Thursday, 22 March 2018

Computationalism: the Threat to Buddhism in China

In a recent comment on the article on intentionality,  a Buddhist from China states that 'Currently, Chinese Buddhism, traditionally a bastion of Mahayana, is booming but also undergoing tremendous intellectual challenge from computationalist philosophies (similar to the issues you addressed in some of your other posts)..'

So we Buddhists need to disprove computationalism,  (aka the 'Computational Theory of Mind), which 'holds that the mind is a computation that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine...  So the computational theory of mind is the claim that the mind is a computation of a machine (the brain) that derives output representations of the world from input representations and internal memory in a way that is consistent with the theory of computation'.

Computationalism is a form of materialism (in fact is the logical foundation of all forms of materialism, but more of that later). It denies any spiritual or transcendental dimension to human life. Everything is mechanistic.

The popularity of the Computer Theory of mind seems to be linked to the intensity of hype surrounding Artificial Intelligence.  We are currently going through the peak of another Artificial Intelligence (AI) hype cycle (an 'AI summer').   AI-hype assures us that computers are now so powerful that machine simulation of the human mind is imminent (as it has been for the past 60 years).  

Hype and reality

These AI-hype bubbles seem to occur every decade. In the 1950's the hype was about 'electronic brains' which could do dozens of calculations per second and would soon surpass humans in all mental functions. Then in the sixties, computers were on the verge of being able to understand human language, enabling true nuanced translation between languages, rather than clunky word-substitution. 

In the seventies, the microprocessor revolution was predicted to enable  massively parallel brain-emulators to be built, bringing about the long-promised AI revolution.  The eighties were the decade of expert systems, which would replace human technical and medical professionals by omniscient computers. 

In the nineties, we were assured that neural nets would at last provide the solutions to the failures of previous hype cycles.  In the noughties, the interconnection of millions of computers via the internet would finally give enough power to produce a global brain to surpass the human mind, and solve the problems that neural nets couldn't.  The current decade's hype cycle concerns robotics, which promises us that connecting computers to sensors and actuators will at last solve the Hard Problem  and lead to true artificial sentience, within a year or two at the very most - and this time it's really going to happen!

Although 'AI-hype' and 'computationalism' aren't totally synonymous, there is a close relationship (known as 'strong AI').  To see why AI always fails to deliver, and computationalism is a non-starter, and always has been, and always will be, we need to consider the following factors:

Computationalism implies that all mental processes can be modeled by suitable combinations of the the members of the instruction set of a general purpose computer, the instruction set being functionally identical to a Turing Machine (TM).     

So, if we can demonstrate any functions and activities of the mind which are beyond the capabilities of a Turing Machine (and hence all its derived instruction sets), then we have demolished the foundations of all forms of computationalism*.

When we examine the components of the TM in detail, we find that none of them...

(i) are capable of holding meaning. They do not possess any semantic capabilities, or 'intentionality' to use the technical term.

(ii) are capable of registering qualitative states ('qualia') such as sensations of pleasure, pain etc.

And when we check the basic repertoire of operations that the TM can carry out (and the derived and hence equivalent instruction-sets of general purpose computers) we fail to find any combination of these operations that can operate on the components to produce semantic or qualitative phenomena.  Thus two major functions of the sentient human mind are beyond the capabilities of machines.  These arguments are explained in more detail here, here, here and here.

This is why the Mother of all Algorithms is itself NOT an algorithm, and never could be programmed.

Tail wagging the dog?
The Turing Machine was, and is, an object of consciousness, a mathematical thought-experiment  first imagined by Alan Turing. For many years it remained just that - a mathematical structure with no physical instantiation, existing only in the minds of theoreticians.

Computationalism claims ontological primacy for this disembodied object of the mind, making it more basic than everything else, including the inventiveness that first created it.  The computationalists claim (explicitly or implicitly) that the Turing Machine is the foundation of consciousness, yet the TM is itself a product of consciousness. 

Buddhists would believe that there is a phenomenon even more fundamental than the TM, since the TM is an object arising out of thought.  That more fundamental phenomenon is the experience of creating, imagining and thinking about the TM in the first place.    

As the Kadampas put it: 

'..If we check, we can see that we cannot in fact separate out the objects of our thoughts from the thoughts or awarenesses holding them, any more than we can separate out a wave from an ocean or a reflection in a mirror from the mirror itself. There is no such thing as an object not known by mind, which is the definition of object, “known by mind”.

Can you even think of an object that is not known by mind? There is no world outside of our experience of the world. What is going on for you right now, for example, is your experience of what is going on – if you go looking, you cannot find anything going on out there. Your whole world cannot be separated out from your experience of the world – you cannot point to any world outside of your experience of it. As soon as you do, you’re experiencing it.

