Showing posts with label materialism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label materialism. Show all posts

08 August 2014

Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names."

The Analects. (13.1)

The three words in the title of this essay are often conflated and used pejoratively to criticise anyone who argues that the results of scientific exploration must be taken into account. In fact they delineate three different philosophical narratives, the first two are ontologies concerned with the nature of reality, while the latter is an epistemological position. Since the terms come up so often and are so often used indiscriminately, leading to confusion, it's worth unpacking them and sorting one from the other.


Physicalism is a relatively new word. It was coined in the 1930's by the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, which is also associated with the epistemological stance of Positivism. Indeed the confusion of anti-science campaigners is such that they will often refer to science as "Positivist".  This is very easy to refute since in the schism between Viennese refugee Karl Popper and the Vienna Circle, scientists decisively sided with Popper in rejecting Positivism. Modern science is not Positivist, it is, if anything, Popperian. The heart of the dispute was the Positivist claim that propositions could only be considered true when they could be directly verified. Popper showed, using the example of the black swan, that this was not a useful approach to assessing the truth value of knowledge. For example: "All swans are white" had been used as an example of an demonstrably true proposition in Europe, since all European swans are white. But in Australia swans are black and thus once Europeans got to Australia they realised that it was never true that all swans were white. This is now known as the Black Swan Effect. The Positivist approach is constantly undermined by unknown unknowns. Those who claim there is no certain knowledge cite the Black Swan Effect as a justification for this view. 

The Physicalist position is essentially a linguistic one. They said that all linguistic statements are synonymous with some physical statement. Which boils down to the idea that everything is (ultimately) physical. If this were so it would certainly make truth claims a lot easier to establish or test. Everything we experience is simply a result of how the physical world is arranged. For example an arrangement of atoms.

Although philosophers still discuss the idea of Physicalism, it is not a very convincing position and has very little influence on the world at present. Indeed it is precisely the mind which undermines physicalism. It is very difficult to account for the phenomena of the mind in a Physicalist paradigm. While most current theories of mind are reductive, in the sense of explaining the mind as an activity of the brain, this would still be difficult to account for on the basis of Physicalism, because the phenomena of the mind are not physical. For some philosophers this looks like a case for substance dualism. David Chalmers who coined the term "The Hard Problem" is a substance dualist. 

I think it's safe to say that no scientist is presently trying to explain the mind through the Physicalist paradigm. Granted, the physicists seeks to understand physical phenomena through studying the physical world. But this is a methodological approach rather than an ontological position. Physicists may believe that studying the world (the way they do) will lead to a theoretical understanding of reality, but this is technically not Physicalism, it is Naturalism


Materialism is a somewhat older term with roots in the early Enlightenment. We need to think carefully about the historical context of Materialism. In fact some of the Ancient Greeks were materialists - they believed that the world was made up of one substance and it's transformations. A popular early contender for this single substance was water. Fire was also considered by some. There were apparently some materialists in ancient India as well and they also played around with both water and fire as the ultimate substance. A little note here is that in Buddhism we frequently meet Nihilists who do not believe in rebirth, or Determinists who believe our actions are all pre-determined, but neither of them can legitimately (or rationally) be called Materialists because they do not espouse a substance ontology. However it is de rigueur to irrationally call such characters materialists. Materialism, as an ontology, did not catch on either in Europe or in India. In Europe materialism lost ground to other ideas and then was obliterated by Christianity for over 1000 years. In India the transmigration of souls in a cyclic eschatology required some form of Vitalism that dominates the Indian worldview even today.

At the dawn of the Enlightenment the Roman Catholic Church (previously the Holy Roman Empire) had been the dominant intellectual power for a millennia. They maintained this by having a monopoly on education and by persecuting heretics. Roman theology translated into secular power as well. Thus when the first cracks appeared in Church dogma - discoveries by Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Galileo - they were embraced with great enthusiasm in some quarters where the Church was less popular.

As much as anything the early Materialists hoped to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Church. And they did this by playing up the possibilities of gaining knowledge by studying the material world as distinct from the spiritual world of the Church; and by playing down the superstition and ignorance fostered by the Church as part of its program to control the masses.

We have to see the Materialism of the Enlightenment as distinct from contemporary Materialism because of the historical context and the fact that most of the central planks of contemporary materialism were discovered in the 20th century. The understanding of the 17th and 18th Century materialists was entirely different and commentators such as Arnold Schopenhauer (the darling of many Romantics) who attempt to refute 18th century Materialism are barely relevant to modern discussions of materialism because they are talking about something completely different.

In the 21st century the Church is a spent force intellectually. For a start it is divided and full of internal strife over issues of equality. The Church plays no major role in public discourse any more. In addition we have a series of discoveries that have established materialism as a very useful way of seeing the world: building on the life and works of Newton, Hume and Kant et al.; 19th century natural philosophers extended our knowledge of the natural world: evolution and the discovery of fossils; the explorations of the early chemists; Maxwell's electromagnetism and so on. This laid the foundations for far more sophisticated theories which have allowed exploration of the natural world in greater breadth and depth, such as: Relativity, quantum mechanics, and nuclear forces using techniques such as deep space telescopes, electron microscopes, and fMRI scanners taking pictures of the brain in action. These are all the activities of what used to be called natural philosophers - those whose study is of the natural world, and who nowadays take an approach that might be called Naturalism.

The success of methodological Naturalism can lead to the ontological view that the material world is all that there is, i.e. to mono-substance materialism. However the Materialism of today is vastly different to the Materialism of the 19th Century. The picture of nature is much more wide ranging and compelling. It will readily be admitted that we do not understand everything, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, not to mention problems associated with the mind, are as yet unsolved. Still, what we do know about the world is astounding. And we know the basic principles upon which the world, as we know it, operates. (See Sean Carroll's essay Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood).

The main problem that undermines Materialism as a complete ontology is what David Chalmers has called "the hard problem of consciousness. As he says "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience." It's very difficult to explain first person experience, the fact that we are subjects of experience, from a Materialist perspective. However we must carefully note that, rather disappointingly, Chalmers is a substance dualist: in expounding his views he makes it clear that he believes that the mind is made of a different stuff to matter. It is natural, even axiomatic, for a mind/body substance dualist to argue that studying matter will tell us nothing about the mind. Substance dualism is a theological position rather than a philosophical position: there is no way to test the proposition, it must simply be taken on faith. Just because a substance dualist like Chalmers cannot conceive of a way around the problem, because his definition of mind erects insurmountable barriers around it, does not mean that people who reject substance dualism are bound by the same assumptions. I recently cited John Searle and his contention that these discussions often mix up ontology and epistemology:
"The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain". - (Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology)
Over the last few weeks I've been arguing that substance dualism, and in particular Vitalism, is incompatible with basic Buddhism. In fact like Nāgārjuna I'm forced to conclude that any hard and fast ontological position is untenable, because by the Buddhist understanding of the existential situation there is no epistemological support for any ontology. We simply have no way to know one way or the other if the world really exists or really doesn't. All we can know is that experience arises and passes away and it marked by impermanence, disappointment and insubstantiality. However I offer the caveat that together we can infer a lot about the world and that through empiricism and comparing notes we have a lot of useful information and accurate theories. 

