20 November 2020

That Chariot

The simile of the chariot is a well-known Buddhist explanation. In ancient India, explanations often take the form of analogies and, in this case, the analogy makes use of a simile: X is explained by pointing out that X is like Y; where Y is assumed to be understood. These analogies often drew on apparent parallels in nature or agriculture, such as the rivers, plants, animals (and animal husbandry), seasons, ploughing. But occasionally the analogy would draw on technology and the simile of the chariot is one of these.

The locus classicus of the simile is the Vajirā Sutta (SN 5:10). The set up is that Māra is trying to torment a meditating bhikkhunī, Vajirā, with questions about the origin and nature of "this being" (ayaṃ satto). His taunt is presented as a verse
Who made this being? Where is the maker?
Where did this being arise, where will it cease?
Of course, these might seem like innocuous questions, but in a worldview that incorporates the idea that no phenomenon can persist, it becomes more difficult. Vajirā realises it is Māra and replies in verse:
Māra, what makes you harp on about your theory of 'a being'?
No being is found in this pure collection of constructs.

Just as the combination of parts is called 'a chariot';
So, when khandhas exist, conventionally we say "there is a being."

For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.
When I commented on the simile of the chariot in 2009, I made two points. Firstly, when we read this text through reductionist Buddhist paradigms, we have to interpret this as saying that the whole is simply the sum of its parts; not less, but not more, either. Where there is the right assemblage of parts (aṅgasambhārā) there is a chariot. But the chariot is not in the parts individually or collectively. We say there is a chariot when the parts are assembled, but this is a mere conception. Similarly, while the khandhas exist (khandhesu santesu) we say there is "a being" but it is no more than convention (sammuti). Although the sutta does not insist on it, our preference for methodological reductionism forces Buddhists to conclude that, in reality, there is no chariot, and therefore there are no beings, eitherThe idea that beings don't exist either is a grammatical contradiction: be-ings are quint-essential examples of exist-ence).

This is a banal point; of course, when you disassemble a chariot into its components you destroy the chariot, there is no longer a chariot: the method determines the outcome (by destroying the object of study). Note that the text tells us that the arrangement (sambhārā) is important. But knowing this doesn't really move me. My thoughts go more like this:
I'm driving around on my chariot and a Buddhist monk flags me down. He says "You know that your chariot doesn't exist, right?"

I'm confused. "So what is this I'm driving around on?" I ask.

The monk answers, "Ah yes, but if you disassemble the chariot, there is no chariot."

To which I reply, "Venerable One, do not disassemble my chariot. I have places to go and people to see."
A philosopher might naturally segue here into a discussion of the Ship of Theseus, which I also wrote about in 2017 (Ship of Theseus).
The monk says, "Don't worry I won't touch your chariot, but time will. All things must pass."

And I say, "That's true, I can always make new parts and repair my chariot."

The monk smiles, a knowing smile, and says, "Sure, but will it be the same chariot?"

Being a pragmatist, I reply "As long as I can ride around on it, I don't care whether it is the same or not. Why would I?"
My interpretations of the Ship of Theseus problem is that the traditional focus is on the wrong level. This is partly because in the classical problem the ship is now a monument, rather than a ship. Some of the variations on the problem do involve the ship as a ship but even they focus on something called "the identity" of the ship. My focus is not on identity because identity is subjective. Identifying is something humans do, not an intrinsic property of objects. The Ship of Theseus does not identify itself as the Ship of Theseus. Still, it is a ship, despite having all the parts replaced, and that seems to me to be a more significant thing to notice. It probably gets left out of the presentation of the problem because we cannot argue about it. No one argues that having replaced all the parts with identical parts the ship is now a chariot. If you replace all the parts with identical (or nearly identical) replacement parts and the integrity of the whole is preserved, the ship is still a ship, because the arrangement of the parts is stable over some period of time. No one is suggesting that the time period is infinity or that its stability is independent of time. Some people do argue that for God, but we're talking about ordinary objects like chariots and people. And it is obvious, even in the European intellectual tradition, that everything changes

Identity is not vested in the parts or the whole of an object, but in the minds of observers. We may say that humans tend to identify (and identify with) persistent structures, even if structures ultimately lose their integrity. I am Jayarava, I was ordained in 2005, in the intervening 15 years I have changed a lot, but there is a complex of persistent structures that are identifiable. Old friends that I have not seen for some years still recognise me, despite the addition of a full beard and receding hairline. Even though they might have known me as Michael in the past, old friends and family have all adjusted to the new name. Though when my colleague Jayarāja lived in Cambridge we were occasionally confused. 

