28 September 2016

Political Suicide

Someone just Tweeted regarding a story in the Guardian, that the UK Labour Party had "committed political suicide". And I thought. "What, again?"

Apparently a person can commit suicide just the once, but a political party can do so repeatedly.

The nightmare of the UK Labour Party is that they commit political suicide, are reanimated as a mutant, elect an unelectable leader, then commit suicide again, are reanimated, and so on. And this has been happening at least since Gordon Brown became the Prime Minister in 2010.

This is a party political message from the People's Front of Judea (Executive).

27 September 2016

Strangers & Globalisation

This is another para that I've decided to cut from an essay, but don't want to just throw away. I wish I'd kept more of these edits over the years!
"The concerns over immigration in the UK need to be seen not simply as racist or some kind of phobia to strangers (i.e. xenophobia). We are social primates, for us xenophobia is a feature not a bug. Outsiders cause us stress, mostly because we don't know what norms they follow. If we are not assured that most people are following the norms most of the time we will naturally (and completely normally) be anxious. It goes to the heart of our being. It's all very well for liberals to scoff, but I think we've seen recently that liberals don't really understand people. They have fluffed a number of important confrontations because they treat people with contempt. In the UK it has meant leaving the European Union at an inopportune moment. In the USA it has allowed Donald Trump to get the Republican nomination and put him ahead in the polls as I write. We are seeing a general resurgence of nationalism and tribalism - because this is less stressful for most people than globalisation and mass migration. The break down in the Balkans. The rifts along religious and ethnic lines in the Middle East. Britain leaving the EU. In the background many Scots want to leave the UK; Catalans want to leave Spain and so on. In Europe we are also seeing the rise of far-right, nationalist, political parties. For Europeans to be entertaining Fascism again is by the far the most striking augury of our times. We cannot simply override the needs of social primates and expect them to be content. And discontent is an unpredictable force in society."
"Globalisation was instituted in the 18th Century and then reinstituted in the 1970s and 1980s because it makes more profit for the 1%. It's not because it makes the world better, unless by "better" you mean the rich get richer. The four freedoms of the EU, including the free movement of labour and capital are central pillars of Neoliberalism. They undermine pay and working conditions in richer countries which means that companies make more profits. And then they allow those companies to take their profits offshore to tax havens where government cannot tax them. Globalisation is not for the little people, not for the 99%, there is no benefit to ordinary people in globalisation."

25 September 2016

Ultradoxy & Acolytes

Call me perverse, but I'm often interested in heterodoxy - alternative opinions. It's not simply that I'm against having a consensus, but that where there is no other way of thinking about something, and I discover some alternative that is being actively suppressed, I find myself giving it serious consideration. The first time I actively remember doing this was when I discovered Immanuel Velikovsky's book World's in Collision. On balance I think Velikovsky was probably wrong, but for a moment in my life I realised that everything I had been taught might be wrong. A door opened.

I'm also a fan of Lynn Margulis' views on evolution. She argues that the role of competition is overstated by NeoDarwinians and that symbiosis, hybridisation, coopertation, and communities have played a vital, perhaps more important role. This is still minority view, but certain results of science have helped to shift the mainstream. For example then discovery that all modern humans originating outside of Africa have genes acquired from Homo neanderthalis and Homo denisova. Almost no modern humans are purely Homo sapiens; most of us are hybrids. Another example is the nascent discovery of the increasing important and far-reaching role of our gut microbiome. It turns out that our internal symbionts are far more intimately involved in our pursuit of homoeostasis than anyone (except perhaps Margulis) could have thought. Lately Elaine Morgan's Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has had a boost as Sir David Attenborough has done another radio documentary on it. And in Buddhist studies, Sue Hamilton's revised understanding of the skandhas has been decisive in how I understand Buddhism.

The heretics that interest me are often women and have been marginalised for no other reason than that the inner circle were men.

Orthodoxy becomes hegemonic - takes over - when holders of orthodox views can no longer imagine any alternative. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is orthodox, in the sense that it's what the majority believe, but it's not hegemonic because there are alternatives and some quite prominent people hold alternative views (Sean Carroll is a fan of Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation for example).

