31 May 2013

Pornography, Desire, and Buddhism

Pornography is much in the news in the UK at the moment as various authorities try to figure out how to respond to the problem of exposing young children to graphic sexual images. When I was a youngster porn was relatively hard to get access to, and relatively benign - pictures of naked or semi-naked women. Today the internet delivers all kinds of sexual imagery to our screens, some of it involving violence. But the other thing that happened recently that made me want to try to write something about it, was a naive post in a Buddhist forum asking if porn was "OK for Buddhists".

I can only write about this from a heterosexual man's point of view. No doubt there are things to say from other points of view and I don't mean to exclude or downplay those other points of view. But it's easier for me to write if I'm able to tap into my own experience. If you have a different view then feel free to add to the picture in a comment. 

The first thing to say is that pornography is an industry. It has long roots. William Blake complains about sexually explicit engravings on sale in London in the early 1800s. Being an industry, the primary purpose of pornography is to make money. And it is reportedly a very successful way of making money. This fact alone ought to give us pause for thought. 

I've written about pleasure before - see particularly The Science of Pleasure. In many ways sexual pleasure is no different from other forms of pleasure. On the other hand we all know it's much more loaded. Sex involves other people (real or imaginary) and thus it partakes of relationship dynamics. Some will characterise relationship dynamics purely in terms of power, but I'm wary of this post-modern analysis. Certainly issues of power and status come into play in relationships, but relating is about more than this as well. 

Being like other pleasures, sex has a similar dynamic. Sensual stimulation produces a response which involves many bodily systems. We experience appetite, anticipation and arousal, seeking out, engaging, and satiation. All of these stages produce particular kinds of pleasure. However if we seek pleasure as an end in itself, if we short circuit the process, then we find we get diminishing returns. If for example we over-ride a lack of appetite and just have sex for pleasure, we will, generally speaking, enjoy it less. If we do this frequently and habitually, we will get diminishing returns. Similarly if we ignore signs of satiation and go back for more. As with eating, there are many motivations for having sex: procreation, intimacy, pleasure, loneliness, seeking favours, financial gain, etc. Stimulated we become sexually aroused. The problems, if there are problems, relate to seeking out stimulus in order to experience the pleasure of orgasm. 

The naive post I referred to above spoke about having a high sex-drive and using porn to self-stimulate in order to facilitate masturbation. I believe this person has fallen into a false view. Firstly the purpose of viewing pornography is to stimulate sexual desire. It may or may not be present to start with, but my guess is that with most men it's often absent. So this person who regularly views pornography claims to have a high-sex drive. My response is to wonder how much sex drive he might have if he stopped chronically stimulating himself with pornography. I asked are you masturbating in response to sexual arousal, and porn is just an adjunct to that process; or are you using pornography to stimulate arousal in order to masturbate and achieve orgasm. My hunch is that he views pornography with a view to achieving orgasm when he is not in fact sexually aroused to begin with. And this I think is neurotic or potentially harmful. 

Responding to bodily appetites is not a problem. We breath, eat, and have sex, all other things being equal, because we are responding to natural urges. I've argued on several occasions, however, that we no longer live in the natural surroundings to which our genes are accustomed. We're furnished with drives optimised for scarcity, but live in abundance (at least in the developed world). Thus the characteristic health problems of our societies are not communicable diseases on the whole, but problems brought on by over indulging in salt, fat and sugar, along with problems caused by synthetic chemicals. And also problems associated with not coping with our environment - stress related anxiety, depression, and other neuroses. Our main problem in the developed world, in other words, is lifestyle. The main thing we could do something about is our lifestyle. And yet our societies are characterised by the pursuit of increasingly empty and unsatisfying lifestyles. 

And thus it is with sex. Where food is concerned "we" (meaning we in the developed world generally) have become obsessed with eating vast quantities of food, laden with ingredients that give us the most intense experience of eating: fat, sugar, salt, and chilli. We crave more and more intense experiences because we keep over-riding our appetites and eat for reasons other than staying alive. And it is making us sick. In the case of sex, for men in any case, we turn increasingly to porn. And to more extreme forms of porn. More or less any sexual act you can imagine is available as a video on the internet. These days you don't really even need to pay. But pay men do. And pay and pay. 

Because feminists have identified the pornography industry as a battleground we are probably all aware of the arguments against pornography from a feminist perspective. Porn objectivises and degrades women. Women are exploited by the porn industry. I've just been listening to a teacher on the radio describing the effects on relationships between teenage boys and girls at her school and how she thinks porn has degraded those relationships. This is understandable because teenage boys are consuming vast amounts of porn. By the time they come to relate to flesh and blood girls and boys as potential sexual partners their sexual appetites are so dull as to require extraordinary stimulation to feel anything. They are so used to over-riding their natural sexual urges that they probably wouldn't recognise sexual attraction if it bit them. Research has shown that daily porn use can result in impotence - in other words men can become unable to become sexually aroused with real sexual partners because they've inadvertently set their own arousal threshold so high by hyperstimulating themselves with pornography. This is probably an exaggeration. No doubt there is a range of behaviour and responses to the availability of internet porn. But still the impact of boys using porn is quite negative, both on themselves and their partners. Girls in particular are often rushed into more risky sexual behaviour than they are comfortable with because the boys can't respond to anything else. Girls get treated like objects. It's not helping with issues that they already are socialised into. With young gay men, the potential for a positive feedback loop is frightening to contemplate.

Why do men consume porn? As far as I can tell, it seems that men respond to images more than women. No doubt some women do like porn, but the vast majority of consumers are men. Looking at women's bodies is arousing for hetero men. I can't even describe it. I just respond. As I would respond to music. It's an aesthetic response as much as a sexual one. I find women beautiful and attractive. Not in an overpowering way, not in a way that I can't control, but certainly in an unconscious and unmediated way. And men can get sexually aroused looking at pictures. It's an interesting fact taken in isolation - the unmediated response to certain visual cues resulting in arousal (I'm sure it's been studied).

Getting aroused and coming is some of the most fun a man can have. So there's not much point in telling every one that porn is just bad when it's aimed at getting aroused and coming. It's like drugs. If someone tells me that drugs are totally bad, I know they haven't tried them. Drugs are fun. Especially when you're young and resilient. But they have a down side. And young people are less good at evaluating risk, or assessing long term consequences. I think honesty is important when criticising these things. Boys look at porn mainly out of curiosity and fascination with women. Men consume porn in order to become sexually aroused and have an orgasm. We do it for the fun of it; out of loneliness or boredom; out of habit; as a way of sublimating desire etc. Maybe we retain a measure of fascination with women. 

And so although women are degraded by porn, men are too. Men are targeted by porn makers precisely because we respond to the product and are willing to pay for it. Like other stimulants it's a profitable product because of diminishing returns the demand for it stays high. We soon stop responding to one image. If we want to be aroused we have to get a new one. This is because in looking at pictures we are to some extent over-riding our lack of arousal. If we use that artificially stimulated arousal to achieve orgasm we're actually worse off. The pursuit of pleasure is like an addiction in many ways, particularly in the way we build up tolerance. Men (collectively) spend a fortune on porn. The answer would be to just relax and experience whatever it is that we are experiencing. But for most adults there's an uncomfortable period of cold turkey that produces some terrible cravings to fill the gaps left by not pursuing pleasure. It's not simply sex, but all of the areas in which we are over-stimulated. 

