way to God's kingdom, but he's talking to Brahmins who understand a religious life in these terms. Also other parts of the text are clearly satirical.

Next in his text, Tan tries to get at what a "non-returner" is. Tan cites an argument by Peter Harvey that concludes that "The antarāparinibbāyī must thus be one who attains nibbāna after death and before any rebirth." But these rather abstruse beings, like the Paccekabuddha, are the product of abstract theology rather than being based on experience. Later Theravādin Ābhidhammikas allow no space between cuticitta and paṭisandhi citta. They seem to have rejected the theology inherent in the idea of existence in an interim state, and I imagine they did so because it completely mucks up their unbroken sequence of cittas. Since cittas arising are dependent on nāmarūpa and the interim state demands that we remove rūpa from the equation for a period. Unfortunately the five khandhas are all required for there to be experience. And rūpa refers to a body endowed with senses. So we might accept Tan's view here, but it involves embracing a contradiction that the Theravāda tradition itself later rejected. The non-returner is a hypothetical being invented for the same of completeness of a taxonomy, not because they are observed in the wild. 

There are one or two other points in the discussion, but we've got the gist. The Paḷi text readings which supposedly support the idea of an antarabhāva are all rather vague and open to other interpretations. Tan and Sujato happen to chose a Vitalist reading from amongst the possibilities and we suspect that it's because that is what they expect to find. But even if we stipulated the Vitalist reading and ignored the internal contradictions, this would leave us with many unanswered questions: what is this interim state? Where is it? Clearly it is not one of the six realms of rebirth. So one is not reborn in the interim state. and we wonder just what is in the interim state? Why is it not more explicitly dealt with in texts? Why did the Theravāda orthodoxy reject the idea even while other early Buddhist schools embraced it?

I want to be clear that I like both Piya Tan and Sujato and I admire the translation work of Tan. His personal contribution is outstanding. My disagreement with him is focussed on this specific matter of history and doctrine. As far as I can see there is no necessity for an interim state in the Buddhist afterlife. The interim state only complicates an already difficult picture. Why would Buddhists introduce this extra step? The interim state is terrible theology. If anything it makes it karma and rebirth even less workable and less plausible. And this begs the question: why even have an interim state?

Origins for the Interim State?

One answer might be that it derives from the Vedic antarikṣa (= Pāḷi antalikkha). Buddhist cosmology evolved from parodies of Vedic cosmology (and the sense of satire was replaced by credulous acceptance by humourless bhikṣus). In Vedic cosmology (and eschatology) there are three realms: earth (bhumi), heaven (svargaloka) and between them the sky or in-between realm (antarikṣa). Going to the afterlife involved your soul travelling through the antarikṣa in the form of smoke from the funeral pyre and up into heaven. Similarly when one expired in heaven and fell back to earth, sometimes as rain, they fell through the antarikṣa to get back. The Pāli verb cavati 'to fall' metaphorically means 'to die' and in Buddhist texts is often used of devas who fall from the devaloka. Translating devā cavanti 'the gods die' is one of the first exercises in Warder's Introduction to Pali. The Vedic afterlife required each person to traverse the antarikṣa in an immaterial state (as smoke). And this sounds like nothing so much as the Buddhist antarabhāva. The ending -bhāva is often slightly ambiguous but seems to mean 'state' or 'state of being'. If one were in the Vedic antarikṣa, suspended between earth and heaven, then one would be described (temporarily) as antarabhāva. Since we know that Buddhist cosmology is broadly an adaptation of Vedic cosmology it would make sense if Buddhists included the idea of the antarikṣa as well, and we do see the idea of the "sky" in the Pāli equivalent: antalikkha.