Waves are the nature of the ocean, not outside the ocean. Appearances are the nature of the mind, not outside the mind...'

Demolishing all forms of materialism
The Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle (CTDP) states that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process.

If the CTDP is true (and it's never been disproved) and computationalism is false (which seems to be the case) then all other physicalist and materialist theories of the mind are consequently false.  It follows that the non-computationalist mind exists outside the scope of the CTD, and hence it is outside the scope of all physical, mechanistic and material theories, no matter how they may be expressed.  By defeating computationalism we have removed the foundation of  all other physical/materialist explanations of the mind.

* Turing machines and instruction sets
Turing completeness is the ability of a system of instructions to simulate a Turing machine. A programming language that is Turing complete is theoretically capable of expressing all tasks accomplishable by computers  

In computability theory, a system of data-manipulation rules (such as a computer's instruction set, a programming language, or a cellular automaton) is said to be Turing complete or computationally universal if it can be used to simulate any Turing machine.

Although physical TMs can be built, they are generally demonstrated to students in the form of emulations using standard programing languages.     Hence, it works both ways,
TMs can emulate computer instruction sets, and computer instruction sets can emulate TMs.  

It's quite remarkable just how few instructions are required to provide full and complete computing capabilities - fewer than twenty:  SET, MOVE, READ, WRITE, ADD, SUBTRACT, MULTIPLY, DIVIDE, AND, OR, XOR, NOT,  SHIFT, ROTATE, COMPARE, JUMP, JUMP-CONDITIONALLY, RETURN

Increasing the power of a computer cannot expand its functionality beyond this instruction set, since any general purpose computer can simulate any other computer, albeit slowly.  Hence if machine sentience ('strong AI') were indeed possible, it could have been demonstrated in the 1950's!  Throwing newer, faster more powerful hardware at the problem won't produce any fundamental breakthrough in functionality, just as increasing the working temperature, spin-speed and capacity of your washing machine won't suddenly make it capable of mowing the lawn.

See also Buddhist Philosophy,  Why Materialism is Crap 

SWOT Analysis - Strengths. Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to Buddhism

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Two Enlightenments - Buddha and Voltaire

Image result
Enlightenment Values  (Not applicable in Scotland)

From The Public Domain Review     
by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

"...It would not be until well into the nineteenth century that European scholars, all sons of the Enlightenment, sought to turn the founders of religions from gods into men, to separate their precepts from church doctrine. For Jesus and the Buddha, this transformation entailed not debasement but exaltation... Over the course of the nineteenth century, the European portrayal of Buddhism underwent a profound metamorphosis: from a form of idolatry practiced by pagans, to a religion, and a world religion, finally to something beyond the category of religion...

Read it all

See also  The Rational Basis of Buddhism 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Nagarjuna, Gödel’s Theorem and Russell’s Paradox

Unconventional knowledge
by Kenichi Morita

Distinguishing between “conventional computing” and “unconventional computing” is not so easy, since the notion of unconventional computing is rather vague. Some scientist may want to give a rigorous definition of it. But, if he or she does so, then unconventional computing will become less attractive. The very vagueness of the concept stimulates one's imagination, and thus is a source of creation.

In this short essay, related to such a problem, we consider thinking styles of the West and the East. We examine several possibilities of ways by which we can recognize various concepts in the world, and acquire enlightenment from the nature. At first, we begin with the two categories of knowledge in Buddhism. They are “discriminative knowledge” and “non-discriminative knowledge” (however, as we shall see below, discrimination between “discriminative knowledge” and “non-discriminative knowledge” itself is not important at all in Buddhism). Although it is very difficult to explain them, in particular  non-discriminative knowledge, by words, here we dare to give some considerations on them.

Discriminative knowledge is just the set-theoretic one. Namely, it is a knowledge acquired by classifying things existing in the world.  For example, the discriminative knowledge on “cat” is obtained by distinguishing the objects that are cats from the objects that are not cats. Therefore, what we can argue based on discriminative knowledge is a relation among the sets corresponding to various concepts, e.g., the set of cats is contained in the sets of animals, and so on. Knowledge described by an ordinary language (or a mathematical language like a logic formula) is of this kind, since “words” basically have a function to distinguish certain things from others.

Non-discriminative knowledge, on the other hand, is regarded as the true wisdom in Buddhism. But, it is very difficult to explain it in words, since words can be used for describing discriminative knowledge. Therefore, the only method by which we can express it is using a negative sentence like “Non-discriminative knowledge is not a knowledge that is obtained by distinguishing certain things from others.”