In economics however the Neoclassical consensus is taught as the only way to think about economics. Many people think that Neoclassical economics is economics. In fact many academic economists reject Neoclassical views and there are several varieties of heterodox view. But heterodoxy is almost never taught in universities, and doesn't get journalistic coverage. World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, recently said:
After over 30 years of “intellectual regress”, the study of booms and busts now reminds him of a lipstick-wearing pig or an obsolete scientific embarrassment like the phlogiston theory of fire. The field is dominated by a tight-knit congregation, he argues, unified by deference to authority, not facts. Their revered leaders rely on high-handed assumptions to make their models work. But they do not admit to these inadequacies, pretending their naked assumptions are clothed in fine theoretical robes. (The Economist, 24 Sep 2016)
In biology something similar applies to what critics call NeoDarwinism. Evolution is the theory of the "selfish gene" and no other theory can possibly be true. Dissenters are treated like heretics. Misguided at best; mad, bad, and dangerous at worst.

This is not the same as subject areas excluding outsiders by maintaining abstruse discussions full of impenetrable jargon and shibboleths. In this case arguments about fundamentals are one of the traps for novices - if one view appeals and one says so, the participants will begin listing all the reasons for not believing that. And this happens whatever one's view is. The point here is not to control what you think, but to gains status by winning arguments. This is how philosophy works for example.

Coming back to hegemony we find a particular dynamic that is common in religious groups as well. Orthodoxy becomes ultradoxy - the one, all encompassing view. It might also be called überdoxy, superdoxy, overdoxy, etc. Ultradoxy is defined by an inner circle of priests whose main work is precisely defining and maintaining the ultradoxy. And around them them an immune system.

When someone like me says, e.g. "I don't find Dawkins very compelling, and that he just seems to have applied the Neoliberal ideology to biology; and that furthermore I find Margulis a more compelling theorist" this creates an irritation. The irritation attracts a low level acolyte (i.e. a white-cell) who will begin by ritually dismissing the dissent as stupidity or lunacy. This may come off as trolling, but the white-cell is not simply attacking for no reason. In attacking a dissenter, the low-level acolyte is proving their devotion to the ultradoxy. Of course low level acolytes will never be part of the inner-circle, but they crave the approval of that circle (the absent father?) and so they react angrily to dissent and attack with vigour in the hope of getting noticed. They often imagine they have the authority of the ultradoxy behind them, though this is seldom true. Priests hate acolytes in this model.

Unsurprisingly the high priests never get involved in this level of discourse. It is far too crude and coarse for them. These are people who teach undergraduates out of grudging acknowledgement that though they are priests of the inner circle, their salary is paid, and the the temple is owned, by someone else. And these days the money people don't even have a shared set of core values with the priests. So the priests are busy defending their turf in high-levels games.

Debate is nearly always pointless because the acolyte is wholly committed to thinking in terms of the ultradoxy. From their point of view dissent can only arise from misunderstanding or madness. So all they can really do is restate the ultradox view, and say that the dissenter is an idiot or insane (almost all internet "debate" fits neatly into these two slots. Acolytes are not interacting with the view to finding the truth, they are setting out to defend the Truth (as they see it). They take attacks on the Truth quite personally.

The irony is that the inner-circle are contemptuous of low-level acolytes, no matter how well they grasp the outlines of the utlradoxy, they are not initiated into the central mysteries and never will be. And dissenters are often at the same level. If I support Margulis over Dawkins, am really I doing more than wearing a tee-shirt with a name on it? I'm really just advertising my allegiance to people who do not know I exist, and probably would not care if they did. So the insanity charge starts to look more plausible.

24 September 2016

Revisiting Basic Philosophy

Twitter led me to an interesting blog post on Ribbon Farm, by Venkatesh Rao that is one of a series (see below). And in it I found what I think is a very useful way of looking at the ideas of ontology and epistemology.

