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.

11 August 2018


I highly recommend Harry Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit - Princeton University Press published it as a little book. It is a serious look at the prevalent phenomenon of bullshit and bullshitters, providing a working definition, and some commentary.

Bullshit can be distinguished from a lie, in terms of the different goals of the bullshitter and the liar: "Bullshit is rhetoric without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false; only whether or not their listener is persuaded."

The whole of the media, most advertising, all politicians, most business people, and many religious leaders are trying to persuade us of something without regard for the truth. Persuasion has become a industry all of its own: think tanks, lobbyists, public relations, spokespeople, community leaders, etc.

And this is why the issue of objective reality is important - it is both why I do philosophy and hate it at the same time. Without reality, truth is a mere convention. Without a clear notion that there is a true state of affairs, a way that things really are that is independent of our minds, then everything is bullshit and everyone a bullshitter.

Or worse, if truth becomes relative then all we have is individual truths. In this (Romantic) view, since there is no objective truth, one can only be true to one's self, to one's nature. Truth is replaced by sincerity. But, and this is important, sincerity in this scenario is someone trying to persuade you that they are a certain kind of person. In other words, sincerity is bullshit.

06 August 2018

As with astronomy the difficulty of recognizing the motion of the earth lay in abandoning the immediate sensation of the earth's fixity and of the motion of the planets, so in history the difficulty of recognizing the subjection of personality to the laws of space, time, and cause lies in renouncing the direct feeling of the independence of one's own personality. But as in astronomy the new view said: "It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws," so also in history the new view says: "It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws."

In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.

- The last words from War & Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (Chapter 12)

This is great (though I probably still won't read the book). Compare my comments on the sunset illusion.

04 August 2018

The Heart Sutra was not Historically seen as Authentic.

I was looking again at how Kazuaki Tanahashi presents the modern scholarship on the Heart Sutra and came across this quote:
"According to Fukui [Fumimasa], there has not been a single record or argument in Chinese history that suggests the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal text." (Tanahashi 2014: 77)
Fukui is responding to Jan Nattier's 1992 article which explains that the quoted section in the Heart Sutra (about half the text) is an extract from the Chinese Dajing translation produced by Kumārajīva et al (T223). He could not be more wrong. Here are the historical Chinese sources that contradict him.
  1. Catalogue by Dàoān, 道安 in 374. Although this catalogue is itself lost, Sēngyòu reproduces much of it in his catalogue (T2145). Dàoān categorises the 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪 (supposedly the Heart Sutra) as "unknown translator" and lists apart from authentic sutras.
  2. 《出三藏記集》Chūsānzàng jìjí or Collection of Records about the Production of the Tripiṭaka (T2145), produced 515 CE by Sēngyòu (僧祐 445–518). Lists 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪 as "unknown translator" and lists apart from authentic sutras.
  3. 《大隋眾經目錄》 or Dà Suí Catalogue compiled in 594 by Fǎjīng also lists titles 《 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.123.b.22-3) under the heading of Mahāyāna texts "produced separately" (別生). As Tokuno notes, this category was invented by Fǎjīng to contain the digest sutras (抄經).
  4. 《歷代三寳記》 Records of the Three Treasuries Throughout Successive Dynasties, compiled by Fèi Chángfáng (費長房 ) in 597 CE (T2034). Lists the 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 with an annotation 或無經字 "perhaps not a sutra" (T 49.55.c.1).
  5. 《內典文全集》 Complete collection of Buddhist scriptures (T2147) in 602 CE. Yàncóng was a skilled and systematic translator and an expert on Prajñāpāramitā. Yàncóng's catalogue again lists 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.162.a.24-5) under the heading 大乘別生 or "Mahāyāna Produced Separately", i.e. digests of Mahāyāna sutras.
  6. 般若波羅蜜多心經幽贊》 ( 2 卷) Comprehensive Commentary on the Prañāpāramitā Heart Sutra 【唐 窺基撰】 [Tang Dynasty. Kuījī 窺基] T1710.  Refers to the Heart Sutra being produced separately (別出) by the sages, "rather than as preached by the Buddha" meaning he did not see it as an authentic sutra. 
  7. 《般若波羅蜜多心經 贊》 ( 1 卷) Prañāpāramitā Heart Sutra Commentary.【唐 圓測撰】[Tang Dynasty. Woncheuk 圓測 (Pinyin: Yuáncè)] T1711.  "Since [this text] selects the essential outlines from all the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras, it has only the main chapter, without introduction and conclusion, just as the Kuan-yin ching (Avalokiteśvara-sūtra) is not composed of three sections.
If indeed the 神呪 (vidyā? dhāraṇī?) texts are the Heart Sutra, then all of the catalogues are united in not considering them authentic sutras. And once the category of "digest text" (抄經) is identified, the 神呪 are always categorised with other digests. However, given that the Heart Sutra cannot be earlier than 404 CE, i.e. the date of the Dajing translation it quotes from (T223), then the 神呪 texts, which have continuity going back to 374 CE, are plainly not the Heart Sutra

