27 June 2014

Why Artificial Intelligences Will Never Be Like Us and Aliens Will Be Just Like Us.

"Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsym-pathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the great memes of science fiction and as our lives come to resemble scifi stories ever more, we can't help by speculate what an AI will be like. Hollywood aside seem to imagine that AIs will be more or less like us because we aim to make them like us. And as part of that we will make them with affection for, or at least obedience to us. Asimov's Laws of Robotics are the most well known expression of this. And even if they end up turning against us, it will be for understandable reasons.

Extra-terrestrial aliens on the other hand will be incomprehensible. "It's like Jim, but not at we know it." We're not even sure that we'll recognise alien life when we see it. Not even sure that we have a definition of life that will cover aliens. It goes without saying that aliens will behave in unpredictable ways and will almost certainly be hostile to humanity. We won't understand them minds or bodies and we will survive only by accident (War of the Worlds, Alien) or through Promethean cunning (Footfall, Independence Day). Aliens will surprise us, baffle us, and confuse us (though hidden in this narrative is a projection of fears both rational and irrational).

In this essay I will argue that we have this backwards: in fact AI will be incomprehensible to us, while aliens will be hauntingly familiar. This essay started off as a thought experiment I was conducting about aliens and a comment on a newspaper story on AI. Since then it's become a bit more topical as a computer program known as a chatbot was trumpeted as having "passed the Turing Test for the first time". This turned out to be a rather inflated version of events. In reality a chatbot largely failed to convince the majority of people that it was a person despite a minor cheat that lowered the bar. The chatbot was presented as a foreigner with poor English and was still mostly unconvincing.

But here's the thing. Why do we expect AI to be able to imitate a human being? What points of reference would a computer program ever have to enable it to do so?

Robots Will Never Be Like Us.

There are some fundamental errors in the way that AI people think about intelligence that will begin to put limits on their progress if they haven't already. The main one being that they don't see that human consciousness is embodied. Current AI models tacitly subscribe to a strong form of Cartesian mind/body dualism: they believe that they can create a mind without a body. There's now a good deal of research to show that our minds are not separable from our bodies. I've probably cited four names more than any other when considering consciousness: George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Antonio Damasio, and Thomas Metzinger. What these thinkers collectively show is that our minds are very much tied to our bodies. Our abstract thoughts are voiced using on metaphors drawn from how we physically interact with the world. Their way of understanding consciousness posits the modelling of our physical states as the basis for simple consciousness. How does a disembodied mind do that? We can only suppose that it cannot.

One may argue that a robot body is like a human body. And that an embodied robot might be able to build a mind that is like ours through it's robot body. But the robot is not using it's brain primarily to sustain homoeostasis mainly because it does not rely on homoeostasis for continued existence. But even other mammals don't have minds like ours. Because of shared evolutionary history we might share some basic physiological responses to gross stimuli that are good adaptations for survival, but their thoughts are very different because their bodies and particularly their sensory apparatus are different. An arboreal creature is just not going to structure their world the way a plains dweller or an aquatic animal does. Is there any reason to suppose that a dolphin constructs the same kind of world as we do? And if not then what about a mind with no body at all? Maybe we could communicate with dolphin with difficulty and a great deal of imagination on out part. But with a machine? It will be "Shaka, when the walls fell." For the uninitiated this is a reference to a classic of first-contact scifi story. The aliens in question communicate in metaphors drawn exclusively from their own mythology, making them incomprehensible to outsiders, except Picard and his crew of course (there is a long, very nerdy article about this on The Atlantic Website). Compare Dan Everett's story of learning to communicate with the Pirahã people of Amazonia in his book Don't Sleep There Are Snakes.

Although Alan Turing was a mathematical genius he was not a genius of psychology. And he made a fundamental error in his Turing Test in my opinion. Our Theory of Mind is tuned to assume that other minds are like ours. If we can conceive any kind of mind independent of us, then we assume that it is like us. This has survival value, but it also means we invent anthropomorphic gods, for example. A machine mind is not going to be at all like us, but that doesn't stop us unconsciously projecting human qualities onto it. Hypersensitive Agency Detection (as described by Justin L Barrett) is likely to mean that even if a machine does pass the Turing Test then we will have over estimated the extent to which it is an agent.

The Turing Test is thus a flawed model for evaluating another mind because of limitations in our equipment for assessing other minds. The Turing Test assumes that all humans are good judges of intelligence, but we aren't. We are the beings who see faces everywhere, and can get caught up in the lives of soap opera characters and treat rain clouds as intentional agents. We are the people who already suspect that GIGO computers have minds of their own because they breakdown in incomprehensible ways at inconvenient times and that looks like agency to us! (Is there a good time for a computer to break?). The fact that any inanimate object can seem like an intentional agent to us, disqualifies us as judges of the Turing Test.