He was basing his exposition of this idea on an article. "I got my definitions from this excellent 1993 paper, Choice Over Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Technical Problem Solving" (How to). The basic idea seems to be about asking the right questions.
But for everyday reading, it’s not actually that complicated. Do I know what am I looking at? is an ontological question. Can I do something with it? (such as “test for truth” or “use to poke Superman”) is an epistemological question. (The Cactus)

As Rao says, "I like to use the term ambiguity for unclear ontology and uncertainty for unclear epistemology." (How to). This is both excellent and great! Because we never have perfect knowledge of physical reality. So any ontology has a measure of ambiguity. And any epistemology has a measure of uncertainty.

On my big blog I have said "All our observations about the world have these three properties, i.e. accuracy, precision, and error". Every measurement of a physical property comes with built in error due to the nature of measurement. This is drilled into every student of science, but for some reason left out of every journalistic account of science and more or less every figure quoted by journalists - so there is some uncertainty in people's minds about science.

On the other hand, because of the nature of social reality, we can often state facts with a great deal more certainty. The £10 note in my wallet is definitely money. There is no uncertainty about this. The note itself is ontologically objective, it exists; but money is ontologically subjective. Many scientists and philosophers seem to think that money being ontologically subjective means that it is ontologically ambiguous. I disagree. There's sometimes uncertainty about money, how it works and what the value of it it, but these are epistemological issues.

When looking at a £10 note I know exactly what I'm looking at. And I know what I can do with it. This level of certainty is not available to physicists, except when they are dealing with money or some other ontologically subjective phenomena, such as consciousness.

23 September 2016

Self, Other, & Group.

"Where the institution demands more of its participants that it can extract by force, where consent is essential, a great deal of pomp, ceremony, and razzamatazz is used in such a way as to suggest that something more is going on than simply acceptance of [the institutional fact]." - Searle. The Construction of Social reality, 118.
Although of course "force" extends to all sorts of persuasion and coercion. The main lever that institutions have is the human desire to belong to a community. They lean on this lever to gain acceptance of the status quo - and acceptance makes it a reality! Leaders can only lead if people follow. The one cannot control the many without their consent. Even armies can only govern by brute force while people consent not to rebel. Once death become preferable to the status quo, then even totalitarian states are in trouble. Dictatorships don't last.

But if we are prepared to accept the institutional facts—titles, functions, roles, statuses, hierarchies, & deontologies—then we are welcomed with open arms. If we are not prepared to accept the institutional facts then we are rejected, shunned, sanctioned, and perhaps killed. The razzamatazz is propaganda aimed at making it seem more attractive to accept the institutional facts.

The word deontology refers to rights, responsibilities, obligations, duties, privileges, entitlements, authorizations, permissions, prohibitions, taboos, penalties, and other such phenomena.
The most important thing about deontology is that it 
gives people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations. That is, over and about autism (or self-centredness) and altruism (other-centredness), there are a set of behaviours expected of group members that are merely displays of acceptance of group norms. Deontologies and group norms are symbolised by status indicators. I have my Sanskrit name and a special strip of white cloth (with an emblem and a tassel) that I wear around my neck. In certain special contexts I am referred to as Dharmacārī*.  Monks have special names, titles, shaved heads, robes, and ceremonial hats. Etc.
* This is technically bad grammar: dharmacārī is the masculine nominative singular. But my name is always given in the undeclined form, i.e. Jayarava. It should be Dharmacārin Jayarava or Dharmacārī Jayaravaḥ, but not Dharmacārī Jayarava.
A lot of people these days want to detach themselves from the deontological aspects of religious groups. Since we fetishise altruism and deontological motivations are often neither self nor other oriented, but membership oriented, some people conclude that religion is a waste of time and we can just practice self-transformation and altruism without any reference to institutional structures. We sometimes call this spiritual-but-not-religious. Though SBNR is usually literally concerned with the soul, variously conceived. And souls don't exist. And humans are more or less always members of groups or societies and take on deontologies as a result. At the least we are citizens with duties and obligations related to that status/function.

To those who wonder, "Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?" Perhaps we should say that Buddhism is a deontology: a system of duties, obligations, prohibitions, authorisations, empowerments, ordinations, and so on. This gives rise to institutions with titles, functions, roles, statuses, and hierarchies. Since these require collective acceptance to exist, let alone be meaningful, they are often accompanied by pomp and circumstance, and special hats. Traditionally, the Buddhist publicly takes on a set of beliefs and practices and is rewarded with membership and the promise of liberation through fulfilling their obligations.