The first evidence of the Heart Sutra is the Fangshan stele dated 661 CE with a text very like the Xīnjīng (T251). The Damingzhoujing (T250) doesn't make an appearance until 730. It plainly post-dates Xīnjīng and was produced as part of the legitimising myth for Xīnjīng. The fact is that, as good as he was, Xuanzang was never a popular translator. He never had the impact that Kumārajīva et al did. So adding a text attributed to Kumārajīva was a way to raise the status of the text. 

However, we know from internal evidence that the Chinese text is not a translation from Sanskrit at all. It is a digest text based on the Dajing. Therefore it is wrong to say that Xuanzang translated it. What is more, Kuījī and Woncheuk both knew this in the 7th Century.

Of course someone translated it into Sanskrit, which can only have been aimed at deceiving us into believing that the Xīnjīng was a translation. Where the Xīnjīng might be seen as a pious attempt to find the essence of Prajñāpāramitā, the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (i.e. the Sanskrit translation of the Xīnjīng) can only have been made to deceive us about the origins of the Xīnjīng. Which it did. Ironically, is a cheap forgery full of Chinese idioms and nasty unidiomatic Sanskrit phrases. Had anyone been paying attention for the last 1300 years this would have been completely obvious.

Fukui is now deceased. So he cannot go on fulminating, although Japanese and Japanophiles continue to cite his flawed works and those by other parochial Japanese scholar-priests who do not like to face the truth.

See also my essay The True History of the Heart Sutra

17 July 2018

The Philosophy of the Heart Sutra

I'm thinking again about the "philosophy" of the Heart Sutra this morning. It seems to me that we can only stick to the middle way, the avoidance of the extremes of existence (attitā) and non-existence (n'atthitā) when we deal with the world of experience.

It is entirely straightforward to assert that when I do not pay attention to some aspect of my sensorium I do not experience it. When the neighbours' builder starts drilling a hole in a brick outside my window, the apprehension of that sound very often drives the words out of my head and I lose my train of thought. Unless I pay attention to it, I don't notice the chair that I'm sitting on. The experience of nonapprehension occurs every time we become distracted. Things pop into experience and out of it.

However, not experiencing something is not the same as its not existing. We must carefully distinguish between experience and reality. If I close my eyes, the world does not blink out of existence. I just did it, and I doubt any of you noticed anything different. When I close my eyes and electrical impulses along my optic nerve stop arriving in the visual centre of my brain, then I stop having a vivid visual experience, and it just limits to mostly dark, but with static from my brain.

And this doesn't tell me anything about the nature of reality. Of course, minds are part of reality and insight into the nature of experience is, ipso facto, insight into the nature of reality. But only in a very narrow sense.

The meditation practices that characterise the Heart Sutra are those where we deliberately withdraw attention from our sensorium. Done progressively, we can, with relative ease, reach a state with no sensory experience (except maybe some brain static).

And in that state of emptiness, there is no experience, or in Buddhist jargon terms, no form, no feeling, no recognition, no volution, and no dualistic cognition (śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānam = 是故,空中無色,無受想行識).

It is emphatically not the case that the Heart Sutra is denying the existence of form. Instead it is pointing to difficulties of defining what an experience is, and especially what the absence of experience (emptiness) is like.

Of course, other approaches to practice involve focussing on objects (mindfulness of breathing) or the cultivation of qualities (such as the dhyāna factors) and these also work. And the Prajñāpāramitā tradition upheld such practices. However, they specialised in anupalambhayogena, the practice of non-apprehension, i.e., of withdrawing attention.

