21 November 2014

Common Credulity

generic virus image
There's nothing like having a common cold to bring out the voodoo in one's friends. As I write this I'm a week into a cold, the first for well over a year. I've had a bad sore throat, aches and pains, and now I'm starting to get swollen sinuses and excessive mucus production. Classic viral infection. It's a story that must have been playing out in humans for 10's of 1000s of years. Apparently there are over 200 variations of the viruses that cause the range of symptoms that we call "a cold". We call it a "cold" or a "chill" because historically we thought that cold damp air upset the four bodily humours, and caused the symptoms. Some people still think that being cold and damp causes colds, though this is not true.

One of the main recommended therapies, as I'm sure readers will know, is vitamin C and lots of it. Tell someone you have a cold and like a Jehovah Witness on the doorstep asking if you "know Jesus", they will ask you if you're taking Vitamin C, because "It helps me so much when I have a cold". Hallelujah! 

We have Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling to thank for popularising Vitamin C. Back in 1970 he published a book called "Vitamin C and the Common Cold" which made some rather bold claims. Unfortunately the studies he based his book on have subsequently been discredited (by one of the authors of the study cited below). However he stimulated interest and since then many trials of varying have been conducted, but usually with confusing results. The way to deal with confusing results to do a review: combine all the studies done over a period and see what the averages look like. One of the largest ever reviews of research on Vitamin C was published in 2013.
Hemilä, Harri & Chalker, Elizabeth. (2013) 'Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold.' The Cochrane Library. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4 
This study showed no prophylactic effect, but some minor therapeutic effect. Excluding trials that were not randomised or double blind, the researches examined many studies with thousands of participants. They concluded:
"... regular supplementation had a modest but consistent effect in reducing the duration of common cold symptoms, which is based on 31 study comparisons with 9745 common cold episodes."   
but that...
"Trials of high doses [in the order of 8000mg] of vitamin C administered therapeutically, starting after the onset of symptoms, showed no consistent effect on the duration or severity of common cold symptoms." 
The regular supplement was between 200 mg and 2000 mg with the most common dose being 1000 mg. The mean reduction in the duration of the cold symptoms for adults was 7.7% (ranging between 4 and 12%). Thus if my present cold lasts 14 days (which seems to be normal for me in the UK) I could expect a reduction in the duration of my symptoms of approximately one day from taking 1000 mg of vitamin C per day. Taking doses of 8000 mg per day showed no increased benefit unless one was a marathon runner (or similar) in which case it was associated with a moderately lower the risk of infection. One day out of 14 is hardly spectacular and is certainly well under the perceived benefit that people claim to gain from taking it. Mind you the study showed considerable variation. It might be almost twice as much (almost 2 days out of 14), but it might be half as much. 

Something else to keep in mind is that with 200 separate viral agents causing a wide range of symptoms there is no standardised time that a cold lasts. Two people could even be infected with the same virus, at the same time, and still have symptoms of varying duration because of factors unknown. Of course scientists use control groups and statistical analysis to try to determine what is significant, but when every case of the common cold is different it's important not to overstate the value of these studies. For a lay person, dosing themselves with store-bought vitamin C and no control group, its not really possible to make sensible deductions about the efficacy of the stuff on their illness. Most of the studies that have been conducted have in fact been inconclusive or contradictory. Many of the studies conducted in the immediate aftermath of Pauling's book found no evidence at all for therapeutic effects of vitamin C. It's only in a large review that some clarity emerges.

So if the measurable effect is roughly one day in 14 why do people absolutely swear by Vitamin C and hawk it like bible-thumping evangelists? As pointed out in my précis of work on reason by Mercier & Sperber, we humans are very poor at solo reasoning tasks. Reason is a process that seems to have evolved for small groups to make collective decisions. One person proposes as idea and presents all the evidence for it (and thus confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning, not a bug), while other group members critique the idea and/or propose alternatives. Reasoning helps lead a small group to a decision. It does not necessarily lead to the truth or the Truth, but simply helps a small group decide what actions to take. Presumably the results of previous decisions play a part in critiquing the idea, but most of us simply cannot both propose and idea and critique it at the same time. Thus it's natural to argue for a remedy like vitamin C if one believes in it and to martial all the facts at one's disposal to support the argument. It's just that people making arguments find it hard to look beyond facts that confirm there argument. And it's up the rest of the group to come up with counter arguments. When a meme like "vitamin C is good for colds" becomes popular (due to a Noble laureate describing it as a panacea) then there are few people making the counter-argument and the reasoning process simply fails to work. There is no one to play the Devil's advocate and without that a theory cannot be properly thought about, let alone tested.

There is another possibility. I don't have my copy to hand, but there is an interesting supplement in Ariel Glucklich's book The End of Magic to do with perceptions of time. While studying tantric healers in Varanasi, he also came to know some divers. These men free dived from rowing boats to find treasure on the bottom of the Ganges (I think it might have been gold from corpses, but the reason is immaterial). Asked how long they could hold their breath these men answered in all sincerity "15-20 minutes". Which is incredible! Or it would be if it were true. In fact when timed they were under for about 5 minutes, which is about the physiological limit and similar to pearl divers and others to do this for a living. So where they lying? Glucklich concluded that they were not lying, but their sense of time when underwater became distorted. The diving is in fact quite dangerous as the river has strong currents and a huge amount of debris. Diving stretches the body's physiology, but when you add danger it magnifies the effect. Subjectively the divers experienced the time as much longer than the more objective observer sitting safely on the boat with a stop-watch.

I wonder if something similar happens to the ill person? Being ill seems interminable. I for one sleep badly when I have a cold and feel wretched for days on end primarily because of this. Perhaps time perception is altered. And something which promises to reduce the time of suffering becomes subjectively inflated. I wonder if an effect like this could be measured? 