A further problem is that pornography exists in a context. Every other product we see has a female model attached to it. Women's products and services as much as men's (which I don't really understand). Advertising is ubiquitous and very often overtly sexual. Our films and television have joined in with the zeitgeist of displaying sex more openly. In the UK we have a great comedian, Reginald D Hunter, originally from South Georgia, USA. One of the things he says he likes about the UK is that "women dress like hookers on the weekend". Or in other words many young women are choosing to express themselves by dressing in sexually provocative clothing. This is portrayed as empowering for women, though I find it hard to imagine how being a hooker is empowering. I suspect is that it has more to do with creating desire in men, and the sense of power that comes with that, than expressing liberation in women. And men are much less responsive these days precisely because they use porn, so young women out to attract men have started to dress like porn stars and prostitutes. I find it quite disturbing. I'm an advocate of a gentle modesty - for men and women. I don't feel comfortable in a world where everything is sexualized. I have interests other than sex. When everything is sexualized it drowns out other aspects of human relationships (it's like pouring corn syrup on everything until you can't taste anything but sweet). 

I'm not convinced that having sex in public is quite the same thing as being more open about sex. It is certainly a good thing that we are more open about sex. After all sex is only natural and everyone does it, and my parents generation (and their parents) were woefully ignorant of sex and their bodies. But there's nothing natural about the sex in adverts, on TV, in the movies and in porn. What some people in the UK fear is that young people are growing up to think that the sex they see in the media is in some way natural. That left to their own devices people have sex like porn stars. 

I haven't mentioned Buddhism much because I'm wary of those people who proclaim "a Buddhist view on X". I don't think there is "a Buddhist view" on pornography. There are the views of Buddhists, and my views are certainly informed by 20 years of Buddhist practice and study. So this is more like the view of a Buddhist, than a Buddhist view. 

My approach to porn is informed by what I understand to be the nature of experience, especially with respect to the pursuit of pleasure. I don't get it so much now, but people often used to ask me "are Buddhists allowed to do X". My response was usually that Buddhism has no rules as such, it's just that we have to live with the consequences of our actions and as Buddhists we do try to pay attention to those consequences. I don't want to be preaching "porn is bad" because I think people just switch off to that kind of narrative, but porn has consequences. Personal consequences, and social consequences. I understand men's attraction to porn, and I've given some thought to the various issues involved. 

Obviously one Buddhist saying 'porn will screw you up' is not going to sink a multi-billion dollar multinational industry whose consumers are often addicted (more or less). Just as the tobacco industry continues to make profits in the developed world despite our certain and widely disseminated knowledge that smoking causes diseases of various kinds, including many which leave the smoker maimed or dead. 

What I will say, is that many of our personal and societal problems come down to lifestyle. They are not genetic or environmental per se, but down to choices we make. In theory we could all just choose to live a better way. But in practice there are constant forces trying to distract us from thinking clearly; trying to hyperstimulate our desires; and generally keeping us ignorant. It is so difficult to know what is best. We live in a cacophony of lifestyle advice, most of which is produced by sincere but equally confused people.

We are very much in the position of the Kālāmas who could not make out who was telling the truth about how to live. And the Buddha's advice might be summed up as "pay attention to what is happening". Interestingly one of my secular guru's Marshall McLuhan said just this: 
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. 
The question is do we have the courage let alone the willingness? And do we have compassion when we honestly answer "no"?


24 May 2013


After my blog last week, a reader called Piotrek posted a comment that was very thought provoking, and as my answer grew I decided it might be better as a blog post since it touches on a number of issues.

We began discussing an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, Akālika in the Buddhist canon, in which the professor tried to show that akāliko, rather than meaning timeless means something like 'unconnected with death'. I did not find this very plausible and so Piotrek pointed me to another passage where the familiar word becomes an adjective of nijjarā instead of dhamma. In this blog I will present my assessment of Bronkhorst's article and this additional passage. 

There are some points we need to clarify for readers first. The word akālika is most familiar from the standard version a series of epithets of the Dhamma which I will call the Dhammavandana:
svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhīti.
The Dhamma of the Bhagavan is well told, evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person can see it for themselves.
The Buddhist tradition seems to be unconflicted in seeing this term as meaning 'timeless'. However some Bhikkhus have argued over what 'timeless' means. Ñāṇavīra, especially, has argued that it must mean that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a temporal sequence, but a structural one. He uses the image of a house: the foundations must be present to hold the walls up, as the walls hold up the roof. But this sequence is instantaneous (akālika) and gives rise only to mental objects. This is similar to my own view. I also use the house metaphor to show that the presence of the condition is required for the dhamma to arise. Last week I said that the use of the locative absolute syntax (with a present participle) implied this presence. However let us get back to the issue at hand. 

Bronkhorst points out that the two words sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are known to be straight forward.  However he performs a sleight of hand here. By phrasing it this way he infers that akāliko is not so straightforward. He hints that it is somehow problematic, but to my knowledge it wasn't until now. In order for the argument to proceed he must first create the impression that there is a problem in understanding akālika.

He also proposes that sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are synonyms. Firstly it's not clear why he focusses on these two and leaves out the other epithets. If the argument is proximity then we must point out that ehipassiko and opaneyyiko are similarly adjacent. The two words are not unrelated as they both come from roots meaning 'to see'. But the former means that it is 'able to to be seen', and quite frequently is applied to the visible world; while the second means 'come and see'. They are synonyms to the extent that 'visible' and 'inspect' are synonyms in English. And akālika is decidedly not from a root meaning 'to see'. It is true that Buddhist texts will sometimes string synonyms together, but this is stretching it. If we compare the epithets of the Buddha in the Buddhavandana then we see that they are very far from being synonyms.
itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavāti.
Such is the blessed Buddha, worthy, completely awakened, equipped with insight, in a happy state, with knowledge of the experiential world, unsurpassed, a tamer of men to be tamed, a teacher of gods and men, blessed.
It is only when the situation has been set up that Bronkhort can say "...the usual interpretation does not fit well". Buddhaghosa, on the contrary, hardly bothers to comment on the word, but seems in no doubt. At AA ii.256 he says "akālika means giving fruits at once." (akālikoti na kālantare phaladāyako); that is, the fruits (of a condition) arise with no time interval (kāla-antara). Also at SA i.43 and Nidd2 92 we get the short phrase "timeless simply means without time" (akāloyeva akāliko). Note that Bronkhorst carefully avoids any discussion of how the Buddhist tradition has understood this term. He goes so far as to label the Canonical commentary Cūḷaniddesa a 'late text', thus suggesting it has no relevance. Whereas generally speaking the Cūḷaniddesa is very useful for understanding obscure usage, if indeed this is an obscure usage which I dispute.