Perhaps even more plausible is a relation to the accounts of the afterlife in the Purāṇas. These texts were  mostly composed in common era, but are thought to rely on older oral traditions. In the Purāṇic account, after death the departed (preta: literally 'gone before' deriving from pra√i) exists in a subtle form in an interim state for ten or twelve days. The pretas must be fed through performing food sacrifices, where again the fire transforms material food into an immaterial form (smoke) than can be consumed by pretas. Having been sustained in this interim state for the required time, the preta was reborn in heaven (svargaloka). This afterlife mythology is almost certainly the source of the Buddhist pretaloka. Our starving hungry-ghosts, sustained by craving (taṇhupādāna), unable to eat ordinary food, are a caricature of this mainstream Hindu afterlife story. Thus it is not fanciful to suppose that the same myth might also be the source of the interim state idea. As Naomi Appleton recently blogged:
"... the pretas are a unique rebirth state in Buddhist terms, in that they cannot seem to benefit themselves, but they can benefit greatly from merit transferred to them by humans. It has long been recognized that this is linked to their association with the liminal state between death and the ritual feeding of the dead in the Brahmanical Hindu calendar; the latter ritual, which involves the offering of rice-balls to the deceased, allows the departed one to go onwards to the realm of the ancestors." (Pretas and the śrāddha rite: Matthew Sayers’ Feeding the Dead)
Thus it may be that some Buddhists believe in the interim state because it is a legacy of the Vedic cosmology which was adopted and adapted by pre-sectarian Buddhists. My understanding is that this Vedic myth was not meant to be taken seriously, but that parody became mistaken for truth. And we know how often stories from the satirical newspaper The Onion get taken seriously and picked up by the media. 

Vitalism and Eternalism

The vast majority of humans since about 100,000 years ago seem to have believed in an afterlife. Burials obviously constructed with continued existence after death in mind appear around this time (and perhaps 30,000 years earlier for Neanderthals). Any belief in continued personal existence after death is by definition an eternalist view. So most people who ever lived and had any kind of view about it have been eternalists. True nihilism is in fact rare. Even now I suspect most people who believe in a "one and only life", wish it would go on forever. This was for example the position of physicist Sean Carroll in arguing against the proposition that "death is not final" in a recent debate.

Vitalism is eternalist. The life essence, or jīva, precedes our present life and will continue to exist after our death, whether the jīva is part of something larger, or specific to us. If something is not arising and passing away on the basis of conditions, then it is eternalist in the Buddhist view. Nāgārjuna makes this argument against the Sarvāstivāda solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. If a dharma does not cease when it's conditions cease then it is, by (Buddhist) definition, eternal. (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Chp 17)

So Vitalism is certainly compatible with the medieval (14th Century) Tibetan Buddhism of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But generally speaking Buddhists have tried to disrupt this fundamental eternalism that pervades human culture and specifically rejected any notion of jīva.

Philosophically there are two problems with eternalism. Buddhists identified that all experience is impermanent, and that unhappiness comes from treating it as graspable or sustainable. The worldview most people have is one in which we unconsciously believe that if we can just continually repeat pleasurable experiences, or make one kind of pleasant experience last forever, then that is ultimate happiness. Thus most traditions of Heaven depict it as a place of constant and unending pleasure (and by contrast Hell is constant and unending pain). Paradise is a pleasure that never ends. This idea influenced how Mahāyāna Buddhists imagined the Pure Land as well. But early Buddhists realised that this is a fundamentally wrong view of how experience is. In fact experience is constantly changing — arising and passing away — and thus constantly frustrating our expectations of it. Hence the second characteristic of all experiences is duḥkha - dissatisfaction, disappointment, dysphoria, unhappiness, misery. And dissatisfaction is important because it can lead to disenchantment and that can lead to disentanglement which is equivalent to liberation.

The second problem (often seen as the main problem by Buddhists) is with our orientation to the world. Consciousness endows us with a first person perspective, and this perspective is maintained on the basis of particular kinds of experiences. We identify with certain aspects of the first person perspective as "I", "me", or "mine". However the first person perspective is an experience and thus subject to the limitations on all experiences. This also creates conditions for unhappiness because we divide the world up in terms of me/them and mine/theirs. Immoral actions are associated with this kind of self-centredness. Of course humans are social so in fact we have circles that are involved in our sense of self. Our close friends and family are often as much "us" as we ourselves are. This is more true in some cultures than others, but always true to some extent. The boundaries between me, and the inner them and the outer them are sometimes difficult to define precisely, but we do have a different set of behaviours in relation to the extent to which we empathise with each. And the vast majority of people are outside our circles. Humans, like other territorial animals, often treat outsiders and trespassers very badly indeed.

The third characteristic of all experience is that it is anātman or essence-less, self-less, lacking in substance, insubstantial. There's nothing substantial no essence to identify with. And thus at this basic level Buddhism ought to be incompatible with any kind of Vitalism. But this is not always a happy thought and, so, many Buddhists do embrace vitalism, even Theravādins.


The really fundamental problem that all self-conscious living beings face is that one the one hand we want to continue to live (life at all levels is characterised by activities aimed at persistence of life; at maintaining homoeostasis); and on the other hand, as self-aware beings, we are aware of our own eventual (or even impending) death. Holding on to life in the face of inevitable death is a great source of pain.

