Friday, 16 September 2011

Confessions of a Skyhooks Buddhist

A Skyhooks Buddhist insists that there is something pulling us upward. It is all not just that we are pushing up from the soil. [Pic is of a 56-foot-high statue in Trafford Park, in the metropolis of Greater Manchester, England.]
The Buddha famously instructed that we not waylay our practice by engaging in vain speculations about matters metaphysical, which can endlessly, pointlessly spin the wheels in our heads.

But people are a curious lot, who nose into everything. And a lot of progress has been made in the two-dozen-plus centuries since Buddha walked the rocky soil. We have absolute understanding, today, about things Buddha, if it had been his inclination, could not have guessed about. Matters abstruse have a way of yielding under the microscope of an eons’-long gaze. Data accumulates. Facts fall into our laps like ripe apples loosed from trees. We chip away at the mountain of things hither-to-now unknown and add precious stone to the pile of that which we have become certain.

Still, our very existence, and matters surrounding it, remain a peculiar and near-absolute mystery. Why are we here and how is life even possible?

The reductionist and the physicalists are now having their day. We are getting ever-better at understanding molecules and their behaviors, the keys to chemical reactions and what manifests from many “phrases” in our DNA. It’s as if the puzzle pieces are beginning to fit to explain life as a wholly physical process. We are all just these soft, squishy replicating robots that sprang up from the ground From a bounty of mistakes and seeming flaws we became ever better at sustaining ourselves and replicating ourselves until we, pretty much, have taken over the earth. And here we now are: Billions of buttheads, the winners of a grand interspecies game of King of the Hill.

But I abstain from accepting that ready conclusion. There is something else; I don’t know what.

Perhaps it is somewhere in altruism at fullest bloom -- when some of us act discordantly with the rush of self interest that supposedly propels our species -- where something other, better, higher can be found. The latest RSA viddy has Oren Harman talking about Radical Altruism in other species and in us.



There is also the mystery of consciousness. The physicalists think that the brain is the mind; that that hunk of cheese in our skull is of such amazing capability that it creates our world for us -- or the connection with the world outside.

But for me, and for the Dalai Lama, there is the puzzle of color to contend with and other matters of what we experience that must be "something else." We know -- we think we know, anyway -- that color is just wavelength that we interpret as a field of hues. But if color isn't color outside of us, where does it come from? How does the hunk of cheese stir red -- or any other color -- into being?

Philosopher Frank Jackson made an argument that is famous in the 'philosophy of mind.' He supposed there was this woman, Mary, who had never experienced the color red. She's fully brilliant; experiences everything else, but is "locked out" of knowing "red." Indeed, she becomes a pre-eminent neurologist and comes to know everything knowable about the physical side of what there is in the world. Suddenly, the doors of perception are flung open and red is made available to Mary. Doesn't this show that red is outside of the physical world and is pure perception, or qualia as it's called -- something of a different order of existence/experience/being.

Indeed, I would say that Jackson is right. I "buy" this demonstration/proof of dualism. Hooray, Frank Jackson -- only, Jackson, the creator of "What Mary Knew" has come to disagree with his proof and has, now, fallen in with the damn materialists/physicalists/reductionist bastards!!

You can hear Jackson, interviewed by the boys of Philosophy Bites, in a fifteen-minute audio podcast, explaining "What Mary Knew" and why he has abandoned dear dualism: "Philosophy Bites: Frank Jackson on What Mary Knew."

Despite the frustrations, I know -- I just KNOW -- there is something UP there. Something vaster and meaningful. We are greatness, that added extra to our hunk of cheese.

Tom Armstrong lives in Sacramento, California, where he is a member of the homeless community there, roots for the River Cats and blogs the counter-revolutionary Sacramento Homeless blog.

14 comments:

  1. But of course you probably don't know. "Know" is the wrong word. You have a strong, perhaps even unshakeable belief or conviction, but you don't have knowledge. Knowledge is defined many different ways. It's only really a severe rationalist who so denigrate belief - and substituting "knowledge" for "belief" suggests that on some level you know the rationalist has a point.

    The kind of knowledge said to traditionally emerge from the Buddhist program is about the nature of experience (yathābhūta) or about liberation from the āsavas.

