Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Consciousness as an illusion

Daniel Dennett denies that consciousness is real.  That has been his fundamental argument all throughout  his career. One of his early books was called 'Consciousness Explained', and the Wikipedia entry on it is quite informative. It points out that critics of Dennett's approach, such as David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel and John Searle, argue that Dennett's argument misses the point of the inquiry by merely redefining consciousness as an external property and ignoring the subjective aspect completely. This has led detractors to nickname the book Consciousness Ignored and Consciousness Explained Away.

Q: What is instead denied is a radical privacy - the idea that no-one could experience or understand that feeling in principle, regardless of their physical brain state.

A: That's not it at all. What is being denied is the primacy of the subjective, the fact that the subjective nature of experience can never be understood in wholly third-person terms, from outside of experience, but is a simply another kind  of phenomenon. Part of this is the idea that humans are perfectly reducible to objective analysis (which is a central aspect of Dennett's 'scientism'.)

Furthermore Dennett explicitly argues that the idea of the subject and subject-hood, generally, are at best epiphenomal illusions which in reality are simply the consequences of cellular transactions. Humans are in some real sense automata, they do what they are programmed to do by the 'Darwinian algorithm'. He explicitly, if humorously, says that humans really are 'moist robots', and then says 'so, what's the problem'? It's the fact that he doesn't understand why this is a problem, that's the problem!

Nagel's review of Dennett's latest book is called Is Conscousness an Illusion? Nagel says:

Our manifest image of the world and ourselves includes as a prominent part not only the physical body and central nervous system but our own consciousness with its elaborate features—sensory, emotional, and cognitive—as well as the consciousness of other humans and many nonhuman species. In keeping with his general view of the manifest image, Dennett holds that consciousness is not part of reality in the way the brain is. Rather, it is a particularly salient and convincing user-illusion, an illusion that is indispensable in our dealings with one another and in monitoring and managing ourselves, but an illusion nonetheless.

You may well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience—an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about. The way Dennett avoids this apparent contradiction takes us to the heart of his position, which is to deny the authority of the first-person perspective with regard to consciousness and the mind generally.

...Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Steve Poole's review says:

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

Dennett's philosophy can be summed up as follows - molecules are the only real agents, real 'doers', in the Universe, and everything else we see is the product of their activities, which are really not so much intelligent as a kind of elaborate chemical reaction:

The true nature of things is evident only at the bottom, and so we must understand life from the bottom up.

•   What we find at the bottom are scraps of molecular machinery.

•   Through the power of natural selection — which operates like a mindlessly mechanistic algorithm (Dennett) or a blind, unconscious automatism (Dawkins) — these low-level molecular machines slowly evolve into the kind of apparently purposeful, complex entities we recognize as organisms, including ourselves.

•   Whatever we are to make of this appearance of meaning and purpose — including my own intentions as I write this and yours as you read it — we are both urged to shed our prejudices and acknowledge that we with our intentions somehow arise from more basic, underlying processes that are essentially dumb, meaningless, and mindless.

Love it or hate it, phenomena like this [i.e. organic molecules] exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett, page 202.

Dennett's opponents, in essence, claim there is a subjective aspect to every act of knowing, even the so-called 'hard sciences' such as physics (a fact which has manifested in the 'observer problem'). The reason Dennett can even make his preposterous argument, is that the subject is ubiquitous and is implicitly invoked in every conversation, every 'speech act', even without being made manifest or explicitly referred to. It's unconscious, but not in the way Dennett claims: not because it comprises purely material actions on the cellular level acting out of an algorithm of which we're unaware, but because we so deeply embody it, that it is never an object of perception, it is never a 'that' to us. That is why Dennett can apparently argue for it's unreality; because you can never really pick out what mind is, or where it is, as it precedes any speech act, thought, or gesture. You can act like it's not there, except for if it really weren't there, you'd be dead, and Dennett wouldn't be able to tell you anything.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mind Only Teachings and Naturalism

My (current, tentative) understanding of this deep issue is that all mind-only teachings imply a perspective, which is generally not shared by most sentient beings. Why? Because part of the very process of individuation is the creation of the distinction of self and other. If you read developmental psychology, this happens in very early childhood, and is of course thereafter deeply ingrained in everything we think about the world. That is the origin of the 'self-and-other' division, which from a somatic perspective is completely necessary. But then it later forms the basis for the constant arising of 'me, mine, myself' and the consequent sense of division and otherness from everything around us.

Now, 'natural philosophy' takes this condition as its starting point; it assumes the reality of self-and-other, subject-and-object. And again, for the purposes of natural philosophy, which is concerned with analysing and mastering the forces of nature, that is a natural thing to do, there is nothing inherently the matter with doing that. But it looses sight of the crucial fact that reality is actually not something we're other to. There really is no such division, because there really is nobody standing outside of or apart from experience. Reality is actually totality, it is not actually divided between self-and-other, that division is first and foremost a reflex or a habit of thought. It is a necessary aspect of being in the world from the viewpoint of survival, but it is also an existential plight.

The most influential philosophy of mind in the West is representative realism of the kind developed by the British empirical philosophers. Long story short, this assumes the reality of the object or objective realm, of which the mind generates a facsimile, image or likeness. Then the understanding seems to be, that this image or likeness is continually enhanced by the progress of empiricism, which discloses more and more about reality and through which we gradually build up a more complete understanding. But the problem here is that the amount of scientific knowledge is already so vast that no one individual will ever know more than a narrow speciality. And there's also the 'fact-value' issue, which is that scientific analysis only deals with what is quantifiable, that it assumes that the objective realm is devoid of meaning, and so on. That is the origin of the whole materialist attitude in a nutshell; I have noticed that most people with a scientific materialist attitude (which is the predominant outlook in the secular west) assume that the phenomenal domain that is the object of scientific analysis, comprises the whole of reality; that is very much the empiricist understanding.