The other kind of Materialism, the other side of the mono-substance ontology, argues that there is only one kind of substance in the universe and it is mind. Whereas the Materialism that is regularly attacked by Buddhists is a form of Realism, if we say that there is only mind then we have a form of Idealism (after Plato's conception of 'ideas' the ultimate, true, noumena behind phenomena). Idealism is quite a popular philosophical stance amongst Buddhists.  And it's still a mono-substance ontology and thus a form of Materialism.


Scientism is distinct from Physicalism and Materialism because it's primarily an epistemological stance. Scientism, on the back of the massive success of science, argues that the scientific method (empiricism) is the only valid method of acquiring knowledge. Presumably Scientism would argue that common sense is a less sophisticated form of empiricism. In fact this is mostly a pejorative term used by social "scientists" against real scientists. And the irony here is that the humanities have been vigorously gearing up to be sciences since around the time "Scientism" was coined as a pejorative. So in some sense the argument is not with scientists, but with humanities scholars enthusiastically adopting the paradigms of science. Of course they do this because of the kudos that comes with empirical research: it's much harder to argue with measurement than with surmise or reflection. 

In fact I see this adoption of empiricism outside the natural sciences as a rather baleful influence on everyday life. Ordinary professionals such as teachers and nurses now have to have masters degrees and spend half their time on administrative and bureaucratic tasks designed to measure their performance. Such initiatives stem from the influence of Neolibertatian ideology on society: Neolibertarians enthusiastically adopted Game Theory for example and measurements of productivity adapted from manufacturing. The most egregious example of this was measuring the efficiency of the Vietnam War in terms of the "body count". The inventor of this metric, Allan Enhoven, was subsequently employed in the 1980s by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to reorganise the National Health Service. But the upshot of this is that there is never enough efficiency and constant organisation reviews and reorganisation that do more to sap efficiency than regular bouts of Norovirus. If there's a downside to empiricism this is it. 

The critics of science particularly focus on the reductive nature of scientific theories - things are always explained in terms of simpler components. (Which is just what Buddhism does in models like the skandhas, dhātus and nidānas). In fact though science does largely rely on reductive accounts, with huge success it must be said, this is changing with the rise of cross-discipline work and systems theory. Reductive explanations give you a particular kind of leverage on the problems you are looking at. Buddhists exploit this leverage as much as scientists to, though to different ends. 

In many ways the term Scientism expresses the anxiety that the efficacy of previously privileged forms of knowledge seeking (such as through meditation or abstract philosophy) are denied by scientists. This anxiety being felt as much within the disciplines of sociology and psychology as without. The application of empiricism to fields like psychology looks like reducing the role of gifted pioneers like Sigmund Freud. The impressionistic and visionary approach to psychology doesn't always tally with what scientists find. take homeopathy which is so popular amongst those who lean towards Buddhism. Factually speaking there is nothing in homeopathic remedies and homeopathy is exposed as based on untrue propositions. The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon website sells tee-shirts with the legend: Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. The term "Scientism" is aimed at taunting those killjoy scientists who disprove unicorns and homeopathy, often with no real acknowledgement of the successes of science and the new stuff that we enjoy: like the internet.

Jan 2016: See also Sean Carroll's plea: Lets Stop Using the Word Scientism.

Ontology and Epistemology

Early Buddhism has a reasonably clear epistemology i.e. it is reasonably clear on what constitutes sources of valid knowledge (pramāṇa). Historically this clarity is lost because Buddhists begin to prioritise ontology, but before they go down that dusty road, there is some clarity. Knowledge comes from experience.

The central truth criteria are three axioms: experience is impermanent; experience is unsatisfactory; and experience is insubstantial. Any knowledge which conforms to these three axioms is valid knowledge. But here we must be cognizant of the scope of early Buddhist thought. Time and again the Buddha says: "I teach suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way to cessation." Thus early Buddhist ideas were never intended as a philosophical system as though Gotama were an Indian Plato or Aristotle. Buddhism is programmatic. It's pragmatically focussed on duḥkha and minimalist in being unconcerned with wider philosophical questions which when asked are frequently left aside as unexplained (avyākata).

By cultivating certain kinds of experience, particularly samādhi or integration and by reflecting on experience per se in that state, one can get access to knowledge of the nature of experience (yathābhūta-jñānadarśana) and become liberated from duḥkha. Subsequent to that liberation (vimukti) we obtain the knowledge that we are liberated (vimuktijñāna) or the knowledge that we have destroyed the āsravas (āsravakṣayajñāna). 

There is another kind of knowledge traditionally associated with samādhi called abhijñā. This is what we would call "extra-sensory perception". How we understand these ESPs will depend on temperament and worldview. However the most import of the abhijñās, and the only one described as lokuttara, is āsravakṣaya the destruction of the fluxes; synonymous with vimukti. And although , in early Buddhist texts, it is certainly possible to gain ESP powers, it is not usually seen as desirable, especially in contrast to the āsravakṣaya.

At no point in early Buddhist texts, and as far as I know in the Perfection of Wisdom texts or the Sukhāvativyūha texts, does the Buddha say anything at all about the nature of reality or of objects. Such speculations as we have in the Buddhist tradition seem to come out of arguments between the successors of the Ābhidharmikas and non-Buddhist Indian philosophers and to date mainly from ca. the 6th century AD onwards. Buddhists went for over 1000 years without worrying about what the world is made of. Even the so-called "elements" (dhātu) are defined in experiential terms: earth is characterised by the experience of resistance and so on. 

It's important to be clear about all this, about the doctrinal stance that underpins Buddhism: both early Buddhism, sectarian Buddhism and at least the early Mahāyāna. The focus is on gaining knowledge that can release us from suffering. That knowledge is obtained by examining our mind, especially from a state of samādhi or through reflections carried out immediately post-samādhi. While natural processes do offer metaphors for the mind, the natural world is never given any consideration in the process of liberation. It is broadly speaking a source domain of objects of the senses, but nothing more and of little or no interest to Buddhist thinkers.

I've already mentioned that one of the implications of this Buddhist epistemology is that it can support no ontological arguments. And indeed where Buddhists make ontological arguments they have to first modify the Buddhist epistemology in ways that are not related to the program of gaining liberation from suffering. Thus, I would argue, that if one is a Buddhist then one cannot legitimately take an ontological stand. I believe that this is precisely the message of the Kaccānagotta Sutta

From the early Buddhist point of view, we have no basis for arguing that "reality" or "things" or "the universe" is one way or the other. We have no basis for a Realist point of view and no basis for an Idealist point of view. We have no valid source of knowledge about the nature of reality or the nature of objects of the senses. All we have is experience. And even those people with insight are just describing another kind of experience which is entirely personal to them. Knowledge from the senses can be reliable to varying degrees, even the unawakened can function in the world and physics makes incredibly accurate predictions. But any ultimate knowledge we might gain can only be of the workings of the mind, and in particular the way the mind responds to sensory stimulation and how that relates to the three axioms of experience.


