27 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason III: Madhyamaka Karma

4.4 Multiple Versions of Karma

In a recent online discussion with members of the Triratna Buddhist Order I discovered that we have no common narrative when it comes to karma. A majority believe in karma of some kind, but very often the kind of karma an Order member believes in is mutually contradictory with the kind that another Order member believes in. "Actions have consequences" is a relatively common way of expressing karma, but as we have seen (Part II), it is inadequate. The traditional idea of karma leading to rebirth is supernatural by its very nature, but encouragingly, a sizeable minority are reluctant to commit to any supernatural version of "actions have consequences". There is certainly no explanation to be found for karma in nature.

In a sense, the Order reflects the confused history of karma in Buddhism. Different versions emerged from time to time, presumably in response to perceived needs, and many of them were incompatible with others. More or less the only common features are the word karma and the notion that willed actions are somehow significant.

I've critiqued some of the main versions of karma, especially in an essay called The Logic of Karma (16 Jan 2015). So, for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on my critique of the Madhyamaka version of karma, particularly as set out in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don't think I've given a detailed critique of this version before and it turns out to be the one most resistant to reasoned argument and is thus the view most in need of effective refutation.

5. Madhyamaka

5.1 Nāgārjuna the Nihilist

The most difficult version of karma to argue against is the one that begins with Nāgārjuna and comes down to us via various groups that have assimilated elements of his metaphysics (including those various schools that claim the label madhyamaka). It took me many years of  losing arguments with pseudo-intellectual mādhyamikas to work out what is wrong with Nāgārjuna's explanation of karma. As Nāgārjuna says, near the end of his chapter on karma:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalaṃ |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta evan bhaṣyati 
|| MMK 17.30 ||
If action and agent don't exist, how would an action produce a consequence?
And if the consequence does not exist, who would suffer it? 
Ultimately, for Nāgārjuna, there is no action (karma) and no agent (kartṛ), thus there is no consequence (phala), no one who experiences it (bhoktṛ), and thus no rebirth, either. At best, they are like an imaginary city in the sky, like a mirage, or a dream (MMK 17.33). So Nāgārjuna rejects the idea of actions having consequences.

I've read a number of explanations of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma and they all baulk at accepting his dismissal of karma and restate the mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example, 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)
But, clearly, Nāgārjuna does reject the relationship between action and consequence and, what's more, he rejects the more fundamental notions of action, consequence, and relationship per se. To Nāgārjuna, these concepts are not part of paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. How should we read a statement like Kalupahana's which is echoed in other academic work? It seems that Nāgārjuna's rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. To say that agent, action, patient, and consequence are all just illusions is a form of nihilism.

My sense of Nāgārjuna is that he is trapped by his own articles of faith. In maintaining that nothing persists in the face of plentiful evidence to the contrary, he is left with no choice but to obfuscate and distract us from his dilemma. Ironically, we know this because we still have his actual words. They, at least, have persisted for some eighteen centuries. Mādhyamikās (those who follow madhyamaka ideology) are apt to point out that this is not what commentators have understood him to be saying. However, when the text is clear and the commentary contradicts it, we have little choice but to reject the commentary as driven by motivations unrelated to those of the author.

Nāgārjuna's view is a pernicious one, because it destroys the basis of morality. If actions do not have consequences at all, let alone appropriate and timely consequences, the observation of which allows us to modify our behaviour in the future to obtain different results, then morality is simply not possible. If there is no definite relationship between action and consequences, then there could only be chaos. The view appears to be based on a fundamental confusion.

5.2 Arguing Against Madhyamaka

However, this is also a view that is extremely resistant to rational argument, because part of the madhyamaka ideology, at least in its modern versions, is that rational argument has no place in the Buddhist system. Only personal experience counts towards knowledge and experience, by definition not susceptible to logic. Here we see medieval Buddhist folly meshing with Victorian Romantic folly to produce a persistent delusion. Mādhyamikas further stretch the credibility of a critic through the structure of their rhetoric. In the typical conversation about karma, the mādhyamika asserts their view (some variation on MMK 17.30) as though it were ultimate truth (pāramārtha-satya). If one disagrees on any grounds, they assign those grounds to relative truth, which is simply an illusion and can be safely ignored. Thus, any argument against the asserted view is defeated solely on the grounds that to dissent against the ultimate truth is always wrong. One cannot argue with ultimate truth. The use of reason to undermine the assertion of ultimate truth is dismissed or even mocked, because the ultimate truth allows no role whatever for reason. Having declined to recognise the validity of any objection, the mādhyamika will often emphatically restate their view and then refuse any further discussion.

The view itself is irrational, but the defence that any dissent can only be a manifestation of ignorance is potent. It allows the believer to summarily reject any argument without ever having to consider it. One cannot win an argument with a mādhyamika on their terms, so one must shift the terms and one way to do this is to undermine the foundations; i.e., to point out Nāgārjuna's fundamental errors and argue that the framework itself is flawed.

5.3 The Two Truths

The two truths doctrine is completely absent from the early Buddhist suttas. This suggests that the problem which the two truths were supposed to solve did not exist earlier. I see this problem emerging from the confusion of experience and reality. This happened partly because Buddhists took a description of experience and tried to use it to describe reality. At the same time, they singled out certain rarefied meditative experiences and thought of them as reality.

The early texts are fairly clear that the domain of application of Buddhist practice is experience. There is no word that conveys anything like our word "reality", no discussion of the nature of existence, the nature of objects. The focus is on the nature of experience. As Bodhi has said:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182
This is highlighted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), a text which Nāgārjuna appears to cite, but completely misunderstand. The importance of this text is emphasised by Kalupahana when he suggests that MMK is a commentary on KS. What KS says is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to the world of experience (loka). This means that the usual way of looking at objects doesn't apply to experience. When we have an experience, nothing comes into being; when the experience stops, nothing goes out of being. The ontology of experience, especially in Iron Age Ganges Valley, is difficult to pin down, in a way that the ontology of objects is not.

Experience is what it is, fleeting, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory. This was important at the time because Buddhists were in an argument with Brahmins about the possibility of experiencing absolute being (brahman/ātman). The Buddhist argument was that, since absolute being is unchanging, ever-changing experience could not allow access to it. We could not perceive something unchanging, because experience is always changing. So, even if an object was existent in this absolute sense, our experience of it would constantly change.

The classical texts say nothing much about the world of objects, except that they do acknowledge that some objects (particularly our bodies) persist through time. So the world of experience and the world of objects have a different ontology for early Buddhists (to the extent that they have any awareness of ontology). It is only experience that is governed by pratītyasamutpāda. Also, there seem to be no Pāḷi texts that seek to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but by the early medieval period when Nāgārjuna was writing this distinction had been lost. By then, everything was understood to be governed in the same way. The description of mental events arising in the meditative mind was taken to be a universal principle. And this means that nothing whatever in the world might persist even for a second. And this in a world where objects do persist for years, decades, centuries, and millennia (the universe is currently thought to be 13.7 billion years old and will continue expanding indefinitely).

So Nāgārjuna's task was to explain away the ubiquitous evidence of persistence in favour of a reality in which nothing persists, based on an Iron Age theory of how experience works. He had to allow for persistence, because all the evidence of our senses tells us that external objects persist, while not allowing for persistence because dependent arising applied universally ruled it out.

By this time the Brahmanical arguments about absolute being seem to be a distant memory to Buddhists, which is puzzling because Brahmanical influence is seen everywhere in the development of Buddhism. The problem of absolute being is still present, but it is seen as a mistake that everyone makes with respect to their own experience. Some Buddhist groups were struggling to explain the connection between karma and phala. A Sanskrit term exists for this problem, i.e., karma-phala-saṃbandha, where saṃbandha means "connection".

