12 August 2016

Buddhism and Naturalism

Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 
In the four previous essays I have been outlining a philosophical framework for thinking about the world. This is something I never thought I'd do as I don't really like the way philosophers beat around the bush. Of course just being educated and then reading widely as an adult one picks up bits and pieces of philosophy by osmosis. And everyone has a worldview that is shaped by upbringing, culture, and all that. But I've never studied philosophy systematically. Those who have studied philosophy will no doubt see this attempt as naive and superficial. It is intended as a first attempt at a synthesis of the kind of ideas that are required for a coherent philosophy. Of course the arguments about philosophy are literally endless and there is probably no way to resolved many of them. So in the end a philosophy that everyone agrees on is just a fantasy. So, this is my version of the fantasy.

My approach to studying Buddhisms in the last 10 years has been more along the lines of the history of ideas, especially with respect to the early phases of written texts. I've highlighted the intra-Buddhist clash of ideas over many centuries in Indian Buddhisms. I've also written a good deal about how some Buddhist ideas interact with some ideas in modernity. What I've been trying to do in the previous four essays is outline a philosophical framework for understanding and discussing life, the universe, and everything. The view falls roughly under the rubric of Naturalism. My quick definition of Naturalism is that the universe has to be understood without any reference to anything supernatural. I think for Buddhism to be relevant long term, it will have to come to terms with Naturalism in some form because it accurately describes the world we live in.

This last essay in the series is another long read of more than 5000 words (I'm thinking of changing the name of the blog to Too Long Didn't Read). It has four parts: firstly, a recapitulation of the main elements of the philosophy I've been exploring in the last four essays; then a section on the historical critique of traditional Buddhism; followed by a section on the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhism; and finally some comments on what a Naturalistic Buddhism might look like and some suggestions for future development (particularly in expanding the philosophy into the social sphere via ethics into economics and politics).

Note that this series of essays have been about processing new information in order to rewrite a chapter in my forthcoming book. I'm planning to go back to finishing the book and will probably not resume regular blogging till 2017. Once I get essays written on ethics, politics, and economics, I may put these essays on Naturalism out as a separate book.

~ Elements of A Naturalistic Philosophy ~


Generally speaking my approach to epistemology, to knowledge of the world, is Collective Empirical Realism. Individuals see a universe consistent with Kant's Transcendental Idealism: knowledge comes via experience, which incorporates a priori metaphysical overlays like space, time, and causality in order to help us make sense of experience; we cannot know the world "directly", without these overlays. However, by carefully comparing notes about experience with other people, we can isolate the purely subjective and metaphysical elements of experience, and infer what reality must be like. In other words we can reverse engineer the type of immanent reality required for us to have the kinds of experiences we do. I've since learned that Kant, from whom we get the idea of Transcendental Idealism, also proposed a form of empirical realism. However, I think Kant was working too early in the history of science to really appreciate the power of empiricism: he missed out on evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and DNA for example. Modern empiricism has allowed us to predict the existence of many kinds of entities before they were observed by any human being. 


If there is a genuinely transcendental reality beyond (under or above) this one, then we could not experience it. Even if we did experience it, the experience itself would be incomprehensible and we would not know we had experienced itWe can say nothing about such a reality. But it is not necessary for such a reality to exist and we are not required to believe in it to make sense of our experience. All we need is an immanent objective reality to complement our subjectivity, i.e. something to be conscious of. This immanent objective reality need not be ideal, noumenal, or supernatural (and isn't).

The ontology of this immanent reality can be described using a combination of substance reductionism and structure antireductionism. To the best of our current knowledge, the universe is fundamentally made of quantum fields; but these fields are made into objects with many layers of complexity that are real by virtue of their irreducible structure. These real, complex objects have emergent properties, that is to say, complex objects have properties that cannot be explained by aggregating the properties of their elements. The parts break down, ultimately into quantum fields, but complex wholes can be greater than the sum of their parts.

Lower level descriptions can only generalise about higher levels and lower level properties do no propagate upwards through the hierarchy. For example, while at some lower levels of description the universe is completely deterministic, this has no bearing on higher levels or lower levels. Higher level properties such as freewill, morality, aesthetics, and consciousness, are completely compatible with low level determinism. Nothing need be explained away, because structures are real and have emergent properties.


The universe evolves according to patterns that can be discerned and described. Lower level patterns are amenable to being expressed mathematically, while higher level patterns have to be expressed in narratives. One of the great patterns that we observe in biological systems is evolution by natural selection. The current mainstream view of Evolution is NeoDarwian, it combined Darwin's natural selection with gene theory to create a synthesis. However NeoDarwinism is also a politically motivated theory (though the motivation was probably unconscious). It also combines, for example, metaphysical reductionism, with some remnants of Victorian Imperialism and Neoliberal ideology, so that evolution is portrayed as a kind of fight to the death, winner takes all, kind of situation in which "selfish genes" compete for expression in phenotypes (actual organisms). Competition is seen to drive evolution at all levels, just as it does in free market economics. NeoDarwinism is basically late-Victorian laissez-faire economics applied to biology. Selfishness is the defining characteristic of humans in this model, and the greatest virtue is pursuing self-interest. In fact synthesis, symbiosis, hybridisation, mutually beneficial communities, and cooperation are essential to evolution, but these qualities are typically excluded from NeoDarwinian accounts of evolution on ideological grounds. Far from being selfish, genes are in fact always cooperative and could not work at all except as cogs in the wheel of a genomic machine. Even the genome cannot be said to be a unit on its own, because without the cooperative machinery of the cell to copy genes and build proteins, the gene could not exist. In all likelihood metabolism preceded genetics in the evolution of life. Genes are part of a complex web of interconnected processes within which they cooperate with other genes to help perpetuate life. In the final analysis, the basic unit of life is irreducibly life itself. Which is essentially what James Lovelock was getting at with his Gaia Hypothesis: life as a whole regulates conditions on the earth to create conducive conditions for life. In fact this idea of everything interacting with everything else seems to be a fundamental principle of the universe.

The primary metaphor of the NeoDarwinian consensus on evolution is the linear, binary branching tree. Such a metaphor utterly fails to convey the importance of symbiosis, hybridisation, and interspecies cooperation. A better metaphor is the braided stream - which allows for tributaries and recombination as well as other dynamic processes. Our very cells are tightly bound symbiotic units in which several kinds of bacteria have lived in permanent association for billions of years. Our bodies are large-scale bound communities of cells. We also have a loosely bound community of symbionts in our gut and on our skin. Human beings are a fundamentally social species. The unit of humanity is not the individual human being, but the village or its modern equivalent.


