20 May 2016

The Problem of Relativism

"Reality at its deepest level could be something utterly different than we have ever imagined, but we still have a good handle on how it behaves in front of our noses." 
- Sean Carroll, Fear of Knowing.

In previous essays I have tried to address some of the common complaints about scientific knowledge. I've looked at the common pejoratives wheeled out by apologists for traditional Buddhism, i.e. Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism (08 August 2014); I've tried to show that Schopenhauer could not have "refuted Materialism" before he died in 1860, as one of my Order colleagues claimed (Vitalism: The Philosophy That Would Not Die. 23 May 2014); and I've looked at The Limitations of Transcendental Idealism (1 Apr 2016).

These are among the most frequently cited reasons that, for example, we cannot rule out an afterlife, a just-world, or other metaphysical speculations that are foundational to traditional Buddhism (and of course to other religions). There is a powerful, coherent argument can be put forward which, even admitting massive limitations to our knowledge about the universe, none-the-less refutes any possible afterlife (There is No Life After Death, Sorry. 23 Jan 2015) and by extension any kind of supernatural entities or forces. However, many people still refuse to admit the salience of such arguments to their worldview. In other words it's not that they disagree with the argument, but that they believe the argument is irrelevant. This is entirely in line with the predictions of evolutionary approaches to studying religion (Facts and Feelings. 25 May 2012). This distinction between the truth of a proposition and its salience in decision-making is a dynamic that has informed my thinking and writing for some time now. 

A proposition can be more or less accurate and precise, but this may have no correlation to the salience that any individual or group gives it in their worldview.  Since the factual accuracy of mainstream science is now undeniable, critics of science and anti-intellectuals usually attack arguments against the existence of an afterlife or a just-world at the level of salience. For example, they may not even feel compelled to engage with the content of an argument in detail because "it is Materialist". Repeating this mantra resolves the matter for them. Dualists hold it axiomatic that studying matter tells us nothing about consciousness, because consciousness is a different kind of stuff. In this view our knowledge of brain activity is all very interesting, but not salient to the understanding of consciousness under any circumstances, no matter how many correlations we identify. All empirical knowledge of the brain is simply ruled out of bounds in the discussion of consciousness, because in their worldview conciousness is not accessible empiricism. If the Dualist also accepts rebirth as an article of faith, which many Buddhist Dualists do, then this anti-enlightenment argument serves the purpose of defending Buddhist metaphysical speculation about the afterlife. 

I've tried to field these objections by attempting understanding what it is like to hold a Dualist view and the reasons that such propositions remain valid to some people and how they affect the salience of Naturalist arguments (see e.g. Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? 14 Aug 2015). But there is one pernicious criticism of science that I've not yet tackled. This is Relativism. Relativism is a view which states that a quality like "truth" is always relative to a given frame of assessment; and that there is no framework independent vantage point from which to make assessments claims to truth. (Cf. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

No personally I find the legacy arguments about "truth" unhelpful. If I make an assertion about the world then it can be an accurate description or prediction; it can be precise; and it may have inherent error. All our observations about the world have these three properties, i.e. accuracy, precision, and error, and thus I do not try to invoke the true/false dichotomy. I'll deal with these qualities in more detail below.

Relativism got a massive boost from European philosophy in the 20th Century. Post-Modernists argued that the meaning of a text is not fixed but created by the reader. In effect the author may think they are writing one thing and the reader may entire disagree and think that the text means something else. Anyone trying to engage in rational debate on the internet will know what I mean. One finds that that people read the most bizarre assumptions into and take the most outrageous inferences from what one writes. But the post-modernists also argued for the broadest possible definition of a text and application of this principle. This lead to a radical kind of Relativism in which it is held that no one could say anything definite about anything because anything could be considered a text and deconstructed. This inane argument is still a popular stance amongst certain university graduates.

Since Western intellectuals rejected Positivism, it is accepted that scientific theories cannot be proven to be true. And this is something I'm been trying to make more explicit in my spiel since I was bizarrely accused of being a Positivist by some philosophers. Scientific theories can never be true, in the strictest philosophical definition of metaphysical certainty, but they may be extraordinarily accurate and precise within the margins of error inherent in measurement. Take the example of the Higgs Boson. The media often portray this in terms of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project having proved the existence of the Higgs Boson. But this is not quite what happened. The standard theory predicted that a particle of a given energy would provide the mechanism whereby other particles responsible for the character of the weak nuclear force would exhibit the quality of mass (thereby explaining the extremely short range of the force). The mathematical models predicted that the particle responsible would have an energy in the range 110-140 GeV (a rather imprecise prediction). Once we had equipment capable of looking for particles in that energy range, in the shape of the LHC, we looked and found a particle. To date we know nothing more about the particle than that it is a boson, or force carrying particle, that has an energy of ca. 126 GeV*. It might be the Higgs Boson, it might not. It's possible that tomorrow someone will publish a theory which provides a better explanation of a boson with an energy of ~126 GeV, though the discovery does have to be taken alongside all the other predictions and tests of the theory with which it fits quite well.
* The two LHC detectors discovered a previously unknown boson with mass 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV and 126.0 ± 0.6 GeV respectively. It must be a boson because of how it decayed.

A sharp distinction between truth and falsehood is only relevant in the rarefied and abstract world of philosophy or in courts of law. Scientists deal in making predictions and measuring the accuracy of predictions to the best level of precision they are able, with the least amount of error. A theory which is consistently accurate is useful. My argument for why such theories cannot be wholly divorced from reality were made in The Limitations of Transcendental Idealism (1 Apr 2016). If reality were utterly different from how we conceive of it, we could not conceive of it. But the fact is that by careful measurement and comparing of notes, and through clever interpretation, we do know what reality is like at several different levels and are making progress on both the fundamental substance of the universe and the overall structure of it. In between, we now fully understand reality on the energy, mass and length scales of everyday life. The complexity of the weather makes it difficult to predict far in the future, but we know all of the forces and particles involved in creating weather. Reality is based on matter and energy and no new particles or forces are required to explain anything we see with our naked senses. Indeed there is no room for new particles or forces in our understanding of the world at this level.

Properties of Measurements

Apart from pointing out the irrational basis for it, one simple refutation of Relativism is that the laws of physics still apply even if we do not believe in them. It doesn't matter how you conceive of gravity or interpret it; it does not matter which culture you are from or what you studied at university: a 1000 kg weight dropped from 100 m will crush you like a bug. So even Relativists look both ways when crossing the road, apparently their interpretative framework allows for the working of physical laws even when their philosophy denies that this should be so.

