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


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