So - what the mind-only teaching is reminding us of, is that all we ever know of the world, even when mediated by scientific instruments, is still ultimately vikalpa. It is incorporated into our cognitive apparatus and then we make judgements about it. Obviously through scientific methodology humans have been able to realise great material power, but from the viewpoint of 'being in the word' that in itself is not necessarily beneficial (i.e. you have to put it to good use, and so on.) But the point I'm driving at, is that mind-only teachings come from those who really have seen through or beyond the 'illusion of otherness', they themselves understand the way the mind generates judgements which it then takes to be reality itself. So they have a different perspective or stand-point. And until we actually get to that stand-point - till we go 'through the looking glass' ourselves - we won't really understand what they're saying.

That is my current, tentative understanding of it.  (For a very good comparison of Western idealist and Buddhist philosophy, have a look at Schopenhauer and Buddhism, Peter Abelson. It discusses many similar points. This blog post cross posted at DharmaWheel.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A note

Religion is the residue left by the appearance of the eternal in history

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

There was an opinion piece published a while back in Scientific American, by physicist (and physicalist!) Sean Carroll, called Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.  Carroll argues that belief in any kind of life after death is equivalent to the belief that the Moon is made from green cheese - that is to say, ridiculous. 

But this assertion is made, I contend, because of the presuppositions that the writer brings to the question. In other words, he depicts the issue in such a way that it would indeed be ridiculous to believe it. But this is because of a deep misunderstanding about the very nature of the idea.

Carroll says:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I can think of a straightforward answer to this question, which is that the soul is not 'made of particles'. In fact the idea that the soul is 'made of particles' is not at all characteristic of what is meant by the term 'soul'.  (Jains and Stoics both believe in ultra-fine material particles that comprise the soul, or karma, but we'll leave that aside for this argument. 1)

But I think the soul could more easily be conceived in terms of a biological field that provides an organising principle analogous to the physical and magnetic fields that were discovered during the 19th century, that were found to be fundamental to the behaviour of particles. This is not to say that the soul is a field, but that it might be much more conceivable in terms of fields than of particles.

Morphic Fields

Just as magnetic fields organise iron filings into predictable shapes, so too could a biological field effect be responsible for the general form and  the persistence of particular attributes of an organism. The question is, is there any evidence of such fields?

Well, the existence of 'moprhic fields' is the brainchild of Rupert Sheldrake, the 'scientific heretic' who  claims in a Scientific American interview that:

Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields.  It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past.  The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance.  What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes.  In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.

As the morphic field is capable of storing and transmitting remembered information, then 'the soul' could be conceived in such terms. The morphic field does, at the very least, provide an explanatory metaphor.

Children with Past-Life Memories

But what, then, is the evidence for such effects in respect to 'life after death'?  As it happens, a researcher by the name of Ian Stevenson assembled a considerable body of data on children with recall of previous lives.  Stevenson's data collection comprised the methodical documentation of a child’s purported recollections of a previous life. Then he identified from journals, birth-and-death records, and witnesses the deceased person the child supposedly remembered, and attempted to validate the facts that matched the child’s memory.  Yet another Scientific American opinion piece notes that Stevenson even matched birthmarks and birth defects on his child subjects with wounds on the remembered deceased that could be verified by medical records.

On the back of the head of a little boy in Thailand was a small, round puckered birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet; Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle, so that seemed to fit. And a child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only. This type of “unilateral brachydactyly” is so rare, Stevenson pointed out, that he couldn’t find a single medical publication of another case.

Carroll, again

Carroll goes on in his piece to say that  'Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions (about the persistence of consciousness)'. However, that springs from his starting assumption that 'the soul' must be something physical, which, again, arises from the presumption that everything is physical.  In other words, it is directly entailed by his belief in the exhaustiveness of physics with respect to the description of what is real.

He then says 'Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that "new physics" to interact with the atoms that we do have.'

However, even in ordinary accounts of 'mind-body' medicine, it is clear that mind can have physical consequences and effects on the body. This is the case with, for example, psychosomatic medicine and the placebo effect, but there are many other examples.

He finishes by observing:

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV.

But that is not what 'most people have in mind'. That is what physicalists have in mind - because that is how physicalists think. If you start from the understanding that 'everything is physical', then this will indeed dictate the way you think about such questions.  And it is indeed the case that there is no such 'blob' as Carroll imagines; never has been, never will be. That is not what 'spirit' is; but what  it is, is something that can't be understood, given the presuppositions you're starting from -  although I rather like the German term for it, which is 'geist'. 

The Domain of Meaning

I have the idea that information actually comprises a separate domain from the physical domain. Of course 'information' has a wide range of meanings, and is not easily defined. But I have the view that numbers, logical and scientific laws, grammar, and so on, are not and can't be explained in terms of physics. Indeed, the mind must be capable of grasping logic and using language and math for physics to exist. And I think that is one hint of the nature of 'soul'. It pertains to the domain of meaning rather than to the domain of material existents.

