17 October 2018

Momentary Madness

The doctrine of momentariness comes about as Buddhists tried to connect actions, especially the cetanā or intention behind actions, and their consequences, i.e., experiences (vedanā) and/or rebirth (punarbhava). It is a result, I argue, of constraints placed on Buddhists by the acceptance of impermanence (anitya) and dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda).

Momentariness makes a certain kind of sense if you use meditative states as your model of mental activity. In highly concentrated states one can observe thoughts arising and passing away one at a time. They exist briefly and are replaced by another. Buddhists saw meditative mental states, cut off from sensory stimulation, as more real and this one-at-a-timeness became the norm when they thought about the workings of the mind. It was an unhelpful cul de sac philosophically, but they did not foresee this.

Things got even more tricky when budding philosophers in the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika schools concluded that momentariness must also apply to real world phenomena and to macroscopic objects. The first concerted arguments for this conclusion did not occur until a little later in the early Yogācāra literature, but it was still the conclusion of many Buddhists in the classical period.

The trouble is that if a macroscopic object only exists momentarily, then it cannot move in space. The time it would take to get to an adjacent location is less that the time that the object exists. Therefore, movement is not possible. However, we do observe macroscopic objects moving around, so what is going on? Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika philosophers argued that the object must be disassembled into its constituent parts and re-assembled in another location. All too fast to see.
Cf. Rospatt, Alexander von. The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness: A Survey of the Origins and Early Phase of This Doctrine up to Vasubandhu. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995, p.67 n.144.
This is what a lot of Buddhist philosophy is like. Bound by axioms that are never questioned, Buddhists plough on regardless of the stupid things that come out. They often worked logically enough from their axioms. The trouble with deductive logic is that one either ends up repeating one's axiom as a conclusion or one falsifies the axiom. If we take the classic Aristotelian syllogism:
Axiom: all swans are white
Observation: Bruce is a swan
Deduction: Bruce is white, because all swans are white.  
Observation: Bruce is an Australian swan and he is black.
Deduction: the axiom "all swans are white" is false. 
But the axiom being false has to be a possible conclusion. Religieux often take the view that certain axioms are true and cannot be disproved. In this case deduction can only be deflected:
Axiom: all swans are white
Observation: Bruce is black
Deduction: Bruce is not a swan, because all swans are white.  
This enables us to satisfy logic and to preserve our axiom. By virtue of being black, we can conclude that, even though Bruce looks exactly like a swan, he is, in fact, not a swan, because we know with certainty that all swans are white. A black swan is a contradiction in terms. The contradictory observation itself is falsified. Those who believe the axiom feel no burden of proof here. They are not interested in what kind of bird Bruce is. They just know that he's not their kind of bird and he is therefore of little or no interest.

Having accepted the axioms, there is a logical, even rational, process of deduction. The problem is not in the process, but in the starting conditions. Most of the attempts at Buddhist philosophy that I have come across do not question axioms. One of the principle axioms is that Buddhist axioms are not to be questioned. So no one who studies Nāgārjuna's use of the tetralemma (not x, not not x, not neither and not both) ever questions Nāgārjuna's axioms.

For example, an unquestioned axiom is that dependent arising applies across the board to phenomena - mental and physical. The mental/physical dichotomy has long been axiomatic in Buddhism as well. In fact, as an epistemic distinction it holds up OK, since we do gain knowledge of the two domains in different ways. But, as an ontology, this duality doesn't hold up. No mind-body duality can explain the behaviour of the world with the degree of accuracy and precision that a monistic approach does.  What's more, mind-body duality leads to silly conclusions.

If we are going to truly make Buddhism fit for the modern world then we have to turn our attentions to the ideas that we are forced to accept as true and ask whether or not they are. Many of them are demonstrably false, and we need to come to terms with this.

17 September 2018

Mysticism As Pure Subjectivity

I wrote this as part of my Heart Sutra history and commentary

There is a curious feature of mysticism. According to most understandings of the world, including that of early Buddhists, from the point of view of the individual the world has two poles: 1) the mind; and 2) the objects and processes that make up the world, including other subjects. In Western jargon, these are the subjective and objective poles of the world. Experience is what happens when the mind and objects (including other subjects perceived as objects) come into contact, via the senses. We may say that a subject swims through a world of objects and other subjects, like a fish in water.

