Showing posts with label metaphysics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label metaphysics. Show all posts

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.


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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.

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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Bell Curve of Normality

It is natural to assume that normality is an end in itself, or that the 'normal' mode of life is all that can be aspired to. People generally hold great stock in normality as a mode of being. But just because normality is our modus vivendi (way of life) does not make it our summum bonum (ultimate end.) Any religious person must realise that normality is simply a transitional state and not the end of life. You don't want to be subnormal, but the religious life calls you to be more than normal. It calls you to a state beyond the 'normal' concerns of the 'normal' life.

The way normal people worship fame and riches betrays the notion that, for them, 'normality' defines all our notions of reality and they can conceive of nothing beyond it. For being rich and famous - being a Star - is conceived of by the normal person as being the best thing that normality has to offer. Being A Star is the excellent version of normality, that to which all of us ordinary bourgeois individuals can only aspire. Stardom, or being rich and famous, is the Ultimate in Normality - it represents all of the things which normal people have and enjoy, but in more or less infinite supply and variety. Getting everything you want, in a world where getting what you want is the most important thing. Hence the paparazzi, and a large part of the 'normal' media. People are transfixed by it. They will kill for it. And because most people are normal, then naturally this is an enormous audience.

At this point I wish to introduce a different dimension to the human condition, that of the 'Self-Realised Individual' in the sense defined by the non-dualist schools of Indian philosophy. Now without going into the profound meaning of this term, let us just say that 'Self Realisation' is definitely not part of the normal condition of humanity. In other words, 'Self Realised Persons' are not 'normal persons'. The normal person is not self-realised, and the self-realised individual is not a normal person.

But self-realised individuals are not sub-normal. They are actually super-normal, they are outside the scope or realm of what we call 'normality'. Yet they are not mad, or psychotic, or degenerate. My thesis is, that if degrees of normality can be represented on the Bell Curve, then the self- realised individual is on the extreme right side of the curve.

So at the far left of the Bell Curve of normality are the sub-normal: psychotics, sociopaths, those who for one reason or another cannot live in 'normal' society (defined by Freud as 'the ability to love and to work').

Then you have the vast bell of the curve, 'normal people', moving, from the left, from those who are barely integrated, through the middle, where almost everyone you will ever know is, to the right of the bell curve, where those superbly integrated people are - commensurately few in number, of course.

Then, probably fewer in number than the psychopaths and sociopaths, are the Completely Integrated Humans, those who are as far above 'normality' as your psychopath is below it, on the extreme right of the bell curve. And I believe that the 'self-realized individual' is on this part of the curve.

Now it is important that those for whom normality is the summum bonum ought not to mistake the people on the far right for psychopaths. In other words, your scientists, scholars, and the like, for whom Normality is actually Normative, ought not to think that enlightened people are just mad. They need to know that, just as there are some people who fall far short of their understanding, on the left, there are those, few in number, who surpass it, on the right.

Self-realised individuals are indeed 'not normal' in the sense that they are not part of the world of normal convention and meaning. Yet it is a big mistake to believe they are 'deluded' or that their consciousness is the result of injury or pathology. This, of course, is what your materialists - Freud, Dawkins, and the like - must believe. Because a major part of materialism is to believe that normality is the summum bonum. You could almost say that materialism is the determined belief that Normal is Ultimate, and that there is nothing beyond it. So they have to believe that self-realised individuals are injured, psychopathic or damaged, because if they are not, their whole thesis is undermined.

Well - sorry. For those that have seen beyond it, normality is simply a set of shared conventions and beliefs, a familiar milieu within which we can all pursue our limited aims. And nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes. Normality beats schizophrenia and alienation any day. We do not want to fall short of normality.

But normality can also be surpassed. As far as the self-realised individual is concerned, our 'normality' is very similar to what us 'normal' people understand as the reality of psychopaths and schizophrenics. However, self-realised individuals are generally exceedingly compassionate and kind, and they generally won't cast aspersions on normal people or look down on us in any way. Rather, they will, as they have throughout history, gently, persistently, unfailingly, ceaselessly, remind us 'Normal People' that all the stuff we think is real, all the things we take for granted, are empty, unreal, phantasmagorical. They will attempt to help us, in exactly the same way that we attempt to help those among us who need guidance.

