06 November 2015

In Conversation about Karma and Rebirth

This post is to accompany an interview with me by Matthew O'Connell of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Most of what I said was first written in the web pages of this blog, so it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with my writing, but it might interest readers, especially those who don't know me, to hear me in conversation. We covered a good deal of ground as one might imagine with such a large topic. My book on the subject currently stands at about 170,000 words over 500 pages. I'm editing it now, but can't say when it will be finished.

We talked a lot about my discovery that karma and rebirth can't work based on any of the traditional models. Matthew focussed particularly on my essay, There is No Life After Death, Sorry, which recapitulates Sean Carroll's arguments against any afterlife based on the equation he is now calling The Core Theory:

"It’s a good equation, representing the Feynman path-integral formulation of an amplitude for going from one field configuration to another one, in the effective field theory consisting of Einstein’s general theory of relativity plus the Standard Model of particle physics." (Now available as a tee-shirt in the USA).
What we need to understand about this equation is that at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant human experience, we can describe the behaviour of matter and energy very, very accurately. No extra force needs to be added to explain any observed behaviour of matter and energy on these scales. If there were other forces, of any kind, that could affect matter on this scale (and thus be part of our experience of the world), then we'd have seen some evidence of them in the millions of experiments carried out to date. If they cannot affect matter then they are of no interest as they cannot make a difference to us.

I also talked a little bit about how karma contradicts dependent arising, i.e. what I have called the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, and how the several solutions to this problem do not stand up to scrutiny. These have been the subject of a number of recent essays that can be found under the heading Karma and Rebirth. In fact I've put a lot more more effort into this kind of argument than I have the science-based argument.

Karma and Rebirth Have Never Worked

Matthew, in an attempt to move the discussion along, begins to ask me, "So, if we get rid of karma and rebirth...". As you can hear, I interrupt at this point because something occurred to me that I had not thought of before. It's not that we "get rid" of anything. I don't advocate getting rid of karma and rebirth. At no stage in Buddhist history have we ever had a workable theory of either karma or rebirth. We cannot get rid of what we never had it to begin with. 

We never had a workable theory of karma. Our theories of karma always contradicted dependent arising. Even when Buddhist intellectuals tweaked dependent arising to come up with the Theravāda doctrine of momentariness or the bīja/ālayavijñāna theory of the Yogacārins (which currently dominate the Buddhist intellectual landscape), what I've shown is that even these more sophisticated versions of the karma doctrine do not work as explanations (See The Logic of Karma). Other explanations such as the sarva-asti-vāda or the pudgala-vāda, which were popular in North India for a time, did not work either though they were ingenious alternatives to the explanations that by accident of history are familiar to us today. The ingenuity doesn't become apparent until one realises what they were grappling with, i.e. action at a temporal distance. It is such a huge problem, and yet the Buddhist world suffered a collective case of amnesia about it. Once it was the driving force in the development of the most influential schools of Buddhist thought, with at least two schools taking their name from their solution to the problem. Without understanding the problem many of the major developments in Buddhist thought don't make any sense.

We never had a workable theory of rebirth either. Rebirth either destroyed the connection between action and consequence, thereby destroying the possibility of morality; or it proposed a definite and substantial continuity which allows for morality, but is eternalistic. If the person who experiences the consequences is not me, then I won't care (as much) about the consequences. If it is me, then I seem to be altogether too substantial in an impermanent universe. Early commentators and systematisers tried to get around this by arguing that it is neither me or not me (e.g. Milindapañha), but this simply fails to meet any reasonable criteria for a workable morality (See Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics?). As far as morality is concerned, it has to be me. But according to Buddhist metaphysics, it certainly cannot be me. The result is an intellectual stalemate. Not that Buddhists ever admit this. No, they seamlessly segue between non-continuity when talking about metaphysics, and continuity when talking about ethics without anyone ever noticing what they are doing. I listened to and read Buddhists doing this for about 20 years before I realised that they were doing it. We can charitably chalk this up to pragmatism, but it does mean that dependent arising cannot explain rebirth or morality.

Dependent arising, the explanation for how mental states arise, cannot explain karma, rebirth, or ethics. This is already clear from Buddhist śāstras composed in the period ca 200-400 CE. Nāgārjuna says as much in his second-century work the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 17.1-6). Unfortunately for Nāgārjuna, his radical alternative of treating the whole shebang as like an illusion never caught on in the mainstream. I think his solution, while metaphysically more tenable, pragmatically could not be used as the basis of a system of morality. It required that awful Buddhist fudge: the Two Truths. The Two truths formalises the me/not-me hedge and makes it a feature rather than a bug. But any Buddhist theory couched in terms of existence or non-existence, let alone any absolutes, is faulty.