20 September 2016


I wrote this paragraph as part of an exploration of social reality. It doesn't quite fit the tone of the essay, but I didn't want to just delete it.

"When I was in primary school an aspect of a teacher acting in loco parentis was that they were enabled to administer physical punishments. Some teachers used this as a last resort when other options failed, while others used the threat of violence as their primary means of maintaining order and even seemed to take pleasure in both threatening and using violence against children. One teacher in particular was a sadistic maniac. So when the laws regarding corporal punishment changed from enabling to prohibition, I was very pleased. More informally there were existing prohibitions against peer to peer violence. These were considerably strong between sexes. If two boys had a fight it was treated as a misdemeanour. If a boy fought with a girl, it was considered very serious, and usually resulted in a beating for the boy. The irony of beating boys for committing acts of violence was never raised. The girls understood this set up and often exploited it, knowing that they were protected by the rules and could provoke boys with relative impunity. On a couple of occasions when I suffered fairly serious assaults in primary school (an arm broken more or less on purpose and having my face gouged with finger nails) the retribution exacted by the headmaster of our school was quite terrifying in itself. It was an explosion of the angry violence of a grown man inflicted on a child. I was certainly scarred by these attacks, but the kids who hurt me probably came off worse. That such things are now illegal is certainly a good thing."

17 September 2016

Aquatic Apes

I was so taken with David Attenborough's recent documentary on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, The Water Side Ape that I listened to both episodes twice and took some notes.It seems the idea is now mainstream after a few decades of being marginal, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Elaine Morgan. To be clear, Morgan always maintained that this was a hypothesis and not a theory. She argued that it was up to scientists to examine the hypothesis, see what predictions it might make, and test these predictions, which is the gold standard for scientific method. Most scientists have been very reluctant to even consider the hypothesis, frequently arguing that there is "no evidence for it", which is the opposite of science.

The idea of the AAH is that at some stage in our evolution, well before modern humans emerged, we foraged main in water for all or part of the year, but also spend time on land, and presumably in trees. Spending a lot of time wading and diving in water over tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years led to partial adaptations to that environment that make humans superficially unlike any other great ape, for example we are upright, bipedal, and relatively hairless (hence we are the "naked ape"), except on our heads where we grow extraordinarily long hair.

The mainstream view was that we were semi-arboreal like chimps are today, but that the climate changed and left us living on the savannah that now covers eastern, sub-Saharan Africa. Why we did not do what other species of apes did and move with the trees, is not clear. Put a chimp on the savannah and it has no food and no protection from group predators like hyenas and lions. Chimps can defend against their main predators, leopards, because they are solitary hunters who can be driven off by a concerted group effort. Not so hyenas!

According to this hypothesis, life on the savannah encouraged us to walk upright and left our hands free for other tasks, though whether this was tools, weapons, or babies is unclear. But if the chimp is badly adapted to finding a living on the savannah, make them stand upright to move about and they are suddenly visible to predators from far off and too slow to run away from most predators because four-legged gaits are must faster!

Losing our body hair is said to be an adaptation to heat loss, but we are curiously the only African animal of that area that lost our body hair. If it heat loss was the driver, then their ought to have been parallel evolution of other naked animals. But there was not, except for the hippopotamus which spends most of its time in the water!

But it has recently emerged that in fact there was no savannah where we evolved when we evolved. The area was woodland and wetlands. The savannah hypothesis idea is definitely defunct. Which leaves the field open and the aquatic ape hypothesis ought to be a contender. Some of the key points follow.

Adaptations to a Semi-Aquatic Lifestyle.

Like other aquatic mammals we are relatively hairless and have a layer of subcutaneous fat (or blubber). Land mammals don't need the buoyancy and insulation that blubber provides; and where they do need insulation, they tend to opt for fur instead. Except in the semi-aquatic hippo.

We also share a curious feature with seals that we share with no terrestrial mammal, i.e. vernix - the (water-proof) waxy coating that covers new born babies. In fact it was a prediction of the hypothesis that aquatic mammals might share this feature with us, and the discovery of vernix in seals is a confirmed prediction of the hypothesis.

