18 July 2014

Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics

This essay is a follow up to one I wrote in 2010 called Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. It might be worth refreshing your memory of that one first. Plus I've continued to add notes since writing the original article.  The subject of Buddhism and quantum mechanics keeps coming up. Quantum mechanics seems to draw Buddhists like moths to a flame. Of particular interest seems to be the observer effect that Schrödinger used to critique the Copenhagen interpretation. Google "Buddhism Quantum Mechanics and the Observer Effect" and you'll get a raft of webpages talking about how observers interact with the physical world.  They say things like:
"Basically, what quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no inherent existence from their own side and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning. Whenever and wherever there is no mind there is no meaning and no reality. This is a similar conclusion to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on sunyata." Buddhism and Quantum Physics.
This is not quantum mechanics or Buddhism either. It's Idealism combined with the strong form of the anthropic principle. It's very misleading. Buddhism is talking about mental events and quantum mechanics about subatomic particles. At best the relationship is metaphorical, because subatomic particles don't behave like mental states and vice versa! In this blog post I will explore what the observer effect is and why it has very little or nothing to do with consciousness and also why it does not support Idealism.

I have to confess there is a great deal that I don't understand about quantum mechanics, not least of which is the maths involved. No one likes to admit they are ignorant, but I know that I don't understand this stuff to any great degree. I know that most of the Buddhists writing about it don't understand it either. I just wish they'd admit it.


Mass of the electron

In this essay I'll focus on the electron. Electrons have reasonably well defined properties and are all, so far as we can tell, identical. For example electrons have mass of approximately 9.10938291 × 10-31 kilograms. This is literally an unimaginably small number. As far as the human imagination is concerned this is zero. Protons have almost 2,000 times more mass than electrons and that's still an unimaginably small amount. Clearly there is some measurement uncertainty in this figure, we can only measure it as accurately as our experimental design and measurement device allow, but it's precise to an extremely fine degree. Similarly, electrons have an electric charge of approximately −1.602×10−19 coulombs, or a billionth of a billionth of the current that comes out of your wall socket.

Most relevant to our topic, an electron has an intrinsic angular momentum of either +½ or -½. Electrons seem to behave as though they spin on their axis, though in fact there is no classical phenomenon which the "spin" of an electron is exactly like. Seen from above the angular momentum of a clockwise spinning top points up, and for an anticlockwise spin it points down. So conventionally we speak of spin up and spin down.

Classical objects (roughly speaking, objects perceptible by our unaided senses) obey the classical laws of physics. A spinning top is a classical object. As it spins it has momentum: it will keep moving unless a force acts on it. Since it experiences friction as it spins it gradually and smoothly slows down, shedding kinetic energy as heat and sound. Even the solar system is gradually slowing down, the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down. However, an electron just 'spins'. Always. Without ever slowing down. I presume that even at absolute zero, an electron has spin.  Additionally, though a spinning top tends to orient itself, the axis of spin need not be in any particular direction, and can even wobble around. So the 'spin' of an electron here is a metaphor for an incomprehensible underlying reality.

Curiously if you rotate an electron with spin ½ through 360° then you would expect that the angular momentum would be the same, but it is in fact -½. To get back to spin ½ we have to rotate the electron through a total of 720°. Again there is no physical analogy that can explain this, no real process to compare it to. And this is partly why the great genius Paul Dirac said: "The fundamental laws of nature control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture without introducing irrelevancies." (Principles of Quantum Mechanics. 4th Ed. 1958).

If a spinning top had an electrical charge it would generate a magnetic field. This is more or less how an electric engine or generator works. Moving electric charges produce magnetic fields and moving magnetic fields induce electric currents. Electrons, having an electric charge do produce a magnetic field as they 'spin'. However looking at the electron as a classical spinning object with electric charge causes some problems. It turns out that in order to generate the measured magnetic field an object the size of an electron, considered as a classical object, would have to spin so fast that a point on its surface would be going several times faster than the speed of light. And the answer to the problem in fact turns out to be that the electron does not seem to have a size. This is deeply counter-intuitive. To have mass but no size suggests infinite density. I'm not even sure how the physicists deal with this problem.

We're starting to see that a single electron does not obey the classical mechanics (aka the "laws of physics") and this is where quantum mechanics comes in. Quantum mechanics is a series of equations which describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, like the electron. They were the first physical laws to be derived theoretically rather than through observation, but on the whole they do describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles (though there are still competitors waiting in the wings - see article on bouncing oil drops at the end of the essay). 

In the quantum world there are restrictions on everything: every quantity is a multiple of some constant with no in-between values (hence quantum). Transitioning between quantum states is instantaneous and discontinuous. For an electron there are just two possible spin states (i.e. two states of angular momentum): spin up and spin down. An electron can be made to flip states, but the action is instantaneous with no transition and no in-between states. Something one never observes in the macro world. 

In my description of water I noted that electrons move around an atomic nucleus in well defined orbitals or shells. In hydrogen for example the single electron occupies the s shell which is spherical. Helium has two electrons in the s shell. Now Linus Pauli discovered that if two electrons are in the same orbital then they must have opposite spin (called the Pauli Exclusion Principle). The next shell, p, can accommodate 8 electrons, but they in fact occupy four separate orbits that each accommodate 2 electrons of opposite spin.


This quality of spin is an important one because it was this quality that Schrödinger was referring to in his famous thought experiment. A consequence, an unbelievable consequence from Schrödinger's point of view, of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was that an electron could be either spin up or spin down and we wouldn't know which until we measured its angular momentum. Niels Bohr argued that before being measured the spin state would effectively be a super-position of both states. Schrödinger's example of the cat was intended to show that the conclusion was untenable because the idea of an object being in two states at once was ridiculous. As it happens the Copenhagen Interpretation won the argument and now advocates use Schrödinger's complaint to illustrate the point about super-position.