Whenever we see pejoratives flying around in a intellectual discussion we know that someone's toes have been stepped on. Pejoratives are about trying to score points. Good polemic deals with substantive points, it does not resort to lazy labelling. Of course it can be helpful to point out that a critic has an unstated, and possibly unexamined, assumption or philosophical stance. Buddhists all too often take a stand in Romantic ideology or in Vitalist ontology. Or they may cite some anachronistic philosophy or philosopher (Schopenhauer is a favourite). And it can be helpful to point out and critique the stance or the view when developing an argument. When one's critics are thoughtlessly expounding a philosophical stance, then undermining that stance is a valid way of proceeding. Pejoratives are employed to shut down discussions, to silence opposition, and to try to put an opponent at a disadvantage so as simply to win an argument.

It's useful to see that Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism are three different labels for three different approaches to being and/or knowledge. And to know that if one wants to put a non-polemical label on the worldview of most scientists it would be Naturalism.

If someone wants to pick a fight on the basis of their own confusion about these terms, or based on an anachronistic view of science, or the views of a philosopher who died before science really got going; or to make an argument based on an ontology for which there is no supporting epistemology; then I'm under no more obligation to take up that fight than I would be to argue theology with a Jehovah's Witness appearing uninvited on my doorstep. Wrong views are irrelevant to my project/object. Refuting the wrong views of individual strangers seldom attracts me, unless the stranger seems to have a representative view or class of views, or if in refuting a wrong view I can highlight a right view.


16 May 2014

Water, water everywhere...

I've been thinking a lot about how a failure to understand science affects the arguments against materialism. In Buddhism we often make the argument that you cannot understand Buddhism unless you have practised it. By the same token we might argue that unless one has practised science one can hardly be expected to fully understand it. And as a result many people have naive and unsophisticated views about what science is.

If more people had a positive experience of discovering empirical laws for themselves in school that we might be having a very different discussion about religion and science right now. Unfortunately most of us learn science in large classes aimed at middling students, from average teachers who may or may not have become jaded by the grind of the job. In the end most of don't actually learn any science. But for me learning science was always a joy. I want to see if I can communicate something of this.

Take the humble substance, water. Water is remarkable stuff. We all know this. We might know that ⅔ of the earth is covered in it, and that our bodies are 80% water. We know that it's essential to life of earth, that in many ways it is the medium for life. Most scientists believe that life on earth must have started in water. The properties of water are:
  • Water is a liquid at standard temperature (20°C) and pressure (1 atmosphere). 
  • Under STP it freezes, i.e. becomes a solid, at 0°C STP; and it boils, i.e. becomes a gas, at 100°C. 
  • Water is an excellent solvent and able to dissolve most minerals.
  • Water is an electrical conductor and with even small impurities can be an excellent conductor.
  • Liquid water has a high-surface tension so that it forms relatively large drops. 
  • Water is moderately chemically stable - it doesn't easily react with other chemicals. 
  • Water ice can take as many as 15 different forms depending on the conditions.
  • Water vapour is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. 
The water molecule is represented by the chemical formula H2O. This means that each water molecule contains one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The two hydrogen atoms attach to the oxygen on one side about 105° apart from each other. I look at the reasons for this shortly.

But how do we know all of this? Isn't it all just some theory? Well, no. It's not all "just theory". It certainly involves interpretive theory, but most of it is either from direct observation, or deductions from indirect observations. I'll try to explain how we know about the water molecule.

If we pass an electric current through water (a process called electrolysis), gas bubbles form at each of the electrodes and the amount of water is reduced. If we collect the gasses we can discover that they are oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen was isolated and characterised by Robert Boyle in 1671. Oxygen a century later by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1772 (published in 1777). If we mix hydrogen and oxygen and provide a spark to kick things off, then in an explosive reaction they recombine to form water and nothing else. (I've done this and it is quite spectacular!) Boyle showed that any gas at a given temperature and pressure will occupy the same volume - this is an empirical law that holds true for all gases. When we electrolyse water we get twice as much hydrogen gas as oxygen gas. Hence we deduce that in water there is twice as much hydrogen as these is water. Hence the chemical formula: H2O.

2 H2 + O2 ⇌ 2 H2O

If we use pure water this is always true. Impurities do change the result slightly. But anyone can take a battery and two wires and pass electricity through water and see bubbles forming. And bubbles at one electrode will always behave like oxygen (for example will make a flame glow brighter) and bubbles at the other will always behave like hydrogen (react explosively with air), and there will always be twice as much hydrogen as oxygen. Always.

One of the important things to note is that water has properties as a compound that neither of it's component parts, oxygen and hydrogen, have or even hint at. That two gases would combine to form a liquid with entirely different physical and chemical properties is an important observation. With 20th centuries theories we not only understand this but have successfully predicted the properties of new elements and compounds. 

emission spectra
If we heat these gases till they are incandescent and start giving off light (in the same way that a heated filament does) or pass an electric discharge through them (as in a fluorescent light bulb) then we examine the spectrum of the light given off we will find characteristic frequencies of light (called an emission spectrum). We all know what sodium vapour lamps look like - the characteristic bright yellow light comes from hot sodium atoms. In fact hot sodium atoms give off two precise wavelengths of visible light, both in the part of the electromagnetic spectrum we perceive as yellow. The colours of fireworks are produced in a similar way: certain metallic elements give off specific colours when hot: strontium, a deep red; cobalt, blue; copper, green and so on. Mixing a little strontium in the gunpowder makes the explosion glow red. So we can also test for hydrogen and oxygen by measuring the light that they give off. This is also how we know the composition of distance stars - characteristic frequencies tell us the kind of elements present, and relative brightness tells us the proportions.

The structure of the water molecule is deduced by combining information from many sources. For example we might look at the six-fold (hexagonal) symmetry of snow flakes. There's only a limited number of configurations of molecules that could produce this shape. Or we can take a crystal and shine X-rays through it and measure how the X-ray beam is scattered. Different kinds of crystal give characteristic scattering patterns. This was how Rosalind Franklin deduced that DNA must be a helix. (here is her original 1953 paper). In fact water-ice can form with 15 different crystal structures depending on the temperature and pressure when it forms. (See Ice: phases)

We can also deduce something important from what kinds of substances water will mix with and what it will dissolve. For example we know that water and alcohol mix completely and can only be separated out by distillation - which involves boiling the mixture. Ethyl alcohol boils at 78°C so it boils first and turns into a gas that drifts away from the liquid. However water will not mix with oily substances. Water will dissolve rock given time, but not wax. 

There's a neat trick you can do that helps to explain this. We all know about static electricity. If you rub plastic with a natural fabric the difference in electrical properties causes a transfer of electrons and the build up of a static electrical charge. If you wear nylon clothing your whole body can build up a charge that discharges when you touch another person or a door handle (for example). If you charge up a balloon with a good amount of static by rubbing it on someone's clean dry hair (which is entertaining in it's own right) and bring it close to a stream of water, the stream will bend towards the balloon. It turns out that water is able to be attracted by an electric charge. But oils and fats are not.

If the water molecule were symmetrical it would not be able to be attracted by an electric charge. Carbon dioxide is symmetrical and not subject to static, which is why one ought to use a CO2 extinguisher on an electrical fire and not water (which conducts electricity). The conclusion we get from all of this is that water molecule must be asymmetrical, giving it a slightly negative charge at one end and a slightly positive charge at the other. Thus we can deduce that the two hydrogen atoms must both be on one side of the molecule. By looking at snowflakes and other ice-crystals and by measuring just how susceptible pure water is to electrical attraction we can get a pretty good idea of how asymmetrical the molecule is.  The best estimate for the angle between the two hydrogen atoms is 104.5°.