Science Reporting

Part of the problem is the way such science is reported. This particular study seems to have been widely and wildly reported. The Daily Mail summed it up this way: 
"Taking vitamin C DOES reduce the risk of a cold - but only if you exercise
  • Vitamin makes no difference to couch potatoes
  • But in those who work out, it can HALVE the risk of a cold and help speed up recovery, say Finnish experts
  • Children are more responsive to the vitamin than adults"
Remembering that the "exercise" referred to was marathon running and the associated doses of vitamin C were in the order of 8000 mg which is 10,000 times the daily requirement for the stuff in the body. The result doesn't apply to the kind of moderate exercise that most people manage. In fact they chose not to focus on the result in the way that I have, i.e. on the demonstrable (if variable) therapeutic effectiveness of vitamin C in reducing the duration of symptoms. That was a more positive story. The Mail, generally speaking, is a right-wing paper with an agenda that includes demonising the poor and unhealthy. It is famous for regularly featuring front page stories on the latest cause of cancer or cure for cancer, with a preference for the former. In the Mail's world everything is either a cause or cure of cancer. The slightest hint that a substance, or especially a food, causes cancer and it goes on the front page. So for them it's natural to see the story as a criticism of "couch potatoes" and to focus on the negative side of  health stories. 

Another right-wing paper that loves health science stories, The Telegraph, reported that "Britons are wasting million of pounds buying vitamin C supplements to ward off colds after researchers found they have no benefit at all." This lack of prophylactic effect is consistent with the present study, but note the contradictory message compared with our other story. The review cited above is also referred to in the Telegraph story though no link is provided to the study. On the other hand another study shows that a small zinc sulphate supplement did seem to offer some protection from colds in some children. Though if you read carefully the author of this study carefully hedges the benefits of zinc with a "possibly". Zinc possibly prevents colds. "Might" is a long way from "does". Another more thorough report on the same study (chosen at random from many) says:
"[lead researcher] Allan concedes, “I certainly don’t want to be telling parents to put their children on zinc every day to prevent the common cold. The research is not very robust.” [emphasis added]
Why does one report on this research contain the words "The research is not very robust" and one not? Clearly reported news is not objective and one has to take into account what message the editor of the publication is trying to send. In this case the Telegraph wants to tell Britons they are idiots for spending money on cold remedies. And if we want to see the original report? From yet another source we (finally) learn that "the review is published in the Jan. 27 issue of Canadian Medical Association Journal." And this enables us to identify it as:
G. Michael Allan and Bruce Arroll. 'Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence.' CMAJ (published ahead of print January 27, 2014).
But this is not available for free online reading (unlike the previous study). So the average person simply hits a dead end at this point. There is no way to check what the journalist is saying, and in the case of the Telegraph the journalist has clearly mislead the reader. If you search for research on this subject the results vary so wildly that it is very confusing. How is a lay person supposed to make an informed decision? The simple answer is that we don't. We almost never do. We decide based on what we already know, what our friends and family say, and some fairly random research on Google. Most of us are not able to assess the reliability of the information. It's an invidious position to be in.

Happily the large meta-analysis is free online, and these large studies of studies are probably the best way to assess the effectiveness of any given treatment. So we can rest assured that in the case of vitamin C it's worth taking when you have a cold. 


I thought of this point having more or less finished the essay above. It might have been possible to weave into the main narrative, but in a way it works as a standalone comment because it highlights something about the public perception of medicines. Notwithstanding the poor standards of science reporting in the newspapers, the studies referred to above are very careful to eliminate the placebo effect by using double blinds and randomisation, so that even those administering the treatment don't know who is being given what. The placebo effect was first noticed because it skewed results in drug trials where the participants or the doctors knew what treatment was being given. When the patient believes that they are receiving an effective treatment that treatment is more likely to be effective and/or like to be more effective than if they believe they are getting no treatment (there's some suggestion that the knowledge of the administering doctor can also have an effect). From the scientists point of view this means they can be fooled into thinking that a drug is more effective than it is (they are really only interested in the chemistry and not the psychology of drugs they hand out). 

Thus although the scientists are at pains to eliminate the placebo effect to describe only the effects of the drug that are due to it's chemistry, as a member of the public looking for an effective remedy one needs to make a slightly different calculation. Of course one wants to take an effective treatment, but the placebo effect means that a large factor in the effectiveness is that one believes the treatment is effective. In other words we have this equation:
Vitamin C + credulity with respect to vitamin C are (on average) more effective than vitamin C alone. 
Of course no one measures this extra effectiveness, because the scientific credibility of drugs rests on their their chemical effects. But where it has been measured, the placebo effect is really quite a significant factor in health treatments.

Lay people might like to think of placebo as the credulity bonus. Doctors of course are supposed to be forbidden by moral codes from over-stating the effectiveness of drugs, despite the fact that many drugs -- like antibiotics and antidepressants -- are routinely over-prescribed. It would certainly be less harmful to prescribe vitamin C for colds than it is prescribing antibiotics. The excess vitamin C over the ~40mg or so recommended by the NHS is just excreted in urine and there are few side-effects even at relatively high doses. 


next week it's back to limbo.

14 November 2014

Arguments For and Against Antarābhava.

One of the features of Buddhist rebirth beliefs under the microscope, is a great deal of disagreement and dissent between various Buddhist schools of thought and even internally to each school. This disagreement is seldom given sufficient attention. There is no single agreed account of rebirth or karma and I've already used this blog to highlight a number of disputes that in some cases are unresolved after more than 2000 years. In this essay I want to return to the subject of the antarābhava or interim state. I previously tackled in The Antarābhava or Interim State as a Vitalist Concept (11 July 2014) which critiqued the views of Sujato and Piya Tan. In this essay I will note some findings from an article by Qian Lin (2011) and another by Robert Kritzer (2000).

Lin points out that many of the traditional arguments for or against the existence of the antarābhava rely on lists of people who are called anāgāmin. Since this did play a central role in Piya Tan's apologetic for antarābhava and I glossed over it in my previous essay I will go into it in a lot more detail here. Lin surveys the relevant literature in Pali, Sanskrit, Gandhari, and Chinese and summarises the various lists of types of anāgāmin, giving information about the sectarian affiliations of the lists and discussing the discrepancies. He points out that even under close scrutiny, the history of the idea of antarābhava is unclear. We cannot tell which version of the antarābhava (or even no antarābhava) came first. I will make a comment on this at the end of this essay.