    Between the fantacist and the materialist are infinite views on reality. Not that reality is any of concern of ours really. But your kind of black and white argument is familiar from the Pāli Canon. It's the kind of obfuscation of other people's views that Buddhists have been doing to justify their belief system for 25 centuries. I suppose scientists make us doubt, and that makes us afraid; hence Buddhists regularly lash out at them.

    BTW Buddhism is highly reductive also - more so in many ways that present day neuro-science. So complaining about reductionists is self-defeating.

    In the final analysis the sky-hook Buddhist is a really a species Romantic Buddhist. Romanticism (and the associated metaphysics which you describe quite well), is one of the main forces deriving from western culture which colour what Buddhism is perceived to be about.

    We western Buddhist desperately need to forget about rationalism and materialism and develop a critique of our own Romanticism!

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  2. Jayarava: I allow for a wide berth for those of us, including myself, who claim to be Buddhist.

    When people say "I know it must be true," for example, we use the phrase as a statement of pinned conviction with a tinge of uncertainty. We say that in an effort to convince ourselves.

    I think it is just a time for reductionists to be gaining a pile of evidence that seems to prove their points. We are in a time when we can better observe the doings of the brain and are quickly learning about what DNA is up to.

    I submit that a time will come when the more difficult evidence of what consciousness is about will accumulate. And then we Skyhooks Buddhists will have our day, maybe.

    Otherwise, I am in the main in agreement with you. A romantic I may well be. And, indeed, we Buddhists, Western and otherwise, should keep our nose to the grindstone (ouch!) of suffering and its alleviation. But I would welcome that critique of Buddhist Romanticism, even if it hurts.

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  3. Hi Tom,

    As you say, such metaphysical matters don't have much bearing on the matter of suffering. On the other hand, it's human nature to try to understand things.

    Reductionism isn't a world-view, it's an approach: trying to understand the nature/behaviour of larger things by looking at the nature/behaviour of smaller things. The smaller scale events don't cause the larger ones. And they have no bearing on the 'ultimate nature of reality'. And there are also aspects of reality that only emerge at larger scales, which require a different sort of investigation to uncover. Reductive analysis reveals the correlation between small-scale events and larger scale events.

    Secondly, Materialism (or Physicalism) is a metaphysical theory that the ultimate nature of reality is physical. The only thing that might show that this theory was correct would be showing that those phenomena that appear not to be physical phenomena (ie. mental phenomena) actually are physical. Decades of research and philosophical inquiry have failed so-far to do this. And it'd hard to see how this could even in principle be done. What has been done is showing, in increasing detail, the correlations between what we experience as neurological events and what we experience as mental events.

    The power of scientific investigation to describe, predict and explain is reinforced again and again (unlike, say, most religious beliefs). And it seems unlikely that mind and matter can really be two things. Yet the idea that 'everything is really physical and the mental is a kind of epiphenomenon' hasn't been shown at all. Consciousness is proving itself impervious to being described in purely physical terms - even in principle.

    To me this suggests that mind and matter may rather be aspects of one reality, rather that everything being reducible to one or the other.

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  4. Also, altruism doesn't contradict 'reductionism' or evolutionary theory. It's fairly well explained these days. Being selfish is often does not lead to the most effective replication of your DNA (especially in social, higher animals).

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  5. Shonin,
    According to wikipedia, "reductionism" has two definitions. One is "a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents." The footnote cites the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science.

    Re you second point (in your first comment) indeed, as I wrote in my post, physicalism is gathering evidence. And since what has been gathered is, itself, physical (and the longstanding domain of science) it is a bit unsurprising that evidence is mounting. As I write, what that "something else" is, I don't know. And how it can come to light, I don't know that either, but consciousness remains near wholly unexplained, so far as I can tell. As we probe that more deeply, there are sure to be surprises. As you write, "Consciousness is proving itself impervious to being described in purely physical terms - even in principle."

    As to your second comment, I think that you are correct, except that altruism in its radical form seems to be unsustainable in evolution, like the fearlessness of dodos.

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  6. I'll leave the definition of 'Reductionism' and its implications for now as I don't think it's crucial for our discussion.