All measurements have three properties: accuracy, precision, and margin of error. Let's imagine that I wish to measure an object that is exactly 1010 mm long. I have a measuring tape with increments of 1 mm. Thus the precision of the measurement is millimetres. The inherent error in the measuring tape (assuming it is accurately calibrated) is usually taken to be half the smallest increment, in this case ± 0.5 mm. Often the first step in taking a measurement is calibrating your instrument - this is a regular procedure in analytical labs for example. Accuracy is how close I get to real measurement. If the tape says 950 mm then that is not very accurate. If it says exactly 1010 mm that is very accurate. But in science we would still give this as 1010 ± 0.5 mm because our instrument has inherent error. For all we know it might have inherent imprecision as well. So we need to repeat the measurement using a different measuring tape or a completely different method as well and compare the results. One measurement is never sufficient. All science is like this.

Sometimes we can sacrifice precision because there is a large inherent error. If we are driving a car along a road is 100 km long, we don't gain anything by measuring our distance travelled in mm, because a car is several meters long in any case. A level of precision of tens of meters is fine for this purpose (and car odometers often have 100 metres as their smallest unit). It can get more complicated. Within a particular inertial frame, such as measuring the length of a road on earth, there are no relativistic effects so we don't need to take into account the relative velocities of the instrument and the object. We can just use classical mechanics to describe the situation because the lack of precision is insignificant compared to the margin of error. If the object I wish to measure is an alien spaceship passing the earth at 10% of the speed of light, then I would have to take into relativistic effects and change how I was interpreting the measurement, because objects appear longer when there is a large relative velocity between object and observer.

The kind of predictions that science makes about reality are really not dependent on interpretative frameworks to the extent that Relativists make out. For example, Einstein's equations predicted that the massless photon would follow a curved path near a massive object. As a massless particle the photon cannot be directly affected by gravity. Einstein proposed that rather than thinking about masses exerting a force on each other, that we we should think of mass bending spacetime. Since photons travel through spacetime, they ought to follow a path determined by the topology of spacetime, the curvature of which would be especially noticeable near a large massive object (like a planet or the sun). This prediction was tested quite early by watching stars near the sun during a total solar eclipse. The path of light from these stars came close enough to the sun for us to be able to measure the curvature caused by the sun's mass, with sufficient precision and margin of error, to show that Einstein's prediction was extremely accurate. Subsequent tests over a century have all demonstrated that Einstein's description of spacetime is accurate to the limits of precision and error available to us. None of this is dependent on where we grew up, or what language we spoke. Einstein wrote his famous papers on Relativity in German.

A photon will follow a curved path near a massive object whatever you believe to be true about the universe. Of course it is only in certain interpretative frameworks that one would even look for evidence of this prediction or count it as salient. In many ways this theory about photons moving in spacetime is not salient to daily life for the vast majority of people. The curvature of spacetime near the earth is so slight that for the purposes of daily life, light travels in straight-lines and we cannot see individual photons in any case. Beyond the physical facts, the curvature of spacetime may not be salient to the Relativist, because in their case being theory-laden prevents them from correctly assessing the salience of any observation. But such observations, repeated, argued about, and now widely agreed upon, are salient when we are considering how the universe works. If we conjecture, for example, that "the universe is moral", then accurate theories of how the universe works in practice are salient. If we conjecture that there is life after death and speculate on how information is conserved from life to life, then again, physics and chemistry are salient.

However, a major problem for Buddhists is that our theories on these subjects don't even stand on their own terms (e.g. The Logic of Karma 16 Jan 2015), let alone when we introduce the more demanding criteria of not violating robust physical laws. The internal logic of karma and rebirth are flawed even on the terms of Buddhists themselves. This is not an original observation of mine, although I did come to this conclusion independently. Nāgārjuna made this observation about mainstream theories of karma and rebirth in the 2nd Century CE. According to Nāgārjuna such propositions cannot possibly be paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. Ultimately there cannot be karma and rebirth, because both violate more fundamental Buddhist axioms about the world. To the best of my knowledge there is no effective counter to this argument from either Theravāda or other Mahāyāna Buddhist sects. Pureland Buddhists have been avoiding the karma problem for at least 2000 years by allowing Amitābha to intervene to save us from our karma. Nor did Vasubandhu and the Yogācārins find the solutions available to them in the 4th Century CE any better, leading them to introduce major innovations into the theory, specifically the ālayavijñāna an ad hoc, block-box solution that provides continuity without being effected by phenomena. The ālayavijñāna this looks every bit like an ātman or like the puruṣa of Sāmkhyadarśana.

But let us return to the present day and the arguments against trendy modern Relativism.

The Solipsistic Fallacy

One of the key Relativist arguments is to point out that observations are always "theory laden", i.e. we unconsciously interpret what we see before we ever report it. While this is accurate to some extent, it also fallaciously insists that everyone is a solipsist who never compares their observations with other people. This fallacy is so common that it needs a name. We can call it the solipsistic fallacy. Because of the solipsistic fallacy, Relativists effectively argue that we cannot identify the problems associated with interpretation by the simple expedient critically comparing notes. In the most extreme version of Relativism each individual is free to interpret any information from their own point of view. In this view, not only is there no truth, but there is no accuracy either, since the accuracy of any theory supposedly depends on the interpretative framework of the observer. This extreme version of Relativism is clearly nonsense, since it amounts to a form of Idealism in which we have no access to other minds and comparing notes wouldn't help even if we could do it.

The solipsistic fallacy genuinely is a fallacy precisely because we can compare notes. Any one with a small telescope can look at Jupiter and confirm Galileo's 1610 observations of the motions of its major satellites. By comparing notes we can identify which aspects of perception are down to the individual and which are not. If we can identify what comes from our interpretations, we can account for that and eliminate it from our understanding of the world around us. We can also design apparatus to respond to the world in ways that we cannot, such a X-ray or gravity-wave detectors. And we can use different apparatus to eliminate the bias due to our designs, which is why the LHC has two main detectors and why the results confirmed by both types of detector are so compelling.

So yes, our individual observations are theory laden. Observation is always accompanied by interpretation to some extent. If two people observe something they may not interpret it the same way and if they compare notes a discussion ensues, something that is not possible according to the solipsistic fallacy. That discussion is on-going and involves everyone on the planet, including millions of scientists who receive training in making and interpretation of observations. Some of the resulting knowledge is so well established that spending time doubting it is irrational and unproductive.

Interpretative Frameworks & Incompleteness.

Relativism is still attractive to anti-Enlightenment thinkers because it allows them to deny the salience of empirical knowledge and avoid the conclusions of such knowledge, even when it is completely irrational to deny the accuracy of empirical theories. It generally works at a tribal level in academia or is projected onto cultures. So, humanities scholars who cannot rationally deny the accuracy of physical laws, will deny their salience because they don't accept the worldview (or what they call "the interpretative framework") of scientists. Or they might argue that the worldview of the tribes of the New Guinea highlands is an equally valid interpretation of the world.