The Heart Sutra has been badly misunderstood, partly because Conze made a number of mistakes in his Sanskrit edition and because his English translations are nonsensical. Conze was influenced, as many others were, by D T Suzuki, who was as much a Theosophist as he was a Buddhist: hence his obsession with "The Absolute". Obscurities emerge also because, when the first Sanskrit translation from the original Chinese was made in the 7th Century, the translator misconstrued the text and made some mistakes (not counting horribly unidiomatic Sanskrit). And this Sanskrit abomination became the standard for interpreting the Chinese text. Also, the most prominent (and oldest surviving) Sanskrit manuscript is full of scribal errors and editorial corruptions which influenced ideas about Prajñāpāramitā in Japan, where it is kept. Finally, the Heart Sutra was decontextualised and lost the connection to the practical Prajñāpāramitā tradition and was interpreted instead first through the Yogācāra and later the Madhyamaka Schools of thought. This led to gross distortions of the message of the text away from being experience-centred towards metaphysical speculation.

None of this is helped by the most prominent recent translations from Sanskrit being made by people who do not read Sanskrit beyond looking up words in dictionaries. They do not notice Conze's simply grammatical errors. Despite meeting passages that literally do not make sense in Conze's edition, they shoehorn them into some kind of sense that is unrelated to the text.

No wonder the Heart Sutra seems mysterious! But, really, it isn't so mysterious. It extends a kind of experience that we all have. When our attention wanders, the thing we were focussed on disappears. Harnessing this by deliberately withdrawing attention leads to some profound states of mind.

  • Withdraw attention from the sensorium and all spatial boundaries seem to fall away. 
  • Withdraw attention from conscious mental activity and all mental boundaries seem to fall away. 
  • Withdraw attention from self and all limits to compassion seem to fall away
  • Withdraw attention from attending and everything seems to falls away. 
  • Withdrawn from attending one dwells in emptiness (Pāli suññatā-vihāra). 

Emptiness is just over the horizon, not in some other universe. Emptiness as some kind of metaphysical absolute is meaningless and nonsensical. It appeals only to those who enjoy the sensation of being confused - just as a roller coasters and horror films appeal to some people for their intense sensations. A lot of people seem to want to revere something that they don't understand and which they consider incomprehensible. A garbled sacred text fits the bill.

My view is that we have to row back from metaphysical speculation when we formulate what we say to people about what we do. We pay attention to experience and we withdraw attention from experience. This leads to a healthier lifestyle, on one hand, and to genuine contentment unrelated to the experience of pleasure, on the other. It's not rocket science and its not mysticism either. It is deliberate and systematic exploration of the effects of paying attention and withdrawing attention.

18 April 2018

Jordan Peterson

I'm quite prepared to ignore Jordan Peterson, his brand of politics (alt-right) has little to interest me (I'm a fan of Marx, so JP thinks of me as akin to a Nazi). And that would have been that, except that I gather that JP is popular in some quarters of the Triratna Buddhist Order. So I probably do need to keep him on my radar. Here are some good critiques of JP

18 March 2018


Nationalism (and other forms of tribalism) are pretty much inevitably when ordinary people feel their livelihood is uncertain or threatened. Tolerance is a quality of secure & prosperous people.

The current rise of nationalism is IMHO a direct result of decreasing job security, worsening working conditions, disappearing pensions, failing public services, and falling wages across Europe and the USA.

Demonising nationalism won't help. What will help is job security, better working conditions, guaranteed pensions, robust public services, and wages that keep up with inflation.

This is not rocket science or ideology. It's a simple observation about what happens when people feel insecure and their livelihood is threatened. They tend to react badly and often violently when they can't feed their families.

Sure, they may scapegoat the wrong people, e.g. govts and the ruling classes are to blame, but immigrants might bear the brunt. But the idea that people are rational was always bullshit.

Don't be surprised when the masses get it wrong, after all they elected the people who took away their job security, etc. Don't be surprised when they act irrationally. They are scared and backed into a corner.

The rise of nationalism is the result of the capture of government by wealthy business people and the inequitable distribution of the profits of industry. This led to growing economic insecurity. And here we are.

You can't have a secure 1% at the expense of insecurity for the 99% and expect a stable and open society. You can only expect some crazy shit to start happening. And without fundamental reforms, it will only get worse.

I know some people are quick to point out that inequality is falling globally. True. Globalisation seeks to convert every human being into a consumer of useless products. Thus lifting the socio-economic status of the very poor is essential for the Globalisation project. But where everyone is already a consumer, it is important to weaken and divide them. Undermining their economic security does just this.

Also if someone earns a dollar a day, it's not that expensive to give them 2 dollars. If they earn the minimum wage in the UK, it is much more expensive to double their income. And the fact is that wages have been falling in the UK for 10 years.