A major stumbling block for work on consciousness is the (ironically) unconscious Cartesian dualism implicit in Scientific Materialism and its ideology of metaphysical reductionism. In dualism proper, one divides the world in the matter and spirit, or mind and body, and posits that both are real. In physicalism, one divides the world in two, accepts the matter/body side of the equation as real, but denies the spirit/mind side. Additionally metaphysical reductionists believe that all properties can, in principle, be reduced to properties of quantum fields. Idealism accepts the mental side as real but not the body side. Nihilism does not accept either as real, but may still involve the fundamental split. 

When we reject Cartesian Dualism, then the idea of an ontological distinction between matter and spirit, or mind and body, becomes meaningless. Mind and body are not ontologically different (here I diverge from Searle who uses the word ontology more broadly than I do). However, we might still find epistemic differences: we might find perceptual differences, for example. We might feel we can distinguish them for the purposes of discussion. However, the legacy of philosophy is that it is very difficult to discuss the epistemic differences without inadvertently making, or at least implying, an ontic distinction.

Just as Einstein unified space and time so that we now talk about spacetime as a single unified entity with four dimensions (three spatial and one temporal), so we can talk about the mindbody as a single entity with two dimensions, one mental and subjective and one physical and objective. Under a truly monistic ontology there is, and can be, no mind-body problem. The mindbody has a real, subjective, first-person aspect and a real, objective, third-person aspect. Because the generation of consciousness is localised in the brain, it is not available to other observers.

In this view of Naturalism consciousness is a high level property of animal bodyminds. Human consciousness is produced primarily in the brain with support from the whole body. We still don't exactly how this happens, but other possibilities have been ruled out. Consciousness is qualitative, subjective, and has a unified field. Searle says it has a first-person mode of existence, that is, it only exists as someone's consciousness. We cannot explain consciousness without reference to consciousness. Consciousness exists and is irreducibly first-person.

There is no reason that we cannot have epistemically objective knowledge of an ontologically subjective domain. This distinction is explored in Searle's The Construction of Social Reality. For example a object might be made of plastic and metal: this is an ontologically objective fact. But that it is a screwdriver is true only relative to an observer who can conceive of such a tool. The conception is ontologically subjective. However, we know that it is a screwdriver and this is epistemically objective, despite the ontologically subjective nature of the conception of a screwdriver. This applies to any and all objects whose definitions are only true relative to an observer, which includes many social institutions like government or money. Money is almost completely abstract in developed economies: we use real tokens for it, but money only exists relative to our belief in what has value. In other words, money is ontologically subjective, but we clearly have epistemically objective knowledge about money. No one argues that it is impossible to know the value of a £20 note, even though that value is not ontologically objective.

Recent research on how the mind works shows us that we have traditionally misunderstood the function and role of reason. Inner experience has two registers: one is largely a product of the central nervous system, while the other involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems along with the endocrine system. Roughly speaking the first corresponds to what we perceive as mental experience; while the second corresponds to emotional experience. We think thoughts, but we feel emotions and moods. The distinction is both epistemic in the sense that the different kinds of experience are qualitatively different and produce different kinds of knowledge; but also ontologically in the sense that they are instantiated in different parts of the bodymind.

One of the interesting facts that emerges from this is that decision making combines the two systems. The accuracy of a given fact is something we evaluate mentally, but the salience of the fact for decision making is evaluated emotionally. What we call reasoning, in fact involves both of these processes and is thus not the purely abstract mental activity our ancestors took it to be. Howe we feel about information is as important as what we think about it. Those skilled in the art of persuasion make use of precisely this distinction and focus on creating or destroying salience to achieve their aims while minimising the role of accurate facts. This is why a good deal of advertising is short on facts and long on making you feel good about the product.

But in addition to this, a vital component of understanding human beings is our social nature. Reasoning, for example, seems to have evolved to enable small groups to optimise decision making. In this view confirmation bias when presenting a case for one course of action is a feature not a bug. Various protagonists present all the information they can muster for a course of action, and the group looks for weakness or flaws and compares the cases and comes to a decision. This explains the odd fact that individually, human beings score routinely very poorly in tests of reasoning.


A counterintuitive conclusion from science is that there is no causality. For Kant cause & effect was an a priori judgement that we overlay onto experience to make sense of it. In Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism, the universe simply evolves according to patterns without any causes or effects. However, because we are volitional beings (we have consciousness, wills and desires) and because of the way we interact with the world, it makes sense to describe the universe evolving in patterns in terms of causes and effects. As a higher level approximation of the world, it works well because many of the patterns we observe are consistent with cause & effect on some level (just as motion in a weak gravitation field is consistent with Newtonian physics). In human social relations there are certainly actions & consequences, but to characterise the complexity of this domain as simple cause & effect is misleading.

The lack of cause & effect is problematic for modern philosophy, primarily because causality is central definitions of reality. So Searle, for example, defines consciousness as "wholly caused by neurophysiology", but also says that consciousness functions causally and is thus real. Ironically physicalists try to avoid the latter conclusion because they fear being accused of Cartesianism, whereas in asserting the physical and attempting to eliminate the mental, they confirm that they are crypto-dualists. Searle describes his view is structure antireductive, but causally reductive, though this kind of subtle distinction seems to be lost on his detractors who tend to see him either as a dualist or a physicalist. However, if causality is an a priori judgement, per Kant, or a generalisation from early experience of exerting our will, as I have suggested, then it cannot be involved in our definitions of what is real because it is not intrinsic to reality.


This worldview incorporates a number of principles: the ontology involves a monistic naturalism, a single, natural world, which encompasses substance reductionism, and structure antireductionism (a hierarchical, layered reality with a fundamental substance and real emergent properties); while the epistemology combines transcendental idealism and collective empirical realism (experiential reality has various psychological overlays to help us make sense of experience; but by comparing notes we can eliminate the purely subjective elements of experience and infer what the immanent reality must be like in order for us to have the experiences we do). The combination allows both an objective world and subjective consciousness. Nothing is explained away, but not everything is explained (yet). It may be that some things remain inexplicable (think of the halting problem in computing - some things are not computable by a Turing machine, so some problems may be insoluble by a human brain). A transcendental reality, anything like the Vedic Brahman or Plato's Ideal, may well be possible, but knowledge of it, directly or indirectly is not. So the possibility remains open, but there is nothing more we can say about it and such an thing is not required to explain any experiences we have. Aesthetics, morality, intentionality, and consciousness are integral high level components of this worldview: neither explained away, nor mystified. This worldview is disenchanted, there is no magic, no breaking the laws of physics. But it is also one in which there is scope for awe and wonder. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. 