Since it was completely implausible to assert that the world did not exist (or that existence did not apply to the world), Nāgārjuna was forced to accept that the world does exist. But he argued that this existence is saṃvṛti, a word meaning 'concealing, covering up, keeping secret'. Saṃvṛti-satya is often translated as "relative truth", but a Sanskrit speaker would be alive to the connotation of "concealing reality". In defiance of early Buddhists' reactions against absolute being, Nāgārjuna contrasted the world with an absolute reality: paramārtha-satya, translated as "ultimate reality", or "ultimate truth".

Both saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya are not true. They are mistaken views that come about when we try to shoehorn dependent arising into everything. This is not to say that the experience of emptiness (śūnyatā) is not profound and transformative, only that it is an experience. It changes the way we perceive the world, which is an epistemological change. Ontology is unaffected by meditation.

5.4 The Confusion of Experience and Reality

Nāgārjuna's method is thus the theory tail wagging the evidence dog. And this methodology is one of the reasons his followers are locked into irrational positions. Evidence is made to fit the theory, not the other way around. And since this requires deprecating reason, rational arguments find no purchase. Compare this to the Pāḷi texts were rational arguments are part and parcel of Buddhism, alongside myth, legend, and inner monologues.

Nāgārjuna's worldview was one in which all domains are governed by dependent arising. He appears to see no alternative to this, despite being familiar with and valuing the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But this creates many problems for him, precisely because the persistence of the world and objects in the world is self-evident. Even something as simple as perceiving movement or change become problematic for Nāgārjuna. And, frankly, his task is not made any easier by composing his answers in metered verse.

The central problem with karma is what I have been calling action at a temporal distance, but which Indian commentators called karmaphalasaṃbandha. Karma requires consequences to manifest long after the condition for them have ceased. And this is forbidden by the formula of dependent arising.

Knowledge that we get by reasoning about experience is useful (i.e., an accurate and precise guide to interacting with the world), as long as we are actually reasoning rather than relying on a bias. Accurate and precise ontology requires careful comparing of notes and critical questioning of which assumptions in our worldview are valid. We have to switch to using abduction and eliminate all the impossible premises.  We did not begin to get this right until after 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The critical comparing of notes about experience is what enables us to understand the world. Unless we make a strict distinction between experience and reality, and have a very critical eye out for bias, we are apt to come to erroneous conclusions.

Nāgārjuna's fundamental mistake was to mix up epistemology and ontology, which is to say that he mistook experience, especially meditative experience, for reality; and the nature of experience for the nature of reality. Meditators I know continue to make this same fundamental error. Buddhists are constantly talking about the "nature of reality", but nothing about how we go about seeking insight could possibly tell us about reality.

It is entirely possible that we might gain insights into the workings of our minds, seen from the inside; that we might gain insight into the nature of experience. And this kind of knowledge is certainly very useful for avoiding misery. And even though reality is an over-arching super-set, which incorporates the mind and experience, as I have tried to show in my previous essays on reality, it is layered, and descriptions that work on one scale of mass, length, energy or complexity, may not work on another scale. So a perfect description of experience may still be a faulty description of other kinds of phenomena. In fact, the classical texts were wrong about the persistence of mental states - these do persist for short periods of time beyond the stimulating sensory contact, else we could not perceive the passage of time or any kind of change. Language and music both depend on this extension in time.

Nāgārjuna's description of reality is copied from a description of experience. Unsurprisingly, he comes to false conclusions about reality. He takes it as axiomatic that nothing persists. Indeed, he says that if anything were to persists that would contradict dependent arising (MMK 17.6). Note again that the classical Pāḷi texts don't have this problem, because they do not take dependent arising as a description of the world, only of experience (i.e., they take it to be an epistemology, not an ontology). In order to accommodate these obviously false conclusions, he has to bifurcate the truth into two domains, apparent and ultimate, because, for example, it is self-evident that our bodies and identities do persist over time. Nāgārjuna accommodates this by saying that it is true, but only relatively true (saṃvṛti-satya); i.e., true only in the sense that we perceive it to be true. In the ultimate view it is not true. Again this mixes up ontology and epistemology.

5.5 Compatibility with Reason

Ironically for modern Western mādhyamikas, our own intellectual tradition, from Heraclitus onwards, tells us that all existence is impermanent. At no point do we assume that if something exists, it is permanent and unchanging, except in the case of God. And since God no longer features in mainstream Western thought, even he is not a problem. For the Western tradition, persistence is not a problem per se because, unlike Buddhists, we do not associate all being with absolute being. We are not forced into the position of explaining away persistence as an illusion, because temporality is built into our notions of the world. We say quite explicitly that we live in a temporal world.*
* Pedants may be tempted to point out that quantum physics theorists are now suggesting that time might be an emergent property. 1. There is no consensus on this speculation. 2. Even if there were a consensus, descriptions of the quantum level are not relevant to the macro-world that was the whole world until the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early 17th Century. 

Rather than the classical position—that neither existence or non-existence apply to any experience—Nāgārjuna is forced into the bizarre assertion that both existence and non-existence apply to everything. Thus, the obviously false conclusions that his philosophy leads to are rationalised away. This is a philosophy in which obviously false conclusions have to be tolerated; the irrational is valorised, and logic is deprecated in favour of a religious ideal. Paradox becomes the sine qua non. And these conditions fit perfectly with the Romantic threads of modernism. The nihilism also fits the zeitgeist in which people feel that they don't matter and have no influence in the world, despite being bombarded with information about events in the world.

However, in our Western tradition, paradox usually suggests a deeper flaw in our understanding, which has led us to make false assumptions, or to frame the problem ineptly. Or they are curiosities. For example, "this sentence is not true" is a trivial example of a paradoxical sentence that is both grammatically and semantically well formed, but is logical impossible. All it tells us is that there is more to language than grammar and syntax. A glance at anyone's eyebrows as they speak could have told you the same.

For all these reasons, the Mādhyamikā view of karma is not compatible with reason. It's not a rational view. Nor, I argue, is it resolved by insight, because those with insight seem to be beset by the same confirmation bias as all of us: they seek and find confirmation of their pre-existing views. Most meditators spend many years absorbing the rhetoric of Buddhism before making any significant progress in developing insight. Thus when insights arise, confirmation bias prompts us to see them as proof of our view.

My best informant on the process of having insights suggests that each insight both shatters existing views, but tends to set up an alternative view. One finally sees the truth and is prepared to settle down with it. However, if we persist in practising, the next insight shows the flaws in this new view and points to another view. One has to go through this "Aha... Oh. Aha... Oh." process many times before one stops taking the views seriously and realises that all views are just different perspectives on experience. It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality.

However, Buddhists tend to treat Nāgārjuna as a god -- someone who had infallible omniscience. His words, or at least the interpretations of his words by commentators, are seen as ultimate truth. I notice that some people are puzzled that I would argue against Nāgārjuna. It seems to cause cognitive dissonance, because they accept what he says as gospel. To dissent from the "ultimate truth" is almost unimaginable to many Buddhists. It is akin to blasphemy, and they often respond the way theists to do blasphemy: with hostility.

So why do modern scholars not take Nāgārjuna to task as someone who mistook experience for reality? After all, they are supposed to bring a certain objectivity to their work, aren't they? Buddhist Studies is all about accepting Buddhism on its own terms, rather than taking a critical stance. So in the 21st Century we still find scholars trying to elucidate Nāgārjuna on his own terms and he is still hailed as probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. To me, Nāgārjuna is the greatest disaster in Buddhist philosophy because his mistake continues undetected and his influence is pervasive (it goes far beyond Madhyamaka). This is partly because the mādhyamika rhetoric is impervious to reason, but partly also because Buddhists don't use reason when thinking about their views anyway: they only seek confirmation, they do not seek falsification. Of course confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, but religious argumentation discourages doubt and scepticism.