While life itself is incredibly robust, 3.5 billion years of unbroken continuity and counting, a living being is a tenuous thing. In the Buddha's day infant mortality would have been high. If the monsoon's failed thousands of people would have died from starvation. Disease would have taken most people before the age of 40. A simple thorn in the foot could mean death from septicaemia. Snakes still kill 10,000 people a year in India. Tigers and other large predators were common before the jungle was cleared. There were no labour laws. Most children would have worked. Education was the preserve of a privileged few. Burgeoning caste rules meant escaping the life you were born into was very difficult, unless one renounced the world and became an ascetic, though that was also a difficult life.

Vitalism, with it's intimations of life beyond death and a pure essence that is untouched by worldly sorrows, clearly meets a need or it would not continue to be ubiquitous, even amongst those who follow the Buddha and ought to know better. But it's extremely unlikely to be true. If there is an animating entity, substance, or force, then we have yet to see any sign of it, and our best models of how things work don't require one in order to be accurate. The substance dualism that accompanies Vitalism is just not a very good theory by any standards.

Life is what it is. Experience is what it is. Seeing them for what they are, is enough. Speculation about the afterlife or our existence after death, or about a vital essence (ātmanjīvapudgala, or bhāva), is superfluous and counter-productive. Or so the Buddha is supposed to have said.


27 June 2014

Why Artificial Intelligences Will Never Be Like Us and Aliens Will Be Just Like Us.

"Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsym-pathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the great memes of science fiction and as our lives come to resemble scifi stories ever more, we can't help by speculate what an AI will be like. Hollywood aside seem to imagine that AIs will be more or less like us because we aim to make them like us. And as part of that we will make them with affection for, or at least obedience to us. Asimov's Laws of Robotics are the most well known expression of this. And even if they end up turning against us, it will be for understandable reasons. 

Extra-terrestrial aliens on the other hand will be incomprehensible. "It's like Jim, but not at we know it." We're not even sure that we'll recognise alien life when we see it. Not even sure that we have a definition of life that will cover aliens. It goes without saying that aliens will behave in unpredictable ways and will almost certainly be hostile to humanity. We won't understand them minds or bodies and we will survive only by accident (War of the Worlds, Alien) or through Promethean cunning (Footfall, Independence Day). Aliens will surprise us, baffle us, and confuse us (though hidden in this narrative is a projection of fears both rational and irrational). 

In this essay I will argue that we have this backwards: in fact AI will be incomprehensible to us, while aliens will be hauntingly familiar. This essay started off as a thought experiment I was conducting about aliens and a comment on a newspaper story on AI. Since then it's become a bit more topical as a computer program known as a chatbot was trumpeted as having "passed the Turing Test for the first time". This turned out to be a rather inflated version of events. In reality a chatbot largely failed to convince the majority of people that it was a person despite a minor cheat that lowered the bar. The chatbot was presented as a foreigner with poor English and was still mostly unconvincing. 

But here's the thing. Why do we expect AI to be able to imitate a human being? What points of reference would a computer program ever have to enable it to do so?

Robots Will Never Be Like Us.

There are some fundamental errors in the way that AI people think about intelligence that will begin to put limits on their progress if they haven't already. The main one being that they don't see that human consciousness is embodied. Current AI models tacitly subscribe to a strong form of Cartesian mind/body dualism: they believe that they can create a mind without a body. There's now a good deal of research to show that our minds are not separable from our bodies. I've probably cited four names more than any other when considering consciousness: George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Antonio Damasio, and Thomas Metzinger. What these thinkers collectively show is that our minds are very much tied to our bodies. Our abstract thoughts are voiced using on metaphors drawn from how we physically interact with the world. Their way of understanding consciousness posits the modelling of our physical states as the basis for simple consciousness. How does a disembodied mind do that? We can only suppose that it cannot.