For Buddhists the argument usually turns to the validity of metaphysical speculations regarding the myths of the just-world (karma) and the afterlife (rebirth). If one rejects Materialism and all that goes with it on the basis of a belief in these myths, then scientific knowledge is automatically non-salient to the discussion of the validity of the myths. Traditionalist Buddhists use this manoeuvre to argue that any argument against their view based on physical reality is axiomatically invalid; in doing so they either explicitly or implicitly invoke a non-physical reality which can paradoxically interact with the physical reality with real, but at the same time undetectable consequences. "Beings" are able to move between these two realities because in essence we are non-physical. Note that not all reductionism aims at physical monism consistent with science. This is one reason arguing with religieux is so unsatisfying. Nor can one apply the method of asking for evidence, since the very method of empiricism is aimed at physical reality and can deemed outside the sphere of salience for non-physical reality.

Buddhist arguing for their myths cite the salience of propositions such as long tradition ("no Buddhist has ever disputed the idea of karma"), interpretations of scripture ("the Buddha believed in rebirth"), common sense, ("it makes sense to me that death is not the end of life") and personal experience ("my meditation experiences lead me to conclude that death is not the end"). The comments in parentheses are paraphrases of actual arguments Buddhists have offered to me in response to my questioning of the Buddhist tradition. Over the last couple of years I've dealt with many of these objections at least in passing. These are extremely weak arguments for very strong metaphysical conclusions. 

The fact is that scientists do not always share interpretative frameworks and frequently point out deficiencies in each other's methods where they have allowed bias to impinge. Where methods are acceptable, scientists also argue about how best to interpret observations. If they are well enough informed to know this, however, the Relativist may employ another manoeuvre to turn the tables. These very disagreements amongst scientists, and the fact that scientific paradigms change from time to time, are cited by Relativists as evidence that science is contingent on interpretative frameworks. The strength of such disagreements is often underplayed at the level of popular science and this bolsters the Relativist argument because they see the exposing of disagreement as undercutting the authority of science. This is a superficial argument.

I have often cited the article by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier in which they show that reasoning does not come into play until there is an argument. Thus argument is actually essential to the progress of knowledge. It does mean that at the bleeding edge of knowledge production there is more uncertainty. But as time goes on the arguments and critiques shakedown the theories and those that do not stand up to scrutiny fall away or are modified. As Sean Carroll has recently said,
"... emphasizing the tentative, always-subject-to-revision nature of science can be taken too far. Science has taught us some things, after all. The computer on which you're reading this really is made of atoms; future discoveries aren't going to reveal that the very idea of atoms was just some kind of mistake." - Fear of Knowing.
Today's scientific theories are more accurate and precise than yesterday's. Certainly science is not complete or entirely without disagreement and even controversy. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But we are ahead of where we were. The physics and chemistry of the level of every day life was completely understood.

However it is true that different culture view the world differently, which brings us to the subject of cultural relativity. 

Cultural Relativity

Let's stipulate that there is some culture which is thousands of years old, say a tribe of Elbonian hunter-gatherers who have never had any contact with a Westernised culture because they live in a remote place. At night, sitting around their camp fires, they look up at the stars and see what they take to be the surface of a curved dome, studded with twinkling lights. They know that there are supernatural beings participating in their daily life. A recent survey suggests that 100% of hunter-gathers are animists (Peoples et al. 2016) to whom this kind of conclusion is entirely intuitive. To the Elbonians the lights in the dome above are obviously supernatural beings sitting around their camp-fires in the sky. They don't doubt this and have believed it beyond living memory. It has been many hundreds of generations since any Elbonian questioned this "knowledge".

Relativists argue that this conjecture about the stars, which the Elbonians make, stands on an equal footing with the conjecture that the stars are far off suns like our own, great masses of gas that compress so much under gravity that the centre starts to undergo fusion and thus radiates vast amounts of energy. But the Relativists are simply wrong. The Elbonian theory of the stars makes inaccurate predictions and doesn't explain the observable phenomena. Admittedly the inaccuracy doesn't register at the levels of precisions and error that the Elbonians themselves can muster just by looking up at the sky, but the lack of available precision and the huge error involved do not render the theory accurate. These factors just mean that the inaccuracy is not salient for the Elbonians. 

We may grant that the knowledge of, say, the healing properties of local herbs accumulated by the Elbonians is quite useful. But without double-blind trials and careful elimination of the placebo effect we cannot say for sure that any particular herb is consistently associated with any effect. Even quite well educated and otherwise rational people believe in homeopathy, despite the fact that rigorous tests suggest that any efficacy attributed to homeopathy is down to the placebo effect. The elaborate process of identifying the appropriate remedy is in fact a ritual designed to set the scene for activating the placebo effect. Again the Relativist position is unhelpful because it denies that believing in homeopathy is a poor decision if there is a more accurate alternative explanation of disease and medicine. Testing shows that homeopathy gives results no better than placebo and the theory it is based on make inaccurate and imprecise predictions. All beliefs are not equal.

For example, when I went to India the first time one of our group took a homeopathic malaria remedy instead of the medicine recommended by and freely provided by the UK's National Heath Service. My colleague sincerely believed that had there been malaria-bearing mosquitoes he would be protected. It was too cold for mosquitoes most of the time. This was fortunate because his homeopathic remedy would not have protected him from the malaria parasite and serious, life-threatening illness. In this example we see that belief is definitely not neutral. What we believe about the world is important and may have life and death consequences. Relativists would have us believe that homeopathy deserves a place alongside modern medicine because people like my colleague (and the current Secretary for the Department of Health in the UK Government) choose to ignore all the evidence and sincerely believe in it. Science is not a matter of belief. It's a matter of degrees of accuracy. No matter how sincerely we believe in homeopathy it is an inaccurate theory in the sense that it does nothing to cure or prevent disease other than activating the placebo effect. And better alternatives are available in many cases. The theory of homeopathy prevents advocates from making this distinction. 

While we are on this subject, Relativists also like to use a very broad definition of the word "science" to include any accumulated knowledge. We can also say with some confidence that the Elbonian knowledge about herbs, though meticulously and carefully preserved, is not scientific knowledge. In cataloguing and using herbs the Elbonians are not doing science. Science involves more than just taxonomy or systematic use. A scientific theory tries to explain the efficacy of the herb and in so doing to contribute to a general understanding of the world. Such a theory must accord with existing theories about the world and make predictions that can be tested for accuracy.