1. There's another objection, which is that the laws of physics have given rise to many deep conceptual problems, for example the possibility of parallel worlds, that are seriously considered by many reputable physicists. So ruling in or out ideas about 'the soul' on that basis is at best premature.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Teaching Emptiness to the Untrained

From The Bodhisattva Vows - point 11:

If we look at the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, when he reached the point of teaching the theory of selflessness or anatma, he was very, very sensitive. When asked if ‘self’ exists, there were many occasions when he did not reply yes or no but just stayed in silence. I am not saying these things just from a Mahayana Buddhist point of view. If you read the Theravadin Pali texts, you will come across a section where there are eighteen questions which the Buddha never gave any answers to and these are all connected with the topic of self, such as if the sense of self continues after death or whether self exists at all. He considered the best way to answer such questions and concluded it was very risky teaching this topic to anybody. 

If a person is not really ready to listen, saying ‘self’ doesn’t exist will cause strong distress, or it might cause great damage to their self-confidence. These ideas are so subtle that the person listening might easily decide that the Buddha was teaching that there is no self and that nothing exists. That is very, very dangerous. 

The teaching on emptiness is the only teaching which can really deal with the root of samsara. There is no other method to destroy the cause of cyclic existence. In a desert, a one-litre bottle of water is your survival. Lose that and you are dead. The teaching on emptiness is that bottle of water. Of course the teachings on compassion and bodhicitta are very, very powerful but emptiness is the only teaching which can really deal with our fundamental ignorance. If we get it wrong then there is no other solution.

Teaching emptiness, therefore, is dangerous. If you want to discuss emptiness with someone, the first thing to decide is whether that person is ready or not. If they are not, it might cause many difficulties and great misunderstanding. The second thing to decide is whether you yourself are ready or not to teach. We have to be so careful. 

In the sixth chapter of Chandrakirti’s Commentary on Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ there are six lines that describe the person who is ready for a teaching on emptiness. That indicates how important it is to really find the right moment and the right person to teach this topic. The wrong shade of meaning and the student might feel it is nihilism, which will leave very bad imprints on their mind streams.

Even when bodhisattvas entering into the Path of Accumulation start to realise emptiness, there is often great, great fear. When they start to realise emptiness they are terrified that they themselves are somehow being extinguished and if they become non-existent their main aim to benefit sentient beings is being lost. So great caution is needed with the teaching of emptiness.


I have posted this because of its profound importance. I would say, in addition to it causing damage to self-confidence, it also encourages recklessness, because if it leads to the idea that 'nothing really exists' or 'everything is illusory' then this entails that the path really doesn't matter, either, because the idea of 'path' and 'goal' are also illusory. I think there are many who call themselves Buddhist who fall into this trap.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science and the Realm of Values

The major issue I have with current philosophy is the presumption that the methods of the objective sciences can be applied to questions of value and meaning with regard to human life.

This was the subject of a contentious essay from late 2013 by Steve Pinker, called Science is Not your Enemy (linked at right, together with some critical responses.) Pinker says in his essay that 

the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.

One issue is that 'spiritual values' do not necessarily rely on 'ecclesiastical authorities'. This blog, and most of my spare time, is devoted to consideration of the questions of moral and spiritual values, about which I have consulted neither scientists nor priests. From a Buddhist point of view, the Buddha points out the source of values, which are oriented around what steers you towards nirvana, but nirvana is not reliant on 'ecclesiastical authority' and in fact Buddhism arose as a reaction against that very thing.

But then, Pinker also relies on a 'straw God' definition of religion:

There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.

The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Now I would take strong exception to the peremptory dismissal of 'karma', which in its most basic form, is simply the observation that moral choices inevitably entail consequences. The difference between acknowledging that and dismissing it, itself has great consequences, which again are not dependent on 'ecclesiastical authority'. 

And who does really promote 'human sacrifice, witch hunts, trial by ordeal and the persecution of heretics?' What would be the point in 'scientifically refuting' such archaic practices in this day and age, and why would such refutation constitute a general argument against religion? It implies a pretty jaundiced view of what religions mean.  How many of those advocating religious arguments endorse any such thing? 

That is what I mean by a 'straw God' argument: it is an argument based on a notion of 'religion' that hardly anyone actually entertains.  If one were to argued against science on the basis of the failure of phrenology or eugenics then surely one would be taken to task for misrepresenting science.

Anyway, at issue in all of this is the question of 'the meaning of being human' - the domain of values and meaning. I maintain this is categorically different to the kinds of questions which the scientific method is intended to address on its own term, as it is by definition a qualitative matter.  

On the one hand, the advocates of the scientific approach frequently state that the Universe itself is natively 'devoid of reason, purpose or value', which are, in their view, wholly and solely subjective (or inter-subjective, i.e. social). Then, having dismissed the possibility of 'real values' we are told to look to science, which claims to have dismantled any basis for values outside the utilitarian. 

One can fully and completely accept the utility of science, and even the ability of science to ongoingly reveal profoundly important facts within its domain of applicability, without however agreeing that it is a source of values as such.

I think the basic problem is a very deep confusion about the nature of knowledge with regards to questions of meaning and value. Religious ideas are clearly often couched in terms of mythology and symbolism; but I think both religious fundamentalists, and scientific atheists, somehow loose sight of the meaning of that. The fundamentalists insist that the symbolical and mythical accounts are actual or literal (''mistaking the finger for the moon" in Buddhist parlance); on the other side, scientific atheists take them to be simply mistaken scientific hypotheses, i.e. claims about actual entities which are to be understood in by the same means as the kinds of things which can be examined scientifically. In this way, atheists and fundamentalists are strangely alike (a point which has often been noted.)