The word anāgāmin means "one who does not come [back]" (from ā√gam 'come') and is usually translated as "non-returner". In early Buddhist texts there are four types of noble disciples (P ariyapuggala): stream-entrants (P. sotāpanna), once-returners (sakadāgamin), non-returners (anāgāmin) and arahants. The various types are defined by which of the 10 fetters they have broken or weakened; and by how many rebirths they have yet to suffer in the kāmadhātu or sphere of sensual desire. The anāgāmin, having broken all of the five lower fetters, attains nibbāna without further rebirth in the kāmadhātu (hence they do not 'come back').

One thing to be aware of here is the Buddhist habit of working out permutations. If we have the unawakened and the awakened, the Buddhist exegetes had a penchant for listing all the possible states and treating each as if it were a real category. Another example is the paccekabuddha. It's unlikely that this category of awakened who did not teach has any basis in history (though compare Vinay Gupta), but if one is working through the possibilities, then this is one situation that can hypothetically exist. In all likelihood the anāgāmin is merely hypothetical (indeed the category is impossible to test). Thus although a lot of ink has been spilt over the interim realm based on the interpretation of this category, whatever the conclusion is, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. The discussion only makes sense within the religious parameters of Buddhism, and only follows the internal logic of Buddhism. It tells us nothing whatever about the world. That said, my task is to essay the various forms of afterlife believe held by Buddhists, so clarifying this aspect of Buddhist belief is important for a complete history of the idea.

To complicate matters there are canonical and post-canonical lists of subtypes of anāgāmin which vary in unpredictable ways: for example they may have the same list items but in a different order, and some philological problems remain with the texts, so that some terms are unclear in meaning. In these lists there are five sub-types of anāgāmin, of which one called antarāparinirvāyin which must mean something like "one who is liberated in-between". In other languages:
  • Pāli antarāparinibbāyin
  • Gāndhāri aṃtarapariṇivaï
  • Chinese 中般涅槃
Texts grouped by list type with school affiliation
(see Lin p.165)
The crux of the subsequent argument rests precisely on the question, "Between what?" The situation becomes more complicated as even the subtypes are sub-divided so that there are three kinds of antarāparinirvāyin. There are various approaches to explaining a total of seven sub-types of anāgāmin and there are three different lists of seven (the texts the different lists appear in along with their sectarian affiliation are represented in the table, right). The most prominent is the Pali Purisagati (Destination of Men) Sutta (AN 7.55; iv.70-4). This describes each type in terms of their practice, their level of realisation and uses a simile to illustrate the differences. Of the various lists all have the antarāparinirvāyin as the first member, but they are spread over a number of texts related to a range of different schools.

The Case Against Antarābhava

Lin surveys two main interpretations of the lists of anāgāmin types. The first occurs in the Aṅguttara Nikāya and the Chinese Madhyāgama and utilises the Iron Bowl Simile. In this simile an iron bowl (ayokapāle) is heated all day and struck with a hammer (Lin may have based his discussion on the Chinese counterpart in the Madhyāgama, as he discusses the simile in terms of an iron "slab": 159-60). The fate of the anāgāmin is likened to a chip or spark which flies off. For the sake of brevity, we'll stick to the similes for the antarāparinirvāyin anāgāmin. Struck by the hammer the chip...
  1. arises and is extinguished (nibbattitvā nibbāyeyya)
  2. arises, flies up, and is extinguished (nibbattitvā uppatitvā nibbāyeyya)
  3. arises, flies up, strikes the floor, and is extinguished (nibbattitvā uppatitvā anupahacca talaṃ nibbāyeyya).
The traditional Theravāda interpretation of the antarāparinirvāyin anāgāmin found in the Puggalapaññatti is that the practitioner is reborn as a deva in the rūpadhātu and achieves liberation there before mid-life. This is consistent with the Theravāda view outlined above. "In-between" here is literally taken to mean the mid-point of life (in the rūpadhātu) i.e. between deaths. The 舍利億䰓誾曇論 = *Śāriptrābhidharma (T 1548) associated with the Dharmaguptaka Sect has a similar interpretation. Note that here that nibbattitvā is from nir√vṛt and nibbāyeyya is from nir√vā, and thus despite superficial similarities (rv > bb in Pali) the two words are not etymologically related.

Theravāda exegesis, particularly the Abhidhamma text, Kathāvatthu, explicitly denies the possibility of an antarābhava (Kv 361-5; Aung & Rhys Davids 1960: 212-213). A major problem with antarābhava from the Theravāda point of view is that the word is not found in the suttas. The whole idea of an antarābhava is in conflict with models such as the khandhas and the possible destinations for rebirth (gati). It is never mentioned as a gati. There is also the huge problem of continuity. For the Theravādin Ābhidhammikas the continuity of the viññānasota or stream of consciousness can only be maintained if rebirth is instantaneous: the last moment of consciousness in the dying person (cuticitta) must be the direct condition for the arising of the first moment of consciousness (paṭisandhicitta) in the new person. The more so because the cuticitta and the paṭisandhicitta have the same object (ālambana), as does any subsequent moment of bhavaṅgacitta (resting-state mental activity). If this series is interrupted the whole Theravāda model of how karma produces rebirth, including their solution to Action at a Temporal Distance, breaks down. So, historically, Theravādins reject the antarābhava on both scriptural and logical grounds.