We can get a better understanding of water by comparing similar compounds, especially those involving atoms nearby in the periodic table. For example might look at hydrogen compounds of carbon, nitrogen and fluorine on the same row, and sulphur in the row below. If we look at how each of these elements combine with hydrogen we find that carbon forms a compound CH4, (methane); nitrogen forms NH3 (ammonia) and fluorine forms FH (hydrogen fluoride). So there is a pattern here: 4, 3, 2, 1. Sulphur forms a compound H2S (hydrogen sulphide; aka rotten-egg gas), just as oxygen combined with hydrogen in a 2:1 ratio. In fact one of the reasons sulphur is in the same column of the periodic table is precisely because it forms H2S and not H3S  or HS.

Clearly the naming conventions are a bit mixed - common names, legacy chemical names, and modern notations compete. If FH is called "hydrogen fluoride" despite the formula being FH "fluorine hydride". If they fit the pattern above H2O and H2S really ought to be OH2 (oxygen dihydride) and SH2 (sulphur dihydride) but they never are.

By comparing the physical properties of all these we get further insights. CHis a gas at room temperature, highly combustible in oxygen but otherwise quite chemically stable, and insoluble in water. NHis also a gas at room temperature, strongly reactive with other chemicals, and is highly soluble in water. FH boils at 19°C; it is highly water soluble forming hydrofluoric acid and extremely reactive (hydrofluoric acid is used for etching glass which is not touched by concentrated sulphuric or nitric acids).

Thus we can deduce that carbon with its fourfold symmetry forms a more stable molecule. And we known that carbon forms more kinds of compounds than any other element - it is the basis of organic chemistry.

If 4 objects surround a fifth symmetrically they occupy the points of a tetrahedron - the internal angle between each would be 120°. So as a first approximation we might expect NHto be a tetrahedron minus one point (or a three sided pyramid with N at one apex). Again, if the H atoms in NH3 were evenly distributed around the Nitrogen we'd expect different properties (e.g. less soluble in water). For the two H atoms in a water molecule to be about 120° apart. In fact as I said they turn out to be 104.5°.

The mathematical models for atoms predict that each electron will have a distinctive energy. But also they will allow for pairs of electrons with different "spin" (an abstract physical property the consequences of which are observable in subtle experiments, but which would take a long time to describe). Hydrogen has only one electron and is highly reactive with almost anything that can accept an electron. Helium atoms with two electrons are very reluctant to form any chemical bonds. They occupy opposite ends of the first row of the periodic table. It turns out that if we add a third electron, as in lithium (Li) then we once again get a highly reactive atom. But atomic carbon with six (2 + 4) electrons is relatively stable and fluorine with nine (2 + 7) electrons is once again highly reactive and neon with 10 (2 + 8) electrons is almost completely inert.

The pattern is consistent with different types of orbitals for electrons. The first (s) orbital takes 2 electrons and is more or less spherical. The second (p) orbital takes 8 electrons, in 4 pairs. We can guess from the kinds of molecules they form (and the crystal structures of those molecules) that these orbitals form a tetrahedron. (In fact there is a difference between atomic and molecular electron orbitals, but we'll focus on the molecular orbitals). The shape of these orbits are relatively inflexible which is partly why water and ammonia are asymmetrical.  

In any case we now roughly know the shape of the water molecule and its electrical characteristics. And we can begin to relate these to some of its physical properties. For example the fact that water molecules are not symmetrical means that one end of the molecule as a slight negative charge and one end (the side with the two hydrogen atoms) has a small positive charge. This accounts for water's electrical conductivity. It also means that water molecules exert a weak attraction on each other - known as a "hydrogen bond" (indicated by a Greek delta δ in the picture). The positive ends of water molecules are attracted to the negative ends of others. This accounts for the surface tension of water. Water is very cohesive. In fact compared to similar liquids (methane, ammonia, or hydrogen sulphide as liquids) then water has a very high boiling point - indeed the other substances mentioned are all gases at room temperate. Ammonia NH3 boils at -33°C and hydrogen sulphide H2S boils (becomes a gas) at -60°C! So H2S is very different indeed from H2O. In order to break the attraction between water molecules one has to use a great deal more energy than to break the attraction between hydrogen sulphide molecules which are more or less the same shape. This also means that weight for weight water can absorb a lot of heat, which makes it useful as a cooling fluid in a variety of settings. 

With the dawn of the 20th century mathematical models of atoms began to become more sophisticated and were able not only to explain the behaviour of atoms and molecules, but to make predictions. One of which was that a molecule like water would have many different ways it could vibrate: rolling, tumbling, spinning on its one symmetrical axis, stretching bonds symmetrically and asymmetrically, flexing the two bonds. And many others. And each of these modes of vibration was calculated to have a specific energy. It turns out that the energies of these modes of vibration fall in the infra-red/microwave part of the electro-magnetic spectrum. By shining infra-red light through water, and sweeping the frequency we can see what frequencies get absorbed, corresponding to making the water molecule wiggle, and refine the theory with observations. (See also Water Absorption Spectrum).

vibrational modes of the water molecule.
click image to see animation.
Spinning water molecules is also the explanation for how microwave ovens work. The microwave was patented in 1945 by Raytheon, though in fact it was discovered by mistake when a scientist working on radar melted his chocolate with his equipment. Apparently the first food to be deliberately cooked in a microwave oven was pop-corn. Water molecules spin around at ~ 2.4GHz (in the microwave part of the spectrum). Light at that frequency is absorbed by water molecules and translated into spinning, which manifests as heat (at the molecular level heat is equivalent to the speed of motion). Thus by shining microwave frequency "light" at 2.4 GHz on anything which contains water (like food) we can make it heat up.  

Bucky ball
The theory also explained in detail why certain molecules took certain shapes and why for example the fourfold symmetry of methane was a particular stable configuration. By comparing theory to observation for all of the elements we have developed a very sophisticated description of the chemical compounds we know about. But it also enables us to predict new chemical compounds and to understand how we might make them. Buckminster-fullerene, so-called "bucky-balls", a form of carbon molecule with 60 carbon atoms arranged in hollow sphere with a structure like the domes designed by Buckminster-Fuller (or like a football), were synthesised using this knowledge. This knowledge has also helped to explain the structure and function of complex molecules like cortisone, oestrogen and testosterone.

Quantum mechanics makes for an even more detailed description of molecule although with detail comes complexity. Some of the insights of quantum theory have helped in understanding the electrical behaviour of semiconductors and super-conductors. But to return to water.

The unusual ability of water to remain in the liquid state that make it the idea medium for life. Similarly the ability of water to dissolve a range of gases, minerals and many organic compounds (sugars, alcohols, amino-acids, etc) without changing them chemically, make it the ideal medium for mixing a huge range of different chemicals such as we see in living cells (compounds which number well into the tens of thousands).

This is only the briefest of surveys of what I remember from a few years of studying chemistry applied to a single, though important and interesting molecule. We now have detailed descriptions of all of the 96 naturally occurring elements, many of the artificially created elements, and millions of chemical compounds and reactions. These descriptions underpin most of the industrial processes that have made the developed world wealthy. If you're inside and you look around, the products of this knowledge will surround you: from the structural materials of your house, to the paints and other decorative elements. 