Importantly, I believe it leaves open the possibility of radical transformation that Buddhisms speak about. It is a high level, structural change. However, I would add this caveat. The subjective/objective distinction has an epistemic and an ontic sense. Just because we change how we perceive this distinction, even if we can no longer perceive the distinction at all, does not mean that the distinction does not exist.

Over the last few years I have been developing two parallel critiques of traditional Buddhist doctrines. The first is based in history, the second in Naturalism.

~ The Historical Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

I've tried to show that the present flavours of Buddhism are based on partial accounts of Buddhisms that gloss over important historical disputes and disagreements. This is important because, historically, Buddhists never managed to come up with a coherent and internally consistent ontology, let alone an epistemology which might support it. There never was a Buddhist consensus. Instead a variety of quorums existed, which settled on views about important issues that were frequently mutually incompatible. It's apparent even in the early Buddhist texts that a plurality of approaches existed.

Despite this, the idea of a unified and coherent past dominates all present day presentations of Buddhisms, even if only when part of the myth of "original Buddhism". Virtually all accounts of the history of Buddhisms trace back to a founder (sometimes Gautama, sometimes the Dharmakāya Buddha) who presented a single, coherent account of the Dharma which then evolved into a wide variety of distinct lineages. However, as David Drewes has observed, the Buddha is an historical figure for whom we have absolutely no reliable historical information. This contradiction goes to the heart of problems with contemporary studies of Buddhisms, if only because leading scholars of Buddhism still do not acknowledged the fact. 

The evolution of Buddhisms on several fronts into distinct lineages is itself a black swan for those who claim origins in a singularity (i.e. a man named Gotama). If Buddhist original myths were accurate, the Buddhisms could not evolve into mutually exclusive branches of tradition because all lineages spring from the singular source of one man's mind and are informed by the unifying perspective of bodhi. But an examination of history shows that either bodhi must come in different, mutually incompatible flavours to account for the variety of lineages; or there was no single founder of Buddhism. Or both. Probably both. Buddhisms are, prosaically, the products of the human mind, rather than some transcendental reality.

In this critical vein, I have discovered and outlined a number of doctrinal problems that seem important:
  • Thinking of pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything;
  • The disconnect between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, which I call the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance
  • Problems with the solutions to ATD, particularly the Doctrine of Momentariness (The Logic of Karma, The Citta Bottleneck);
  • Textual and interpretational problems with the Heart Sutra and the Prajñāpāramitā literature generally. 
To the best of my knowledge, these critiques have no real parallel in the literature of Buddhist Studies. A few articles in philosophy journals take a critical approach, but these are usually so heavily laden with jargon that they are inaccessible to a general audience (and usually to me also). Buddhist studies takes a history of ideas approach which is critical only of modern exegetical methodologies. Buddhist Studies tacitly accepts Buddhism on its own terms and is not critical of Buddhism. Tellingly, Buddhist Studies scholars are critical of Therapeutic Mindful precisely because it diverges from the tradition in some way (not least of which is that practitioners charge for it). Some Christian scholars are critical of Buddhism, but the argument that Buddhism is wrong because it denies God, is of no interest. 

~ The Naturalist Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

My other critical approach to traditional Buddhisms has been based in Naturalism and in the natural correlate of this, the rejection of the Supernaturalism. To some extent the critique here is obvious: if we eliminate the supernatural then a lot of what constitutes core Buddhist belief or doctrine is vitiated. What I've tried to do is explain one one hand why Naturalism is the most plausible explanation of the world and why it trumps traditional narratives; and on the other how how it can be used in specific critiques of beliefs that are still considered broadly plausible by a majority of Buddhists. Additionally elements of Naturalist philosophy help to explain the dynamics of belief itself and why irrational or non-scientific believes persist in spite of evidence to the contrary.

As should be clear by now I do not equate Naturalism with scientific materialism. All naturalism is scientific, but not all science is naturalistic. I was always uncomfortable with, and now completely reject, metaphysical reductionism and cryto-Cartesian materialism. But in doing so I do not capitulate to dualism or Romanticism. Given that I do not believe in spirits, I find no place in my lexicon of naturalism for "spiritual" or any of its cognates, except in describing the mistaken views of religieux.

This approach seeks to identify and critique elements of traditional Buddhism that are or require elements over and above the natural: i.e. the supernatural. At the same time I have explored the evolutionary approach to the psychology of belief to show how belief in the supernatural is itself to some extent a natural product of how our minds work. The psychology of belief gives us insights into why supernatural beliefs seem intuitive and natural to some, perhaps most, people. This makes a compassionate approach to criticising beliefs possible. There is no call to mock people for their beliefs, even when we think that people are plain wrong. Investigations into the working of reasoning and the dynamics of persuasion also show that changing minds, for the evangelist, is not a simple matter of being in possession of some facts.

In this approach I have identified elements of Buddhist belief and placed them in a wider context. The doctrine of karma, for example, is a Buddhist variant on the more or less universal myth of a just world combined with the metaphor that morality is a form of accounting, and an afterlife: a positive balance in the karma ledger at death, means going to a good rebirth. Rebirth is the Buddhist afterlife. The Buddha is the mythical hero. These myths exists in a complex of other myths or a system of mythology (cf Witzel). We can tie these myths to outcomes of the psychology of belief and the brute facts of human lives. A good starting point is that we can say that all living things resist death. For human beings there is a conscious and urgent desire to go on living. But it is combined with the certain knowledge that our lives will end. The cognitive dissonance involved in this conflict provides the basis for a lot of religious thought and practice.

At the same time, certain types of relatively common experience, e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE) make the prior credibility of mind/body dualism high for most people. Particularly as the experience, and other's like it, are incredibly vivid and seemingly real. As Thomas Metzinger has observed, the naive observer, having had an OBE almost cannot help but become a Cartesian. It is likely that the idea of a detachable soul can be located in these kinds of experiences amongst the first anatomically modern humans, if not before. These kinds of beliefs formed directly from experience are what Justin Barrett calls non-reflective. We simply find that we believe these things without being aware of the process of coming to the conclusion. We may not even be aware that we have such a belief.