Even so, in practice many modern day Theravādins accept the existence of an antarābhava, as noted in my previous essay. Lin cites the study by Rita Langer (2007: 82-84) which records that in Sri Lanka most lay people and many bhikkhus, against Theravāda orthodoxy, believe in an antarābhava. This ties in with local folk beliefs about the afterlife. Prolific translator Bodhi also seems to accept the idea of an antarābhava in his Aṅguttara Nikāya translation (see 2012: 1782 n.1536). Blogger and writer, Sujato also seems to accept it. Sujato (2010) glosses the Theravāda arguments against antarābhava and concludes:
"These argu­ments sound sus­pi­ciously post hoc. The real reason for the oppos­i­tion to the in-between state would seem rather that it sounds sus­pi­ciously like an anim­ist or Self the­ory."
While he is correct to be suspicious of vitalist or animist theories, he does not consider impact of discontinuity between beings on viññānasota (i.e. the destruction of the whole mechanism for karma carefully worked out by the Theravāda Ābhidhammikas). For Sujato the clinching argument comes from a single reference in the Kutuhalasāla Sutta (SN 44.9)
‘And further, master Got­ama, when a being has laid down this body, but has not yet been reborn in another body, what does the mas­ter Got­ama declare to be the fuel?’ 
‘Vac­cha, when a being has laid down this body, but has not yet been reborn in another body, it is fuelled by crav­ing, I say. For, Vac­cha, at that time, crav­ing is the fuel.’ [Sujato's translation]
His note shows that at least one of the Chinese counterparts to this text does not imply any gap. They also show that this passage is overlooked by the Kathāvatthu discussion. The question, then, is did this text even exist at that time? Sujato concludes that:
"the Buddha, following ideas current in his time – for Vac­chag­otta was a non-Buddhist wanderer (parib­bā­jaka) – accepted that there was some kind of interval between one life and the next."
Apart from general caveats about what the Buddha might or might not have believed being entirely obscured by history, we must concede that this sutta is phrased in such a way as to allow for the idea that the author might have accepted a gap between death and rebirth. However note that Buddhaghosa glosses this by saying it refers to the moment (khaṇa) when between death (cuti) and arising of the paṭisandhicitta (SNA 3.114), i.e. Buddhaghosa is concerned to preserve the integrity of the viññāṇasota. 

The context here resists the interpretation of antarābhava. Vacchagotta is involved in speculation about where famous people have been reborn or even if they have been reborn at all. The question raised is about rebirth generally, about how rebirth can occur at all. Vacchagotta's doubt is specifically related to not being reborn, he is perplexed about how someone is not reborn. In the metaphor "Fire burns with fuel, not without fuel" (aggi saupādāno jalati, no anupādāno). The metaphorical distance between one fire and the next is spatial not temporal. In answer to the question, what causes fire to spread across space and ignite new fires, the answer is wind (vāto), the archetype of physical movement. The wind element causes fires to spread. To then read the question about rebirth in temporal terms, as explaining a time gap between bodies (kāya) is to misunderstand the metaphor. The question, really, is about what drives a person (satta) from body to body (note the metaphysics of the question are still not orthodox Buddhism).

On the other hand it is de rigueur for Buddhists to allow the beliefs of their interlocutors to stand in an argument without disputing them, but to turn the conversation away from the content of beliefs towards practice. Thus when in the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha declares to the two Brahmin students that, unlike their own teachers, he definitely does know Brahmā, Brahmā's world and the way to Brahmā's world, we need not take the author literally. He is using the language of the theistic Brahmins without contention because his purpose is not to dispute metaphysics, but to direct attention to experience. Now, when the author of the Kutuhalasāla Sutta puts these words in Gotama's mouth he does not waste time having Gotama refute the metaphysics of rebirth, but simply gives the standard answer as to the condition for all kinds of rebirth: if one has any kind of existence the primary condition for that is craving. It's not, as Sujato seems to imply, that craving (taṇha) is a special kind of fuel (upādāna) for existence in the antarābhava. Craving is what keeps the rounds of rebirth turning. Taṇha is always the upādāna for bhava.

So if we see the Buddha answering a general question about rebirth in terms of an otherwise absent idea of antarābhava it really doesn't make sense. We cannot from such obscure and difficult passages claim to know the mind of the Buddha. In terms of Theravāda metaphysics, another kind of being in a previously unmentioned interim state is a philosophical disaster: the whole Abhidhamma model of karma collapses (which effectively means that Theravāda Buddhism collapses because answers to so many other questions ride on the model of karma). This means that even if some Theravādins believe in an antarābhava they are left with the task of reconstructing the whole of Theravāda metaphysics to account for it. In the process they abandon Buddhaghosa. Though we can see that antarābhava is attractive, it's clear that the implications of the belief have not been thought through.

The Case for Antarābhava

The literature which argues the case for the antarābhava is more extensive than the contrary. Lin highlights the Saṅgītiparyāya as containing an important argument in favour of antarābhava. This text (T 1536) is a Sarvāstivāda commentary on the Saṅgītisūtra (= P Saṅgīti Sutta DN ) included in their Abhidharma. In this reading the antarāparinirvāyin dies in the kāmadhātu, arises in the antarābhava and attains nibbāna before being reborn in the rūpadhātu. Other types of anāgāmin are reborn in the rūpadhātu and attain nibbāna from there, slowly or quickly. This pattern is also followed in the Vibhāṣā and the *Saṃyuktābhidharmahṛdaya. The Abhidharmakośa mostly agrees and confirms the reading of antarāparinirvāyin.

Like the Theravādins, the Sarvāstivādin Ābhidharmikas had been developing Buddhist doctrine in order to solve problems in the received teachings, particularly the problem of Continuity and the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance (See Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance). As a result of the solution they adopted, the Sarvāstivādins ended up with the opposite problem to the Theravādins. Where the Theravādin model of continuity breaks down with an antarābhava, the Sarvāstivādins reasoned that there would be no way to maintain continuity through death without an antarābhava.

The Sāṃmitīyanikāyasśāstra (associated with the Sāṃmitīya Sect) argues that vijñāna without rūpa (i.e. a body) is not possible and that some kind of body is required to carry vijñāna from one rebirth to the next (Kritzer 2000: 241). This is significant, because wrapped up with antarābhava is the idea of the manomayakāya the so-called "mind-made body". Although neither Lin nor Kritzer mention this entity it is crucial in some accounts of the afterlife and thus at some point we will need to consider what it is and how it functions (I'll return to this idea in a forthcoming essay).