Orthodox Buddhists argue, along with many modern physical scientists, that the arrangement is not real. But this is an ideological point, not a logical point. Any useful definition of "real" has to include the arrangement itself or what I call the structure as opposed to the substance. Without structure there is nothing but undifferentiated substance, nothing even recognisable as part of a chariot, let alone minds capable of recognising. No world, no chariot, no beings. Some claim that this is what reality is like, but I think they are confusing the cessation of experience with the nature of reality - a philosophical odyssey that never arrives at Ithaca. The arrangement (of parts) is real. It has to be real or "real" has no meaning. 

The second point I made in 2009, which is lost in almost every use of this text, is that it says: "only suffering is produced, persists, and ceases" (dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca) and, in fact, "Nothing other than suffering is produced, nothing other than suffering ceases. (Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhati). 

If you take this to be a metaphysical statement, that is if you take it literally and think that arising is a description of how everything works, then you are left with a conundrum. Why would the text say that dukkha is the only thing that arises and ceases and nothing else? After all, the text admits that there are times when khandhas exist (khandhesu santesu) I don't recall seeing this discussed when the chariot comes up.

We have learned from Sue Hamilton to take this kind of material as epistemic. Here, dukkha is synonymous with "experience". And the khandhas are the factors, or even the apparatus, of experience. The result is our world (loka), not to be confused with the world. As an epistemic problem, we take this to mean that arising and ceasing is only concerned with the arising and ceasing of sensory experiences (including the mind sense). Similarly, when the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23) says that everything (sabbaṃ) is the six sense organs and six sense objects and that any other definition of everything is wrong, it is not asserting an Idealist ontology. It is delimiting a sphere of interest: only experience is of interest. And this is because in North India, around the time of the second urbanisation, religieux discovered bringing sensory experience to a halt through what we now call "meditation".

With respect to this last point, we need to make a distinction between objects and sense objects. For example, a conch shell is an object. It has a distinctive structure and substance: a tapering cone twisted into a helix, made largely of calcium carbonate. And it has an appearance (rūpa) which we now relate to the light reflected from it. In Buddhist thought the conch itself is not the object of our senses: the sense object is the appearance (rūpa) not the substance (dravya). This is similar to a distinction made by Immanuel Kant between the "thing-in-itself" (ding an sich) or noumenon and our experience or phenomena. But it goes back to Plato's "theory of ideas" and the simile of Plato's Cave: the idea that what we experience is like a shadow cast on the wall of a cave by real objects. In the long Platonic tradition, we can never get at the ding an sich. As I have noted previously, Bryan Magee argues, in his book on Schopenhauer, that reality must be utterly different from what we experience. In my essay Buddhism & The Limits of Transcendental Idealism, I pushed back against this view on the pragmatic basis that my experience can't be so different from reality or I would bump into things and get lost a lot more often (if only metaphorically). I would add now that when we meet someone who is delusional we very soon understand that they are "out of touch with reality" and they do bump into things and get lost (if only metaphorically). 

Conceptualising Objectivity and Subjectivity

We've seen that pudgalavāda was a view that emphasised the idea of a person being a persistent structure of khandhas (Early Buddhist Heterodoxy: Pudgalavāda). It seems to me, as it seems to any observer, that I am something more than an illusion or a concept, even when I admit to being less than a soul (ātman, jīva, satva, puruṣa). I appear to exist but this does not—contra Buddhist orthodoxy—mean that I exist in any absolute sense. Indeed, I become increasingly aware of my own mortality. The pudgala was emphatically not an ātman, rather it was a persistent assemblage of skandhas, i.e. a structure or system of skandhas strongly connected to each other and only weakly connected to others. Keep in mind also my argument that the pudgala was devised in order to solve a problem created by the application of dependent arising outside the domain of experience: it meant that karma could not function as required. For karma to be meaningful, for my actions to have consequences for me, there had to be long term continuity. But dependent arising denies any kind of continuity. Despite Buddhist rhetoric, continuity is not a concept we can do without when trying to make sense of our world. Buddhists themselves routinely employ this concept in moral instruction. 

As an alternative solution to the problem of action at a temporal distance, pudgalavāda is intrinsically interesting and Buddhism is much the poorer without it. Which is not to say I think pudgalavāda solved the problem, just that it was different and interesting and Buddhism is the less for the lack of plurality we now see. 