So why do myths and symbolic forms have such a prominent role in religious ideas? It is because they are attempting to depict intuitive understandings and visions which really are of things that are 'over our cognitive horizon', as it were; among other things, they provide a way of relating to the unknowable. But the unknowable is actually something real in the midst of human affairs; the domain of knowledge shades into that of the unknowable on all sides; this has become abundantly clear even from physics with the appearance of dark matter~energy and the notions of parallel or multiple universes. 

Religions, however, have a tacit understanding of the unconscious and unknowable dimensions of human experience; which is something which not only does science not have, but can't be expected to have.   The domain of values and meanings plumbs the depth of the psyche and the predicament of 'the human condition'1; in doing so, religious thought charts things completely out of range for quantitative judgement and analysis.  

But what this is in service to, is the disclosure of a different way of being.  However neither its advocates nor its proponents seem very clear about that (with some notable, and noble, exceptions.) This type of understanding of the meaning of religions, is far more characteristic of comparitive religion and depth psychology (think Jung, Eliade, Hillman) than mainstream religious thinking (although again there are exceptions).

1. From Gloria Orrigi's review

Philosophers and humanists are interested in what has been called, in  20th-century continental philosophy, the human condition, that is, a sense of uneasiness that human beings may feel about their own existence and the reality that confronts them (as in the case of modernity with all its changes in the proximate environment of humans and corresponding changes in their modes of existence). Scientists are more interested in human nature. If they discover that human nature doesn’t exist and human beings are, like cells, merely parts of a bigger aggregate, to whose survival they contribute, and all they feel and think is just a matter of illusion (a sort of Matrix scenario), then, as far as science is concerned, that’s it, and science should go on investigating humans by considering this new fact about their nature.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A question you ask with your life

From the Dhammapada verse on 'Old Age':

147. Behold this body — a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering — of which nothing is lasting or stable!
148. Fully worn out is this body, a nest of disease, and fragile. This foul mass breaks up, for death is the end of life.
149. These dove-colored bones are like gourds that lie scattered about in autumn. Having seen them, how can one seek delight?
150. This city (body) is built of bones, plastered with flesh and blood; within are decay and death, pride and jealousy.
151. Even gorgeous royal chariots wear out, and indeed this body too wears out. But the Dhamma of the Good does not age; thus the Good make it known to the good.

From the 'Sermon on the Mount'

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Spirituality is the search for what is beyond birth, death and decay; that is 'what your heart should treasure'.  It's no use asking whether anything of that nature exists, from a hypothetical or lounge-chair perspective; you have to engage yourself in the quest for it; that is what it takes to ask the question. It is a question you ask with your life

This can be easily differentiated from a 'naturalistic ethic', as anything in nature is, by definition, subject to birth, decay and death; whereas, in the realization of the 'true identity', one is seeking that which is beyond birth, decay and death.

The dharmachakra represents 'the means to navigate the ocean of existence towards the further shore of liberation'. The symbolism is that of the wheel of the vessel (yana) used to cross over the river of suffering.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Factual Basis of Idealism

(Originally posted 2007, edited and updated 2014.  Also previously posted in Philosophy Forums.)

According to evolutionary biology, homo sapiens is the result of billions years of evolution. For all these thousands of millions of years, our sensory and intellectual abilities have been honed and shaped by the exigencies of survival, through billions of lifetimes in various life-forms - fish, lizard, mammal, primate and so on - in such a way as to eventually give rise to the mind that we have today.

Recently, other scientific disciplines such as cognitive and evolutionary psychology have revealed that conscious perception, while subjectively appearing to exist as a steady continuum, is actually composed of a heirarchical matrix of thousand, or millions, of interacting cellular transactions, commencing at the most basic level with the parasympathetic system which controls one’s respiration, digestion, and so on, up through various levels to culminate in that peculiarly human ability of ‘conscious thought’ (and beyond, although this is beyond the scope of current science.)

Our consciousness plays a central role in co-ordinating these diverse activities so as to give rise to the sense of continuity which we call ‘ourselves’ - and also the apparent coherence and reality of the 'external world'. Yet it is important to realise that the naïve sense in which we understand ourselves, and the objects of our perception, to ‘exist’, is in fact totally dependent upon the constructive activities of our consciousness, the bulk of which are completely unknown to us.

When you perceive something - large, small, alive or inanimate, local or remote - there is a considerable amount of work involved in ‘creating’ an object from the raw material of perception. Your eyes receive the lightwaves reflected or emanated from it, your mind organises the image with regards to all of the other stimuli impacting your senses at that moment – either acknowledging it, or ignoring it, depending on how busy you are; your memory will then compare it to other objects you have seen, from whence you will (hopefully) recall its name, and perhaps know something about it ('star', 'tree', 'frog', etc).

And you will do all of this without you even noticing that you are doing it; it is largely unconscious.

In other words, your consciousness is not the passive recipient of sensory objects which exist irrespective of your perception of them. Instead, your consciousness is an active agent which constructs reality partially on the basis of sensory input, but also on the basis of an enormous number of unconscious processes, memories, intentions, and so on. And this is the way in which the ancient philosophy of 'idealism' does indeed recieve support from modern science.

"...this thing we call “the world” isn’t something wholly outside ourselves, something we experience in a detached and objective way. It’s something we create moment by moment in our minds, by piecing together the jumble of unconnected glimpses our senses give us—and we do the piecing according to a plan that’s partly given us by our biology, partly given us by our culture, and partly a function of our individual life experience.