If we are faced with a dilemma involving certain death, then a detachable non-physical entity in which are sense of identity is invested is a very useful concept. It allows us to speculate that this element of our being does not die when the body dies, but is free to continue on existing. Thus we get a dynamic like this:
  • The fact of universal death creates cognitive dissonance. 
  • According to testimony, certain experiences appear to demonstrate that identity is not tied to the body, but can exist independently.
  • So the idea that something might survive the death of the body and continue to “live” seems plausible.
  • Emotional weighting of facts (salience) makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable.
  • Since the finality of death causes intense cognitive dissonance, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from probable/preferable to actually true; and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance created by the fact of death and been consistent with our other beliefs.
And it so happens that having a mind that can be detached from our bodies is very useful for solving another dilemma. Another fundamental myth in most religions, and certainly in Buddhism, is that the universe is fair. Philosophers call this a just-world belief, which as I say in Buddhism is called karma. I have speculated that the distinctive nature of Buddhist karma resulted from an interaction of a range of views including some from Zoroastrianism. The big problem for religious people with a just-world myth is that the world is obvious full of injustice. Everywhere we look the unjust prosper and the just do not. How can we sustain our belief in a just-world when all the evidence points the other way? The undying spiritual part of us comes to rescue. It opens up the possibility of an afterlife. And it is in the afterlife that the accounting for justice can play out. In the most iconic afterlife story, from ancient Egypt, the soul of the deceased is literally weighed in a balance with "the law" on the other side. A lawful life results in a light soul, which is then ushered into the presence of the gods for an eternity; an unlawful life results in a heavy soul, which is promptly fed to a hybrid monster and thus destroyed. Buddhists chose an impersonal accounting method (which may be an influence from Zoroastrianism), but the essence of the Buddhist afterlife myth is the same: the afterlife is a reckoning, a reconciliation of one's moral account. How one lives, determines one's fate after death.

Other more or less universal myths contribute to the overall flavour of Buddhism. They include: the myth of paradise; the myth of the golden age; the myth of the immortal founder; and the myth of eternal truths.

Naturalism unravels the skein of myth by insisting that we interpret experience in ways that are consistent with how we know the world to work. The out-of-body experience does not, in fact, involve a disembodied mind existing outside the body. The likely explanation is that the brain's integration of the streams of information that go to make up our sense of self are temporarily disrupted. The OBE is an altered state of consciousness, not the physical separation of mind from body. It happens in the brain and can be artificially induced in the laboratory. Under close scrutiny an OBE does not support dualism after all.

With respect to life after death I have essayed Sean Carroll's compelling argument that no such thing is possible. There is simply no way to pass on the information that constitutes "us" from our living body to another. This applies as much to the Buddhist afterlife (in its various mutually incompatible forms) as to any other. I've also shown that the basic logic of the mainstream Buddhist versions of karma is flawed and that the account of karma is incoherent.

Using George Lakoff's theory of metaphors, I looked at how the matter/spirit duality played out in the language of spirituality. This idea is echoed in Searle's critique of subliminal dualism in scientific materialism.

A common misperception is that science confirms traditional Buddhist beliefs, particularly quantum physics. I have tackled claims about Buddhism and quantum mechanics, and tried to show that the any apparent similarity between the two is due to naive misreadings of the implications of quantum mechanics. In the thought experiment created by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen Interpretation, two mistakes are common. The first is to reify the metaphor of the cat; the second is to misinterpret the "observer" as requiring a conscious being when it really refers to an interaction with another particle. This is part of a larger theme in which science threatens the beliefs of religieux and the response is to co-opt science as a new source of authority. Because science is now the accepted authority in many areas of life, non-scientists are often engaged in making their discipline "scientific". So I studied "Library Management" at university, but many such courses are now called "Library Science". Buddhists are partly able to get on this bandwagon because, from early on, Westerners have been systematically substituting Modernist ideas for Buddhist ideas and presenting them as tradition. Currently one can seek to add credibility to a crackpot idea by prefixing it with neuro- and or discussing it in terms of (usually bogus) neuroscience.

I wrote a series of essays exploring the idea of Vitalism. This theory of life which posits a "life force" as making the difference between living and non-living matter has long been discredited amongst scientists, but it remains viable amongst people who believe in an afterlife and/or other supernatural phenomena. This kind of disparity crops up again and again. Scientists and/or philosophers will abandon an idea as unworkable, implausible, or plainly false, and yet the idea survives in the general population. 

By the way, I have read Owen Flanagan's book on Buddhism and Naturalism, but frankly I found very little of interest in it, so these essays owe nothing to him, but strike out in a different direction. I've subsequently learned that Flanagan has a rather unfortunate and dismissive view of Buddhism.

So this is an outline of Naturalism, the historical critique of traditional Buddhisms, and the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhisms. Where does this leave us? 

~ Boundary Conditions for a Naturalistic Buddhism ~

This form of Naturalism places a number of boundary conditions on any theory about the world or part of the world, and thus on how modern Buddhists might explain the world. In particular we can make a Heart Sutra-like list of excluded possibilities. The natural world that we live in has and can have:
  • No supernatural
  • No vitalism
  • No panpsychism
  • No teleology
  • No cause and effect
  • No afterlife
  • No just-world hypothesis
  • No moral absolutes
  • No direct access to reality
  • No metaphysical certainty
A lot of people will wonder if Buddhisms can survive under these conditions, because the vast majority of Buddhist ideas come under one of other of the excluded headings.

However I see no reason that Buddhism cannot adapt. On one hand we can clarify when narratives are intended as parables, allegories, and metaphors and stop taking them literally. On the other hand the practical tasks for Buddhists: practising generosity, behavioural restraint, and meditation will remain unchanged. Many will benefit from the positive social environment that Buddhisms can foster (though no guarantees on this front!). And some will continue have significant epistemic breakthroughs into a world without a clear subjective/objective distinction or strong sense of selfhood. Perhaps the number will increase as more people who have this experience come forward to teach systematic approaches to achieving the goal. Buddhism defined in terms of what Buddhists do, will hardly change at all.

Buddhisms are a high level approach to life. Buddhisms say nothing about physics, chemistry, or biology and can say nothing about these lower levels. They are related to other high level, subjective, and epistemic features of human life such as aesthetics, morality, intentionality, perception, and consciousness. While the effects of Buddhist practices may have third-person consequences (in the sense of positive communities, longer life, happier individuals and other external criteria), largely the effects are in the first-person arena. Indeed ultimately the goal of a modern naturalist Buddhism is to transform the first-person perspective so that it is no longer ego-centred. The only caveat is it is a first-person perspective. The dissolving of the epistemic subjective/objective distinction is a private experience that occurs in one persons brain, does not result in the dissolving of the ontic distinction in the sense of public reality. They may well lose a sense of self, but do not gain access to the thoughts of others (except in fairy tales), or break down the epistemic boundary in anyone else. Awakening is always centred in a single person's brain and only changes how that individual interprets their experience. It gets confusing because people who undergo the change claim it is an ontological change (they see the real world as it really is) and deny their own selfhood, but I believe they are mistaken about this. Nothing about Buddhist practice, which largely concerns exploring the nature of experience, points to the possibility of gaining insights into the nature of reality. It may seem to them that they uncover an immanent reality which is obscured, but this is also a poor explanation for the change.