This critique will most like not make any impact whatever on the way people see Nāgārjuna or the way his disciples see the world. The way Madhyamaka is set up employs several cult-like features that make adherents particularly hard to reach. Those who do not simply reject the argument out of hand, will condescendingly explain that I have simply misunderstood the ultimate truth. I'm with Richard Feynman however, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned."

This concludes the central argument of this essay. It remains to sum up and conclude.

6. Compatible With Reason?

I set out in this essay to explore the idea that the Buddhist belief in karma is compatible with reason. I argued that both karma and reason are complex subjects on which authorities disagree about almost every detail. Karma has few common features across Buddhist sects apart from the proposition that actions cause rebirth. Also, reason and our ability to employ the methods of reasoning have been widely misunderstood. Reasoning is, more often than not, subverted by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Even so, I tried to set out a coherent account of how reason works and how we might use it to think about karma in general terms. I then critiqued a particular Buddhist view about how karma is supposed to work, by showing how the reasoning in that view is flawed.

The question I posed in Part I of this essay was, could we come up with the doctrine of karma from first principles. That is, based on experience, can we infer—using deduction, induction, and/or abduction—a doctrine in which our actions lead to rebirth; or the watered down version that our actions infallibly lead to appropriate and timely consequences.

Based on observations across many species of primate, Frans de Waal is able to deduce that we all experience empathy and understand reciprocity. From reciprocity we can induce an understanding of fairness and justice. And from this we can construct a highly plausible, bottom-up theory of morality that has broad applicability and explains a great deal. In this view, morality can be understood as a principle in which the social consequences of actions are appropriate and timely.

To get to a doctrine of karma however, we have to go beyond experience and observation, and make a number of unsupported assumptions. Firstly, we have to assume a just world. This assumption is so common that it has its own name: the just-world fallacy. Secondly, we have to assume that a supernatural afterlife exists, in defiance of the laws of nature. Thirdly, we have to assume that this afterlife is cyclic or a hybrid between cyclic and linear. Many religions have a linear eschatology, a single destination afterlife. There is no credible evidence that we cite to help us choose which is the true version of events. In fact, the way the world seems to work rules out all these possibilities. Fourthly, we have to assume that some mechanism connects our actions to our post-mortem fate.

None of these assumptions is compatible with reason, since none of these assumptions is based on inferences from evidence or experience; i.e., they were not produced by reasoning. They are assumptions that we make so that our doctrine works in the way that we wish it to. All the evidence suggests that these assumptions are simply false (an afterlife is demonstrably false). So assuming that they are true is certainly not compatible with reason. And yet, without these assumptions, there can be no karma doctrine. So karma doctrines, as a class, are not compatible with reason.

Forms of morality in which the social consequences of our social interaction are appropriate and timely are at least possible, even if our social groups seldom attain the ideal. Beyond this, reason, fails.

In my critique of Madhyamaka karma I tried to show that the problem of continuity (saṃbandha) remains unsolved and that it seems insoluble within the traditional Buddhist metaphysics. A completely different approach to ontology would be required because the description of mental-states arising does not work as a general description of the world. In other essays I have proposed such an approach. In my proposed ontology all existence is temporary, both substance and structure are real, and structures (such as our bodies and minds) persist over time, for a time. Morality is explained by bottom-up manifestations of empathy and reciprocity, but karma is ruled out because there is no afterlife, no supernatural, and no just-world.

karma is not
compatible with
Belief in karma fails to meet the standard set in Subhuti's essay (cited in Part I). So, the major conclusion of this long essay is that karma is not compatible with reason. By this I mean that no existing Buddhist version of the doctrine of karma is compatible with reason. I also infer that any theory of karma that involves logical fallacies (such as the just-world fallacy) or supernatural elements (such as an afterlife) cannot ever be compatible with reason. Since no logical fallacy or supernatural element is demonstrable, karma also appears to fail Subhuti's verifiability criterion.


Post Script. 29 Jan 2017. Someone wrote in to say that my understanding of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma was "obviously false", because he talks about karma in more conventional ways in other texts, such as the Ratnāvalī. But the fact that a Buddhist talks about karma in different ways in different contexts is completely consistent with the trend I first identified in 2013. In contexts that emphasise morality, Buddhists maintain a narrative that emphasises continuity between actions and consequences; for example, in the Jātakas, the personal continuity of people across lifetimes is normal; while in contexts that emphasise metaphysics this continuity is denied, and the idea of any persistence of any kind is rejected. And these two narratives co-exist. Buddhists switch between them without even noticing that they are doing so. Our metaphysics denies the possibility of morality; and yet morality is clearly very important to all Buddhists and karma is maintained in defiance of our metaphysics, without even achieving resolution. So the fact that Nāgārjuna exhibits this same kind of duplicity is not evidence that he does not deny the reality of karma in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā


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

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

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

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

Subhuti & Sangharakshita (2013) Seven Papers. Triratna. See also https://thebuddhistcentre.com/triratna/seven-papers-subhuti-sangharakshita

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29

20 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason II: Morality & Karma

4. Reasoning about Morality


In this section of the essay I will extend my critique of karma by focussing on some general ideas related to reasoning and karma; and then in Part III, I will outline a more specific critique of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma.

One of the functions of Dharma study in the Triratna Buddhist Order is to help identify and quantify our existing views, or what Justin L Barrett (2004) calls non-reflective beliefs. This process is more effective if we experience cognitive dissonance. That is, when our beliefs are challenged by information that is true, but seems to contradict our worldview. Without the dissonance, we might never even know that we had a view, since many non-reflective views are transparent to introspection. Simply asking ourselves what our views are, is ineffective. Creating cognitive dissonance is a reliable method of identifying such views. Our negative reactions are a window into the unconscious, non-reflective belief system that shapes our worldview. This worldview can be quite different from our professions of belief and the doctrines that we recite as religieux. So our reactivity is an important clue to where our true beliefs lie. Which I find salutary. On the plus side, reactivity is part of the process as long as we reflect on it.

Ironically, converting to Buddhism often involves consciously taking on a whole raft of views. It can take many years to internalise these views, but one the goals of conversion is to achieve fluency in the jargon and behavioural quirks of a particular Buddhist group. Part of the goal is to develop what John Searle (1995) calls dispositions. Dispositions are generalised behavioural habits that allow us to behave in ways that are consistent with social norms, without us having to consciously follow rules all the time. As we internalise the rules, following them becomes a background capability. As Subhuti indicates (Part I), such beliefs and dispositions can be seen as constitutive of being Buddhist. The moment when one is acknowledged to have internalised the norms of the group and is accepted as a full member of the group is an important step in the religious life. In the Triratna Buddhist Order this corresponds with ordination.

When membership of the group is predicated on endorsing certain views, we can always find confirmation of such views from other members of the group. The resulting effect is called an echo-chamber (where we all reflect each other's view) and it can lead to groupthink, a cognitive bias in which we all go along with a perceived consensus for fear of being socially isolated. This is part of a broader psychological phenomenon called social proof, in which we judge the safest course of action to be doing what everyone else is doing (this may be related to the basic level of empathy, i.e., emotional contagion). On the one hand, these are behaviours we can expect to find in all social animals because they strengthen social bonds and promote security and, on the other, they are highly limiting for individuals and suppress reasoning. If our views are to be compatible with reasoning, then we cannot simply go along with what everyone else says or does, even if that means that our membership of the group is threatened.

Few people step outside and confront intelligent criticism of their views. In the case of Buddhism, very little intelligent criticism of Buddhist doctrine exists. So, even if one does step outside, one goes from an echo-chamber to a virtual vacuum. For example, in my collection of articles on karma I have just two that make any attempt to assess the idea on its merits. If one wanted to critically evaluate karma based on published sources, one would find two kinds of literature: religious apologetics and scholarly works that take Buddhism on its own terms. To my knowledge, there is no general survey of the dozen or so competing Buddhist accounts of karma, no critical or comparative studies of these views, no sense even that Buddhists might disagree on the subject of karma. There is no attempt to reconcile karma with modernity or to acknowledge the difficulty of such a project.