It's the spookiness of this metaphor that seems to attract Buddhists. They latched onto this idea of the necessity for the "observer" to break the symmetry of superposition and force the electron to take up one spin state or the other, because it looked like the Idealist end of the Yogacāra spectrum of thought in which objects are brought into existence by an observing mind. That Yogacāra is inherently Idealistic is hotly disputed by scholars, but for many Buddhists what cittamātra means is that only mind exists and as one Idealist Buddhist put it to me recently:
"I agree with Schopenhauer - objects only exist for subjects. Without a subject who brings to the picture, a sense of relatedness, some proportion, a point of view, there are no objects whatever." (Dharmawheel.net)
Tying Buddhist Idealism into Western Idealism is a popular pastime amongst Western Buddhists and Schopenhauer is a favourite exponent of this kind of thing. But just because an 18th century philosopher thought this or that about the universe tells us nothing. The fatal flaw is that this kind of Idealistic ontology has no possible supporting epistemology - there's no way to gain this knowledge about the nature of objects from a Buddhist point of view. In this view we have no way to know what happens to objects when we stop observing them, because we are not observing them! It's simply a theological position. And as I said in the post on ineffability we can easily infer that it's not true simply by comparing notes. Those who fail to compare notes come to ridiculous conclusions that are hard to shift. One of the logical consequences of this anthropocentric Idealism, a variant of the Anthropic Principle, is the the entire universe goes out of existence and then comes back into existence when we blink our eyes. And if you believe that you'll believe anything.

There's rub...

Part of the problem with employing the words of science without understanding them is that one makes silly mistakes. So for example when we say the mind of the observer is involved in determining the physical state of the electron, this is simply a mistaken understanding of what is meant by "observer". No electron has ever been seen by a human being. We need to be very careful about what we mean by "observe" and "observer". As physicist Sean Carroll says re "the observer":
"It doesn't need to be a 'conscious' observer or anything else that might get Deepak Chopra excited; we just mean a macroscopic measuring apparatus. It could be a living person, but it could just as well be a video camera or even the air in a room." [Emphasis added]
Schrödinger's observer, like Schrödinger's cat, is a metaphor. Given that no one can actually see an electron and 'spin' is only a notional quality with no classical analogue, how would we go about measuring the spin-state of an electron, one way or the other? Remembering that a single electron takes up more or less no space and weighs as close to nothing as makes hardly any difference. Usually we deal with electrons in amounts like billions of trillions and in such numbers they collectively behave classically. It is possible to assemble a set up that will shoot out one electron in a known direction every so often, but they travel near the speed of light. If your detector is 1m away from the emitter then it takes about a billionth of a second to get there. And since they're all identical there's no way to find our electron afterwards. So good luck observing an electron with your senses and comprehending it in your mind!

Actually it is possible to trap individual electrons, but as I think will be clear, the interaction needed to so do, involving magnetic fields, make them useless for testing the observer effect. However, thankfully it's not very difficult to measure spin-states in practice. We just need to construct a macroscopic measuring apparatus known as the Stern-Gerlach experiment

In the Stern-Gerlach experiment a beam of electrons is passed between two magnets like those shown right (we'll ignore the shapes). The path of electrons with spin up is bent up as they pass through the magnets, electrons with spin down will bend down. So we then know the spin of the electron. We can measure the numbers that are bent each way by using an electron detector. And what we find is two very small spots - the up-spin electrons all hit the same upper spot, and the down-spin electrons all hit the same lower spot. There are never any in-between and any blur we see is due to fluctuations in the experimental set up itself, not in the electrons. At this level of sensitivity the tiny fluctuations caused by Brownian motion become noisy enough to drown out any signal. The amount by which the electron is deflected is related to it's mass and magnetic moment. 

Now assuming we can use this to measure the spin of individual electrons what is going on here? An electron leaves the emitter and travels for a billionth of a second in an indeterminate spin state before passing through the apparatus and hitting a detector. An electron detector might be a loop of wire with an ammeter on it. As the electron hits the wire a very small, but measurable current flows (this is more or less how an old-fashioned vacuum tube works). Or we use a device like a TV screen that emits light when hit by a fast-moving electron and a photo-detector to record the light. As an electron travels through the apparatus and interacts with the magnetic field, it takes one or the other spin-state and enters one or other detector. It's the interaction of the electron with the experiment, with the macroscopic measuring apparatus, that forces it to adopt one or other spin and it does so at random.

And where in all of this is the "mind of the observer"? In fact the "observer" here, the experimental apparatus, has no mind. Why do we think of a person observing things and influencing them? It's because we understand Schrödinger's metaphor (man watching box) but we have no idea what underlying reality is being described. But this is a dangerous illusion.

The mistake that almost every Buddhist makes is to assume that because they understand the metaphor of Schrödinger's cat, they understand the underlying reality. This problem pervades Buddhist thinking. In the case of quantum mechanics no one understand the underlying reality, not even the people who understand the fiendish maths that predict the behaviour of particles. The reality of the quantum world is literally unimaginable, even when the theories make accurate predictions.

In fact when scientists talk about "observing" a subatomic particle (something with unimaginably small vital statistics) they really mean causing it to interact with something in a way that can be amplified and signal to us humans, on a scale we can comprehend, that something or other has happened. So all this stuff about consciousness and the observer effect in quantum mechanics is bunk. It's based on a reified metaphor and a false analogy.

The false analogy is with the observer effect in anthropology. When an anthropologist studies a culture they cannot help but see through cultural lenses. And they also change the behaviour of the people they study by being there. Famously teenage Samoan girls told Margaret Mead a bunch of lies about their sexual habits which for them was a huge joke, but wrecked the anthropologist's reputation. (Her work was debunked by Derek Freeman after she died, though his book Margaret Mead and Samoa set off a heated debate in the field of anthropology). Another variation on this is seen in the Hawthorne Effect which describes how workers modify their behaviour in response to conditions, especially whether or not they are being observed by management.