In becoming awakened one does not become the ultimate expert on reality. Indeed, one of the most experienced meditators I know has said that one continues to have breakthroughs and believe that this time one has seen the ultimate truth, only to discover some time later that it was just another perspective on experience. It's not until one has experienced many such breakthroughs that one stops getting sucked into this naive interpretation each time. And in fact reality, in the sense of the immanent reality that we experience, is best described in terms of the hot big bang theory of cosmology, the atomic theory of matter, and the evolutionary theory of biology.

The next step in a systematic approach to recasting Buddhism for the modern world is to look to an ethical system. I had though of bypassing this and writing about politics and economics, but I realised that one cannot have a coherent political view or economic program without a solid ground in morality. We need a general theory of social interactions before we can look at sub-domains within the domain. My inclination here is to start with Robin Dunbar's observations on the key factors that enabled humans to evolve such large social groups. At the moment I am finding John Searle's approach to what he calls "social reality" interesting, and hope to get on to following up David Chapman's account of Robert Kegan's stages of development. Lakoff's account of the moral basis of political views is also interesting and helpful for understanding the modern dynamic of Western politics, especially the progressive/conservative dichotomy. The idea is to describe a social philosophy that gives us principles for creating and sustaining healthy societies that are conducive to well being, that don't have to be imposed by force. To date I think some of us have tackled ethics to some extent, but no one seems to go beyond that.

To date Buddhist doctrines have been largely focussed on individuals or on "all beings" in an abstract way. Without any theory whatever on how we form societies, how we operate them and govern them, we take on that aspect of life in an intellectual vacuum. This may be why so many nominally Buddhist nations produce extremely authoritarian and oppressive forms of government. It is surprising and alarming, for example, just how many Buddhist countries are now or have recently been military dictatorships. Different large Buddhist organisations in the West handle their internal organisation and governance differently, with few common features. To the best of my knowledge none have any kind of doctrine regarding political or economic matters. There is no systematic Buddhist theory of how to run a society. 


05 August 2016

There is No Cause & Effect.

"All philosophers, of every school, imagine that causation is one of the fundamental axioms or postulates of science, yet, oddly enough, in advanced sciences such as gravitational astronomy, the word 'cause' never occurs… The law of causality, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed not to do harm." – Bertrand Russell (1917: 132).

If you take the state of the universe at any moment in time and you apply all the laws of physics, you get the universe at the next moment in time. Cause & effect, you might think, but you would be wrong.

The laws of physics describe patterns of evolution over time at different levels, but they don't include an account of causation and don't require a separate causal process. Although Russell understood this as early as 1917, causality is still integral to most philosophical discussions of reality. John Searle constantly uses causality to define the relation between mind and brain, for example. Many Buddhists and Philosophers of Buddhism, notoriously, and erroneously, refer to pratītya-samutpāda as a "theory of causality". For the average lay-person, the idea that there is no cause and effect is profoundly counter-intuitive.

In this 4th essay in my series on reality, I will try to show why there is no cause & effect, and try to explain why, contrarily, cause & effect seems so natural and intuitive. In doing so, I'm trying to clarify the idea for myself and to see if I can make a convincing argument for it. I'm not sure whether I have succeeded.

A Very Brief History of Cause & Effect

In his 2003 paper, John D. Norton, Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, briefly describes the trajectory of Western thinking about causality. Aristotle described four kinds of causality: material, efficient, final, and formal (for more on this see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry Aristotle on Causality). The mechanistic philosophies of the 17th Century reduced these four causes to one: the efficient cause; i.e., “the primary source of the change or rest”. It was around this time that final causes, i.e., teleology, went out of fashion in Western philosophy, though final causes are still prevalent in some forms of modern Buddhism which see the world evolving towards perfection as defined in some scripture. In any case, when we speak of causality these days we mean only Aristotle's efficient cause.

However, this notion of efficient causality was further weakened, in 1843, by John Stuart Mill (whom we met in Substance & Structure5 June 2016) who was concerned to strip out the purely metaphysical elements of the definition. Norton, citing the 8th edition of Mill's A System of Logic (1872):
All that remained was the notion that the cause is simply the unconditional, invariant antecedent: "For every event there exists some combination of objects or events, some given concurrence of circumstances, positive and negative, the occurrence of which is always followed by that phenomenon" (§2).
As Norton says, at this point causation has been reduced to mere determinism. But determinism itself soon received a killing blow with the advent of quantum theory in the 1920s. Norton offers the example of Radium isotope 221Ra with a half-life of roughly 30 seconds. During any given length of time there is no way to tell how many of atoms of  221Ra will emit an α-particle to become Radon 217Rn, but the probability is that in any given period of 30 seconds half of the atoms in a sample will do so. In the mainstream of quantum theory, determinism is largely replaced by probability, though there are interpretations of the theory that are deterministic (e.g., Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation). Relativity also introduces indeterminism, as parts of spacetime can become isolated from others (because of the limitation on the speed of light). Norton concludes,
"This means that we can always find circumstances in which the full specification of the present fails to fix the future." (Norton 2003: 5).
This ought to have been the end of determinism as a philosophy of science, though curiously it was not, and many physicists continue to assert determinism as a feature of our universe. It is the determinism of the physical world that, according to some scientists, denies that we have freewill. The example of Newtonian indeterminacy cited by Norton, now known as Norton's Dome, has excited a lot of critical comment. Most commentators argue along lines that the system Norton describes is not Newtonian, and therefore his argument fails, but he has at least highlighted that the definition of a Newtonian system was ambiguous and needed clarification.

But even if Newtonian indeterminism is not real, it's clear that determinism has, at best, a limited reach. Determinism breaks down in many different circumstances and this takes us back to Hume's 18th Century observation that we never see causation, per se. At best, we see consistent correlation. And from Hume we come to Kant. As Kant puts it, causality is an a priori judgement that we add to perception in order to make sense of it. Norton is broadly sympathetic to this approach.
"... in appropriately restricted circumstances our science entails that nature will conform to one or other form of our causal expectations... The causes are not real in the sense of being elements in our fundamental scientific ontology; rather in these restricted domains the world just behaves as if appropriately identified causes were fundamental" (Norton 2003: 13).
In other words, cause & effect is a useful approximation to reality in the way that Newtonian descriptions of gravity are a useful approximation. We need to look at this conclusion in more detail.

Why There is No Cause & Effect?