Modern science also shows us that dependent arising is not a good explanation of how matter and energy work either. I play down the role of science in critiquing karma and rebirth because in my experience Buddhists simply dismiss any inconvenient science as "Materialism" and stop paying attention. Such critiques are often seen as attacks on Buddhism itself, which Buddhists take rather personally. But the critique is there, it's quite comprehensive and compelling. The main problem for Buddhists who wish to deny it, is that they end up having to re-write the laws of physics. And I have yet to see any Buddhist even try to do this.

Sometimes, even within the same anti-science context, science can be seen as the saviour of Buddhism. Buddhists do this in two main ways. The first is through drawing false analogies, usually between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. I've dealt with this problem at some length before in two essays that try to debunk the kinds of claims that Buddhists make (see under Quantum Mechanics).

The second way is looking for confirmation of our beliefs in the empirical results of studies of the brain and behaviour under the influence of Buddhist practices. As far as I can tell this research is certainly worth pursuing. But the field is rife with confirmation bias and needs to find some rigour. We need to pay attention to study design (especially sample size), start doing pre-registration of studies, and publication of negative results before we can get too excited. The buzz word in this kind of work is reproducibility. We are not there yet. And even if we were the evidence is for a fairly mundane form of efficacy. Meditation causes measurable changes in the brain that probably affect how we perceive ourselves, other people, and the world in general. It has nothing to say about karma, or rebirth. 

Modernists Responses to the Crisis in Buddhist Doctrine

One of the ways that Buddhist Modernists negate some of the criticism of traditional Buddhism is to read inconvenient aspects of Buddhism as allegorical. They argue that we have to understand rebirth as an allegory, a symbol of some psychological process that plays out in our lives. A fine example of this is an essay by Alan Peto I stumbled on recently. In Is Buddhism Bewitched With Superstition? Peto puts forward exactly this kind of argument about superstition. However, in reading his argument I realised that while his central values were modernist, he none-the-less was endeavouring to justify his Modernist readings in traditional Buddhist terms.

There was the inevitable reference to the Pāḷi Canon, for example, in which the character of the Buddha is portrayed as reprimanding his followers for being superstitious (the word used is actually maṅgalika, but superstitious is not too bad a translation). This is read literally, rather than allegorically, as The Buddha telling his followers to abandon superstition. "Basically, the Buddha is saying that we should not fall into the trap of superstition, but instead pursue and gain wisdom." So if it fits our preconceptions, read it literally; if it does not, then take it as allegory.

Because there is a canonical injunction against it, the argument goes, there is no superstition in Buddhism, or at least in true Buddhism. In fact an injunction against something is evidence for the opposite, i.e. that it was widely practised. This leads us to the realisation that, in practice, Buddhists are really a very superstitious bunch. But how did pristine, rational Buddhism become infected with irrational elements? According to Peto, it is the creeping influence of "beliefs and traditions of society". Unfortunately there is simply no evidence for an originally rational Buddhism. That entity is a fiction of the modern imagination. As far as we know, Buddhism was never rational, did not decline over time. Indeed the opposite is evidence, major efforts went into making Buddhism more rational over time. Repeated attempts were made to solve the problems apparent in early formulations of Buddhism.

In another essay on rebirth, Peto tells us:
"While karma is referred to in popular culture as some sort of supernatural force (almost godlike) that determines your “fate”, but it is nothing like that at all."
Which is simply not true. Karma is the supernatural force that links willed actions and their consequences over time. It is supernatural because it cannot be accounted for by natural forces. In this case however, pre-modern Buddhists did see karma as a natural force. But mind you so were the miracles associated with the birth of the Buddha. So were the various spirits (benign and demonic) which abound in the pages of the Canon. Peto actually doesn't tell us what karma is, if it is not a supernatural force, but he hints that it is like "cause and effect" (which is not the traditional Buddhist view, but one clearly influenced by modernism). This particular allegory works because cause and effect is something that everyone intuitively understands and non-reflectively believes. Our understanding of cause and effect grows out of our experience of gaining control of our limbs as infants and learning how to use them to manipulate objects in the world. But karma is in fact nothing like this. Karma not only defies our modern understanding of cause and effect by separating the two ends of the relationship in time and space, but defies the traditional understanding for the same reasons! The consequence of the action is stored up until the end of your life, and then it manifests as the arising of vijñāna in another, embryonic, being either in the moment after death or after some time in a kind of limbo.

How this is achieved is unclear. For example, according to most schools of thought, the skandhas are definitely not transferred. So it is not personality, intelligence or experience, that are transferred, nor strictly speaking could it include memories (which are covered by the skandhas). And yet somehow the results of our actions are visited upon that embryo as it lives and dies. 

The approach falls well short of coherence. Modernism is applied unconsciously and inconsistently to patch the inconsistent tradition with inconsistent results. This is perhaps the biggest problem of Modernist Buddhism, i.e. the failure to fully embrace Modernism and apply it consistently.