Observing humans does
change their behaviour.

There is also some contamination from post-modern literary criticism which emphasised the role of the reader in the "creation" of the text and called into question the very possibility of objectivity. Amongst the influential contributions to this discourse was Edward Said's work on so-called Orientalism which sought to show that Western views of Asia were constructs that were often only loosely related to Asia itself and were more revealing of the prejudices of Western scholars than of Asian culture and custom. At the same time the very idea of objectivity was called into question in the sciences, though this critique consistently failed to take into account the collective nature of scientific enquiry. The metaphors of quantum mechanics were conflated with these other issues and for many poorly informed people came to represent the nature of the problem of objectivity and subjectivity.

Quantum Nonsense.

Buddhists who know a little about quantum mechanics and a little bit about litcrit or anthropology are apt to fall into error. The temptation is to think that because we understand one or two metaphors or allegories that we understand the whole field. Almost no one does. Richard Feynman, another genius, was more bold:
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." (The Character of Physical Law, 1965). 
And if he didn't understand it, then probably no one could. The map is not the territory. And we Buddhists are not even using quality topographical maps. We're mostly using the cheesy, massively oversimplified, tourist maps that are given away for free in Hotel lobbies, all covered in advertising.

Too many Buddhists see in quantum mechanics a confirmation of their Idealism: the idea that there is no reality independent of the observer. I hope I've shown that such claims have misunderstood the word "observer" in Schrödinger's complaint. The conclusion drawn from quantum theory by many Buddhists, that the world only exists as and when we perceive it, is simply wrong. Indeed one of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that there must be an observer independent reality. (See Sheldon Goldstein, Department of Mathematics, Rutgers University: Quantum Theory Without Observers; and also links below).

This problem pervades Buddhist doctrine. It is full of empty metaphors. Karma is described almost entirely of such empty metaphors for example. However unlike in physics, Buddhist metaphors are not linked to mathematical models that make accurate predictions. Karma is linked to moral theories that are intended to ensure compliance with Buddhist behavioural norms. In other words Buddhist metaphors are set to prescriptive purposes, whereas physics metaphors attempt to be descriptive. This is a fundamental different between religion and science. 

I doubt quantum-nonsense will ever go away. Too many people are desperate to consume what purveyors of quantum-nonsense are selling and not equipped to make a good judgement, or unwise in whose judgements they rely on. If our teachers are also non-scientists hungry for some quantum-nonsense too, then we are in deep trouble. Buddhists have the unfortunate habit of seeking and finding confirmation of their views everywhere they look. The most trivial or banal coincidence of wording becomes a hidden "Dharma teaching". Buddhists Tweeters endlessly repeat platitudes as though they were profound. Buddhist bloggers give over inordinate amounts of space to celebrity Buddhists as though having someone famous adopt Buddhism makes the world a better place. It's all so tedious. Next thing you know we'll be knocking on doors asking people if they have accepted the Buddha into their lives.

The fact is that science is not proving what Buddhists have known all along. It is doing the opposite. Science is tearing apart the articles of faith of Buddhism;  leaving karma, rebirth, heaven & hell, and dependent arising as a Theory of Everything, in tatters. It's only blind faith and massive bias that prevents people from seeing this. We have a lot of work to do if Buddhism is going to survive this collision with modernity. Presuming of course that we do not fall back into another dark age, and looking at nominally Buddhist countries like Tibet, Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand that possibility seems all too likely.


Some real Quantum Physics:

11 July 2014

The Antarabhava or Interim State as a Vitalist Concept

Soon after I became involved in the Triratna Movement (the FWBO as was) in 1994, I remember speaking to one of the Dharmacārins about my experience with my father's corpse three years earlier (I mentioned this in my earlier essay on the Life's Breath). In response to my observation that "there was something missing" from Dad's corpse, he replied that what was missing was "consciousness". In retrospect its not at all clear what he meant by that. However, like many of my (now) colleagues in the Order he was particularly influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Tödröl (TBOTD). The TBOTD is openly Vitalist and it is "consciousness" that makes the passage through the bardo. Consciousness is in scare-quotes because I'm not entire sure what is meant and going on early Buddhist ideas it cannot be vijñāna, even though I suspect that it's vijñāna that is meant. In all early Buddhist models vijñāna is an event rather than an entity.

Vitalism and the Interim State.

In the story of the TBOTD, one's "consciousness" leaves the body, hangs around for a bit and then goes through a series of "experiences" (the bardo of becoming) before either being liberated or being reborn in one of the realms of rebirth. Experiences also has to go in scare quotes because the standard Buddhist model of cognition contact relies on the āyatanas and these rely on the nāmarūpa. Nāmarūpa is widely understood to mean a human body equipped with sensory faculties and a mind.

In the bardo between death and life, which can last 49 days, the consciousness appears to have identity and faculties, it is a being, an entity in every respect, except that it lacks a material body. Thus the book is not only Vitalist, but eternalist as well. I suspect that the popularity of the TBOTD is that it forms an interface for the Vitalist views we inherited from Christianity (the idea that each person has a soul that survives death) and the Buddhist view of no-self which is so often interpreted to mean that "there is no self".