AI's, even those with robot bodies, will sense themselves and the world in ways that will always fundamentally different to us. We learn about cause and effect from the experience of bringing our limbs under conscious control, by grabbing and pushing objects. We learn about the physical parameters of our universe the same way. Will a robot really understand in the same way? Even if we set them up to learn heuristically through electronic senses and a computer simulation of a brain, they will learn about the world in a way that is entirely different to the way we learned about it. They will never experience the world as we do. AIs will always be alien to us.

All life on the planet is the product of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Good luck simulating that in a way that is not detectable as a simulation. At present we can't even convincingly simulate a single celled organism. Life is incredibly complex as this 1:1 million scale model of a synapse (right) demonstrates.

Aliens Will Be Just Like Us.

Scifi stories like to make aliens as alien as possible, usually by making them irrational and unpredictable (though this is usually underlain by a more comprehensible premise - see below).

In fact we live in a universe with limitations: 96 naturally occurring elements, with predictable chemistry; four fundamental forces; and so on. Yes, there might we weird quantum stuff going on, but in bodies made of septillions (1023) of atoms we'd never know about it without incredibly sophisticated technology. On the human scale we live in a more or less Newtonian universe.

Life as we know it involves exploiting energy gradients and using chemical reactions to move stuff where it wouldn't go on its own. While the gaps in our knowledge still technically allow for vitalistic readings of nature, it does remove the limitations imposed on life by chemistry: elements have strictly limited behaviour the basics of which can be studied and understood in a few years. It takes a few more years to understand all the ways that chemistry can be exploited, and we'll never exhausted all of the possibilities of combining atoms in novel ways. But the possibilities are comprehensible and new combinations have predictable behaviour. Many new drugs are now modelled on computers as a first step.

So the materials and tools available to solve problems, and in fact most of the problems themselves, are the same everywhere in the universe. A spaceship is likely to be made of metals. Ceramics is another option, but they require even higher temperatures to produced and tend to be brittle. Ceramics sophisticated enough to do the job suggest a sophisticated metal-working culture in the background. Metal technology is so much easier to develop. Iron is one of the most versatile and abundant metals: other mid-periodic table metallic elements (aluminium, titanium, vanadium, chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, etc) make a huge variety of chemical combinations, but for pure metal and useful alloys, iron is king. Iron alloys give the combination of chemical stability, strength to weight ratio, ductility, and melting point to make a space ship. So our aliens are most likely going to come from a planet with abundant metals, probably iron, and their space ship is going to make extensive use of metals. The metals aliens use will be completely pervious to our analytical techniques.

Now in the early stages of working iron one needs a fairly robust body: one has to work a bellows, wield tongs and hammer, and generally be pretty strong. That puts a lower limit on the kind of body that an alien will have, though strength of gravity on the alien planet will vary this parameter. Very gracile or very small aliens probably wouldn't make it into space because they could not have got through the blacksmithing phase to more sophisticated metal working techniques. A metal working culture also means an ability to work together over long periods of time for quite abstract goals like the creation of alloys composed of metals extracted from ores buried in the ground. Thus our aliens will be social animals by necessity. Simple herd animals lack the kind of initiative that it takes to develop tools, so they won't be as social as cows or horses. Too little social organisation and the complex tasks of mining and smelting enough metal would be impossible. So no solitary predators in space either.

The big problem with any budding space program is getting off the ground. Gravity and the possibilities of converting energy put more practical limitations on the possibilities. Since chemical reactions are going to be the main source of energy and these are fixed, gravity will be the limiting factor. The mass of the payload has to be not too large to be to costly or just too heavy, and it must be large enough to fit a being in (a being at least the size of a blacksmith). If the gravity of a n alien planet was much higher than ours it would make getting into space impractical - advanced technology might theoretically overcome this, but with technology one usually works through stages. No early stage means no later stages. If the gravity of a planet was much lower than ours then the density would make large concentrations of metals unlikely. It would be easier to get into space, but without the materials available to make it possible and sustainable. Also the planet would struggle to hold enough atmosphere to make it long-term liveable (like Mars). So alien visitors are going to come from a planet similar to ours and will have solved similar engineering problems with similar materials.

Scifi writers and enthusiasts have imagined all kinds of other possibilities. Silicon creatures were a favourite for a while. Silicon (Si) sits immediately below carbon in the periodic table and has similar chemistry: it forms molecules with a similar fourfold symmetry. I've made the silicon analogue (SiH4) of methane (CH4) in a lab: it's highly unstable and burns quickly in the presence of oxygen or any other moderately strong oxidising agent (and such agents are pretty common). The potential for life using chemical reactions in a silicon substrate is many orders of magnitude less flexible than that based on carbon and would of necessity require the absolute elimination of oxygen and other oxidising agents from the chemical environment. Silicon tends to oxidise to silicon-dioxide SiO2 and then become extremely inert. Breaking down silicon-dioxide requires heating to melting point (2,300°C) in the presence of a powerful reducing agent, like pure carbon. In fact silicon-dioxide, or silica, is one of the most common substances on earth partly because silicon and oxygen themselves are so common. The ratio of these two is related to the fusion processes that precede a supernova and again are dictated by physics. Where there is silicon, there will be oxygen in large amounts and they will form sand, not bugs. CO2 is also quite inert, but does undergo chemical reactions, which is lucky for us as plants rely on this to create sugars and oxygen.

