27 January 2017

Don't Panic

My latest in-depth critique of Buddhist karma doctrines concludes that karma is not compatible with reason.

However, I remain committed to the proposition that actions have consequences. I go further and suggest that, within social groups, fairness and justice demand that actions have appropriate and timely consequences. But I think the social environment is the limit of this idea - it does not extend to a just-world; there is no guarantee of fairness or justice; there is no post-mortem reckoning.

To my mind this means places a greater onus on everyone to be moral, to ensure fairness and justice are part of our social environment, to do our bit to ensure fairness and justice characterise our social milieu. It's up to us, but we're evolved for this shit and we have all the skills necessary.

That our supernatural beliefs seem to be false does not mean that I abandon hope of finding meaning in life. On the contrary meaning emerges from our social interactions, our membership of, and service for, the community. Although I have chronic depression and anxiety (and very often live with a sense of despair and hopelessness) and though I find most people annoying at best, I am *not* a nihilist. Meaning is to be found everywhere. Feeling despair does not necessarily mean that there is no hope. It's just a feeling in response to a situation. Usually it means we're a little to isolated and need to get more involved in our community.

I am optimistic for humanity. I don't think we should be too narrowly focussed on any one individual or today's news headlines. As one of my intellectual heroes, René Dubos, said: "Think global, act local." Keep a weather eye on what is happening beyond your sphere of influence, but do what you can within it. As grim as things look in the artificially sustained hysteria of modern politics, we've survived far worse, like millennia long ice-ages for example.

Don't Panic.

26 January 2017


Some years ago, there were about 120 Order members living in Cambridge and attendance at our public events was declining (which is no longer true). We were having Order meetings in those days and the subject came up. I suggested that instead of our usual offerings of graded classes for beginners led by "teachers" that we should instead all turn up on one night a week, meditate, perform a devotional ritual, and then have a cup of tea and a chat with whoever was around. I suggested that 120 of us, in one place, at our best, could inspire a lot more people to join us, just by befriending them, than by relying on the atmosphere of the classroom that we cultivate at present. My plan was to eschew any formal instruction, but to allow people to interact with a large number of Order Members in an unstructured way and thus absorb our culture more naturally. Anyway, we are mostly not teachers per se, but exemplars, i.e. people who strive to cultivate virtues and transform our minds, and to relate to other people on this basis. A classroom-style setting is really not the best way for people to experience this. A period of formal practice followed by a social interaction seems to me to be far better. It is better when it happens.

But the response was lukewarm at best. One Order member present said she would not participate in anything that was required of her. Other's felt that even the structure that I suggested was too rigid (!). No one saw the point I was making about members of the Order being exemplars rather than teachers. The idea was a complete flop. I still think, however, that our approach is wrong. It's geared to middle-class British people. They have a particular kind of relationship to school and education that makes it hard for them not to see the paradigm as attractive.

So we still offered structured classes and formal study groups. We have no events that are aimed at socialising. We don't see ourselves as exemplars we see ourselves as teachers. And I don't see how this helps us to build a community.

Perhaps this avoiding of purely social events is because of a bias that goes beyond our movement. There is a tendency in WEIRD countries to see the "real Buddhism" as being about inner transformation and to relegate all the other aspects of Buddhism to a lower category that might scornfully be called "cultural Buddhism". We can call this Two Jewels Buddhism, in contrast to Three Jewels Buddhism which values Saṃgha alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddhism is often reduced to mere meditation. But ethics is part of our path as well, and ethics is all about how we interact with other people. So opportunities to see how Buddhists interact with other people must be valuable. The more formalised such opportunities are the less we see how ethics shapes the Buddhist's life. We have to see Buddhists in informal situations, and share their lives to some extent to really see how being Buddhist shapes that life. 

25 January 2017

A political rant...

I find the liberal enlightenment project very attractive. It has given us the concept of universal rights and helped to break down divisions based on superficial differences. On the other hand I was a teen in the 1980s and witnessed first hand the rise of what we now call Neoliberalism and the betrayal of liberal enlightenment in favour of profit.

But there is one thing about the present that continually galls me. Yesterday I noted how scientists fail to get their message across because the one problem they seem determined not to apply science to is getting their message across! But it goes further than that. 

