Showing posts with label surveillance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label surveillance. Show all posts

11 September 2015

Supernatural Monitors and the Buddha

I've previously argued that when a human group exceeds the Dunbar Number, 150, that it can no longer adequately keep track of compliance with social norms. Dunbar discovered a ratio between the size of the neocortex of the brain of mammals and the size of group they can sustain. The idea being that social animals need to know about the status and relationships of other members of their group in order to successfully navigate the social sphere. In primates one of the main ways of maintaining relationships was one-to-one grooming. However Dunbar notes that as human groups got bigger along with a bigger neocortex, there was simply not enough time for grooming with everyone. So less direct ways of achieving group cohesion developed. Dunbar has suggested for example that group singing and dancing, both known to stimulate endorphin production, helped to produce a communal sense of well being. (see Dunbar 2014)

Probably at least from the time of anatomically modern humans (ca 200,000 years before the present) our communities were seen from within as being surrounded by a halo of supernatural beings. Our own ancestors would have been chief amongst them, but this halo also contained animistic spirits of place, trees and other significant objects. Evolutionary psychologists, such as Justin L. Barrett, Stewart Guthrie, and Ara Norenzayan, have described how our minds have evolved to find supernatural entities plausible. Once these functions of our minds were in place, the emergence of the supernatural was more or less a given. Most humans, at most times and in most places believe in supernatural agents. It's a side effect of how human minds in general work. I explored why this might be so in my two part essay on why karma and rebirth seem plausible

In fact, not believing in the supernatural is a feature of WEIRDness, where the acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. Norenzayan has shown that people from WEIRD nations are psychological outliers: "WEIRD people occupy the extreme end of [the spectrum of human psychology]... WEIRD populations are atypical of other human populations" (52-53). There suggests that there is something about being WEIRD that alters the way we process sensory information and makes the supernatural seem less plausible. But we're not quite sure what that something is yet. And being WEIRD does not guarantee that people find the supernatural implausible, because many of us WEIRDos still do find it plausible. It simply makes it more likely. 

Living in groups is a highly successful strategy for survival and evolutionary fitness. Collectively we are much stronger and smarter. In small human groups, it is very easy for each member to monitor the behaviour of the others to ensure there are no freeloaders or backsliders. We know when members are following group norms and when they are not; we know when people are pulling their weight or slacking. Thus surveillance and compliance emerges from day to day interactions rather than being a special function. Members of the group conform because they know that everyone else sees what they do. And that conformity is part of what makes a social species successful. The possibility of deliberate deception in fact only seems to arise in the primates. 

For a society below the Dunbar threshold, bad behaviour might not always be seen to arise out of individual evil intention. There is always the possibility that an individual has been affected by a mischievous or malign spirit, or by magic. Breaking norms does not always call for punishment. Indeed punishment is a poor way to try to re-establish broken trust. Punishment relies on fear to enforce norms. Trust can't be based on fear. Repairing the breach might mean identifying an environmental or a supernatural cause. This has real advantages in a small community. The individual is not victimised by the group, but reminded on their absolute reliance on the group, and is left with their connections to the group intact. The small, isolated group needs each individual as much as the individual needs the group. The problem can be resolved without polarising the group against the individual and vice versa. A common enemy brings people together.

So a breach of norms can be an opportunity to examine how well integrated the wrong-doer is into the community, or to look for environmental problems (whether natural or supernatural). This might not play out in a way that a WEIRDo can recognise. Sometimes the actions of such communities can seem to lack logic from the outside. WEIRDos may label this as "irrational" and so on. Ariel Glucklich's observations about how Tantric magic functions in modern day Varanasi showed that apparently irrational actions have their own internal logic. They can be part of a worldview in which interconnectedness is the highest value:
Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events. (1997: 12)
Interrelatedness is what makes a social group function. Awareness of this, awareness of the relations in the group are crucial to a well functioning group. A group member who does something selfish is not necessarily seen as wicked. They might simply be unintegrated for some reason, probably beyond their control.

Growing Larger

When the human group size crosses the Dunbar number threshold this mechanism for maintaining the group can fail. It becomes possible for members to break the norms of behaviour, to deceive the group, to freeload, for example, and for no one to notice. This is a massive problem for a group which depends, at many levels, for it's survival on everyone doing their bit. Surveillance needs to become a special function. And how does this happen when actions can be performed in private? What Norenzayan and others have argued is that supernatural agents stepped in (so to speak).

My version of this process is to imagine a group of humans living together with their halo of ancestors and nature spirits. Some effort goes into living well with the supernatural members of the community - offerings are made, ceremonies conducted and so on. Specialists emerge who are adept at communicating with the spirits. We can call these adepts shaman. The shaman serves as intermediary between the communities in the different worlds. They interpret the will of the spirits for the humans, and also can call on spirits for help. The shaman also understands how to reintegrate group members who have become disconnected. "Healing" may well simply consist of helping someone experience the fullness of their interconnectedness.