One may argue that a robot body is like a human body. And that an embodied robot might be able to build a mind that is like ours through it's robot body. But the robot is not using it's brain primarily to sustain homoeostasis mainly because it does not rely on homoeostasis for continued existence. But even other mammals don't have minds like ours. Because of shared evolutionary history we might share some basic physiological responses to gross stimuli that are good adaptations for survival, but their thoughts are very different because their bodies and particularly their sensory apparatus are different. An arboreal creature is just not going to structure their world the way a plains dweller or an aquatic animal does. Is there any reason to suppose that a dolphin constructs the same kind of world as we do? And if not then what about a mind with no body at all? Maybe we could communicate with dolphin with difficulty and a great deal of imagination on out part. But with a machine? It will be "Shaka, when the walls fell." For the uninitiated this is a reference to a classic of first-contact scifi story. The aliens in question communicate in metaphors drawn exclusively from their own mythology, making them incomprehensible to outsiders, except Picard and his crew of course (there is a long, very nerdy article about this on The Atlantic Website). Compare Dan Everett's story of learning to communicate with the Pirahã people of Amazonia in his book Don't Sleep There Are Snakes.

Although Alan Turing was a mathematical genius he was not a genius of psychology. And he made a fundamental error in his Turing Test in my opinion. Our Theory of Mind is tuned to assume that other minds are like ours. If we can conceive any kind of mind independent of us, then we assume that it is like us. This has survival value, but it also means we invent anthropomorphic gods, for example. A machine mind is not going to be at all like us, but that doesn't stop us unconsciously projecting human qualities onto it. Hypersensitive Agency Detection (as described by Justin L Barrett) is likely to mean that even if a machine does pass the Turing Test then we will have over estimated the extent to which it is an agent.

The Turing Test is thus a flawed model for evaluating another mind because of limitations in our equipment for assessing other minds. The Turing Test assumes that all humans are good judges of intelligence, but we aren't. We are the beings who see faces everywhere, and can get caught up in the lives of soap opera characters and treat rain clouds as intentional agents. We are the people who already suspect that GIGO computers have minds of their own because they breakdown in incomprehensible ways at inconvenient times and that looks like agency to us! (Is there a good time for a computer to break?). The fact that any inanimate object can seem like an intentional agent to us, disqualifies us as judges of the Turing Test. 

AI's, even those with robot bodies, will sense themselves and the world in ways that will always fundamentally different to us. We learn about cause and effect from the experience of bringing our limbs under conscious control, by grabbing and pushing objects. We learn about the physical parameters of our universe the same way. Will a robot really understand in the same way? Even if we set them up to learn heuristically through electronic senses and a computer simulation of a brain, they will learn about the world in a way that is entirely different to the way we learned about it. They will never experience the world as we do. AIs will always be alien to us. 

All life on the planet is the product of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Good luck simulating that in a way that is not detectable as a simulation. At present we can't even convincingly simulate a single celled organism. Life is incredibly complex as this 1:1 million scale model of a synapse (right) demonstrates. 

Aliens Will Be Just Like Us.

Scifi stories like to make aliens as alien as possible, usually by making them irrational and unpredictable (though this is usually underlain by a more comprehensible premise - see below).

In fact we live in a universe with limitations: 96 naturally occurring elements, with predictable chemistry; four fundamental forces; and so on. Yes, there might we weird quantum stuff going on, but in bodies made of septillions (1023) of atoms we'd never know about it without incredibly sophisticated technology. On the human scale we live in a more or less Newtonian universe.

Life as we know it involves exploiting energy gradients and using chemical reactions to move stuff where it wouldn't go on its own. While the gaps in our knowledge still technically allow for vitalistic readings of nature, it does remove the limitations imposed on life by chemistry: elements have strictly limited behaviour the basics of which can be studied and understood in a few years. It takes a few more years to understand all the ways that chemistry can be exploited, and we'll never exhausted all of the possibilities of combining atoms in novel ways. But the possibilities are comprehensible and new combinations have predictable behaviour. Many new drugs are now modelled on computers as a first step.

So the materials and tools available to solve problems, and in fact most of the problems themselves, are the same everywhere in the universe. A spaceship is likely to be made of metals. Ceramics is another option, but they require even higher temperatures to produced and tend to be brittle. Ceramics sophisticated enough to do the job suggest a sophisticated metal-working culture in the background. Metal technology is so much easier to develop. Iron is one of the most versatile and abundant metals: other mid-periodic table metallic elements (aluminium, titanium, vanadium, chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, etc) make a huge variety of chemical combinations, but for pure metal and useful alloys, iron is king. Iron alloys give the combination of chemical stability, strength to weight ratio, ductility, and melting point to make a space ship. So our aliens are most likely going to come from a planet with abundant metals, probably iron, and their space ship is going to make extensive use of metals. The metals aliens use will be completely pervious to our analytical techniques. 