In my 3rd year organic chemistry class we had two major practical tasks. In the first term we were handed a vial of white powder and asked to find out what it was using any means available to us. Using chemical and spectroscopic (scanning the stuff with infra-red light) and nuclear-magnetic resonance methods I determined that my unidentified white powder was vanillin, one the the two main compounds responsible for the smell and taste of vanilla. It could not be another compound. The evidence was completely specific. The conclusion was not the product of a narrative or a worldview. If anyone else had accurately tested it, at any time and place, they would have also have found vanillin.

The second task was to synthesise a compound called coumarin from basic laboratory reagents. Coumarin and its many related organic compounds are partly responsible for the smell of freshly grass (there are others). So the first sign of success in the synthesis - which requires a number of separate stages of chemical reaction - was the pervading smell of freshly cut grass. As it happens coumarin is also a white powder and I took my product home to make my room smell nice. The smell of freshly cut grass pales after a while. And I was able to specify in great detail, exactly how and why the recipe worked.

So when people scoff at science I find it very peculiar. When people say it's just one narrative amongst many or than there is no objectivity in science, or (worse) that everything we know from science is subject to change, I can't help thinking that only a really ignorant person could say something like this. I've personally used all of the techniques mentioned above, done the practical experiments and derived the empirical laws. But I'm not the only one. Many people have done just the same and got exactly the same results. It really does work, and it really doesn't matter what you believe about the nature of the universe. If you look, this is what you'll find, but even if you don't look this is still how thing are!
(See also Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood). 
I don't think anyone who has not done chemistry, had the practical insights into chemistry, at this level or beyond, can really understand what it's like.


Here is another account of water with prettier pictures: water.

26 April 2013

Metaphors and Materialism

brain pathways
human connectome project
OVER the years I've been puzzled by the horror of materialism that some people exhibit. Materialism never really bothered me. It's been pretty successful and I like some of the stuff it comes up with: medicines, computers and communications tech, air and space travel, electric guitars. Cool stuff.

More recently, however, I have tried to explain that I am philosophically not a materialist. I don't think we have direct contact with the material world. My understanding is that we can infer things about that world, but not know it directly. Any explanations relating to the world are perforce explanations of our experience of the world, rather than the world itself, something I try to make explicit in my writing. I'm chiefly concerned with the nature of experience rather than the nature of reality.

In the course of exchanging comments on the different ways of understanding consciousness I had a little breakthrough in understanding the aversion to materialism. Michael Dorfman, said this:
"I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter."
I have read the works of George Lakoff for many years now, with varying degrees of comprehension. To be honest some of it is still over my head. However, it's from Lakoff that I learned about the idea of embodied cognition (which makes me think a disembodied mind is an oxymoron). I learned about metaphor from Lakoff and his writing partner Mark Johnson. And it was seeing this statement by Michael in the light of Lakoff & Johnson's work in a book called Metaphors We Live By that lead to an insight. I hasten to add that Michael chastised me at some length for suggesting that he might think the way I'm about to describe. But I think we all do at least to some extent, myself included.

The phrase "reducible to matter" is an abstraction. Lakoff & Johnson show that virtually all abstract thought is carried out metaphorically. And that the metaphors we use to manage abstractions are rooted in our experiences of the world and the way we interact with it. "Reducible to matter" implies that matter is more fundamental than other kinds of substance. The metaphor is: MATTER IS BASIC (I'll follow Lakoff & Johnson's convention of putting explicit metaphors in upper-case). The major contrast with matter in the West is spirit.

Spirit is what animates or vivifies dead matter, but it is a separate kind of substance which can be independent of matter. It may or may not reside in a separate realm of spirit and may or may not be associated with an afterlife. Where matter can collapse back into its inanimate state, spirit is the opposite. Freed of its association with matter, spirit rises up. Although spirit is associated with animation, motion and change it seems not to be affected by these. Spirit is like a catalyst that is involved in a chemical reaction, but remains unchanged at the end. These days we often hear spirit referred to as 'energy', a word borrowed from physics. As frustrating as it can be to hear this word misused, energy is what animates matter (or what makes matter animate). Spirit which is a pre-scientific concept does have affinities with energy in the scientific sense, especially if we are not very sophisticated in thinking about science. Another cross over area is quantum mechanics. The popular versions of quantum mechanics emphasise the apparent subjectivity involved in the world (the observer effect was originally pointed out as a flaw in the Copenhagen Interpretation) which hints at spirit underlying even matter at the most basic level. As post-Christians we may not explicitly believe in spirit, but I think it lurks in the background.

Metaphors exist in webs of relationship. For example what is fundamental is (practically and metaphorically) lower down. And with respect to spirit: MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER. This is a spatial metaphor. Lakoff & Johnson relate it to our experience of being bipeds: when we are alive, healthy and active we are upright; when we are dead, unhealthy and inactive we are prostrate. That is to say the spatially vertical metaphor can be understood to relate to our experience of physical verticality. The metaphor MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER is related to the more basic metaphor UP IS GOOD; DOWN IS BAD. And thus logically MATTER IS BAD; SPIRIT IS GOOD. Metaphors are thus not stand-alone, but interdependent and interconnected. We begin see the metaphorical implications of "reducible to matter".

Because GOOD IS UP, and SPIRIT IS UP, heaven above is the realm of spirit (or is it vice versa?). Earth (down here) is the realm of matter. Below earth at the nadir (down there) is Hell. So we have heaven, the world, and the underworld as the basic pre-scientific structure of our cosmos. This structure emerges from the notion of good-and-evil combined with an afterlife. [1] We might not believe in God or heaven or any of this, but we understand these metaphors because we have grown up in a society where these are part of the landscape of abstract thought.

A metaphor like UP IS GOOD is not an absolute. For instance: more inflation is bad, but the vertical spatial metaphor also applies like this: MORE IS UP and LESS IS DOWN. In this case because MORE IS BAD, UP IS BAD. We don't usually struggle with deciphering these metaphors despite the complexity and conflict. Indeed we may not even notice that we are using metaphors. There are many ways in which metaphors based on experience can be used. We can say that a house "burned up" and also that it "burned down". Two distinct metaphors are involved. "Burning down" means that the house was reduced to a more basic state (the construction falls down or is reduced to ash); "burning up" means the substance was consumed. Compare "eaten up" and "used up", which reflect another metaphor: EATING IS FIRE. Fire sends flames, smoke, and sparks upwards, into the realm of heaven. This is important for fire sacrifices - the substance of the oblation is converted into flame and smoke (which is more like spirit than solid matter) and is wafted upwards into the sky, to the realm of spirit. Fire is the agent in both cases, and the result is the same, but it is reached via two distinct metaphorical routes, reflecting different experiences of, and interactions with, fire. The appetitive aspect of fire is prominent in Buddhism, particularly in the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19) aka the Fire Sermon. And the goal of Buddhism is for the fires of greed and aversion to be extinguished (nirvāṇa 'blown out').