For a further detail of the Yogacāra arguments for antarābhava we can turn to Kritzer (2000). His article examined the views of Vasubandhu, especially as found in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Vasubandhu's auto-commentary on the Abhidharmakośa) but also crucially the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇi. The Bhāṣya is both the most systematic and one of the most influential accounts of the subject, as much for its portrayal of Vasubandhu's opponents as for his own views. Much of the contemporary scholarly writing on antarābhava is based on the Bhāṣya, and in many ways it has been over used as a source text on schools whose own literature is lost, fragmentary or only preserved in Chinese (especially the Sarvāstivādins). Kritzer points out that despite commonalities with the Sarvāstivāda account, the two should not be equated as he shows by examining arguments in the Vibhāṣā, one of the foundation texts of the Sarvāstivāda.

I want to write a separate summary of Kritzer (2000), since it will be quite long, but for now will try to give a flavour of the arguments. The crux seems to be a development of the idea vijñāna supported by rūpa mentioned above. Vasubandhu returns to an agricultural metaphor for the life-cycle of humans comparing us to rice plants (cf. comments on the fivefold-niyāma in Experience and Free Will in Early Buddhism). Vasubandhu's interpreters have read this different ways, but what he seems to be getting at is that the rice seed provides continuity between rice plants. What we do not see is one rice plant becoming another rice plant with no interval. Vasubandhu imagines that humans produce "seeds" when they die (though here he seems not to be referring to the karmic seeds stored in the ālayavijñāna). These seeds provide us with an interim body of a sort that sustains vijñāna until it can connect with rūpa again in rebirth (it's here that the idea of a mind-made body is both relevant and paradoxical because it suggests that a manokayakāya is the manas playing the role of rūpa in order to be a condition for the arising of vijñāna - i.e. it involves circularity that is disallowed by other doctrines of how conditionality works). The Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇi contains a series of questions and answers including this one:
Question: how does one know that there is an intermediate existence? Answer: because [when a being] dies here, there is no way for his citta and caittas to go without support to another place. It is not like an echo because [an echo] is merely an illusion. It is not like a reflected image because that [object] does not perish. And it is not like grasping an object because there is no movement [of consciousness in the case of perception]. Because these similes are inappropriate, the intermediate existence must be understood to exist. Thus, one must contemplate the arising of rūpaskandha in accordance with this”. (Kritzer 247)
This ties in with another image related to rice. Vasubandhu uses the example of a load of rice being transported from one village to another. It does not simply disappear from one village and appear in another, but goes on a journey through a series of stages. In other words Vasubandhu is, unlike many of his predecessors, thinking explicitly and abstractly about causation. Change or movement, as Vasubandhu observes it, is not instantaneous but gradual and thus rebirth cannot be instantaneous either. This may well hark back to Nāgārjuna's abstruse discussions of change in the first chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Sujato may well argue here that this metaphor is analogous to the fire metaphor in the Kutuhalasāla Sutta: that the transportation through space is the root metaphor for rebirth, and that as transit through space is not instantaneous then rebirth cannot be instantaneous. Something must effect the transit between bodies. In response we might question whether reifying the metaphor is helpful. Is the transmission of certain crucial (moral) information about the actions of the previous life onto the next life so as to determine the realm and circumstances of rebirth simply a physical process, like spreading fire or transporting rice grain? Or does the metaphor allow for differences? For advocates of substance dualism the mind is clearly a different stuff to the body and cannot be subject to physical laws or it would not work. One of the features of ESP, a feature of many Buddhist discourse, is that it works with no regard for physical distance: in clairvoyance for example, one knows the thoughts of others as they think them. For advocates of substance monism the idea of an afterlife is so unlikely that it is hardly worth thinking about, but presumably a substance monist would insist that information transfer must take an appreciable time: like downloading a file from the internet. However, no Buddhist metaphysics excludes miracles, magic or ESP.

Vasubandhu is clearly trying to avoid the charge of eternalism by making the antarābhava analogous to other states of being: vijñāna arises in dependence on the manifestation of rūpaskandha in the antarābhava. The scriptural argument against this is simple and was stated in the Kathāvatthu more than 2000 years ago: if there is a an interim state of being, then why is it not included in traditional lists of such states? If there is rūpa then this is (effectively) a rebirth. Why is it not listed as a rebirth destination (gati)?

Vasubandhu's main argument is similar in form to Xeno's paradox. The counter argument is that if some interim state between rebirths (even transition from kāmadhātu to the rūpadhātu) is definitely required, then the same argument holds for the transition from the kāmadhātu to the antarābhava. By Vasubandhu's reasoning we are forced to postulate an antarā-antarābhava and along with it some even more subtle form of being. And so on ab absurdum. Every transition requires an interim state between the original state and the changed state with infinite regress. So the idea of an antarābhava does not solve Vasubandhu's observed problem with causality.


The logic of the arguments outlined is entirely bound up with versions of the Buddhist worldview. As with all afterlife beliefs, there is no way to argue about the antarābhava from first principles. How we view the antarābhava is entirely dependent on what we stipulate at the outset. On traditional arguments, it is either required or forbidden depending on our starting assumptions about how karma and rebirth work. For religious Buddhists this has meant, essentially that religious arguments (based on scripture) carried considerable weight and that reasoned arguments were always constrained by religious arguments.

And thus it is all the more curious that contemporary religious figures such as Theravāda bhikkhus and scriptural commentators reject the religious arguments of their own tradition and adopt the antarābhava, even though it invalidates their own model of karma and rebirth. Such doctrinal conflicts have clearly never bothered the religious lay people very much. Lay Buddhism has always been a religion of faith and propitiation rather than intellect and theology.

My earlier essay pointed out some of the philosophical problems that the antarābhava entails: it seems to involve a form of eternalism. This is something that the Continuity problem cannot ever avoid: either there is discontinuity or there is continuity. In the former the problem of how to transmit information karma is unsolved, in the latter the solution is inevitably eternalistic. The idea of dependent arising doesn't actually solve this dilemma, it only disguises it. There are any number of problems with using pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything. One cannot take a description of the phenomenology of mental activity presenting itself to awareness and turn that into a general metaphysics and especially not into a physics without creating problems.