Take the real world example of willow bark. If you have a toothache, chewing willow bark may well reduce the pain because it contains a precursor to aspirin (i.e. salicylic acid), a substance with proven analgesic effects. Simply knowing that chewing willow bark reduces pain and using it for that purpose is not an example of science. The science begins when we reflect on all the systematic knowledge that we have about the world and conjecture that a component of the willow bark interacts with our body's complex systems for registering pain; we set out to separate out the components and identify the active one; and then predict that related compounds will have a similar effect. We then synthesis those related compounds and test their analgesic properties and propose or refine a molecular theory of pain and analgesia. The theory has to be nested in with our other theories, with physics, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, etc. If we create an ad hoc theory that is in conflict with other parts of the body of knowledge then this conflict must be resolved in one of two ways: either the ad hoc theory falls, or the mainstream does. It is almost always ad hoc theories that fall, but one or the other must happen. 

There are thousands of cultures around the world. Many of them have their own unique views about the stars, the healing properties of herbs, and the possibility of life after death. Relativists hold that each system of knowledge is valid on its own terms and that there is no external standard against which we can hold any system of knowledge to be better or worse. If we claim that reality is that standard, and science is the sum of our most accurate inferences about that reality, they may point out that this is simply our interpretative framework and our imperialist and probably racist mindset. This can be a difficult area because of our long European history of imperialism and racism. On the other hand science is truly international and transcends cultural boundaries. People of all cultures participate in the scientific project and are united by a commitment to application of the principles of scientific enquiry. 

There is an external standard by which we can judge claims to knowledge about the world. It is the mind-independent reality that we experience through our senses. We can accurately infer a great deal about this mind-independent reality by using the empirical methods I have already outlined. The case of the Elbonians shows that looking at the world through an interpretative framework can blind us to the nature of this reality. When we believe we know the answers, we don't ask questions. The ability to step outside our own worldview is really quite rare. But being blinded is not inevitable, one of the main reasons for this is that we can compare notes we people who have different interpretative frameworks and see whose theory makes the more accurate predictions. In this way we have come to know quite a lot about how the world is constructed and what it is constructed from at different levels.

On the other hand just because someone is wrong about God or the afterlife does not give us licence to feel or act superior towards them. Such views are widely held precisely because they are intuitive. And this seems to be because of the way our cognitive functions evolved. Hating someone who disagrees with us about metaphysics is about as rational as hating animals that have don't have opposable thumbs, or that do have wings. Just as in the concept of freedom of speech we defend the right of someone to say something we disagree with, in cultural terms there is no justification for looking down on cultures that have a different interpretative frame from us. We can even value another culture that we disagree with. I think many of us who started our education about Buddhism by learning about traditional Buddhism retain a feeling of respect for the original teachers of the traditions, even when we conclude that they got some things wrong. That I currently find karma and rebirth implausible does not diminish my feelings of gratitude and respect for my teachers for introducing me to the ideas, attitudes, symbols and practices of Buddhism, nor for the early Buddhists who words I read and study. As modern convert Buddhists we can, at least in theory, pay our respects to our cultural heritage and to our adopted religion. 


Physical Relativism is a false view. There is an external physical standard, though understanding it requires us to question our existing worldview and it can take some sophisticated technology to investigate it thoroughly. Our current state of knowledge is still partial and what we know is subject to the limitations of the precision and levels of error to which we can measure the properties of the world. But we know the macro-scale world very well. Sean Carroll has plausibly argued that "the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known." Cultural Relativism has serious limitations and when it conflicts with science as a modernist I side with science precisely because of this external reality. The collection of Buddhist traditions on their own terms are a remarkable and usually admirable product of pre-modern thinking with a veneer of modernism. I want to see a genuine synthesis of Buddhism and modernism. Taken to its logical conclusion, this synthesis will no doubt leave little of the traditional intact, but this will not be the first time this has happened in Buddhism. 

Moral Relativism is a much more difficult proposition because no one has yet identified any moral reality. But my argument here is not with moral Relativism, it is with the physical and cultural kinds. I think these arguments are best kept apart.

The accuracy with which one can measure one's predictions creates a divide between different groups. Philosophers seldom bother to look through a telescope or a microscope, let alone any more sophisticated apparatus. So their worldview is more constrained and their arguments less conclusive than they might be. They misunderstand the significance of the measurements being made by scientists. Similarly, scientists who are not trained to think about the implications of their measurements make mistakes like concluding that reductionism applies to both substance and structure when constructing explanations of the universe. Even if the accuracy of the measurement is stipulated there is still the problem of how belief alters the shape of our worldview by changing how we assign salience to them. An accurate measurement might be judged to have little salience because it conflicts with a cherished belief.

Indeed this can happen in science too. Max Planck once quipped that science proceeds one funeral at a time. There is now some evidence to suggest that this quip is an accurate prediction (Azoulay et al. 2015). Charismatic senior researchers do tend to stifle innovation and dissent in a field. The effect is like a large canopy tree in a forest, suppressing saplings. But then the researcher dies, and just as in the forest there is a rapid rise of saplings that have survived in their shadow (though not among those closest to the researcher). The point is that, yes, science is to some extent a hostage to human foibles, but in the long run the methods and institutions of science overcome these limitations. The same cannot be said of religious methods and institutions, which remain in thrall to cognitive bias and logical fallacy.



Azoulay, P., Fons-Rosen, C., and Graff Zivin, J. S. (2015) Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time? NBER Working Paper No. 21788, December, 2015. http://www.econ.upf.edu/docs/papers/downloads/1498.pdf

Baghramian, M. and Carter, J. A. (2015). Relativism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/

Peoples, H. C., Duda, P. F. and Marlowe, W. (2016) Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion. Human Nature. 1-22. First online: 06 May 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0.

06 May 2016

Karma and Rebirth: The Basics

For a couple of years now, I've been working on turning some of my essays into a book on Karma and Rebirth. It's slow progress, but the book is currently about 175,000 words with quite a bit more material to integrate. One of the things that I have not done is include a basic introduction to the subject. I was thinking readers of the book would already be Buddhists and so have some understanding of the subject or, if they needed an introduction, that they could read a book like Nāgapriya's, Exploring Karma & Rebirth (2004).

In the process of researching some of the gaps I've identified, I started to wonder if it might be better to have some kind of basic overview of the subject that is tailored to this book. For example, I nowadays locate Buddhism in a continuum of religious belief regarding such fundamental myths, as the just-world (or moral universe), the afterlife, the immortal founder, religious superheroes, and so on. Buddhists tend to have definite ideas about each of these myths and since I'm setting out to disrupt those ideas, why not make this clear and give some idea of why I would want to.