In Sean Carroll's recent book, The Big Picture, he notes that "concepts like 'cause' and 'effect' appear nowhere in Newton's equations, nor in our modern formulations of the laws of nature" (2016: 63). If we take the Second Law of Motion as an example, it is often interpreted as saying that if we apply a force to a mass it will accelerate, i.e.:

F = ma

This appears to say that forces cause masses to accelerate. In fact, it codifies an empirical observation derived from watching masses accelerate. It doesn't tell us how the force works, i.e., how force causes acceleration, but only tells us that if we know the mass and the acceleration we can work out the magnitude of the force and helps us define units for force (i.e., kg.m-2 or Newtons). The force could be gravity, an explosion, the lift of an aircraft wing, a magnetic field, or the gentle pressure of photons from the sun, and the Second Law still applies. If F can be literally any kind of force, then is this not telling us force causes acceleration, because different forces work differently. While F = ma seems to imply causality, in fact, it's a statement about the magnitude of effects, not the cause, or even the nature of them.

Another way of looking at this is that the equation works in any combination: m=F/a or a=F/m. Given the magnitude of any two values, we can work out the magnitude of the third. Force is not prioritised in this equation. 

As Danny Hillis says, we tend to think of force as contingent, because the prototypical "force" is us exerting mechanical force through our bodies (using "prototype" in the sense employed by Lakoff 1987). Our intuitive world is the one described by Aristotle, in which matter is stationary unless something, prototypically a human being, acts on it by exerting a mechanical force (grab, pull, push, etc). I'll return to this naive view in more detail below. We now know that everything in the universe is in motion, so Aristotle was wrong and our intuition is wrong. At the lowest level we know about, matter is motion: by which I mean matter is vibrations in quantum fields. I hasten to add that we have no sensory access to these fields and they do not match up with Hindu-derived hippy talk of the world being made of vibrations. It's a whole different vibe.

Newton's Law of Gravitation
In the case of gravity, it makes intuitive sense to say that if we jump off a building then gravity makes us fall down because it exerts a force on us. Experientially, it feels like something is pulling us down when we fall. In this view, gravity is the reason we fall, in the same way the our will is the reason we reach out and grab something. In fact, the so-called "force of gravity" is just a story we tell about a regularity we observe in the universe in a particular domain. It is like centrifugal force, an apparent force that turns out to be something else. Centrifugal force is a manifestation of the property of matter called inertia. Gravity is so regular that we can make it into a mathematical equation, as Newton, Laplace, and Einstein did.

However, Newton himself did not accept the idea of an invisible force acting at a distance:
"[T]hat one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man, who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws… " (Newton 1692-3 cited in Norton 2003: 4).
Two-dimensional representation
of a gravitational field
Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace took Newton's theory of gravity as a force and reformulated it in terms of a theory of a gravitational field. Seen this way, there is a field of gravitational potential around every particle of matter that has a value at every point in space. The value is a vector; i.e., it has magnitude and direction. The direction is always towards the centre of mass and the magnitude drops off in proportion to the square of the distance, i.e. as the distance increases in the series 1, 2, 3, 4... the force experienced is 1/1, 1/4, 1/9, 1/16...  So, although it literally has a value at every point in space, the magnitude of the gravitational field quickly becomes negligible. Thinking of gravity in terms of a field extending throughout space gets around the action at a distance problem. A mass has potential energy in this field and wants to minimise that potential, which it does by converting potential into kinetic energy, moving towards the centre of the field. Hence, masses tend to clump together around the centre of mass or, if they have enough kinetic energy, go into orbit around that centre.

Einstein took this idea one step further. He said that the key manifestation of the gravitational field is to bend spacetime. Any mass moving through spacetime in the gravitational field of another mass is deflected from a straight line to follow a curved path, and the closer it gets the more spacetime curves, which accounts for the motions of masses relative to each other better than a field theory alone. This theory makes many predictions that have been confirmed by observation, though it does not work when gravity is very strong, such as inside a black-hole. So, when we jump out of a plane we follow a straight line through curved spacetime. In this sense gravity does not make us fall but, travelling through spacetime warped by gravity, our path is consistent with falling and with gravity causing that fall.

Carroll says that if you take the position and velocity of two masses at one point in time, apply the laws of physics, then you will have the position and velocity at another point in time. Everything in the universe is in motion all at once. If we observe these motions over time, we notice patterns. The laws of physics are the stories we tell about patterns we see in the universe (sometimes as mathematical equations, sometimes as narratives). The universe itself just follows these patterns. Nothing about the patterns requires us to frame the story as A causes B. The universe simply evolves from one state to the next, always in motion. We can describe that evolution at various levels, but at the most fundamental level, nothing is causing anything.

Why is cause & effect Intuitive?

Despite the lack of any cause behind the patterns of evolution of the universe, locally, the patterns are often consistent with causation. Because of this it's not until we begin to closely examine events and seek their universal features that doubts being to arise. David Hume (1711 – 1776) was the first philosopher to call cause & effect into serious doubt. Hume observed that when we closely study the world, we see a sequence of events, but we never see a separate event called "causation". As Carroll puts it, "different moments in time... follow each other, according to some pattern, but no one moment causes any other" (63).

I said that our prototype for the category of causation is the exertion of mechanical force through our own bodies (Cf Lakoff 1987 on categories). We can trace this back to our earliest experiences of interacting with the world. When we are born, we are helpless. We cannot focus our eyes or control our limbs. Soon, however, our eyes start working and we are able to look around us, to direct our gaze. And not long after that we can start reaching for and grabbing stuff in our pudgy little hands. We unconsciously interpret this as our will causing our movements. Our desires and aversions set us in motion. We move towards and grab the stuff we want; move away from and fend off the stuff we don't want. Our early experiences of interacting with the world are profoundly formative for how we think about the world. And the type of belief we form in this way Justin Barrett (2004) has called non-reflective. In my exposition of Barrett's views I described non-reflective beliefs:
"They arise from assumptions about the way the world works, automatically generated by the unconscious functioning of our various mental tools (especially categorisers and describers). We often don't even think about non-reflective beliefs, to the point where we may not know that we have a belief. And non-reflective beliefs are transparent to us, which is to say that we are not aware of the process by which we come to have a non-reflective belief." - Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? 14 Aug 2016.
These kinds of non-reflective beliefs are the basis of our understanding of cause & effect and this is how we come to have a metaphysical a priori judgement as described by Kant.