Does the fact that so far no model of Karma and Rebirth works mean that there is no model that can possibly work? Probably. We've had 2000 years to think about it. The brightest minds of Buddhist history thought about it. And got nowhere. Now we are in a worse situation, because we must also consider science. Physics shows that there are strict limits on how matter and energy can behave and that these limits appear to be universal. At the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to human experience, this means that no afterlife is possible. So rebirth is ruled out, except as allegory and I side with those who find allegory distasteful. Of course it is always possible that someone will turn up with reliable evidence that the Core Theory is wrong. But anecdote is certainly not going to cut it as evidence in that argument. And any new evidence that would allow for an afterlife would require a whole new understanding of physics and chemistry. Again, this is possible, but nothing like this is on offer at present. What's on offer is philosophical (i.e. ontological) dualism, which states as an axiom that the mind is not to be understood through studying matter and energy. But dualism is also ruled out by the Core Theory. If the other stuff could affect our body and, in particular, our brain then it would be obvious to detectors other than the brain - there are only so many ways to influence matter;. Matter itself shows no signs of being nudged by forces other than the four so far identified (of which we can observe two unaided by machinery: gravity and electromagnetism). 

Many people get to this point in the discussion and the same question arises as Matthew asked me: "Now what?". I didn't answer that question very well in the interview I thought, so this is my attempt to do better.

So, "Now what?"

Now we need to take stock. It is only fair that we allow time to consolidate our arguments and for people to catch up if they wish. When you undermine someone's worldview to the point of collapse, a good deal of what they value suddenly must be reassessed. This is not easy and must take time. Many people will be so strongly committed to the traditionalist view are not interested in a major reassessment of their life and work, especially not on my say so. I expect virtually all people who've made life-long vows of celibacy, or those who make their living from traditionalist Buddhism, will be in this camp.

I think we have to take the psychology of belief seriously and not expect everyone to drop everything just because we have better facts. My case study for this has been the problem of communicating evolution, which in many respects has been disastrous. According to some surveys, only about half of Britons believe in evolution. Less Americans. Buddhists who agree with me about karma and rebirth ought to take evolution as a cautionary tale. We can easily screw this up, by failing to express enough kindness towards the people whose views we disagree with. My role in this is to establish new facts. I'm not a diplomat or a politician.

The problems we face are not yet well enough understood. My work, for example, only scratches the surface and my ability to persuade people is quite limited. People who are smarter and/or better connected need to be exposed to my conclusions and to test the logic of my argument. My book on this material might help with that, but I ought also to write something more pithy for an academic journal and see if I can get it through the editorial and review processes. At the very least I'd like to write something about the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance for a journal. Other's need to take my ideas and see if they stand up to scrutiny. Not just in the sense of accusing me of Materialism (believe me this happens all too often), but by looking again at my primary sources, at the Kathavatthu, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (which ideally involves being able to read Pāḷi, Chinese and Sanskrit; though all three are translated into English); and at my secondary sources (particularly David Bastow and Collett Cox). Someone needs to assess how well or how badly I've understood the sources, and either way to develop the ideas I'm proposing here. But the reality is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. That dynamic is almost entirely lacking in Buddhist scholarship even when the idea is put forward by a well know scholar with qualifications and a teaching post in a university. Most scholars are too busy pursuing their own avenues of research to spend time criticising the work of others. 80% of social science journal articles are never cited at all, so the problem goes beyond Buddhist Studies. Though I may say that David Drewes is a positive example of someone who does engage in this way. 

Interviews like the one for Imperfect Buddha Podcast are valuable in the sense that a friendly discussion of challenging material is possible, and the discussion reaches a new audience. Most of the time I don't go around trying to upset people, so I tend to pull my punches when talking to them if I think they are unlikely to agree with me. I have only one or two friends with whom I can be completely unguarded about what I say on these subjects. Some people I know have quite strong views themselves, often developed over decades. I tend not to insist on my own conclusions at the expense of another's. Something about the dynamic of the interview allowed me to state my conclusions without hedging. To put it out there in a more public way. And that felt good. Maybe there will be some response from IBP's audience that I could never get from my blog. Matthew says his own beliefs might have shifted as a result of talking to me. That's more than I could have hoped for.

Once the ideas have been more rigorously tested and refined, and once a lot more people with a stake in the game are on board, then would be the time to start exploring what to do next. I'd prefer to see us coming up with something cooperatively, than for Buddhists to continue atomising. If we get dozens or hundreds of competing models then it will take a very long time to sort out which is best. In my mind what Buddhism lacks is something like Sean Carroll's Core Theory. With a modern Buddhist Core Theory we could explain how our practices work to bring about positive change. The way that mental states arise and pass away will most likely be at the heart of our Core Theory. This is also extremely unlikely. 

The likelihood is that in 50 years time I'll be long dead and all this will be forgotten. And I will have changed nothing. Life is absurd, eh?  


My thanks to Matthew and Stuart of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast for their interest and the opportunity to talk to them and their audience about my ideas. 
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