As Subhuti hints above, Buddhist karma is inextricably linked to rebirth. Karma refers to a variety of doctrines which boil down to: actions cause rebirth. The quality of our actions in this life determine the quality of our rebirth, unless we are liberated. The primary goal of traditional Buddhism is to end rebirth, either for oneself or for everyone. Since both virtue (dhamma) and vice (adhamma) lead to rebirth (See Thag 304), albeit better (sugati) and worse (duggati) rebirths, the Buddhist has to transcend all willed activity that might lead to rebirth. This way of looking at the Bauddhadharma has a flavour of the Jainadharma to it, as it was the Jains who saw all activity as karmic and resolved to do no action - the acme of which was to sit in meditation until one died, probably from dehydration or starvation.

Unfortunately, beyond this bare outline, almost every detail of karma doctrine is disputed, and some modern proponents of karma theory would dispute even this much. Karma is a rubric for a wide range of views on morality, many of which are mutually exclusive. So reasoning about karma is much more difficult that it seems at first glance, because we first have to establish which karma belief is being reasoned about.

4.2 Actions have Consequences

One common view on karma mistakenly equates it to cause and effect. Karma is not a theory of cause and effect. Karma only applies to our willed actions and the vast majority of events in the universe are not caused by willed actions. Humans are just one species, on just one planet, in an observable universe of two trillion galaxies, each with about 100 billion stars. So let's not overstate our role in matters.

Based on our past interactions with people, we can deduce that certain types of behaviours have desirable consequences and others have undesirable consequences. All social animals have a disposition to being prosocial, but each group has its own aesthetic norms that we must learn and internalise. A group is the sum of the personalities of the individuals that make it up, though a social group may be a structure that has emergent properties (culture).

By the time they reach adulthood, a young social mammal has to had have enough experience to generalise about what kind of interactions are favourable and which are not, in their group. They have to have internalised these as dispositions to enable them behave within social norms most of the time without having to laboriously reference rules consciously. Social animals typically acknowledge that gaining this knowledge and experience takes time. For example, social animals are typically very tolerant of infants, but have higher expectations as group members approach sexual maturity. Most social mammals have a very low tolerance of anti-social behaviour amongst adults.

We humans don't always get this right. For example, we may behave in an antisocial manner and be treated roughly, but come to the wrong conclusion. We may not have insight into our own role in the interaction, conclude that other people are mean, and continue to act in antisocial manner. Our modern, large impersonal cities regularly produce anti-social behaviour that becomes entrenched.

That said, I think probably every one I know would consider the proposition that actions have consequences to be a self-evident statement of fact. Which suggests that it is a belief at the non-reflective level, albeit one that is accessible to introspection. For most people it is simply axiomatic in human relations. Even people who are habitually antisocial seem to understand that their actions have consequences. Often, the problem is that they do not identify with the (often large, amorphous) group that is trying to obtain their compliance, but have allegiance to a local, more personalised group. Indeed, the acceptance of actions have consequences seems to be universal amongst humans and to have analogues (at least) amongst other social animals.

Some of us take the axiom, actions have consequences, to be a summary of the doctrine of karma. But this is not what the traditional view was. Traditionally, karma is always linked to rebirth. Karma usually says that we are reborn according to the weight and kind of our deeds in life; or if liberated, we are not reborn at all. That is: karma causes rebirth. In some versions of the karma doctrine, karma may also ripen as an experience (vedanā) within a rebirth, but rebirth is still the primary manifestation of karma. Karma without rebirth is not karma. Those who leave rebirth out, are often adjusting karma to fit with a secular humanist outlook. I have some sympathy with this approach, but calling it "karma" seems to miss the point. All karma is moralistic; but not all morality is karmic.

"Actions have consequences" is about the vaguest true statement about morality that one could possibly make. It is true, but it doesn't say much. Everybody knows it and the vast majority internalise it as infants. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about it. If we are talking about karma then there is something missing (apart from rebirth). By this I mean that there is no implication that the consequences will be appropriate to the action. And this leads us naturally into considering fairness and justice.

4.2 Fairness and Justice

"Actions have consequences" is the minimum one needs to know to understand how to behave in social groups. Probably all social mammals have some grasp of this concept. But, on its own, it is hardly good enough to explain morality. Morality, according to Frans de Waal, is based on two qualities found in social animals: empathy and reciprocity. I've essayed these two qualities (See The Evolution of Morality), but here will focus on reciprocity and its implications for karma.

Social animals understand reciprocity. It is a feature of the social lifestyle that animals share what they have. At a minimum, they club together to share food resources, for defence, and especially in social primates, for access to mates. And part of reciprocity involves keeping track of sharing: who shares with us, in particular. We preferentially share with those who share with us and we don't share with those who don't share with us. As I noted in my exposition of Frans de Waal's ideas on the evolution of morality, this entails a basically generous disposition: in principle, each individual must be prepared to start off sharing, else no one would share with anyone. This disposition to generosity and sharing means than when another group member does not share we are attuned to this as a kind of threat to the group. When things are unfair we feel it.

The classic example of this is the much watched video of the capuchin monkey who, perceiving that his comrade is receiving better rewards for the same task, angrily throws his food back at the researchers and screeches at her. All of the social animals which have been tested seem to grasp basic fairness related to rewards for tasks. They all notice another individual getting too much reward. Chimps also notice an individual getting too little and are able to reason out that the one getting too little may retaliate later on.

Even for these animals, who are trained to perform actions for rewards and thus fully comprehend that actions have consequences, the consequences cannot be arbitrary. They will perform the task for a lesser reward as long as the others are getting the same reward. They expect the rewards to be fair.

For consequences to be fair they must be appropriate to the action and appear in a timely manner. These two restrictions (niyāma) are explicit in Buddhist karma doctrine, though they are not always formalised, and even then not until relatively late. In Buddhaghosa's conception of niyāma, appropriateness is symbolised by the rice seed giving rise to a rice plant and is called the germinal-restriction or bīja-niyāma. Results appearing in a timely manner are symbolised by the timely arrival of the monsoon or the season for flowering or fruiting; and this is called the seasonal-restriction or utu-niyāma. Buddhaghosa added a third restriction which was that consequences of willed actions were inescapable, which he called the action-restriction or kamma-niyāma. As I explored in my article Escaping the Inescapable (Attwood 2014), this restriction was deprecated by Mahāyānists who proposed that consequences could be avoided through religious exercises. The idea of avoiding karma through religious exercises probably came from Jainism, since it is a characteristic of their religion, but absent from early Buddhist accounts of Buddhism.

Justice involves the idea that unfair situations can be made fair by taking actions. And as morality is based on reciprocity, justice is often seen in terms of balance or debt. An antisocial action upsets the balance or creates a debt. It must be balanced out by pro-social actions, or the debt must be paid in kind. A criminal has to "pay their debt to society". Arguably, the capuchin, by displaying and flinging food, was taking action to restore fairness and was thus pursuing justice.

It is not enough for actions to have consequences; we have to add some restrictions, some niyāmas. The consequences of actions have to have be appropriate and timely for the situation to seem fair. This principle is starting to look sufficiently sophisticated to account for morality. It is certainly broad enough to encompass many definitions of fairness and justice. Some accounts of karma stress that one gets the rebirth one deserves; one's life is a logical consequence of actions in a previous life.; and so on. Where we get squeamish is when someone who is not obviously evil is struggling with some burden like congenital illness. We wonder what they can have done in a past life to deserve such a fate. Blaming the victim for their misfortune is an unfortunate aspect of the just-world fallacy.