Actually, non-discriminative knowledge is recognized neither by words, nor by thinking, nor by act. Moreover, it is not even recognizable. This is because all acts such as recognizing, thinking, and explaining some objects necessarily accompany discrimination between the self (i.e., actor) and the object. In Buddhism, everything is empty, i.e., it has no reality in the world in its essence. Hence, there is nothing to be discriminated, and there is a truth that can be gotten without discriminating things. Furthermore, such a truth (non-discriminative knowledge) itself is also empty, and thus does not exist. It may sound contradictory, but this is caused by explaining it by ordinary words.

There is no doubt that discriminative knowledge brings practical convenience to our daily life. Today's science also relies on discriminative knowledge. There, objects to be studied are clearly identified, and their properties are described precisely. By this, science brought us a great success. However, discrimination is considered as a kind of “biased view” in Buddhism. Thus, we should note that such a knowledge is a “relative” one. Namely, when we state a scientific truth, we can only say like “If we assume a certain thing is distinguishable from others based on some (biased) viewpoint, then we can conclude so-and-so on it.” We should thus be careful not to overestimate the descriptive power of languages.

It is well known that from the end of 19th century the foundation of mathematics has been formalized rigorously with the utmost precision. It is, of course, based on discriminative knowledge. However, at the same time, problems and limitations of such a methodology were also disclosed. A paradox by Bertrand Russell on the set theory is the most famous one, which first appeared in Nachwort of the Frege's book (Frege, 1903). Russell's paradox is as follows:

Let R be the set of all sets each of which does not contain itself as a member.

Is R a member of itself or not? In either case, it contradicts the definition of R.

Due to this paradox, the naive set theory had to be replaced by some sophisticated ones such as the type theory. The incompleteness theorem by Kurt Gödel (1931) also shows a limitation of a formal mathematical system. He proved that in every formal system in which natural numbers can be dealt with, there exists a “true” formula that cannot be proved in this system. He showed it by composing a formula having the meaning  “This formula is unprovable.”

Nagarjuna is a Buddhist priest and philosopher who lived in India around 150 - 250 AD. He is the founder of Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, where he developed the theory of emptiness. In his book Vigrahavyavartani (The Dispeller of Disputes) (Westerhoff, 2010), he pointed out “very logically” that false thinking will be caused by relying only on discriminative knowledge. This book is written in the following form. First, philosophers of other schools who believe every concept has a substance (here, we call them philosophical realists) present objections against those of Madhyamaka school. Then, Nagarjuna refutes all of them.

While philosophers of Madhyamaka school assert every concept has no substance (but they assert “nothing” as we shall see below), the opponents (philosophical realists) say as follows (Westerhoff, 2010):

If the substance of all things is not to be found anywhere, your assertion which is devoid of substance is not able to refute substance. (Verse 1)

Moreover, if that statement exists substantially, your earlier thesis is refuted. There is an inequality to be explained, and the specific reason for this should be given. (Verse2)

Nagarjuna says:

If I had any thesis, that fault would apply to me. But I do not have any thesis, so there is indeed no fault for me. (Verse 29)

To that extent, while all things are empty, completely pacified, and by nature free from substance, from where could a thesis come? (Commentary by Nagarjuna on Verse 29)

That is, without saying “all things are empty,”all things are empty by nature, and hence the Nagarjuna's assertion itself is also empty.

We can see that the observation “If all things are empty, then the assertion ‘all things are empty’ cannot exist” resembles the second incompleteness theorem:

“If a formal system in which natural numbers can be dealt with is consistent, then consistency of the system cannot be proved in the system” by Gödel (1931).

However, methodologies for obtaining the above observations are quite different. In the former case, non-discriminative knowledge played the crucial role, and thus the observation itself is again empty.

Nagarjuna launches a counterattack against philosophical realists, who claim “all things have substances", by the following objection:

The name “non-existent” what is this, something existent or again non-existent? For if it is existent or if it is nonexistent, either way your position is deficient. (Verse 58)

It is clear that the above argument is analogous to Russell's paradox. By this, Nagarjuna pointed out that philosophical realists who rely only on discriminative knowledge have a logical fault. However, as stated in Verse 29, Nagarjuna asserts nothing in his book.

It will be reasonable to regard discriminative knowledge as conventional knowledge. Then, how is non-discriminative knowledge? Although this kind of knowledge has been argued by philosophers and Buddhists for a very long time, we can say neither conventional nor unconventional. Probably, it is meaningless to make such a distinction. Instead, we consider a question: Can we use non-discriminative knowledge for finding a new way of scientific thinking, and for giving a new methodology of unconventional computing? Since current scientific knowledge is very far from non-discriminative knowledge, it looks quite difficult to do so. However, it will really stimulate our imagination, and may help us to widen the vista of unconventional computing.

