05 June 2016

Substance & Structure

This is a long-read (~ 5000 words) polemical essay about parts and wholes; about analysis and synthesis; about substance and structure. It's about the tension that exists between modern ways of thinking about these things and traditional Indian Buddhist ways of thinking about them. About why the traditional ways of thinking about them are a philosophical and practical disaster.

In 2009 I wrote about the Vajirā Sutta which contains one of the most famous similes in all of Buddhist teaching, i.e. a being is made up of skandhas in the same way that a chariot is made up of wheels, axles, etc. We take this to imply that a being is no more than the sum of its parts. Similarly any complex phenomenon (saṃskāra) is merely the sum of the simple phenomena (dharma) that make it up.
This argument may also be familiar to us via the allegorical story of the axe (or shovel). The man in the story says that this is his favourite axe. "Of course," he adds, "I've replaced the handle several times and the head also." The clever Buddhist leaps to an Aha! at this point because man has trapped himself in a foolish error (one that we apparently make constantly), which is to consider this to be the same axe. We assume that it cannot be the same axe if all its parts have been replaced. After hearing this little parable, the maxim "everything changes" is trotted out, heads nod sagely, and it's game over for common sense. We never question the explicit reductionist assumptions, that come to us from ancient India, that complex objects are merely the sum of their parts and no more. This essay questions that assumption, and tries to show that it is wrong.

The idea that we don't exist except as the minimal sum of our parts and no more is so counter-intuitive that it makes very little headway in most people's minds. A few nihilists are attracted to the idea that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts, but I think most people find nihilism a bit off putting. Indeed the Western way of thinking leans towards the opposite conclusion, that things are considerably more than the sum of their parts with a large dose of woo. This is, for one thing, why we find the afterlife so plausible. Ironically, both of these central Buddhist doctrines require us to be greater than the sum of our parts, even though this contradicts the story of the chariot. It is yet another incoherence at the heart of Buddhist metaphysics. 

The Axe

If I replace the head and handle of an axe, is it still an axe?
It is, right?
My starting point for this essay is to ask if anyone would dispute that the axe in the story is still an axe? Or, having replaced the parts of the axe, has it become something other than an axe? I think most people would agree that the combination of an axe-handle and an axe-head together, aligned in the right way, would always make an axe. No matter how often we change the parts. Potential there is always an axe and as long as we continue to supply axe-heads and axe-handles, there always will be an axe. Not an unchanging axe, to be sure, but the axe will exist in every sense of the word as we use it in English (though not in Pali or Sanskrit, but we'll come to this). 

This point is often lost in the telling of the parable. We get out of it what we want to get out of it, which is confirmation of our existing belief in the contingency of the world. What we do not see, due to this confirmation bias, is the important point that no matter how many times we replace the parts with other suitable parts, the object is still an axe. And if the axe is still an axe, no matter how many times we replace the parts, then there is an invariance that is not accounted for by our reductive Buddhist theory. Something is not changing. But that something cannot be found by reducing the axe to its parts! In fact, the act of reducing the axe to its constituents obliterates the something and apparently allows us to claim that it never existed in the first place. So then, what were we chopping our wood with before we broke our axe?

Another view is that the axe is not simply the sum of its parts. It functions because its parts are put together in a particular way. In other words it can function as an axe only because it is structured or organised as an axe. Any appropriate materials can be used. A stone-headed axe is still an axe, because it has the same structure and is used for the same function. So any composite object, including a human being, is greater than the sum of its parts because structure gives those parts a unity and allows them to function (to be causal) in ways that are not implicit in the mere materials. Steel and wood can be structured in a variety of different ways to make objects with different functions - related tools for example (saw, chisel, hammer, adze, spear, arrow, etc). But steel and wood could be make into something entirely different. A clothes-peg for example. A desk. A picture frame. In these examples the parts also have structure. Structure can manifest at different levels. And structure at one level need not influence structure at another - having shaped a steel blade and a wooden handle, we are still free to configure them as different tools depending on our desire.

As early as 1843, John Stuart Mill was making the same point about chemistry (see Mill 1868). To use an example from one of his later contemporaries, the properties of a water molecule cannot be understood by adding together the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In the chemical reaction that creates water from hydrogen and oxygen something new has come into being. It is not new in substance, since we know that it is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But it is new in structure and function. Water is greater than the sum of its parts. It interacts with the world in ways that a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen cannot, in fact water is utterly unlike a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. George Henry Lewes (1875) introduced a new term for these new properties: emergent. Complex objects have emergent properties that are not inherent in their constituents, but only emerge when the parts are welded into a structured whole.