One thing about spirits is that they are already counter-intuitive. They are living things with no physical presence, no breath, and yet they interact with the physical world, which is counter-intuitive even for pre-modern groups. In this case, it is not a stretch to attribute to them other counter-intuitive abilities, such as the ability to observe actions carried out in private. Indeed in a world where invisible agents are normal, one never knows when one of them is looking over one's shoulder. So a supernatural watcher who does not have the physical limitations of a human body, can be anywhere and see anything.

So to some extent the larger groups rely on supernatural monitors. This works if people believe they are being monitored. Norenzayan recounts several experiments that seem to confirm that people who understand themselves to be observed behave better than those who think they are not observed. For a supernatural monitor the effect is only seen in believers. So groups that have supernatural monitors will be more successful because they are more coherent. Narenzayan's major thesis is that religion, with its emphasis on supernatural monitors enabled much larger groups and facilitated cooperation on a much larger scale that might otherwise have been the case. 

As with any community some members stand out. Over time certain spirits took on greater roles. Presumably certain spirits took on the role of supervisor or what Norenzayan calls a "supernatural monitor". And perhaps the supervisor was also involved in helping to mend breaches of trust and keeping people integrated. But as groups got even larger, into the range of thousands of people, the whole system became less and less personal. While we can certainly be on nodding terms with a much larger group of people, we cannot have intimate knowledge of them. In small hunter-gatherer situations strangers are rare and maybe poorly tolerated. Strangers may indeed simply be killed on sight. In a tribe of 1500 members, strangers within the group start to become routine. When there are a number of tribes in an area, out-group strangers would also be relatively common. Tolerance of strangers is required for trade. Groups would have to have developed ways of recognising strangers as part of the same group. This would involve external signs of membership such as clothing, distinctive ornaments or body modifications. And there is simply no way to feel part of such a large group in the same way that one feels part of one's immediate group. Obeying the norms of a group of 1500 is a different proposition to obeying the norms of a group of 150. On the family or clan level the approach of integration continued to function. But on the tribal level they simply could not and so an individual compliance at this larger level came down to rewards and punishments.

The supernatural agents who were now doing the surveillance, aided by those who interpreted the spirit world, became increasingly important to these larger societies. As we have noted, people are far more likely to follow group norms (to "behave themselves") if they think they are being observed. Invisible agents are always on the case. Always watching. Indeed the ability of the supernatural monitors was stretched until they saw everything. One of the main features of the "Big Gods", which Norenzayan describes, is their omniscience. They see everything and thus help to ensure compliance because members of groups with such surveillance always have the sense that they are being observed. Thus local spirits evolved into Big Gods. And Big Gods helped to ensure the coherence and success of larger and larger groups of people who had less and less in common.

Karma as Monitor

In the Ṛgveda we see two gods that are concerned with monitoring: Mitra and Varuṇa. However, these two gods fade from view. Around the time of the second urbanisation the story of supernatural monitoring takes an unusual turn. Animistic spirits are typically either animal or human in form, or sometimes a hybrid of the two.  And Indian myth certainly has plenty of these. Karma, the supernatural monitor of Upaniṣdic Brahmins, Buddhists and Jains, was neither. Karma was conceived of as a "force of nature", abstract and formless. To the best of my knowledge this change has not received any attention from scholars. Diachronic or longitudinal studies of religion over time in India seem not to be very popular. Most scholarship, even comparative studies, is synchronic or focussed on a particular time.

Different versions of karma emerged in different communities, and especially in Buddhism, within communities, but karma never takes form, never stops being abstract. Karma is always an invisible link between action and consequence. Later it is likened to the process which links a seed to a flower (bījaniyama) and to the timeliness of other natural processes (utuniyama), but such similes only tell us that Buddhists saw karma as another natural process that they did no understand. This form of supernatural monitoring has received only scant attention so far from evolutionary psychologists who all seem to be obsessed with gods. One can understand this bias to some extent, most evolutionary psychology work is being carried out by WEIRDos, some of it by theists (Barrett), and a lot of it in an atmosphere of bitter rivalry between atheists and theists (especially in the USA). Still the Indian situation must surely shed important light on the evolution process precisely because karma as supernatural monitor is not anthropomorphised.

What I wanted to highlight in this essay is that, despite the fact that karma is a force of nature and not a being, in some cases the Buddha gains access to the god-like viewpoint of a supernatural monitor. And initially at least, he does so without becoming a god or an intercessory saviour. In some accounts of the Buddha's awakening he attains the three kinds of knowledge (tevijja): the knowledge that comes from recollection of former lives (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings [according to their karma] (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It is particularly the first and second of the vijjās that concern us here. In a worldview with a cyclic eschatology, any supernatural monitor is going to be concerned with ensuring that people get the rebirth they have earned. Karma is primarily a way of explaining how rebirth works to fulfil the Buddhist version of a just world. Wicked people go to bad destinations (duggati) where the predominant experience is misery; while good people go to a good destination (sugati) where the predominant experience is happiness. 

