01 December 2018

The Buddhist Case Against Karma

Karma is a just world myth. Karma guarantees justice in every case. No one need do anything to achieve it. Justice just manifests without any need for intervention, let alone with the need to inflict suffering on anyone.

But of course no one believes in karma in this pure sense. Everyone backs themselves as "good" (fair, just, etc) and as an agent for good. We constantly intervene to address issues of fairness. And we feel fully justified in doing so.

In practice, belief in karma reflects the thought: "It's not fair and it ought to be!" Life is not fair. It never is. 
"The brightest ones of all, early in October fall..."
I do not believe in karma. I do not believe in guaranteed justice or deserved suffering. Rather, I believe that no one deserves to suffer, not even those who cause suffering; and that justice is manifest in how we treat each other or not at all.

This is the principle of ahiṃsa or "do no harm". 

Of course the implications of this are complex. But morality always is, if you take it seriously. And, of course, I am far from perfect. Still, this is what I believe and why I don't believe in karma.

23 November 2018

The Lessons of History

On the one hand we have mercantilism, the 600 year old philosophy which says that to make people work hard you pay them as little as possible. Working hard being important because idle people have fun and rich people resent poor people having fun. This theory is resurgent right now as we see the share of profits going to labour (who do the actual value-adding) decreasing in favour of shareholders (who do nothing to add value, but risk their capital).

And on the other hand we have consumerism, which requires that everyone buy loads of shit things that they don't need. And this means that everyone needs excess income - i.e., income that is not required simply to survive.

When CEOs are paid 6 and 7 figure salaries plus bonuses every year (more than the average worker will earn in a lifetime) for extracting more work, from fewer workers, for less money, then consumerism is under serious threat.

People say that robots/AI will take all the jobs. But without consumers with excess income Capitalism is dead. So good luck with that.

So there is this worldwide war going on. Manufacturing is moved to the third-world because it achieves two things: goods are cheaper so that workers in the developed-world can be paid less; but also workers in the third-world now have excess income and become consumers themselves.

The trouble really starts when workers don't have excess income or live in poverty. Poverty is a huge problem in the UK right now - and we are the 5th richest country in the world. Mercantilists are happy because they still have third-world consumers and are making vast returns on their investment even while the UK economy stagnates.

However, unhappy citizens start to look for alternatives. Socialism worked OK for a while, but it lost out to a resurgent mercantilism. So now people are looking to the right for succour. Far-right (aka Fascist) political parties exist and are becoming increasingly popular across Europe. This is real. The French party Front Nationale are about as popular now as the National Socialist Workers Party were in 1933 - on the eve of taking power.

Many facile comparisons are made with Germany and that can blind us to the real comparison. In 1930s Germany, conditions imposed on them made German workers poor, or worse, unemployed. Hitler promised jobs for everyone and he delivered (by a massive build up of the military). He was genuinely popular, despite being obviously mostrous from the beginning. People were living insecure lives and they saw no end in sight with the status quo. They *voted* for Hitler, despite all the obvious reasons not to. Just as Americans *voted* for Trump.

My sense is that this is a crucial moment in history. The status quo is not going to shift without some major storm. And people want a change - they want secure employment, they want to be able to house and feed their families. While there is widespread poverty (i.e., the inability to do just this) we are in real and present danger. The flash point will be somewhere in Europe, I think. Probably somewhere unexpected.

And the lesson of history? Is that we never learn the lessons of history. If there is poverty, especially while the rich get richer, then there will be trouble. We've seen it all before, but our rich politicians are too busy looking after themselves and their class to do anything about it. Brexit is a step in the wrong direction, but people voted against the status quo, so here we go...

16 November 2018

HMS Brexit: Ship of Fools

The non-binding Brexit referendum was won by a 1% margin. 15 million registered voters (ca 28%) didn't vote. So only a minority actually support it. The consensus is that there is no good way to achieve it. We are blundering on regardless with everyone hating the result.

One extreme faction want to crash out with no deal and rely on WTO rules. But that adds 10% to the cost of all our exports overnight. The USA is poised to trash the WTO. And we get a hard border in Ireland which is likely to restart the war there.

The middle ground Brexiteers want to stay in the customs union which means following all the rules but having no say what they are. Which the hardliners hate with all their hearts.

The opposition have backed Brexit for some reason. Now they have to rationalise a position they all hate, while finding indirect ways to oppose - they will vote against the deal and cause a no-deal crash out. The worst outcome for them.

People who wanted to remain point out that the leave campaign was based on lies and many leavers have changed them minds now. But no one is seriously talking about backtracking.