One of the other main memes is beings of "pure energy", which are of course beings of pure fantasy. Again we have the Cartesian idea of disembodied consciousness at play. Just because we can imagine it, does not make it possible. But even if we accept that the term "pure energy" is meaningful, the problem is entropy. It is the large scale chemical structures of living organisms that prevent the energy held in the system from dissipating out into the universe. The structures of living things, particularly cells, hold matter and energy together against the demands of the laws of thermodynamics. That's partly what makes life interesting. "Pure energy" is free to dissipate and thus could not form the structures that make life interesting.

When NASA scientists were trying to design experiments to detect life on Mars for the Viking mission, they invited James Lovelock to advise them. He realised that one didn't even need to leave home. All one needed to so was measure the composition of gases in a planet's atmosphere, which one could do with a telescope and a spectrometer. If life is going to be recognisable, then it will do what it does here on earth: shift the composition of gases away from the thermodynamic and chemical equilibrium. In our case the levels of atmospheric oxygen require constant replenishment to stay so high. It's a dead give away! And the atmosphere of Mars is at thermal and chemical equilibrium. Nothing is perturbing it from below. Of course NASA went to Mars anyway, and went back, hoping to find vestigial life or fossilised signs of life that had died out. But the atmosphere tells us everything we need to know.

So where are all the aliens visitors? (This question is known as the Fermi Paradox after the Enrico Fermi who first asked it). Recall that as far as we know the limit of the speed of light invariably applies to macro objects like spacecraft - yes, theoretically, tachyons are possible, but you can't build a spacecraft out of them! Recently some physicists have been exploring an idea that would allow us to warp space and travel faster than light, but it involves "exotic" matter than no one has ever seen and is unlikely to exist. Aliens are going to have to travel at sub-light speeds. And this would take subjective decades. And because of Relativity time passes slower on a fast moving object, centuries would pass on their home planet. Physics is a harsh mistress.

These are some of the limitations that have occurred to me. There are others. What this points to are a very limited set of circumstances in which an alien species could take to space and come to visit us. The more likely an alien is to get into space, the more like us they are likely to be. The universality of physics and the similarity of the problems that need solving would inevitably lead to parallelism in evolution, just as it has done on earth.

Who is More Like Us?

Unlike scifi, the technology that allows us to meet aliens will be strictly limited by physics. There will be no magic action at a distance on the macro scale (though, yes, individual subatomic particles can subvert this); there will be no time travel, no faster than light travel; no materials impervious to analysis; no cloaking devices, no matter transporters, and no handheld disintegrators. Getting into space involves a set of problems that are common to any being on any planet that will support life, and there are a limited set of solutions to those problems. Any being that evolves to be capable of solving those problems will be somewhat familiar to us. Aliens will mostly be comprehensible and recognisable, and do things on more or less the same scale that we do. As boring as that sounds, or perhaps as frightening depending on your view of humanity.

And AI will forever be a simulation that might seem like us superficially, but won't be anything like us fundamentally. When we imagine that machine intelligences will be like us, we are telling the Pinocchio story (and believing it). This tells us more about our own minds, than it does about the minds of our creations. If only we would realise that we're looking in a mirror and not through a window. All these budding creators of disembodied consciousness ought to read Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly. Of course many other dystopic or even apocalyptic stories have been created around this theme, some of my favourite science fiction movies revolve around what goes wrong when machines become sentient. But Shelly set the standard before computers were even conceived of; even before Charles Babbage invented his Difference Engine. She grasped many of the essential problems involved in creating life and in dealing with otherness (she was arguably a lot more insightful than her ne'er-do-well husband).

Lurking in the background of the story of AI is always some version of Vitalism: the idea that matter is animated by some élan vital which exists apart from it; mind apart from body; spirit as opposed to matter. This is the dualism that haunts virtually everyone I know. And we seem to believe that if we manage to inject this vital spirit into a machine that the substrate will be inconsequential, that matter itself is of no consequence (which is why silicon might look viable despite it's extremely limited chemistry; or a computer might seem a viable place for consciousness to exist). It is the spirit that makes all the difference. AI researchers are effectively saying that they can simulate the presence of spirit in matter with no reference to the body's role in our living being. And this is bunk. It's not simply a matter of animating dead matter, because matter is not dead in the way that Vitalists think it is; and nor is life consistent with spirit in the way they think it is.