The AAH argues that wading was the origin of bipedalism. Other normally quadrupedal modern apes, i.e. chimps and baboons, switch to bipedalism when wading. Land-based bipedalism would have left us with a major a disadvantage in terms of speed before we were fully adapted to running. Chimps for example are very much slower and less manoeuvrable on two legs than on four. But equally any adaptations towards bipedalism would have been a major disadvantage to arboreal life. Loosing the ability to grip with feet, for example, makes life in the trees much less viable.  In other words, the early trait, which had to have lasted millennia would have not survived natural selection if we were solely land-based because disadvantages outweighed advantages. Bipedalism on land would have killed us off. Only once we were fully upright and agile could be have started running on two legs. You have to walk before you can run.

There is also good evidence for food collection from water dating well before anatomically modern humans (going back 2 million years in fact). Especially good evidence for catching and consumption of-large fresh water fish that were rich in omega 3 fatty acids and thus probably contributed to our growing brains. Add to this the recent observation of chimps using long sticks to "fish" for pond algae, also high in protein and fatty acids. These foods are available in the dry season, precisely at the time when fat content of land-based prey animals is at its lowest, which (in a confirmation of recent changes in dietary advice) make it a poor dietary choice, especially for nursing mothers.

Lastly, communities of women who dive in shallow water for a living in Korea and Japan remain fit for much longer than land based workers. There is no deterioration of their ability to work until around age 75. Women frequently continue to productively dive for a living into their 90s. People who do this or spend a lot of time in cold water get a bony growth in their ear canal called "Surfer's Ear". Identical growths are found in Homo erectus (ca 2 million years before present) and in both anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals, indicating a semi-aquatic lifestyle for all three.

The route modern humans took out of Africa ca 100,000 ybp followed the coastline and rivers, suggesting that water continued to be an important source of food, as it does right up the present day for many communities.

So the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is now mainstream or rapidly becoming mainstream.

But predictably, despite spelling out the evidence and giving an example of a testable hypothesis that has been tested and shown to be accurate, some scientists are still saying that the aquatic ape hypothesis is flatly wrong. It seems that no matter how much evidence accumulates, there is no evidence whatever. This kind conservatism and resistance to paradigm changes in science has been noted by historians of science. Max Planck once quipped that progress in his field occurred one funeral at a time, i.e. only as the old guard died out and were replaced by youngsters with nimbler minds.

Extra notes

Observations in want of an explanation that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis explains.

  1. Lack of body hair when other great apes are hairy, and many aquatic or semi-aquatic mammals, like hippos, are not.
  2. Subcutaneous fat layer (blubber) when no other ape or land mammal has it, but marine mammals do.
  3. Presence of exostosis (aka "surfer's ear") in fossils. It occurs with frequent immersion in cold water.
  4. Bipedalism. When on land any early attempts at bipedalism carry significant evolutionary disadvantage (on two legs our ancestors were slower, less manoeuvrable, and more visible to predators). Watch a chimp on it's back legs and you see what the problem is - they are fucking awkward! The advantages of carrying stuff in our hands was minimal at first. Also other apes are routinely bipedal when wading in water.
  5. Vernix (waxy substance covering newborns). Also found in seals, but in no other land mammal.
  6. Stone tool cut marks on fish bones ca 2 million year bp, and other fossil evidence showing a substantial part of our ancestors diet was from the water
  7. Diving reflex in infants newborn to 6 months
  8. Breath control. No other land based mammal can hold its breath!

Via @DegenRolf

Boesch, C., et al. (2016), Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22613

See also the crab eating Macaque via  BBC's Planet Earth documentary series.

Crab eating macaques also use simple tools.

And there is another amphibious monkey, the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) of Borneo (via New Scientist).