Of course, in the bigger picture, mind is also a process within the world, but this is not how we experience it. This may sound like a tautology, but our sense of self is, in fact, a kind of experience in which we ourselves are the object of perception. We must also be careful not to reify the subject. The subject is a mind capable of representing sense data to itself as an experience. That mind is generated by a brain. The first person perspective is a quality of how the mind represents experience to itself and we know that it is not essential to experience, whereas a brain-generated mind is.

Typically, then, experience has this polarised quality. In meditation, we withdraw from sense experience and in the depths of it, we withdraw from experience entirely. The acme of mediation is to experience cessation. Not simply the suppression of thoughts, which results in alienation, but the cessation of experience – including, and especially, the sense of self. With the cessation of the experience of self, mystical experiences become available: for example, as one’s self falls away, one may identify with the whole world as self. This may be accompanied by a sense that space is infinite. This is simply the first of four spheres or rarefied experience called āyatanas. Beyond the āyatanas is the sphere of emptiness in which nothing arises or passes away. There is no experience per se, just awareness and being.

To achieve emptiness one withdraws attention from experience. In other words, one retreats from the objective pole of experience. Ideally, one completely withdraws any and all attention from objects of any kind. To my mind, this would be characterised as a purely subjective state – just the mind, ticking over but not doing anything. And many Buddhist narratives do talk about this state in terms of pure mind and so on. But it is far more common, in English to refer to such states in terms of reality, the nature of reality, or even the nature of ultimate reality. Suzuki and Conze, drawing on the rhetoric of Theosophy, referred to it as “the Absolute” or “the Transcendental”. Other commentators took the idea of an unconditioned dharma; i.e., the state of extinction of experience (nirvāṇa) and reified it into “the Unconditioned”.

In each case, the reified concept becomes an object to be apprehended. But the Prajñāpāramitā texts, speaking from the point of view of cessation attained by practising the yoga of non-apprehension (anupalambhayogena), argue against this way of thinking. Aṣṭasāhasrikā explicitly says that if you are still thinking in terms of “form is emptiness” (rūpam śūnyatā) then that is a thought being apprehended and it is not cessation, not Prajñāpāramitā. In the state of emptiness, there is no sense experience but also no cognitive experience. If one has visions, for example, then these are not emptiness, they are hallucinations being apprehended.

To repeat, mystical states are states of pure subjectivity with no objective component, but they are typically interpreted and presented as the opposite; i.e., states of pure objectivity with no subjective component. This contradiction leads to confusion, which is exploited by mystics as being productive. For most people, the confusion is the end of their religious career because it creates huge barriers to progress.

If we want people from outside religion to take mysticism seriously, we have to stop presenting it in terms that they know to be false. If we simply admit that a state of emptiness is purely subjective and tells us something about subjectivity, then we might find that scientists and philosophers start to take the experiences seriously.

In addition, we might free ourselves from the moronic influence of the so-called "philosophy" of Madhyamaka. When one cannot even adequately distinguish reality and experience, or subjectivity and objectivity, then one is never going to say anything sensible about either. And Nāgārjuna does not.

30 August 2018

The Unknown

No one could have foreseen quantum mechanics. It came out of a funny little side project - trying to understand the photoelectric effect (roughly why some frequencies of light can make electricity flow in some materials). Newton had explained the wave-like nature of light. He did so just down the hill from where I currently live!

Einstein, who published four revolutionary papers in 1905, explained that the energy of the light came in packets or "quantum" (i.e., specific amounts). In surfer jargon, light waves always come in sets. And those sets can act as objects. This is what he got the Nobel Prize for.

Understanding that light worked like this led to a series of insights into the nature of the subatomic world that changed everything. Eventually, it resulted in electronics. And electronics has changed our world beyond recognition. Even in my lifetime! (e.g., the integrated circuit was invented after I was born)

In 1905, for a brief period, no one could claim to have a deeper understanding of reality than Einstein. And not even he could have predicted any of this.

When we think about the world a century from now, we have to pause. The likelihood is that something completely unforeseen is going to change things in ways we cannot imagine; that no one can imagine. We cannot factor this into our calculations. We cannot make allowance for it. We cannot even say from which direction or field it will come. It is completely unknown to us. No one knows or can know.

All we know is that throughout human history, and with increasing frequency, new ideas have emerged that have changed everything. Its not always technological. Think of the impact of fascism in the 1930s.