The fact that such Vitalist myths and Cartesian Duality still haunt modern attempts at knowledge gathering (and AI is nothing if not modern) let alone modern religions, suggests that the need for an ongoing critique. And it means there is still a role for philosophers in society despite what Stephen Hawking and some scientists say (see also Sean Carroll's essay "Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy"). If we can fall into such elementary fallacies at the high-end of science then scientists ought to be employing philosophers on their teams to dig out their unspoken assumptions and expose their fallacious thinking.


20 June 2014

Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

follows on from Spiritual II: Frames.

Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator
arguing for more individualism. 
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with. In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power. The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for some centuries now.

The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. (p89)

Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces"; use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests. From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

© Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough. This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard, is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work, you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels (unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the 1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public relations").
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a £17 billion annual subsidy to landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open. Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open, but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial  and leaves the body emeshed in the world and subject to market forces.

The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative, contingent world—i.e. saṃsāra—for an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal world—i.e. nirvāṇa. And when someone like Nāgārjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakāya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society. Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us. SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of those who control the material world. We end up fighting Māra's battle for him.


Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions: schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs, secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners; by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician, police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth, money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics, national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being. Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed. One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the "person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtuality—virtual friends, virtual pets, virtual communities—without seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to the real thing.

Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around. In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they? Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.

This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than our convert beliefs. 

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice" models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with (almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g. Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities etc) the dynamic is far more complex.

In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits). To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values. Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the opposite is more often true.

Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravāda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic. Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahāyāna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this: based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good thing? Churchill did say:
"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world, no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not. Brāhmaṇa retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it, while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life, guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back." Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our bodies.

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism, the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.


13 June 2014

Spiritual II: Frames.

follows on from Spiritual I: The Life's Breath

In order to better understand the word spiritual I want to try to look at it in terms of frames. George Lakoff defines frames as "mental structures that shape the way we see the world." (2004, p. xv). Frames unconsciously structure of our thoughts, our intentions, and our memories. We each have thousands of frames. We develop them partly through exploring our physical environment and partly through interacting with our social environment. So my frames will be similar to yours to the extent that our physical and social environments are similar. The resulting structures are encoded in physical structures in the brain.

Words are defined with respect to framesA word like "mother" doesn't just just refer to the woman who gave birth to us, but invokes the frames of all the attributes we associate with all mothers and mothering: birth, nurture, fertility, gestation and so on. But the particular associations are based on social conventions. When we use a word we automatically invoke frames associated with it.

"Don't think of an elephant" 

Most people can't see or hear this statement and help thinking of an elephant and associated images and ideas. The words we use in a discussion or debate are not neutral. Because of frames. There is an ongoing discussion over how to define Buddhism which is largely concerned with marketing. Typically the argument is quite one dimensional.
  • Buddhism is a religion and thus offers solutions to traditional religious problems, i.e. "Where did we come from?" or "What happens after we die?" or "Why is life unfair?"
  • Buddhism is a philosophy and concerned with traditional philosophical questions, i.e. "What is there?" or "What can we know about what is there?" or "What should we do in hypothetical situations?"
  • Buddhism is a way of life and concerned largely with moral questions, i.e. "How should we live?"
Frames also make it possible to sum up arguments in slogans. And it's against this background that I want to look at the word spiritual. What would it mean, for example, to say that Buddhism is a form of spirituality.

I've shown that spiritual is historically rooted in the Vitalist idea of the 'breath of life'. However, it's safe to say that spiritual invokes a large number of frames, of which 'breath of life' is now relatively unimportant. So if we say that we are spiritual beings, living spiritual lives, doing spiritual practices, from a spiritual tradition, in order to have spiritual experiences that culminate in a spiritual awakening, just what are we saying? What frames do we invoke? Obviously we can't deal with every detail of thousands of frames, so I want to cover some of the main ones.


In an exchange with me on one of his blogs Bhikkhu Sujato recently expressed the view that for him "spirituality" referred to wholeness and integration for example. I think that this frame comes from thinking of human beings as having three parts: body, mind, and soul. (Hence the bookshop classification). Soul, or spirit, completes the trilogy. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues this heretical tri-partite view of the human being is partly due to a clarification of the distinction between psychē and pneuma by St Paul:
"Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given to the regenerate Christian alone. Thus, the "newness of life", of which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded entity, a kind of oversoul sublimating the "natural man" into a higher species." (Catholic Encyclopedia sv Soul)
This is related, I think, to the Pentecost, which was originally a Jewish harvest festival. In the Book of Acts the followers of Jesus are assembled for the Pentecost Festival when something miraculous happens and in the famous line:
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:4. (Bible Hub)
Here the New Testament Greek word translated as both "Ghost" and "Spirit" is pneuma (see previous essay for the etymology). People with bodies and souls were completed by the descent of pneuma into them. In this day and age where the two basic divisions of the person are mind and body, many people feel that something is missing. They feel that we are more than either mind or body, more than a combination of the two. And what is missing is spirit and part of the spiritual province. This feeling comes about because of a conviction about the truth of Vitalism. 