Now in the early stages of working iron one needs a fairly robust body: one has to work a bellows, wield tongs and hammer, and generally be pretty strong. That puts a lower limit on the kind of body that an alien will have, though strength of gravity on the alien planet will vary this parameter. Very gracile or very small aliens probably wouldn't make it into space because they could not have got through the blacksmithing phase to more sophisticated metal working techniques. A metal working culture also means an ability to work together over long periods of time for quite abstract goals like the creation of alloys composed of metals extracted from ores buried in the ground. Thus our aliens will be social animals by necessity. Simple herd animals lack the kind of initiative that it takes to develop tools, so they won't be as social as cows or horses. Too little social organisation and the complex tasks of mining and smelting enough metal would be impossible. So no solitary predators in space either. 

The big problem with any budding space program is getting off the ground. Gravity and the possibilities of converting energy put more practical limitations on the possibilities. Since chemical reactions are going to be the main source of energy and these are fixed, gravity will be the limiting factor. The mass of the payload has to be not too large to be to costly or just too heavy, and it must be large enough to fit a being in (a being at least the size of a blacksmith). If the gravity of a n alien planet was much higher than ours it would make getting into space impractical - advanced technology might theoretically overcome this, but with technology one usually works through stages. No early stage means no later stages. If the gravity of a planet was much lower than ours then the density would make large concentrations of metals unlikely. It would be easier to get into space, but without the materials available to make it possible and sustainable. Also the planet would struggle to hold enough atmosphere to make it long-term liveable (like Mars). So alien visitors are going to come from a planet similar to ours and will have solved similar engineering problems with similar materials. 

Scifi writers and enthusiasts have imagined all kinds of other possibilities. Silicon creatures were a favourite for a while. Silicon (Si) sits immediately below carbon in the periodic table and has similar chemistry: it forms molecules with a similar fourfold symmetry. I've made the silicon analogue (SiH4) of methane (CH4) in a lab: it's highly unstable and burns quickly in the presence of oxygen or any other moderately strong oxidising agent (and such agents are pretty common). The potential for life using chemical reactions in a silicon substrate is many orders of magnitude less flexible than that based on carbon and would of necessity require the absolute elimination of oxygen and other oxidising agents from the chemical environment. Silicon tends to oxidise to silicon-dioxide SiO2 and then become extremely inert. Breaking down silicon-dioxide requires heating to melting point (2,300°C) in the presence of a powerful reducing agent, like pure carbon. In fact silicon-dioxide, or silica, is one of the most common substances on earth partly because silicon and oxygen themselves are so common. The ratio of these two is related to the fusion processes that precede a supernova and again are dictated by physics. Where there is silicon, there will be oxygen in large amounts and they will form sand, not bugs. CO2 is also quite inert, but does undergo chemical reactions, which is lucky for us as plants rely on this to create sugars and oxygen.

One of the other main memes is beings of "pure energy", which are of course beings of pure fantasy. Again we have the Cartesian idea of disembodied consciousness at play. Just because we can imagine it, does not make it possible. But even if we accept that the term "pure energy" is meaningful, the problem is entropy. It is the large scale chemical structures of living organisms that prevent the energy held in the system from dissipating out into the universe. The structures of living things, particularly cells, hold matter and energy together against the demands of the laws of thermodynamics. That's partly what makes life interesting. "Pure energy" is free to dissipate and thus could not form the structures that make life interesting.

When NASA scientists were trying to design experiments to detect life on Mars for the Viking mission, they invited James Lovelock to advise them. He realised that one didn't even need to leave home. All one needed to so was measure the composition of gases in a planet's atmosphere, which one could do with a telescope and a spectrometer. If life is going to be recognisable, then it will do what it does here on earth: shift the composition of gases away from the thermodynamic and chemical equilibrium. In our case the levels of atmospheric oxygen require constant replenishment to stay so high. It's a dead give away! And the atmosphere of Mars is at thermal and chemical equilibrium. Nothing is perturbing it from below. Of course NASA went to Mars anyway, and went back, hoping to find vestigial life or fossilised signs of life that had died out. But the atmosphere tells us everything we need to know. 