Nor are Tibetans the only Buddhists who accept an antarabhāva - an interval between death and rebirth (literally, an in-between or interim state; a liminal existence). Even some Theravādins find the idea attractive even though Theravāda orthodoxy rejects any interim between death and rebirth. See for example Sujato's exploration of the in-between state, where he says:
"From this we can conclude that the Buddha, following ideas current in his time – for Vac­chag­otta was a non-Buddhist wanderer (parib­bā­jaka) – accepted that there was some kind of interval between one life and the next. "
Sujato relies on a self-published study of early Buddhist texts by Piya Tan: 'Is Rebirth Immediate? A study of Canonical Sources.' Tan, a prolific translator and commentator working outside mainstream ecclesiastical and academic establishments, takes the sparse textual nods towards an interim state and combines it with Vitalist accounts of so-called out-of-body (OBE) and near-death experiences (NDE) to find confirmation of the reality an interim state. Here we see the dangers of uncritical emic approaches to religion. Tan has an explicitly and uncritically Vitalist view and thus, with all due respect, the fact that he finds a Vitalist reading of NDE and OBE convincing is not a reason to accept his conclusion. On the contrary it ought to make us suspicious.

We can set aside the Vitalist reading of out-of-body experiences (OBE). They are dealt with in detail by Thomas Metzinger in his book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.Adopting a Vitalist interpretation of such experiences does not account for the phenomenology of OBEs. Metzinger provides a thorough, often first-person, account of OBE's. He highlights faults in Vitalist interpretations, while his Representationalist account provides a deeper understanding of both the phenomena and the mechanisms involved. The fact that Metzinger is able to apply his theory to induce the experience (and variations on it) in a laboratory (where he works with neuroscientist Olaf Blanke) suggests that his is the better explanation by quite a wide margin. The OBE is best understood as a breakdown in the integration of the streams of information that go to make up our first person perspective - the felt sense of self, becomes disconnected from the visual sense of self, and we make sense of how this feels by saying that we float above our body. There is no doubt that the experience is genuine, vivid and compelling. But the Vitalist explanation doesn't do as good a job as the Representationalist explanation. 

The mechanisms of near death experiences (NDE) are hotly debated, as is the definition of "death". There is almost no evidence of what is actually happening physically during the experience and the fact is that only about 10% of people whose hearts stop report such experiences. In all likelihood a combination of physical factors such as anoxia contribute to the NDE. As with other mystical experiences the interpretation depends on the outlook of the interpreter. People of various religions claim that near-death experiences confirm their religious beliefs suggesting that the interpretation of the experience by the person having it is culturally determined. The parallel with OBE suggests we should be looking to neurophysiology for an explanation.

Tan also cites Ian Stevenson. I've dealt with the flaws in the methods of one of Stevenson's colleagues, Dr Jim Tucker (in Rebirth and the Scientific Method), and the Skeptic's Dictionary provides a succinct critique of Stevenson himself. I think Buddhists ought to think twice about citing Dr Stevenson et al because what they seem to show the same being reincarnating again and again in the different bodies. In other words, Stevenson's work supports the idea of an ātman inhabiting different bodies. I'm surprised that so few Buddhists seem able to get beyond the fallacies and biases and assess this work critically from a Buddhist point of view. When religieux cite science as proof of their supernatural beliefs we should always be deeply suspicious. Science inevitably disproves supernatural beliefs. Which is part of what makes Naturalism so compelling as a worldview. 

Which brings us to the few hints at an anatarabhāva in the Pāḷi suttas. Some of the references are dubious at best. The infamous reference to the gandhabba in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38) and the Assalāyana Sutta (M 93) is open to all kinds of interpretations. No one really knows what it means. Tan translates as "being-to-be-born" but we have no idea why or how the word would mean that. My own opinion is that gandhabba here is an early typo for gabbha (Skt garbha) meaning "embryo", but the truth is that no one knows. Only a Vitalist would read it as "being-to-be-born" and we would class this as a form of eternalism similar to the pudgalavāda. However later in his text Tan equates gandhabba with sambhavesī which is, as he says, a rare future active participle meaning 'to/will be born'. For example in the Karanīya Metta Sutta we find the line:
Bhūtā va sambhavesī va, sabbasattā bhavantu sukhitattā.
born or will be born, may all beings have happiness.
But there's no need here to propose that sambhavesī means or even implies "in an interim state" unless we already believe that this is what it means. The clear intention here is beings who were born in the past (alive and dead) and beings which will be born in the future. There's nothing spooky about this. I don't have to believe in an interim state, or any afterlife belief, to think that human beings will be born in the future. And yet Tan concludes: "As such, sambhavesī here clearly refers to the intermediate being." No, that is not clear.

More interesting is the Kutūhalasāla Sutta (S 44.9). In Tan's translation of the final paragraph Vacchagotta (of the unanswered questions fame) asks about what fuels (upādāna) a being (satto) between bodies (kāya). The answer is:
“Vaccha, when a being has laid down this body, but is not yet been reborn in another body, it is fuelled by craving, I say. For, Vaccha, at that time, craving is the fuel.”
We know that Vacchagotta is a Brahmin, from his surname if nothing else, and anyway his question is framed in Brahmanical terms (what happens between bodies?). Interestingly the Buddha here also answers him in Brahmanical terms, but gives it a Buddhist kink: between bodies "a being" is based on/fuelled by craving. In the very next, well known, sutta (Ānanda Sutta SN 44.10) Vaccha asks about the self (attan) and whether it exists or not and does not receive an answer. Leaving both him and Ānanda puzzled. What the Kutūhalasāla Sutta represents is a partially digested lump of Brahmin theology with a touch of skilful means. It's inconsistent with the sutta that follows it and with many other suttas. How we deal with inconsistencies is important. The first step is acknowledge that it is an inconsistency, which neither Tan nor Sujato seem to do. Then we have to explain the inconsistency as an inconsistency, not as a standalone feature. Context is important.