I have been studying reversible computing and cellular automata (Morita, 2008) for more than 30 years. Through the research onthese topics, I tried to find novel ways of computing, and thus I think they may be in the category of unconventional computing. Besides the scientific research, I was interested in Buddhism philosophy. In 1970's and 80's, I read Japanese translations of several sutras and old texts of Buddhism. They are, for example, Prajnaparamita Sutra (Sutra of Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom), and Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra (Vimalakirti Sutra), as well as Vigrahavyavartani (The Dispeller of Disputes). All of them discuss emptiness of various concepts and things in the world, but assert nothing. I was greatly impressed by these arguments, which themselves are empty. Although my research results are, of course, given in the form of discriminative knowledge, and thus in the purely Western style, I think such a thought somehow influenced me on my research when exploring new ways for unconventional computing.

Read the full article here 

See also

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Hedonic Treadmill and Buddhist Psychology

The 'Hedonic Treadmill' is a phrase I came across while reading the excellent book Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright *.   The phrase succinctly summarises what I expressed rather more clumsily in a previous post:

'Dukkha is sometimes translated as suffering, but in actual fact encompasses all senses of unsatisfactoriness, even including pleasure (which evolution has contrived will always be a transient sensation - lest it detract too much from the grim business of survival).'  
As Wiki explains 'The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" (1971). During the late 1990s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist, to become the current "hedonic treadmill theory" which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place.'

Or, as the Kadampas would say: 'Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive, Give no contentment, only torment.'  

* In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright  demonstrates how Buddha, living 2500 years ago, discovered mental processes, especially those causing delusions, which have only recently been confirmed scientifically by evolutionary psychologists.

See also

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain

Dukkha, Dawkins, Darwinism and the Selfish Gene

Can you debiologize your mind? And if you do will anything remain?

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Significance of Alan Turing

All physical systems can be modeled and simulated by the actions of a logical structure known as the universal Turing Machine.  If we can demonstrate any functions and activities of the mind which are beyond the capabilities of a Turing Machine then we have produced strong evidence that the mind is a non-physical entity. 
The challenge of materialism

The main intellectual challenge to Buddhism nowadays is materialism. There are other challenges, but they could hardly be described as intellectual.   Materialism comes in various flavors, but its bottom line is the claim that the mind is nothing more than the physical activities of the mechanism of the brain. This, of course, invalidates Buddhism and indeed all other spiritual paths. In this view, spirituality, ethics, art etc are just by-products of purely mechanistic processes.

So Buddhism, being a philosophically justified system rather than one based on blind faith, needs to refute materialism by logical argument. This is where Alan Turing comes in.  Although Turing is nowadays best known as a computer pioneer, code-cracker and victim of the British establishment's vicious homophobia, he first attained prominence as a philosopher of mathematics.

Negating the mechanistic model of mind
One of the methods used in Buddhist philosophy to refute erroneous views is to identify the 'Object of Negation'  This approach consists of  obtaining a precise definition of the assertion which is to be refuted, and then demolishing it by analyzing its contradictions and inadequacies. Such an object of negation is provided by the Turing Machine as a model for the mind.

The Turing Machine (TM) is a logical/mathematical structure, a kind of thought-experiment, which doesn't necessarily need to implemented as an actual physical machine to be of use for philosophy.

The first advantage of using the Turing Machine for philosophical discussion is its great precision and clear definition. We find it difficult to refute 'materialism' and its more modern variant 'physicalism', not because of the strengths of the arguments for them, but because of their fuzziness and incoherence. The definitions of matter and physics are, when examined in detail, surprisingly vague and imprecise.  On the other hand, the Turing Machine gives a precise definition of 'mechanism', in the philosophical sense of the fundamental basis of physical actions.

The second advantage of using the TM model is the all-encompassing generality of the Turing machine as the model for all physical systems.   It is the mother of all mechanisms, the archetypal computer and the basic method of implementing all algorithms. All the apps on your phone and tablet are Turing Machines. All physical systems may be simulated by appropriately programmed Turing Machines.

However, when we examine the components of the TM in detail, we find that none of them...

(i) are capable of holding meaning. They do not possess any semantic capabilities, or 'intentionality' to use the technical term.

(ii) are capable of registering qualitative states ('qualia') such as sensations of greenness,  pleasure, pain etc.

And when we check the basic repertoire of operations that the TM can carry out (which corresponds to the instruction-set of a general purpose computer) we fail to find any combination of these operations that can operate on the components to produce semantic or qualitative phenomena.  In Buddhist terminology the Turing Machine is all rupa and no nama.   It cannot produce two of the main aspects of sentience.