We now have ways of thinking about experience and continuity that can fill that gap without resorting to explanation by analogy. So let's start by delving into the subjective/objective distinction. Experience is ontologically subjective, but this does not mean I don't have experiences. Experience is epistemically real because we can have knowledge about experience and the processes that create experiences. This is a distinction I have drawn from the philosophy of John Searle (see a long series of essays written in 2016 beginning with Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism).

Experience is all subjective, but we can distinguish two broad classes of experience. In one channel of experience, we have information related to our physical senses and body which contribute to a representation of the physical world. In the other channel, we have information that is not related to objects but which mainly concerns our self and includes various forms of memory and conscious mental activity.

Around the age of four, we work out that other people have minds of their own. By this age, we can infer from interacting with them, that other minds are like our minds. If we fail to go through this developmental stage then we are at a severe disadvantage in dealing with the world. Social interactions themselves are experience but still even young children work out that the experience of social interaction leads to the conclusion that other minds exist. A few people go through this phase of development only to abandon the idea as adults, usually because of a superficial encounter with certain types of academic philosophy, but we don't have to take them seriously. The fact that we can interact with other minds via experience is perhaps the most wonderful thing about being alive. Not only that but this ability is not limited to humans. Animals also display behaviour consistent with being aware of other minds, and humans can also interact with the minds of animals. Each animal has its own characteristics and within each species, there are different personalities.

Comparing of notes about experience tells us that the first channel—our physical senses—is much the same for everyone, i.e. we all inhabit the same world. Not only do our senses confirm each other, but reports from others confirm our observations. There is a world of objects that are apparent to all observers. The same methods tell us that our internal experience is more or less unique to us, though it still has some broad similarities. The internal experience is still sense experience but without external objects that are accessible to others. Early Buddhists made this same distinction between physical (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) experience.

So within experience itself, there are experiences that relate to the external, objective channel and some that are related to the internal, subjective channel.

A Mind-Independent World

An important question is: If all we have is experience, how do we know that there is a mind-independent world? After all, we can infer that all experience is the result of our brains processing electrochemical signals produced by specialised cells when they interact with objects and respond to various physical characteristics: pressure, resistance, texture, temperature, acceleration, physical vibrations, and electromagnetic vibrations. We can imagine, for example, each of these types of information being simulated. Indeed, via so-called "virtual reality" we can crudely simulate a world which is not reality.

In other words, if we stipulate that all knowledge comes from sensory experience, how do we establish the existence of a mind-independent world? The first thing to admit is that we have to do so indirectly. We infer such a world. Indeed, we infer other minds as well. Some might argue that this is too flimsy a basis for knowledge, that what results is more like belief than knowing. 

The world that I infer from experience and comparing notes with others is a very reliable guide. The world I move around in appears to be quite stable. Indeed, having lived in my present residence for seven years, I can find my way around in the dark, muscle memory guides my feet. My trip to the supermarket is not based on guesswork or luck but on past experience. The physical world is not a mystery to me, it has regularities. Moreover, when things go wrong, when I bang into something, cannot find something, when I get lost, it is not because the world itself has changed, it is because of my mind.

The mind undoubtedly makes mistakes. The world does not. Objects don't move around at random. They follow patterns that we intuitively grasp, even without physics. My house is not No.15 one day and No.3 another, it is not in this street one day and that avenue on another. My city is not in East England today but in Yorkshire tomorrow. And so on. The basic facts of our world do seem to be facts

We know that naive Realism cannot be the case because of what we know about our own physiology, but the level of detail with which we can describe the world on different scales is beyond the ability of any one person to comprehend these days. Moreover, we can use inferred knowledge to rule out certain types of world. We do not live in a world with magic, for example. Matter and energy are bound inexorably to follow certain patterns. Based on what we can infer to be the case, from possibilities we can eliminate by counter-example, there can be no doubt that there is a mind-independent world. 

Could that world be a mental projection or a simulation? Sure, it could be, but there is no reason to believe that it is. The physicality of the world is really quite compelling. An Idealist gains no explanatory leverage over the world of experience by adopting that position. Rather, they are left trying to explain how we people can have coordinated experiences. Imagine three people singing in harmony. If the sounds they make are not physically independent of their minds, then one has to propose some immaterial connection between them that does exactly the same job as physical sound. Since we can infer the existence of sound as pressures waves in air from all kinds of angles, this makes the idea of sound as a mere idea rather weak. Sound as a physical manifestation of vibrating physical vocal cords resonating in body cavities and then being converted into nerve impulse by the ear is not a simple explanation. It's complex. But it is quite a lot simpler and more complete than any Idealist explanation of how three people can sing in harmony.