But Buddhism is also a hybrid system (according to my own taxonomy of afterlife types) because the really exemplary people are not reborn at all. This is necessary because even in the best of all possible rebirths—to the Brahmā realm—one lives a long, blissful life, but one still dies. And there is no greater misery than death. Thus the ultimate aim of traditionalist Buddhism is to avoid rebirth altogether, with some adding the caveat that they wish to go last amongst all beings and will help others to end rebirth first. For Brahmins, escaping from rebirth means this involves merging with Brahman, as the wave merges back into the ocean having arisen, crested and broken. Buddhists, by contrast, were cagey about the afterlife of one who was "in that state" (tathā-gata) of not being reborn. Any kind of permanence would wreak havoc on Buddhist metaphysics.

So the Buddha gains access to the god-like knowledge of a universal supernatural monitor. He gains knowledge not only of his own previous lives (pubbenivāsa), but of the death and rebirth (cuta-upapāta) of other beings. Such knowledge requires that one be aware of everything that is happening everywhere at all times, i.e. omnipresence and omniscience. These two qualities specifically denied the Buddha by the early Buddhist texts (see Kalupahana 1992: 43-4). However as time goes on the Buddha becomes more and more god-like. His limitations are gradually weeded out and his abilities expanded. For later Buddhists the Buddha is omnipresent and omniscient, and they gradually add omnipotence to the list as well. I discussed this trend in my 2014 article on karma in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

An almost exact translation of omni-scient in Sanskrit is sarva-jñā. This, along with it's synonym prajñāparamitā 'perfection of understanding', are both qualities attributed to the Buddha in Mahāyāna texts. And yet despite all of this, karma remains the primary way of thinking about morality. Of course karma changes with time, as I describe in my 2014 article, and while such changes undermine the role of the karma as supernatural monitor and claw back some of the power into human hands, especially in the matter of avoiding the consequences of evil actions, it is still karma that governs rebirth.

Just as the bodhisatva approaches Buddhahood (the end of rebirth) but continues to be reborn in order to stay in play with living beings; the Buddha seems to approach godhood but never quite cross the threshold. So when Amitābha promises the believer that they will be met after death and guided to a place where the Dharma is almost infinitely easy to practice, he still cannot avoid the need for individuals to awaken themselves. In Sukhāvati everything one needs to practice the Dharma is laid on in abundance, there's no sex or other possible distractions, and yet one must still learn and practice. Awakening cannot be bestowed like grace. Even in tantra, in the ritual recapitulation of Mahāvairocana's communication of awakening to Vajrasatva through mudra, mantra, and maṇḍala, it is not a matter of a deity transforming the sādhaka, it is a matter of the individual and cosmic wills coming together to transform each other. A relationship of give and take or kaji as the Japanese call adhiṣṭhāna


A full account of karma in evolutionary terms seems a long way off simply because it does not seem to interest either the Evolutionary or the Buddhist research communities. Evolutionary study of religion is focussed on theism since this is the major issue for WEIRDos. In any case it would be a complex undertaking because karma is complex at any given time, across sects, and changes considerably over time. A complete chronological account of karma would be a good first step towards a complete picture. But for some reason such fundamental research has, to the best of my knowledge, yet to be undertaken. Of course there are many partial studies of karma in specific circumstance, and very many which seek to understand karma in modernist terms, but there is nothing like, say, the major studies of dharma theory (e.g. Ronkin 2005) or the khandhas (Hamilton 2000). I've attempted to trace one major change in karma in my 2014 article and other facets of karma in essays here on my blog, but there are no major studies of karma as far as I know.

One of the problems we face with Buddhist studies is that cracks get plastered over. Even academics seem to aim at producing normative accounts of Buddhist doctrines, to get at the putative underlying unity of the texts, rather critiquing the ideas in Buddhist accounts. There is no tradition of critiquing Buddhism, except in theist terms. Worse, I now see the idea of underlying unity as a myth rather than a reality. Taking that myth too literally is a major impediment to understanding the development of Buddhism. The doctrine of karma is one of the weaknesses, because it fundamentally contradicts and is contracted by the doctrine of dependent arising. Here is another potential crack: how does one gain a godlike perspective, omniscient and omnipresent, on a process like karma? Given how karma works, how is any such perspective possible? The idea is deeply self-contradictory.

That said, this fact that the Buddha gains access to the god-like perspective of a supernatural monitor is a fascinating facet of Indian and Buddhist metaphysics. It tells us that despite the abstract conception of karma, that a godlike perspective is still possible. Buddhists believed (and in some cases still believe) that there is a view point in the universe which sees everything and knows everything and it is in theory possible to attain this view point. This perspective, initially at least, conveys knowledge, but not the power to change the situation. For early Buddhists, changing the situation could only come from practising the practices. Though of course the Buddha's personal power increases. In the later version of the Samaññaphala Sutta simply meeting the Buddha and hearing a Dharma talk rescues the murderous King Ajātasattu from his fate of rebirth in Hell. This whole change in the dynamic of karma in a world of the increasing soteriological power of the Buddha requires further study.