What does this mean in practice? The general view in Buddhist texts is that vijñāna is an event that arises on the basis of sense object (ālambana) and sense faculty (indriya); but the models of dependent arising argue that sense faculties arise in dependence on nāma-rūpa, i.e. on the basis of a physical body endowed with mental faculties. To the best of my knowledge no parallel description occurs of the process in the interim state. Certainly craving fuels the process of becoming, so if someone were unshiftably wedded to their views (and Vacchagotta represents this type) then the only thing to do is introduce a Buddhist moral undertone. If someone, like Vacchagotta, believes in disembodied consciousness existing in an interim state and won't be talked out of it, then the best we can do is try to make them see that any existence in saṃsāra is based on craving. The idea that the Buddha always shares his interlocutors views, even when he uses their language, is doubtful. In the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) the Buddha claims to know God, God's kingdom and the way to God's kingdom, but he's talking to Brahmins who understand a religious life in these terms. Also other parts of the text are clearly satirical.

Next in his text, Tan tries to get at what a "non-returner" is. Tan cites an argument by Peter Harvey that concludes that "The antarāparinibbāyī must thus be one who attains nibbāna after death and before any rebirth." But these rather abstruse beings, like the Paccekabuddha, are the product of abstract theology rather than being based on experience. Later Theravādin Ābhidhammikas allow no space between cuticitta and paṭisandhi citta. They seem to have rejected the theology inherent in the idea of existence in an interim state, and I imagine they did so because it completely mucks up their unbroken sequence of cittas. Since cittas arising are dependent on nāmarūpa and the interim state demands that we remove rūpa from the equation for a period. Unfortunately the five khandhas are all required for there to be experience. And rūpa refers to a body endowed with senses. So we might accept Tan's view here, but it involves embracing a contradiction that the Theravāda tradition itself later rejected. The non-returner is a hypothetical being invented for the same of completeness of a taxonomy, not because they are observed in the wild. 

There are one or two other points in the discussion, but we've got the gist. The Paḷi text readings which supposedly support the idea of an antarabhāva are all rather vague and open to other interpretations. Tan and Sujato happen to chose a Vitalist reading from amongst the possibilities and we suspect that it's because that is what they expect to find. But even if we stipulated the Vitalist reading and ignored the internal contradictions, this would leave us with many unanswered questions: what is this interim state? Where is it? Clearly it is not one of the six realms of rebirth. So one is not reborn in the interim state. and we wonder just what is in the interim state? Why is it not more explicitly dealt with in texts? Why did the Theravāda orthodoxy reject the idea even while other early Buddhist schools embraced it?

I want to be clear that I like both Piya Tan and Sujato and I admire the translation work of Tan. His personal contribution is outstanding. My disagreement with him is focussed on this specific matter of history and doctrine. As far as I can see there is no necessity for an interim state in the Buddhist afterlife. The interim state only complicates an already difficult picture. Why would Buddhists introduce this extra step? The interim state is terrible theology. If anything it makes it karma and rebirth even less workable and less plausible. And this begs the question: why even have an interim state?

Origins for the Interim State?

One answer might be that it derives from the Vedic antarikṣa (= Pāḷi antalikkha). Buddhist cosmology evolved from parodies of Vedic cosmology (and the sense of satire was replaced by credulous acceptance by humourless bhikṣus). In Vedic cosmology (and eschatology) there are three realms: earth (bhumi), heaven (svargaloka) and between them the sky or in-between realm (antarikṣa). Going to the afterlife involved your soul travelling through the antarikṣa in the form of smoke from the funeral pyre and up into heaven. Similarly when one expired in heaven and fell back to earth, sometimes as rain, they fell through the antarikṣa to get back. The Pāli verb cavati 'to fall' metaphorically means 'to die' and in Buddhist texts is often used of devas who fall from the devaloka. Translating devā cavanti 'the gods die' is one of the first exercises in Warder's Introduction to Pali. The Vedic afterlife required each person to traverse the antarikṣa in an immaterial state (as smoke). And this sounds like nothing so much as the Buddhist antarabhāva. The ending -bhāva is often slightly ambiguous but seems to mean 'state' or 'state of being'. If one were in the Vedic antarikṣa, suspended between earth and heaven, then one would be described (temporarily) as antarabhāva. Since we know that Buddhist cosmology is broadly an adaptation of Vedic cosmology it would make sense if Buddhists included the idea of the antarikṣa as well, and we do see the idea of the "sky" in the Pāli equivalent: antalikkha.

Perhaps even more plausible is a relation to the accounts of the afterlife in the Purāṇas. These texts were  mostly composed in common era, but are thought to rely on older oral traditions. In the Purāṇic account, after death the departed (preta: literally 'gone before' deriving from pra√i) exists in a subtle form in an interim state for ten or twelve days. The pretas must be fed through performing food sacrifices, where again the fire transforms material food into an immaterial form (smoke) than can be consumed by pretas. Having been sustained in this interim state for the required time, the preta was reborn in heaven (svargaloka). This afterlife mythology is almost certainly the source of the Buddhist pretaloka. Our starving hungry-ghosts, sustained by craving (taṇhupādāna), unable to eat ordinary food, are a caricature of this mainstream Hindu afterlife story. Thus it is not fanciful to suppose that the same myth might also be the source of the interim state idea. As Naomi Appleton recently blogged:
"... the pretas are a unique rebirth state in Buddhist terms, in that they cannot seem to benefit themselves, but they can benefit greatly from merit transferred to them by humans. It has long been recognized that this is linked to their association with the liminal state between death and the ritual feeding of the dead in the Brahmanical Hindu calendar; the latter ritual, which involves the offering of rice-balls to the deceased, allows the departed one to go onwards to the realm of the ancestors." (Pretas and the śrāddha rite: Matthew Sayers’ Feeding the Dead)
Thus it may be that some Buddhists believe in the interim state because it is a legacy of the Vedic cosmology which was adopted and adapted by pre-sectarian Buddhists. My understanding is that this Vedic myth was not meant to be taken seriously, but that parody became mistaken for truth. And we know how often stories from the satirical newspaper The Onion get taken seriously and picked up by the media. 