In the absence of any plan and in the face of considerable illwill from Europe over the divorce, the govt have thrashed out a deal that no one likes, which the cabinet and EU leaders are likely to vote down on both sides of the channel.

And if this happens, the PM will be replaced by a hardliner. The hardliners will win and everyone else will lose. And they will win because they are rich and have bet against the UK by investing their wealth elsewhere, mostly in Europe!

The democratic process has completely broken down at this point. The establishment far-right will have wrested control of the government away without any vote. And committed the nation to a course that the majority do not want. 

Welcome to the future.

11 November 2018

Armistice Day.

The nascent German Empire and the Ottoman Empire were crushed by the British, (various) European, and Russian Empires with the pointless loss of millions of lives (mostly men). Germany, Britain, and Russia were all ruled by grandchildren of Queen Victoria (i.e., they were first cousins).

The generals on all sides were incompetent inbreds who saw working class men and "colonials" as canon fodder.

Chemical weapons were invented and deployed, causing mass casualties. Mechanised warfare also contributed to mass casualties. Even more men simply died of disease because of unsanitary conditions.

The French and British made a deal with the Arabs to remove the Ottomans and then welched on it, creating a lasting enmity and alienation between Europe and the Muslim world -- and also the conditions for ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Americans got a taste for war on foreign soil and the vast wealth to be made from supporting it.

Russians decided they'd had enough of the Tsars and revolted, but ended up with Stalin, who was considerably worse.

Finally, harsh reparations were imposed that sowed the seeds for the rise of Fascism in Europe and WWII.

On the plus side, the horrendous, dehumanising, exploitative society that had grown out of the industrial revolution began to break down, which was a good thing. Not sure about the replacement, yet, though.

We will remember them 
(but probably not learn anything from the exercise)

09 November 2018

Losing Track

Awareness seems to operate a kind of gestalt, but in addition to foreground and background, there is an underground. Bear with me. Think about meditating on the breath. You breathe away and pay attention to the sensations, maybe you count breaths, and then, suddenly, you find you are thinking about what to have for dinner and you don't remember when you changed tack.

"Not to worry," most meditation teachers will say, "just notice that you lost concentration and go back to the sensations of breathing. The important thing is to notice what is happening." This is good advice, if you are training your mind to concentrate. But consider this: what happened to breathing when you stopped paying attention to it? Your awareness of breathing disappeared and was replaced by dinner. It's not that you stopped breathing, right? Or you'd be dead. But you lost track of breathing. It faded into the underground.

In the Prajñāpāramitā you are seeking to leverage just this ability of the mind to lose track. Except you want to lose track of your self. For your sense of self to just disappear and leave you without a self. You do that by deliberately focussing on something else.

You start by losing track of the gross senses. Focussing allows you to push most things in your awareness into the background and underground. You lose track of the world outside, the room you are seated in, and so on. The initial goal is lose track of sense experience; for sense experience to move to the background and then fade into the underground. The world is there but it does not register because your attention is entirely elsewhere. When this happens it's difficult to orient yourself in space and time. Space feels infinite. There may be a sense of internal unification and it may be blissful This counts as a mystical experience in modern inventories of religious experiences. And it is a milestone in Buddhism, just not a very important one. It is relatively easy to lose track of sense experience.

Then you have to lose track of the remaining cognitive activity. This is more difficult and requires considerable persistence. When cognition itself fades into the underground, it becomes difficult to orient yourself to awareness. Without a sense of self, awareness is no longer self-referential, in any case. Without the usual cognitive activity your mind feels infinite, though you're not really aware of anything in particular. It is difficult to find words for awareness when sense experience and cognition are in the underground.

But you then have to lose track of losing track. At this point you are well and truly lost and cannot orient to any sense of self or world. You are nothing, nowhere, out of time. There's a kind of luminous awareness, but it doesn't have any features - like an infinite blue sky stretching off in all directions.

And beyond this is emptiness. No one is doing or thinking or feeling or experiencing anything anywhere within the sphere of emptiness. Nothing arises, nothing passes away. The experience of emptiness is not tainted with desire or aversion. There is no sense of it growing or shrinking or changing in any way. Emptiness just is. There is no one who experiences emptiness, because in emptiness it never occurs to anyone that they are experiencing anything. Indeed, if something did occur to someone, that would not be emptiness.

This kind of language will be familiar to anyone who has tried to read a Prajñāpāramitā text. Without the context it seems paradoxical, doesn't it? But notice how, when you lead into it and put it in context, that it flows more naturally. Words and concepts are stretched to the limit, but they are not broken. There may, in fact, be no words for being in that (non)experience, but it is not that we cannot understand it or talk about it in retrospect.