In 1971 Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In this memo he suggested that conservative businessmen take over media and universities and convert them into conduits for the message of conservative businessmen. Conservative businessmen did just that, and what I would now call Neoliberalism was born. Though in fact Neoliberalism is profoundly anti-liberal. Powell also suggested that they form organisations to employ graduates of these programs to keep the momentum going. So think tanks began to form, which employed Neoliberal intellectuals to lobby politicians and churn out Neoliberal analysis to the media (which, being owned by Neoliberals tended to simply repeat it). 

And thus conservative business people began to take over the world. The end of the era of empires saw the political equilibrium shift to nation states; from racism to nationalism; from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. The present day harks back to those days when the wealth of businessmen gave them the power to eclipse and sideline the aristocracy in the UK. Of course USA never had an aristocracy...

But the nation state, with all its rules and regulations, is a barrier to profit making, so the larger businesses went multinational and began to play state off against state - offering jobs to the state that would require the least taxes for example. And they created tax havens to hide their money and prevent nations from taxing it. They resigned from society as we understand it and formed a new strata of humanity, insulated by vast wealth from the lives of those they exploited. This is far more exclusive and stable that the relationship between master and slave: we are the slaves that want to be enslaved; the cow that wants to be eaten. 

The point I'm getting to is that Neoliberals accomplished this revolution by understanding how people make decisions and exploiting it. The most obvious level of this is advertising. Joe Bloggs who wants to sell you widgets will tell you how good they are and leave it up to you. The multinational employs an army of psychologists who design ads to exploit vulnerabilities in how our minds work to make us buy shit we don't need. Exploitation of workers has gone meta and we didn't even notice. 

By contrast liberals still have their heads in the clouds. The idealism of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is awesome. The reality a bit less awesome, since millions of people are still routinely denied those rights. But still, the liberal project is admirable and inspires most of the people I know. 

But that idealism is also our flaw. Part of that idealism is the assumption that people are rational. Liberals believe that if you just present people with the facts they'll make a rational decision. But this is simply wrong, as the political events of 2016 proved beyond doubt. That is *not* how people make decisions; it is not how *we* make decisions! We know this from extensive studies of decision making. But scientists and all kinds of rights campaigners seem to refuse to acknowledge the reality. They certainly refuse to make use of the science science of decision making and persuasion. 

Part of the reason is that liberals are fundamentally against exploiting people. The very fact that one can employ psychological techniques to manipulate the masses is unpalatable or even disgusting to liberals. Marx lurks in the background telling us that we ought not to exploit workers. Neoliberals have no such compunction. Power is its own reward. Look at how busy the new President is this week. There is a man who understands power, who sought power, and who damn well plans to use it now he has it. Unlike Obama, Trump is likely to make good on his campaign pledges. 

But for all the demagoguery of Trump, liberals thought, and apparently still think, that if they just expose him as a liar and a crook he'll be defeated. But it won't work. The facts are important to me. I may even be persuaded by facts. I often fact check claims (and so much of what passes for "fact" is false!). But most people are not persuaded by facts. Nor do they make rational decisions. We're just not geared for it.  Any introduction to clear thinking or cognitive bias makes this clear. We are far more affected by, for example, what people around us think, than we are by facts. 

When it comes to decision making we all decide by introspecting our emotions and choosing what feels right. Then we look for reasons to back up our decision, and we stop looking when we find the first plausible reason. You're thinking, "I don't do this!" But you do, I do, we all do. Our weakness, our vulnerability is not that we are irrational, but that Neoliberals know that we are, while we refuse to admit it. 

What we don't realise is that the war for our attention, the war to make us choose Neoliberalism, the war to make us into poorly paid mindless consumers, all started around 1971 (I was 5, now I'm 50). Lewis Powell was more prophet than leader. His Memo sums up the zeitgeist rather than being a true manifesto. It's just that in retrospect we can see that conservative business people did exactly what he recommended and in doing so they took over the world.  

23 January 2017

My Philosophy

I've mucked about with names for the kind of philosophy that interests me. And I was thinking about this yesterday and posted this on Facebook:
As I have thought through various philosophical issues over the last couple of years, and in the face of being called "materialist" or "nihilist" by detractors, I've often wondered what kind of philosophy it is that I'm into. A one word label seems not to exist yet.
I thought I'd nailed with with "dialectical naturalism", but this has been used already. Though I would argue the label fits my ideas better than it does Murray Bookchin's. 
So, in a nutshell, my philosophy is 
substance/structure dialectical naturalist—collective empirical realist—existentialism
I'm tempted to squeeze "evolutionary" in their somewhere. And in case anyone is wondering I put Buddhism in the category of methodology, which hasn't made it into the main description. So the long version would be: 
Evolutionary—Buddhist—substance/structure dialectical naturalist—collective empirical realist—existentialism.
One of my friends called my bluff and asked me to explain what I meant in a few sentences. So, without any justification, this is what I mean:

There is one world, the natural world. There is no supernatural. The world exists completely independently of our minds. It came into existence some 13-14 billion years ago. It is made of one kind of stuff, but all the stuff we can experience is structured to present us with pervasive complexity beyond our ability to easily conceptualise. Our experience is much simpler than the world itself. Both stuff and structure are real. Our minds tend to understand reality as a whole/part dichotomy, because its difficult to focus on parts and wholes at the same time.

All existence is temporary, except perhaps for the universe taken as a whole, which began at some point, but may continue expanding indefinitely.

The apparent distinction between mental and physical phenomena is not real - because there is one world, with one kind of stuff, there is only one kind of phenomena. However stuff is structured and our senses register objects in different ways. Mind and body are just two perspectives on one kind of stuff made into complex objects.

Our senses produce sensations that are interpreted in our brain. There is no such thing as "direct experience". On our own, we are subject to many cognitive biases and thus inference from experience is frequently unreliable. We get around this by comparing notes. By critically comparing notes we can make accurate and precise inferences about the world. At present on the human scale of mass, length, and energy our inferences are more precise than our ability to measure them.

The world looks different at different scales of mass, length, and energy (something that only became clear with the advent of accurate optics in the 17th Century). At the very least this means that we have to use different descriptions appropriate to those levels. But it is likely that the world is actually different on different scales, since we can make accurate and precise inferences about how objects behave at most of the levels that exist - though at the far extremes our present theories break down. Humans live somewhere the middle of the stack of the levels. We completely understand the physics of this level.

Seeking knowledge we can study lower levels to gain knowledge of parts and ultimately the stuff the universe is made of. Or we can study higher levels to gain knowledge of structures and systems. Different methods apply in either direction. Neither direction is more real or less real.

Causation is not a feature of the most fundamental levels. The world simply evolves in a patterned way. But causation at the human scale of mass, length, and energy emerges as a real feature of the world. And our prototype for causation is our own willed actions, so animism is natural.

We have conscious states but no consciousness. Conscious states are an emergent property of states in the brain as a system. One property of conscious states is that we have a first person perspective on experience. We don't know how yet.

Many experiences can be interpreted as motivated by an invisible external conscious agency, or as affirming mind-body dualism. To naive individuals such things are certain. The conflict around such things is more fundamental that a split between science and religion. It is between scepticism and naivete, where naivete is the natural position for humans to take.

Social animals have evolved empathy and reciprocity, and it is out of social interactions of individuals who prioritise these qualities that morality emerges. As it happens evolution is partly a matter of divisions, divergence, and competition, but largely a matter of combinations, symbiosis, commonality, and cooperation.

The lack of a supernatural, eliminating all gods, all forms of afterlife, and all extensions of moral concepts like fairness or justice to the world, does not make life less meaningful (nihilism). It makes our one and only life more meaningful (existentialism). But is also a burden.

Morality is partly a set of dispositions to follow the rules of our groups; and partly a choice to do so. We lean towards being prosocial, but there can be incentives towards being antisocial - a lot depends on what level of society the individual feels the strongest connections. Our collective dispositions and choices make the world moral or immoral.

Civilisation has changed the social environment so much that we now require a whole new skill set to thrive and prosper. Buddhism provides a number of skills for working with our minds and creating community amongst unrelated, disparate individuals. However, Buddhism, being based on pre-modern ideas, is itself in need of radical transformation. In my opinion this includes adopting all of the propositions stated above and understanding the justifications for doing so.

Everything changes, everything is up for debate.

20 January 2017

Recently I wrote about the role of reciprocity in the evolution of morality. Pretty much all social mammals understand give and take in a social environment. I also wrote about how George Lakoff identified the image of balancing the books or paying debts as essential to how we conceptualise morality. Obviously reciprocity lends itself to this debt and repayment model.

Here's the thing though. Marketing people have identified a cognitive bias that they exploit to lure you to buy stuff. If you give someone something for free, that person feels subtly indebted to you. They may not be consciously aware of the transactional nature of the exchange, but reciprocity goes very deep for social animals.

After you receive your free gift, or opportunities to taste something, your "on-sale" or "two-for-one" items, you can come away with a subtle sense of indebtedness. If you are in a shop that gives you something for free, you tend to feel an obligation to spend money there. That's why they have free tastings in supermarkets in the first place. It's not a compulsion and some people can walk away. It's more of a tiny voice in the back of your mind reminding you that fairness requires give and take.

It has become quite a common marketing trick on the internet too. I know some of my friends have been advised to take this approach, because, well it works. So I thought I'd point out the underlying psychology of the approach.

Rolf Dobelli lists reciprocity as a kind of cognitive bias in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly. Which surprised me at first. I thought of it as only as a virtue. But he points out that retaliation, revenge, feud, and vendetta are also forms of reciprocity. Thinking about stuff certainly makes life complicated. I sort of sympathise with people who just give up on it.

19 January 2017


Often when writing I subsequently discover that something I thought of myself has been thought before. I don't mind too much not being original, especially if the person who thought of it first is smart. After all, I got to the same conclusion on my own, right?

Sometimes however the idea is attributed to someone I don't like, say a post-modernist like Gilles Deleuze. Today's example is what he called arborescence - which he uses to refer to the overriding principle that sees nature in terms of a series of binary branches.

Back in 2013 I complained that the tree metaphor was hopeless for evolution because evolution was characterised as much by convergence as by divergence. For example all Europeans have Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, as well as genes from another human species of which we have no fossil record. The tree cannot show this. I suggested a braided river might be a better metaphor.

Now I discover that Deleuze and another French guy made the same kind of complaint in 1980! I disagree with him on just about every other aspect of philosophy - so far as I can tell. But I've adopted his term.

The same argument is made against seeing features like gender as a simple binary. Actually Edward de Bono mentions something like this in his weirdly titled book I Am Right and You Are Wrong (1990). He attributes these either/or watersheds to inherent features of neural networks.

14 January 2017

Antidepressants Don't Work. Sorry.

Are antidepressants effective? The definitive answer from a recent review seems to be "no". Antidepressants are typically no better than placebo and when they are better, the effect is tiny. And antidepressants often have unpleasant side-effects.

Why did we think otherwise? Why did we think Prozac, say, was a wonder drug, when in fact it has very little antidepressant effect? Why did people think it changed them?

The simple answer is bias. Biased studies, produced by biased researchers, published in biased journals, reviewed by biased editors and reviewers. Bias is very difficult to eliminate. In this case the drugs were very expensive to develop and test. So the temptation to exaggerate the effect was enormous. This was mainly done by not reporting studies that showed no or negative effects. But some of the studies were poorly designed and also allowed bias to creep in. Whether this was deliberate or unconscious is another matter. The fact is that bias was an important factor in the science of these drugs.

And this was backed up by the usual media hysteria about wonder-drugs. The media are a particularly pernicious element in this situation. Even more than the big pharmaceutical companies they are invested in bias. News media bias is towards any story that will provoke strong emotions, especially anger, disgust, fear, or lust. And if a promising story doesn't quite make the grade it can easily be sensationalised so that it does the job. Prozac became a sensation for precisely this reason. A lot of false information about "happy pills" circulated and the general public became thoroughly misinformed on the subject of antidepressants.

And because of the bad science and the media hype the people prescribing these drugs were already biased when they started dishing them out and this meant they were more likely to focus on apparent successes and less likely to even see apparent failures. Many people prescribed the drug were not really depressed. So a bit of placebo was all they needed to feel better.

All this adds up to a massive misunderstanding. We had to wait for a whole new generation of scientists to be hatched and start questioning the orthodoxy. Which is what is happening now.

I used to be a firm believer. I bought the chemical imbalance narrative of depression and the drug treatment option. I took various drugs for decades. But they didn't really work. I still got depressed. I still got suicidal (despite being on two antidepressants). It's facetious, but there is some truth to the quip:
"Before you diagnose yourself with depression, check you are not surrounded by arseholes."  
Although I have some underlying pathology, the usual trigger for my depression is situational, and especially to do with conflicts in my living situation. Depression is an adaptive response to our environment. For example if it is triggered by hyper-stimulation, we may become aversive to sensory stimulation or find ourselves responding with anger to everything. Because of the distorting effect that psychoanalysis has had on our intellectual landscape we don't look for situation causes, we only look for individual psychological causes. But this is almost always a mistake. Environment, and especially social environment, is always a factor in mental illness. It is not always the immediate or necessary cause, but it is always a factor. In my case it has frequently been causal and it accounts for the underlying pathology.

So the whole long experiment with these drugs has been a misunderstanding based on bias and misinformation.

This raises the question that if ADs don't work, is there an moral argument for, say, homoeopathy? The homoeopath gives a null-treatment, delivered with conviction in a semi-ritualised context to cultivate belief. That belief in the treatment generates the placebo effect which results in a real increase in well-being!

BTW if you are taking antidepressants and this news tempts you to stop taking them, please do so gradually. Suddenly stopping them can have very unpleasant withdrawal effects. Taper off doses gradually. And let people know, because it will most likely be disturbing.

08 January 2017

Sangharakshita and Romanticism

Like Suzuki and Govinda, Sangharakshita embeds his characterisation of Buddhism and its relation to art in a discourse derived in part from Romanticism and its successors. This is apparent not only from his explicit estimation of Romantics such as Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Beethoven as representatives of the best of "naturally religious art" but also in the way he attempts to isolate the internal, experiential component as the essential element of religion to which all others are subordinate or of which they are corruptions. The influence of Romanticism is also evident in his critique of industrialism and its aesthetic sensibilities and his approval of the simple beauty of peasant homes. He echoes the Romantic, moreover, in his representation of art as expressive of sublime, interior, and transrational states, as well as his insistence that true art is conducive to morality, which nevertheless might transcend mainstream moral codes. 

McMahan, David L. (2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. (138)

06 January 2017

Survivorship bias.

One of my learning goals for the year is to become more familiar with biases.

Survivorship Bias is a bias of systematically over-estimating our chances of success because when we scan the environment for information on our chances, we see a lot of successes. However, this is because failures often leave no trace. Failures write no books, make no albums, etc. Failures are not usually celebrated. What we see are the survivors, e.g. Google rather than Altavista.

Most business ventures fail. Most musicians never get that record deal. Most authors never get published. Etcetera. The reason is not usually a quality issue. Good business ideas fail. Good authors and musicians are denied. A lot of it comes down to luck or persistence. Most small businesses are under-capitalised for example and are not able to persist long enough to get into profit, which can take five years of trading. A record deal often depends on the right person seeing an act on the right night and taking a personal interest. Or on what kind of pop music happens to be in fashion (a lot of people who make it by tapping into fashion don't last because fashions change).

This not to say that everyone is doomed or that we'll never succeed. It is a warning that in assessing our chances of success we need to look at examples of failures as well as successes. What did people get wrong as well as what they got right. We mostly underestimate the amount of persistence in the face of adversity required for success.

05 January 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts

My body has been taken over by a virus that has turned it into a croaky, spluttering, snot factory!

Actually, if you like the idea of micro-organisms taking over our bodies for their own purposes, then I recommend a recent book called The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

The basic premise is that spooky real life fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis aka The Zombie Fungus, which parasitises ants, suddenly crosses the species barrier and infects humans.

In real life, carpenter ants foraging on the forest floor get infected with spores. The spores produce an enzyme which melts the insects tough exoskeleton. Once inside the spore germinates and hyphae invade the ant's brain. This causes a behavioural change. Ants stop foraging on the forest floor and transporting food back to their treetop nests. They climb down the tree until temperature and humidity are just right for the fungus to thrive, typically about 30 cm from the forest floor. They then bite into the underside of a leaf and hang there by their jaws. The fungus slowly kills the ant by digesting its internal organs. When it matures a mushroom grows out of the ant's head. The mushroom then releases thousands of spores, which create a zone of about about 1 square metre in which more ants will become infected and repeat the cycle.

The Girl With All the Gifts is not quite a zombie story, but finds a relatively plausible way to have zombie-like characters that are not supernatural. The target audience is young adults, so the book is not too gruesome, though some of the scenes are quite grim and horrific. The author does a very interesting riff on the premise. The characters are engaging. Their responses to the situations they find themselves in make the reader think. The twist that wraps up the story is ingenious and given the alternative, quite satisfying. There is no deus ex machina to spoil the ending, no miracles or out of place magic.

This is naturalistic imaginative fiction at its best. It ought to defy the crippling genre pigeon holes that can limit readership, but probably won't, which is a shame.