Vitalism and Eternalism

The vast majority of humans since about 100,000 years ago seem to have believed in an afterlife. Burials obviously constructed with continued existence after death in mind appear around this time (and perhaps 30,000 years earlier for Neanderthals). Any belief in continued personal existence after death is by definition an eternalist view. So most people who ever lived and had any kind of view about it have been eternalists. True nihilism is in fact rare. Even now I suspect most people who believe in a "one and only life", wish it would go on forever. This was for example the position of physicist Sean Carroll in arguing against the proposition that "death is not final" in a recent debate.

Vitalism is eternalist. The life essence, or jīva, precedes our present life and will continue to exist after our death, whether the jīva is part of something larger, or specific to us. If something is not arising and passing away on the basis of conditions, then it is eternalist in the Buddhist view. Nāgārjuna makes this argument against the Sarvāstivāda solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. If a dharma does not cease when it's conditions cease then it is, by (Buddhist) definition, eternal. (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Chp 17)

So Vitalism is certainly compatible with the medieval (14th Century) Tibetan Buddhism of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But generally speaking Buddhists have tried to disrupt this fundamental eternalism that pervades human culture and specifically rejected any notion of jīva.

Philosophically there are two problems with eternalism. Buddhists identified that all experience is impermanent, and that unhappiness comes from treating it as graspable or sustainable. The worldview most people have is one in which we unconsciously believe that if we can just continually repeat pleasurable experiences, or make one kind of pleasant experience last forever, then that is ultimate happiness. Thus most traditions of Heaven depict it as a place of constant and unending pleasure (and by contrast Hell is constant and unending pain). Paradise is a pleasure that never ends. This idea influenced how Mahāyāna Buddhists imagined the Pure Land as well. But early Buddhists realised that this is a fundamentally wrong view of how experience is. In fact experience is constantly changing — arising and passing away — and thus constantly frustrating our expectations of it. Hence the second characteristic of all experiences is duḥkha - dissatisfaction, disappointment, dysphoria, unhappiness, misery. And dissatisfaction is important because it can lead to disenchantment and that can lead to disentanglement which is equivalent to liberation.

The second problem (often seen as the main problem by Buddhists) is with our orientation to the world. Consciousness endows us with a first person perspective, and this perspective is maintained on the basis of particular kinds of experiences. We identify with certain aspects of the first person perspective as "I", "me", or "mine". However the first person perspective is an experience and thus subject to the limitations on all experiences. This also creates conditions for unhappiness because we divide the world up in terms of me/them and mine/theirs. Immoral actions are associated with this kind of self-centredness. Of course humans are social so in fact we have circles that are involved in our sense of self. Our close friends and family are often as much "us" as we ourselves are. This is more true in some cultures than others, but always true to some extent. The boundaries between me, and the inner them and the outer them are sometimes difficult to define precisely, but we do have a different set of behaviours in relation to the extent to which we empathise with each. And the vast majority of people are outside our circles. Humans, like other territorial animals, often treat outsiders and trespassers very badly indeed.

The third characteristic of all experience is that it is anātman or essence-less, self-less, lacking in substance, insubstantial. There's nothing substantial no essence to identify with. And thus at this basic level Buddhism ought to be incompatible with any kind of Vitalism. But this is not always a happy thought and, so, many Buddhists do embrace vitalism, even Theravādins.


The really fundamental problem that all self-conscious living beings face is that one the one hand we want to continue to live (life at all levels is characterised by activities aimed at persistence of life; at maintaining homoeostasis); and on the other hand, as self-aware beings, we are aware of our own eventual (or even impending) death. Holding on to life in the face of inevitable death is a great source of pain.

While life itself is incredibly robust, 3.5 billion years of unbroken continuity and counting, a living being is a tenuous thing. In the Buddha's day infant mortality would have been high. If the monsoon's failed thousands of people would have died from starvation. Disease would have taken most people before the age of 40. A simple thorn in the foot could mean death from septicaemia. Snakes still kill 10,000 people a year in India. Tigers and other large predators were common before the jungle was cleared. There were no labour laws. Most children would have worked. Education was the preserve of a privileged few. Burgeoning caste rules meant escaping the life you were born into was very difficult, unless one renounced the world and became an ascetic, though that was also a difficult life.

Vitalism, with it's intimations of life beyond death and a pure essence that is untouched by worldly sorrows, clearly meets a need or it would not continue to be ubiquitous, even amongst those who follow the Buddha and ought to know better. But it's extremely unlikely to be true. If there is an animating entity, substance, or force, then we have yet to see any sign of it, and our best models of how things work don't require one in order to be accurate. The substance dualism that accompanies Vitalism is just not a very good theory by any standards.

Life is what it is. Experience is what it is. Seeing them for what they are, is enough. Speculation about the afterlife or our existence after death, or about a vital essence (ātmanjīvapudgala, or bhāva), is superfluous and counter-productive. Or so the Buddha is supposed to have said.


04 July 2014

Is Experience Really Ineffable?

What could this possibly be?

There's an old story from India that seems to crop up everywhere. In Buddhist literature it is found in the Udāna (Paṭhamanānātitthiya sutta) and possibly elsewhere. The story goes, that a group of men blind from birth (jaccandhā) were rounded up and asked to participate in an experiment. They are told "this is an elephant" (‘ediso, jaccandhā, hatthī’ti) and allowed to touch part of it. Then asked to describe "an elephant" they assert that it is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants' head), a winnowing basket (ear), a ploughshare (tusk), a plough (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).

The parable is supposed to illustrate a principle something like "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". It says that we get a hold of part of something and claim to know everything, but we're like the blind men who don't see the big picture. The parable ends there, but it has to because the story would fall apart if it didn't. A while ago I noticed that a physicist, whose blog I read, had this as his Twitter profile bio:
If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long. @seanmcarroll 
I bloody love this! I'm so sick of smug religious platitudes and I really love it when someone slam dunks one. Sean is responding to the way the story is typically told, in which the blind men have to identify an unknown animal. But as I say in the Buddhist version the "blind dudes" are told "this is an elephant" and have to describe it. The difference is not crucial.