Composing my own introduction would also help to locate Buddhism in an appropriate historical and cultural context. Most other books on these topics pay too little attention to the religious spectrum and have a tendency to treat Buddhism as historically and culturally unique. On the other hand I try to keep up with and participate in the latest research on the history of Buddhism in India, so my introduction could incorporate information that has recently come to light.

There are so many different approaches to karma and rebirth, especially if we consider historical positions that are no longer current, and this historical perspective is important in the argument I develop in the book. Almost every detail of the various sectarian theories is disputed by other sects. For every detail that one might cite as being an aspect of the Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth, there are always seem to have been contradictory views. Several well known texts, e.g. Kathāvatthu, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and many less well known texts, record disputes amongst the sects over doctrinal details, especially the mechanics of karma and rebirth. Some of these disputes are purely historical and almost no one remembers them or bothers to mention them. They occasionally receive attention from scholars of Buddhist doctrine, but the results of these studies tend not to end up in the kinds of books that Buddhist practitioners read. And to complicate matters we are seeing a rise in the production of sophisticated sectarian apologetics for taking the traditional myths of Buddhism as authentic or statements of fact. Religious leaders whose positions in life depend on articles of faith are feeling the challenge of secularism and science and responding with spirited defences of their superstitious beliefs.

The story of just how contested these doctrines were in the past is very important to those of us who wish to contest them in the present, because it undermines the false certainty that we often meet in traditional presentations of the Buddhist religion and modern apologetics. All too often the discussion about belief is shut down by those who wish to define a Buddhist as "someone who believes in karma and rebirth". And if you don't believe then "you are not a Buddhist". One of the leaders of the Triratna Movement, for example, has said "Without conviction that these are the essential mechanics of life, one will not practice the Dharma." (Subhuti 2007). I have (anecdotal) reason to believe that about half of our Order disagree with Subhuti on this point. I disagree with him. Many of us practice the Dharma convinced that karma and rebirth are nothing to do with the mechanics of Buddhism, let alone the mechanics of life; and an even larger number practice with unresolved doubts on these issues (i.e. with no conviction one way or the other). The untold history of disputes over these myths is important because it allows dissenters to see that they too are part of a long tradition of dissent. 

The attitude to Nāgārjuna is instructive. He was very critical of the mainstream views of his day and attempts to show that those views on karma and rebirth are incoherent. He particularly raises what I call the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, the problem that in karma theory, the consequences (phala) of an action necessarily occur long after the conditioning action cease, contravening pratītyasamutpāda, which requires the presence of conditions for causation to occur. Nāgārjuna banishes the whole business of karma and rebirth to the domain of relative truth (saṃvṛttisatya). From an ultimate perspective (paramārthasatya), according to Nāgārjuna, there is no karma, no agent (kartṛ), no result (phala), no one who experiences the result (bhoktṛ), and no rebirth (MMK 17.30). Now, I've read a number of explanations of this approach and they all baulk at accepting Nāgārjuna's dismissal of karma and, contradicting Nāgārjuna, restate the Mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example David J. Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
In other words, Nāgārjuna's ultimate rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. The dismissal has to be rationalised. For Kalupahana, raised in Buddhist Sri Lanka, the idea that the "relationship between action and the consequence" might break down seems to be inconceivable, although it is very difficult to construct any meaningful connection when we take a Buddhist approach, as my book shows. Nāgārjuna himself has shown that there is no way to connect action to consequence without resorting to eternalism. Belief trumps every other kind of argument in religion. And this may be why the metaphysically exuberant Yogācāra ideas about karma and rebirth eclipsed Nāgārjuna's metaphysical reticence outside of scholastic circles. Last time I raised this, someone pointed out that the Doctrine of Momentariness (kṣaṇavāda) gets around the problem, but this is debatable and I'll briefly say why below. 

In Buddhist arguments about karma and rebirth, metaphysical innovations and speculations abound, with most aimed at defending the doctrines from some internal threat as objections are raised from within the Buddhist community. As objections to doctrines of karma and rebirth appeared, those doctrines were modified in response. Many Buddhists see the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda as the central Buddhist doctrine, the most identifiable idea associated with of Buddhism. In fact, this doctrine was frequently modified to deal with inadequacies in the doctrines of karma and rebirth, as in the Abhidharma "dharma" theories. If any doctrine is central to Buddhism it is that karma leads to rebirth and awakening means no more rebirth. Historically, karma was the priority.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth that are taught these days are the homogenised result of a few centuries of critical enquiry in early Common-Era India, followed by centuries of rote repetition of the surviving doctrines. There are four main versions of these doctrines in the modern world: Theravāda, Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, and Pure Land, though the view that any one person espouses may not respect the boundaries suggested by these labels. Modern views are often eclectic and syncretic. In the book I try to outline the most prominent Indian Buddhist theories of karma and rebirth including the four above as well as Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika views. Most sectarian views involve dismissing other sectarian views as incorrect, leaving almost nothing agreed upon beyond the bare fact that Buddhists believe in karma and rebirth.

This means that writing a completely non-controversial account of karma and rebirth that takes an historical perspective turns out to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. My approach to introducing karma is to set out what I think the uncontested or uncontroversial aspects of the doctrines of karma and rebirth and then proceed to outline the points of contention. The latter takes a lot more space than the former and forms the bulk of this essay.

Karma and Rebirth Defined

My attempt at a non-controversial definition of Buddhist karma and rebirth is as follows:
Karma is the Anglicised word for the process that links consequences (phalavipāka) to actions (karman), as well as the actions themselves. Because karma does not immediately manifest as consequences, it accumulates over time. The main consequence of karma is rebirth (punarbhava), but karma may also manifest as sensation (vedanā). Rebirth is governed by a theory of how experiences arise, i.e. by dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Enlightened people don't make new karma. When enlightened people die they are not reborn.
The doctrine of karma is the Buddhist version of the just-world myth and like other versions is tied to an afterlife in which the injustice of this life is balanced out. This myth produces a cognitive bias, in the Wikipedia definition:
"The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance." 
If we replaced "just-world hypothesis" with "Buddhist karma" in this statement, we would have a serviceable definition of karma. All the major religions have a version of this myth. And yet the world clearly is not fair or just. Evil actions go unpunished and good actions go unrewarded. The idea that actions always have timely and appropriate consequences is debunked by lived experience. And this inevitably leads religions to link the myth of the just-world with the myth of the afterlife. Judgement and reward in the afterlife is how religions rationalise an unjust world.

