Monday, 6 July 2015

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


The Seven Deadly Sins

Religious traditionalists have criticised scientists who study the physical effects of spiritual activities, such as meditation, as “biologizing the religious response”.

Which got me wondering, if you can biologize mental activities, then can you do the converse and debiologize them?  In particular can you completely debiologize your entire mind, and if you do, will there be anything remaining?

If, as a thought experiment, I took away all the biologically determined aspects of my personality (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony), would there be anything left whatsoever?  Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so: 

''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."  - Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)

This 'pure, disinterested altruism' sounds rather like the Bodhicitta that appears when our mind has been freed of delusions.  

So is defiance or eradication of gene-based biological delusions and memetic mind-viruses the way to progress along the spiritual path?  

Dawkins' claim raises a few questions...

(1) If I removed everything biological from my mind, would there be anything left at all? Aren't we just biological mechanisms - biophysical 'gene machines' and nothing more?

(2) Are these genetic drives really tyrannical delusions, or do they serve some useful purpose?   

(3) Are the traditional biologically-based 'seven deadly sins' of Christianity all that I need to eliminate, or is their something deeper that gives rise to them?     

(4) How do I go about eradicating these biologically based delusions?  If I try to repress them will they just do something Freudian and reappear in other, nastier forms - like Islam?   Rather than just trying to hold down the lid on innate genetic drives, is there any way of transforming or transmuting them?

(5) Assuming I could analyse and eradicate all biologically based delusions arising from my selfish genes, and all the garbage from malignant memes, would I automatically become enlightened?  Or are there still other factors holding me back?

So let's examine each of these questions in turn... 

(1) We are nothing but biological machines. If we completely debiologized there'd be nothing left.

This assumes that our behavior and mental activities are completely mechanistically determined. Buddhist philosophy rejects this view.  Removing all biological mechanisms from our mental processes will not remove the 'nama' processes that are the non-biophysical basis of our minds. See
Buddhist Philosophy.

(2) Are these genetic drives really tyrannical delusions, or do they serve some useful purpose?

All animals, including ourselves, have genetically programmed drives to eat, reproduce, fight for territory and mates, kill prey, help our kin and so on. These drives appear to our mind as attachment and aversion.

Manifestations of attachment include sexual desire, hunger and the need for security. Manifestations of aversion include fighting, fleeing and avoiding painful and dangerous situations. All these mental reactions have evolved because they gave our ancestors a selective advantage. They are, or were, essential for preservation of the individual and procreation of its genes.

We humans can to some extent distance ourselves from these drives. We can examine them and if necessary rebel against them. From the Buddhist point of view this is especially significant when these instinctive drives become pathological and turn into harmful 'innate delusions', giving rise to mental states such as anger, hatred, sadism, jealousy, greed, miserliness, sexual abuse and so on.

(3) Are the traditional biologically-based 'seven deadly sins' of Christianity all there are to eliminate, or is their something deeper that gives rise to them?    

In Buddhist ethics, aversion and attachment (and their associated thought patterns such as anger and greed) are two of the Three Poisons. The third poison is ignorance, which consists, among other factors, of being unable to separate the true nature of ones mind from the delusions which afflict it (especially the delusion of inherent existence).   

If we look at the seven deadly sins we see that five of them are in the attachment category (greed, pride, lust, envy and gluttony)  and two are in the aversion category (wrath being a strong aversion to people, and sloth being an aversion to effort).  None could be classed as ignorance, except possibly pride, which since it is an excessive attachment to self-image, necessarily assumes a distorted view of the self (which doesn't actually exist in the way we are accustomed to think of it).

The Buddhist view is that all manifestations of aversion and attachment arise from ignorance of the way that things exist.   This mistaken view regards things, phenomena and people as being inherently or essentially good or bad. So as well as getting rid of the seven deadly sins, we also need to cut their root, which is ignorance of the true nature of reality.

This 'ignorance' of the true nature of reality is also biologically based, and is a result of the limitations of our perceptual and neural systems.  See The evolutionary basis for the delusion of inherent existence in  Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain


(4)  Repression versus transformation. 
Repression won't make biological delusions go away. It will just bottle them up until they eventually explode.   That's why Buddhist psychology uses 'tantric' techniques to transform attachment into the spiritual path, see  Tantric SexTantra: Transforming enjoyments , Gruesome Tantric Visualizations and Attachment and Tantra 

(5) Assuming I could analyse and eradicate all biologically based delusions arising from my selfish genes, would I automatically become enlightened?  Or are there still other factors holding me back?