This brings up the major problem that we have. The whole point of the idea that actions have consequences is that I suffer the consequences of my actions; and you suffer the consequences of your actions. Additionally, I may suffer from your actions and vice versa, and this must figure in any rational moral theory, but karma doctrines emphasise the way my actions lead to rebirth for me. The connection between action and consequence is specific and completely non-random. There is no question that if you suffer the consequences of my actions, that you will perceive this as unfair and unjust. The problem is that karma is restricted by dependent arising. And dependent arising, as usually interpreted, disallows any persistence of effect beyond the cessation of its condition (imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati). The best we can offer is that the person who suffers the consequences of the action arises in dependence on the agent of the action. This is a rather distant relationship compared to most moral formulas.

4.2.1 Fairness in Buddhism

In fact, this distance between action and consequence must have troubled Indian Buddhists as well. We know this because their literature is full of morality tales, in which actions in a past life have consequences for the same person in their present life. These are the jātaka stories (which occur throughout the literature as well as in a specific collections such as Jātakapāḷi and Apadāna). The typical framework is that something happens, then the Buddha tells a story of a deed done in the past, and concludes with identifying how the event in the present is affecting people now because of their behaviour in previous lives, explicitly identifying them as the same people. In jātaka stories there is a direct line from action in the previous life to consequence in this one. It seems to have escaped the sustained attention of scholars that this is a direct contradiction of dependent arising. Despite the contradiction, jātaka stories became enormously popular in Indian Buddhism. They are the main theme of stūpa decorations during the Asoka period, for example. And they are the main vehicle for teaching morality in Theravāda countries down to the present.

So Buddhists maintain two distinct narratives in relation to morality, one which emphasises pragmatic morality and the other which emphasises a negative metaphysics of self.
  1. My actions have appropriate and timely consequences for me, especially rebirth.
  2. There is no "I" who can will actions.
The generally unacknowledged corollary of 2. is that without an "I" there can be no morality. Nāgārjuna does more or less acknowledge it at the end of Chp 17 of Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, but it earns him the sobriquet of nihilist from the rest of the Buddhist world, to the extent they were aware of him (he appears to have had zero influence on Theravāda Buddhism, for example). A closer look at Nāgārjuna's answer to the problem of karma makes up the bulk of Part III.

Modern day Buddhists tend to segue between these two narratives so seamlessly that it took me 20 years to notice it happening. In talking about morality we insist actions have appropriate and timely consequences for the individual. In talking about metaphysics we assert that the self is at best an illusion, and therefore the one experiencing the consequences is not the same as the agent who performed the action, but not different. When this threatens to undermine morality, we slip back into talking about actions and consequences.

4.3 Just World Fallacy

In our social world we expect the consequences of our actions to have appropriate and timely consequences. In other words, we expect other members of our group to act predictably. Social living is predicated on us all having predictable responses to social situations. It doesn't matter so much what the norms of the group are, with some limitations; as long as most members of the group follow the rules most of the time, the group will thrive. How a group of humans live is as much a matter of aesthetics as morality and practicalities.

This expectation is rational within a social setting, but we go a step further. We infer that if social actions have appropriate and timely consequences, then the whole world ought function this way. This is the just-world fallacy. It is a fallacy because, although the world does follow rules (or least rule-like paths), it does not follow our social rules. The universe does not care about us any more than a landslide, earthquake, or volcano cares about us. Where humans are constantly modifying their behaviour in response to each other, the universe never modifies its behaviour in response to humans. The universe has no trolley problem; it would never swerve to avoid killing anyone.

A contributing factor to this fallacy may be animism, which is the most ubiquitous supernatural belief. In this view the world is full of supernatural beings, often called "spirits". In Burma they are nats; in Japan kami; in India devas, and so on. Most people, for most of human history, seem to have believed that spirits inhabited the world around them. And these spirits are commonly seen as part of the community. Special people called, shaman, had the role of mediating between physical beings and spirits. It was only natural that any expectations of our social group would extend to these non-material members as well, though they are often more capricious than humans. The extension of this expectation to nature as a whole is no stretch of the imagination.

However it came about, it is common for people to assume that the rules of social interaction apply across the board; i.e., that the world itself is, or ought to be, fair. What this means is that if we are, on the whole, good, we expect good things to happen; not only amongst our group, but generally in the world. We expect to be lucky, for example, to have good fortune, to avoid misfortune. The corollary of this is that if we experience misfortune, it may be that we have inadvertently transgressed or that someone has used magic against us.

It does not take a genius to see that the world is not fair. Consequences of actions are not always (I would say seldom) appropriate and timely. Another aspect of a pre-scientific worldview that is almost universal is belief in life-after-death. An afterlife seems plausible for any number of reasons, including out-of-body experiences, near-death experience, dreams, hallucinations, etc., that give credence to the necessary Cartesian-style mind-body dualism. Also, we have a very strong desire to continuing living, which operates on many levels. So, in this sense, anything which seems to confirm the existence of an afterlife is willingly accepted and any counterfactual information is quietly buried.

The presumed existence of life after death provides a neat solution to the problem created by consequences which are inappropriate and/or untimely. Everything is balanced out in the afterlife. This may involve literal weighing up of actions, or a ledger of good and bad deed or, in the case of karma, some mechanism which is unclear, but produces the right results (what I call a black-box function)

Having dealt with a number of generalities regarding morality, in the next part of this essay I will turn to the specific subject of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma as found in Chapter 17 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Preceded by Part I | Continued by Part III


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

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

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

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Subhuti (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism with Beliefs.

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29

13 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason I: Reasoning.

In my forthcoming book on karma and rebirth I cite one of the leaders of the Triratna Buddhist Order on the importance of beliefs in Buddhism. In his 2007 essay, There Are Limits, Subhuti says:
“These essential principles of the Dharma set out how existence works and are therefore the basis for a Buddhist life. Just as a Christian life is based on belief in God’s creation, Christ’s sacrifice, and salvation through faith in him and works in accordance with God’s commandments, so a Buddhist life is based on belief in conditionality, karma (including ‘rebirth’), and the Path – albeit Buddhist belief being provisional, compatible with reason, and capable of direct verification. Without conviction that these are the essential mechanics of life, one will not practice the Dharma.” [Emphasis added] Subhuti (2007)
In this essay I will focus on the phrase, compatible with reason. What is reason, or more specifically, what is the activity of reasoning? What would it mean for a religious belief to be compatible with reason? Having addressed these general questions, I will use the example of the Buddhist belief in karma. I choose karma because Subhuti mentions it and because I know the various karma doctrines of karma fairly well.

The first snag that we hit comes almost immediately because, based on discussions over the years, I can identify around a dozen different views on karma currently held by members of our Order, some of which are mutually incompatible. So belief in karma is not a simple matter. The threads of karma doctrine form a tangled mess that take a book length project to unravel (not that my book will do this). In this essay I will, therefore, take one view of karma that is fairly common in our Order and test its compatibility with reason. This view is the one deriving from Nāgārjuna's treatment of the subject in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, though this source is seldom acknowledged and the view is generally absorbed by reading modern day Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy of one kind or another.

1. Reason

The second snag is that what Subhuti means by "reason" is not entirely clear. My Dictionary of Philosophy opens its entry on reason by explaining that reason is,
"A word used in many, various, often vague senses, with complex and sometimes obscure connections with one another."
The dictionary goes on to note that one important distinction is between reason and other mental qualities such as "imagination, experience, passion or faith." I think Subhuti probably has something like this distinction in mind. The implied comparison with Christian articles of faith reinforces the impression. In other words, Subhuti seems to be referencing the common distinction between faith and reason as basis for belief. This distinction has been a feature of Christian theology and the focus of a lot of debate about religion in modern times.