As Buddhism continues to be assimilated into WEIRD cultures it will inevitably change. History shows that Buddhism adapts to suit the needs of the time and place that Buddhists live in. In WEIRD places our problems are distinct from those of Iron Age or Medieval India or Asia. Supernatural explanations seem less plausible and satisfying to an increasing number of people who are none-the-less attracted to Buddhism, precisely because Buddhists promote Buddhism with realist rhetoric (we can teach you about the nature of reality). Redefining Buddhism without the supernatural elements is an ongoing process. Letting go of the accretions that make us think we understand "reality" may take even longer. I think we are generations away from a workable demystified Buddhism that can stand alone without constant reference to tradition. I think that evolutionary theory will play a major role in creating this new form of Buddhism. It is by far the most important single idea to emerge from WEIRD culture in terms of how we understand ourselves. 



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

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

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

Glucklich, Ariel. (1997) The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Norenzayan, Ara. (2013) Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press.

Ronkin, Noa. (2005) Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge.

Note. A few minutes after clicking the "publish" button on this essay I noted another blog: Subliminal religious prompts might not make people nicer after all, which contradicts the findings that Norenzayan relies heavily on in his account of religion. 

28 June 2013

Surveillance Society

From Spero News
One of the few philosophers I have any time for is Michel Foucault (probably because he's mainly an historian). He is more relevant than ever in the light of revelations by whistle blower, Edward Snowden. Snowden has revealed that, surprise, surprise, the powers that be are using that supposed tool of freedom, the Internet, to spy on citizens not only abroad, but at home too. One of Foucault's main contributions to the study of history was to show how hegemonic powers use surveillance to exert control and have done throughout history. He has also highlighted the methods and dynamics of this process of keeping tabs and showed how the power to over-see has shifted around to different parts of Western society over time.

I've already written quite a lot about how I see karma in this light. My thesis is that surveillance is a preoccupation for social primates, especially humans. Surveillance involves keeping tabs on who is contributing to the group and who is not. In human society it also keeps tabs on who is obeying the norms of the group and who is not. The actual content of the norms is largely irrelevant to my thesis - the medium is the message. The reasons behind this dynamic are not rocket science - the two main factors contribute to the smooth functioning of the group, and the long term evolutionary fitness and survival of the group. A third factor is the privilege of the alpha male and female (chimps have both). With more complex organisation the alpha human relies on a small cadre of intimates to hold power, and this is the origin of the aristocracy. Alphas have historically used this power to seize control of resources (for the greater good no doubt) and dole out rewards to underlings who are grateful to be alive. Owning resources allows for the creation of standing armies and such like. Such despots and their armies also provide a modicum of security to the group as neighbouring groups are similarly organised and busy trying to grab resources too.

However once societies get beyond a certain size, which is likely to be predicted by the so-called Dunbar Numbers, keeping tabs on who is doing and saying what becomes difficult. Robin Dunbar's breakthrough paper compared neo-cortex size in social animals with group size and found a positive correlation, now widely believed to be causal. Humans have an upper limit to the number of close relationships they can keep in memory. The average ought to be about 150 - known as the Dunbar Number despite the fact that Dunbar proposed a series limits at varying distance from the individual. Beyond the critical number we cannot know who is doing what with whom. Private actions and words become a feature of social life. And with private actions comes the possibility of blatant and large scale breaches of group norms. Testimony as a source of knowledge starts to become valuable, though the collective knowledge of old people was also a form of testimony. I'm thinking here of witness statements in trials.

And so some solution to the privacy problem must be sought. Many societies invented gods who live in the sky and look down on everything the individual does - and they take on the role of the alpha in dishing out rewards and punishments. This helps to give rise to a new kind of cadre who are expert at communicating with the gods, divining and carrying out their wishes. So we have kings, nobles and now priests - all justifying the subjugation of the peasants because it's for the greater good. We know that in India, for example, the overseer function was initially carried out by a pair of gods, Varuṇa and Mitra, but that sometime after about 1000 BCE this gave way to an impersonal arbiter: karma. I've argued that this was a result of interaction with and influence from Zoroastrianism via smalls bands of immigrants amongst which the Śākya tribe subsequently became prominent. But whatever else is true, it is true that there is no functional difference between impersonal karma and anthropomorphisized over-seer gods. Karma does not even quite manage to do away with priests, though their role was drastically attenuated for a short period and then clawed back rather vigorously (which is why the Buddhist world these days "takes" precepts from a bhikṣu/bhikṣuṇī). From an historical point of view bhikṣus are usurpers, having edged lay people and women out of any positive role in Buddhism for almost 2000 years - something which is slowly changing in the last 50 or so years. 