The point is that this is true also of our bodies. We replace atoms, molecules and cells as we go along, so that the elements that make up our bodies now, are different from those which made it up when we were born. Although some brain cells tend to remain throughout our lives once they appear. Similarly though the cell is the fundamental unit of living things, not all cells are identical in the way that all electrons or carbon atoms are identical. Just as identical and interchangeable atoms make up a variety of different molecules, there is no reason for evolution not to create infinite variety based on the basic structural features of the cell, e.g. brain cell, nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell etc. The structures of lipids, proteins and nucleic-acids are important, but they don't fundamentally limit how cell might diverge (as long as it has the basic structural features of a cell).

The principle I am describing has several different names, the two most common are structure antireductionism; and emergentism. Some form of antireductionism seems to have been adopted by Aristotle, but J S Mill's explanation of it is the starting point for a more serious modern discussion of the principle. I became aware of this coincidentally after starting to read a series of blog posts on The Brains Blog by William Jaworski, who was aiming to provide an introduction to his book Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind (2016). Searching for background on his argument, I found an excellent introduction to the subject by Richard H. Jones (2013), whose work on translating the Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka works I have cited in the past. Jones is a thoughtful writer who seems to write at the right level for someone like me. The book is genuinely introductory in that it doesn't seem to assume too much prior knowledge of the subject, but its also focussed and serious and takes me deeper into the subject. Jones tries to present all sides of the argument, while clearly favouring a view that might be called substance reductionist & structure antireductionist. 

Currently in terms of substance it is clear that physics accurately describes the world we live in. But structure reductionism is an abject failure in accurately describing our world. It explains nothing. On the other hand structure antireductionism has some unsettling consequences. It says that every single new level requires its own rules: water does not simply have emergent properties, but these emergent properties are real and this level of reality requires its own explanation. This might be the death knell for the great unification project that has been a characteristic of Western knowledge production since the ancient Greeks.

The usual Buddhist point of view is this: we are simply the sum of our parts (often those parts are the skandhas); and the parts that make us up are constantly changing; so we don't exist in a permanent sense. And ancient Indian Buddhists always use "exist" to mean permanently existing without alteration or any possibility of change. So if we are arguing against an ancient Indian Buddhist then this is demonstration of an existing but yet changing entity is to them an oxymoron. The statement that an axe can exist but also change is self-contradictory. This reductionist argument based on the skandhas (or dhātus or whatever), which is self-consistent, is seen as a powerful confirmation that our Buddhist views reflect reality, but it entirely leaves out the question of structure. It does not acknowledge that a person persists over time as a structure, if not as a collection of the same parts, then as a series of parts making up the same structure. Because Buddhists were committed to this reductionism, they could not acknowledge the way that structure makes complex objects greater than the sum of their parts. Most Buddhists still cannot. However, this Buddhist form of structure reductionism has all the same problems as the structure reductionism of scientists. It doesn't work.

What Arises In Dependence on Conditions?

Rightly speaking it is dharmas that arise in dependence on Conditions. And dharmas are the object of he manas, or mind-sense. It is problematic to apply this Buddhist theory to objects themselves when it really only applies to our experience of objects. In other words, what arises in dependence on conditions is precisely experience. This is made explicit in the Vajirā Sutta in the last lines of simile that are almost always left out when citing this tex:
Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti
For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.  
This sentiment is echoed in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (cited here in its Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions):
Pāḷi: ‘Dukkhameva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī’ti
Skt.: duḥkham idam utpadyamānam utpadyate | duḥkaṃ nirudhyamānaṃ nirudhyate |
Chinese: 苦生而生,苦滅而滅。
P: “Arising is only disappointment arising. Ceasing is disappointment ceasing.”
S: Arising is this disappointment arising; ceasing is disappointment ceasing.
C: Disappointment arising, arises; disappointment ceasing, ceases.
Experience here is not characterised as duḥkha or unsatisfactory; it doesn't have unsatisfactoriness as a quality; experience is duḥkha. In this context experience is synonymous with the world (loka) of experience. In early Buddhist texts duḥkha and loka are ways of talking about the same thing, which was first noted by Sue Hamilton (2000).