Actually, in theology, faith and reason are both authorities for belief. Faith is usually considered to be the basis of belief, but some theologians have attempted to use reason to prove articles of faith. Faith is clearly important in Buddhist life. In the classical Pāḷi texts, faith (saddhā) arises when one hears a dhamma teaching, i.e., at DN 2 (dhammaṃ suṇāti), and at AN 10.61 and AN 10.62 (saddhammassavana). Faith, here, is faith in the Buddha (tathāgate saddhā). All too often, Buddhists (and particularly Triratna Buddhists) insist that Buddhism does not involve blind faith and that saddha (Skt śraddhā) is not blind faith. The Pāḷi texts make it clear that saddhā is precisely faith in the words of a religious teacher, lacking demonstrability, at least for the for the moment.

Having practised the methods of Buddhism with success (by which is generally meant, becoming a stream entrant) one may also develop another quality, aveccapasāda ‘confirmed confidence’ (or perhaps ‘perfect clarity’). So, until stream entry, until we join the āriyasaṃgha, our motivation to practice is based on faith. Beyond this we see people taking Buddhism on faith all the time. Most Buddhists take the possibility of enlightenment on faith, and have to, because there are no enlightened people around. For Buddhists, as for other religieux, belief is based on faith.

As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) says of reason, "Some kind of algorithmic demonstrability is ordinarily presupposed." Here we see why Subhuti might have included "capable of direct verification" as a criterion. To go beyond faith we have to have a procedure to test our belief and see where it leads us. Note that though Subhuti's actual expression appears to be that of a logical positivist, this was probably unintentional. What he means is that the promised results of legend are said to be attainable by anyone. Of course, this statement is also an article of faith.

Subhuti has said only that belief must be compatible with reason; not that it must be based on reason. This implies that belief may still be based on faith, as long as reason does not subsequently dis-confirm it. This gives us a little more room to manoeuvre. Most rationalists see faith and reason as antagonistic, at best and as polar opposites, at worst. However, in so-called Natural Theology, for example, "Articles of faith can be demonstrated by reason, either deductively (from widely shared theological premises) or inductively (from common experiences)." (IEP).

There is a subtle move here from reason as a faculty of the mind, to reasoning as a method for producing knowledge through the application of logical inferences (deduction and inductions). This is not necessarily problematic, because reason is often associated with the ability to employ the methods of reasoning. However, it is worth noting the tacit shift from reason as a faculty that exists (ontology) to reasoning as a method of obtaining knowledge (epistemology). The confusion between the ontology and epistemology is a major problem in philosophy.

For example, before materialists ask "What is real?" they divide the world into mental and physical phenomena based, as all such divisions are based, on the epistemological differences engendered by our perceptual apparatus. They conclude that only physical phenomena are real. But this result has confused ontology with epistemology. "Mental" and "physical" are epistemological distinctions. The question is like asking: "Which is more real, hearing, vision, smell, or taste?" Which is to say the question is nonsensical. Also, the question of which kind of experience corresponds to reality is predicated on using mental phenomena to judge the truth. If mental phenomena are not real, then how can they produce accurate judgements on what is real? And so on.

If there is an equivalence between compatibility with reason and conforming to the procedures of reasoning the we have an obvious way to test Subhuti's assertion. Can we, for example, derive the details of the Buddhist belief in karma from first principles? That is to say, can we arrive at a doctrine of karma by applying the various modes of reasoning? In order to answer this question we need to look more closely at how reasoning works.

2. Reasoning

In the passages that follow I'll look at the three most common methods associated with reasoning: deduction, induction, and abduction. All these logic words derive from Latin ducere 'to lead' hence: de-duce, 'to lead down' or derive; in-duce 'to lead onwards' or predict; and ab-duce 'to lead away' or explain. We can see why abduct is a synonym for kidnap! From the verb ducere we also get Mussolini's title Il Duce i.e The Leader; other titles such as duke and dux; and a whole raft of other English words: adduce, conduce, conduit, douche, duct, ductile, educate, induct, introduce, produce, product, redoubt, reduce, seduce, subdue, and traduce.

Deduction, induction, and abduction are all methods of inferring new knowledge from something already known. I'll begin, as most philosophers do, considering these activities as solo events, but I will also reconsider them as collective activities, which Mercier and Sperber (2011) have argued is the natural context for reason. Although I will not recapitulate Mercier and Sperber's arguments here, I will have them constantly in mind. Their most important observation, which is by no means original or new, is that in solo reasoning tasks most people score so badly that they cannot be said to be reasoning at all. Instead, they rely on cognitive bias and logical fallacies. Mercier and Sperber point out that, by contrast, when critiquing someone else's argument in a small group setting, most people do very much better. In other words, when producing arguments we don't use reason, but when evaluating someone else's argument we do. Thus, they argue that reasoning is argumentative. A corollary of this is that confirmation bias is a feature (and perhaps even a necessary feature) of argument production, though not of argument evaluation.

2.1 Deduction

Using deductions, we try to infer conclusions based on our set of axioms about how the world works. These axioms are what Justin L. Barrett (2004) has called our non-reflective beliefs.* Non-reflective beliefs include our views on such metaphysical concepts as time, space, and causation. These are the beliefs that we absorb while we are growing up, both from our experience of interacting with objects and from interacting with people. We may not know we have these beliefs and they may not even be immediately accessible to introspection. Nevertheless, these axioms are central to how we understand the world.
* I discussed Barrett's ideas in a two part essay called Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)?

This kind of reasoning involves asking ourselves, in the light of our axioms about the world, what event, or sequence of events could have occurred to bring about the current state of affairs. For example, most of us non-reflectively believe that there are agents behind most events. So, based on the available information, we may try to deduce what kind of agent was responsible and what their motivations might have been, based on our internal models of what agents exist and what kinds of events they can cause. So we might hear an eerie cry in the night and experience horripilation, but deduce that this is the kind of noise a fox makes and conclude we are safe. Since most of us include supernatural elements in our non-reflective beliefs, it often seems intuitive, or at least minimally counter-intuitive, to conclude that an experience has a supernatural cause.

The IEP citation above referred to "widely shared theological premises". This highlights a problem with reasoning with respect to religious beliefs. A deduction from widely shared theological premises is likely to reinforce those same widely shared theological premises. If our widely held theological premise is that the Christian God exists, then deductions we make about, for example, how the world came into being or what is moral, are predetermined by our axioms. We may well perform a perfectly logical deduction from our premise, but this signifies little because the starting premise or axiom was not arrived at by reasoning.

Similarly for our theological premise that karma is, in Subhuti's words, how existence works. What we have done is decide a priori that karma is how existence works and then set out to look for confirmation of this axiom. This is a cognitive bias called confirmation bias. As noted, Mercier and Sperber (2011) have argued that confirmation bias is ubiquitous in argument production, but seldom in found in argument assessment, unless one already agrees with the argument. So, getting a believer to critique and argue for karma is pointless. To get rational, objective feedback, one must get feedback from a non-believer, but not one who is so hostile the belief that they cannot think rationally about it.

Looking for confirmation of our beliefs is not rational, because of the Black Swan Effect. This means no matter how many times we confirm our view, some evidence may still come along that falsifies it. Thus, a tenet of rationality is that one ought to seek falsification rather than confirmation, which for most people is counterintuitive. Most of us, set a problem in which we have a choice between seeking confirmation and seeking falsification of a belief, opt to seek confirmation. We look for evidence to support our argument. We only try to disconfirm arguments produced by others.This is an important observation: what is intuitive is not necessarily rational and vice versa.

If our in-group is Buddhist, then our argument is typically with out-group non-Buddhists. Within the group we tend to confirm and reinforce each other's views (which is not compatible with reason), while without we argue against the other's views (which is compatible with reason). This suggests that most of the time in-group beliefs won't be compatible with reason; and that reasoning about our views can only be found with those who disagree with us. This failure of groups to produce an internal critique can lead to groupthink, another cognitive bias in which the desire for harmony or conformity overwhelms reasoning in a group. In this sense, the wide range of incompatible views on karma in the Triratna Buddhist Order is a good thing, or it would be, if people were willing to argue about their views (there is some resistance to arguing with me about views, I find).

