Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Buddhism versus Materialism

Mechanical Mind

Materialism is the belief that all phenomena in the universe, in particular the human mind, are explainable in terms of matter. In other words, such concepts and experiences as beauty, love, spirituality, pleasure and pain are reducible to nothing but physical and chemical interactions. According to the materialist view, the mind does not actually exist, but is an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter.

Although there are not many people who enthusiastically promote the materialist worldview, it has become the default belief of many scientifically educated people that all phenomena are reducible to the activities of matter.

The Malaise of Materialism
Materialism leads to a rejection of spirituality, both in terms of declining religious belief, and also in the arts where the cult of ugliness, with its obsessions with the sordid and brutalistic, functions to reduce humans to biological automata.

Of course all religions reject materialism as an article of faith, but none apart from Buddhism attempts to offer any rational philosophical refutation of the materialist worldview.

Christian arguments against materialism

The Christian Churches seem to be completely unable to rise to the challenge of materialism. Christians either return to fundamentalism and assert the literal truth of the Bible with virulent anti-intellectualism, or reject spirituality and 'demythologise' - turning themselves into purveyors of the social gospel.

Reconciling science and religion in Kansas

Of course there's nothing wrong with the social gospel, but the churches are trying to occupy a niche already filled by left-of-centre political parties. The end result is dumbed-down, happy-clappiness . The spiritual dimension of life has been forgotten, pews are empty and congregations have gone elsewhere.

[The Religion of Peace™ is also incapable of refuting materialism, but this is hardly surprising since it rejected philosophy and reason long ago, and concentrated on spreading and maintaining itself by violence, intimidation and deception, rather than by any appeals to rationality or ethics]

Regensburg Rage trumps Rationalism

Buddhism offers the only coherent critique of materialism
Whitehead said "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion." In other words, Christianity does not have the metaphysical foundation needed to withstand materialism.

So nowadays it's left to Buddhism to defend the spiritual aspect of humanity from mechanistic materialism, and show that not everything about the human mind can be explained in mechanistic terms.

The Buddhist argument against materialism is to demonstrate that mind is an aspect of reality that is not reducible to material causes and structures. Note that in Buddhist metaphysics mind is not a kind of 'thing' or 'substance' because 'things' and 'substances' are conventional truths and are ultimately dependent on the three fundamental factors of causality, structure and mind for their existence. The mind can apprehend structure, but does not itself have any vestige of structure, nor can it be reduced to structure (mind is said to be 'formless').

So how does the materialist worldview map on to the Buddhist worldview, and what are the discrepancies?

Materialism, physicalism and computationalism.
In discussing the differences between Buddhist metaphysics and materialism, we need a more precise definition of the materialist philosophical position, which introduces two rather more modern terms - physicalism and computationalism.

Physicalism is a more precise formulation of the rather vague term 'materialism'. It states that all phenomena, including the mind, are reducible to the laws of physics.

Computationalism is physicalism specifically applied to explaining the function of the human mind. Since all physical systems can be modelled, simulated and explained in terms of datastructures and algorithms (Church-Turing Thesis), it follows that if physicalism is true then the human mind can be modelled, simulated and explained by a computer. This is a more precise statement than the traditional materialist view that the mind is a machine.

Arguments against computationalism.
If computationalism is false, then it seems very likely that mind must be regarded as fundamental and irreducible aspect of reality.

The arguments against physicalism in general and computationalism in particular are set out in these articles:

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine   
For people with a scientific education, the Turing Machine provides one of the most easily understood refutations of materialism, physicalism and the mechanistic model of the mind.  The argument is as follows:

- The behavior of all machines, computers and physical systems is reducible without remainder to the operations of a Turing machine.

- The behavior of the mind shows at least two functions - 'aboutness' (intentionality)  and qualitative experience (qualia) - that cannot in principle be reduced to the operations of a Turing machine.

- Therefore, there are some aspects of the mind that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind
....Materialism is an unwillingly held default belief among many who do not see any rational alternative, while it is enthusiastically adopted by others to bash religion.  

There are undoubtedly many potentially spiritually-inclined people for whom scientism denies them the permission to believe in any dimension of reality other than a world restricted to the physical and mechanical, with its bleak and barren view of the potential of the mind... More  

...the 'Mother of All Algorithms' - the mental faculty that understands and creates algorithms - is unlikely itself to be algorithmic... More

"The great difficulty in talking about non-algorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on, then the phenomenon would be algorithmic).
A typical example of a nonalgorithmic activity is assigning meaning to any object. For example, when is a chariot a heap of firewood? Or when is a car a pile of parts? (as discussed under sunyata). Many processes involving semantics, as distinct from syntax, appear to be non-algorithmic... " More

"Qualia are internal, subjective qualitative states such as the redness of red, aesthetic experiences of beauty and revulsion, pain, happiness, boredom, depression, elation, motivation, intention, the experience of understanding something for the first time, etc. Such states are subjective and private and are distinct (though causally related to) physical and neural activities...."  More

"Reductionism states that:
  • The mind is nothing but the brain.
  • The brain is nothing but a biological system.
  • Biological systems are nothing but chemical interactions.
  • Chemical interactions are nothing but physical interactions.
  • Therefore the mind is nothing but a set of physical interactions.
However, from a Buddhist standpoint, the reductionist argument is flawed at the top, it is flawed at the bottom and it is flawed in the middle... "  More

"The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest..."  More

Where does the weirdness come from?
The apparent weirdness at the smallest scale of physics is the result of our realisation of the mind's involvement in producing reality - that  'the observer is part of the system'.

This mental involvement is actually also apparent on careful examination at our everyday scale of reality, but we don't think about it unless it is painstakingly  pointed out, as with King Milinda's chariot. 