The parts that a person or indeed the world is supposedly made up from, the skandhas, turn out to be more like the apparatus of experience or the experiencing factors. So Buddhists usually misapply there own most significant formula to "reality" and try to make pratītyasamutpāda an theory of what exists (ontology) or worse, a Theory of Everything (TOE) that exists. It does the job badly. The skandhas are far too flimsy to represent the world or even objects in the world, and 4 of the five are mental and thus nothing to do with the mind-independent world anyway. Given that it describes experience well and the mind-independent world badly, I give the early Buddhists the benefit of the considerable doubt and assume that it was intended to only describe experience. The parts (skandhas) are aspects of how our minds create our experiential world from sense impressions of the world. The possibility of mind-independent reality is left open and never addressed by early Buddhists, though experience really only makes sense if there is one.

In other words, pratītyasamutpāda is not a theory of what exists or how the world works, but a theory of what experience is and how it works. It says nothing about the axe per se. On the other hand this is exactly how most Buddhists in history have taken pratītyasamutpāda.

Structure and Scale

Recently I started asking myself a question about what is real. Not in an "I can't tell what's real, I'm going mad" kind of way, but in a reflective philosophical way. In particular, I've previous written about the importance of scale on how we understand the world. The rules that apply on one scale may not apply on another. There are obvious examples of this. The kinds of objects that we can perceive with our naked senses follow laws described in classic mechanics and chemistry. However at the nano-scale, these rules are not followed and another type of mechanics, quantum mechanics, are required to describe their behaviour. This was so far from being intuitive that in 200,000 years of anatomically modern humans, it is less than a century since these new rules were first described in detail. 

If we fire a rifle into the air, the bullet gradually, smoothly slows down due to friction over-coming inertia. Gravity makes the bullet describe a parabolic curve, though one that is gradually compressed as it slows down. If I shoot a mass-less photon into the air will travel in a flat curve that is determined by curvature of space, but which at the surface of the earth may appear to be a straight line. A photon does not experience drag in the atmosphere, but will keep going until it collides head on with something, at which point it will undergo an instantaneous transition to a different energy level that is a multiple of some constant (a quanta in other words).

Bullets do not behave like photons and vice versa. There is a discontinuity between the different scales so that different fundamental laws apply. This was the point of my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29.10.2010). What applies to a sub-atomic particle does not apply to a cat; and vice versa. The cat is a metaphor. Matter at the nanoscale is governed by probabilities, with some real limits on what we can know via Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. For example, the more precisely we specify the position of a particle, the less we can know about its momentum; and vice versa; and similarly with other pairs of quantities. Matter at the macro-scale, in sharp contrast is governed by cause and effect and we can very precisely specify both position and momentum for any macro object. Matter on the nano-scale is discreet and digital (quantised), matter on the macro-scale is continuous and analogue. And so on. 

This creates a problem for determinists. Determinism is a product of structure reductionism. In the structure reductionist view, everything can be explained by breaking the world down into its components and describing how those components behave. At present, the best explanation seems to be that the world is fundamentally made of a number of interacting quantum fields (not that I understand quantum field theory!). The interactions of these fields is what leads us to see particles and forces when we look at the universe at the appropriate scale. Quantum mechanics describe the behaviour of individual particles that are the manifestations of quantum fields interacting, but quantum mechanics is not deterministic, it is probabilistic. The matter that we can perceive with our senses does not, despite what certain "spiritual types would have us believe", follow the same rules as the particle does. The probabilistic quantum world does not determine the macro world. This means for example, that deterministic arguments against freewill fall short if they are rooted in structure reductionism. Within introducing any woo factor, determinism is simply not a convincing explanation of higher levels of structure and organisation. Determinism does not predict emergent properties. 

Another major discontinuity occurs at larger scales when classical mechanics also fails to provide a good description of matter and we must shift to using relativistic descriptions. And finally at the scale of the whole universe some unknown force is causing the universe to expand at an increasing rate. When we look at galaxies they are accelerating away from each other and we do not understand why this is, though we refer to the phenomenon as "dark energy". And the thing about these distinctions of scale is that they have almost no effect at different scales. Clever chemists can make some large molecules behave as particles, under special conditions, which is no doubt interesting as it blurs the boundaries between levels. But, at the macro-scale we typically interact with at least sextillions (1021) of molecules at a time and we never see probabilistic behaviour. To our naked senses there is no observer effect, no tunnelling, no entanglement, no (self)interference, and so on. Similarly when we look at the world with our naked senses we do not see curved spacetime or have any reason to see space and time as related. Space looks flat. Everyone thought it was flat until 1919, when English scientist Arthur Eddington disproved this proposition by observing the bending of the path of photons passing close to the sun. This could only be explained by the curvature of spacetime itself (the first of many successful tests of the accuracy of Einstein's General Relativity). 