    You say 'physicalism is gathering evidence'. My point is that physicalism is not gathering evidence. Or at least, there is a fundamental failure of physicalism which is as strong now as it has ever been. Physicalism is the metaphysical view that fundamentally everything (importantly mind as well as matter) is physical. However, even though strong correlation has been found between mental events and neurological events, this in itself doesn't show that the mental is physical (any more than the converse for example) and it appears to be impossible even in principle to demonstrate that consciousness or subjectivity is a physical phenomenon due to the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

    You say "And since what has been gathered is, itself, physical (and the longstanding domain of science) it is a bit unsurprising that evidence is mounting."
    Surely what has been gathered is information about the nature of the physical, information about the nature of the mental, and arguments about the relationship between the two. But yes, consciousness is essentially still unexplained. (I think this is because of thinking about the problem in the wrong way.)

    Altruism in a radical form is quite rare but can be understood in terms of biological or cultural evolution. In biological terms it is sustainable because it is the genes that are being sustained rather than individual organisms bearing them. For more detail, I suggest reading up on some Dawkins.

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  7. Shonin, I think it is the case that some physicalists take as evidence favoring their view that mind and brain are the same (or fully overlap, or that there is nothing epiphenomenal) in that activity in the brain is evermore being demonstrated as being mapable to what someone is experiencing. And, that, ultimately science will be able to show that what we experience as consciousness (qualia) is all just brain creating representations of the outside-of-us world, as it can, and there is nothing else. That's what Frank Jackson in the Philosophy Bites podcast now thinks.

    But as you say, the Hard Problem of Consciousness, for others, is unapproachable. I think that leaves the door open for "something else." For Peter Russell, consciousness is primary and the physical world a construct of consciousness. Another theory has to do with looping in our thinking. In any case, it all remains something that now seems inscrutable that many are chipping away at.

    Re the arena of Radical Altruism, one problem I have with explanations of evolution is that we are necessarily looking at the result of millions of years of evolution, and then justifying existence on our planet, now, as rightly being the proper result of evolutionary forces. If there was another force, say something pulling us up rather than everything to do with pushing us up from below, how would we know?

    As you know, one theory of how humans operate is wholly a matter or selfish motivation. The selfish gene is the one that is surest to thrive. Psychological altruism is then viable in the bloodsport of evolutionary competition via (1) nepotism; (2) reciprocation; (3) group selection. [per the viddy in my post] Those are the three theories. And while they make a kind of sense, as Harman explains, it seems to me to be a justification for evolution, rather than any kind of "objective" effort that allows for the possibility of other (upward pulling) forces.

    I mean, if it is supposed that EVERYTHING is selfish, then ANYTHING can be justified. That there is an evolutionary (pushed up) answer to everything is assumed; thus an answer, no matter how oblique, can be found.

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  8. Hi Tom

    "I think it is the case that some physicalists take as evidence favoring their view that mind and brain are the same (or fully overlap, or that there is nothing epiphenomenal) in that activity in the brain is evermore being demonstrated as being mapable to what someone is experiencing. "

    Yes, of course they do. My point is that in fact this is not evidence that Physicalism is true. A correlation between Event Type A and Event Type B doesn't demonstrate that all Bs are actually As, or vice-versa.

    "And, that, ultimately science will be able to show that what we experience as consciousness (qualia) is all just brain creating representations of the outside-of-us world, as it can, and there is nothing else."

    Yes but this is an assumption, not something actually demonstrated. And we are no closer to proving this than we ever have been and as the 'Hard Problem' says, its hard to see how it could do so even in principle.

    "But as you say, the Hard Problem of Consciousness, for others, is unapproachable. "

    Well until someone actually demonstrates a valid solution to the hard problem, then Physicalism is just talk. I don't think anyone has (and I've read Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained').

    "I think that leaves the door open for "something else." For Peter Russell, consciousness is primary and the physical world a construct of consciousness. Another theory has to do with looping in our thinking. In any case, it all remains something that now seems inscrutable that many are chipping away at."

    On the other hand people have been theorising about the philosophy of mind for centuries with little or no progress in explaining consciousness.

    "If there was another force, say something pulling us up rather than everything to do with pushing us up from below, how would we know?"