The experience of exerting our will to make things happen is one that we all have. Much of our waking life is concerned with willing, followed by gazing, grabbing and moving around (and more sophisticated versions of these as we grow into adults). And from this experience we generalise a rule of thumb to help us navigate the world: if something is happening in our environment, then we assume that something or someone is causing it to happen. This is a pretty good rule of thumb for someone living as a hunter-gatherer. I imagine that erring on the side of caution helps to keep us alive where the cost of being wrong might be inconsequential and being right means being able to avoid a predator or competitor. Here I'm adapting a similar argument made by Barrett (2004) about agency detection in the environment. This rule of thumb becomes an abstract principle: every event is caused. This is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The label is associated with Leibniz and Spinoza who formalised the idea, but the principle itself seems likely to have existed at least as long as there have been human beings. In summary, we assume that events must have causes, because the prototype of our "event" category is our own willed interactions with the world. Hence, our naive ontologies have cause & effect in them and, hence, it survives into some quite sophisticated ontologies as well. 

Another thing that makes cause & effect seem plausible is the arrow of time. In what is called the Past Hypothesis, we say that the early observable universe had extremely low entropy, by which we mean that the stuff in the universe was smooth and evenly distributed (this idea is supported by evidence from the cosmic microwave background). Because disorder accumulates over time, there are many more prior ordered states that can lead to subsequent disordered states than the other way around. It is highly likely that I'll drop my coffee mug and it will break. It is extremely unlikely, though technically not impossible, that a broken cup with stick itself back together and leap into my hand. In practice, however, happen we never see spontaneous reordering on this scale. Because disorder accumulates over time, the flow of events seems to us to be moving in a single definite direction. Since some classes of events always precede other classes of events, and because of how we understand the category "event", we want to say that the prior event causes the causes the later. But this is mainly an artefact of how we perceive and understand the world. We cannot get around Hume's basic insight into sequences and the fact that we never see causality. 

So cause & effect seems intuitive. It is, in fact, a good rule of thumb for human beings trying to navigate through the world as it appears to our senses. But cause & effect is not fundamental. I'm not saying that it never makes sense to talk about cause & effect. It's still a good rule of thumb, but he laws of physics hold. Lower levels do not determine higher levels, but they do constrain them. So a supernatural explanation of an event does not work because it requires us to break the laws of physics (See There is No Life After Death, Sorry). A narrative involving cause & effect does not break the laws of physics. We can say that gravity makes us fall down when we jump out of a plane. It works as an approximation of how the motion appears to us. It is a domain specific explanation that is a good approximation within its domain. It will be all most people need. But it is not applicable at other levels.

Cause & Effect and Religion

If we stipulate the intuitive proposition that everything has a cause as an axiom, then something interesting happens when the cause is not obvious or invisible. There are some mysterious events the cause of which we cannot see or are unsure about. I've previously discussed why supernatural causes are so plausible for many people. The principle of sufficient reason is another explanation for this: if everything has a cause and we cannot see all the causes of all the events we witness, then there must be unseen causes. Once we allow for natural unseen causes, then supernatural unseen causes are only minimally counter-intuitive (cf. Barrett 2004). MCI events or features are interesting and memorable, think of cartoons with talking animals, so they actually promote belief in the supernatural.

Another intuitive proposition that many people take as axiomatic—that the world is just or fair—interacts with sufficient reason in interesting ways. If we take a just world as axiomatic, and everything has a cause, then the fact that the world is just must also have a cause. So it is intuitive that something causes the world to be just. Many religions anthropomorphise this cause as a god and some combine this supernatural feature with others in a single God. Buddhists and Zoroastrians have an impersonal cause underlying the just world. Buddhists call it karma.

I've previously pointed out that a just world combined with the observation of prevalent injustice contributes to afterlife beliefs. Dualism allows for disembodied mind, which opens the door for an afterlife, but the just world axiom is what makes it seem natural. Injustice in a just world seems to demand a post-mortem balancing of the books.

Beginning with cause & effect and a small number of other axioms that most people intuitively hold to be true, we can derive most of the key religious ideas. And the complex is self-sustaining in religious thinking. Piecemeal attempts to undermine this complex are more or less doomed to fail, because, like any network, it has multiple redundancy. If we manage to sow doubt on one aspect with counterfactual information, the combination of other intuitively believed aspects will prevent the doubt from taking hold or spreading. A simplistic frontal assault will simply fail because the structure of the belief system is robust.

Which brings us to the question of how Buddhists see cause & effect.

Cause & effect in Buddhism

It's almost axiomatic to say the Buddhism is all about cause & effect. Except that it isn't. Many scholars and Buddhists will tell you that at the heart of Buddhist doctrine is a law of causality. But this isn't true, either. Make of this widespread and popular inaccuracy what you will, but there is no theory of cause & effect in Buddhism.

The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is not about causality, it is about presence. What it says is: the necessary condition being present, we will see the consequence of it; that condition being absent, we will not see the consequence. In fact, if we compare this with J. S. Mill's view on causation, above, we would have to conclude that this is a form of determinism, though I would not insist on this comparison.

Just as with Newton's law of motion, pratītyasamutpāda is a generalisation about presence comparable with the generalisation about force contained in the formula F = ma. We do not believe that rebirth, moral retribution, mental states, or life and death are all caused in the same way, by the same mechanism. As with the case of the magnitude of the force, here we see a very broad generalisation about a variety of processes, in which, if causation is happening, then it must be happening in very different ways. Although it is de rigueur to use mechanically literal translations of pratītyasamutpāda along the lines of "dependent origination" or "conditioned co-production", it would make more sense to call this the principle of presence. 

The principle of presence probably started out as a general observation on how mental activity appears to happen: when sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition are present, there will be a sensation (vedanā). As I write this, as I have done many times before, a new question occurs to me. If sensations occur only in the presence of all three factors, how can we know about the individual factors? The theory assumes that objects, faculties, and cognitions can be the objects of knowledge which is distinct from sensation and not subject to prapañca (which is the next step in the chain in this model). Some form of naive realism seems to be at work here.

In any case, the arising of experience seems to be the ideal domain of application for the principle of presence. And if we stop to think about it, we will see that this says nothing whatever about causation. There is no attempt to explain how sensations are caused by the elements of perception. We are no wiser as to how the factors of perception cause sensations. When the conditions are present, sensations just happen.

The principle of presence is so general that Buddhists were able apply it to everything, including human affairs and the workings of the universe (as they understood the universe). As an ontology, the principle of presence is vague and short on detail. It doesn't tell us much. However, it still plays an important role in Buddhist methods. When we are investigating how our minds construct our world ("world" here being a metonym for "world of sensate experience") it is helpful to see how the presence of certain factors results in the presence of other factors; and how, by eliminating certain factors (particularly our sense of selfhood), we have a very different experience of the world. 

The other main place we Buddhists invoke cause & effect is in the domain of morality; however, the moral principle that roots Buddhism is not cause & effect, but action & consequence. Cause & effect is usually invoked here in the naive sense of a fundamental principle. But as we've seen, cause & effect is not fundamental. The universe does not evolve through cause & effect, but we perceive that it does, for the reasons outlined above. However, even if our naive view was accurate, morality would still not be an example of cause & effect. Our actions do have moral consequences, but they do not cause those consequences.