The Nerdist
So where are all the aliens visitors? (This question is known as the Fermi Paradox after the Enrico Fermi who first asked it). Recall that as far as we know the limit of the speed of light invariably applies to macro objects like spacecraft - yes, theoretically, tachyons are possible, but you can't build a spacecraft out of them! Recently some physicists have been exploring an idea that would allow us to warp space and travel faster than light, but it involves "exotic" matter than no one has ever seen and is unlikely to exist. Aliens are going to have to travel at sub-light speeds. And this would take subjective decades. And because of Relativity time passes slower on a fast moving object, centuries would pass on their home planet. Physics is a harsh mistress.

These are some of the limitations that have occurred to me. There are others. What this points to are a very limited set of circumstances in which an alien species could take to space and come to visit us. The more likely an alien is to get into space, the more like us they are likely to be. The universality of physics and the similarity of the problems that need solving would inevitably lead to parallelism in evolution, just as it has done on earth.

Who is More Like Us?

Unlike scifi, the technology that allows us to meet aliens will be strictly limited by physics. There will be no magic action at a distance on the macro scale (though, yes, individual subatomic particles can subvert this); there will be no time travel, no faster than light travel; no materials impervious to analysis; no cloaking devices, no matter transporters, and no handheld disintegrators. Getting into space involves a set of problems that are common to any being on any planet that will support life, and there are a limited set of solutions to those problems. Any being that evolves to be capable of solving those problems will be somewhat familiar to us. Aliens will mostly be comprehensible and recognisable, and do things on more or less the same scale that we do. As boring as that sounds, or perhaps as frightening depending on your view of humanity.

And AI will forever be a simulation that might seem like us superficially, but won't be anything like us fundamentally. When we imagine that machine intelligences will be like us, we are telling the Pinocchio story (and believing it). This tells us more about our own minds, than it does about the minds of our creations. If only we would realise that we're looking in a mirror and not through a window. All these budding creators of disembodied consciousness ought to read Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly. Of course many other dystopic or even apocalyptic stories have been created around this theme, some of my favourite science fiction movies revolve around what goes wrong when machines become sentient. But Shelly set the standard before computers were even conceived of; even before Charles Babbage invented his Difference Engine. She grasped many of the essential problems involved in creating life and in dealing with otherness (she was arguably a lot more insightful than her ne'er-do-well husband). 

Lurking in the background of the story of AI is always some version of Vitalism: the idea that matter is animated by some élan vital which exists apart from it; mind apart from body; spirit as opposed to matter. This is the dualism that haunts virtually everyone I know. And we seem to believe that if we manage to inject this vital spirit into a machine that the substrate will be inconsequential, that matter itself is of no consequence (which is why silicon might look viable despite it's extremely limited chemistry; or a computer might seem a viable place for consciousness to exist). It is the spirit that makes all the difference. AI researchers are effectively saying that they can simulate the presence of spirit in matter with no reference to the body's role in our living being. And this is bunk. It's not simply a matter of animating dead matter, because matter is not dead in the way that Vitalists think it is; and nor is life consistent with spirit in the way they think it is.

The fact that such Vitalist myths and Cartesian Duality still haunt modern attempts at knowledge gathering (and AI is nothing if not modern) let alone modern religions, suggests that the need for an ongoing critique. And it means there is still a role for philosophers in society despite what Stephen Hawking and some scientists say (see also Sean Carroll's essay "Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy"). If we can fall into such elementary fallacies at the high-end of science then scientists ought to be employing philosophers on their teams to dig out their unspoken assumptions and expose their fallacious thinking.


20 June 2014

Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator
arguing for more individualism. 
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with. In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power. The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for some centuries now.

The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. (p89)

Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces"; use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests. From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

© Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough. This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard, is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work, you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels (unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the 1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public relations").
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a £17 billion annual subsidy to landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open. Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open, but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial  and leaves the body emeshed in the world and subject to market forces.

The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative, contingent world—i.e. saṃsāra—for an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal world—i.e. nirvāṇa. And when someone like Nāgārjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakāya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society. Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us. SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of those who control the material world. We end up fighting Māra's battle for him.


Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions: schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs, secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners; by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician, police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth, money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics, national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being. Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed. One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the "person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtuality—virtual friends, virtual pets, virtual communities—without seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to the real thing.

Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around. In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they? Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.

This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than our convert beliefs. 

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice" models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with (almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g. Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities etc) the dynamic is far more complex.

In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits). To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values. Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the opposite is more often true.

Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravāda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic. Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahāyāna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this: based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good thing? Churchill did say:
"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world, no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not. Brāhmaṇa retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it, while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life, guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back." Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our bodies.

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism, the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.