For the most part we use these metaphors unconsciously. When we say that we grasp what someone is saying we don't consciously translate the metaphor, we don't need to. We automatically understand the metaphor because it is part of the language and culture and it is rooted in our own experience of the world. Words are not real entities and cannot be physically grasped. However we intuitively understand the metaphor WORDS ARE OBJECTS. And any conceivable physical manipulation of objects can be applied to abstract objects such as words. Words can be twisted, spun, or thrown back and forth. Words can lift us up, put us down and spin us around for example. Words can be hurtful. What I say may come "as a blow". Also words can take on any property that an object might have. Words can abrasive and hard or smooth and soft. Hard words are uncomfortable, soft words soothing. Colourful language can shock or stimulate. None of these statements are perplexing to an English speaker, even for a second, but all of them are metaphorical manipulations of an abstraction. We understand these metaphors because from the moment we began to think abstractly they have structured our thoughts. (This idea is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but that digression must wait for another essay).

I've already applied Lakoff & Johnson's ideas to the CONSCIOUSNESS IS A CONTAINER metaphor (see The Mind as Container Metaphor). I'm trying to steer away from the word consciousness at the moment since it seems tied up in the myth of subjectivity and no one seems to know exactly what it is. In that previous essay I tried to show that this container metaphor for the mind is essentially absent from early Buddhism. For us the MIND IS A CONTAINER and THOUGHTS ARE OBJECTS; and thus THE MIND IS A CONTAINER OF THOUGHTS: viz. "What do you have in mind?" "open your mind to me", "keep a lid on your thoughts". The physical basis for this metaphor is fairly obvious since our head is literally a container and we have extensive experience of the properties of containers.

All metaphors are possible, but we tend to use them selectively. Because the head is a container and contains the brain and since the mind is also an object: THE MIND IS IN THE HEAD. The mind and the brain occupy the same container. So there is no cognitive dissonance for us in saying for example: "the thoughts in my brain" as opposed to "the thoughts in my head". Both metaphors work. The limit seems to come around the metaphor THE MIND IS IN THE BRAIN. The metaphor THE BRAIN IS A CONTAINER is just about acceptable, but to go further and say that THE BRAIN PRODUCES THE MIND is a step too far. The problem seems to be a conflict related to matter and spirit. For matter to become living and conscious requires an infusion of spirit from the outside. Also the container is generally conceived of as passive. The container itself does not manipulate the object it contains. The thought object in the mind container is like a marble in a jar. What does the manipulating of the thoughts (the "grasping" of ideas) in the container is generally understood to be 'I'. Despite all the arguments of scientists and philosophers, intuitively there seems to be a homunculus at work. The result is that:
Matter can be animated by spirit; but spirit cannot be animated by matter.
This metaphysical proposition is transparently obvious to a native English speaker and has far reaching implications. I suspect it's true in other languages as well. The equation of life featuring matter and spirit is not associative. The order of the words is important - one cannot take on the function of the other. It's only with conscious effort that we think differently, and even then we still behave as if this is true. Profession of belief is very often distinct from intuitive belief. One of the purposes of Buddhist practice is to try to align the two. Flesh is a special form of animated matter, which I will come back to shortly.

Most Buddhists seem to be at home with the concept of disembodied consciousness moving between lives to be reborn, manifesting as ghosts, leaving the body at times, and all the other supernatural phenomena. We have no problems with 'subtle energy' or 'subtle bodies'. Cakras, nadī, Qi, and prāna are all fine by Buddhists these days. Buddhism seems to be compatible with Reiki, Kinesiology, homeopathy, shiatsu and acupuncture; with Hatha Yoga, Qigong and Taijiquan. We Buddhists happily use words like 'spirit', 'spirits', 'spiritual', and 'spirituality'; and phrases like 'spiritual life', 'spiritual death', 'spiritual rebirth', 'spiritual healing', 'spiritual welfare', 'spiritual awakening', 'spiritual practice' and so on. Of course when pressed we will deny an unchanging spirit, because we know by rote that it is a wrong view.

With regard to flesh we need to look again at the metaphor MATTER IS BASIC. This entails matter being simple, which draws us towards Lakoff's contribution on the subject of categories (from the book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). Lakoff uses Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" but also draws on contemporary research to elaborate a theory of how we think in categories. When I use the word 'matter' it will evoke a mental category; and in that category each reader will have a prototypical image that represents the category for them. The prototype for 'matter' may well be something simple, like a lump of rock. Matter has the characteristic property of resistance (similar to rūpa in Indian thought). Matter has mass. Matter is lifeless. Matter tends to be dull. Matter is the opposite of spirit which is massless, light, free, colourful and animating. So in terms of prototypes we can see that flesh is a member of the category 'matter' but that it is rather peripheral to that category. Flesh has some of the characteristics of matter, but is more complex and more flexible than the prototype. The living creature occupies a liminal space between matter and spirit. Bridging them as angels bridge heaven and earth (the realms of spirit and matter respectively). Life comes from dust and returns to dust. Spirit is the catalyst which temporarily makes dust more than the sum of its parts.

I well remember seeing my father's dead body in 1991. I can bring to mind the image very clearly. He had been tidied up by the undertaker and was dressed as he often was in slacks and a woollen jumper. His receding hair line was even covered by a comb-over. Long eyebrows. His face was composed, frozen and waxen, but instantly recognisable. Indeed I experienced the emotional tremor of recognition that comes with meeting a loved one. However the body was entirely lifeless; completely unresponsive and inanimate. My father was both present and absent. He had been reduced to matter. I instinctively knew something was missing. I intuited at the time that the missing element was something like "spirit", though I did not use that word. Even now the experience is vivid and the dichotomy between matter and spirit remains the most obvious interpretation, though it is one that I reject on philosophical grounds.

I suspect this experience of dead loved ones may well be the source of our fundamental distinction between matter and spirit. And the source of our quest to understand what animates living things; what separates the quick and the dead.

The situation is further complicated by Romanticism. Most Buddhists I know are crypto-Romantics. They espouse the ideas of Romanticism without knowing or acknowledging that they are adopting a Romantic view of the world. Indeed some seem to imply that Romanticism is an expression of things as they are. My disgruntlement with this uncritical adoption of Romanticism has been steadily growing since reading David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and Thanissaro's essay on The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. The Romantic is inevitably a dualists and focused on spirit. Romantics see matter as a mere surface beneath which they can penetrate to discover the spirit lurking within. Romantics I know love to quote Blake saying he could see the world in a grain of sand as a very profound statement. Indeed Blake did have a tendency to see things that weren't visible to anyone else. Romantics are the first to argue that Blake was a genius rather than a madman. He saw and conversed with angels, Jesus and God on a daily basis and that ought to make him a saint or a madman (and how often the line between them is blurred). Mere matter, mere flesh, is not of much interest to Romantics, though many of the Victorian Romantics sought ecstasy through the pleasures of the flesh. The original Romantics liked to get "out of their skulls" in various ways. Romantic Buddhists do it with meditation. In meditation one can withdraw from awareness of the body and float about in la la land. Which is not to say that some people are not seeking something a little more satisfying or profound through their practice.

When we put all this together the horror of materialism begins to come into focus. Matter might be suitable to be a container for mind, but not to be the womb which gives birth to it. Mind, rather, is clearly related to spirit. Matter has all the wrong qualities, whereas spirit has all the right qualities. The images conjured up by matter do not fit our images of consciousness. Thus, on an unconscious level, the idea that the mind is strongly associated with matter creates a cognitive dissonance. Unless one has studied chemistry.