Having problematised the term to suit his purpose Bronkhorst proceeds to his ingenious reading of the Samiddhi Sutta (SN i.8-12). He tries to show that kāla must be related to the euphemistic idiom which combines kāla with a verbs deriving from √kṛ, i.e. 'to make his time', which means 'to die'. The evidence for this association in a single passage repeated in two suttas. However apart from the weaknesses already identified, lexiographers have not found a single other reference to kāla that implies kāla-kṛ. Kāla only takes on the association with death in this specific idiom when √kṛ is explicit. The word kālika is also attested in non-Buddhist Sanskrit texts in the sense of 'connected with time' (MW). 

If the author of the Dhammavandana had wanted to say "unconnected with death" he had plenty of formal and idiomatic options available to him: 'deathless' (amata) being the most blindingly obvious. What constraint was placed on the author that made him avoid the obvious in this one epithet, but not in the others? Since sensible and unproblematic translations can be made of the texts Bronkhorst submits as evidence, it looks like this was a case of a solution looking for a problem. It is not particularly plausible. And in the end how ironic would it be if one the epithets of the sandiṭṭhiko dhammo was itself asandiṭṭhiko (obscure).

Piotrek's proposition on the other hand is more interesting and more plausible even though it is not, in the final analysis, convincing. Let us work through the problem. The modified version of the Dhammavandana which includes nijjarā goes like this:
sandiṭṭhikā nijjarā akālikā ehipassikā opaneyyikā paccattaṃ veditabbā viññūhīti.
Eradication is evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person sees it for themselves.
In this version nijjarā is not described in precisely the same terms as dhamma, nijjarā does not come from the Bhagavan (bhagavatā) and lacks the quality of being well told (svākkhāto). This may reflect the difference between dhamma as verbal teaching and nijjarā as practice.

A word on what nijjarā (Skt nirjarā) means. According to the Jains, karma produces particles (dravya) which flow in (āsava) and stick to the soul (jīva), weighing it down so it stays in saṃsāra. The word nirjarā refers to the eradication (nirjarā) of these particles through austerity (tapas). Liberation (mokṣa) must be proceeded by the complete eradication (sarvanirjarā) of the particles, freeing the soul from saṃsāra

Note that because nijjarā is feminine in Pāli all the adjectives have become feminine as well (changed to the long -ā ending). Nijjarā is translated by Bodhi as "wearing away". Others translate as 'eradication, destruction, etc.'. Etymologically the word derives from nis + √jṛ 'to waste away'. Here the prefix simply seems to emphasise the nature of the action. Given the Jain reference, I settled on 'eradication'. 

This version is found in three places in the Pāli Nikāyas: AN i.220-1, AN ii.198, and most importantly at SN iv.339. In the latter passage we find a (Buddhist) description of this word. There are three kinds of nijjarā: the abandoning rāga, dosa and moha. The part of the passage that interests us is:
Rāge pahīne nevattabyābādhāya ceteti, na parabyābādhāya ceteti, na ubhayabyābādhāya ceteti.
When abandoning passion he does not intend to harm himself; does not intend to harm others; does not intend to harm both.
Note the typical way that Buddhists change doctrines when they assimilate them. Where the Jain would pursue eradication by self-torture (atta-byābādhāya) – particularly starvation and long periods of immobility – here the Buddhists have made eradication the complete opposite of what the Jains meant (to the extent we know what they meant). Just because this is a Jain term does not mean we should take the context as Jain. The context in the Pāli suttas is Buddhist. Always Buddhist. And this is why the reconstructions of early Jainism which rely so heavily on Buddhist texts are unreliable.

As in the last blog post this is a locative absolute construction: rāge pahīne 'once passion is abandoned'. The implication here is that when passion is abandoned there is the cessation of the intention to self-torture etc. The inclusion of akālika 'timeless' in the list of epithets of nijjarā suggests that there is no time lapse between abandoning passion and the cessation intention to self-torture. Which is just what we expect. There is nothing here to make us doubt that the word akālika might support Bronkhorst's  thesis.

However Piotrek's broader point was this.
"The dhamma which is described as "sandiṭṭhika akālika ehipassika" is, I think, nibbāna itself, which contrary to, for example, Jain belief is attainable in this life not only after death. So I believe that akālika has nothing to do with workings of paṭiccasamuppāda but describes nature of Buddhist goal."
It is true that later on nibbāna is described in terms which suggest timelessness. In the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-nipāta (Cūḷaniddesa 201) we find:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable.
But it would unusual, I think, to take the Dhammavandana as referring to Nibbāna. Again, the Pāli author was free to say what he meant. This passage is in the context of praises of the three precious gifts: buddho, dhammo, sangho. It would be unusual to take dhamma here as synonymous with nibbāna and exclude the sense of paṭicca-samuppāda. After all the Śālistamba Sūtra does say:
yo pratātyasamutpādaṃ paśyati so dharmaṃ paśyati
yo dharmaṃ paśyati so buddhaṃ paśyati 
He who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma
He who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha.
On the other hand the Dhamma as refuge often has a superlative connotation. Sangharakshita has referred to the refuges as representing a transcendental principle. So there is a sense in which the Dhamma as refuge does refer to the Dhamma in the sense of nibbāna. In this sense akālika is often read as meaning 'standing outside time', though the metaphysics of this proposition are complex to say the least. In this sense the principle of paṭicca-samuppāda is thought of as being like the law of gravity: it applies in all times and all places and thus is not time dependent. 

I'd like to thank Piotrek for his stimulating comments and hope my disagreement with him won't discourage him from continuing to contribute. As Mercier and Sperber have argued, reason really only works well when it is responding to a challenge. 


17 May 2013

Does Karma Break the Rules?

Great Chain of Being
In this essay, I'm going to outline a little quandary that occurred to me recently. It concerns how karma works. Let's begin with the general statement of paṭicca-samuppāda. 
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti,
imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati.
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, 
imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati.

This being, that becomes;
on the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become;
on the cessation of this, that ceases.
As I have noted before (A General Theory of Conditionality) This formula occurs just 14 times throughout the Nikāyas, and not at all in the Vinaya. But it is perhaps the best known of all the formulas related to paṭicca-samuppāda. 

Here we see an example of a grammatical form known as a 'locative absolute' - a participle (sati) and a noun or pronoun (imasmin) both in the locative case. With a present participle, we read this as temporally simultaneous with what comes next. We might translate our phrase 'while this is'. What follows happens, we may say only happens while the first phrase is true. While X exists or is present, then Y exists.  The existence of the entity Y, indicated by a second noun or pronoun is predicated upon the continued presence of the entity X indicated by the first. This is the fundamental equation of conditionality. The conditions have to be present for the dharma to arise.

So far this ought to be all very familiar, if perhaps not with the emphasis on spelling out the implications of the grammar.

Now karma allows for immediate consequences for our actions - the technical term being: kammaṃ diṭṭha-dhamma-vedanīyaṃ 'actions to be experienced in this life'. But generally speaking, karma manifests in whether or not we are reborn and which realm we are born into. That is whether we have a good or bad destination: sugati/duggati after we die (kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā. M iii.203). 