Wholeness might have another sense that derives from psychoanalysis. We all know that rather than having a single "will" we are in fact usually in a state of conflicting desires and urges that battle for our attention and often move us in unexpected directions (what Harold Bloom has mockingly called "the Hamlet Complex"). At worst we suffer from what early psychologists conceived of as schizo-phrenia 'a divided mind' (schizo is from Greek skhizein 'to split'). In the psychoanalytic view we integrate our disparate inner parts by gaining knowledge of our own unconscious.  This is achieved indirectly through analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, associations and so on; or directly (in psychodynamic approaches) through introspection and confessional reporting of thoughts and emotions. Our unconscious is revealed through analysis of patterns over the long term.

Some Buddhists argue that meditation achieves this psychological goal of resolving psychological tensions without the need for introspection or analysis. However in the Buddhist process, outlined in the Spiral Path, integration (samādhi) precedes knowledge (jñāna) rather than the other way around.

Buddhists also divide the person up into parts: body, speech and mind; five skandhas, six elements. And we mostly do this to try to show that we are simply the sum of our parts. Unlike Christians who believe that we are more than the sum of our parts because we have an immaterial, immortal soul. Thus "wholeness" for Buddhists ought to have something of an empty ring to it. Yes, it is good to be a whole person, with our faculties intact and our will undivided, but there is nothing beyond that, nothing more. As the Buddha says to Bāhiya: "in the seen, only the seen". Some take this to be a reference to the Upaniṣadic teaching about the ātman as the seer behind the seeing as found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. As always Buddhists are keen to deny any kind of metaphysical self or soul. 


Sujato also says: “Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good.” This frame is linked with the metaphor GOOD IS UP/BAD IS DOWN, which itself has a number of entailments that I've already explored at some length with respect to religious language in my essay Metaphors and Materialism. This spatial metaphor is perhaps the most important in the context of spirit and spirituality.

If "ways of being" and "goods" can be higher and lower, then there is a hierarchy of being and goodness. Christians, following influence from Neoplatonism, refer to this hierarchy as the Great Chain of Being. Pure being is entirely immaterial, the realm of pure spirit, in later Buddhism the dharmakāya. Because it is a frame, we know transparently and unconsciously, that spirit, being immaterial is not weighed down by the earth, it naturally floats up (the Jains invoke precisely this metaphor in their version of the soul). Good spirits go UP to heaven to be with the Sky Father (in Biblical Greek 'Heaven' is ouranus = Ancient Greek Uranus, the Sky Father and husband of Gaia, the Earth Mother). 

The association of highest good with the highest way of being is important. In the Great Chain of Being, God is at the pinnacle: the highest being is infinitely good. In Buddhist cosmology the highest state of being is an absolute disconnection from the worlds in which one can be reborn, even the pleasant ones. One cannot say anything about the state of being of a Tathāgata after death; the post-mortem Tathāgata defies the very categories of being and non-being and even the most refined gods, in states of beings almost off the scale, cannot compare.

Kūkai had a great deal of difficulty getting his 9th century Māhāyānika colleagues to believe that the dharmakāya teaches, because in their view the dharmakāya is absolutely abstract and disconnected from realms of rebirth. This reality, lying beyond any kind of knowledge, is sometimes referred to using terminology drawn from German Idealist philosophy, such as "the Absolute," or "the Transcendental" (with capitals and the definite article). Later Buddhist philosophy swings between a transcendent ultimate reality and an immanent realisation of reality (though early Buddhism is not concerned with reality at all).

In this view it's axiomatic that rebirth is bad. Rebirth is what we are seeking to escape from. This means that the world one is born into cannot have any absolute value. All that seems valuable about the world is simply a product of our ignorance. The best things a spiritual person can do is renounce the world and focus on religious practices that temporarily take one higher in pursuit of a permanently higher state of being. As with many of forms of mind/body dualism, this detachment from the world does make us rather ineffective in the world. At a time when we see the environment being destroyed for example and need to mobilise feelings of engagement, Buddhism councils disengagement. Despite this some Buddhists are engaged in social and environmental projects. But this is a new departure for Buddhism, a product of Buddhist Modernism, and more Modernist than Buddhist. And given the consequences of disengagement it must be seen as a highly positive move, albeit not fully integrated yet.