That point is astonishingly easy to forget. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve watched distinguished scientists admit with one breath that the things we experience around us aren’t real—they’re just representations constructed by our sense organs and brains, reacting to an unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time—and then go on with the very next breath to forget all that, and act as though matter, energy, space, time, and physical objects exactly as we perceive them are real in the most pigheadedly literal sort of objective sense, as though the human mind has nothing to do with any of them except as a detached observer.  What’s more, many of those same scientists proceed to make sweeping claims about what human beings can and can’t know and do, in blithe disregard of the fact that these very claims depend on the same notion of the objective reality of the world of experience that they’ve just disproved."
John Michael Greer 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Being Real about Suffering

I had a discussion item posted on the NY Times in response to an opinion piece called 'Can Wanting to Believe Make Us Believers?', as follows:

I notice that this series of posts was predicated on the notion that religion is always a matter of belief. As a self-taught Buddhist convert from an Christian cultural background, I have learned that this seemingly basic assumption about what constitutes religion can be questioned.  
The basis of the Buddhist path is not whether there is an ominpotent but invisible deity, belief in whom is fundamental to our well-being, but observation of the verifiable fact of 'suffering and the cause of suffering'. 
It is worth reflecting that the derivation of 'orthodoxy' is from the Greek words for 'correct belief' (ortho doxa). The Buddhist point of departure is not belief, as such, but 'right view' or 'right understanding' (samma ditthi), which is similar, but also different in an important way. 
Anyway, this post is really not an advertisement for Buddhism, but an observation about how the question of 'belief' has become so central to the whole debate. So much hinges on this 'yes/no' response to the question 'does God exist'? And that question carries a lot of entailments and ramifications, over and above (for example) the teaching of Jesus to 'love one another'. 
Just something to think about.
Well, thinking about it some more, it occurs to me that one major obstacle for Christian believers is indeed 'the reality of suffering'.  Why? Because, the argument goes, if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, then why should there be suffering in the world? This seems to present a lot of problems to some people.

Personally I have never found it a convincing argument. My view is that there is suffering in the world, because of the way the world is; that is the nature of the world.  The worst suffering that I am aware of has been inflicted by people on others. Of course there are also natural disasters and epidemics; but Christians have always known the world was a 'vale of tears'. I thought the idea was: 'have faith, and in the end you will go to a better place, where there will be no tears whatever'.

But that is not the point I want to make. It is more about what Buddhism makes of suffering. Buddhism doesn't start from 'who made the world', which is at front and centre of the 'culture wars' about religion and science in Western culture (for instance in the question 'if God made the world, why is there so much suffering?')  Buddhism starts with the fact of dukkha, suffering  - unsatisfaction, you might call it. There is suffering - this is indisputable fact - and there is a cause for it - a cause which can be investigated and understood. So we need to learn to observe what is the cause, instead of having beliefs about something which might or might not exist.

This kind of direct observation is always applicable, without having to believe anything. Whenever I am in some kind of distress - at the moment, I'm in 'job distress' - there is the fact of dukkha, of suffering. Without trying to rationalise it or escape from it, you need to be aware of what the mind is doing in such a situation. All these thoughts come up - 'why me? Aren't I good enough? Will I ever find another job? Woe is me. I wish I had had another occupation' - and so on. This can be very distressing, obviously; despondency looms, it virtually stands next to you, saying things to you, like the proverbial 'black dog'. But part of me knows, these streams of words is also just thinking, just the activities of thought and the associated emotions. Actually it occurs to me that in some way I am the problem. 'Oh poor me'; I am so pre-occupied with myself. So I think if one has any meditative wisdom whatever, then you have to be able to not get drawn into those internal mental dramas, even though it is easy and natural to do so. You have to do whatever needs to be done in terms of finding work, but also be equanimous about not finding it. But most of all, you need not to let that black dog convince you of its reality.

Anyway, on a more philosophical note, that act of direct perception of the facts of one's mental and emotional state, and learning to maintain some kind of equanimity even when things are going to s***, is better than praying to an imagined deity and then asking why nothing seems to happen.  It is not a question of belief. It is based on the observation of the reality, and also on the ability to maintain some sense of detachment from it, by not being too caught up in your own dramas.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Values (and their absence) in modern thought

A common modern debate invariably begins with the view that 'science shows the Universe has no purpose'. That is of course a rather simplistic way of putting it, but the point remains that many who subscribe to what they would consider 'a scientific worldview' express this idea often. 

Take this snippet of dialogue from a Forum exchange:

(Me) I think the most basic philosophical question of all is 'why are we here?' Many will regard it as a meaningless question, others will already have worked out an answer to it. But two points I want to make are, first, the fact that we can ask this question is significant, because (to our knowledge) no other 'product of evolution' can do so. We are self-conscious, and aware that we live and will die. In this sense, we represent a unique point in the process of evolution: the point of self-awareness. We represent, if you like, where the whole process of evolution has become aware of itself.
So to ask this question is to wonder whether existence has any purpose. Is it solely what I make it? Is it to get rich quick? Is it to serve mankind? Do we live our threescore years and ten, and then vanish into eternal blackness?   And so on. These are all deep questions, with many possible answers. But this is not the question that the theory of evolution ever set out to answer.  So the fact of physical evolution does not really have anything to do with this question. But the fact that evolutionary biology doesn't ask, or answer, this question, ought not to be taken to mean that there isn't an answer, or that the question is not a serious question. And I think that is what is happening all the time in the background of this debate. I think that evolutionary scientists tend to belittle or dismiss any such questioning, because it is out of scope for the discipline. Then, this dismissal becomes a philosophical viewpoint in its own right: the viewpoint that whether there is purpose is not even a question.
(Responder) Evolution can in fact answer the question "Why are we here?":  to propagate as much of our genetic material as possible into the next generation.  Not very existentially satisfying, perhaps, but that is all evolution "cares" about.  Evolution doesn't preclude intelligent agents from devising their own goals and purposes -  it's just that such purpose and goals are not inherent to the evolutionary process.
Notice that the response actually affirms the very point I was making -  but without even understanding or acknowledging it! 'The evolutionary process' is, as an axiom, unintentional, undirected and blind. The fact that human intentions arise from that - are caused by it, in effect - introduces a dichotomy or division between (intentional) man and (unintelligent) nature. We can have our own aims, but because they don't reflect or correspond to anything in reality, they are subjective or at best social; they are not connected to anything in a greater reality.  That is the predicament of the materialistic mentality.  