And so we all move along, through the bell curve of normality.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Life eternal - it's nothing personal

I am of the view that 'the eternal life' is a reality, and the central concern of all of the various spiritual faiths and philosophies. It is obviously central to the New Testament, but it is also represented in the Pali Canon, in passages such as these:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at the Eastern Gatehouse. There he addressed Ven. Sariputta: "Sariputta, do you take it on conviction that the faculty of conviction, when developed & pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal & consummation? Do you take it on conviction that the faculty of persistence... mindfulness... concentration... discernment, when developed and pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal and consummation?"

But 'the deathless' does not refer to the life of 'the person'. It is not as if the person, or the personality, is preserved for an infinite duration of time. There is a very real sense in which the 'eternal' is outside of time, not 'an interminable period of time'. This is altogether impossible for the mortal mind to envisage or imagine, however this is the realm that the Buddha has entered into.

Nirvana, for which 'The Deathless' is another name, is the extinction of the ego. This doesn't mean simple non-existence, but higher being. This is why the Buddha is called 'Tathagatha', 'gone thus'. That which is eternal is 'the supreme identity', the immortal spirit which is our real being - the buddha-nature, in some Buddhist traditions. Through discernment, as the Buddha says, this being can be realized, and when realized, then there is liberation from death through attaining an identity that is greater than that of the mortal body.

This is also expressed in Christianity, when Jesus said: 'He that looses his life for My sake will be saved' [Matt 16:25].  This was also exemplified in His own self-sacrifice.

You might say 'but this is a type of impersonal monism'. But just as the eternal is revealed in the particular, so the spirit is made real in the form of one who has transcended the ego. This is the universal message of the spiritual philosophies of the world.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Belief and Believing

I write as someone with a long-standing interest in religious and spiritual philosophies. I generally argue against materialism, which means I am usually understood as being 'religious'.  But I am also not aligned with mainstream religion, as my general philosophy is informed more by comparative religion and meditational practices.

The point of this post is to consider ideas about 'believing'. Nowadays it is just automatically assumed that if you're religious, you're 'a believer'. Religion and belief are practically the same thing in most people's minds. The main belief that religious people are supposed to have is that there is a God - and much else flows from that. This belief, furthermore, is understood to be something that can never be demonstrated to be true. So in the popular mind, religion is almost always assumed to amount to 'belief in something which can never shown to be real'. In fact, many people assume that this is what the word 'religion' means. They will often say, 'I don't have beliefs', meaning 'I am not religious'.

However through Eastern philosophies - manly Yoga-Vedanta, and Buddhism - there are different approaches to the whole question. These approaches are based on experience and insight. This insight comes about spontaneously for some people, but for others requires long periods of meditative discipline, along with reading, discussion, and contemplation. It is religious in a sense, but quite different to the above-mentioned belief-based approach.

In these types of schools, belief is certainly required, in that, you have to be willing to take the time to really go into the questions and do the practices. But what comes out of it is a realization. 'Realization' has two meanings: one is to 'understand something that has previously not been understood' and another is to 'make something real'.  Realization contains both meanings. Through it, we begin to understand something about the way things really are; and our way of living actually begins to reflect this understanding.

Another key difference with this approach is that, where belief is something that can be easily manipulated through organisational power structures, individual realization is quite an autonomous process. In other words, if you can become established in it, you really can become a light unto yourself, rather than someone who is dependent upon a dogmatic belief system to give them a sense of identity and direction. This has a lot of implications for the way 'religion' is conducted in the world. In fact, I think the whole tendency of the 'Eastern' approach is about empowering the individual search for truth, rather than subordinating the individual to the organisational dogma.

The Case of Fr Anthony de Mello is an interesting illustration of this. A Jesuit and psychotherapist, Fr De Mello became an inspirational spiritual teacher and wrote many popular books on the spiritual path. He thought himself part of the Catholic Faith, however his books were subject to caution - short of outright condemnation - by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be known as 'the Inquisition'.) The caution was based on the fact that Fr De Mello's ecumenical and universalistic approach was incompatible with Catholic dogma. Nevertheless, his books remain popular with progressive Catholics.