One of the buzz-words of the day is echo-chamber. This compound word was coined to refer to the mistaken view that our social media environments tend to restrict our exposure to dissenting political views, so that we end up only seeing and hearing views which seem to confirm our own view. Yang et al (2017) showed that, in fact, social media exposes people to more dissent rather than less. Making deductions about the world based on widely held religious premises is only ever going to result in our conclusions echoing our existing beliefs.

Deduction is a useful tool for reasoning, but it has rather severe limitations. When it comes to reasoning about beliefs, that limitation becomes catastrophic if our articles of faith are taken as axiomatic. Since articles of faith are treated as axioms and not themselves arrived at by reasoning, the danger is that our conclusions simply reflect our existing beliefs. Logic and reason are not always the same thing. Deductions logically derived from irrational axioms can and will be irrational.

So in this sense I disagree with the Natural Theology crowd that deduction enables us to reason about belief. Deduction is completely dependent on what we believe.

2.2 Induction

We use inductive reasoning to arrive at generalisations about experience and to form rules of thumb for dealing with similar experiences. Generalisations are possible because experience has patterns. Experience has patterns because the world evolves in regular ways, our minds operate in regular ways and experience is a function of both. A lot of induction relies on the general principle that the future will most likely be like the past. Probabilities are an important form of generalisation about the future.

For a generalisation to be valid does not require that all experiences confirm it. It's not like a law of nature. If 80% of experiences fall into known categories, then it can be more efficient to proceed as if they all will and be alert for exceptions, than to have to assess each experience individually. It's like a compression algorithm that only notes the parts of a video that are changing. There's no need to compute the whole picture every time if large chunks of the background are not changing. Of course, if we don't notice the exceptions, then we are led into error by generalisations.

One thing I want to flag here is the problem of generalising from a single or rare experience. A made up example might be that I try mint and licorice ice-cream and I conclude that I do not like ice-cream. This is an over-generalisation, because mint and licorice is an unusual flavour and there are more conventional choices that I probably would like.

Another problem is when we combine this with confirmation bias. For example, astrology may seem to make sense if we generalise from the predictions that confirm our belief and ignore those that do not. A random prediction is likely to be right some of the time. By filtering out all the times the prediction is wrong, we come to the conclusion that astrology is generally pretty accurate. This aggressive filtering of experience is not only possible, but very likely to happen. And it explains the persistent popularity of irrational claims like those made by astrologers.

These kinds of generalisations from one experience, or just a few experiences, are extremely prone to cognitive bias. And many of our experiences in meditation are unique or unusual. But even if they are not, they tend only to coincide with being in an altered state of consciousness. Thus, we ought to be wary of generalising on the basis of them. However, Buddhists often rush to the conclusion that is supported by the norms of the group. A vision in meditation is not an hallucination, but a confirmation of the transcendent reality that our latter-day Buddhists metaphysics describes.

Another problem we Buddhists face is the premise that what applies in meditation is applicable everywhere; i.e., that features of our awareness that we identify in the altered states achieved in meditation are general features of awareness or, indeed, general features of reality. If we stop to consider this, it is quite a bizarre inference to make. The effort required to get into the altered state is considerable and the state itself is so qualitatively different from any other kind of experience. The very fact that I can describe these as altered states, reflects that they are unusual rather than common. Why would we choose to infer knowledge about reality on the basis of unusual experiences instead of usual experiences? Since it is common to be completely absorbed in these states and completely cut off from sensory perceptions of the world, why would we infer that they reflect the world more accurately?

Inductive reasoning is even more susceptible to bias than deductive, or at least susceptible to more kinds of bias that skew the conclusions we come to. One of the common biases is to see ourselves as less biased than other people (bias blind spot). Wikipedia has a list of almost 200 cognitive biases, most of which apply to the process of inductive reasoning. In his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, Buster Benson has provided a more structured overview of cognitive bias that I find quite useful. Biases creep in when we have too much information, or too little, or when we are trying to arrive at an answer via a shortcut (which we do most of the time). Too much information creates the secondary problem of what to remember.

So again, induction is not a very reliable way of reasoning about belief. Beliefs themselves create cognitive biases (like confirmation bias) that distort the reasoning process in favour of what we already believe. In fact, most of the time we arrive at a belief or a decision and then, and only then, we look for reasons to retrospectively justify our belief or decision. So, when you ask a Buddhist why they believe in karma and the answer is, "Because it seems intuitive", the first suspicion must be that it seems intuitive because it's what that person believes. Belief itself makes the belief seem intuitive and thus we will tend to infer that our belief is rational.

We have one more approach to reasoning. Is it any better?

2.3 Abduction

Abduction is the process by which we infer explanations from observations, and use these explanations to make predictions. Where deduction proceeds to a certain conclusion, and induction to rules of thumb, abduction seeks to produce the best explanation given some facts that do not allow for a certain conclusion. Whenever we "jump to a conclusion" we are using abduction. And in this lies the downside of abductive reasoning. Many of our shortcuts are motivated by cognitive bias or logical fallacy. So if we hoped for a fool-proof approach, we aren't going to find it in abduction.

One of the most famous applications of abduction is the quote by Sherlock Holmes that:
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Eliminating impossible explanations is an important process in abductive reasoning. One of the reasons philosophers frequently refer to Occam's Razor (aka the principle of parsimony) is that it places a useful limit on how we should go about the process of producing explanations. Attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), though it definitely existed before him, Occam's razor takes many forms, but the basic form is that the explanation which makes the least assumptions is best. This is sometimes over-simplified and presented in terms of "the simplest explanation is best". However, this version is not very useful. Sometimes a complex explanation is best because it makes fewer assumptions.

A great example this is the reasoning behind Jan Nattier's argument for the Heart Sutra being composed in China. The larger Prajñāpārmitā text (LPT) is taken from India to China via Central Asia, where it is translated, extracted, and framed to create the Heart Sutra, whereupon it is exported back to India, back-translated into Sanskrit, lengthened, and then re-transmitted to China. This is by no means a simple scenario. But it makes very few assumptions compared with other possible explanations of the available evidence. Red Pine, for example, has to assume that in addition to the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the texts that we still possess, a separate large Prajñāpārmitā text with different wording was composed, transmitted to China, and then lost in both Sanskrit and Chinese, leaving only the Heart Sutra as a record of it. But this is hardly credible.

Also, some assumptions are more likely than others. If our explanation of events requires a miracle, then Hume's comments on miracles become pertinent:
"...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish..."
Science at its best is the epitome of abduction at work. And science at its best also involves a process which we have only mentioned in passing, i.e., comparing notes. Since this is often left out of accounts of reasoning, I want to highlight it here. But first a word about salience.

2.4 Salience

Clearly, reasoning has some limitations. On our own, we may not reason at all, but take some shortcut or invoke a rule of thumb ,instead. Humans are poor at solo reasoning tasks because we fall victim to many cognitive biases and logical fallacies. However, even if we were competently reasoning, there are many cases in which given the same information two people would come up with entirely different conclusions, generalisations, and explanations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of politics.

The Political Compass website assesses political affiliation on two axes: progressive-conservative (or economic left-right) and authoritarian-libertarian. But no matter which quadrant you end up in, anyone who takes the test has access to pretty much the same information. The differences come about because of salience. George Lakoff's (1995) explanations of the different underlying political metaphors of our divisions are very salient to my understanding of politics. They relate to the kind of family that feels right for us.

For example, conservatives conceptualise the nation as a self-contained family with a strong father-figure in charge, who is strict, strong, and calm. Part of being self-contained is always paying off debts promptly. Happiness is found by everyone playing their role and following the rules. Children are taught obedience and self-reliance. Liberals, by contrast, see the nation as a family of two equal parents in which everyone is cared for and loved. Happiness is found by playing positive roles in the community and work. Children are taught to love their parents and to care for themselves and others.