Existentialist philosophers, like Camus, Sartre, Dostoevski, Nietszche and Kafka, all grasped the absurdity of this predicament and wrote books about it. But our apparently sophisticated modern thinkers don't even see it!  'To be, or not to be: what was the question?'  They may be 'scientifically literate'  - but they are essentially oafs. This also comes across in their insistence that people are animals (another axiom of theirs). In their view, life has no purpose other than 'my' goals and 'my' intentions; while this can be expanded to include social and civic aims there is no purpose beyond purposes that can be enacted in one's existence, or for the benefit of posterity; but nothing is transcendently or intrinsically good, or really simply 'good' in its own right and for its own sake. 

Goddess Prajnaparamita
Real Values

In contrast to relativism and subjectivism, the aim of a true philosophical spirituality is knowledge which is intrinsically good; it is to understand something, the very understanding of which is beneficial. The understanding itself becomes the aim; just to understand it is to be liberated by it, to the extent that you understand it. That is the nature of Prajñāpāramitā, supreme transcendent wisdom, in Buddhist philosophy (depicted iconographically at right.)


Monday, September 29, 2014

Western Buddhist Review of Mind and Cosmos

From review on online Buddhist journal: 
I think [Thomas Nagel's 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos] is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.  Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.  Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.

The Universe is Waking Up, Western Buddhist Review

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Secular but Not Materialist

After years of debates, reading, and meditation, I think I have decided that I am actually 'secular Buddhist' - but one that accepts the reality of re-birth, and who rejects the scientific materialism of Western culture. (Of course, as their rejection of re-birth is the main 'tenet of faith' of secular Buddhism, that puts me in the odd but somehow customary position of differing with all sides in the debate.)

I have also decided that whilst I am not atheist, I don't believe that God exists. But this is because, insofar as God is real, God is beyond existence, meaning, transcendent (as per this essay.) However, 'what is beyond' can also show up within existence, which is the meaning of 'transcendent yet immanent'. So 'what exists' is only one aspect of 'what is real', as I have explained in some of the earlier posts on this board. (To understand it, you have to understand metaphysics, and hardly anyone does, in my experience.) 

But generally, I don't say too much about God. 

I mainly agree with Buddhist philosophy, but overall, the approach I like best is that of the mid-20th century universalistic intepreters - Suzuki, Conze, Murti, Schterbatsky and others of that ilk.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

'Adharma' and Contemporary Society

After quite a few years of debating on philosophy forums, I have formed the view that few of the atheist critics of religion and spirituality have much insight into what it is they don’t believe in. Writing from the perspective as a kind of ’spiritual-but-not-religious’ practitioner of Buddhist meditation - although I am finding that the distinction is hard to maintain! -  I think there is a profound truth in this observation by E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) in a 1957 radio broadcast called The Insufficiency of Liberalism, about what he termed ‘the three stages of development’ in society:

The first great leap was made when man moved from Stage One of primitive religiosity to Stage Two of scientific realism. This is the stage modern man tends to be at. Then, he said, some people become dissatisfied with scientific realism, perceiving its deficiencies, and realize that there is something beyond fact and science. Such people progress to a higher plane of development which he called Stage Three. The problem was that Stage One and Stage Three looked exactly the same to those in Stage Two. Consequently, those in Stage Three are seen as having had some sort of relapse into childish nonsense. Only those in Stage Three, who have been through Stage Two, can understand the difference between Stage One and Stage Three 1

In all my debates, I encountered only a few who seemed to come from a ‘Stage Three’ perspective. There were some followers of the perennial traditions and those with an affinity for mystical spirituality or philosophical idealism in various forms. But the great  majority were scientific realists, who naturally assumed that any talk of higher truths was a throwback to religious literalism and fundamentalism. And they were so resolute, so absolute, in their rejection of ‘anything religious’ that it conditioned their response to any such ideas. Anything spiritual whatever was obviously, simply, a trojan horse for fundamentalism, or mysticism, which they seemed to detest just as much (whilst showing little comprehension of it. The aversion of analytical philosophy to 'mysticism' is so great that the term itself is a pejorative.)