By the way, the dissolution of the sense of self can be terrifying. One should not treat it lightly or casually. It ought to be approached in a supportive and emotionally positive atmosphere and under the tutelage of someone who has experience of it. As Michel Foucault reminded us, the Delphic Oracle did not just say "Know thyself" it also said "Take care of thyself". (Technologies of the Self)

 

07 November 2018

Invalid Generalisations

I recently read a philosopher arguing for there being two minds in the brain because, in some patients who have their corpus callosum severed (so called split-brain), to treat epilepsy, for example, there appears to be a division of will in which the left and right sides of the body are controlled separately. But this conclusion is aberrant thinking because severing the corpus callosum amounts to major brain damage. The results of major brain damage cannot be normalised and generalised.

It is not apparent that healthy brains experience this kind of duality. Most of the popular myths about the different roles of the different hemispheres of the brain turn out to be untrue. There may be some division of labour, the brain is nothing if not modular, but our minds are a result of the whole brain. The aberrations that occur with brain injury certainly give us insights into the architecture of the brain and then the contributions different areas make to our minds.

However, the routine over-simplification and essentialisation of observations means that most of what we read about the brain in popular media is wrong. It turns out that men are not "from Mars" and women are not "from Venus". Both sides of the brain have a limbic system, and many emotions are correlated with activity in the cerebellum, which is not divided. Blah blah.

People with agendas consume science news in a biased way. This is religious thinking: one comes to a conclusion then amasses evidence to support that conclusion, filtering out evidence that contradicts one's conclusion. Scientific thinking counters this in two ways. Firstly, it tries to make explicit what would constitute a refutation of a view, so that when a refutation comes along it is easily recognised. Secondly, it tries to weigh the evidence before coming to a conclusion, and then to keep looking at new evidence.

29 October 2018

Mapping Legacy Epistemic Terms onto a Modern Ontology of Mind

This post started life as a comment on a blogpost on SelfAwarePatterns.

On the distinctions between thoughts, emotions, and feelings, I recall Cordelia Fine having an equation in one of her early popular books:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts

Trying to map archaic epistemic terms onto modern ontologies is difficult. Partly because we often don't acknowledge the different modes and levels we are working with.

Pre-modern India had no separate category for "emotion" or "feeling". Sanskrit has names for emotions and often several synonyms or fine distinctions in intensity, but emotions were lumped together with thoughts as "mental" (cetasika) whereas sensations were "physical" (kāyasika). So our European way of dividing up experience is not "natural".

So it just occurs to me that we could think more systematically about this.

The ontological distinctions are whether the stimulus comes from the peripheral nervous system or it originates in the central nervous system; and whether it is accompanied by physiological arousal or not (i.e., whether it also involves the autonomic nervous system).

This gives us
central - arousal
central + arousal
peripheral - arousal
peripheral + arousal
If you want to map the archaic Eurocentric epistemological terms onto this, then I suggest: thought, emotion, sensation, feeling. i.e.
central - arousal ≈ thought
central + arousal ≈ emotion
peripheral - arousal ≈ sensation
peripheral + arousal ≈ feeling
I haven't factored in the parasympathetic side of the autonomic system, i.e., ± relaxation. I suspect we don't see these as separate categories, but as positive experiences fitting into categories, i.e., peaceful thoughts, calm emotions, neutral sensations, contented feelings.

The next step would be an axis for anticipation/reward. But this would include anticipation of positive (↑) and anticipation of negative (↓), since these move us in different directions. Also, there are different reactions if the reward meets or confounds expectations.

The combination would give us a coarse-grained model that would allow us to map most of the archaic legacy epistemic terms onto a modern empirical ontology. So the new equation is:

experience ≈ central/peripheral ± arousal/relaxation ± anticipation/reward

So in this model, happiness, for example, is a centrally initiated experience, accompanied by physiological arousal, and the anticipation of a good outcome that has been rewarded with a good outcome. 

Pain, is peripherally initiated by pain nerves accompanied by physiological arousal and the anticipation of a bad outcome; but it may also become the object for centrally initiated experience accompanied by arousal. With slight pain or discomfort we may anticipate getting better and thus remain relatively calm about it. With intense pain we may anticipate death and this may spin off more centrally initiated experiences.

The idea that a physical experience can spin off many mental experiences is called prapañca in Buddhist Sanskrit. One of the supposed benefits of awakening is that uncontrolled prapañca stops.