The vertical spatial metaphor can work in another way. Above ground HIGHER IS MORE, but below ground DEEPER IS MORE/SHALLOWER IS LESS. Verticality is with reference to the (flat) surface of the earth. Early Buddhists used reductive analysis, i.e. they went deeper, to end the rumour of ātman and to show that human beings are simply the sum of their parts, though this includes physical (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) parts. There is no soul, spirit or anything resembling them lurking inside us as other religions would have us believe. Reflection on the skandhas is probably the representative practice for deconstructing satkāyadṛṣṭi (the idea of a true substance, aka 'personality view'), but the foundations of recollection (satipaṭṭhāna) or recollection of the elements  (dhātvanusati) perform a similar function.

Deeper also invokes psychoanalytic ideas. After Freud we understand that much of our thought goes on in an unconscious realm. We may delve into our own unconscious with difficulty, but at times shine light on it's workings in order to gain in-sight. In those areas of knowledge where a literal spirit was not entirely credible, this dark inner-world began to take it's place. Of course the fact that we have inner-lives was not lost on the pre-Freudian world. Harold Bloom has made much of the fact that Freud read Shakespeare incessantly and appeared to be jealous of the Bard's greater insights into the Human psyche, especially in the story of Hamlet (See the Freud Chapter in The Western Canon). But recall that the word psyche itself meant something like 'soul'. C. G. Jung also chose words from this domain, i.e. anima/animus in his account of our inner life. 

Michael Witzel has shown that Jung's ideas about a collective unconscious are less good at explaining common themes in myth than the idea that story telling is much older and more conservative than we thought possible. Widely dispersed people have the same stories because once they lived closer together and shared a common storyline. In Witzel's mythological scheme the "Laurasian" story arc involves a first generation of humans who are heroic and perform miraculous deeds aimed at benefiting human-kind rather than the gods. Again Prometheus is the archetype.

Freud, Romanticism and burgeoning Spiritualism (see below) made common cause. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell reminded us that the new Western story of a dark inner realm visited to gain truths that set us free or make us whole, was tapping into the re-occurring myth epitomised by Orpheus who defies the gods by journeying to Hades realm to reclaim his wife. We are intended to equate the psychological unconscious with the mythic underworld, and process of psycho. The implication being that we will find treasures in dark aspects of our own minds. Thus in psychoanalysis Vitalism found another dark corner in which it could continue to exist. Introspection became one of the chief tools gaining access to this "underworld". The Romantic hero explores their own depths like Orpheus seeking Eurydice.  

By the time Westerners dropped their early prejudices against heathen religion and came into more substantial contact with Buddhism, some Buddhists had come to a similar belief about their inner self. This theme is more apposite in the USA since it was there that Zen took root. In Europe Theravāda Buddhism, with it's strong emphasis on anattā,  was influential earlier and for longer. Zen can be problematic because it embraces tathāgatagarbha doctrine and in English expresses it in terms like "Original Mind" or "True Self" (with capitals). Without the sophisticated critique of tathāgatagarbha that is contained in Madhyamaka thought, and lacking in popular presentations of Zen (the kind that people dip rather than take seriously), it is easy to tip over into Vitalism without the help of psychoanalysis. The two combined make it almost inevitable.


The word spiritual also invokes the idea of sacredness, though these days "sacred" is a rather degraded idea despite attempts to rehabilitate it. Nothing is sacred any more. That said, for many people the loss of a sense of sacredness is a serious problem and they are busy trying to install Sacredness 2.0™. Very often the target domain for modern sacredness is "nature". Not the "red in tooth and claw" nature, but the more tranquil nature typically associated with the English countryside (a giant landscaped garden). Not wilderness, which can easily kill the unwary, but the tame versions of nature that are non-threatening and easily accessible. Old trees are sacred. Certain hills. Stone henge and other archaeological sites that are presumed to have been religious in nature are rebooted as modern sacred sites, even though no one really knows what makes them sacred.

We're not quite sure what sacredness means, but the tribal people our ancestors colonised put a lot of store by it. Our word taboo comes from the Pacific Islands (tapu in Māori). A tapu is a restriction placed on a person, place or object that prevents every day interactions and allows only specialised ritual interactions. Similarly sacredness puts the labelled thing outside the grasping of Utilitarianism and this can only be a good thing. The value associated with sacredness is nothing to do with money or utility. It's important in this banal age to be reminded that some things cannot be valued in economic terms. Often it is not nature per se that we value, but how we feel when we are in a natural as opposed to an artificial setting.

The sacred designation, if plausible, can help to protect "natural resources" (an economic term) from exploitation and destruction. Given the destructive effects of large scale industrialisation on the environment across the planet, it might not be a bad idea to extend the sense of sacredness to all living things. However invoking the sacred via the word "spiritual" is problematic because of the other associations, particularly with organised religion and paranormal hoaxes. By confusing sacredness, in terms of non-utilitarian values, with spirituality, we in fact make it a little more difficult to defend those values. 