    There are a couple of problems with this sort of argument I think.
    1. It's an argument from ignorance. It's basically saying 'there is stuff we don't know, therefore my pet theory (which has no evidence in its favour) is likely to be true.' Hopefully I don't have to spell out the problems with such an argument.
    2. If it doesn't affect the world then it doesn't matter. If it does affect the world then there will be evidence for it. If something is really 'pulling us up' (whatever that means) then we should see evidence for it. Also how does this 'force' overcome evolution? In a sense I agree, I see culture and society as something that in a sense transcends biological evolution, even though in another sense it emerges out of it and in yet another, is itself subject to it's own memetic laws of evolution.

    "As you know, one theory of how humans operate is wholly a matter or selfish motivation."

    I'm not sure what you mean. Humans are clearly not entirely selfish.

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  9. "The selfish gene is the one that is surest to thrive. Psychological altruism is then viable in the bloodsport of evolutionary competition via (1) nepotism; (2) reciprocation; (3) group selection. [per the viddy in my post] Those are the three theories. "

    Or all three. But note that these 'pay-backs' are at a long-term genetic level and have no implication of insincerity or selfishness at the level of the individual organism. Also, there are social and cultural factors which are being ignored.

    "And while they make a kind of sense, as Harman explains, it seems to me to be a justification for evolution, rather than any kind of "objective" effort that allows for the possibility of other (upward pulling) forces."

    I'm struggling to make sense of this sentence. And this is not what Harman is saying. These theories are not a justification of evolution (whatever that means), they are descriptions of altruism in terms of evolution. Their success or otherwise as descriptions of nature is defined by their power to accuirately model it make predictions about it not on whether they "allow for the possibility of other (upward pulling) forces.". Does a theory of 'upward pulling' (whatever that means, upward to where? Pulling by what? And through what means? And what makes one sort of influence 'up' in contract to 'down'?) better explain what we see than biological or biological-sociological theories? My quibble with these evolutionary theories of altruism is that they ignore the forces of culture and society and the evolutionary laws that govern them.

    George Price's error seems to be that he felt that biological explanations of altruism invalidated that altruism and made it inauthentic in some way, seeking instead to create a 'Radical Altruism' that, based on some notion of metaphysical freewill, broke free from nature. Altruism is authentic if the person authentically cares about the welfare of others. Whether that person's actions ultimately lead to his own destruction along with that of his friends, family and ancestors or to his ultimate benefit along with that of his friends, family and ancestors is irrelevant to the authenticity of his good intentions towards others. It's another confusion between psychological and biological altruism which are completely different things.

    "I mean, if it is supposed that EVERYTHING is selfish, then ANYTHING can be justified."

    What do you mean? Genes are not selfish in the same way that we mean that a person is selfish. And it does not imply moral nihilism. And even if it did, that wouldn't imply that it was untrue.

    "That there is an evolutionary (pushed up) answer to everything is assumed; thus an answer, no matter how oblique, can be found. "

    Don't really know what you mean by this bit. What does 'push' mean? What does 'up' mean in this context? And rather than prematurely accuse these theorists of making assmptions pehaps you could show evidence of how they are false and how your thoery explains things better.

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  10. I'll try to be more clear. Perhaps you have identified areas where I am misunderstanding things, especially so with respect to the idea of selfish. This comment is part 1 of 2, but you may respond during the station break.

    As for the "mapable" issue: While thoughts being mapable to the brain doesn’t prove physicalism to be true (and I never claimed it did), it is a necessary element for a physical theory to be sustained. Absent mapping, there would be a major stumbling block to mind/brain unity. Absent mapping, a brain might seem to act as a communications devise to a remote mind. So, score one point for physicalism! I maintain that evidence favorable to a theory of physicalism is mounting, all-the-while agreeing that getting over the hump of explaining how physical goings-on manifest as conscious experience is a doozy of a unexplained problem.

    As to the Hard Problem. I'm not denying that it is possible that consciousness will never be explained, but it still operates somehow, even if we never come to understand how. In the vacuum of having answers, as with everything, theories pop up. They are useful in the interim and interesting, even if some are dusty. Even if consciousness is never satisfactorily explained, there will always be a leading theory that replaces a prior leading theory that, with many leading-theory changes, perhaps, draws us ever nearer the truth of things. That’s the way it is. What’re you gonna do? A few centuries from now, maybe we will have a satisfying understanding of consciousness. I’m betting we will.