The doctrine of rebirth is the Buddhist version of the Myth of the Afterlife. This myth is correlated with the cognitive dissonance associated with the knowledge of our own inevitable death. Life "wants" to go on, self-conscious beings consciously want to live forever but come to understand that they die. In the tension of the irresistible force (life) meeting the immovable object (death), the afterlife is born and thrives.

A seldom noticed feature of the Buddhism version of the afterlife is the bifurcation into a metaphysical narrative and a moral one. Buddhist metaphysicians have always stressed that the relation between us and our rebirths is governed by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). This is first and foremost a description of how mental states arise, but is applied in all sort of other ways. Thus the one who acts is neither identical with or totally different from the one who experiences the consequences. The latter arises in dependence on the former. Buddhist moralists (often the same people in a different didactic mode) emphasise that actions have consequences for us. Many suttas and all jātakas explicitly relate how actions rebound on us in subsequent lives, or that what we now experience is the result of our actions in a past life. I conjecture that this moral version of the Buddhist afterlife is necessary because without a strong connection between action and consequence for the agent, morality is not possible. That this contradicts Buddhist metaphysics is not problematised in Buddhism teaching, it is simply that in switching from one mode to the other, Buddhists simply ignore the contradiction. I don't see this as a disputed teaching, since the ability to segue back and forth between metaphysical and moral discourses with respect to the afterlife seems to be universal.

Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma. 

Everything else about karma and rebirth seems to be complex and disputed. There are a number of main areas of contention related to karma and rebirth. The next section of this essay will set out these areas.

Historical Disputes About Karma & Rebirth.

1. Action at a Temporal Distance is Forbidden by pratītyasamutpāda.

Solving the problem of karma's requirement of action at a temporal distance produced a great deal of innovation over the centuries, but ultimately the Doctrine of Momentariness (kṣaṇavāda; DOM) won the day. DOM comes in various flavours, e.g. Theravāda, Sautrāntika, and Yogācāra. All DOM variations involve the invention of ad hoc entities or processes to account for the continuity between action and consequence, e.g. dharmas always exist (sarva-asti-vāda); a carrier in the form of a "person" (pudgala-vāda); a 'carrier' in the form of vijñāna (Johansson, Waldron); a carrier in form of ālayavijñāna (Yogācāra). The most radical solution to this problem is Nāgārjuna's, already mentioned above, which was relegate all such questions to the realm of saṃvṛttisatya.

The Theravāda DOM proposes 24 different types of conditionality to account for the ways that dharmas need to function in order to preserve a working theory of karma. And it seems to work as long as there is only one action in one lifetime (to my knowledge no presentation of the Theravāda DOM ever deals with more than one action). With two or more actions it fails to sustain a connection between action and consequence, primarily because of the fundamental axiom accepted by Theravādins that the mind can only allow one citta at a time (discussed further below). Other DOMs reduced this list to just four types of conditionality. The Yogācāra DOM invents a new kind of entity to solve the continuity problems (see 3. and 4. below), i.e. the ālayavijñāna or store-cognition.

There are a whole raft of related series of problems. If karma accumulates how does it remain latent or dormant for such a long time and then become active, particularly in a DOM when dharmas are always active, if short lived? How does a karma "know" when to ripen? If it does not interact with our minds while dormant, how can it then become capable of interacting? The DOM solves these problems by making dharmas always active. This removes any latency and the need to know when to ripen. Dharmas produce identical dharmas, so their effects on our minds are constant.

However there is still the problem of death. Which I deal with separately below.

2. Temporality

DOM versions all assert as axiomatic that the mind can only process one citta at a time, we'll call this the Serial Processing Axiom (SPA). This vitiates the DOM because it cannot account for how we perceive change or succession. For example we could not perceive music or language the way we do if consciousness was truly momentary and not persistent over at least the immediately past moment In practice both require us to retain in mind multiple sense inputs covering many seconds or even minutes. Because of SPA, momentariness fails to account for the phenomenology of cognition. And this may be why the first chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) is quite as tortuous as it is. Nāgārjuna, who apparently accepts SPA, is trying to account for the perception of change in a paradigm which cannot produce a coherent account. If we drop the axiom, then change is a simple matter of comparing the immediate past with the present - something that almost any animal with a brain is able to do. Mosquitoes and flies, for example, are adept at perceiving movement, making them very hard to swat.

Buddhist ideas in this area are also hampered by the reification of the grammatical categories present, past and future. The tendency was to talk about the past and the future as needing to have an ontological status. Nāgārjuna devotes a whole chapter of MMK to this thorny issue, but arguments over the reality or non-reality of past and future are doomed to failure. The trouble is karma. Indian Buddhists continued to struggle to relate present consequences to past actions - somehow an action in the past must continue to act as a condition for an event in the present, and present actions must be conditions for events in the future (else Buddhist morality fails). However, real and unreal do not apply in the domain of experience. The arrow of time is a notoriously difficult subject, but to be hampered by treating the past and the future as something other than aspects of experience makes it impossible. Past and future are all about how we experience a flow of events and the arrow of time.

Neuroscience does agree with Ābhidharmikas, and disagree with the sutta authors, that consciousness is not continuous and has a granular structure. However, it also suggests that the brain takes an appreciable time (ca. 250-500 milliseconds) for the brain to process sensory stimulations. Thus cognition is not momentary in the sense that the DOM argues for, but takes place over time. Neuroscience also argues for a massively parallel system of processing sensory data, in which our brains construct a gestalt from all the present sensory streams. 

3. Continuity During Sleep and Nirodha-samāpatti

This is another very specific problem within a DOM. If the required continuity between action and consequence is provided for by an uninterrupted series of conscious moments, then deep sleep and the cessation of mental activity in meditation when there is no consciousness of anything, present show-stopping problems. If there are no conscious moments, then connectivity between moments is broken and continuity between action and consequence is lost.

Theravādins and Yogācārins both adapted their DOM to account for this. The former invented the bhavaṅga-citta which they designed specifically to solve this problem: it's a post-hoc patch which only exists because of this problem. A bhavaṅga-citta is one a kind of mental activity that we are not aware of, hence it is sometimes translated as subconscious, though it should not be confused with the Freudian subconscious or the Jungian unconscious. The bhavaṅga-citta always has a single object which is set for life at rebirth by the re-linking mental activity (paṭisandhi-citta). It really only exists to provide for continuity and to interrupt if two moments of mental activity are potentially different, e.g. a kuśala mental event followed by an akuśala mental event requires the intervention of a bhavaṅga-citta which is avyakṛta or undetermined with respect to kuśala/akuśala.

Yogācārins also had to patch their DOM. In their case, the ālayavijñāna, was always present and provided the continuity at times when the mental lights were out. This drew the obvious criticism, that the ālayavijñāna was an ātman by another name, but Yogācāra weathered this criticism and persisted into the present. This pattern of post-hoc patches to theories is quite typical of the history of Buddhist ideas, especially where Buddhists were trying to explain their world rather than their experience.