Now chemistry is interesting because it combines practical applications (synthesis and analysis) with elegant models and theories about the processes involved. Chemistry in practice is fizzes, fumes, bangs, bubbles, colours, odours, and all manner of exciting transformations. In theory it has a vision of matter which is entirely different from the popular imagination. Atoms are composed mostly of space. They are entities in which there is constant movement and a tug of war between competing forces of attraction and repulsion. Atoms are little bundles of kinetic energy. They combine into molecules which rather violently vibrate, spin, twist, flex, and wriggle; molecules which give off light of every colour of the rainbow and far into the infra-red and ultraviolet. Chemistry is the study of the reactions and transformations of supposedly inert matter. When two or more molecules react they are changed into other molecules: trans-substantiated. There is still a little alchemy present in the science of chemistry. That changing world held me spell-bound for many years (and resulted in a bachelor's degree). I was an adept of that art and science of transforming matter. The possibilities of form and structure are seemingly infinite. Carbon compounds are seemingly uncountable. Every year new compounds are made or discovered and used in various ways. One molecule will kill cancer cells for example. Another can potentially be used to create a room temperature super-conductor. Chemical analysis can tell us what killed Richard III or about how the moon was created. In this world illuminated by chemistry everything is animated . Everything is moving and changing. Matter is solid, liquid, gas, plasma, super-fluid, Bose-Einstein condensate. Even such solidity as it has, is only on the surface: literally surface tension, beneath which lies pure energy. m = E/c2. Thus my prototype of matter is something very different from a lifeless, grey, cold rock!

A few weeks ago I introduced the term apophenia: "the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli." Psychologist Justin Barrett has proposed that we also have a faculty he dubs Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a fancy way of saying that we are a bit too ready to assign agency to objects in our experience. Barrett uses this to explain the pervasive belief in gods, but agency is a sign of life more generally; and of sentience in particular (see particularly Why Would Anyone Believe in God??). Humans have a strong tendency to see patterns, assign them significance, and attribute agency to them. We do this even where no pattern exists, the significance is entirely projection, and no agency operates. Something we did not notice until we started to look objectively at ourselves.

Perhaps what we think of as spirit is a product of our ability to attribute meaning and agency where none exists? If we go in search of spirit we never find it because it's just a story told by our over-active imaginations. We imagine ourselves to be so much more than we are and yet we have to continually paper over the cracks of our failures. We can imagine the world a better place, people as better people, but somehow reality always spoils the vision. As Buddhists we nod sagely and intone "saṃsāra" as if we understand.

Whatever the answer is, this story of matter and spirit rolls on in the West. It syncretises with our Buddhism and unconsciously informs our attitudes and approaches. We end up embracing our conditioning rather than transcending it, because we don't even notice that we are conditioned. This is the value of the work of someone like Lakoff. It exposes the structures and patterns of our mind at work. We think we are free to think new thoughts, but really we are constrained in narrow ruts.

There remains this gap in our knowledge; which because of our culture appears to be a spirit shaped gap. We are still unsure how to get from mere matter to the simplest living bacteria without invoking spirit (and in fact most scientists gloss over the part of the equation that says 'and then a miracle happens'). And for some people matter and spirit will remain forever apart. I understand this. I empathise because of my experience with my father, and because I've studied living and dead matter in some detail. However I think the horror of materialism is irrational. I don't have a problem with "we don't yet know" but I don't accept "we can never know" because that argument smells like Romantic spirit.

In fact we don't know if it will be possible to understand the mind. The answer to that problem is difficult to find because the question remains poorly defined. This in turn is (at least in part) because we still struggle on with pre-scientific legacy concepts from philosophy. We do not yet think clearly enough about what the mind is to be able to understand it. In the mean time we seem to be learning a lot. Some of it has practical applications, but all of it is fascinating. If your position is "we'll ever understand the mind" that's fine. But my challenge to you would be to justify such an epistemological position. I don't believe that anyone is in a position to know this. I don't believe it is possible to be categorical about it. By contrast I find myself optimistic about the attempt and enthusiastic about what we are discovering along the way.


  1. This basic threefold structure is found in ancient Egypt. From there is seems to have influenced Zoroastrianism in Iran. In one published and one forthcoming article I argue that from there, via the Śākya tribe, Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Buddhism. See:
    Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol.3 2012. Paid Access.
    The way that ideas about ethics and afterlife combine to produce this threefold structure are discussed in Gananath Obeyesekere's book Imagining Karma. I summarise my own thinking in various essays including:

29 Apr 2013 - I saw this today:
"Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world." Preposterous Universe.

30 June 2015.
"The fact was that, as droves of demon kings had noticed, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, e.g., red-hot tweezers, because even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realize that since they didn't have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony." - Terry Pratchett, Eric.
This is an interesting theological point. The very idea of a soul is that it is not part of the realm of matter, but purely of the realm of spirit. Lacking a body, the soul would be free of all the functions that go with having a body. Thus torturing or pleasuring a soul is impossible. So all narratives of Hell or Paradise are logically false. Not just ridiculous or fantastic, but false on their own terms.

On the other hand if a soul is susceptible to pleasure and pain, then that would imply that it cannot be purely of the world of spirit and must in fact be partially made of matter. And that contradicts the very idea of a soul.

Of course if one is bodily resurrected then that's a different story. But if the body is resurrected, then what is the point of a soul?

19 April 2013

The Myth of Subjectivity

BUDDHISTS keep implying that I'm a materialist. I've tried expanding the discussion by pointing out alternatives and nuances, but it seems hopeless. Buddhists only seem to have two categories: materialist and non-materialist. All scientists are materialists. Because I talk about science, I'm advocating materialism. It has become quite tedious. 

In response I've been thinking about subjectivity. We so often hear that the much vaunted objectivity of scientists is a myth. Yeah, we know. It's old news. This critique over-emphasises the role of the individual in science. Each scientist might bring an irreducible element of subjectivity to their observation and interpretation, but millions of scientists working together can sort out what is noise and what is signal. Objectivity is an emergent property of collective observation and criticism. Individuals certainly make contributions to science, but they almost always work in teams, and in concert with peers and critics. Scientists like nothing better than to prove a rival wrong, or at least criticise their sloppy use of statistics. And the success of this manner of working has produced breakthroughs that have changed the world, for better or worse. The infrastructure of the internet stands out as an monument to objectivity - virtually every branch of science is represented in some form.

The emphasis on the individual betrays the influence of Romanticism in these anti-science critiques. For the Romantic the individual--the subject--is at the forefront of their world. They resist making the subject an object of study because axiomatically the subject is indefinable and ineffable. To define and understand the subject would be to destroy the edifice of Romanticism entirely. Which I'd happily participate in.

How ironic, then, that so many Buddhists are crypto-Romantics since one of the main themes of Buddhist thought is the deconstruction of the subject. This takes many forms including an outright denial of the existence of a self. The early Buddhist critique of the self or perceiving subject is a little more subtle.  It assumes that all experiences arise in dependence on conditions, and examines the claim of an existent self accordingly. 