The archetypal physical mechanism of the Turing Machine cannot of itself produce mental phenomena.  If we want to completely explore the mind, we need to look elsewhere in addition to the physical, mechanistic structure of the brain.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Rational Basis of Buddhist Philosophy

"It is natural that doubt should arise in your minds.

I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it.
But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it."

- The Buddha


Buddhism is founded on two fundamental observations, from which the rest of the philosophy is derived. These two basic premises are:

(i) The underlying nature of reality is process and change, rather than stable entities.

(ii) Processes can be divided into two categories -  mental processes and physical/mechanistic processes (nama and rupa) .

Although mental processes and physical processes interact, mental processes are not reducible to physical processes.

According to Buddhism, the basis of reality consists of ever-changing processes rather than static ‘things’.  If any ‘thing’ is analysed in enough depth, and observed over a long enough timescale, it can be seen to be a stage of a dynamic process, rather than a static, stable thing-in-itself. 

This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself a process (a continuing  expansion from the Big Bang), and so all that it contains are subprocesses of the whole.

The Rationality of Buddhism
Of course most religions don't like having their basic tenets subjected to searching analysis, and Jihadism has abandoned reason altogether, to the extent that you're likely to get your head chopped off for being too rational.
But Buddhism is different. In the Kalama Sutra, Buddha said that all religious teachings, including his own should...

(1) Not be believed on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology by personal experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.


Reason versus revelation
One advantage of establishing a rational basis for Buddhism is that it gives Buddhism an 'intellectual respectability' at a time when the intellectual prestige of other religions is in steep decline, due to increasing obscurantism, which takes variety of forms varying from creationist anti-science to outright terrorism.

This 'intellectual respectability' also may help to prevent Buddhism being hit by collateral damage from increasing prejudice against all religions resulting from jihadist aggression.

Most religions contain some 'revealed doctrines' or 'dogmas', which were revealed long ago to one person or a few people, and then not to any others.

In all religions other than Buddhism, these ancient, unprovable, unrepeatable revelations are fundamental articles of faith on which the rest of the belief-system is constructed.

In contrast, Buddhism's fundamental doctrines are accessible to reason and investigation in terms of shared, repeatable, reproducible experience... full article


Friday, 19 January 2018

Sentience, suffering, and the futile quest for homeostasis

The first priority of all living organisms is to maintain a steady state, known as homeostasis - the regulated stability of structures, organs and internal systems that allows life to continue.

All living things need to protect and maintain a minimum functioning structure to survive.    An animal deprived of functioning limbs, or a plant deprived of leaves, will soon die. 

Metabolic homeostasis

In addition, all organisms need to regulate a complex set of interacting metabolic chemical reactions. 

From the simplest unicellular organisms to the most complex plants and animals, internal processes operate to keep conditions within tight limits to allow these reactions to proceed. Homeostatic processes act at the level of the cell, the tissue, and the organ, as well as for the organism as a whole.  
Maintenance of homeostasis requires a continuing input of energy in the form of food for animals, and sunlight for plants.   If the energy needed to maintain homeostasis exceeds the energy input, the organism will die once its reserves are exhausted.  In terms of energy expenditure, you’ve got to keep running just to stay still.

In addition to maintaining structural integrity and metabolic stability, a juvenile organism will have a secondary priority to grow, and an adult organism a secondary priority to reproduce.  But without homeostasis, these secondary aims cannot be achieved.

Conscious and unconscious homeostasis.
Non-sentient organisms, such as plants and bacteria, maintain homeostasis by purely mechanistic processes, using automatic feedback in the same way that a centrifugal governor mechanism maintains a steady speed for a steam engine.    Even in sentient animals, many homeostatic processes are unconscious, and we have no awareness of their operations.

Automatic feedback mechanism

But the game completely changes when sentience comes into the picture.  Two non-mechanistic factors come into play - qualia and intentionality - which allow far more adaptive homeostatic control strategies than purely automatic feedback loops.

Qualia (singular quale) are qualitative experiences including experiences of suffering such as  thirst, hunger, fear, pain and so on.

Intentionality is the property of being ‘about’ something, of having 'an intentional object'.

So the quale of thirst forces the mind to become obsessively intentional about water, the quale of hunger forces the mind to become similarly intentional about food, and the qualia of  pain and fear force the mind to become intentional about avoiding the causes of these unpleasant sensations (objects of aversion).

Did sentience evolve, or was it co-opted?
Now the interesting thing is that neither qualia nor intentionality are physical phenomena (as was first pointed out by the Victorian physicist John Tyndall 140 years ago).  Neither are they in any sense mechanistic phenomena.