And here is the problem. Because if a result can only occur when the condition for it is present, and the fruits of actions manifest long after the action was performed then there is a fundamental contradiction. Something is wrong with the equation. Either karma ought to result in immediate and short-lived consequences, or some mechanism other than paṭicca-samuppāda must be invoked to explain it.

This is even more problematic when one considers the passage, which admittedly only occurs once, that equates karma with cetanā or intention. (See also Action and Intention). Cetanā simply does not last. It changes all the time as our attention wanders from object to object. When we say "everything is changing" what we really mean in a Buddhist context is that dharmas are constantly arising and passing away. If the dharma arises, results in a cetanā, that has karmic consequence, but then fades away as the next object comes into view, then how on earth (or in heaven) does karma linger about long enough to affect our rebirth. Indeed how does it haunt us after death?

Historically some solutions have been proposed for this. In Abhidharma and Madhyamaka thought there is a chain of intermediate states which lead from action to consequence. The analogy is that a seed is the condition for a tree, but the seed does not directly result in the tree. It goes through a very large number of infinitesimal increments where each dharma is the condition for the succeeding dharma. This is known as samanantara-pratyaya or the 'immediate antecedent condition' and involves short moments (kṣāṇa) following in succession. The downside of this is that we can never tell what the ultimate condition for any fruit is, even if we know the immediately antecedent condition. Also, it is still difficult to explain how such conditions survive the death of the actor and somehow manifest in another being. It is more difficult again to explain how this fair. After all, if we consciously chose to live very holy lives it hardly seems fair that we are stuck with the consequences of the actions of a now dead being to whom our connection is tenuous at best!

Another solution to this problem is the idea of karmic "seeds" (bīja) which are stored in the ālaya-vijñāna - usually translated as 'storehouse consciousness' though ālaya literally means 'grasp'. In this model, actions produce seeds that ripen at a later date. This helps with the post-mortem problem, but it moves into rather eternalist territory by positing an entity which provides continuity between lives. Of course, the continuity problem is the major stumbling block for the theory of karma. Any attempt to link consequences in this life to actions in a past-life are bound in invoke something like a soul which is the medium of exchange between lives. Something must logically connect me to those actions carried out by a being I never knew and who in the strict sense was not me! And what that something is, generally remains rather vague.

Neither of these two solutions is very familiar to me, nor are they, as I understand them, very satisfactory. I cannot immediately think of a solution based in Pāli terms. It seems to me that without a solution the thread that links actions to consequences must be broken if it is described by paṭicca-samuppāda. I have no problem with not believing in karma or with not seeing paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory of everything, but this seems like an annoying loose end.

So what is the solution to this?


10 May 2013

An Argumentative Theory of Reason

This post is a précis and review of:
Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. 'Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences. (2011)  34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.
I'm making these notes and observations in order to better understand a new idea that I find intriguing. I have recently argued that the legacy of philosophical thought may be obscuring what is actually going on in our minds by imposing pre-scientific or non-scientific conceptual frameworks over the subject. I see this rethinking of reason as a case in point. 

In this long article, Mercier & Sperber's contribution runs from pp.57-74. What follows are comments from other scholars titled "Open Peer commentary"  (pp.74-101) and 10 pages of bibliography. The addition of commentary by peers (as opposed to silent peer review pre-publication) is an interesting approach. Non-specialists are given an opportunity to see how specialists view the thesis of the article.

The article begins with a few general remarks about reasoning. Since at least the Enlightenment it has been assumed that reasoning is a way to discover truth through applying logic. As another reviewer puts it:
Almost all classical philosophy—and nowadays, the “critical thinking” we in higher education tout so automatically—rests on the unexamined idea that reasoning is about individuals examining their unexamined beliefs in order to discover the truth. (The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011)
Over a considerable period now, tests of reasoning capability have documented the simple but troubling fact that people are not very good discovering the truth through reasoning. We fail at simple logical tasks, commit "egregious mistakes in probabilistic reasoning", and we are subject to "sundry irrational biases in decision making". Our generally poor reasoning is so well established that it hardly needs insisting on. Wikipedia has a wonderful long list of logical fallacies and an equally long list of cognitive biases, though of course Mercier & Sperber cite the academic literature which has formally documented these errors. The faculty ostensibly designed to help us discover the truth, more often than not leads us to falsehood.

One thing to draw attention to, which is almost buried on p.71 is that "demonstrations that reasoning leads to errors are much more publishable that reports of its success." Thus all the results cited in the article may be accurate and yet still reflect a bias in the literature. The authors attempt to ameliorate this in their conclusions, but if you're reading the article (or this summary) this is something to keep in mind. 

However, given that there is plenty of evidence that reason leads us to false conclusions, what is the point of reason? Why did we evolve reason if it's mostly worse that useless? The problem may well be in our assumptions about what reason is and does. The radical thesis of this article is that we do not reason in order to find or establish truth, but that we reason in order to argue. The argument is that viewed in its proper context--social arguments--reason works very well. 

It has long been known that there are appear to be two mental processes for reaching conclusions: system 1 (intuition) in which we are not aware of the process; and system 2 (reasoning) in which we are aware of the process. Mercier & Sperber outline a variation on this. Inference is a process where representational output follows representational input; a process which augments and corrects information. Evolutionary approaches point to multiple inferential processes which work unconsciously in different domains of knowledge. Intuitive beliefs arise from 'sub-personal' intuitive inferential processes. Reflective beliefs arise from conscious inference, i.e.  reasoning proper:
"What characterises reasoning proper is indeed the awareness not just of a conclusion but of an argument that justifies accepting that conclusion." (58).
That is to say, we accept conclusions on the basis of arguments. "All arguments must ultimately be grounded in intuitive judgements that given conclusions follow from given premises." (59) The arguments which provide the justification are themselves the product of a system 1 sub-personal inferential system. Thus even though we may reach a conclusion using reason proper, our arguments for accepting the conclusion are selected by intuition.

What this suggests to the authors it that reasoning is best adapted, not for truth seeking, but for winning arguments! They argue that this is its "main function" (60) which is to say the reason we evolved the faculty. Furthermore reasoning helps to make communication more reliable because arguments put forward for a proposition may be weak or strong, and counter arguments expose this. Reasoning used in dialogue helps to ensure communication is honest (hence I suppose we intuit that it leads towards truth - though truthfulness and Truth are different).

Of course this is counter intuitive claim and thus strong arguments must be evinced in its favour. Working with this idea is itself a test of the idea. Anticipating this the authors propose several features which reasoning ought to have if it evolved for the purpose of argumentation.
  1. It ought to help produce and evaluate arguments.
  2. It ought to exhibit strong confirmation bias.
  3. It ought to aim at convincing others rather than arriving at the best decision.
The authors set out to show that these qualities are indeed prevalent in reasoning through citing a huge amount of evidence from the literature the study of reasoning. This is where the peer evaluation provides an important perspective. If we are not familiar with the literature being cited, with its methods and conclusions, it is difficult to judge the competence of the authors, and the soundness of their conclusions. Even so most of us have to take quite a lot of what is said on trust. That it intuitively seems right is no reason to believe it.