But it goes a lot deeper than just explaining this one instance. We have generalised explanations of sound that apply across the board. And these are informed by other explanations of related phenomena like other kinds of waves and other kinds of sensory experience. Generalised explanations of waves apply not only to sound waves but also to light. Phenomena such as constructive and destructive interference apply to waves in water, in air, in earth, in light, and in spacetime. Idealists have never developed such depth, they merely claim that the depth is not physical but mental.

The same thing applies for the simulation argument. If we are living in a simulation then the simulation is no less complex than reality as we experience it: no fewer orders of magnitude (roughly 100 in mass, length, and energy), no fewer elements (be it atoms, or smaller building blocks). The machinery to support such a complex simulation would necessarily be more complex and older than the universe it simulates. Such a thing is clearly possible, but we don't gain anything by adopting this explanation. The universe makes less sense, rather than more. Explanations that leave us with less knowledge and clarity defeat the purpose of explanations.

In the billions of experiments done over 450 years by millions of scientists, let alone the trillions of observations by billions of human beings over hundreds of millennia, none has given us reason to believe we live in a simulation. If we do live in a simulation then it is perfect to the limits of our ability to test it across 100 orders of magnitude of mass, length, and energy. In which case how is that different from a real world?

By far the simplest explanation is that we live in a universe of objects and process, or matter and energy.  And we experience this world indirectly through our senses and virtual models our brain creates. We persist with other avenues of thinking about the world for the joy of using our imaginations (such as creating fiction) or the pleasure that some of us take in arguing or because of a predisposition to believe that everything happens for a reason - also known as the teleological fallacy. Arguments for living in a simulation are topologically the same as arguments for a Creator God or intelligent design. They are attempts to explain - not what we are, or what the world it, but why we are here and why there is a universe in terms of assigning responsibility (ultimately, therefore, the teleological fallacy is a moral argument).


I started off talking about reductionism in Buddhism and the consequences of ideological reductionism, i.e. paradox and internal contradictions. Reductionism per se fails because we live in a constructed universe. There is substance but there is also structure. Methodological reductionism destroys structure as a starting point and thus furnishes us with no knowledge of structure. And thus reductionist explanations fall well short of completeness. Which is not to say that we do no need reductionist explanations. The substances from which we or the world are made and the question of ultimate substance are intrinsically interesting and learning about substance and lower-level dynamics has been useful. It's just that this approach is incomplete. Human beings are made of atoms, for example, but we easily cannot get from atoms to sociology, and sociology is also intrinsically interesting. Arguably we cannot get from atoms to sociology even in principle.

As powerful as the chariot simile is in Buddhist rhetoric, if we adopt an exclusively reductionist approach it can be an incredibly unhelpful way of thinking about being and beings. Had we kept pudgalavāda alive we might eventually have come to terms with structure, but we didn't and we haven't. All modern forms of Buddhism are relentlessly reductive. Modern Buddhists are obsessed with non-existence: with anātman and śūnyatā routinely understood in metaphysical terms. Buddhists frequently claim to know, or at least to teach (often in the absence of personal experience), the "true nature of reality". Not just "reality" or the "nature of reality", but the "true nature of reality". However, this rhetoric almost always involves an eliminativist twist. 

Nāgārajuna, for example, asserts not only that karma and rebirth do not ultimately exist, but that agents and patients do not ultimately exist. Karma is merely a merciful lie that enlightened beings use to trick the unenlightened into enlightenment. I've never been entirely comfortable with this metaphysics or the rhetoric that accompanies it. It sounds like nonsense and the arguments that emerge from it are often mean spirited.

My complaint about Madhyamaka is that it appears to be confused about the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics. The state of contentless awareness is taken to be ultimate reality and the result is a truly awful philosophy full of contradictions and hand waving. I would complain less except that one can easily find ancient Buddhists who did not make this mistake, who understood the cessation of sensory experience to be a source of knowledge about the nature of experience rather than a doorway to a transcendental reality.