Consequently, there is no known process by which sentience could have arisen by Darwinian evolution.  Evolution can account for the physical structure of the bodies of sentient beings and their automatic homeostatic control mechanisms, but it cannot bridge the explanatory gap between the physical and the mental.

As Thomas Nagel argues, the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is incomplete, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness.

So if sentient minds haven’t evolved, have they nevertheless been co-opted by evolutionary processes to improve the homeostatic behavior of animals?
Suffering, unpleasant though it may be for the individual, has survival and evolutionary advantages for the species. 

To quote Richard Dawkins:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

Mental states such as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and pleasure are qualitative subjective experiences, which carry strong immediate meanings, and do not exist in automata - mechanistic systems such as relay networks or computers.

It is for this reason that complex animals have evolved neural structures which attract and capture minds. Fundamentally, it is the suffering and grasping of their minds - the need to avoid pain and seek pleasure - that provides the driving force for survival and reproduction of complex animals. The physical body enters into a symbiotic relationship with a non-physical mind.

In Buddhist philosophy, the mind of a sentient being is not a product of biological processes, but something primordial which has existed since beginningless time, and which will be drawn into another body once the present one has died. But reflecting on Richard Dawkins' description of the horrors of Samsara, it's surprising that sentient minds allow themselves to be co-opted by biological systems again and again. Maybe they've got no choice, maybe they're deluded, or maybe they just don't know how to get out.

The brain is a device which has evolved to delude the mind.
It could also be argued that in addition to biochemical and physiological mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis, evolution has also given sentient beings a psychological homeostatic mechanism by constructing the illusion of a stable self, which can and must be maintained.

This false sense of a stable self is, of course, a delusion, though from the evolutionary point of view, a very useful one.

Survival advantages of sentience
In evolutionary terms, any adaptation or feature must have some selective benefit for the organism that possesses it. Obviously, a physical body equipped with sentience will have an improved chance of surviving to propagate its genes over any mindless competitor which is not deterred by pain or motivated by pleasure.

But what does the mind gain from this symbiotic association?   Usually little or nothing. 

When the life of the biological partner comes to an end, the mind has to endure the sufferings of death and then leave its home, being unable to take anything with it. It must then enter the unstable hallucinatory state of the bardo,  and perhaps soon after find a new body

Or even worse, if it doesn't find a new body quickly, it may stay in a nightmarish state of karmically induced hallucinations - a perpetual bad trip that lasts indefinitely: 'for in that sleep of death what dreams may come...'.

Parasitic body, parasitized mind?

In Buddhist terminology these minds are wanderers or migrators in samsara (the realms of suffering and delusions). The mind is non-evolved and non-evolving, at least not by the normal processes of natural selection. The body uses the mind for its own purposes, not vice versa as we may like to imagine.

So, perhaps the relationship between mind and body is more one of parasitism than symbiosis. The biological body gets a better chance to propagate itself.  But the mind has to endure dukkha -  the ever-changing experiences of craving, suffering and attachment, that the body imposes upon it in order to force it to do what is necessary for survival, competition and reproduction.

Homeostasis is a mug's game
Since maintaining homeostasis is like running to keep still, sooner or later the body's systems will wear out, with the inevitable results that the Buddha observed on his ride outside the palace...

The Four Sights

See also Buddhist Philosophy

and Can you debiologize yourself?

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How things exist - according to Buddhism and Science


At a time when the old feud between science and religion is flaring up again, and common ground between fact and faith seem to be diminishing, one particular branch of Buddhist philosophy may offer some basis for dialog. That branch of philosophy is ontology - or how things exist. Buddhist ontology clearly defines the similarities and differences between the spiritual and scientific worldviews.

Impermanence and Process Philosophy
Buddhism is a process philosophy; it regards change and flux as more fundamental than ‘things’, or ‘things-in-themselves’

According to Buddhism, every functioning object is impermanent and constantly changing. In order to produce a change, all things must themselves undergo change.   This has of course been familiar to science from Newton’s times, with every action producing an equal and opposite reaction.

Subsequent investigations have revealed that impermanence is pervasive, right down to the interactions of subatomic particles, which can only interact by giving and taking something of themselves, usually photons and gluons.

And as well as going all the way down, impermanence goes all the way up, so things that previous generations regarded as permanent fixtures are now known to be dynamic.  Continents move, collide and break up.  Stars, like our sun, are formed out of debris of previous stars. They burn themselves out then either explode or collapse

So with regard to impermanence,  Buddhism and science are in increasing agreement

The Three Modes of Existential Dependence

‘One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought.
There are not three different roses but one rose existing in three different ways.’ 