1. Producing and Evaluating Arguments

On the first point we have already mentioned that reasoning is poor. However, because we see reasoning as an abstract faculty, testing reasoning is often done out of context. In studies of reasoning in pursuit of an argument, or trying to persuade someone, our reasoning powers improve dramatically. We are much more sensitive to logical fallacies when evaluating a proposition than when doing an abstract task. When we hear a weak argument we are much less likely to be convinced by it. In addition people will often settle for providing weak arguments if they are not challenged to come up with something better. If an experimenter testing someone's ability to construct an argument offers no challenge there is no motivation to pursue a stronger line of reasoning. This changes when challenges are offered. Reasoning only seems to really kick in when there is disagreement. The effect is even clearer in group settings. For a group to accept an argument requires that everyone be convinced or at least convinced that disagreeing is not in their interest. Our ability to reason well is strongly enhanced in these settings - known as the assembly bonus effect
"To sum up, people can be skilled arguers, producing and evaluating arguments felicitously. This good performance stands in sharp contrast with the abysmal results found in other, nonargumentative settings, a contrast made clear by the comparison between individual and group performance." (62) 
On the first point the literature of reasoning appears to confirm the idea that reason helps to produce and evaluate arguments. This does not prove that reasoning evolved for this reason or that arguing is the "main function" of reasoning, but it does show that reasoning works a great deal better in this setting than in the abstract.

2. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the most widely studied of all the cognitive biases and "it seems that everybody is affected to some degree, irrespective of factors like general intelligence or open-mindedness." (63). The authors say that in their model of reasoning confirmation bias is a feature.

Confirmation bias has been used in two different ways:
  • Where we only seek arguments that support our own conclusion and ignore counter-arguments because we are trying to persuade others of our view. 
  • Where we test our own existing belief by only looking at positive inference. For example if I think I left my keys in my jacket pocket it makes more sense to look in my jacket pocket, than in my trouser pockets. "This is just trusting use of our beliefs, not a confirmation bias." (64) Later they call this "a sound heuristic" rather than a bias.
Thus the authors focus on the first situation since they don't see the second as a genuine case of confirmation bias. The theory being proposed makes three broad predictions about confirmation bias
  1. It should only occur in argumentative situations
  2. It should only occur in the production of arguments
  3. It is a bias only in favour of confirming one's own claims with a complementary bias against opposing claims or counter-arguments. 
I confess that what follows seems to be a bit disconnected from these predictions. The evidence cited seems to support the predictions, but they are not explicitly discussed. This seems to be a structural fault in the article that an editor should have picked them up on. Having proposed three predictions they ought to have dealt with them more specifically.

In the Wason rule discovery task participants are presented with 3 numbers. They are told that the experimenter has used a rule to generate them and asked to guess that rule. They are able to test their hypothesis by offering another triplet of number. The experimenter will say whether or not it conforms to the rule. The overwhelming majority look for confirmation rather than trying to falsify their hypothesis. However the authors take this to be a sound heuristic rather than confirmation bias. The approach remains the same even when the participants are instructed to attempt to falsify their hypothesis. However if the hypothesis comes from another person, or from a weaker member of a group then participants are much more likely to attempt to falsify it and more ready to abandon it in favour of another. "Thus falsification is accessible provided that the situation encourages participants to argue against a hypothesis that is not their own." (64)

A similar effect is noted in the Wason selection task (the link enables you to participate in a version of this task) The participant is give cards marked with numbers and letters which are paired up on opposite sides of the card according to rules. The participant it given a rule and asked which card to turn over in order to test the rule. If the rule is phrased positively participants seek to confirm it, and if negatively to falsify it. Again this is an example of a "sound heuristic" rather the confirmation bias. However "Once  the participant's attention has been drawn to some of the cards, and they have arrived at an intuitive answer to the question, reasoning is used not to evaluate and correct their initial intuition but to find justifications for it. This is genuine confirmation bias." (64)

One of the key observations the authors make is that participants of studies must be motivated to falsify. They draw out this conclusion by looking at syllogisms e.g. No C are B; All B are A; therefore some A are not C. Apparently the success rate of dealing with such syllogisms is about 10%. What seems to happen is that people go with their initial intuitive conclusion and do not take the time to test it by looking for counter-examples. Mercier & Sperber argue that this is simply because they are not motivated to do so. On the other hand if people are trying to prove something wrong--if for example we ask them to consider a statement like "all fish are trout"--they readily find ways to disprove this. Participants will spend an equal amount of time on the different tasks.
"If they have arrived at the conclusion themselves, or if they agree with it they try to confirm it. If they disagree with it then they try to prove it wrong." (65) 
But doesn't confirmation bias lead to poor conclusions? Isn't this why we criticise it as faulty reasoning? It leads to conservatism in science for example and to the dreaded groupthink. Mercier& Sperber argue that confirmation bias in these cases is problematic because it is being used outside its "normal context: that is the resolution of a disagreement through discussion." (65) When used in this context confirmation bias works to produce the strongest, most persuasive arguments. Scholarship at its best ought to be like this.

The relationship of the most persuasive argument to truth is debatable, but the authors suppose that the truth will emerge if that is the subject of disagreement. If each person presents their best arguments, and the group evaluate them then this would seem to be an advantageous way of arriving at the best solution the group is capable of. Challenging conclusions leads people to improve their arguments, thus the small group may produce a better conclusion than the best individual in the group operating alone. Thus:
confirmation bias is a feature not a bug
This is the result that seems to have most captured the imaginations of the reading public. However the feature only works well in the context of a small group of mildly dissenting (not polarised) members. The individual, the group with no dissent, and the polarised group with implacable dissent are at a distinct disadvantage in reasoning! Conformation bias works well for the production of arguments, but not so well for evaluation, though the later seemed less of a problem.

Does this fulfil the three broad predictions made about confirmation bias? We have seen that confirmation bias is not triggered unless these is a need to defend a claim (1). Confirmation bias does appear to be more prevalent when producing arguments than in evaluating them, and that we do tend to argue for our own claims and against the claims of others (2 & 3). However the predictions included the word only, and I'm not sure that they have, or could have, demonstrated the exclusiveness of their claims. More evidence emerges in the next section which deals (rather more obliquely with convincing others).

3. Convincing others.

Proactive Reasoning  in belief formation.

The authors' thesis is that reasoning ought to aim at convincing others rather than arriving at the best decision. This section discusses the possibility that, while we do tend to favour our own argument, we may also anticipate objections. The latter is said to be the mark of a good scholar, though the article is looking at reasoning more generally. There is an interesting distinction here between beliefs we expect to be challenged and those which are not:
"While we think most of our beliefs--to the extent that we think about them at all--not as beliefs but just as pieces of knowledge, we are also aware that some of them are unlikely to be universally shared, or to be accepted on trust just because we express them. When we pay attention to the contentious nature of these beliefs we typically think of them as opinions." (66) 
And knowing that our opinions might be challenged we may be motivated to think about counter-arguments and be ready for them with our own arguments. This is known as motivated reasoning. Interestingly from my point of view, because I think I have experienced this, one of the examples they give is: "Reviewers fall prey to motivated reasoning and look for flaws in a paper in order to justify its rejection when they don't agree with its conclusions." (66).