The five branches of experience (pañcaskandhāḥ) according to early Buddhism are: a body endowed with senses (rūpa), sensations (vedanā), names (samjñā), volitional responses (saṃskāra) and cognitions (vijñāna). When we take each of these in turn, or all at once, we do not discover any basis for an existent self. The classic formula is:
netam mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā
this is not mine, I am not this, this is my not self.
In other words there is no subject: you don't own or control your experience; you are not found in the parts or the sum of your experience; and there is no entity which is you. What we experience as  "I", or the first person perspective, is simply another aspect of the processes of experience. It is an experience we can have, but no more than this.

In an earlier essay these three statements were equated with the three target properties for a first-person perspective outlined by Thomas Metzinger (See First Person Perspective). 
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
When experience is endowed with these three factors, then experience appears to be centred on a perceiving self. The Buddha's deconstruction of the self rests on the inability to find a definite basis for the permanent self - nothing in experience is able to be a basis for the existence of any permanent entity since experience is an ephemeral process. Experience is quick-sand on which no castle may be built.

Metzinger's approach is to show how each of these target properties can be altered or disrupted in specific ways, by brain damage for example. The way that the sense of self can be disrupted implies that the properties must be virtual rather than real. In other words Metzinger also argues the sense of self is not intrinsic to experience. We might think of selfhood as like a Kantian a priori. The three target properties are a priori structures that our organism uses to make sense of experience in the same way that time, space, and causality are. Our interpretations of experience rely on properties that are projected onto experience, which by itself is otherwise incomprehensible. 

The intense experience of apparently being a self is a simulation--and every night it must be switched off and on again. The self is a myth, therefore what we think of as subjectivity is also a myth. All the beliefs we have about subjectivity are questionable. All the speculative philosophy about the nature of consciousness over centuries is based on reified subjectivity - making an experience into an entity. Subjectivity is simply what the brain presents to awareness in the absence of, or indifferently to, external stimuli. Subjectivity is a story, a myth, that informs our experience of the world, but has no basis in fact.

Romantics tend to play up the importance of our inner life. Dreams, for example, take on deep significance. Our unconscious urges, the Freudian Id, become reified into entities that enact a little psychodrama "inside our head". Romantic Buddhism emphasises the forms of ideology which posit a pure self covered in defilements just waiting to be freed from the constraints imposed by conditioning and society. The free individual is, in particular, spontaneous: their behaviour and utterances come bubbling up without being filtered through imposed frameworks like morality. In other words at the same time as attacking the myth of objectivity, Romantics affirm the various myths of subjectivity and reify the subject into a self. Romantic Buddhism is thus a total contradiction.

The Romantics were immune to the petty conceits of conventional morality. Some of the key figures of the Romantic movement were drug addicts. They eschewed conventional mores and sought to justify their hedonistic indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. They sought to leave their bodies behind through ecstasy, and like many people in history sought short-cuts to the realm of spirit. Some Buddhists have, incomprehensibly, gone down this road as well. 

It is quite true that objectivity has distinct limits, even when applied by millions of individuals working together. Yes, there have been a continuous stream of stunning insights into the world and how it works that have totally changed the way we live, but some things are, and may remain, beyond our understanding. The contrary holds for subjectivity. Subjectivity is not what it seems and is, and will increasing become, accessible to study. Subjectivity is not unlimited or ineffable - these are just stories we tell because we are intoxicated with experience. By the way the Buddha seemed to take a dim view of intoxication with experience. We are quite capable of conceiving of the subject as an object. Subjectivity is amenable to study.

A major aspect of the myth of subjectivity is the search for something we call "consciousness". The search for consciousness is first and foremost hampered by philosophy and philosophers. Consciousness  has been the subject of wild speculation which mostly seems to take everyday hallucinations as real. If we were setting out to explore the phenomena of the mind today we would not, on the basis of anecdote and generalising from personal experience, invent a whole raft of wild speculative theories, each with their own jargon and then set about trying to prove one of them right. I suggest that the scientific study of consciousness needs to detach itself from centuries of metaphysical speculation however interesting and concentrate on making observations.

Let's not assume that the way we talk about consciousness has any basis in fact until we can show that it is so. Where is the evidence, for example, for a theatre of consciousness? We really only have personal anecdote! But, since the idea infects our intellectual landscape, we grow up with this as an unchallenged background assumption. If there is in fact no entity which might be called a subject in the brain or mind, then we need to start again and work out how to talk about the phenomena we can experience, including the experience of selfhood. The simple fact is that how experience seems to us, is not how it is. We should no more trust individual subjectivity than we trust individual objectivity. That we do trust it is a barrier to progress. For example we still spill huge amounts of ink and research funding on the fundamentally Christian notion of free will. Of course there are juridicial repercussions to doing away with the notion of free will, but recent research is showing that the question of freedom is badly phrased because of legacy arguments that have now lost their relevance (we're not longer interested in how God came to be so incompetent as to allow evil; Buddhists never were). Freedom is relative to a number of constraints. We now know, from scientific investigation, that all of our actions are initiated unconsciously and the appearance of a decision in our awareness is timed to make it seem like we consciously willed the action to happen. Whence free will now? How do we even conceive of morality in this new light?

I imagine that there will be great hostility to the downgrading of the individual to a biologically convenient fiction. Not only from libertarians, but from Romantics. We might be forced to admit that the Chinese view of a person, with it's emphasis on collectivity, relationships and obligations is more in tune with reality. Individual behaviour is not simply the product simply of psychology. Individuals are frequently responding to environmental factors, especially social cues. But Western society is founded on basis that individual liberty is a high good, if not the highest good. And if the individual is a fiction? Then what? There's certainly a lot at stake. 

I could briefly mention Lynn Margulis's observations that we are not individuals but communities. We are colonies of symbiotic organisms, some tightly bound in our cells and some loosely bound in our bodies. For every human cell in this colony there are 100 bacterial cells without which we probably wouldn't survive. Bacteria mediate our physical interactions with the world! I might also cite the fact that the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual nor even the family. It must be the troop of several families, or even the clan of several troops, for our genes not to become overly recessive and kill us.

Individuality, the autonomy of a self, is another myth; another Romantic myth. We are emeshed in webs of dependency and obligation from the molecular to the societal level. The myth of individuality is central to the divide and conquer policy of NeoLiberalism, and to the transfer of wealth to the wealthy creating disastrous levels of economic inequality in nations and globally. At present the rogue individual is free to exploit the community to their own advantage. Such individuals are even admired and made the subject of movies. Survival of the fittest ought to refer to the community best able to cooperate, but it seems to have become affixed to the predator best able to kill it's prey (this is a kind of Romantic Victorian fiction about how nature operates that modern science has yet to eliminate). We're a social primate species which is evolutionarily successful through our ability to empathise and cooperate,  so why do we admire rogue predators rather than successful team members? Something is deeply wrong with this picture!

Most people I meet have a crude, but effective, critique of materialism, though little appreciation of the sophisticated views of contemporary scientists and thus no way to really engage with what science is telling them about their world. I certainly value contact with people that don't fit this narrow mould but they are a minority. Almost no one I meet is aware of their Romantic conditioning or how it manoeuvres them towards particular conclusions about their experience of the world. Reifying the subject ought to be anathema to Buddhists. Ironically, it seems to be the norm.