So despite the fact that Theravādins settled on their explanation (until recently) and Māhāyānikas settled on Vasubandhu's explanation, in fact neither the problem of Continuity, nor the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, were definitively solved by either party. The problems were simply shelved as original intellectual contributions dried up. In India, Buddhist exegesis became a competition with non-Buddhists traditions on matters previously considered inconsequential to the Buddhist project; while in Sri Lanka and Burma it turned into increasingly elaborate restatements of old ideas. I'm not well enough informed about Buddhism outside Indian to form definition opinions, but my impression is that the problems of assimilating Buddhism into a culture like China presented such massive problems that Buddhist theology went in entirely different directions. The Chinese seem to have deified the Buddha, whereas the Tibetans were constantly occupied with managing the massive proliferation of teachings. Modern Buddhism largely ignores discontinuities and is mainly concerned with presenting Buddhism as a transcendent truth with no visible flaws, a panacea that applied to everything, results in Utopia, emerging fully formed from a singularity we call Buddha. Could we be any further from the historical nature of our own religion?

At the outset I mentioned that it was unclear from Lin's account whether antarābhava was part of the original narrative of Buddhism or not. I now think it is clear that it is a late addition. Awareness of problems like Continuity and Action at a Temporal Distance only emerge in the post-sutta literature of the Abhidharma. Antarābhava simply doesn't occur in any early text, even when the concept of punabbhava is prominent. The single reference which seems to point to a poorly defined belief in at least a spatial distance between lives, hardly changes the picture. The fundamental disagreement about antarābhava means it can only have emerged once Buddhism had began to fragment into sects. The arguments evinced by the various sides rely on mature Abhidharma theories. The Theravādins only consider it as a reaction to the Abhidharma theories of other schools. So antarābhava was not part of the original Buddhist narrative about the afterlife. That said, the problems which led to antarābhava being proposed as a solution were in place early on.



Aung, Shwe Zan & Rhys Davids, C. A. F. (1960) The Points of Controversy: or, Subjects of discourse being a translation of the Kathāvatthu from the Abhidhammapiṭaka. Pali Text Society. First published 1915.
Bodhi. (2012) The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.
Kritzer, Robert. (2000) 'Rūpa and The Antarābhava.' Journal of Indian Philosophy 28: 235–272.
Langer, Rita. (2007). Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and its origin. Routledge.
Lin, Qian. (2011) 'The antarābhava Dispute Among Abhidharma Traditions and the List of anāgāmins.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 34(1-2): 149–186.
Sujato (2010) Rebirth and the In-Between State in Early Buddhism. http://santifm.org/santipada/2010/rebirth-and-the-in-between-state-in-early-buddhism

07 November 2014

Why I am Not a Feminist.

Entertainer Bill Bailey
is a feminist, apparently. 
I don't like our Prime Minister David Cameron. I don't like him personally. I can't stand his puffy face, his mannered voice, or his inflated moralising tone. I certainly don't like his politics (to the extent they are visible over and above his pandering to various right-wing interest groups). I usually refer to him as David Camoron. As hateful a public figure as I've ever known.

Last week he fell foul of the media for not capitulating to pressure from women's fashion magazine, Elle, to be photographed wearing a tee-shirt with the legend "This is what a feminist looks like". This was after Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, and coalition partner and Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, were pictured in the media wearing a version of the tee-shirt. Leaving aside that Ed and Nick are rating very badly in the polls in the lead up to a general election and are apt to do anything that might win a vote, and leaving aside the detrimental effects on women from reading magazines like Elle, a lot of men have been donning the tee-shirt and/or declaring that they are feminists. Looking at the men (mostly entertainers and politicians) wearing these tee-shirts they all seem to be famous for two things: craving attention and craving approval. Neither profession is the acme of moral rectitude or (self) respect.

The attitude seems to be that if you are for gender equality then you are a feminist. I find this peculiar. I suppose these men who declare themselves to be feminists are trying to express solidarity with women's struggle for equality and against oppression. While I also feel a sense of solidarity for women's struggles, I don't imagine that this makes me a feminist any more than loving women makes me a lesbian. This tee-shirt incident and some other cues got me thinking about my relationship to feminism.

Feminism as I Understand it.

My education in Feminism was ad hoc and informal. My mother self-identified as a feminist from my earliest memories of her (at least from the early 1970s) though I couldn't really give a coherent account of that that entailed (mostly it seemed to be about hating my father and various other men). When I moved to Auckland and started attending high-school many of my friends were women and this has continued to be true my whole life. I've always respected intelligence wherever I've found it. One of my close friends at high-school, Mary, was a much more thoughtful feminist, who became an academic and does research in Women's Studies and Sociology. We had many discussions in the 1980s and 1990s about some of the basic ideas of Sociology and Feminism. I wasn't always convinced (particularly on the subject of the gender identity nurture/nature argument), but I could see that women had been oppressed historically and that despite some gains there was still some way to go. 

Some of my women friends at university in the mid-1980s were ideological Feminists who were entranced by Dale Spender and similar authors. It was from these friends ca. 1985 that I first heard the idea that "all men are rapists and that's all they are" (a quote from a character in Marilyn French's 1977 novel The Women's Room). My friends tried to argue that this was in fact true and worked through the logic with me. At the time this left me speechless. Did my friends really think of me as a rapist and only a rapist? Rape being such a heinous crime, to be lumped in with rapists because I was born male was a bit of a shock. This remains one of my strongest impressions of feminism. 

After graduation and a period of drifting, I began a 15 year career as a Librarian. 90% of librarians are women. All of my bosses were women during this period. Most of the professional women I knew in that phase of my life were self-described feminists and were also reading French, Spender and other Feminists. I never had a problem working for and with women in general. I admired many of the women I worked for and with.

Some of the key figures in my intellectual development since have also been women. My first meditation teacher was a woman called Guhyaprabhā. Sue Hamilton transformed my understanding of Buddhism to the point where I am effectively a Hamiltonian. Jan Nattier is my idol as a researcher and writer. Collett Cox helped me to understand the Sarvāstivāda and the larger problems in Buddhist Doctrine. My views on evolution were profoundly influenced by reading Lynn Margulis, who was also a vocal feminist (I'm persuaded by her views on Darwinism and Victorianism). I also trained with some formidable women martial artists back in the day. The country I grew up in gave women the vote in 1896, I believe we were the first country in the world to do so. New Zealand prides itself on egalitarianism and also led the world in equality and anti-discrimination measures for women.