Via Youtube

FYI, an update of the "littoral dispersal model" (Munro 2010), a more correct term than "aquatic ape". Paleo-environmental & comparative fossil data suggest 3 overlapping theories:
  1. Mio-Pliocene hominoids incl. australopithecines did NOT live in dry savannas, but in wetlands, wading & climbing vertically in above-swamp branches – aqu-arboreal theory,
  2. Pleistocene Homo did NOT endurance-run, but followed African & Eurasian coasts & rivers, beach-combing, diving & wading for littoral, shallow aquatic & waterside foods incl. shellfish – littoral theory,
  3. late-Pleistocene H. sapiens reduced diving, and mostly waded & walked bipedally, fishing & collecting with long straight legs & complex tools – wading theory.

Pliocene Epoch       5.333 million to 2.58 million years BP.
Pleistocene Epoch  2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago

Some relevant recent papers:

J.Joordens, S.Munro cs 2014 Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving, Nature doi 10.1038/nature13962

M.Verhaegen, S.Munro 2011 Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods, HOMO J.compar.hum.Biol.62:237-247

S.Munro 2010 Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts, PhD thesis Univ.Canberra

J.Joordens cs 2009 Relevance of aquatic environments for hominins: a case study from Trinil (Java, Indonesia), J.hum.Evol.57:656-671

M.Gutierrez cs 2001 Exploitation d’un grand cétacé au Paléolithique ancien: le site de Dungo V à Baia Farta (Benguela, Angola), Compt.Rend.Acad.Sci.332:357-362

K.Choi, D.Driwantoro 2007 Shell tool use by early members of Homo erectus in Sangiran, central Java, Indonesia: cut mark evidence, J.archaeol.Sci.34:48-58

S.Cunnane 2005 Survival of the fattest: the key to human brain evolution, World Scient.Publ.Comp.

M.Vaneechoutte cs eds 2011 Was Man more aquatic in the past? eBook Bentham Sci.Publ.

P.Rhys Evans cs eds 2013-2014 Human Evolution conference London May 2013 proceedings, special editions Hum.Evol.28 & 29

M.Verhaegen 2013 The aquatic ape evolves: common misconceptions and unproven assumptions about the so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, Hum.Evol.28:237-266, 

16 September 2016


I often start the day glancing through Twitter to see if anyone has pointed to anything interesting to read. Today I skimmed several articles. One made me comment. It started with the sentence
"The minds of individuals are like parallel universes, forever inaccessible to one another."
This is a common enough idea in philosophy and neuroscience. Because the mind is a product of the brain and knowledge is a product of the mind, then knowing the mind is subjective.
But it is subjective in the same way that digestion is. You cannot be nourished by the food I eat. The nutrients are only available to my cells, because digestion takes place in my internal organs. This does not stop you from understanding that my digestion process is very similar to yours because it is based on an near identical infrastructure. Indeed it does not stop you from gaining objective knowledge of digestion as a process.
If you wanted to mystify the subject, to obfuscate in order to make it difficult to understand you could easily do so. A simple way to do this, is to insist on talking about digestion from an abstract point of view. e.g. nourishment. If eating and digestion are all about nourishment, and nourishment is entirely subjective then it becomes a Hard Problem. What is it like to be nourished by food? The nourishment you gain from eating a peach will never be the same as my nourishment. The digestive systems of individuals are like parallel universes, forever inaccessible to one another. True, but so what?
Conscious states are treated in the same way. We insist that the point of reference is an abstraction: consciousness. Because it is an abstraction it constitutes a Hard Problem - trying to explain abstractions in concrete terms other than the ones the abstractions were abstracted doesn't work, unless we do it metaphorically. But the clever clogs will always shoot down the metaphor because it is indirect.
Mental states are not directly accessible. But we can and do gain objective knowledge about other people's minds. If we did not then no communication would be possible. No drama would ever move us. No character in a novel would ever hold our attention. And so on. More especially we could not be a social animal. We could not cooperate, empathise, love, be altruistic, or be moral.
So yeah, of course we cannot *be* other people. We cannot have direct access to their mental states. But this does not mean that other minds are *inaccessible*, let alone forever inaccessible. We constantly have indirect access to other people's minds. I write these things to give you glimpses into mine.