For Buddhists the world accessible to the senses is not sacred. It's not until we get fed-up with the world and turn away from it that we are liberated. Thus for Buddhists something is sacred only to the extent that it points, and leads, away from the world. A stupa, for example, might be a sacred monument, but only because it reminds us of the Buddha who transcended the world. At the level of popular religion or superstition Buddhism is happy to acknowledge that sacred sites have some value, but they are not seen as a true refuge. We see this sentiment expressed for example in Dhammapada (188-189)
Many people seek refuge from fear;
In mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines 
This is not a secure refuge, not the ultimate refuge;
Going to this refuge, they aren't delivered from all misery.
Nature is not sacred in early Buddhist thought. So, as with engaged Buddhism, what we seem to be seeing is a new departure. A necessary, but quite a radical departure.


Spiritualism is a complex of ideas that particularly involve interacting with the spirits of the dead in the afterlife. The movement owes a great deal to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) which communicate his visions of the afterlife. In turn his version of the afterlife seems to owe a great deal to Dante. In fact Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, especially via art inspired by them, are two of the most influential religious works in the Western World.

Unfortunately spiritualism has always been rife with hoaxes. Early and prominent hoaxers were the Fox sisters who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, but one of them later confessed to having faked it. However, like the admission of the crop-circle hoaxers, the repeated exposure of fakery and fraud does not dampen enthusiasm for spiritualism. We want to believe that the dead are still with us, and not simply metaphorically.

Most of mediumship depends on a technique called cold reading. This skill can be extremely effective and yet entirely fake. One modern master of the technique is Derren Brown, who openly acknowledges that he is using cold reading techniques, but is able to seemingly evince information that he could not have access to except through psychic powers. It's possible to be entirely convincing to even a sceptical audience. (See e.g. this video explaining cold reading). Brown's performance in Messiah is a remarkable display of how to dupe an audience. 

One spin off from Spiritualism and its interaction with Eastern religion is the phenomenon of past life regression and mundane memories of past lives. Ancient Buddhist texts suggest that if we develop certain psychic powers through spending a lot of time in the fourth dhyāna, we ought to be able to remember past lives. This ability to remember past lives gradually declines in importance over time in Buddhist texts and is hardly mentioned in Mahāyāna texts. I've dealt with this aspect of spirituality in an earlier essay: Rebirth and the Scientific Method. So I won't dwell on it here. The Skeptic's Dictionary response to "research" into this field is a useful counterpoint. One very important point for Buddhists is that all this past-life research confirms the Hindu view of reincarnation, not the Buddhist view of rebirth. So we ought to be marshalling all our criticisms of it, not embracing it. It's spiritual in the best sense of the word, i.e. concerned with spirits and eternal souls.

The success of Spiritualism, despite the exposure of so many frauds, forms part of the background against which modern Buddhists assess the relevance of Buddhist ideas. Modern Buddhists are almost all converts from Christian societies, even if the converts themselves were not Christian. Beliefs like rebirth and universal fairness (karma), subtle bodies, and the life's breath (prāṇa) are easy to assimilate if we already believe in ghosts, communication with the spirits of the dead and the other phenomena associated with Spiritualism. In fact for some people it's almost as if the Enlightenment never happened. 


Certain relatively uncommon experiences are referred to as spiritual or mystical. These include so-called out-of-body experiences, or near death experiences and other experiences that seem to point to a clear mind/body dualism or more precisely to a consciousness that is able to exist independently of the body. This taps into the idea of the spirit as distinct from the body and thus points to a strong version of mind/body duality. Thomas Metzinger has decisively showed, in The Ego Tunnel, that the out-of-body experience is not what it seems. In fact a better explanation can be found in the way that the brain constructs our sense of self and how that process can breakdown. I've also dealt with this in Origin of the Idea of the Soul.

Another kind of experience often associated with meditation is important (though also associated with potent hallucinogens like LSD). It seems to have two poles. At one pole the subject-object distinction breaks down and leaves one with a sense of nothingness or no-thing-ness. In the traditional Hindu description there is just saccidānanda 'being, consciousness and bliss'. One is entirely disconnected from the world of sense experience, from mental activity as normally understood. There is no sense of self, nor of being located in space or time and thus no other, no world. In Buddhist terms experiences of this kind are referred to as the arūpa or formless dhyānas. At the other pole the subject-object distinction breaks down leaving one feeling connected to everything. One feels that one is the universe, that there are no distinctions between self and other. Again there is no sense of self, but one feels located everywhere in time and space, one feels one is the world. and the world is oneself. It is the feeling that "all is one". Both of these seem to have a profound impact on the person experiencing them and can radically alter one's perspective on everyday waking experience.