As a result it seems straightforward and indisputable to me that, for example, woman ought to receive equal pay for equal work; or that women ought not to be discriminated against simply for being female. I actually find the segregation of women in sports odd. Except perhaps for contact sports, where physical size is an issue, I see no reason to have separate women's leagues in most sports. It shocks me that the UK is so backward in the area of equal pay and slow (even resistant) to change. I am dismayed by the backward attitudes in places like Saudi Arabia (and their sphere of influence). In my writing, I long ago adopted the neutral third person pronoun (they, them, their) instead of the masculine pronoun when referring to people generally. None of which makes me a feminist.

My understanding of feminism is, as I say, rather ad hoc. The key feminist idea seems to be a particular reading of history. Rather like Marxists do, feminists see history as a history of struggle of one group against another. But instead of class against class, feminists see history in terms of the systematic oppression of women by men, and women's struggle for emancipation from this oppression. This has stronger aspects (e.g. all sex is rape; women have been enslaved by men) and weaker aspects (e.g. gender roles are imposed on children by society). The goals of feminists on this reading include over-throwing patriarchy and deprecating all gender specificity in society since it is inevitably used as a tool of oppression. 

Men and Feminism

Clearly feminism is a big subject and there are a range of attitudes. Some feminists are quite fond of men generally and some are quite hostile. I'm sometimes shocked at how open women are in their hostility towards men in general. I grew up understanding that sexist jokes and generalisations about women were unwelcome and unhelpful. But I now regularly hear sexist jokes about men, and I myself regularly seem to be stereotyped as "stupid", "inarticulate" or "unemotional". I've lost count of the times that women have said to my face "I hate men". According to some feminists men are responsible for "raping" the planet too. When I speak up, as I usually do these days, the accusation is usually hastily qualified "of course I don't mean you". I am a man.  If you hate men, you hate me. And discrimination on the basis of sex is just sexism. I was briefly trolled by some women on Twitter this year for a comment I made on entitlement, and told that my hat (a black felt trilby) indicated hatred towards women.

As I understand it, the feminist position is that I am, as a man, by nature of my birth, complicit in the systematic oppression of women through all time. This outlook has a number of corollaries. As a man of English descent (in Britain I'm referred to as "white") I am complicit in historic and present-day slavery and all the oppression due to Imperialism and Colonialism through the ages (I should say that I abhor the use of "white" and "black" as racial or ethnic terms, but in the UK they are standard and it's hard to avoid them here). As an educated man, and despite my solidly working class roots, I am complicit in the oppression of poor, uneducated people. I am supposed to have had all the advantages denied to women and to live a privileged life. I wish. My chief blessing in life seems to be having a good memory and curiosity, but I grew up in the cultural and intellectual desert of a working class family, on the edge of a small town in New Zealand, amidst a community deeply affected by alcohol & drug addiction, violence, and the worst downsides of colonialism. My life history includes far too many instances of being abused, assaulted, and bullied by both males and females. I've been left with life-long mental health problems and now chronic physical health problems. But apparently all that matters is that I am "white" and male. A "stupid fucking white man."

It seems to me that men who declare "I am a Feminist" are confessing that they feel complicit in the oppression of women. I never have felt complicit in that oppression, nor felt any sense of commonality with oppressors. To the best of my ability I have never been complicit in oppressing anyone (though I'm not perfect by any means). Indeed I have been oppressed and continue to feel oppressed by society.

The very labels are divisive. As though all women have more in common with each other than they do with any man and vice versa and are united in this opposition. Or that all white people are the same. I just don't get this level of pigeon-holing. For example I feel I have far more in common with women friends and family than with male strangers. Or with women who suffer mental health problems than with neuro-typical men. Or with women members of the Triratna Order compared with men who are not members of the Order. Or with just about anyone in the street compared with politicians in Westminster or the CEO of a major bank.

The idea of men as no more than beasts is expressed in the myth of Beauty and the Beast. Marie-Louise von Franz (The Interpretation of Fairy Tales) has referred to this story in particular (along with Cinderella) as representative of female individuation myths. In von Franz's Jungian perspective, the story tells us that a woman relates to her inner masculine sub-personality (animus) as a beast to be tamed. This process of taming and transforming the energy associated with the experience of animus is what the Beauty and the Beast story illustrates. It is also the plot of every single Mills & Boon romance. However most flesh and blood men are not beasts, nor can we be turned into Prince Charming through domestication. We are a mix. Some of us can be beastly (often because we have been brutalised in growing up), but some of us are angelic, and most of us are somewhere in between. War and art seem to define our edges: Hitler and Bach. None of us are helped by projected psychological dramas. Taming one's inner masculine is a very different thing from relating to a man. The same is absolutely true in reverse. Men are sometimes helplessly caught up in projections of their own inner feminine onto women. With disastrous effect on their relationships with women. 

Raising Men.

As for virtually all mammals, evolution has left human males (on average) with a larger body size, physically stronger than most females, and more aggressive. This is only because female mammals typically select larger more aggressive mates. Larger more aggressive mates are more effective protectors of foraging territory and the community. Though there are always trade-offs for this form of specialisation. A community must work hard to integrate, larger more aggressive members (primates mainly do this by grooming). Our communities are less and less willing to work in this way and more likely to demonize aggression ("all men are rapists"). With no external focus aggression can turn inwards on the community. We see this and/or pointless wars everywhere. But humans add an extra twist. Often the most powerful people are not the largest or most aggressive, but the most persuasive. Those who can persuade others to do their bidding, can and dominate societies. After all Julius Caesar & Napoleon were notoriously short of stature. Politicians are professional persuaders these days and not much else. If this is domination by persuaders is oppressive, it is almost always oppressive for the majority of men as well as women. This is the 1% lording it over the 99%. In my view this is a far more productive critique of history than one which posits the mere domination of women by men. Women have been (and still are) oppressed by men, but this occurs within a larger context. The emancipation of women stands alongside the need for the emancipation of people of colour, for example. Discrimination per se is a much larger topic than discrimination against women. Special interest groups are always needed in these circumstances to highlight particular issues, but special interest groups cannot be allowed to define the issues. 