Another way I have developed for looking at the problem is that lower level physical laws are more general; higher level laws are more specific. So there are physical laws that govern atoms, that describe and circumscribe the nature of chemistry, e.g. thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc. Such laws describe the possibilities at the next level of complexity, but they do not specify which of the possibilities will manifest, or how that level will appear to us. Of all the possible molecules, only some occur naturally in the set of conditions set by the conditions on the earth, one of the main contributions comes from the higher level level of interconnected ecosystems of organisms (or Gaia, if you like). Though it is a debatable proposition as to whether higher level structures are capable of downwards causation. Similarly the laws that govern the emergent properties of cells describe and circumscribe the nature of evolution, but they do not specify which species will evolve at any given time. Evolution is governed by higher level laws like natural selection. Perfect knowledge of the first cells would not give us the ability to predict what life on earth would look like at any point in time. It would only allow us general knowledge about life now. For specific knowledge we have to go to higher levels. Higher levels must be studied in their own right and though they are circumscribed by lower level laws, the emergent properties of higher levels are not determined by lower level laws.

Another potential confusion for Buddhists is that the act of analysis, the success of analysis as a method, does not validate reductionism. The success of analysing experience into skandhas does not validate the doctrine that there are only skandhas and nothing else. Antireductionists generally acknowledge the usefulness of analysis. In understanding a cell it is helpful to know how and of what the structure is composed. Just as in understanding water it is useful to know that its parts are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms; or that an axe is made from head and handle. Reductionism requires us to accept that the whole is only the parts, and that all levels collapse to the lowest one we can imagine. It is clear that this is a bar to understanding the behaviour of wholes. It is one thing to say, for example that the brain is made of atoms, it is another to say that a full knowledge of quantum mechanics is sufficient to understanding human behaviour. The further apart the levels are, the less likely this proposition seems. Emergent properties, and emergent laws, manifest at every level of complexity: atoms don't behave like quarks, molecules don't behave like atoms, cells do not behave like molecules, organs do not behave like cells, organisms do not behave like organs, organisms with brains do not behave like organisms without brains. At no point does perfect knowledge of a lower level ever lead to a full understanding of a higher level (or vice versa). 


I'm often appalled by how simplistic Buddhist arguments about philosophy are (and I am far from being the world's most sophisticated philosopher!). All too often I see all scientists written off as "Materialists" or "Physicalists" for example, and all of their knowledge judged as irrelevant to the Buddhist project. I've complained about this before (see Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism. 8 Aug 2014). No consideration is given to issues of how individual scientists might approach substance, structure, theory, or method. When I read someone like founder of the Triratna Order, Sangharakshita, complaining about scientists insisting on a "mechanistic" view of the world, I cannot help but be depressed that his knowledge of science seems to stop at the end of 19th Century. Similarly with many other prominent contributors. 

Yes, there are some scientists who are structure reductionists and as such make ridiculous claims about the success of mechanistic or deterministic views, or dismiss freewill, and so on. To be fair very few physicists are taught philosophy, so they don't really know how to think. On top of this prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking dismiss philosophy as irrelevant, while indulging in hedgerow philosophy of the worst kind. That said, more characteristic of our leading scientists is a more nuanced view of what they do and what the universe is like. For example, the success of quantum physics has undermined all claims to a mechanistic universe and this is generally acknowledged. Einstein infamously complained that he found the idea of a probabilistic universe objectionable. But Einstein was wrong, the quantum level is probabilistic, though of course this does not mean that the macro-world is probabilistic. We know that it isn't. Silly problems, like the singularity at the beginning of the universe are now widely accepted by scientists as problematic - as Sean Carroll recently tweeted (with added emphasis), 
The Big Bang “model” (hot expanding universe) is true; the BB “event” (early singularity) is just conjecture." 
(The Big Bang singularity isn't even sensible conjecture. There are no singularities in quantum mechanics. Could be a first moment of time.) 
All too much of what passes for intellectual discourse in Buddhism is bad philosophy and bad science. I've written about the various problems I've found in closely examining Buddhist doctrines. I find very few Buddhists (or Buddhist Studies scholars for that matter) are at all interested in such problems. And I've also written quite a lot on why people continue to find religious ideas intuitive and even compelling. So it's not surprise to me that I meet resistance when I talk about problems in Buddhist doctrine, but it can still be quite frustrating.