26 August 2018

Everything happens for a reason

Or does it? Sean Carroll (physicist) discusses the question of why there is something rather than nothing and the kinds of answers that people have come up with. It turns out that thinking that "things always happen for a reason" (or not) is central of what makes any given answer satisfying or unsatisfying.
Sean Carroll's Mindscape Podcast. Episode 9: Solo — Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Carroll's take on "why?", "something", and "nothing" is very interesting.

The way I would put his argument about the first part is this. Arguably "reasons" are how humans account for their own behaviour and they don't apply outside this domain. In particular the universe simply evolves in patterned ways that don't correspond to the motivations of human beings. Motivation (reasons for acting) is a feature of sentience. We can sensibly ask a person why they did something and expect an answer. If we ask the planet why it orbits the sun, we can't expect an answer. We can say that it does, and how it does. But it doesn't do so for a reason.

As Dan sperber has said
"So reasoning on this view has argumentation aimed at persuasion as its main function. From the point of view of the communicator, it’s a way to convince people who would not accept what you say on trust. From the point of view of the audience, it’s a way to evaluate the arguments, the reasons that people give to you. Reasoning so understood is first and foremost a tool for communication."
So a question like "Why does the universe exist?" is making some unhelpful assumptions - it assumes the universe is an agent and existence is a choice that the universe made, and that by observing the universe we could infer its motivations. This is how we relate to people and their behaviour. But as a model for dealing with inanimate objects, this doesn't work.

25 August 2018

Breathing in Pāli

I've been participating in a serious Pāli forum recently. I haven't read much Pāli for a few years so its nice to reconnect. The subject of how to translate the verbs assasati and passasati came up. And I did a quick bit of research and a write up which I reproduce here. If I get any useful comments I'll update this post accordingly.


Assasati is from Sanskrit ā + √śvas, where the verbal root śvas means "blow, breathe". In Pāli, the long ā has been irregularly shortened and śv regularly becomes ss. Similarly, passasati is from Skt. pra + √śvas. The initial pra is regularly simplified to pa.

Under assasati, the PTSD refers to ā (1.3). This entry notes the use of the pair of prefixes ā and pa
Contrast -- combns. with other pref. in a double cpd. of noun, adj. or verb (cp. above 2) in meaning of "up & down, in & out, to & fro"... ā + pa: assasati-passasati (where both terms are semantically alike; in exegesis however they have been differentiated in a way which looks like a distortion of the original meaning, viz. assasati is taken as "breathing out", passasati as "breathing in": see Vism 271)
What I take this to mean is that ā and pa, when used as a pair, mean "in" and "out", respectively. But the Pāli commentarial tradition read them the other way around.

However, PTSD confusingly gives "breath out" in its definition of assasati and assāsa.

This error and the correct reading are noted in Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary sv. āśvāsa-praśvāsa. By comparing various Sanskrit texts and their Tibetan translations, he makes it clear that assāsa (āśvāsa) means "in-breath" and passāsa (praśvāsa) means "out-breath".

And this makes sense in etymological terms also. If we look at the prefix pa (Skt pra), it can add several senses to a verb: onward, forward, forth, beginning. E.g., gacchati "go", pagacchati "go forth". It may also be used for emphasis. It would be quite unlikely to add this prefix to a word and have it mean "in-breath". Passasati must be something like "breathe-forth" or "exhaling".

By contrast, the prefix ā can have an indeterminate effect. But a lot of the time it adds a sense of "to, towards" or with directional verbs it reverses the direction. E.g., gacchati "go", āgacchati "come, return, arrive".

Thus, assasati "breathes in" and passasati "breathes out" are the expected readings. Although it's not so much "breathe in and out" as "the breath goes forth and returns". And this seems to be confirmed in later literature. The PTSD has been confused by the commentarial tradition. Which goes to show that the PTSD is a good dictionary but not perfect, and one should use judgement when consulting it.

One of the big problems that we have with translating is that some of our cognitive metaphors are different from ancient India. We think of breathing in, then breathing out. And we think that the breath is a movement of air caused by our physical movements. The air belongs outside of us and brings life-giving oxygen in.

What this analysis suggests is that in India they thought they breathed out, and then in. Breath goes forth and then returns. The breath belongs inside of us - like many ancient cultures, breath was life itself: words like spirit, anima, psyche, and soul all come from words meaning "breath or breathe". Possibly ātman does as well, though this is disputed.