Though the media often focus on crimes against women as a group, men are far more likely to be murdered or to be victims of violent crime. (ONS) We rightly feel a sense of repugnance for sex crimes, but for example in the UK 68% of murder victims were male, which means that men are more than twice as likely to be murdered as women are. We need to ask why the media don't play on this statistic the way they currently play on crimes against women or children. Men of colour are, almost everywhere in the Western world, the victims of institutionalised racism from the police. They are stopped, searched, and arrested far more often, and given harsher sentences than pale skinned men. Men make up the bulk of the spiralling prison population and a majority of the men in prison have mental health and/or drug problems, and/or come from backgrounds of abuse and homelessness (US Justice Dept). A disproportionate number are men of colour. Men in prison are typically already brutalised when they get there, but certainly brutalised by the time they get out. When we look at the situation with regards crime and say "men are beasts" we are ignoring the degradation that is required to bring men down to that level and blaming the victims.

Like most men of my generation, I was largely raised by my mother and educated by female primary school teachers. I was raised to moderate how I used my strength with women even when it seemed unfair, as it often did in my neighbourhood where girls were just as likely to be the aggressors in conflict. One was not supposed to win fights with girls even when they started the fight; but one was not supposed to lose fights with other boys either. The line between bully and sissy was thin when I was a boy.

Positive male role models were few and far between. Most of the men I have known in my life have been floundering around wondering what the point of their life is. Many of the men in my family have had addiction and mental health problems. While we can all applaud the strides made by Feminists towards securing equal status in society for women, unfortunately in parallel there has been a devaluing or even a demonisation of men and a destruction of male social contexts. Male stereotypes are relentlessly negative or unobtainable, just like female stereotypes. Except, where female stereotypes are frowned on by liberals, male stereotypes are still being actively promoted.

My Dad was dyslexic. At school, he would go up to the blackboard to spell a word, get it wrong every time, and be beaten by the teacher in front of the class every time. Years of daily public beatings and humiliation, plus the tragic accidental death of his older brother in WWII, the early death of his Mum from cancer and his Dad's subsequent slide into alcoholism, the violent breakdown and breakup of his marriage, and yeah, Dad was a bit tongue tied at times, a bit emotionally repressed. He found it hard to express himself in words. Words only ever betrayed him. Though if one only paid attention to what he did with his hands he was a marvel (he kept his vintage 1928 Austin 12/4  in working order and did the most beautiful brick-work I've ever seen). There was little or no understanding or help available to my Dad. He was just expected to man-up and soldier on from an early age (to "harden up" as my older brother and his wife say to their son). And that, as much as anything, destroyed my Dad.

When I think about the ways in which feminists I know characterise men, and the relations of men and women, they simply don't seem to apply to my own life. They are too simplistic and blunt to be useful to me as a way of understanding myself better.

The Problem

If anything I think men and women need to work together to create a better world. If any part of our society has a problem we all have a problem. At present its clear that the main problem in the world is that we are dominated by a hegemonic group of hyper-persuasive men and women, the 1%, who are parasitising the rest of society: the new, neolibertarian aristocracy. They have more or less captured government and public opinion in most countries, if not directly, then through powerful lobby groups with huge resources and through ownership of the mass media. They take far more than they need, offer as little as possible in return, and use their wealth to try to insulate themselves from the day-to-day realities of human life as far as possible. Nothing much new about the set up, except the mechanisms they currently use, especially their ability to persuade followers, are far more efficient than ever before. They resist liberalism, resist moves towards equality, and resist anything which threatens their hegemony. Step over the threshold of any major corporation and you leave liberalism and democracy behind. Corporations are feudal fiefdoms, where the only stakeholders who count are shareholders looking for short-term profits. If it is 1% who are promoting inequality and oppression, then a polarised, gender based approach to the problem, which blames all men, simply cannot help. The average man (as ever) is just a pawn in a much larger game.

Oppression is evil, but it is something that affects us all. There is an active force oppressing us all and we need to stand together against it. I don't see feminism as a unifying force or a rallying cry. It doesn't even appeal to all women, and it offers little for men, except a limited popularity with some women. When the voice of feminism appears to be a women's fashion magazine you know that something is deeply wrong. Feminism has certainly benefited women in the West and I do not mean to denigrate or dismiss feminism or feminists. But I don't think feminism is broad enough in its outlook to tackle the problems we face today or that the feminist view of history is productive of solutions for the broader problems of inequality and the capture of wealth and power by the modern day aristocrats. For example, what is the feminist response to climate change? Even if you removed all men from the equation, the women of the 1% would carry on regardless, because their values are not shared with feminists. We need to claw power back through laws that ensure good citizenship on the part of business. That power ought to go equally to men and women.

So for all these reasons (and others) I'm not a feminist. No one's asking, but I wouldn't wear the Elle tee-shirt (I would not want to be associated with a fashion magazine for any reason). I might wear a tee-shirt that said "this is what the 99% look like", but on the whole I try not to use my clothing as an ideological platform. The statement I prefer to make is that nobody owns me or can buy my opinion. If anything my cause is the cause of sober reflection on what is really happening and a refusal to just go along with the crowd.


Update (8-11-14): I didn't go looking for this, it was retweeted by William Gibson: Myla Dalbesio on Her New Calvin Klein Campaign and the 'Trend' of Plus Size Modeling. In this interview in Elle magazine, model Dalbesio, who is a very skinny young woman says:
“It’s kind of confusing because I’m a bigger girl,” Dalbesio says. “I’m not the biggest girl on the market but I’m definitely bigger than all the girls [Calvin Klein] has ever worked with, so that is really intimidating.”
It's views like this, and the accompanying photographs that lead to Body Dismorphic Disorder in young women. Elle's connection with feminism would seem to be rather tenuous, more so that of male politicians and entertainers. 
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