However, when we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.  More

Modern Buddhism:  free eBook downloadable for Windows, Mac, Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook and Android

TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.

- Sean Robsville 



Anonymous said...

Please find some references which offer a radical critique of all our the usual modern Western presumptions about what is True & Real.

Needless to say the chap R S who advocates Beauty is a fully paid up subscriber to the dismal reductionism that is criticised in the above references.

David said...

I enjoy your blog, but I find that your portrayals of Christianity are often overly simplistic. For example, in this post, you assert that Christianity has no rational argument against materialism- it either falls back on a "the Bible says so" or simply blows it all off in favor of a social gospel. While this is certainly true for some versions of Christianity, one can find a much more nuanced and indeed "rational" critique of atheistic materialism among many Catholic authors which largely escape the mainstream media's attention. For an example of this, I invite you to read author Mark Shea's article, "Padding the Case for the New Atheism" here:

seanrobsville said...

Thanks for the article, David. My comments about the Christians either relapsing into Creationist obscurantism, or secularising (even with the best intentions) until they become another social services department applies mainly to certain Protestant churches.

The Catholic Church has indeed shown a more balanced approach in recent years. Pope John Paul's encyclical, Fides et Ratio, concerning relativism and materialism in Western philosophy, called for a reassesment and re-emphasis of the spiritual dimension of existence. Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address (which caused such tantrums in the Islamic world) warned of the dangers at the other extreme of irrationalism and fanaticism.

Of course the militant creationists/jihadists and militant atheists feed off one another and are each the others' best recruiting sergeants. Cranmer recently published a disturbing article on what happens when secularism goes mad:

Sabrina said...

Interesting take on the different religions and materialism. I was born and raised Catholic (involuntary) and I am looking into Buddhism so I'm really interested in learning as much as I can about it before I decided whether or not to convert. I've read your arguments and the comments above. Highly insightful. Thanks!

Elko said...

You are confusing Buddhism with Dualism.

The arguments you give against materialism are all very valid, but those are all dualist arguments and can't be limited to Buddhist religion in particular.

Furthermore philosophical dualism was also developed by major Christian philosophers like Rene Descartes or Leibniz - Christian faith is not the Catholic church or the pope. In fact a lot of Christians (especially protestants) see the Pope as blasphemy because of the claim that he is entitled to speak for God himself.

Although I like you picture of the mechanical brain, because most people see computers as "magic machines" that produce images and sound and don't see that they are also just pure functional physical processes and there is no reason why a computer should "come to life" and actual >experience< his functioning like it is often depicted in science-fiction movies.

In fact such a computer would be "over defined" because his actions are already defined by its software and the laws of physic, so the consciousness would be unnecessary or shouldn't exist at all.

With a mechanical universal turing-machine running a simulation of the brain on its mechanical memory-tape this would be even more clear since then you could virtually see what Christian philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz already wrote 1714 about the Qualia-Problem by imagining a giant mechanical brain and stating that even if you would closely examine every moving part of it you wouldn't see anything more than functional machinery and nothing that would give any hint of perception or an experiencing inner life.

Although the sentence "Since all physical systems can be modelled, simulated and explained in terms of datastructures and algorithms" is not 100% correct because it assumes that the Church-Turing-Deutsch-Thesis is true which is not proven yet. For example computers can't calculate real-numbers with infinite precision. So you have to argue that an approximately infinite precision would also be enough to simulate a human brain. Also there are some physical theories stating that the universe too isn't running on infinite precision but deep down in the core all things are binary too.

You should better argue with the "philosophical zombie" thought-experiment which postulates the idea of creating a creature with the exact physical features of a human with the exception that this "zombie" works alone on it's physical structure without any consciousness experience. If materialism would be true such a zombie should be possible but at the same time this would make consciousness needless so there shouldn't be any consciousness at all.

But as I already mentioned: Just because materialism is flawed and therefore dualism (or even idealism) the logical consequence this doesn't mean that Buddhism is true! Dualism just states that there are material and immaterial entities.

Personally I don't believe Buddhism is true because if you go the Tibetan branch you end up with even more stories about gods and ghosts than in Christianity and philosophical Buddhism on the other hand is so simplistic that it has no plausible answers at all.

For example if you assume there are really only the two eternal mechanisms of karma and reincarnation "on the other side" the afterworld you in fact be "more stupid" as the actual world.

Also a Buddhist system would be in the end "hell on earth" with endless suffering through endless rebirth the next trillion years which is why Buddhist becomes a religion hostile to life and therefore real Buddhist back out into monasteries to leave all yearning for living behind them.

So you would end up with an (unknown) God who created the universe and the laws of physics and connected the souls to it to let them suffer endlessly till they can't go on anymore and then never cared about its creation again. I don't believe that this is the real meaning of life.

Elko said...

Oh and just an additional note about "emergent phenomena". In physical terms emergence means that a system has other properties than its components but not that the complete system couldn't be scientifically explained based on its components and the laws of physics.

But now materialist philosophers "borrow" the word from the physicists and use it as a term for "we don't know how our theory could even possibly work but SOMEHOW we will be right anyway".

Charlie said...

Brief history: former Catholic turned laggard Buddhist. What I admire most about Buddhism was the fact the the Buddha threw down the gauntlet and challenged those who would liberate themselves to uses their own faculties and common sense, rather than dogma, as guides understanding our lives.

I have followed the arguments of folks like Stephen Batchelor, who argues a more secular line, free of ghosts and goblins, gods and miracles....and reincarnation. Materialism seems to be at the heart of the argument and it's a fundamental issue for me and my (admittedly) haphazard practice. Thanks for providing an interesting way station on that quest for clarity.

Anonymous said...

you are very prejudice the way you talked about the Muslim .. not all Muslim are terrorists... learn your shit before you open your mouth!... disgusting