If simply debiologizing ourselves was enough to ensure enlightenment, then we'd  all become enlightened as soon as we died! However, according to Buddhist beliefs, as soon as we die, uncontrollable forces (karma) start to work to draw us into future rebirths in biological bodies.

Unfortunately, the ordinary mind has very little choice in its rebirth and will be drawn to an environment determined by its imprints and habitual tendencies.

If we recall the symbiotic minds hypothesis, we can see how this makes biological sense. A biophysical body inhabiting an environmental niche of extreme aggression and violence will be at an advantage if it can attract and capture a mind well acquainted with anger.  One which lives in an environment of severe scarcity would do well to attract a mind which is greedy and miserly. An animal which lives a sedentary boring sort of life, for example chewing the cud, will not benefit from a mind which has its thoughts on anything other than the mundane.   

Minds which are habitually angry, miserly or deliberately ignorant will be captured by inhabitants of  the environments to which they are best adapted.  The others may stand a chance of human rebirth. (In Buddhist beliefs, there is no guarantee that a human mind will be reborn into the human realm - there are plenty of other vacancies to be filled by suitable candidates)

'Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.' 

So as well as rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators, we also need to purify the imprints and habitual tendencies that our minds have accumulated over millennia of being reborn into the biological realms. 


Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism - anger, hatred and attachment as divine attributes?
Returning to the subject of memes, it's interesting to note how biological and memetic delusions can interact and synergize each other. 

By attributing two of the three poisons (attachment and aversion) to God, theologians are indulging in anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to God), and also zoomorphism (ascribing animal characteristics to God). 

Dogs can show jealousy, bulls can show anger, even ants can show tribalism. All animals show attachment to something - mates, food, territory and status (pecking order).

Sunday School T-shirts?

The three poisons are products of biological evolution. Their purpose is to ensure the best chance of survival of the individual's genes in the natural world 'red in tooth and claw'.

The three poisons persist in humans because our bodies are products of evolution, and our minds have spent long aeons attached to the bodies of animals. 

But the belief that these biologically-based delusions form a part of the psychological make up of the Abrahamic Gods (who presumably have never been biological beings) is itself a delusion caused by anthropomorphic projection of the three poisons of the human mind on the cosmic scale. Man makes God in his own image.

Buddha never ruled out the existence of God as a philosophical concept. Subsequent Buddhist teachers have however warned against worshipping vindictive, jealous, angry, sadistic, possessive faith-based 'samsaric' gods such as Jehovah and Allah, who are merely the omnipotent and eternal mental projections of the worst aspects of human tyrants... 

"But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads.   Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning."

...not exactly what you'd think of as Enlightened Beings.

So an anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or 'samsaric' God could be defined as one who shows one or more of the following features, or encourages them in his devotees:

  • Attachment to being flattered/worshipped.

  • Jealousy of other Gods (Jealousy = Attachment + Hatred). Professor Dawkins quoted a passage from the Bible that commanded that if a friend or member of your family should try to persuade you to worship another god - "You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death because he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God."

  • Anger when his wishes are unexpectedly thwarted (though if God were really omniscient and omnipotent then he would know in advance that his wishes would be thwarted and could stop it happening because ... oh anyway..)
  • Tribalism to encourage attachment to the Chosen Ones ('The Saved' or 'The Umma') and hatred of 'the other'.  Religious tribalism is rapidly assuming the form of Global Divisiveness - dividing the world into Us and Them, God's Warriors versus God's Enemies, Dar al Harb versus Dar al Islam...  But if God is almighty, why are his enemies still allowed to exist. Why does he need bombers to kill them? Can't he do it himself?

'There is no compulsion in religion'

  • Lust (for 72 virgins).

To a sex-starved, socially-inadequate shaheed, the prospect of sexually enslaving 72 virgins by blowing himself up and killing kuffars in the process may indeed seem like paradise. But consider how attachment may change into aversion over the course of eternity:

Each girl will need to be pleasured at least once a day, and anything less than 15 minutes is going to be a disappointment and reflect badly on your manhood. You'll also need a few minutes for changeover and foreplay before you get stuck in to the next one. So its humping three virgins an hour, every hour, with no rest...

Heaven, Hell or an eternity of aversion therapy? After two weeks even the most pious shaheed would wish he'd been gay. Or maybe he'd just settle for a bowl of raisins.  

Nevertheless, it is blasphemous to examine such beliefs logically.

More at Buddhist Philosophy


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