Foucault, for obvious reasons, dwells on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in subjugating the masses. The RCC emphasised the monitoring of private thoughts through confession particular thoughts about sex. They made pronouncements on what constitutes officially sanctioned sexuality. We are still in the process of wresting the control of sex from their cold dead hand, but part of the power has fallen to the state (which is currently wondering what it might do about all the unsanctioned sexuality of pornography). Buddhist's thoughts are also monitored by karma, and confession has been an important Buddhist practice for avoiding the negative effects of karma for many centuries. Indeed the Buddha himself focussed on thought and especially exercises of will in his teaching. Buddhists these days are (or feel) free to interrogate each other and pronounce judgements on each others' intentions or motivations. And many Buddhists believe themselves to be experts at divining the motivations of others from the flimsiest of clues. Buddhism, like the RCC, enjoined a strict abstinence from sexual activity on it's clergy - guaranteeing a powerful control over priests, and constant occasions for punishment, since most people are incapable of sustaining long periods of celibacy without breaches. There is a massive distinction between transcending desire and suppressing it. And in Buddhism such punishments as are meted out, are done in public, something the RCC could learn from. A celibate clergy also allows the institutions of the church/vihāra to become incredibly wealthy because property is not inherited by any family they might have (though Protestants and some Buddhist clergy have circumvented this by marrying).

Foucault spent a whole book, Madness and Civilization, outlining the way attitudes to madness have changed. It is definitely worth reading. For example, the new idea of locking mad people up only occurred to the powers at be after the decline of leprosy in Europe left the lazar houses standing empty. The example of our treatment of the insane also provides a clear example of how control over the minds and bodies of followers slipped from the grasp of the Church following the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But society did not simply stop overseeing it citizens, it allowed that power, in the case of madness, to drift into the hands of the medical profession. Madness, once a moral issue, is now a medical problem; where once it as the domain of priests it is now dealt with by doctors. We now all accept the metaphor that the mind has mental symptoms that respond to drugs just as the body has somatic symptoms. But it was not always so, and there have been notable rebellions against this doctrine (notably by R.D. Laing). 

If not before, then certainly in the days following the end of World War II, the various governments of the world extended their spying activities to include the lives of their own citizens. Governments developed paranoia, and it was true in some cases that people, there own people, were out to get them. Every spying government has had it's share of high profile double agents. Paranoia lead governments to cast their nets ever wider. Corruption meant that powerful individuals and agencies have regularly exceeded the powers allowed them by law. This paranoia was greater in totalitarian Soviet Russia and it's satellite states, but not confined to them. Also, with the war over, the grievances of the colonial period began to boil over again. Terrorist became a household word. Terrorism is a paranoid's wet dream because it proves that people are out to get them. Since terrorism threatens security, freedom must apparently be sacrificed to keep us safe and the government must judiciously spy one everyone. But not content to deal with the legacies of imperialism, the imperial powers of Europe and the USA set out to antagonise the weaker nations of the world by arming rebels and toppling governments. Small countries frequently became proxies for conflicts between totalitarian Soviet Russia (which was in fact not so different from Tsarist Russia and still is not) and China, and democratic Western Powers. 

If we take the case of Iran (outlined in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World) there were a whole series of interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries, including the installation of an anti-democratic autocratic king (or Shah) who lasted for 25 years before being brought down. Then later the West encouraged Sadam Hussein (then a "good guy") to attack post-revolutionary Iran and sold arms to both sides. As a result Iran now sponsor groups who carry out attacks on those interfering powers and are keenly pursuing the acquisition of the one weapon that will guarantee no further interference by foreign powers in their country: Iran want a nuclear deterrent. It is demonstrably the lesson of history that Iran has more to fear from us, than we do from them. They have been constantly bullied  for a good couple of centuries and thus my sympathies cannot help but be partly with them despite my abhorrence of oppressive religious fundamentalism. The West has promoted conflict and discord throughout the Middle East in order to divide and conquer. I simply do not believe the protests of Western governments that they are only want to bring peace, stability and democracy to the world. I'm more inclined to believe people like Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Though it gives me no peace of mind to do so. 

In any case during the late 20th century surveillance of citizens became ubiquitous. From time to time scandal would erupt as corruption was exposed, but on the whole operations to spy on citizens were secret and stayed that way. Whether this meant they were largely legal is something that we cannot know because the information we would need to answer that question is invariably classified. 

What Edward Snowden has done is remind us that this is all going on and that the scale of it has increased as technology has improved. It's long been a banal fact that the UK has more CCTV cameras per population than any other country including the oppressive dictatorships of the world. We are constantly under surveillance. And increasingly we the people are participating in this via phone cameras and YouTube. The more stupid amongst us even film our own criminal activities and get caught because of it. Kind of a benign version of the Darwin Awards. 