4. Continuity Between Death and Rebirth

However, the potentially disastrous discontinuity for karma theory is death, because when a person dies their mental stream has to continue seamlessly in some other body in order to preserve the integrity of the just-world myth. Theravādins solved the problem of the death-discontinuity by making rebirth instantaneous, that is by defining reality to match theory. Death is defined in such a way as to deny the possibility of discontinuity. Here the reasoning is post-hoc, there cannot be an interruption of the stream of mental activity, therefore there is not an interruption. But this idea of instantaneous rebirth was hotly disputed.  

For Vaibhāṣikas, the idea that mental activity could cease in one place and instantly arise in another was illogical. Travelling from place to place takes time. Instantaneous travel was a miracle too far for them and so, along with other sects, they invented the interim realm (antarābhava) to account for the time it took. Unfortunately this gave rise to a whole new range of problems and disputes. Since the interim realm is not mentioned in any early Buddhist texts the status of it with respect to rebirth destinations (loka or gati) was called into question. If there was some kind of existence (bhava) between death and rebirth, what form did that existence take? Where the skandhas involved? How long did it last? Was there any contact between this interim realm and this world or the next?

Some modern Theravādins accept that there is an interim realm, which nullifies the traditional Theravādin orthodoxy regarding karma and rebirth. 

Some Buddhists took advantage of a mysterious form of existence attributed mainly to group (kāya) of devas called mind-made (manomaya), where kāya or sometimes nikāya means 'group'. Since kāya can also mean "body" some Buddhists reasoned that in the interim realm, the departed took the form of a mind-made body (manomaya kāya) which further came confused with the Hindu subtle body (liṅga-śarīra or sūkṣma-śarīra). Others noticed an obscure passage about conception requiring the presence of a gandharva. The gandharva is a minor deity in the Ṛgveda with possible roots in Indo-Iranian mythology, since a parallel term is used in the Old-Iranian language, though referring to something very different. Some Buddhists claimed that we take the form of a gandharva in the interim realm, though this sense of the word seems to be entirely unrelated to the divine musician of myth. Versions of the interim-realm existence involving a synthesis of these also exist, i.e. that the gandharva is a mind-made form. 

5. When and How Does Karma Ripen?

Karma is always closely linked to rebirth, in the sense that rebirth is the major consequence of karma. But there are variations on this. At least one sutta tells us that all karma is discharged at rebirth. Each time the slate with wiped clean. Other texts, especially the Jātakas, make it clear that karma in past lives can continue to manifest after many lives. Other texts seem to imply that karma may ripen in the moment or at least in this lifetime.

An early medieval Theravādin analogy for karma was with the regularity associated with seeds and plants. Karma produces appropriate results the same way that a rice seed produces a rice plant (bīja-niyāma) and produces it in a timely fashion, just as fruits ripen in due season (uju-niyāma). See comments on analogical reasoning below.

Rebirth is said to be in one of five realms. Or six realms. The realms of the devas and asuras were originally counted as one, which makes good sense because in all of the stories the devas and asuras all live and fight in heaven (svarga). However, Buddhists seem to have lost the sense of the Brahmanical myths that their early founders had incorporated and so separated devas and asuras into two different realms. Though this makes a nonsense of the existing myths, it does make for a slightly more sophisticated eschatology, in that more afterlife destinations allows the myth of the just world more freedom in addressing the wrongs of this world, for example, some texts says that people who are jealous go to the asura realm after death; whereas people who are saintly go to the deva realm. Other realms are associated with particular dispositions: greed with hungry-ghosts, ignorance with animals, anger with hell.

6. Is Karma Inevitable?

This question was the subject of my 2014 Journal of Buddhist Ethics article. As far as the suttas are concerned karma must inevitably ripen. It is inescapable. But for later Buddhists this strict criterion is negated or deprecated. Buddhists, especially in the Mahāyāna texts, introduce the idea that one can escape one's karma in a variety of ways. This is highlighted in the different versions of the story of the meeting between King Ajātasattu and the Buddha. In Pāḷi the King is doomed by his patricide to a long stay in hell. In other versions surviving in Chinese, the King is so blessed by meeting the Buddha that his karma is partially or wholly nullified and he does not end up in hell, but in one version is in fact liberated. I know of no recorded disputes on this major change in Buddhist doctrine, but as far as I know the inevitability of karma is still a tenet of Theravāda orthodoxy (though as we have already seen there are many unorthodox Theravādins), thus there is a potential dispute.

In my article I pointed to the Tantric practice of reciting the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra as the acme of the breaking of the inevitability criteria. Now, however, I realised that Pure Land Buddhism completed negated karma much earlier by allowing that anyone who is dedicated to awakening and brings Amitābha to mind to be reborn in Sukhāvati where the conditions are so favourable that liberation is guaranteed.

7. Is Everything That Happens Due to Karma?

The early Buddhist answer to this was an emphatic no. Many other factors are involved in conditioning our experience of the world. However, modern Theravāda apologists sometimes argue, following Tibetan Buddhist versions of karma, that those other types of condition only arise because we are born in a particular world (loka) and that rebirth is driven by karma, therefore ultimately all experience is the result of karma. 

8. What Constitutes an Authority in These Disputes?

In these debates about the details of karma and rebirth there was often a contest around what constituted an authority. For example the tradition Theravādin argument against the interim realm was that it is not mentioned in the suttas. The counter-argument put forward by Sujato is that certain passages may be interpreted as veiled references to the interim-realm. On the whole the Pāḷi Canon is not shy about the supernatural, so why it should be vague about the interim realm is unclear. Of course Buddhists continued to produce texts and as time went on the issue of the authenticity of newer compositions emerged. Abhidharma texts and śāstras such as the Yogācārabhumi or the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya began to be far more important and more authoritative for later Buddhists.

On the other hand sometimes logic did make an appearance (as in the argument about travelling through space instantaneously). More often reasoning was analogical, with analogies being largely drawn from nature. The problem of Action at a Temporal Distance was addressed by the analogy of the seed for example.  If one could argue that an unseen process, like karma, was exactly analogous to a natural process, like a seed becoming a tree, then that would suffice to settle matters in ancient India.