14 September 2016

Physics to Sociology

The great philosophical task of our day is not reconciling science and religion. That ship has sailed and religion is not a passenger. The task is reconciling physics and sociology.
At the extreme, proponents of each domain deny that the others know anything at all. Some sociologists argue that all knowledge is relative to the observer and that science is just one mode of knowing amongst many. And science is not even the best mode. Physicists on the other hand say that sociologists don't understand science or the implications of it, and that sociology is all just physics any way. As in all wars, there are those who think they benefit from continued hostility.
One of the things that appeals to me about John Searle is that he is attempting to bridge the gap. He's actually trying to explain the world rather than further some sectarian agenda. As such he's not taken very seriously by those with a vested interest in keeping the fight going.

03 September 2016


I'm pleased that science has become a denominative verb "sciencing". As in when one zealously tackles a problem using the methods of science, one might be described as "sciencing the shit out of it". I like this phrase very much.
There's nothing wrong with "verbing nouns". It does not, as Calvin claimed, "weird language". It's just a normal process. Neologisms almost always take a while to bed in.

02 September 2016


"Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." - The Big Lebowski

01 September 2016

Me and Glenn Wallis

I wrote this on Google+ in 2014 and updated it in 2016. I felt it was important to me to record my encounter with Glenn Wallis. I'm republishing it here to make it easier for me to find.


30 march 2014. I happened to notice this morning that the inimitable Glenn Wallis had devoted a blog post to lambasting me and my approach to Buddhism in Feb 2014. It was not always so. Glenn and I started corresponding sometime around 2008 (the surviving emails I have from him date from then). In May 2008 he wrote:
"I just checked your blogspot. Really wonderful -- informed,  intelligent, thought-provoking. I will be experimenting with  the form for a while. I am hoping (but, I have to admit,  somewhat doubtful) that I'll form some sort of  critically responsible community. We''l see." [sic]
"Hope to stay in touch with you. And I look forward to  digging in to your essays more deeply."
He contacted me. He cultivated my friendship. It was flattering, as I still thought of him as an academic and I still generally admired academics at the time, and still had some kind of academic aspirations myself.

We did keep in touch. In 2011 he passed on an opportunity to write a commissioned article in a journal, thus allowing me to be published in his stead. His email of 23 Sep 2011 read:
"Greetings my friend! I wonder if you might be interested in taking on the following assignment. I was asked to write a response, in an ecumenical journal, to a Christian trying to make sense of anatman vis a vis "personalist spirituality." I am attaching the article; see below for the instructions for the response. If you would like to do it, I will recommend you to the editor. I don't won't to do it because I cannot in good faith represent a Buddhist perspective."
This became the article:
'Facing Death without a Soul: A Response to George Adams'. Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 47(2) 2012: 282-287.
I asked for his feedback on my essay before finally submitting it to JES and he wrote back (31 Oct 2011):
"I like the presentation of your response to Adam's. It's sharp, focused, clipped to the essentials, bright. You were much more generous to him than I felt inclined to be; though that is not to say that you don't tell him--and your readers--where he has gone wrong."
"Thanks for taking on the assignment, and for proving to the editors my claim of your mastery (like the craftsman, remember?)"

Again, it was all very flattering.

The article was commissioned a few months after Glenn started Speculative Non-Buddhism, his blog criticising BuddhistsOne of the first posts on SNB was an enthusiastic recommendation of my blog and in particular my post looking at the work of Thomas Metzinger. And as I read the recent denunciation of me, I felt a bit nostalgic. I went looking for that blog post of his and could not find it. It does not appear on the list of posts on the present blog. Fortunately the internet archive do have a copy. It was published on May 4, 2011: https://web.archive.org/web/20111030052200/http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/tag/jayarava/ 

At that time my blog also featured in the "blogroll" in the sidebar of SNB. I was nominally part of the incrowd. At the time my work was tagged as "Comparativists, Constructivists ". The new critical post is filed under "Critics, Interpreters, Speculative Non-Buddhist, True Believers." And it's not me that is the Speculative Non-Buddhist or Critic in this case.