The point being that from the authors' perspective it seems that what people are doing in this situation is not seeking truth, but only seeking to justify an opinion.
"All these experiments demonstrate that people sometimes look for reasons to justify  From an argumentative perspective, they do this not to convince themselves of the truth of their opinion but to be ready to meet the challenges of others." (66)
If we approach a discussion or a decision with an opinion, then we our goal in evaluating another's argument is often not to find the truth, but to show that the argument is wrong. The goal is argumentative rather than epistemic (seeking knowledge). We will comb through an argument looking for flaws for example, finding fault with study design, use of statistics or employing logical fallacies. Thus although there are benefits to confirmation bias in the production of arguments, confirmation bias in the evaluation of arguments can be a serious problem: it may lead to nitpicking, polarisation or strengthening of existing polarisation.

Two more effects of motivated reasoning are particularly relevant to my interests: belief perseverance and violation of moral norms. The phenomenon of belief perseverance (holding onto a belief despite evidence that a view is ill founded) is extremely common in religious settings. The argumentative theory sees belief perseverance as a form of motivated reasoning: when presented with counter-arguments the believer focuses on finding fault, and actively disregards information which runs counter to the belief. If the argument is particularly unconvincing--"not credible"--it can lead to further polarisation. And in the moral sphere reasoning is often used to come up with justifications for breaking moral precepts. Here reasoning can be clearly seen to be in service of argument rather than knowledge or truth.

Thus in many cases reasoning is used precisely to convince others rather than arriving at the best decision, even when this results in poor decisions or immoral behaviour. We use reason to find justifications for our intuitive beliefs or opinions.

Proactive Reasoning

The previous section was mainly concerned with defending opinions, while the next (and final) sections looks at how reason relates to decisions and actions more broadly. On the classical argument we expect reasoning to help us make better decisions. But this turns out not to be the case. Indeed in experiments people who spend time reasoning about their decisions consistently make decisions that are less consistent with their own previously stated attitudes. They also get worse at predicting the results of basketball games. "People who think too much are also less likely to understand other people's behavior." (69). A warning note is sounded here that some of the studies which showed that intuitive decisions were always better than thought out decisions have not be able to be replicated. So Malcolm Gladwell's popularisation of this idea in his book Blink may have over-stated the case. However the evidence suggests that reasoning does not necessarily confer advantage. Which to my mind is in line with what I would expect.

The argumentative theory suggests that reasoning should have most influence where our intuitions are weak - where we are not trying to justify a pre-formed opinion. One can then at least defend a choice if it proves to be unsatisfactory later. In line with research dating back to the 1980s this is called reason-based choice. reason-based choice is able to explain a number of unsound uses of reasoning noted by social psychologists: the disjunction effect, the sunk-cost fallacy, framing effects, and preference inversion.

The connecting factor is the desire to justify a choice or decision. We can see this in action in many countries today with the insistence on fiscal austerity as a response to economic crisis. Evidence is mounting that cutting government spending only causes further harm, but many governments remain committed to it. As long as they can produce arguments for the idea, they refuse to consider arguments against.


Some important contextualising remarks are made in the concluding section, many of which are very optimistic about reasoning. Reasoning as understood here makes human communication more reliable and more potent.
"Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes not because humans are bad at it but because they systematically look for arguments to justify their beliefs or actions.... Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism: it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels" (72) 
The authors stress the social nature of reasoning. Generally speaking it is groups of people that use reason to make progress not individuals, though a small number of individuals are capable of being their own critics. Indeed the skill can be learned, though only with difficulty and one only ever mitigates and does not eliminate the tendency towards justification. Thus though confirmation bias seems inevitable in producing arguments, it is balanced out in the evaluation by other people.
"To conclude, we note that the argumentative theory of reasoning should be congenial to those of us who enjoy spending endless hours debating ideas - but this, of course, is not an argument for (or against) the theory. (73)


It ought to come as no surprise that a faculty of a social ape is evolved to function best in small groups. The puzzle is why we ever thought of the individual as capable of standing alone and apart from their peers. It's a conceit of Western thinking that is going to come under increasing attack I think.

This review is also sort of a follow up to an earlier blog Thinking it Through sparked by a conversation with Elisa Freschi in comments on her blog post: Hindu-Christian and interreligious dialogue: has it any religious value? I think Mercier & Sperber raise some serious questions about this issue. Reasoning does work well in polarising environments. And religious views tend to be mutually exclusive. 

I think it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to say that we evolved x for the purposes of y except in a very general sense. Certainly eyes enable us to see, but it is simplistic to say that eyes evolved in order for us to see. We assume that evolution has endowed us with traits for a purpose, even when the purpose is unclear. And we observe that we have certain traits which serve to make us evolutionarily fit in some capacity. In this case the trait--reason--does not perform the function we have traditionally assigned to it. We are in poor at discovering the truth through reasoning alone, and much of the time not even looking. Therefore we must look again at what reason does. This is what Mercier and Sperber have done. Whether their idea will stand the text of time remains to be seen. My intuitive response is that they have noticed something very important in this paper.

My own interest in decision making stems from the work of Antonio Damasio, particular in Descartes's Error. My argument has been that decision making is unconscious and emotional and that reasons come afterwards. Mercier & Sperber are pursuing a similar idea at a different level. Damasio suggests that we make decisions using unconscious emotional responses to information and then justify our decision by finding arguments. And we can see the different parts of the process disrupted by brain injuries or abnormalities in specific locations. Thus neuroscience provides a confirmation of Mercier & Sperber's theory and correlates the behavioural observation with brain function. Neither cites the work of the other.

I presaged this review and my reading of this article in my essay The Myth of Subjectivity when I claimed that objectivity emerges from scientists working together. Mercier & Sperber confirm my intuition about how science works, including my note that scientists love to prove each other wrong. However they take it further and argue that this is the natural way that humans operate, and emphasise the social, interactional nature of progress in any field. And after all even Einstein went in search of support for his intuitions about the speed of light. He did not set out to disprove it. Thus we must reassess the role of falsification in science. It may be asking too much for any individual to seek to falsify their own work; but we can rely on the scientific community to provide evaluation and especially disagreement!

Those wishing to comment on this review should read Mercier & Sperber First. There's not much point in simply arguing with me. I've done my best to represent the ideas in the article, but I may have missed nuances, or got things wrong - I'm new to this subject. By all means let us discuss the article, or correct errors I have made, but let's do it on the basis of having read the article in question. OK?


Other reading. 
My attention was draw to this article by an economist! Edward Harrison pointed to The Reason We Reason by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine. (Be sure to read the comment from Hugo Mercier which follows the article). Amongst Lehrer's useful links was one to the original article. 
Hugo Mercier's website, particularly his account of the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning; and on Academia.edu.
Dan Sperber's website, and on  Academia.edu.