Part of the reason I love Sean's comment is that I stood right next to an elephant when I was in India in 2004. It was on the road near Kushinagar, where the Buddha is supposed to have died. Elephants are big, smelly animals. If you got a lot of people crowding around an elephant to touch it, the thing would fidget at the least, and probably shuffle it's feet. As a herbivore an elephant not only eats a lot, but it shits a lot. Many times a day. Chances are it dropped a big load of dung while being examined. Maybe it grumbled in low tones. The elephant's handler would have kept up the constant patter of the mahout: an elephant will do as it's told, but it needs a lot of reminding not to just wander off in search of food. And if you'd grown up in India in the time of the texts you'd know exactly what an elephant was like: sight or no sight. No conferring necessary. 

And this is the problem with so many of these smug little parables. We who tell or read these stories are supposed to be much cleverer than those people who are in the cross hairs. But the story itself is... (shall we say) unsophisticated. How naive do we have to be to take this tripe seriously? 

Even so, Sean Carroll has put his finger on something very important about knowledge that is all too often left completely out of philosophical accounts. We don't live in perpetual isolation from other people. We communicate with them incessantly. A blind man is not of necessity unable to communicate because they can't see. 

In the story the elephant is standing still, it makes no sound, has no smell and the blind men get one touch and no chances to confer, and seem to have been kept in isolation for their whole lives. How is this reasonable? It is a poor story designed to make a presupposition sound plausible. Why does everyone nod sagely when they hear this rubbish? Why do they congratulate themselves on not being like the stupid men in the story? The story is self-defeating - it displays the very attitude it is supposed to guard against. To a scientist it's a ludicrous scenario. Scientists work by comparing their observations and coming up with a theory which will explain them all. If the blind men were scientists they'd want to compare notes, to repeat the experiment with another animal and see what happened. If they were presented with various animals at random could they identify which were elephants? And so on. 

The Tennis Match.

When I read philosophers of mind talking about subjectivity, I find myself experiencing cognitive dissonance. Of course we can argue about the ontological status of the objects behind our experiences: do they exist, do other people exist? But take the case of a tennis match before a crowd of some 10,000 people. What we observe is that heads turn to follow the ball. They do not turn at random, they do not turn in an uncoordinated way. 10,000 people's heads turn in unison, at the same time, at the same speed, and they do so without any connection between the people. Are those 10,000 people really having a completely different experience? Would they really struggle to describe why they where turning their head to follow the ball?

True each person would have had a unique perspective on the ball, but there is a considerable overlap. Different people might have supported different players. Some might be elated that their player won, or dejected that their player lost. Does the fact that they had different emotional responses to the experience of watching a ball get batted back and forth mean that they saw an entirely different event? Surely it does not.

If we go to a concert with like-minded friends, afterwards we can talk coherently about what we've seen and experienced during the show. We don't usually find that we heard Arvo Pärt while our friends heard Metallica. We hear the same music. We might have noticed different nuances. My friend might have noticed an out of tune French Horn, while I was oblivious. Our attention to the details will depend on many factors, but we see and hear the same performance and can talk coherently about it afterwards. If my friend found a particular passage moving and they describe that to me, I may well have responded differently, but I can relate to my friends account with empathy. Or I might have been moved but not understood why and when my friend articulates their experience I will suddenly experience understanding and know exactly what they mean.

If I go to a comedy film and find myself laughing along with a few hundred other people am I truly cut off from them in my own little bubble? Robin Dunbar (of the Dunbar Numbers fame) has shown that we are 30x more likely to laugh at a film when we are with four people than if we are alone. Laughter is very often a shared experience. Dunbar hypotheses that shared laughter is a sublimation of primate grooming behaviour. Physical grooming in the large group sizes that human beings live in (facilitated by our large neocortex/brain ratio) would take up too much time, so we laughter, dance and sing together which has a similar physiological effect to physical grooming. See Dunbar's new book Human Evolution (highly recommended).

Thus is seems to me that characterising each person as being in an impenetrable bubble is not accurate. For a social animal like a human being, a good part of our experience is shared.

Private Experience vs Public Knowledge

It's sometimes said that our subjective experience is entirely private. But I don't think the examples above would be possible if this were true. So am I now a proponent of morphogenic fields? No! We know about the emotional state of another person through various cues that that other uses to broadcast their state: facial expression, posture, tone of voice, direction of gaze, etc. And we take these cues and use them to build an internal model - if I were to make my own face and body take on the configuration of the other persons face and body, how would that feel? And this is surprisingly accurate. Indeed we very often go one step further and adopt the posture of the other in solidarity. Less dominant individuals will adopt the body language of dominant individuals, and so on.

Human beings are capable of mentalising to a much greater extent than other animals. So for example Shakespeare wrote a story in which he has us believe that Iago convinces Othello that he (Iago) believes that the love Desdemona feels for Roderigo is mutual (and we the audience can understand the first person perspective of each character and how they see all the others). We understand our own minds from a first person perspective. We and many other animals are aware that other individuals also have a first person perspective that is just like ours. This is second order mentalising. But we humans can take this inference to a whole new level. On average humans can manage fifth order mentalising: for example we (1) might think that he (2) thinks that she (3) thinks that they (4) believe the proponent (5) is a liar. But in order to write such a story the author must be able to stretch to at least one extra order, they must be able to put themselves in our shoes as we take in the story. This is part of why Shakespeare is a remarkable writer, he has an extraordinary ability to see other points of view. The best story tellers place us inside the head of another human being and allow us to experience the world from their point of view. It's a remarkable gift!