Methodological reductionism is appropriate in some contexts. In meditation we break down experience and focus on smaller and smaller parts of it, we see it in finer and finer detail. We do not always see, but we can infer from ancient Buddhist texts, that the aim was to bring experience to a halt and dwell in contentless awareness. The surprise is that in the absence of experience there is still something. In the absence of experience there is still awareness, and when experience commences there is a memory of contentless awareness and there are downstream consequences. In my view, this was the Buddha's insight (and not only his, sorry).

The end of sense experience is not the end of life and, for those who undergo cessation, life beyond death may well seem to make sense. Indeed, many who have undergone the cessation of experience express conviction about extra-corporeal and post-mortem existence, although this is difficult to reconcile with a reality in which nothing, ultimately, exists, or things exist in the kind of reductionist, merely conventional sense that many people draw from the Vajirā Sutta.

What's left out of almost every account of the chariot is the last verse: that only dukkha arises and nothing other than dukkha. If we take all the verses of the poem it forces us to think again about our metaphysical commitments. This may be why it is simply left out of discussions, starting with the restatement of the chariot simile in the Milindapañha.

But this all reflects the nature of experience. It does not reflect the nature of reality except that, in reality, human beings are capable of undergoing the cessation of experience without any consequence loss of basic awareness. Or, in other words, human beings are capable of contentless, non-intentional, awareness. But this awareness is pure subjectivity unrelated to the objective world. One cuts off from both channels of sensory information. To use this purely subjective state to make inferences about reality is misguided and it leads to bad philosophy (such as Madhyamaka).

Worse than bad philosophy, the whole mess is all too often framed in magical thinking. The Buddhist trikāya is not exactly like the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it might as well be. The Buddha is all too often a messianic figure, a saviour, a god (in practice and deed if not in name). Buddhism is a religion like any other religion, promising salvation from whatever it is that we desire to be saved from. In East and South Asia, Buddhists want to be saved from chaos and oppression, in the West we want to be saved from ourselves.

We can reliably infer the existence of a real world of matter and energy, existing in layers of increasingly complex structure. The nature of reality involves both substance and structure. Illusions, like identity, are products of human minds. Buddhism offers us no good reason to doubt this account of reality. But it does offer us a practical approach to attaining contentless awareness and a vision of being honest, kind, and generous in the service of making the world a better place. Indeed, it tells us, if we only listen, that pursuing contentless awareness leaves us better placed to be honest, kind, and generous; and attaining it more or less guarantees a high level of honesty, kindness, and generosity. But it also makes the methodological point that taking on honesty, kindness, and generosity as practices contributes to both personal and societal well-being and to progress in pursuing contentless awareness. 

However, I have to also say that, in my experience, people who attain contentless awareness don't like it when I question their personal philosophy; they often come to definite conclusions about the metaphysical significance of their attainment, and they are often unwilling to contemplate other conclusions. For those who undergo cessation, the state has a hyperreal quality to it and subsequently can become the sole authority that that person will acknowledge. Cessation tends to cement a view of reality, usually based on prior indoctrination, that is impervious to argumentation. For Gary Weber, for example, the Advaita-Vedanta spiel has become an unquestioned and unquestionable dogma. For Buddhists, the spiel is different but equally dogmatic. I see the magical thinking that is so prevalent amongst religieux as a barrier to social and personal progress. It seems to be ironic that anyone mired in magical thinking should insist that they have a monopoly on reality.

The other catch is that achieving cessation of sense experience and contentless awareness is not something everyone can do. The people who can achieve contentless awareness are a bit like concert pianists who have to be born with long fingers, have early opportunities to learn and practice, have a fascination with the process almost to the exclusion of other interests, and the determination to persevere with it through adversity. People who lack any one of the factors may still become good musicians but they won't make it as concert soloists. Still, as a community, we can create the conditions to help realise the potential of individuals. And we all seem to benefit from the pursuit as well as from the presence of people for whom honesty, kindness, and generosity are the default mode. 

It seems that the techniques we use to pursue contentless awareness and the ability of that state to transform our minds are relatively independent of doctrine or belief. Where I think Buddhist views about reality hamper us is in communicating about the practicalities and aims of what we offer. And where we hold unorthodox, religious views about reality we put very strong limits on who will listen to us. My epistemic hermeneutic is one way around some of these difficulties. The simplest thing would be for Buddhists to substitute the word "experience" where we would normally use "reality". Information about contentless awareness is already escaping from our context and becoming secularised. It is going the same way as "mindfulness". 

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