Almost inevitably the person who has this experience believes there is "more". More to life; more than meets the eye; "more than is dreamt of in your philosophy". And the "more" is spiritual. It can also be associated with the idea of a transcendental, ineffable reality. This hard-to-reach reality is higher, better, deeper, etc than everyday life. In fact compared to reality, everyday life is hardly worth living. Some people get a glimpse of this kind of experience and spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to there. This kind of story is high reminiscent of the story of the Holy Grail, particularly as it is outlined by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz in The Grail Legend. Often what Buddhists seek is the Holy Grail, the transformative experience that will leave them in a state of grace.

Visions of "higher" beings are also sought-after mystical experiences, especially if they are accompanied by a sense that the vision is more real than reality. Often visions are of human figures, anthropomorphisms of values we hold dear, or saints. Usually visions are culturally specific. Hindu's see Śiva, Viṣṇu or Kāli or one of the 33 million other deities; Christians see Christ, Mary or angels; Buddhists see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And so on. It's not unusual for Western convert Buddhists to see visions of Christ, simply because they grew up Christian and our culture is saturated with images of a Westernised Christ. We notice this with imagery, visions and icons take on the regional characteristics of the people they appear to. Monastics have often used extreme techniques to achieve such visions: starvation, sleep deprivation, extremes of heat and cold, flesh wounds (from self-flagellation) that become infected, and other painful austerities. Meditative techniques are a more humane way of approaching having a mystical experience, but still require considerable dedication to repetition and duration of practice.

What is interesting about mystical experiences is that the individual phenomena can now be reproduced in the laboratory using a variety of techniques that physically affect the brain (be it accidental damage, surgery, drugs or electro-magnetic stimulation). Thus the arrow of causality points from brain to experience. There is no doubt that the experiences are significant to those who have them, but also little doubt that the significance is imposed on the experience by the experiencer. Mystical experiences are not what they seem. On face value they are what the mystics have always said they are; but we can look beyond the face value now. And we see that the value we place on such experiences is a human value. And this is not to say that the experiences are not valuable or transformative. But they do not always mean what they are said to mean in a pre-scientific worldview.

Another caveat on discussing such experiences is that they are difficult to distinguish from hallucinations. An hallucination is when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels things that don't exist outside their mind, but which nonetheless have a vivid realness about them and are mistaken for things which do exist. Hallucinations and spiritual experiences have very different valuations, but how we determine which is which may be entirely context dependent.  

In 2009 the Pew Research Group reported at about half of all Americans had had a "religious or mystical experience. This is more than double the number recorded in a 1976 Gallup Poll. In their analysis the bulk of the increase seems to come from Christians and those who regularly attend religious services, with as many of 70% of some evangelicals claiming some kind of experience and a clear correlation with frequency of attendance at a religious service. The level is also fairly high (30%) amongst unaffiliated religious people (SNBR?). About 18% of people with no religious inclinations report experiences of this time.

Mystical experiences are much more likely amongst people who expect to have them: people with strong religious beliefs, who regularly participate in religious activities. But even non-religious people appear to have mystical or religious experiences fairly commonly (one in five adults).  


In an essay like this, one can only touch on the main points of a complex argument. Clearly the frames that help to define the word spiritual are many and varied. Each of us works with thousands of frames. We can see that some of the main frames activated by the word spiritual involve a Vitalist worldview or mind/body dualism. There is a possible defence against this charge which is similar to the one that sparked this analysis. One may argue that even when, for example, the higher frame is invoked (along with the various associated metaphors like GOOD IS HIGHER) that one is not intending to invoke religious ideas from Christianity. However we don't have a lot of control over the frames we use. Frames structure our thoughts, but do so unconsciously. And even if we ourselves use words with more than average deliberation (and as a writer let me assure you that this is much more difficult than it might appear) we have no control over what happens in the minds of our readers/listeners.

The question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion is moot, though if it is not a religion then what is it? The idea that Buddhism is spiritual or concerned with spirit is just wrong. Most of the main frames invoked by spiritual just don't fit very well if at all. In some cases, as in the revaluing of nature are helpful and in other cases not so much.

When Nixon went on TV and said "I am not a crook" it was probably the first time most people thought of  him in terms of being a crook. But from that time on, most people thought of Nixon as a crook. For the group of people who believe that Buddhism is not a religion, the statement "Buddhism is not a religion" only reinforces the Buddhism/religion connection in the minds of hearers because the word invokes the frame. As "spiritual but not religious" simply reinforces the connection between spiritual and religion. The desire to contradict an argument in yes/no terms is strong, but if one wants to define Buddhism in a certain way, then one can only use words that are consistent with that definition else the message is mixed.

People who invoke spiritual when referring to Buddhism probably do so because it's familiar. It taps into centuries of religious ideology. I see it rationalised in a variety of ways. But my view is that the choice of words lends advantages to certain sections of society. The next essay will shift the focus from how the word is used to who uses the word; the politics of spirituality. Who wins by linking Buddhism to the various spiritual frames? Who loses?


next up Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

George Lakoff on frames and framing.

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