I never really got what SNB was about. I never understood the arguments - they were and are couched in relentlessly elitist and obscurantist terms. I never understood the hostility involved in the debates. I never understood the rage against a system that, to the best of my knowledge, has done no harm to him. Indeed it's furnished Glenn with a career (As far as I know he continues to teach Buddhism)! But having someone like Glenn cultivate my acquaintance was flattering so I hung around and tried to engage. After all we were both critics of traditional Buddhism, we ought to be able to find common ground, right? I commented and to begin with met with a certain amount of indulgence.

As time went on Glenn seemed to become more and more concerned with not being understood and not being heard. He became more strident and vehement. The discussion frequently became entrenched and then there was no possibility of dialogue. There was all the durm und strang and inflation of any lone revolutionary. Glenn rejected the thoughts of all but a chosen few. Often he and his sidekick, Tom Pepper, often resorted to personal abuse, dropping any pretence of intellectual discussion. Others followed the leaders. After a year or so I found I could not participate at all without being met with abusive personal comments. Pepper would simply start abusing me as soon as I made any comment whatever. I'd gone from golden boy to leper, though without any great change on my part.

In 2013 Glenn complained about being banned from the Secular Buddhist Association website and blocked by the Twitter accounts of mainstream teachers. He had been trolling SBA and I guess Ted, who runs the site, had just got sick of it. Glenn obviously had no interest in furthering the aims of SBA and he was unwilling to argue on any but his own terms. He just wanted to tell everyone that they were wrong, and "fucking stupid" to be wrong and not realise it. It's quite a tedious and puerile stance to take. I wouldn't want that in my online community either.

I happened to read that complaint and made a few comments in response. I took the dismissive tone that Glenn routinely used with others and found that it was extremely unwelcome. He was clearly enraged by my comments. It was a real mistake to assume that because he was routinely rude and contemptuous of others, that he would not have a typical human response to being treated that way himself (and therein is a powerful life lesson!). He actually pursued me beyond the comments on his blog post, posting personal abuse on Twitter, so that I too blocked his account. And from my end made a complete break with him and his fellow SNBs.

I'm not sure at what point Glenn deleted his recommendation of my blog and removed the link to it from the blogroll. But sometime in the last couple of years he tried to eliminate any impression that I might once have been considered worthy of a pat on the back.

I think I can say that I am known for my polemical and iconoclastic writing as much as anything. My blog has long been about challenging traditional Buddhism and consciously coming terms with modernity - at least since Professor Gombrich opened my eyes to a whole new world when I attended his Numata lectures in late 2006. I know that I have a small following for this reason and it's probably why Glenn was attracted to my writing in the first place. Since 2005 I've published almost 500 essays. I have no illusions about being a great scholar, but I'm confident in my body of work and stand by it. So I'm not too bothered if Glenn doesn't like me any more or criticises me these days. The fact that he wants to disavow his earlier connection is quite funny really.

I think perhaps Glenn saw my critical methods as directed towards anarchy. They are not. One or two other rebels have made this mistake in the past and been angry with me as a result. I'm happy to call myself a Buddhist and to be a member of a Buddhist Order. It helps to give my life structure and meaning. And my life is always in need of order, structure and meaning. Without it I'd be a goner. Literally.  I'm grateful for the good things I get from my association with the Triratna Order and try to be tolerant of the bad. It's not always easy, but I'm committed. For life. I'd certainly like to reform Buddhism, reform the Triratna Order, and claim a place at the table of serious commentators on Buddhism. But as a Buddhist. Not as a non-Buddhist. I'm quite comfortable with this, so I don't feel the need to make common cause with secular Buddhists or with speculative non-Buddhists or lone vigilante internet Buddhists. I plough my own furrow, within the field of the Triratna Buddhist Order. I'm not apologising or asking permission. My writing stands on its own merits.

I'm not much interested in evangelism either. I don't care if other people want to take up my lifestyle. I don't live this way because I think it's best for everyone, I do it because all things considered, it's best for me. I have constraints that don't apply to most people, but I don't talk about it much and most people on the internet don't seem much interested in me as a person so it doesn't come up. In a way I'm happier writing about ideas anyway.

I wanted to note these thoughts down somewhere other people could read them. To put Glenn's antipathy in context from my point of view. To note that once he was an admirer and perhaps even a kind of virtual friend. I find it a bit sad to now be just another target for his futile rants. But such is life.