A lot of Romantic people still believe that the internet will set people free. I stopped believing this years ago. It certainly had the potential. And I am still actively uploading original content with a view to participating in the information revolution. But most people I know only download and contribute nothing, except a modicum of self commodification for other consumers. And they mainly download entertainment. Rather than setting people free the vast amount of entertainment and distraction on the internet has enslaved more people than ever to the ersatz vicarious thrills to be had on a small screen (see also my essay on pornography). The internet has become the opiate of the people in most cases. Not in all cases. No doubt the potential for internet fuelled revolution still exists - especially where revolution exists in any case - but in the last 15 years couch potatoes have expanded in both number and size. 

And most of these lazy people have little to hide from the government and aren't bothered enough by the intrusion to protest. Many of my friends simply shrug when learning that their emails are being read because the content is so banal that even they are bored by it. I live in the UK and despite obvious corruption amongst our leaders there's no chance of revolution here. Most people are too comfortable to consider risking their lives. They're confused about the issues (a situation promoted by media and politicians alike) and just adopt pre-packaged opinions without thinking very hard about why (something the present Education Secretary seems keen to encourage through his curriculum reforms). We may have the occasional riot, the occasional home-grown terrorist, but we're not looking for change. Oddly our so-called Conservative party are radically reformist liberals these days and people still vote for them. The spectacle presented in the media--the daily diet of vicarious scandal, crime, war, disaster, crisis--has people enthralled in a way that discourages them from really thinking about what is going on. And the internet is just an extension of this entertaining spectacle. 

It's too hard for most people to imagine what the government might do with this information beyond stopping terrorists. Recently I read one pessimistic view on where it might lead in Ken McLeod's Intrusion. In the near future all women of child bearing age will have their health constantly monitored - if they endanger their health, through exposure to drugs or alcohol for instance, the authorities will know. The surveillance is carried out by rings with are worn "voluntarily". Equally health and safety concerns mean that most work places are unsuitable for women of child bearing age because they are exposed to dangerous situations. Women can very easily become unfit mothers and their children can be taken from them. The concern for terrorism means that police routinely grab people off the street and question them under torture. This practice is illegal and is occasionally taken to court, but most people never report it - from shock and fear of the consequences of failure to cooperate. Victims are given leaflets on trauma counselling as they leave - so the police can show that they do care and are only doing what needs to be done. "People with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear", as our present Foreign Secretary said recently (though presumably this does not apply to foreigners). All of these scenarios are relatively easy to extrapolate from the present situation. And there are other ways it might play out as well. 

If you follow the BoingBoing blog you'll know that personal freedom in the USA is under sustained attack from law enforcement agencies at present - be it spraying non-violent protesters in the face with pepper spray from an industrial sprayer, or illegal 'nationality' checks by Homeland Security officers. Indeed the USA seems quite a lot more paranoid that Britain (e.g. see Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S.)

We probably should be concerned that the government is spying on us. History suggests that our governments are not to be trusted. Given an inch they will take a mile and retrospectively redefine the inch if necessary. It's apparent in the UK that government ministers routinely lie and manipulate information to their own benefit. They don't get caught very often, but often enough to be alarming. Lying about employment figures for example is de rigueur, though not a major scandal it seems. Professional politicians are concerned with being in power, and staying in power and not much else. They may want to make the world a better place, but only for themselves and their wealthy peers.

The oppression of state scrutiny of our lives, however, is just a continuation of the scrutiny all of our ancestors were under. Since the dawn of civilisation ruling elites have always used surveillance in one form or another to help control their citizens. There is at least one episode of espionage in the Pāli Canon, though it was directed against neighbouring states (I wrote about it in How to Spot and Arahant). We, the people, put up with the seizure of resources and wealth, and the surveillance, for the same reason that lesser members of chimpanzee troops put up with the tyranny of an alpha male. We know there is safety in numbers and that group membership equals survival. And a strong leader helps to organise and focus the group for collective survival. Which is not to say that we do not kick against authority, we do. But usually only because we fancy that we could do a better job. There's an interesting discussion of this with respect to Australian politics in Chimpanzee Politics.

"People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear." This has never been true at any point in the history of civilisation. Because it assumes that the one's doing the looking are benevolent, rational beings with pure motives. And they never are. And in the age of professional politicians, whose only ambition is to rule, it simply cannot be true. Governments themselves never operate on the this principle - they can always justify having secrets: people with something to fear, always have something to hide. It's only people with nothing to fear that have nothing to hide. We'd be foolish not to at least be suspicious of our government.

Our thoughts have been scrutinised for a long time now. Often what holds the alphas and their cadres of aristocrats and priests at bay is the sheer numbers of the masses. They can't fight us all at once. They can't control us if we are united against them. This is lesson one of revolutions (lesson two is that we inevitably replace one tyranny with another). Which is why the present splintered and alienated society is a gift to peeping Toms, snoops and sneaks. I doubt we'll get to the level of surveillance of Stalinist Russia here in the UK. But Big Brother is in fact watching us and in most cases it's only the fact that we are mind boggling boring that saves us, not the benevolence of the powers that be. Unfortunately Al Qaeda and groups like them succeed in making everyone a little more paranoid and this has lead to the erosion of freedom in the West generally. When we compare the goals of the sides in the so-called "War on Terror" it's not at all clear who is doing better. Certainly calling our side "the free world" is starting to sound a little optimistic.