Modern Contributions

So far we have mainly outlined the unresolved traditional issues, with only a few references to neuroscience. The nature and extent of these traditional disputes are not well understood in the mainstream Buddhism of today. They are explored in a number of modern scholarly publications, but even there the importance of these disputes seems to be underplayed. To my mind these disputes are incredibly important to the history of Buddhist ideas because they undermine the consensus presentation of karma and rebirth as historically uncontroversial. In fact, almost every detail of the various ideas related to karma and rebirth is disputed, sometimes hotly and intemperately. Buddhists want to have karma and rebirth, but they cannot figure out how to make them work. Problems such as those outlined above become drivers of innovation and change in Buddhist doctrines. Modern apologists for karma and rebirth mostly don't understand the problems and thus don't address them, or at least are not able to address them in ways that would appeal to people outside their sect.

The fact that these matters were never satisfactorily settled in ancient India is highly relevant to modern discussions of the salience of karma and rebirth. This is because those who, like Subhuti, assert that practising the Dharma requires such convictions, gloss over the historical fact that conviction requires a coherent basis and there is no coherent version of karma and rebirth to base such conviction on. Conviction in this case requires ignorance of, or insensitivity to, these historical disputes. In other words any belief in karma and rebirth has to involve taking certain propositions on faith. 

These are the conclusions we come to from exploring the history of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, something very few sectarian Buddhists have done. We have not yet raised the question of how science affects the plausibility of karma and rebirth.

The very word 'science' activates the missile defence systems of Buddhists: the Materialist is a person-to-person missile that obliterates all arguments from science. Similarly with the Scientism or Reductionist missiles. Cluster-bomb-like attacks like Relativism or Cartesian Dualism are also activated and ready to be deployed. Tackling such objections from anti-scientists leads down a road in which the details of what we know about the universe are called into question and that becomes the subject of the debate rather than the beliefs in question. In a sense it is fair enough. Epistemological questions (how do we know something) are important, but they cut both ways. I am happy to explain how I know that the world at one scale is made up of atoms and that the forces that govern atoms are so well understood that no supernatural forces are relevant to questions of karma and rebirth (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry). If only a dualist could explain to me how they know that mind is made of some other stuff and how it manages to interact with material stuff. None can.

Really getting to grips with these kinds of meta-disputes takes a lot of time and energy. I have written some relevant essays and will be expanding on these as my book takes shape. I plan to tackle Relativism in a forthcoming essay. But let us, for the sake of brevity, stipulate that enough doubt has been cast on the objections that I may continue to explore the implications of science for karma and rebirth. I've been looking at this for some time now. I wrote a series of essays on Vitalism for example, and tried to show why Vitalism and Cartesian (matter/spirit) Dualism are a bad theories, i.e. that they don't make accurate or precise predictions.

But in the long run the laws of thermodynamics are decisive. There is simply no way for the information contained in the atoms of our bodies to be transmitted to a fertilised embryo in some remote womb. In order for this to happen the mainstream models of matter and energy, which are incredibly accurate and precise, would have to be completely replaced by another set of theories that were at least as accurate and precise, and yet allowed for some supernatural influence. Unfortunately the people attacking the science arguments are not themselves scientists and have no interest in replacing the laws of physics.

My understanding is that we now understand enough about physics and chemistry to rule out any relevance for supernatural entities or forces interacting with our world. They either can't interact or they interact so weakly with the atoms in our bodies that they are undetectable and thus cannot observably affect our minds. There is no observed behaviour of matter at the scales relevant to karma and rebirth that requires any more explanation than what the standard models provide. In addition, though study of the mind is still in its infancy, we also know enough to know that no experiences require any supernatural or matter/spirit style dualism to explain. Supernaturalism, Dualism and Vitalism just don't offer us any insights into the world or our experience. As theories they don't make accurate or precise predictions, and they have little in the way of explanatory power. We can confidently set them aside and get on with trying to understand the world through mainstream physics and chemistry. 

Scientific theory and observation is certainly incomplete. We do not understand everything about our world or our minds. But we understand a good deal. What is seldom acknowledged by advocates of failed supernatural theories is that they have even larger explanatory gaps. The supernatural is always a worse explanation for an experience than a natural explanation or no explanation. Some things do remain unexplained and thus it is always better to admit ignorance than to assert that something can be explained when it cannot. The supernatural fails to explain what it purports to explains. There is no longer any good reason for a well-informed and thoughtful person to believe in the supernatural.

I have also explored at length why religious and/or supernatural beliefs remain plausible to so many. Religious ideas do seem intuitive or at least minimally counter-intuitive to many people, but this is not a reason to believe in them. However, this need not lead to intolerance, which is irrational. Religion is more or less universal amongst humans and acknowledging this costs us little. Nor does it change the essential task set out by Buddhism, i.e. to transcend our view of ourselves as isolated individual selves and the harmful behaviour associated with this view.

Apart form the traditional versions of karma and rebirth there are versions that have been modified to be more compatible with modernism. So for example a version of karma that appeals to many modern Buddhists is that repeated actions form habits that make us more likely to behave in the same way again and shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. Buddhist practice in this view is about identifying habits and trying to eliminate them. This certainly seems to work and I have argument against it per se. But it has almost no relationship with traditional Buddhist views on karma and rebirth and I think we are still getting to the point where such views will be wildly acknowledged in the Buddhist world. My view is that considerable deconstruction of Buddhist doctrines is still required.


Having looked closely at Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth over time, my conclusion is that, that no traditional version of them is coherent on its own terms. I emphasise the latter because, although I am sometimes known as a science enthusiast and accused of being a Materialist, I have carefully evaluated these Buddhist doctrines while trying my best to take the tradition at face value. The logic of the doctrines does not stand up to a sustained inquiry, the different versions all contradict each other and such plausibility as the doctrines retain seems to rely on sectarian readings which ignore historical disputes. But even granting the stipulations of sectarianism, still, no version of karma and rebirth is coherent.

In the light of modern science I would go further. The forces that govern matter and energy at the scales relevant to the discussion of karma and rebirth are well enough known and precisely enough specified, that no just-world or afterlife theory is possible and thus no version of them will ever be plausible. And this is a problem for Buddhism as a religion. It's a problem for those people who insist that to be a Buddhist one simply must believe against all evidence to the contrary. And that creates a kind of paradox, because honesty is one of the first principles of Buddhism and another important principle is that Buddhists do not rely on blind faith (though this is more honoured in the breach than in the observance). If we are honest and ask for evidence then the belief-system collapses.

And I believe this is the point we have reached. The belief-system of Buddhism is breaking down from within and being bypassed by secular presentations of Buddhist techniques (including, but not limited to Mindfulness therapies). My intention is to actively participate in the ensuing discussion about what Buddhism looks like in the post-deconstruction era.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

Kalupahana, David J. (1986). Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Nagapriya. (2004). Exploring Karma & Rebirth. Windhorse Publications.

Subhuti. (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism With Beliefs. Privately circulated. 
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