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso  in Joyful Path of Good Fortune  p349

This is where the difference between the Scientific Materialist (Physicalist) and Buddhist interpretations of reality become apparent.  

Buddhists claim that three modes of ‘existential dependence’ are necessary to explain the world - dynamics, structure and mind. 

Physicalists say that only two modes - dynamics and structure - are needed, with the mind being reducible to the first two.

In this context, near synonyms for ‘dynamics’ are ‘causality’,  ‘function’ and ‘process’.

Near synonyms for ‘structure’ are ‘mereology’, ‘composition’ and  ‘arrangement’

Physicalism is a reductionist interpretation of science, which claims to explain all mental factors in physical terms.  (There are also more participatory interpretations of science in which the observer is part of the system - e g Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics -  but these, whether they acknowledge it or not, are closer to Buddhism than to reductionist physicalism.)

Physicalism and the Church-Turing Thesis
Fortunately, for the sake of discussion, there is a clear-cut definition of physicalism based on the Church-Turing thesis.   To be a purely physical system, a phenomenon must be capable of being completely simulated by algorithms acting on datastructures (without any unexplained remainder).

Buddhists would claim that there is always going to be an unexplained remainder, because algorithms and datastructures are not self-interpreting. Instead, any assignment of ‘meaning’ has to come from outside the system.

So how does this apply to Roses?

The complete quote from Geshe Kelsang is

‘There are three levels of dependent relationship: gross, subtle, and very subtle. Every functioning thing that we perceive directly is gross dependent-related. For example, a rose arising from its causes is gross dependent-related. However, the rose existing in dependence upon its parts is subtle dependent-related, and the rose existing as a mere imputation by thought is very subtle dependent-related. One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought’

We can easily see how a rose can arise from its causes - rose bush, water, nutrients, sunlight etc without paying too much attention to the rose itself.

The dependence on parts is a bit more subtle. We need to look more closely at the rose to appreciate the complete anatomy of what it is in terms of its parts, which may not be grossly obvious. We may need a microscope to see the pollen and cells of the petals. And the cells have components and subcomponents.

Dependence on mental designation
The third mode of dependent existence, dependence on the mind of the observer, is even more subtle, and is best demonstrated by examining the arbitrary way that a rose comes into and goes out of existence.

Not quite a rose

Is a green shoot a rose?
Is a green bud a rose?
Is a bud showing some petal color a rose?
Has it become a rose when you can see all the petals?

Falling petals

Has it ceased to be a rose when the first petal has fallen?

…or a majority of petals, or all the petals?

No longer a rose

Or do you have to wait till it becomes a rosehip until it ceases to be a rose?

There is no rule which tells us at exactly what stage it becomes a rose and at what stage it ceases to be one. 

The decision is a subjective one,  made by how closely the botanical specimen in our hand matches a ‘generic image’ or picture of a basic rose in our mind.   And the judgement will differ from person to person.  

A generic image of a rose in our mind

There is no fixed specification for a rose ‘out there’ that tells us when an opening bud becomes a flower, or when a fading flower becomes a hip, any more than there is for when a high-sided tray becomes a box,  or at what stage of disassembly Milinda’s chariot becomes a heap of firewood.

Neither is there any permanently existing 'specification' , 'divine blueprint' or 'ideal form' of the various rose species that differentiates them one from another, or from other members of the rose family. 

Looking back along the evolutionary timeline, the judgement as to when and at what point the ancestral rosoid became a rose, is quite arbitrary.

The Rose Family (Rosaceae)

The involvement of the observer’s mind in creating reality is very subtle for everyday objects, but becomes more obvious at the quantum scale of reality.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Can Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

Buddhist Christmas

Bah Humbug!

Other non-Christian religions can get a bit uptight about Christmas, but Buddhism is fairly laid back.

A few years ago the city of Birmingham renamed Christmas to 'Winterval' as a result of protests by non-Christian faith communities, but as far as I'm aware it wasn't the Buddhists who were complaining. 

Of course, there are aspects of Christmas which a Buddhist might have reservations about - rampant consumerism and so on, but these are the same excesses that are often denounced by Christians who complain that in recent years the spiritual aspects of Christmas have been replaced by a credit card orgy.

But in general Buddhists are quite happy with Christmas and have no hangups about hanging up Christmas decorations and enlightening Christmas trees.

Presents under the Bodhi Tree

In the Simpsons episode She of Little Faith , where Lisa converts to Buddhism, Reverend Lovejoy tries to dissuade her by saying that she can't celebrate Christmas because "Santa doesn't leave presents under the Bodhi tree". Richard Gere puts things right by explaining that Buddhists believe that those religions that are founded on Love and Compassion are valid spiritual paths.