I think it's worthwhile trying to become informed and to reflect on what kind of society you want to live and to make common cause with people who share your values. Us peasants only ever have numbers going for us. United we stand, divided we fall. And we have so much in common. We could probably do with a little more enlightened other-interest right now, rather than this bullshit, but pervasive notion of enlightened self-interest. Enlightenment and self-interest are inversely correlated. We also might want to reflect on who we share our private thoughts with and how. In this age of the commodification of the self someone is monetising those thoughts and you aren't getting any benefit from it. And they are also allowing the government easy access. Log off and hang out with your friends. You'll feel better for it.


24 February 2012

Accountability and Ethics

THE SUBJECT OF ACCOUNTABILITY has come up quite a lot lately. I've come to see gods that oversee our behaviour and karma as part of the same complex of ideas stemming from changes that civilisation brought to human culture. I outlined this view earlier when discussing the plausibility and salience of rebirth, and here I'll expand on it.

My thought is that we evolved to live in small bands of several families all working closely together to ensure our survival. These bands were probably part of larger groupings, but on the whole most of the time was spent in relatively small groups of say 30-50. In contemporary hunter gatherer societies there is typically a division of labour with women gathering food and men hunting. Women stay together as a group while working which takes up a good part of their day. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups, but spend a lot of time together as well. In a group of 30-50 which is highly dependent on each of its members, there is not much in the way of privacy. We would all know what everyone is doing, and especially we would know if they were following group etiquette and rules. Going against the norm, and keeping it secret, often causes an internal tension that would have observable consequences. If you know someone well and over a long period of time, you know when something is wrong. Infractions are dealt with socially - with shame being an important factor in maintaining cohesion. And cohesion is not just arbitrary it is what helps the group survive in what is probably quite a hostile environment.

We share these patterns with our social primate cousins - especially the apes. Chimpanzee society has many of the same features for instance, and I think provides us some insights into our own distant past. They work together foraging as a group, and rely on each member to contribute and not to deceive. And individuals do on occasions deceive the group over food and sex. We don't just share a common genetic ancestry, I think we probably share a common social ancestry. In any case I think one can learn a lot about basic human drives and behaviours from Jane Goodall's observations on the Chimps of Gombe stream in her book In the Shadow of Man.

Civilisation changed this pattern, and made us different from any of our ancestors or cousins. Civilisation gave us the means to live together in much greater numbers. We were no longer dependent on passing game, or the random distribution of food crops. We domesticated our food - both animal and plant. This allowed for an expansion of group sizes beyond the magic Dunbar number of 150 - the number of relationships we can keep close track of. In a large village we do not know what everyone is up to because we do not observe it for ourselves. We do still keep track using informal information sharing (aka gossip, but this word has far too many negative connotations). It is not less important that everyone consents to live in the same way and follows the same rules, but it is much harder to know. And within any group there are always those who can profit by deception. Civilisation brings with the it a new problem of how to limit the dishonesty of susceptible individuals when personal observation is not sufficient to detect breaches.

Many societies developed a kind of cosmic police force and judiciary. In Indo-Iranian myth for instance it was the function of Mitra/Mithra. The people who propagated the myths of Mitra and preserved it through many centuries believed that the universe itself was ordered and that this macro-cosmic order was reflected in the microcosm of human society and human relationships. By sacrificing to Mitra the Indo-Iranians and their descendants were trying to ensure that Mitra had enough sustenance to do his job. And one of his jobs was to oversee the contracts and bonds that held society together. In fact his name probably originally meant 'contract' (from PIE *√mei 'to tie' + the instrumental suffix -tra: 'the one who ties', or 'that which ties'). I suspect that if you search the myths of all people's you will find this judicial function being carried out. It is possible that the role of enforcing the laws will be separate, but I think they are often combined.

The next step in the development of this idea was its further abstraction. In societies which followed the lead of Zoroaster and adopted monotheistic gods (such as the Abrahamic religions) the functions of overseer and enforcer were combined with other roles into a single "swiss-army-knife" or über god. In the Old testament god these two functions are much more prominent than in the new. In India a curious abstraction took place. Rather than combine all the functions of regulating society into a swiss-army-knife god that could do everything, they went another route altogether. In India the role of overseer became entirely abstract; it simply was part of the fabric of the universe that your actions would have inescapable consequences which were suitable to the action: we usually refer to this role as karma (though of course karma just means 'work or action'). Note that though the mechanism is different the function is identical. This suggests that the problem it was intended to solve was the same.