We can easily comprehend the inner world of another person, especially if their identity is shaped by the same cultural factors as ours, but even with humans of very different cultures to a large degree. The capacity is not present in very young children but develops by about age 5. When the capacity does not develop, as in Aspergers Syndrome, it can be very painful to know that other people have inner lives but not to have easy access to them. It can be a source of considerable anxiety. Which is not to say that people who cannot assess the inner states of other person don't have inner lives themselves. They do.

One of the interesting features of the Buddhist tradition is that it seems to be understood that knowledge follows from experience. Far from being ineffable for example, the Spiral Path texts suggest that from the experience of liberation (vimutti) comes the knowledge of liberation (vimuttiñāna). I've noted in the past that Richard Gombrich makes this distinction also. The experience itself might be ineffable, but having had that experience we can say what it is like to have had it. We can say a lot about how the experience changed us, about how we feel about other things now we've had that experience. And this is why early Buddhist texts are full of descriptions of what it is like to have had the experience of bodhi.

In a recent talk at the University of Cambridge philosopher John Searle made an interesting distinction between ontology and epistemology (Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology). He said:
"The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain".
So conscious experience is ontologically subjective. Our first person perspective is internal to our own mind. By contrast molecules, mountains and tectonic plates are ontologically objective, they undoubtedly exist independently of our minds. If I say "Van Gogh is a better painter than Gauguin" that is an epistemologically subjective statement. It's something I think I know, but it is an aesthetic judgement that others may disagree with. However if I say "Van Gogh died in France", then this is epistemologically objective - it's knowledge that is external to me, something that everyone knows and there is no disagreement over.

Searle says that the argument that we can never study the mind scientifically is mixing up ontology and epistemology. This is a fallacy of ambiguity. We regularly use our ontological subjectivity to create a class of phenomena about which we can then make statements that are epistemology objective. There are many examples of this kind of phenomenon. Searle gives the examples of money, property, government, and cocktail parties.

Computation (2+2=4) is another ontologically subjective phenomenon about which we can make epistemologically objective statements. If I have two bananas and you give me two more, then objectively I have four bananas. As a written statement this is epistemologically objective, despite the fact that as a mental operation perceiving bananas, counting and addition are entirely subjective. Despite the subjective nature of these mental operations, there is no barrier to you having objective knowledge of what's just happened in my mind.

Searle uses the example of a falling object. If you drop a pen onto the floor it follows a path which defines a mathematical function: d = ½gt2 (where g = the acceleration due to gravity, t = time and d = distance). But nature does not do computation. The pen is simply a mass that travels through space. And close to the earth space is bent by the mass of the earth (the pen's mass also bends space, but not nearly as much because the effect is proportional to the quantity and density of matter). The effect looks just like a force of attraction. And that effect is described by the equation given above. But the universe doesn't calculate the distance. Calculation, computation, is purely subjective. Never-the-less the statement d = ½gt2 gives us objective knowledge (it allows us to subjectively make objectively accurate predictions), it's independent of our point of view.

Thus, according to Searle, the argument that the subjectivity of consciousness precludes any objective knowledge of it, is simply a logical fallacy that stems from confusing ontology and epistemology. And this means that consciousness is not ineffable in the way that some Buddhists argue that it is.

I would add to this that it's now possible, through stimulating individual neurons to provoke experiences. We discovered this during surgery on the brain. In some forms of brain surgery the patient remains conscious. If a tumour is in a delicate place the surgeon may want the patient to report what happens when a particular part of the brain is stimulated so as to avoid damaging a crucial function. What patients report under these conditions is entirely dependent on which part of the brain is being stimulated, at times which particular neuron: the results can be memories, sensory hallucinations (the illusion of sensory stimulation coming from direct neuron stimulation), motor activity, and so on. One could spend hours trawling through the search results of the search "awake during brain surgery". It's fascinating.


We need to think critically about parables that smack of platitude. Are they telling us something important, or are they, as in the case of the elephant and the blind man, simply religious propaganda that in fact blind us to greater truths? The whole arena of discussion about consciousness is fraught with difficulty. If Searle is right then there is widespread confusion over epistemology and ontology (which is one of the problems that plagues Buddhist philosophy too). Thinking clearly under these conditions can be exceedingly difficult.

It's true that an elephant, like any complex object of the senses, is a beast of many parts. It does have a ear like a winnowing basket, tusks like ploughshares, a trunk like a plough, a body like a granary, a leg/foot like a pillar, a back like a mortar, a tail like a pestle, and the tip of its tail is like a brush. Ears, tusks, trunk, legs, body, and tail all contribute to the animal we call "elephant". If we know what an elephant looks like we know we're looking at one from the slightest clue. Hence the picture accompanying this essay. I don't expect any of my readers to have any difficulty in identifying the elephant in the picture from its legs alone, even if they've never seen a real elephant.

We need not be like the blind men in the story and remain ignorant. We don't live in isolated bubbles. If we just compare notes on experience we come to a collective understanding. Even if there were plausibly a dozen people blind from birth in Sāvathī and even if plausibly they had never before had any experience of an elephant, the conversation they had would have revealed the bigger picture. In a sense this is what is implied by Mercier & Sperber's account of reasoning: reasoning is something we do together and on our own we're rather poor at it (see An Argumentative Theory of Reason). There's no a priori reason why we cannot compare notes, share knowledge and come to a greater understanding. And even if the domain is subjective, by comparing notes we do know that there are similarities which allow us to gain objective knowledge of that subjective domain.

I know some people like to play up the differences and discontinuities, but that story on its own is incomplete and partial. It's the kind of thing the elephant story warns us about. We always only have partial knowledge. Claims to full or ultimate knowledge are far more likely to come from religieux than scientists. Yes, experience is subjective, but this does not mean we can have no objective knowledge about experience. We can and do have partial objective knowledge about experience - else I could not expect anyone to read these words and find them meaningful. To my mind, religious stories like the elephant parable just get in the way of understanding.


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