18 Aug 2016

Hugo Mercier has uploaded a new paper to academia.edu

The Argumentative Theory: Predictions and Empirical Evidence A Social Turn in the Study of Higher Cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science. September 2016, 20(9): 689-700. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2016.07.001


The argumentative theory of reasoning suggests that the main function of reasoning is to exchange arguments with others. This theory explains key properties of reasoning. When reasoners produce arguments, they are biased and lazy, as can be expected if reasoning is a mechanism that aims at convincing others in interactive contexts. By contrast, reasoners are more objective and demanding when they evaluate arguments provided by others. This fundamental asymmetry between production and evaluation explains the effects of reasoning in different contexts: the more debate and conflict between opinions there is, the more argument evaluation prevails over argument production, resulting in better outcomes. Here I review how the argumentative theory of reasoning helps integrate a wide range of empirical findings in reasoning research.

03 May 2013

The Simile of the Raft

THERE are a small number of texts which are quoted again and again by Western Buddhists. Perhaps the most common is the so-called Kālāma Sutta and I have already spent several essays trying to demonstrate that it does not support the uses to which it is put (now combined into a booklet called Talking to the Kālāmas). Western Buddhists are simply mistaken about that text.

If the Kālāma Sutta is the most cited text then the Simile of the Raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22; M i.130) would be a good contender for second. This is the text that tells us that the Dharma is a raft to get us to the other side, where it must be abandoned. What follows is an extract from my translation and commentary on the Alagaddūpama Sutta which I hope to publish at some point.

The Simile of the Raft
(M i.134-5)

Bhikkhus I will teach you the simile of ‘the raft for the purpose of getting across’. Pay attention and listen to what I will say. 
“Yes, Bhante,” the bhikkhus replied. 
The Bhagavan said, “Suppose a man is following a stretch of road, and he comes to a great flood. The near bank is dangerous and frightening, the far bank is safe and secure. There is no boat or bridge to cross the water. He thinks, ‘what if I were to were to gather grass, wood, sticks and leaves and having woven them into a raft, I should swim, and safely cross to the other side?’ So he makes a raft and crosses the flood. Then once he has crossed over to the far bank he thinks: ‘this raft was very helpful to me in crossing the flood, what if I were to pick it up and carry it on my head or shoulders and go on my way?’”. 
“What do you think, bhikkhus, is this man acting sensibly if he takes the raft with him?” 
“No, Bhante.” 
“What would the sensible thing to do be? Here bhikkhus, he has crossed over to the far bank he thinks: ‘this raft was very helpful to me in crossing the flood, now let me haul it up to dry ground, or sink it in the water, and be on my way.’ That, bhikkhus, is the sensible way to act towards the raft. Just so, bhikkhus, I have taught the Dhamma as like a raft for ferrying, for getting across. 
Bhikkhus, through understanding the Dhamma in terms of this parable, you should renounce dhammas, and more-so non-dhammas.”

In this passage the Buddha certainly says that his dhamma is like a raft for crossing a river. And it is clear that having crossed a river, it is foolish to carry the raft along with you. However, this is a simile or, really, a parable, and the interpretation of what this parable means hinges on how we read the last sentence. The last sentence is the critical part of this passage, and it is also the most difficult to understand.

Now most people take this simile as saying that we don't need the Dhamma when we are enlightened, but this was not the Buddha's view as I will show below. The Buddha never abandoned the Dhamma as a refuge. So we can exclude this meaning. In order to understand the whole passage, to understand what the parable is pointing at with it's comparison of crossing a river, we need to understand this last sentence.

dhamma and adhamma

The passage tells us that, having understood the Dhamma in terms of the parable of the raft, then, we ought to  renounce dhammā and more so adhammā (both in the plural): dhammāpi vo pahātabbā pageva adhammā. The words dhammā and adhammā have evoked a variety of renderings.

Buddhaghosa (MA ii.109) says that ‘dhammā’ here means calm and insight (samatha-vipassanā), specifically craving for calm and insight, but this does not make a great deal of sense; someone on the other shore has no craving to give up and one cannot abandon the raft before getting across. No modern exegetes seem to accept Buddhaghosa’s suggested interpretation. Horner interpreted the phrase as suggesting that we give up morality at the further shore (see Keown 1992: 93). Horner’s (1954) translation is “you should get rid even of (right) mental objects, all the more of wrong ones.” (p.173-4). Gethin (2008) interprets dhammā/adhammā as “good practices and bad practices” (p.161), which echoes Buddhaghosa but is less specific. However, ‘practice’ is hardly a usual translation for dhamma (one might even say it is a mistranslation). Also, there is plenty of evidence that the Buddha did not give up practice after his awakening.

Ñānamoli and Bodhi (2001) opt for the “teachings and things contrary to the teachings” which is at least a possible translation. I am doubtful about dhammā in the plural being interpreted in the sense of ‘teaching’ (I’ll return to this). Bodhi’s footnote (p. 1209, n.255) acknowledges the ambiguity and justifies their translation with a pious homily. Thanissaro (2010) does not translate the key terms: “you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas." The capitalisation implies that he understands ‘teachings’, as dhammā as ‘things’ is seldom capitalised and he therefore has the same problem as Ñānamoli and Bodhi. Piya (2003) also avoids committing himself: “you should abandon even the dharmas, how much more that which is not dharmas” [sic]. He refers to MA and Bodhi’s footnote for an explanation, thus seems to be accepting Ñānamoli and Bodhi's reading.

Richard Gombrich (1996) has weighed in with support for translating ‘teachings’ and ‘non-teachings’: “The Buddha concludes that his dhammā, his teachings are to be let go of, let alone adhammā. The occasion for this whole discourse is given by Ariṭṭha, who obstinately declared that he understood the Buddha’s teaching in a certain [wrong] sense.” (p.24). The argument that dhammā in the last sentence is not the dhamma referred to in the earlier parts of the passage Gombrich declares to be “sheer scholastic literalism” (p.24), but I have been unable to locate another passage in which the Buddha uses dhammā in the plural to describe his teaching. Gombrich comments on the irony of taking literally a text preaching against literalism (p.22), with the implication that Ariṭṭha--to whom he emphasises the sutta was directed--is guilty of literalism, or of clinging to the Dhamma. However, Ariṭṭha was guilty of stubbornly refusing to relinquish a completely wrong interpretation. He is not a literalist, but simply has a wrong view. His problem is that he does not take the Buddha’s injunction literally enough! That the simile of grasping the snake at the wrong end, which immediately precedes the raft simile, applies to Ariṭṭha we cannot doubt. Ariṭṭha has misunderstood the teaching. The simile of the raft appears to be talking about something entirely different, and unrelated to Ariṭṭha. This is so striking when reading the text that I am inclined to agree with Keown who speculates that the sutta is a composite of originally separate sections (p.96).

Basing his discussion solely on Ñānamoli and Bodhi’s translation, Jonardon Ganeri has attempted to problematise the idea of abandoning the teachings. Firstly, he says that if we take dhammā to mean teachings then the teachings only have instrumental value (p.132). Ironically, this is not really a problem from a Buddhist point of view as we tend to see the teachings instrumentally (though there are Buddhist fundamentalists). His other argument, which relies on interpreting the Buddha’s word as ‘Truth’, is that for one on the other side “truth ceases altogether to be something of value” (p.132). Again, this is not really an issue for Buddhism as truth as expressed in language is always provisional. The ‘Truth’ (if there is such a thing) is experiential, and on experiencing bodhi and vimutti one does not need provisional truth any more. Ganeri seems to misunderstand the pragmatic way Buddhism values truth – truth is whatever is helpful. This is epitomised in two now clichéd passages: in the Kesamutti Sutta (A i.188ff) where the Buddha tells the Kālāma people to trust their own experience in determining right and wrong conduct; and at Vin ii.10 where the Buddha tells his aunt Mahāpajāpatī that the Dhamma is whatever conducive to nibbāna.