The development of this idea then stagnated for many centuries amongst our ancestors - and indeed has not changed at all in some sections of the Western world. One minor development was the contracting out of the overseer role to priests. The priest stands between the people and their god. There is no doubt that some people are more apt than others to have the kinds of experiences that can be interpreted as 'divine'. Most of us are rather untalented in the business of visions and mystical attainments, even with the boost of psychedelics. Perhaps it was inevitable that some people who had easier access to such states would act as intermediaries, and be valued as such by their fellows in this role. Somewhere along the way the job ceased to be awarded on the basis of merit and typically became the preserve of a clan - the vast majority of whom had to fake their contact with god which they did by aping their more inspired elders. In Judaism it was the Cohen clan, in North-West India the Brāhmaṇas. With the advent of a celibate clergy other arrangements were made to keep control of this social function in the form of large institutions such as The Church or The Saṅgha. Religion so captured by hereditary groups or hegemonic institutions quickly descends into formalism and empty rituals, and this is more or less the situation with most religions most of the time.

So for most of the Christian era in Europe the church has been a sham. However it did continue to provide oversight of the people. It did this through confession particularly. This is an observation made by Michel Foucault (e.g. in Madness and Civilization). Although God was invoked, it was in fact the clergy who had taken over his role as overseer. Since the role needed doing this was not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact is that it was mostly done under false pretences. Much the same kind of thing happened in India. In both places genuine visionaries would crop up from time to time, though in Europe we would generally torture them and then burn them alive; and in Indian they would set them up as local deities. Now at the same time kings were also still seen as divinely appointed rulers (several kings had wars with popes over this issue). Kings began to make and enforce laws too.

It was not until the Enlightenment that things began to really change however. The European Enlightenment shifted the focus from religion and superstition to the possibilities of reason. The idea of being ruled by reason was pretty attractive after several centuries of dark age - hence the term Enlightenment, and hence also Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids's deliberate identification of the Buddha with the European Enlightenment via the translation of bodhi as Enlightenment (complete with upper-case E). Michel Foucault notes that one consequence was that the oversight of those who simply could not follow any rules (the mad) moved from the church, to the burgeoning medical profession. But in the meantime the mad were locked away in asylums, which were originally lazar houses, because in a society which was beginning to see reason as defining humanity, losing your reason became a crime.

As Europe developed and spread outwards in an orgy of imperialism and colonisation it exported these values around the world. Only Asia proved able to resist, but only temporarily. The power to make laws, to oversee them, and to punish wrong doers moved decisively away from religious and towards secular administrations. This was one of the principles of the French and American Revolutions, though it was no so clear cut in England, so that the United Kingdom does not separate church and state - my Sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. The power to keep tabs on people was abrogated to the government on the one hand, and to the medical profession on the other. But in many places the medical profession became a subsidiary of the government, or at least was governed by government rules and regulations. Confessions continued to be a crucial part of the way the secular judiciary operated. And in some places the name of the judicial god was sometimes still invoked (the power vested in me by almighty God...). Medical priests used our confessions to regulate our bodies and sexuality, and assumed vast authority over us. Government took on a much greater role in attempting to regulate the morals of society. The UK's present Prime Minister for instance understands without question that part of his role is to set and enforce moral guidelines for the people of Britain (See this assessment in the China Post 22 Aug 2011). The medical profession meanwhile has totally taken over the regulating the lives of the mad, and madness is now a disease of the mind, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic defect.

Presently we seem to be in another transition. Surveillance of individuals by government agencies has never been more comprehensive. Our every movement is monitored by video cameras (the UK has more per population than any country in the world!). In fascist states surveillance intruded more deeply and with more devastating effect than peacetime democracies. We cannot cross a national border (most of which are entirely arbitrary) without our finger prints being taken and our movements entered into computers. Yes, some of this is for our own protection because people from countries which our governments (extending their godlike powers to the nations around us) have routinely oppressed and exploited for the last two centuries are now attacking us in very personal ways, exploding bombs on trains and buses for example. But still, we are being watched, have no fear. Elsewhere in the world Muslims, given the chance to vote, are voting for religious governments of the type that have a track record of imposing restrictive laws on their people.

All of this began as a way to ensure the cohesion and therefore survival of small bands of people eking a living out of the environment as best they could. In Buddhist ethics we are enjoined to surveil ourselves, to vigilantly watch our own minds, and not to act on any unskilful impulse. We're not asked to keep track of others, though we might help a friend out of compassion. This is quite an unusual idea in a society with 2000 years of being taught that someone else does the watching for us. We're not really used to taking responsibility for this role. We become our own judiciary. We pre-emptively confess our transgressions not in a context of fear and punishment, but to friends and mentors who wish us well, and help us to make amends (if necessary) and get back on track. This way we attain to the state of avippaṭisāro 'not feeling remorseful' (i.e. having a clear conscience) which feeds into the natural progress of the Spiral Path (e.g. AN 10.1-5).


Note 13-5-12

 Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self-Control? Wired Science.
Yes. It does. 
"The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows..."