This particular problem is one that ought to really shake Buddhists. Buddhism is both substance and structure reductionist. The substance reductionism, which distorts a model which was originally a description of experience into an ontology, is incoherent. It is possibly the worst description of the universe that has ever been seriously considered. It is one thing to reduce experience to dharmas or cittas, but to try to reduce the whole world, everything, to dharmas? That leaves us confused. Dharmas are not good candidates for the ultimate substance of the world because they are irreducibly subjective. But worse, where they do make predictions about the world, they are demonstrably wrong. If we restrict this theory to the epistemic domain, or what we can know about the world, then some of the claims made stand up. But Buddhists insist that it applies to the ontic domain, to what is. Subjectivity probably does affect how the world looks to us, does not determine how the world is. But in practice what we find is that Buddhist theories of what the world is made of are just wrong. Most Buddhists hold a dualist or vitalist view in which consciousness is a distinct substance. This view is no longer tenable. And it turns out that the world is made of particles and/or energy. Buddhist is just completely wrong about the substance of the world. Buddhist substance reductionism might have worked as psychology, but as ontology it is laughable.

The structure reductionism of Buddhists causes most of us to believe that complex objects do not have emergent properties, but can be considered as admixtures of the properties of their constituent parts. In this view, a being is no more than the the combined properties skandhas. Since, emergent properties are so much a part of modern discourse I imagine that many Buddhists would be concerned to know that their worldview denies the very possibility of emergent properties. Especially those who are enthused by general systems theory (often via Joanna Macy's book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems). Perhaps the late invention of interdependence solves the problems caused by denying emergent properties (without which general systems theory doesn't work), but I don't see how this helps. Mutual causality still reduces all structures to the simple additive properties of the constituents, so it does not allow for emergence of new causal entities. Ironically, various Abhidharmas did invent different kinds of causality to try to solve the problem of maintaining continuity between action and consequence, but as we've seen this explanation fails (see The Logic of Karma. 16 Jan 2015). And in any case they still reduce all forms of causality to one.

But the really great disaster of Buddhist philosophy is the insistence on equating existence with permanence. This is an error of such great proportions and such catastrophic consequences that it is hard to over state it or forgive it. That most people who talk and write abut Buddhism never address this foolish criteria or adjust their language to account for it is another indictment of out intellectual culture. If we only remove this unnecessary restriction then, at the very least, we can dispense with the tortures of studying Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka, which are entirely framed within this unworkable ontology. And the world would be a better place for it.

What I wonder is how Buddhists ever came to be so triumphant about their philosophy. How does a group with such a grossly defective view of the world end up trumpeting their superiority over all comers? It's a joke right? I've said this before, but the Emperor has no clothes! And the scholars who are supposed to be objective about Buddhism are all so in love with it that they don't see it either. Since more and more monastics, with explicit commitments to medieval religious worldviews, are infiltrating academia, this situation is only going to get worse. Worryingly, the same scholars are often part of a movement that seeks to impose the teaching of Indian "philosophy" on university philosophy departments!

Something is rotten in the state of Buddhist philosophy. There's just no mileage in the kind of reductionism that is axiomatic in Buddhism. At the very least we need to think in terms of structure antireductionism and emergent properties, and this involves at the least rejecting traditional reduction to the skandhas. It would also help to clarify the way in which substances reduce, not to subjective mental constituents, but to objective quantum fields. Do I even need to repeat that I think that Buddhist claims to understand the true nature of reality are laughable?

Of course the remaining uncertainty over how to think about consciousness is going to make it difficult to really deal a death blow to traditional Buddhism - it will cling to life by claiming to have understood and explained consciousness (though it doesn't). Clearly the brain itself is subject to substance reductionism, it's made of matter. Substance reduction is completely useless for producing plausible theories of consciousness. But how the structures of the brain produce a first person perspective is not understood. If it is to be understood, it seems that a structure antireductionist approach is the most promising. And since Buddhists are structure reductionists, it seems unlikely that they will have much to contribute.

Buddhists need to take stock of what they believe. We need to stop papering over the cracks and being flattered by the attention that we get from outsiders. We need to hold our hands up and admit that, as sophisticated our intellectual defences are, we don't really understand much at all. Where we think we do understand, we often seem to be deeply confused and flailing.



Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jaworski, William. (2016). Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford University Press.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lewes, George Henry. (1875). Problems of Life and Mind. Vol.2. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turber. https://archive.org/details/problemsoflifemi01leweiala

Mill, John Stuart. (1868). A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive; being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. 2 Vols., 7th ed. London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer. [First published 1843.] https://archive.org/stream/asystemoflogic01milluoft
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