These metaphors underpin reasoning in the political domain. The conclusions, generalisations, and explanations produced by political reasoning are powerfully shaped to fit. So, given, to take a topical example, a shortfall of funding in the National Health Service, conservatives will tend to want to cut costs and balance the books, whereas liberals will want to insure that everyone is looked after. We used to pay a lot more in tax and the government had a number of income generating assets and businesses. But the Neoliberal (really a conservative libertarian) forced the government to lower taxes and to sell off assets, because of an ideological commitment to small government and minimal government involvement in individuals' lives. As Ronald Raygun framed it, it was about relieving the tax burden, tax here being a burden imposed on the individual, rather than a way of the community taking care of its own. But with low taxation and eliminating other sources of income comes a crisis in funding the health service. But the health service conflicts with conservative values in fundamental ways: it does not encourage self-reliance, people get something for nothing (creating a debt that cannot be paid), and people who injure themselves through carelessness or poor lifestyle choices get the same treatment as those who are careful and who make good lifestyle choices.

Different people reasoning about the same situation, with the same information, but coming to very different conclusions, making very different generalisations, and explaining the situation using very different principles.

I have often written about this: when we assess information, we may go through a cognitive procedure to assess its veracity, but we register how important the information is to us emotionally. This importance is what I call salience. The emotionality of salience is what enables us to have a "gut reaction" to news or to make "intuitive" choices.

Salience is also an aggressive filter on what we consider when making decisions. Given a wealth of information, we all filter it. Dealing with too much information is a major source of cognitive bias. If we always had to evaluate every option, we would be unable to make decisions at all. The solution to the problems of bias, error, and salience is comparing notes, to which I will now turn.

2.5 Comparing Notes

The evidence is that humans are extremely poor at solo reasoning tasks (Mercier and Sperber 2011). It's not very credible to assume that humans can reason things out on their own under normal circumstances.

In fact, we seem to have evolved reasoning in the context of decision making in small groups. And this means that all this reasoning needs to be reframed as a group activity. And, after all, we are social animals, we evolved to live in communal groups. This social aspect of human beings is all too often simply left out of accounts of how our minds work. When we look at other social mammals, many social relations are fully functional without language or abstract reasoning. This has led me to suggest that, although we typically see the hierarchy of science as going from individual psychology to collective sociology, in fact, sociology is more fundamental and so profoundly shapes our psyches that it ought to be the other way around; i.e., out of biology emerges sociology, which shapes the minds of individuals. Indeed, we are so attuned to our social environment that "individual psychology" may be an oxymoron.

Some years ago Sean Carroll's Twitter bio read,
"I'm sure if the blind guys had compared notes they'd have figured out it was an elephant."
For me this captured something important; not only about our search for knowledge, but the stories we tell about our search for knowledge. Comparing notes (in the form of literally comparing notes, but also of presenting results in seminars and conferences where they can be discussed, and in formal peer review prior to publication) is one of the things scientists do that makes science an effective knowledge seeking activity. Knowledge seeking is typically a collective activity. "Science is sold as facts and it's not, it's process. And that process is mainly arguing." (Edwards 2017)

It is precisely when we do not compare notes that we are most at risk of falling into some logical fallacy or cognitive bias. By comparing notes and, well, arguing about what they mean, we are more likely to be rational. Of course, groups are also prone to cognitive bias, so even then we must proceed with caution. For example, simply comparing notes in a naive way can be unproductive. We can uncritically accept the other's conclusions, generalisations, and explanations because they support our own.

When we compare notes uncritically we get a consensus reality. For example, part of consensus reality is the supernatural. If I have an experience and describe it as supernatural to someone who has come to a similar conclusion about some experience they have had, we may both reinforce the delusion of the other. Critical comparing of notes leads to what I call a collective empirical realism. In this approach there can be no unquestioned axioms. All axioms are up for discussion and criticism. Other people who participate in the comparing of notes critique methods as well as conclusions. By being sceptical about axioms, methods, and results, we can begin to eliminate the illogical and irrational elements that inevitably creep into our narratives, along with the other purely subjective elements.

What science does, that other forms of knowledge seeking do not, is to look at why different observers come to different conclusions or explanations. Scientists try to get at the underlying principles of our beliefs to see which are most consistent with reality. Hence, for the first few centuries of science, the emphasis was on reductionism. Given the human propensity for bias and error, we had to really get clear on the underlying substance and principles under discussion. And note that in the general population bias and error are still dominant forces. Supernatural beliefs are de rigueur, for example. Even within science, bias and error cannot be eliminated except by retrospectively subjecting results to collective criticism and weeding. Wrong results and claims are published all the time. But the approach of science means that before a result can be widely accepted it must be replicated and shown to fit in with the system of knowledge that has developed.

3.0 Compatible With Reason

The concept of reason is by no means straightforward. When we say that our beliefs are compatible with reason we are making some big assumptions. We assume we are capable of reasoning and capable of understanding when some belief of ours is compatible with reason. Looked at in the cold light of day these are doubtful assumptions. Our beliefs are much more likely to be unreflective assumptions based on bias and fallacy. Which may explain why our expectations and intentions are so very often thwarted.

Clearly, if humans are poor at reasoning, then a lot of what is said about reason is bunk. If you look up popular quotes on the subject, it is variously supposed to be what separates us from other animals (we called ourselves Homo sapiens); our highest faculty, a kind of pure and abstract virtue, the quality that helps us triumph over nature, etc., etc. But this is all bunk. Most of us don't reason, but instead rely on irrational rules of thumb and shortcuts. It's not that we are incapable of reason. We are certainly capable, but we prefer not to and have other means of arriving at decisions that we prefer to use instead. Yes, we can, if called upon, give reasons for our beliefs and decisions, but the overwhelming likelihood is that we did not use reason when arriving at them. For most of us, the best we manage on a day to day basis is post hoc rationalisation for beliefs we already hold or decisions we've already made without the benefit of reason.

Reason and reasoning have been widely misunderstood in history. For the most part they are still widely misunderstood. What is called "reason" is often something else entirely. All too often, it is simply ideology or some kind of Freudian wish-fulfilment fantasy. Those people who come across as more severely rational are almost always simply good at hiding the emotional basis of their decision making and good at persuading people. Most top politicians fall into this category: irrationally committed to an ideology, emotionally self-contained (and thus impervious to criticism), and highly persuasive. All qualities we might also associate with psychopaths.

If our religious identity resides in adopting certain beliefs, and that identity is important to us, then our ability to think clearly about belief is severely compromised. If we have made great sacrifices in our religious life—the extreme example is refraining from sexual activity—then our reasoning is always motivated towards confirming the value of our sacrifice. Which is why monks are such vocal apologists for Buddhism. Others will be inspired by such sacrifices and also want to confirm the value of them, since they get status by association. Outsiders can never appreciate the true meaning or significance of religious identity and their opinions hardly matter. Thus, religious belief becomes a self-sustaining process within a religious group.

We can see that compatible with reason is a very high bar to reach. Having explored the general issues surround reason and reasoning, in Part II of this essay, I'll begin to look at the reasoning behind morality, such as it is, because karma is the Buddhist explanation for morality. Part III will focus on assessing whether a particular version of karma doctrine is compatible with reason.


Continues | Part II | Part III |


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

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

Edwards, Tamsin. (2017) Inside Science [Interview on explaining science]. BBC Radio4. 12 Jan 2017.

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

Lakoff, George (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Subhuti (2007) There are Limits or Buddhism with Beliefs. Privately Circulated. [This essay is not included on Subhuti's Website, nor is it included in the collection of his essays entitled, Seven Papers.]

Yang, J. H., Barnidgeb, M. and Rojasa, H. (2017) The politics of “Unfriending”: User filtration in response to political disagreement on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 70, May 2017: 22–29
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