The principle of consequences, or karmavāda, is a fiendishly complex subject because of the huge variety of mutually conflicting theories about how it works (see Karma and Rebirth: The Basics. 6 May 2016). The basic idea is that the character of our intentions (in terms of kuśala/akuśala) in this life determines where we will be reborn in the next. How our actions cause rebirth is never discussed. The fact that karma causes rebirth is the subject of a series of increasingly speculative metaphysical narratives, but none of them survives modern scrutiny.

Most modern discussions of karma present it as something very different from this. In particular, they try to decouple karma from rebirth. In modern terms, karma is transformed into a simplistic theory of social relations: if we behave nicely, people will be nice to us; and if we behave nastily, people will be nasty to us. This is fine, as far as it goes. As a rule of thumb for getting on with people, it's not wrong. But it isn't some great or profound insight into social relations and by disconnecting karma from rebirth we have decisively broken with the Buddhist tradition (I'm for this, but it ought to be admitted).

As has become obvious, neither traditional nor modern versions of karma amount to a moral theory or system (See also David Chapman's series of essays on Buddhist Ethics). Traditionally, Buddhisms have focussed on pragmatic training regimes rather than on ethical systems. Which, again, is fine as far as it goes. As training regimes, the precepts are quite helpful in setting us up to have the experience of egolessness, at which point morality is not a matter of external systems and theories, but emerges naturally: ego itself, according to the awakened, is the condition and occasion for unskilfulness. It is common to see the promise of happiness associated with the practice of the precepts. In my experience, any causality points the other way: if I am happy I will tend to be more skilful than if I am unhappy. The trap for Buddhists is that the secondary function of karma is to explain our present mood. If I am unhappy, and prone to unskilfulness, the I must have been unskilful in the past. Karma always boils down to a blame game, however much Buddhists resist this conclusion.

Unfortunately, sets of precepts don't equip us for dealing with the complexities of morality in modern life and most of are never going to experience egolessness, even temporarily. Which is where David Chapman's ideas based on Robert Kegan's developmental model come in. I'm sorry to say that I've been too busy to find time to look into this material myself as yet. But it's on my list.

In response to the claim that cause & effect is not found in Buddhism, some people will argue that in this case "cause & effect" is a metaphor. They will say that they are mapping a source domain onto a target domain in order to say something abstract about the target domain (or at least they will say something that means this). This is a possibility, but as I have said, metaphors that cross levels or domains of description are prone to catastrophic misunderstanding. They only work when everyone is aware that the proposition is metaphorical. In the case of the principle of presence, I'm sure that most of us do not take it as metaphorical. We reify (or realify) the metaphor; i.e., we take the metaphor as real. And this is a mistake. It leads to confusion. It is better to just not go there. Buddhism is not about cause & effect. That is the simplest way of stating it.

How modern Buddhists got so mixed up about the tradition is a long story, something that David Chapman goes into in his essays. Modern influences began to creep in quite early and have accumulated gradually so that they have not always been noticed, even when they entirely replace the Asian tradition. Without a detailed study of historical doctrines, it can be difficult to spot the modern incorporations, even when modern ideas have completely taken over from traditional ideas. Of course the evidence of our texts and cultures suggests that Buddhism has always been syncretistic, always absorbing ideas, attitudes, and practices from outside the local milieu. Hence the national character of Buddhism in various countries or cultural regions.


Fundamentally, there is no cause & effect. The universe evolves along lines that contain regularities and patterns that make certain kinds of events predictable when we know the conditions preceding them. We don't know why. But human beings, because of our developmental path, perceive the world in terms of a template based on the exertion of will through the application of mechanical force via our bodies. For us, cause & effect seems like a natural and intuitive principle. From this we generalise to the principle of sufficient reason: things happen for a reason. But they don't. Shit just happens

We sometimes meet the reductio ad absurdum argument that if the principle of sufficient reason is wrong; i.e., if we argue against the idea that things happen for a reason, then it's all just random chaos. And since the world isn't just random chaos, then everything happens for a reason. But this is a false dichotomy in which both propositions are wrong. It's not so much a matter of finding a middle way, as ignoring two wrong arguments in favour of paying attention to what the world is really like.

This is clearly bad news for those who deal in bullshit platitudes such as "trust the universe", or "things happen for a reason", or "God has a plan". The universe evolves according to a logic of its own that is deeply counter-intuitive to most people; i.e.. causeless and aimless, but regular and (somewhat) predictable. However, just because the universe has no purpose, doesn't mean that human beings don't. Similarly, even if, fundamentally, the universe evolved in a deterministic way (with neither cause nor aim), it would not mean that humans do things without reasons. It would not change the fact that certain types of human behaviour are conducive to good social relations and others are not. Different levels have different, autonomous, features.

Cause & effect will continue to seem natural and intuitive to most people. And it will provide us with some useful narratives about how our world works (in the same way that Newtonian physics is still useful - accurate enough and precise enough). Useful, but not definitive or fundamentally true. There's an important logic to cause & effect that still makes sense, because our understanding of it stems from our embodied condition, our embodied minds. 

One of the conclusions that I draw is that we cannot trust anyone preaching metaphysical certainty, whether it be theists who attribute everything to God, economists who attribute prosperity to abstract markets, politicians attributing security to aggressive foreign policy, or Buddhists peddling liberation. Another important conclusion is that the truth is frequently counter-intuitive. We have to make allowance for this. If we really want to understand the world, then we cannot rely on intuition alone, or perhaps even at all. What seems right may, in fact, just be some kind of cognitive bias or logical fallacy, like cause & effect. So, although we find meaning on human terms, we also have to be highly skeptical when presented with pre-packaged meaning. We need to systematically investigate what "on human terms" signifies and what other terms are available.



Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.

Cartwright, Jon. (2016). Quantum of Solitude. New Scientist. 16 July 2016. Online [subscription required] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130820-200-collapse-has-quantum-theorys-greatest-mystery-been-solved/

Hillis, W. Daniel. (2014). What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement? cause & effect. The Edge. https://www.edge.org/response-detail/25435

Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

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

Lakoff, George. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Norton, J. D. (2003) Causation as Folk Science, Philosophers' Imprint, 3(4)
http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/papers/003004.pdf; reprinted in H. Price and R. Corry (eds.) (2007), Causation and the Constitution of Reality. Oxford University Press.

Russell, Bertrand (1917) On the Notion of Cause, Ch. IX in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays. London: Unwin,1917, 1963.
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