If we accept Ñānamoli and Bodhi’s ‘teachings and things contrary to the teachings’ then we must state the standard caveat, which is that one only abandons the teachings after reaching the further shore. Too often this passage is used to attack doctrine being applied on this shore, or in the flood. There is no suggestion but that we absolutely need the raft until we are safely on the other side. 

Thus from various reputable scholars we get the full range of possibilities for translating dhammā: ‘teaching, morality, things, mental objects’.

This parable is also examined in depth by Keown (1992), where he points out that this is the only mention of abandoning the raft (p.95) and that in other texts “it is made perfectly clear that sīla along with samādhi and paññā are part of the further shore and are not left behind on the near side after enlightenment.” (p.95). As Keown points out, in some texts the further shore is morality (e.g., A v.232, and v.252f ). I would add that this idea that one abandons the Dhamma after enlightenment is flatly contradicted in the Gārava Sutta:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti. (S i.139) 
“I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very dhamma to which I have fully-awakened” 
The Buddha himself does not give up on Dhamma, why should anyone else? This militates against interpreting dhammā as ‘teachings’. Keown’s tentative translation is “…good things (dhammā) must be left behind, much more so evil things (adhammā)” though he affirms the ambiguity. Keown notes that in other places where dhammā and adhammā are contrasted, they seem to mean good things and bad things (p.101). He concludes that the simile has two purposes: 1. to affirm that the dhamma is for the purpose of salvation and no other purpose (this being the main point of the first part of the Alagaddūpama Sutta); and 2. that we must not become emotionally attached to particular doctrines, practices, teachings or philosophical views, and that none should assume a disproportionate status. But that things which are unambiguously evil must certainly be rejected (p.102). Keown is at least thorough and pays attention to the text, and tries to take the text on its own terms, but I still don't find his interpretation satisfying because, again, the Buddha does not give up good things after his awakening. 

Kalupahana (1986: 183) agrees with Keown’s interpretation of adharma in discussing chapter 8 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. “While it is true that the term dharma is used in the Buddhist texts, both in an ontological sense (referring to ‘phenomena’) and in a more ethical sense (meaning ‘good’), there is no evidence at all that the negative term a-dharma was ever used in the former sense.” Thus he treats it as synonymous with akuśala. However, we have to take Kalupahana with a grain of salt, because neither the Buddha nor Nāgārjuna thought of dhamma as having an "ontological sense". Indeed, both go out of their way to deny this. Dhamma qua phenomena have no ontological status: they are neither existent nor non-existent. It is Kalupahana himself who draws attention to the role of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) in the Mūlamadhyamakārikā. And it is in the Kaccānagotta Sutta where this is plainly stated. Kalupahana himself constantly rejects ontology in his discussion of the texts. His desire to squeeze Buddhism into a Western mould has mixed success. 

Despite this plethora of interpretations by leading interpreters of Buddhism, I can offer yet another. A little later in the Alagaddūpama Sutta one of the bhikkhus asks: “could one be tormented by something externally non-existing (bahiddhā asati)?” The reply is:
“You could, bhikkhu,” replied the Bhagavan. “Suppose one thought like this: ‘it was mine, [now] it is not mine; it might be mine, but I can’t get it.’ They are upset and miserable; distressed and depressed. They are tormented by something externally non-existing.”
By something externally non-existing is meant 'something that they do not possess'. Note here that the thing desired is not non-existent (asati) in the absolute sense, but is merely something lost, or unobtainable. In light of this I suggest that dhammā here could also be ‘things’ (that exist) and adhammā is ‘non-things’ (things that don’t exist in this sense). That is to say we must abandon attachment to what we have, and to what we wish to have. This is not a perfect answer to the problem, but it has the real advantage of not requiring the arahant to give up something that arahants were extremely unlikely to give up!

In the Gārava Sutta (SN 6.2 PTS S i.139) we find the Buddha explicitly turning to the Dharma as his refuge:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti. 
I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very Dhamma to which I have fully-awakened.
However, no single view of this simile appears to be unproblematic. All we can say with any certainty is that the pop-Buddhism answer that one gives up the Dharma as teaching when one is enlightened is a non-starter. Nor do we give up practising the Dharma. As far as I am aware, none of the enlightened figures of history ever renounced the Dharma. 


Note: 17 Jan 2017
Na hi dhammo adhammo ca, ubho samavipākino;
Adhammo nirayaṃ neti, dhammo pāpeti suggatin ti. (Thag. 304)
          For virtue and vice do not have equal results
          Vice leads to hell, virtue causes a good rebirth.
In this view, one would give up both dhamma and adhamma because they both lead to rebirth. Albeit that virtue (dhamma) causes on to attain (pāpeti < causative from pāpuṇāti) a good rebirth (suggati), it is still a rebirth and thus still within saṃsāra. The goal of Buddhism is to end rebirth.

Note: 26 Aug 2019

The most ancient retrievable understanding of (DHp 1-2) is that 1. mental action precedes bodily and verbal actions (dharmā), 2. among them, mental action is the most important one, and 3. they are prompted by mental action. All Buddhists would accept these statements, and it will suffice to quote Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa IV 1c-d: cetanā mānasaṃ karma tajjaṃ vākkāyakarmaṇī ‘mental action is volition, and what arises from it are verbal and bodily actions’. (24)
Agostini, Giulio. 2010. 'Preceded by Thought Are the Dhammas': The Ancient Exegesis on Dhp 1-2. Buddhist Asia 2: Papers from the Second Conference of Buddhist Studies Held in Naples in June 2004, 1-34.

The argument is that in this context dhammā means actions. 


Ganeri, Jonardon. 2002. 'Why truth? The Snake Sūtra.' Contemporary Buddhism, 3,2 2002: 127-139.

Gethin, Rupert. 2008. Sayings of the Buddha. Oxford University Press, p.156-167.

Gombrich, Richard. 1996. How Buddhism Began : The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London: Athlone.

Horner, I.B. 1954. 'Discourse on the Parable of the Water-Snake.' The Collection of Middle Length Sayings. London: Luzac, p.167-182.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. State University of New York Press.

Keown, Damien. 1992 The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Ñānamoli and Bodhi. 2001. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. 2nd ed. Wisdom, p.224-236.

Piya Tan. 2003. Alagaddūpama Sutta: The Discourse on the Parable of the Water-snake [Proper grasp of the Buddha’s Teaching], Majjhima Nikāya (22/1:130-142). Online: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/3.13-Alagaddupama-S-m22-piya.pdf

Thanissaro. (trans.) 2010a 'Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile.' Access to Insight. Online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html.
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