There are have been thousands of such cases, and not only in Catholicism.  Most of the antagonism against religion is directed against dogmatic and authoritarian institutions. So it is interesting to reflect that there is a kind of 'natural spirituality' that is not part of any particular religious structure or authority. This also shows up Dzogchen, Zen, and Sufism, among other things. So it is important if you want to understand the wider spectrum of spiritual philosophy, to understand that it is not at all simply a matter of believing what you're told. The Great Way is broad enough to accomodate many different types of seekers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Nothing that is Everything

I have been a long-time meditation practitioner, for around 30 years. (In itself, that is no big deal, when anyone gets to my age they will have been doing a lot of things for 30 years.) But I have stuck with this practice, and it has changed the way I see the world - for the better. The nature of this change is very simple. But it is a real shift in perspective, which has many interesting consequences for philosophy.

Different Cognitive Modes

Meditation gives rise to a different mode of cognition. What is 'a mode of cognition'? I think the term was actually coined by Edward Debono, with his well-known technique of the Six Thinking Hats

This is a planning tool where you look at a problem from a number of different perspectives:
* Information: (White) - considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
* Emotions (Red) - instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
* Bad points judgment (Black) - logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch (and so on).

Now in many arguments with proponents of scientific philosophy, I notice that they and I are actually talking from different premisses - or wearing different hats.  The meditative attitude actually creates a different way of processing information - literally a different way of thinking. It is not about a set of scientific hypothesis, but about a different way-of-being. So we are not actually arguing or debating at all, but talking from 'different worlds'.

A consequence of meditative awareness is dissolution of the sense of separate self or ego. But this is a subtle thing. It gives rise to a different kind of thinking and being-in-the-world which gives rise to a sense of peace, contentedness and also relatedness.

(There has been a lot of research done on it, and 'effects of meditation' are measurable and specific, in terms of brain-wave patterns, and parts of the brain associated with compassion and holistic ways-of-being. I will provide some links if anyone is interested.)

So - what's the point? The point is this style of thinking gives rise to a very different way of relating to the world. Fundamentally, it is much more oriented around a kind of subtle emotional connection to life, rather than analytical problem-solving skills. This is not to disparage the analytical style of thinking, because it is essential for many tasks. But the analytical mind can't actually operate in this 'cognitive mode'. In fact the analytical mind doesn't even comprehend this other mode; it appears as nothing to it.

As a consequence, in many debates I am trying to get a point across about 'the nature of being'. One of the philosophical consequences of meditation, and the absence of a separate self, is that fact that we are basically all one, in the sense that I am no different and not separate from others. I can 'stand in their shoes' to some extent. This is very much associated with Buddhist meditation, in particular, but it subtly changes your appreciation of the nature of being itself.

This 'mode of being', however, is not anything objective. It can't be located anywhere or found through analytical thinking. Essentially one begins to realize that this being is 'never an object'. But analytical thought can only think in terms of objects. For it, nothing exists but objects, and if it can't be described in objective terms, well, then, it isn't there. Simply doesn't exist - you're talking about nothing.

But actually, once you understand it, it is 'the nothing that is everything' - and it is a marvellous thing.

"It is not existent - even the Victorious Ones do not see it.
It is not nonexistent - it is the basis of all samsara and nirvana.
This is not a contradiction, but the middle path of unity.
May the ultimate nature of phenomena, limitless mind beyond extremes, be realised."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Necessity of Dharma

One meaning of Dharma is 'duty'. It is what calls upon us, what leads us to do what may not be easiest, most convenient, or most pleasurable, but which is most important.

A life well lived requires sacrifice, something which causes you to overcome your own selfish impulses and serve the greater good. Dharma is that principle. Without such a principle, how can you guide your actions? Dharma is like the thread on which all of the moments of your life are suspended, to create a coherent shape.

People may be cynical about religion, but what principle will they replace it with, if they get rid of it? Certainly one's inherited drives do not often carry you towards the best of all possible outcomes. Why bother doing good, or being good, if there is no good? 

I think this is why the teaching about Dharma always calls for a lot of effort. Left to one's own wishes and devices, one is likely to pursue pleasure and comfort, rather than what is most needed. Simple fact, but important.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Traps of the Neo-Advaita

How easily can the Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta be separated from the spiritual culture within which it was developed? Is it possible to take the Indian philosophical idea of ‘advaita’, translate it as ‘non-dualism’, and then promote it as a ‘cognitive skill’ which is freely, and instantly, available to anyone who is able to ‘get it’?