A Straw God

From all this I have come to the view that anti-religion is a belief system. It is based on the firm and unswerving conviction that there is no God, and nothing that can be called ‘supernatural’. However those who advocate such views - and they are legion  - have very odd ideas about what might constitute Deity and the supernatural. They are generally very literalistic and concrete; Richard Dawkins frequently expresses incredulity about the notion of the 'super-complex being' that a God must be, on the basis that something that designs must be more complex than what it designs. Quite why this is mistaken then turns out to be impossible to explain, because such philosophical and theological notions as 'the divine simplicity' are impossible to describe or imagine.  And this is the case with virtually all the atheist depictions of Deity I have encountered - on account of which, I feel that if 'God' was as atheists depict God to be, then I would certainly be one of them. The God which Dawkins and others so vociferously insist could not exist, certainly does not; but, as David Bentley Hart points out, such a God never has existed, so Dawkins is effectively criticizing a 'straw God'.

Fingers Pointing at the Moon

There is a Buddhist idea that Buddhism itself - all the teachings, liturgy, sutras and commentaries, and everything else, are but ‘fingers pointing at the moon’. The Buddha points the way, but you have to walk it. Even Dharma must be abandoned in the end to say nothing of 'adharma'. 

However according to anti-religion, there is no moon, nothing to point at, no 'way' to traverse, and no such thing as ‘release’ or ’nirvana’.  There is only our momentary life in the world, book-ended between the non-existence that we have fortuitously and momentarily sprung forth from by entirely material processes. It follows from this that the only aims in life are utilitarian and technological - things which aid material comfort and well-being. Certainly there are intellectual and artistic aims, but these aren't related to the cosmic order - only to social, civic and personal aims and virtues. They are always ultimately subjective and relative. But if you point this out, they say 'What else is there?'

There is an asymettry in this: for the materialist, it is only about the denial of 'a belief', and furthermore one which has no 'empirical referent'; whereas, for the awakened, what is denied is a dimension of being-knowing-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is as real as the ground we stand on (or even more so, being the ground of the ground). So for the atheist, reality is simply the world of appearances, that is known, imperfectly, through the sciences and the senses, into which we are born, by chance, and from which we eventually disappear; whereas for anyone of whatever spiritual persuasion, this life is simply one chapter in the overall story, one facet of a larger whole. So from the atheist point of view, it is simply a matter of a false belief, whereas for the spiritual, what is at stake is the very nature of life itself. 

But it seems it can only be understood in terms of an archaic Sky-Father-God image by many people - both believers and atheists. So even if that is not what you mean, that is what they think you are talking about, and then they proceed say that you're irrational or retrograde for believing such a thing. (I'm sure that many theistic believers actually believe in something very similar to Jupiter, which is derived from the Indo-European word for 'Sky-Father'. After all 'Jehovah' and 'Jupiter' are very similar words, even if from completely different etymological roots. Although it ought also to be considered that this might be necessary at some stages of development. )

Poisoning the Well 

I think the main cause behind contemporary anti-religion goes back to the reaction against the influence of fundamentalism in the Christian mainstream. The shadows of Calvinism and the Inquisition and the related conflicts loom large in the Western psyche. It has poisoned the well, so to speak, and given rise to entire generations who are cut off from any sense of the spiritual. One of the last dialogues I had on Philosophy Forum was with a friendly contributor who could sort of see what I was getting at, but seemed to think it must always mean 'a return to the past' -  to the judgemental, inquisatorial Sky Father God and all the associated baggage. How to explain to him the 'bliss that comes from within'? Can it be explained? Maybe not, or maybe it no longer has anything to do with the subject of philosophy, which after all nowadays seems more and more to be 'talking about talking'. 

Inner Experience

Right now I am reading David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and finding it generally congenial to my outlook. There are some basic points of dogma that I don't go along with, but, having been awakened to some small degree by meditation, I now am more sympathetic to Christianity as a spiritual philosophy, than I ever could have been previously. (Although I still think there are perspectives that are missing from the way that both its advocates and opponents portray it. Some books I encountered which helped me to see alternative perspectives were Inner Christianity by Richard Smoley, and A Different Christianity, by Martin Amis; they both put a lot of emphasis on the path of meditation and are generally 'gnostic' in some sense.  The absence of that perspective of 'inner knowing' is what drove many people to Eastern spirituality, although I am now beginning to recognise the treasures of the tradition I was born into.)

The basic issue in all this is, that the aspect of spiritual philosophy that is important is concerned with a different way of being. It is not, as many atheists depict it, 'an hypothesis' about a being. Metaphysics requires metanoi - and 'metanoia' means 'change of mind' or 'change of heart'. This doesn't mean suddenly adopting a belief in a super-natural designer - whatever that might be! -  but discovering a different way of being, and the very different perspective that comes out of that.

That is why meditation puts a lot of emphasis on inner silence rather than on discursive thought.
The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.2

 'Always keep this don't-know mind'. That is the way to higher truth, which is actually and simply 'what is' when the monkey mind is in abeyance.

(This kind of understanding can be found in Christian teaching also, if you know where to look, but you generally wouldn't learn about it in Church.)

Fear of the Unknown

And I think another problem is that atheism projects a lot of unconscious fears onto religion rather than understanding that it is really about inner peace and understanding the nature of mind (as Buddhists would put it). Furthermore it does this unconsciously, that is, without really being aware of what it is doing and why. You can actually see this in the deep hostility that 'the new atheists' have towards religion - a real 'fear and loathing'. Hence also the long-standing aversion in analytical philosophy to metaphysics, which it disparages as 'woo'.