So you can eat your Christmas cake and still be a Buddhist, though of course you can never finally have the cake whether you eat it or not (all cakes are compound phenomena and thus subject to impermanence).

Excessive consumption of Christmas cake may also promote the realisation that there is no inherent difference between an object of attachment and an object of aversion. ("Can't you manage just one more slice? Look here's a nice piece with extra thick icing... What's the matter, aren't you feeling well?")

Was Jesus a Buddhist?
Many Buddhists believe that Jesus was a High Bodhisatva or manifestation of Enlightened Mind. There is also some evidence that in the 'lost years' Jesus travelled to the East and studied Buddhism - certainly you can't get any more Buddhist than the traditional Christmas message of 'Peace on Earth - Goodwill to All'. And who exactly were the Wise Men and where did they originate? Were they Buddhists?

A Buddhist Christmas Carol

Dickens' well-loved story A Christmas Carol sometimes upsets the more fundamentalist Christian evangelicals with its 'ghosts' (to an evangelical all such spirits are apparitions of Satan). But from a Buddhist perspective the story makes perfect sense:

Chains of attachment to money-boxes

Marley's miserliness has resulted in him becoming a Preta (ghost) after death. His attachment in life was to money, and in the Preta realm his attachment manifests as fetters to chains of money-boxes, keys, ledgers and heavy purses. 

In order to help purify his karma, Marley sets out to warn Scrooge that the same destiny awaits him. Marley is assisted in his task by two peaceful Buddhas (Christmas Past and Christmas Present - Buddhas can manifest in any form that is beneficial to sentient beings), and one wrathful Buddha ('Ghost of the Future!' I fear you more than any spectre I have seen'). 

Buddhas can appear in any beneficial form

The Buddhas take Scrooge through a sort of mini-Bardo experience, where he reviews his life from the perspective of what he has done to others, or not done for others, rather than what he has done for himself. He awakens into a state of mind transformed by compassion and generosity.

Ho Ho Ho ... Hotei! The Buddhist Santa Claus

I'm a mince pie junkie, so when it comes to the the annual Christmas Battle of the Bulge, I've long ago taken Langri Tangpa's advice and adopted the practice of 'accepting defeat and offering the victory'.

Unfortunately, this does have a slight problem with the self-generation visualisations. Most of the Buddhas are portrayed as young, slender and sitting upright, which means that those of us with a more Homeric appearance (in the Simpsonian sense) need rather vivid imaginations to 'bring the result into the path'.

So I was quite pleased when I discovered a Buddha with whom I could easily identify - Buddha Hotei - a manifestation of Buddha Maitreya with an amply proportioned physique (The Wikipedia article rather unkindly calls him 'fat').

Buddha Hotei is very popular in China and Japan. He's often portrayed sitting in a semi-reclining posture and laughing uproariously, while distributing presents to children out of an inexhaustible sack. The similarities with Santa are quite intriguing, see Hotei_1, Hotei_2,
Hotei 3

The winter solstice

Of course the origins of Christmas long pre-date Christianity. The majority of the world's religions originated in relatively low latitudes (around 30°N) where the difference in day length between Summer and Winter is not particularly noticeable. However, for us folks who live further from the equator, the long dark nights and short dull days of midwinter are definitely a big psychological issue. That is why the Winter solstice has always been of such importance to Northern Europeans. It symbolises, if not the rebirth, at least the conception of the new year. In the Celtic calendar Imbolc (Candlemas) was the actual birth of the New Year, with the appearance of the first lambs and green shoots.

The early church failed to suppress the solstice celebrations and instead adopted them (much as they planted churches on pagan sacred sites), overlaying the scarcely concealed Druidic symbolism with Christian attributes. There is actually no historical evidence that Jesus was born on the 25th December.

The Celtic annual cycle of Imbolc, Halloween and Winter Solstice offers a rich source of symbolism and analogy for the process of rebirth, life, death, bardo and conception that would not be as apparent in traditional Buddhist countries, which are mostly at lower latitudes. So it is likely that as Buddhism continues to spread in the Anglo-Celtic cultural areas, it will adopt some of the Winter Solstice customs. There is no reason for in not to do so, for it is often remarked that unlike most other religions, Buddhism is not tied to a particular culture. 

Because of its strong philosophical foundations, Buddhism is universal.   It is effective for any sentient being, anywhere, any time.

Christmas Eve at Vajralama Center Seattle

- Sean Robsville

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Related articles:

Buddhist New Year

Buddhist Halloween

Buddhist Candlemas

Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain

Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Buddhist origins of Christianity

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy