16 August 2017

Buddhism and Cessation

I was talking with my friend Satyapriya last night. We were discussing my work on the Heart Sutra and his experiences in meditation.

The non-Buddhist approach to life is generally to cram in as much experience as possible. In NZ people used to say they "lived life to the full" and this meant having as many experiences as possible, and as intense as possible. Extreme sports, bungy jumping, white water rafting, night-clubbing, and so on.

The Buddhist approach is the opposite. Buddhists, ideally, strive to calm down, to eliminate unnecessary distractions, to reduce the intensity of experiences. Ultimately the goal is to meditate in such a way that one is aware and alert, but there is no sensual or mental experience whatever. A state traditionally called cessation (nirodha) or emptiness (śūnyatā).

I should emphasise that this is not ceasing to be. It is not non-existence. It is a state of perfect balance and contentment, with no attention being paid to the senses or too superficial mental processes (like our inner monologue). One is emphatically alive and *existent*, just without all the distracting effects of experience.

Which already sounds weird to people oriented towards experience. Why would you want to experience nothing?

Cessation is not an end in itself. The experience of no experience is *profoundly* transformative. It reorganises how you perceive the world. It often results in an attenuation of the first-person perspective so that "ego" or self-seeking drops off. One stops being selfish and self-centred because there is no self to centre on. (This practical result has led to much unhelpful metaphysical speculation, but I'm not going to get into that today).

The trouble is that it takes a particular kind of person to experience cessation. In our Order, to 2000 members we have a handful with any experience of cessation, and a minority of them have any great depth of experience.

The rest of us know fairly early on that we're not that kind of person. If you discover meditation and just naturally start doing it for two hours a day, then you're in with a chance. If you struggle to sustain 20 minutes a day, then you're not in the running. You still *benefit* from calming down, but you'll always be too over-stimulated for cessation. We don't often state this up front. Indeed we tend to maintain the myth that anyone can experience cessation. In theory, maybe, but in practice, no.

One has to be thoroughly disinterested in the pleasure of sense experience. To be happy with very low levels of stimulation. To be fascinated by just watching one's mind for hours on end. One has to be quite non-reactive to other people. Most of these qualities cannot be learned, at least not to the extent required. We can get better at all of them, but unless we have the temperament or talent to start with, we're always going to be mediocre.

So the rest of us form an auxiliary that ideally would support the people who are experiencing cessation/emptiness, or who genuinely have the potential to.

For example, I try to write about issues of conceptualising this process and the philosophy that is often invoked. In doing so I'm trying to clarify things, to eliminate wrong or unhelpful views, and assessing whether or not certain ideas serve the greater goal of our community (i.e. cessation). On the whole, our conceptualisation of the process and the goals appear to be highly convoluted and confused. Our metaphysics are a mess. I advocate a radical clean out - we could eliminate all the history and 90% of the metaphysics we talk about without any deleterious effect on those who seem cessation.

Indeed, the history and a lot of the stories are to gee up the auxiliary. Because, deep down, we know that we're not going to be anything special. We're not going to experience cessation or anything like it. So we constantly have motivation problems. Pursuing a low stimulation lifestyle against one's natural inclinations is pretty difficult. Without the payoff of deep meditative states, it is not very rewarding and we end up getting a bit nihilistic or cynical. There is only so much reward to be gained from taking the moral high-ground and criticising people who seek pleasure. There's a lot of that about. A lot of criticising other people for not being good enough Buddhists from people who will themselves never experience cessation.

It's a weird thing to be involved in. At first, it seems like a cornucopia - a solution to all of one's problems. Many of the people get religion have major problems (or they wouldn't be looking). Religion promises the universe. We all start off with convert zeal. What religion delivers, on the whole, and at its best, is a supportive group of like-minded friends and one or two inspiring role models. If you have the kind of talent required, you'll find an outlet for it one way or another. If you don't, you'll be filling the pews, making financial contributions, and hanging out with the talented people. At its best, this set-up does allow some people to shine in mundane ways. Me as a writer for example. Someone else as an administrator. Another as a teacher of values or basic principles.

Still, the ideal of cessation inspires many people to slow down, to calm down, to stop being overstimulated, and so on. And on the whole, I think many of us who live simpler, calmer lives, find them more satisfying than the usual alternatives.

12 August 2017

The Evil of Mercantilism

When I was studying library management I clearly remember reading a book on technology published in 1971. It noted that immediately after WWII there were very significant gains in productivity due to mechanisation of work. The early prediction was that everyone would work less and retire early. Filling up our leisure time was predicted to be our pressing problem. ROFL.

Here it is, 2017, and productivity is something like hundreds of times higher than it was in 1945 and we are working longer and retirement as a concept is being phased out. What went wrong?

One answer is that the share of the wealth created by the economy going to the ruling classes has increased exponentially. So despite the fact that productivity has increased by so much, inequality has grown even faster.

Capitalists will rightly point out that everyone has benefited - we are all richer than we were in 1945. We all eat better, lived longer, child mortality is down etc. This is all true. But the rich have benefited more.

The thing is that if you worked hard to get by in 1945; your family are probably still working hard to get by in 2017. The poor still have to work very hard just to get by. And that is the plan. That has been the plan for 600 years. Marx and Engels noted it 150 years ago, but even then it had been going on for more than four centuries.

The plan is always for the poor to have to work hard all their lives just to get by.

600 years ago it wasn't like this. Poor people mostly worked in the fields and had little supervision. Staying alive was quite a good motivator. They might have paid a tax once per year, but the rest of the time ordered their own lives. They worked hard at planting and harvest time; moderately in the middle, and not much at all over winter. They grew all their own food, mostly on common land. If they were lucky they might own a cow or a goat or two. At that level, they all had to look after each other and work together. At that point it was probably the Church who inflicted artificial rules on the people, telling them how to live.

The ruling classes technically provided law and order to enable trading on a wider scale (between towns for example) but in practice, they often just fought amongst themselves for profit. The taxes paid for a standing army, and crimes like theft and murder were adjudicated by a ruler, if at all.

Gradually work and wealth took on moral tones. Being rich or working hard were good. Being idle or poor were bad. Working hard but being poor was OK; being idle but rich was also OK. Working hard and being rich was the ideal. Working hard was linked to being rich, though for most of history and now, the two are usually unrelated. The people who work the hardest, doing physical labour, are paid the least.

Since the ruling classes wanted to see the poor working hard, they took away the common land and forced the poor to pay for food. The industrial revolution offered crippling hours and dangerous conditions for the poor, so they could just about earn enough to live in unsanitary conditions and eat food that was often unfit for consumption. Sometimes whole families had to work for 12 hours a day to achieve this. And this was seen as a good thing by the mercantilists. It also broke up communities and the networks of care and assistance that had existed for centuries.

The mercantilists gradually took over running things from the aristocracy and the church. Hereditary wealth replaced mere birth as the mark of the ruling class, and morality changed from saving souls to ensuring that people were useful.

Increased wealth and reach required increased administration and bean-counting. Universities that used to train priests now trained civil servants. The middle classes were inculcated with the values of mercantilism: consumerism was born. From the middle class, some hoped to ascend into the ruling class - though opportunities for outsiders were strictly limited. Others simply became acquisitive.

As technology destroyed more and more of the jobs of traditionally working class people, the idea of social mobility was born. Let the working poor become middle class. Infect them with the virus of consumerism and acquisitiveness to distract them from the fact that their communities were being destroyed. Flood the market with cheap imitations built by their even poorer counterparts in Asia.

The thing is that this story arc is hardly affected by the politics of the government or by wars. Women hail the "progress" of them re-entering the workforce, but they mostly did so at rock bottom wages. Nowadays only a two salary family can afford to own a home. 70 years later they have almost reached pay parity, but generally speaking wages are falling and the poor and getting less and less from participating in production. Far from winning, they have simply played into the hands of mercantilists. The idea is that we all work very hard to just get by. Nothing we do is going to change this unless we stop acting like mushrooms. A smart woman might have fought for her right not to work. Nowadays women's empowerment seems to mean parading around in your underwear, while the idea of empowering men is seen as akin to genocide or eugenics.

Humans need time for socialising. For sitting around chewing the fat, telling stories, and laughing. We need time to make music, to sing and dance together. Working together for a common goal is uplifting, but what is the common goal of most workplaces now? Certainly screwing workers out of their fair share is inherent in all workplaces these days. We thrive in small communities where most people are social equals but merits are acknowledged. We still have not figured out a good way to organise ourselves in larger units. Democracy is, as that epitome of the ruling classes, Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

But until workers get their fair share of production; until workers own the means of production; this world is going to be unfair and unjust and it will continue to break the backs of the poor so that the ruling classes can be comfortable and fight wars when they get bored.

I have no hope that technology is going to change the basic philosophy of mercantilism. Look at the internet. It was supposed to give power to the people. But it is clearly just another tool for enslaving people now. I get to say what I like, but amidst millions of conflicting voices, what I say doesn't register or matter. Those who do register are part of the system and therefore part of the problem.

Mercantile capitalism, or mercantilism, has been winning, largely in the background, for 600 years. Despite changes in technology, revolutions, wars, and empires.

01 August 2017

Are We Living in a Simulation? No, we aren't.

Anyone who has listened to the latest Infinite Monkey Cage (BBC Radio 4) and is worried that we might live in a simulation can relax. Anil Seth was talking bollocks. He and a lot of other bad philosophers have this method that is mostly hand-waving. It breaks down like this:

To yourself
1. State your belief.
2. Derive assumptions from this belief
To others
3. State your starting assumptions as axioms.
4. Use straight-line deduction to produce a paraphrase of your starting assumptions.
5. Claim that *logic* supports your conclusion.

Assumptions are propositions that you believe in the absence of evidence or things you take on faith. Axioms are propositions stated as universal truths. If you are reduced to stating assumptions as axioms, you're already floundering. Far from being "logical", this is completely irrational.

And then deduction is a very weak logical operation. All you can do with deduction is draw out the implications of your starting axioms. And what this usually boils down to is a paraphrase of your axioms.

All of the assumptions that Anil Seth stated last night struck me as demonstrably false or at best highly questionable. Here is his "logic".

1. Assume we live in a simulation
2. State some fact consistent with living in a simulation
3. Restate that fact as a universal truth
4. Deduce from this that *must* live in a simulation
5. Therefore it is only logical that we do live in a simulation

For example, he glibly stated that it would be possible to replace a neuron with an electrical device in such a way as you would not notice. For a start to do this you'd have to crack my skull open and I promise you I'd notice! Second, this is a bold claim for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence. No one has ever accomplished this or anything like it and had the recipient *not notice*.

The surgical techniques currently do exist to operate on the molecular level. And really there's no plausible way to do this type of surgery - our synapses are chemical, not electrical. It's not remotely plausible to transplant an identical neuron, let alone some electrical device that imitates one. So Anil Seth is asking us to take a science fiction idea as a universal truth. And he can just fuck off as far as I'm concerned. He's just making shit up and giving public intellectuals a bad name.

Furthermore, there is a 1mm long round worm called C. elegans. We know that it has exactly 280 neurons with  6393 chemical synapses, 890 electrical junctions, and 1410 neuromuscular junctions. It's whole brain has been mapped out in exquisite detail at the cellular level. So you'd think that we'd be able to exactly simulate the worm. Yes? No. Not even close. Else modelling the brain of C elegans would be easy and you'd be able to buy scaled up working models that had all the same behaviour by now.

So Seth takes this idea as trivial and true, but in fact, it is very, very complex and almost certainly false. His starting assumption is nowhere near plausible, let alone "true". And if this is so, then his subsequent "logic" is dubious at best.

I call bullshit. This is bullshit philosophy. And it's not the only bullshit philosophy I've seen associated with Anil Seth. He is a bullshitter and no one need be perturbed by anything he says.