The movement of our body and the sensations of breathing were caused by the wind element (vāyu) of which breathing was one obvious manifestation. There's not really a word for air as a separate stuff. Arguably, in ānāpāna-sati, you are not paying attention to air or body movements, you are paying attention to the sensations caused by vāyu circulating. Which is why you can become un-aware of gross physical sensations and still be focussed on vāyu. In this view, it is part of our being.

Pāli is a window into the past. But the past really is a different country.

22 August 2018

My Heart Sutra Dilemma

In early medieval China, texts made up of quotes of other texts, in Chinese, were common - I call them "digest texts" based on the traditional Chinese term. Hundreds of them were in circulation (giving librarians a headache, but otherwise very popular).

The Heart Sutra is clearly one of these digest texts. And we know to within 16 years when it was made (645-661).

But I have now shown that the Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra is a forgery. It was made and presented to make a Chinese digest text look like an authentic Indian Buddhist text, when it really wasn't.

It may be the only time such a caper was pulled off. Whoever did it was a clever and sneaky person (so I kind of admire them). But they were not very good at Sanskrit, so even with modern critical methods of restoring the "original", the basic text is full of mistakes.

This also more or less proves that the author or redactor was not the one who translated it into Sanskrit (unless they could not read their own writing).

But a lot of my work to date has been on how to fix the mistakes in the Sanskrit text. Modern mistakes are still obviously in need of correction, but what about the ancient mistakes?

Should I continue to restore a forgery? In particular, should I be bothering to show how they could have done a much better job of it? Or should I just call "bullshit" and leave it at that?

Not forgetting that millions of people around the world worship this text. So far, the millions seem quite unhappy about the effort to show that their worship is based on false pretenses. They are like, "Just piss off, we hate you". Making sure that all the evidence is presented seems like a good thing in the face of this attitude.

15 August 2018

The so-called Hard Problem

Philosophers make a big deal of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. This is the problem of what it is like to be a conscious person from a point of view other than our own. We know our own minds, but we cannot know other minds.

But note that this is a problem of what can be known. In the jargon it is an epistemic problem. If we try to explain this in terms of what exists (or ontology) without reference to what can be known, then we usually say stupid things.

For example, David Chalmers, the young philosopher who in 1995 outlined the Hard Problem for the first time, in 1996 proposed a subtle form of mind-body dualism as a "solution". And since then has dabbled in all kinds of ontologies that don't solve the problem.

Consider that bees can see ultraviolet light and humans cannot. We will never know what it is like to see ultraviolet light. Even though we have cameras that sense ultraviolet light and feed it back to us a visible light. In the end our eyes only physically sense visible light and our brains are only equipped to process nerve impulses from our eyes.

So there is a Hard Problem here also. We simply lack the apparatus to ever know what it is like to see ultraviolet light. We will never know.

But the solution to this problem is not to propose that ultraviolet light is a different kind of stuff. We know that radiation comes in wavelengths from sub-millimetre to kilometers. Ultraviolet light is clearly part of a spectrum of electromagnetic radiation and differs only in wavelength.

We don't need to redesign the entire universe in order to account for not being able to see UV light. Our eyes are not sensitive to it. And that is the end of the story until someone engineers an eye that is responsive to those frequencies and a brain that can make sense of nerve impulses from such eyes.

Epistemology, what can be known, is always limited. In this sense it is a domain to be described rather than a problem to be solved. Some things will always be beyond our knowledge or understanding. There is the universe and then the observable universe: the former may be infinitely bigger than the latter, but we'll never know.

So the question is not how do we solve the Hard Problem. There are stupid questions and this is one of them. It is a stupid question because it elicits stupid answers, mainly in the realm of ontology.

A non-stupid question is, "What can we know about other minds?" Or better, "How do we know about other minds?" We know by observation and inference - the same way we know anything at all about the world beyond ourselves. And, very importantly, we compare notes. What we can know is the dispositions of others.

Of course the validity of inferred knowledge is always a bit doubtful. We often make mistakes due to cognitive biases and logical fallacies. But most of the time we get a pretty good understanding of other people - some of us better than others. And this is partly because we evolved in groups and we have the cognitive apparatus for sussing out the dispositions and relationships of our group. We know because we evolved to know, to some extent.

So the Hard Problem is just a specific case of the general rule that there are limits to what we can know. Don't panic.