The original exemplars of Advaita (and Advaya, its Buddhist equivalent) were, on the whole, monastic renunciates, or sannyasin, living in a pre-modern culture. They were generally practitioners of Indian spiritual disciplines which by modern standards were extremely austere. Being renunciates, sannyasins would generally give away all of their possessions, shave their heads, and live only on what was provided by the community. Some would live on the outskirts of villages, or in seclusion in caves and forests; others, in religious communities and ashrams. In either case, their behaviour was governed by strict observance of the Yamas and Niyamas, ethical laws and maxims which require abstinence from sexual relations, intoxicants, and also non-stealing, non-harming, and so on.

It was in this cultural milieu that the philosophical teachings and meditational practices of both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta were developed. And, as their adherents point out, they have been handed down both orally and by way of sacred texts for more than two millennia in India, China and much of the rest of Asia.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Eastern Philosophy has become a big business. Books, retreat centres, the ‘spiritual speakers circuit’, workshops and seminars and the like have become an industry in their own right. Within this context, there is a lot of demand for enlightenment ‘to go’, something which you can download and webcast and imbibe and benefit from without the burdensome requirements of austerity and yamas and niyamas. In other words, keep the fun bit - enlightenment, conceived as Permanent Happiness - while jettisoning all the archaic, ‘superstitious’, ‘tradition-bound’ attitudes to sexuality and morality and discipline. Nirvana, pursued in the foyers of hotels and office blocks and exhibition centres, in lifestyle talk shows and suburban yoga classes.

Within this milieu, non-dualism has become an important franchise. Go to Amazon and type in non-dualism - you will get almost a thousand books. And many of them say more or less the same thing. I won’t repeat it here, but it was nearly all anticipated by Alan Watts in the 1950’s and 60’s. (And it is sad to note, but perhaps prophetic as well, that Watts was not a shining exemplar of non-dualism in practice, despite his brilliant writing and insight. Drink was a major contributor to his early death - may he rest in peace. )

Far be it from me to disparage the core tenets of non dualism, or the brilliance of Alan Watts. I am a Believer (or rather, an aspiring practitioner, as it really is a skill rather than a dogma). What is bothering me, however, is this idea that you can cut straight to the Chase, without engaging in the Quest.

Everyone who wants to learn this teaching needs to engage in the Quest. And what is the Quest? 'A Quest' is asking a Question, but asking it with your whole life, with your whole being. Living the question, not just idly riffing through a book or two and saying ‘I wonder’... The Quest is the search for truth, and betting your life on the outcome. For if you are interested, you really do need to search. This is what the Sannyasi leaves hearth and home for. Believe me, they put up with a lot of suffering for which you would pay considerably more than the price of a book or a seminar to avoid.

Now at a certain point, it may become clear that you need search no longer. As it has been said, ‘seek and you will find’, as well you might. But you must seek. I think the idea that you can pick up one of these neo-Advaita books from Amazon, read it, and be forever liberated is quixotic at best. I mean, How is your life? Do you like to smoke the odd joint? Do you like a drink? Have relationship problems? Is your subconscious utterly purified of emotional reactions stemming from your past life (= ‘vasanas’)? Has this book you’re reading caused you to ask these questions of yourself?


These points are also discussed in this essay.

I am no 'holier than thou'. I too wrestle with these things. It is all I can do to maintain a very basic discipline and commit to a regular meditation. (And the ‘dry work of meditation’ is always easily criticized. 'Routine', 'mechanical', and so on. But it seems all I am capable of.)

I would be interested to know, of the buyers of these non-dualist titles on Amazon, how many are actually able to follow through with the radical implications of this non-dualist teaching. Hopefully, many will find their lives transformed by it. I hope so. The purpose of these teachings are to transform your life and if you do indeed 'get it', then that outcome is inevitable. On the other hand, this too can just become a thicket of delusion within which anyone can guess that they are 'already enlightened' and nothing further is required. I suppose from the viewpoint of book sales, it doesn't matter much. But if you care about the outcome, it matters a great deal.