    Psychological altruism can be explained by the three theories [all of which are social/cultural], but I don't think that it can in its extremity. Radical altruism would seem to need the oomph of something more; a mystical experience, perhaps, like Merton's "Vision in Louisville," or John of the Cross's Dark Night. Radical altruism is by its nature wholly impractical – and if it does have benefits for “the group” it would seem to be outweighed by dire detriments for the individual.

    Anyway, is there then a genetic basis for the experience of mystical experience? I would doubt that there is. I think we pretty much suppose that humans five centuries ago were as mentally capable as we are, today, but lived rather simple lives. They were backwards in the sense that power, in numbers and weaponry, was sought and the determinants of who lived longer, better lives. Altruism’s value on the central stage was minimal. It was probably just there on the edges, mixed in with compassion, helpful at getting children through the gauntlet of childhood to adulthood when one is physically strong and more capably defend himself in a savage existence.

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  11. "As for the "mapable" issue: While thoughts being mapable to the brain doesn’t prove physicalism to be true (and I never claimed it did), it is a necessary element for a physical theory to be sustained. Absent mapping, there would be a major stumbling block to mind/brain unity. Absent mapping, a brain might seem to act as a communications devise to a remote mind. So, score one point for physicalism! I maintain that evidence favorable to a theory of physicalism is mounting, all-the-while agreeing that getting over the hump of explaining how physical goings-on manifest as conscious experience is a doozy of a unexplained problem."

    Well it's evidence in the sense that something probably necessary for it to be true has gained evidence. But as I see it this is only evidence of correlation not evidence of actual Physicalism - that all apparently mental things are really physical. What seems to be being assumed is that neurological phenomena cause mental phenomena. But it's a well known principle of science that it's unsafe to assume correlation is a causal relationship. There are strong correlations between the visual phenomena and the auditory phenomena in my sensory field. But that doesn't mean one causes the other. And in the case of mind and matter, it's far from clear what a physical event causing a mental event even means.

    "As to the Hard Problem. I'm not denying that it is possible that consciousness will never be explained..."

    To clarify, the Hard Problem isn't saying that consciousness is unexplainable only that it is unexplained and that it is difficult to see how it could be explained in physical terms even in principle, ie. that the problem is still there and hasn't been resolved by Physicalism.

    "Radical altruism would seem to need the oomph of something more; a mystical experience, perhaps, like Merton's "Vision in Louisville," or John of the Cross's Dark Night. Radical altruism is by its nature wholly impractical – and if it does have benefits for “the group” it would seem to be outweighed by dire detriments for the individual.
    Anyway, is there then a genetic basis for the experience of mystical experience? I would doubt that there is."

    I don't think that rare, exceptional events really need to be explained in evolutionary terms - only if they are commonplace does their frequency need to be explained. Genetics is full of variation. Some exceptional individuals or acts are profoundly genetically disadvantageous.

    However, I think there is good evidence to indicate that mystical experiences are dependent on natural causality like everything else. It can be induced by drugs and magnetic fields.

    To our ancestors, like us now, at least a degree of altruism is essential. Those who act purely out of self-interest (for example those we would call 'psychopaths' and other anti-social types) are (once identified) not trusted, instead they are shunned, punished or even killed. It is rarely a successful strategy.

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  13. Regarding your example: Just reading about the effect that red has on people will not make Mary experience red. But that does not invalidate reductionism. Reductionism just tells you that if Mary truly learns a lot of neurology, she will probably be able to open her brain, and modify it so that she can see red.

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  14. Abel: By "learns a lot," you mean learns incredibly more than we now know about neurology?

    If the hue red that we who can see it experience isn't "out there" -- and I would say that it ISN'T "out there," outside in the seeming world, then what can it be that she would be putting in her brain?

    *I* would say that the hue is, at best, a translation of the light waves. The hue [the qualia] may be "out there", but independent of the wave length that is associated with it. Otherwise, red -- the hue or qualia -- is epiphenomenal or somehow otherwise sourced.

    This comment may seem not to make any sense, but then, I would say, seeing red from a "wave" doesn't either.

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