I think that this fear and loathing is a manifestation of the unconscious awareness of aspects of our own being - the unconscious, which is ambiguous, fluid, not subject to quantification, but at the same time foundational to existence. So there is the constant, relentless drive to 'prove' what 'the real ground of being' is, in terms of science, physics and quantifiable, external data - what can be made explicit, what can be made manifest and objectified. So whether it is 'the selfish gene' or the theory of the ultimate material entity, perhaps in some ways it is always the sublimated search for the immortal, for that which is beyond change, decay and death. But it has to be external, objective, 'out there somewhere', as people say nowadays -  that in terms of which everything else can be explained (on which point, see The Gospel of Scientific Materialism). But the very search itself has now overflowed, so to speak, the vast Universe itself, into many worlds and multiple universes - which is something for another post.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knowing Higher Truth

The point of spiritual teachings generally is enable the student to access higher truths and to realise their true nature. The idea of ‘higher truths’ is not recognised in modern analytical philosophy or science but is well understood in some forms of traditional philosophy and in Eastern practice-based religions.

Liberation or moksha is grounded in realising your ‘true identity’, real nature or Buddha-nature.   This is not something fixed or permanent in an external sense, in that it is never an object of cognition, as it is not something that one is ever apart from but is ‘that which knows’. But it is also not simply non-existent - those who think it is non-existent fall into the trap of nihilism. It is also not really your personality, although it will manifest in each individual in a unique way. But it is definitely beyond ego in the sense of beyond your day to day sense of who you are. 

(There are many rancorous disputes about this idea on Dharma forums. Many people insist that Buddhism teaches ‘there is no true self or higher self’. It is true that Buddhism generally doesn’t utilise such language. But the real meaning of ‘no-self’, anatta, is not ‘there is no self’ but that nothing has any self, ‘self’ being defined as ‘something that exists in its own right’ (‘svabhava’, self-originated or self-originating.) That applies to atoms as much as persons.)

But the idea of higher truths is also not much understood in Augustinian Christianity. In that tradition, all ideas of higher truths must conform to the dogmatic formulae within which salvation is dependent on ‘right belief’ (ortho-doxa) in Jesus.  However there are some Christian schools and teachings which recognise the concept of higher truths (see for instance Richard Rohr’s excellent Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)  But the Augustinian doctrine of ‘total depravity’ is, I think, dangerous and vitiating. The ‘grace’ that ‘saves’ is not the exclusive property of Christianity; it can’t be confined by doctrinal boundaries or sectarian creeds. In other words, it is not only available via religious channels, although to seriously engage with it requires a religious type of intent. 

You may begin to experience that grace whenever you start to meditate. It might not be described in such terms, because words like ‘grace’ - unfortunately! - now carry cultural baggage. But my early experiences with meditation were that just that - from sitting for 20 minutes, powerful experiences of bliss came along. Sometimes they were vivid, sometimes very quiet, but really there was a sense of an energy source or a source of light or joy within my own being.

And sometimes not! That is the meaning of ‘the wind blows were it lists’.  You can’t get attached to such experiences,  because they do come and go, and you have no ability to control them. They’re not ‘yours’, even if they are intimately connected to your very being.  But they are definitely real, not just whims and fancies. 

So we have to focus on realizing that higher truth here and now, even though we might have many hindrances and obstacles and habit-patterns that get in the way. That is what spiritual teaching is about, there is no other purpose to it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Meaning of Rebirth

There is a lot of debate in Western Buddhism about whether rebirth is real or not. Sometimes it is said that rebirth is an Indian religious belief, and not necessary for practicing dharma. However I am not so sure about that. I think the meaning of 'rebirth' is that 'so long as we identify with those things that are subject to birth and death, then we too are subject to birth and death'. When seen this way, rebirth seems a lot less fantastic, less like participating in an endless series of Hollywood films that many people seem to understand 'rebirth' to mean. It is more that we are then subject to all the sufferings of creatures bound to the wheel of birth, decay and death, and driven by instincts to keep struggling for survival.

We can't simply run away from that, however. It is not as if we can simply step out of that, even at the time of our death, because the latent tendencies will then re-form another existence which is also bound to the wheel of re-birth. It is not voluntary, it is out of our conscious control. I think that is why Buddhism stresses 'mindfulness' which is to understand these deep drives which power the 'wheel of life and death'. But that understanding is not a simple matter, it is not like having a relaxing time or being 'free from stress' in the way that worldly people understand. If it were like that, then simply being materially well-off and not having any emotional problems would be the same as liberation. But the Buddha teaches that, even though we might be lucky enough to be free of stress now, even for a whole lifetime (although very few are), at the end of that we are still subject to change and decay, and so still bound to the wheel of samsara, and so whatever favourable circumstances we have now will one day be lost.

So I think understanding 'freedom from rebirth' is not actually a matter of whether you believe in reincarnation or not. It has a deeper meaning than that. It is about whether you are of this world, part of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, change-and-decay, rising-and-falling, that everything in nature is subject to. Nowadays we seem to think that 'natural' is good and wholesome, yet it is the case that everything in nature is subject to decay and death, even if it is temporarily beautiful, young and vital.

There is something that is beyond change and decay, that is not subject to the constant cycle of birth and death. It is something always new, never perishing. That is what the Buddha found and points to. Living in the light of that, realizing what that is and making oneself available to it, is the aim of the Buddhist teaching. And that is not something that is taught very much in 'Western Buddhism'. Many 'Western Buddhists' can talk expertly and at length about subtle and abstruse concepts and quote passages from all kinds of texts. But in the absence of the understanding of the meaning of rebirth, 'nirvana' means simply being happy in this life, not having anything to worry about, being relaxed. It doesn't really have a deeper meaning. And so their idea of Buddhism supports that condition very well. But I think it's because they don't understand the meaning of rebirth.

May all beings realize the truth of re-birth in this human realm.