28 August 2015

Having Seen a Form with the Eye...

If the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) represents the epitome of early Buddhist metaphysics, then what would its counterpart be in terms of practice? After all it is one thing to accurately define the terms of Buddhist practice, to make it clear that we are examining experience and that we are not speculating on the nature of reality, that the proper domain of application of Buddhist thought and training is the world of experience. Most people are familiar with the "meditation" suttas, especially the Ānāpānasati (MN 118) and the Satipaṭṭhāna (MN 10). But is there something between metaphysics and meditation? On one hand I've already explored the Spiral Path texts (Western Buddhist Review) which give a general outline of the Buddhist program in more practical terms, corresponding to the threefold way of sīla, samādhi and paññā. However, I've also noted that sīla or Buddhist ethics seems to defined in different ways at different times (Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism).

My Pali reading group is reading the Cūḷahatthipadopamasuttaṃ (MN 27) which seems to suggest layers of practice of exponentially increasing intensiveness. The broad basis is ethics. Following the precepts establishes the basis for Buddhist practice. Then one practices restraint of the senses to eliminate the hindrances, preparing the mind for meditation., which prepares the mind for insight. 

I can easily be seen how this relates to the Spiral Path teachings. But instead of sīla, samādhi, and paññā we have an extra layer: sīla, saṃvara, samādhi, and paññā. In fact, in the Spiral Path we can see that what I have previous labelled sīla is in fact typically more like saṃvara. This essay is mostly about the saṃvara aspect. However, the hatthipadopama also provides a context that allows us to see, what I previously mistook for two kinds of ethics, as distinct practices of differing intensity.

In the hatthipadopama the practice of saṃvara revolves around the phrase so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā 'having seen form with the eye, he...'. By looking at what ideal practitioners do having seen a form, we get a sense of how the early Buddhists expected a skilled practitioner engages with the practice of saṃvara
so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī. yatvādhikaraṇamenaṃ cakkhundriyaṃ asaṃvutaṃ viharantaṃ abhijjhādomanassā pāpakā akusalā dhammā anvāssaveyyuṃ tassa saṃvarāya paṭipajjati, rakkhati cakkhundriyaṃ, cakkhundriye saṃvaraṃ āpajjati.
Having seen form with the eye, [the ideal disciple] doesn't grasp at signs (nimitta) or at secondary characteristics (anubyañjana). Since dwelling with the eye-faculty unrestrained, mental events (dhammā) of covetousness and grief, evil, unwholesome stream into [their mind], for that reason they practice restraint (saṃvara), they protect the eye-faculty, they undertake restraint with respect to the eye-faculty.
The analysis is repeated for each sensory mode. This passage or a close parallel of it is found through out the four main Nikāyas, e.g.
  • DN i.70, i.270;
  • MN i.180, i.268, i.346, i.355, ii.162, ii.226, iii.2, iii.34, iii.134 (as iii.2, abbreviated),
  • SN iv.104, iv.111, iv.176, iv.178,
  • AN i.113, ii.16, ii.39, ii.152, ii.153, ii.210, iii.99, iii.163, v.206, v.348, v.351
So having seen form with the eye (cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā) the practitioner is not (more literally) "a grasper of signs" (nimitta-ggāhin). The etymology of nimitta is uncertain, though likely related to the verb √ 'to measure'. Generally it means 'a sign or omen'. The latter is an important connotation. However there are several other main senses and most likely here it refers to 'outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute, phenomenon.' From this point of view, the problem apparently is not that we grasp the form itself, but that we grasp the mental image of it. 

The early Buddhists were dismissive of fortune telling and omen reading.† Here the implication is that the experience of a form, the signs by which we know we are having an experience, are like the omens that foretell events. For anyone who is a skeptic the omens are meaningless, at best a coincidence at worse completely unrelated except in the imagination of the credulous. The unawakened treat the nimittas that arise from seeing forms as being like omens. The skilled practitioner sees them for what they are.
† Some years ago now the late Professor David Pingree noticed that the Brahmajāla Sutta contained a list of omens which monks are forbidden to use. See Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism.
This is a very important distinction. It suggests for example, that it's not the money we grasp, when we grasp at wealth, but the mental counterparts of it. In other words it's not the physical act of grasping that is problematic, but the mental concomitants of it: basically the desire for the pleasurable experiences we associate with the act.

The practitioner is also not a grasper of secondary characteristics (anubyañjana-ggāhin). The base word is byañjana or vyañjana, a word that is used for words and letters. Like nimitta, byañjana can refer to a sign or characteristic. With the prefix anu- it means 'accompanying characteristic, secondary attribute. Thus we can take this as relating to papañca (see my two essays on the word and the meaning). Nimitta is the experience of contacting a sense object, where anubyañjana is our internal reflection on, or reaction to, the experience, the experience of having had the sense experience. 

So the practitioner does not grasp at either of these types of experience. Things arise in our sensorium and they pass away. When we allow this process to take it's natural course without imposing our desires and aversions onto it, then we are free. But if we do impose them, then evil, unwholesome thoughts invade out minds, such as desire (abhijjhā) for more pleasure, despondency (domanassā) at the cessation of pleasure or the failure of pleasure to arise. So in order to be free of unwholesome thoughts we protect the sense faculties.

Sometimes this is referred to as indriyesu duttadvara or "guarding the gates of the senses". In turn, as I explored long ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words, appamāda (often translated as 'vigilance' or similar) is also found in this context and etymologically means 'not blind drunk' or in context 'not blind drunk on the objects of the senses'. Which here clearly refers to practising restrain as sense cognitions arise and pass away. Yes, we can also practice wise attention, and not seek out overt stimulation, but the key is what we do with sense experience that arises and passes away.


Variations

A similar passage is referred to as saṃvarapadhāna 'striving for restraint' (DN iii.225), and vaṇaṃ paṭicchādetā 'dressing a wound' (MN i.122, AN v.538) or uttariṃ karaṇīyaṃ 'the highest obligation' (MN i.273). Another minor variation (DN iii.269, 291, AN ii.198-9, iii.279, v.30, cf. DN iii.244) puts the above more simply:
Idhāvuso, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā neva sumano hoti na dummano, upekkhako viharati sato sampajāno.
Here, friend, a bhikkhu, seeing form with his eye he is not elated or despondent, he dwells stoical, mindful and attentive.
An important variation for understanding the Buddhist account of suffering and liberation occurs at MN i.266:
So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe byāpajjati, anupaṭṭhitakāyasati ca viharati parittacetaso.
Seeing a form with the eye they are attracted to a pleasing type of form and averse to an unpleasing type of form, they dwell without establishing mindfulness of the body and with an unprotected mind (parittacetaso)
Unsurprisingly this failure to protect the mind sets off a chain reaction which is can be seen as a subset of the twelve nidāna (or the nidānas could be an expansion of this list). And thus they give rise to all the different kinds of disappointment, discontent and suffering (kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo). In some passages (SN iv.119, SN iv.184, iv.189, iv.198) the verb sārajjati is replaced by adhimuccati 'drawn to'. In these passages the contrast is between having guarded doors (guttadvāra) and unguarded (aguttadvāra).

At (MN iii.216, iii.239; AN i.176) the phrase is part of a very differently worded teaching, but still seems to aim at the same approach. The Saḷāyatana-vibhanga Sutta appears to be influenced by Abhidhamma categories of dhammas. It revolves around the idea of manopavicāra 'mental exploration' which Buddhaghosa relates to applied and sustained thought (vitakkavicārā MNA v.20). In the Theravāda Abhidhamma there are 18 kinds of manopavicāra which are based on the 18 dhātus.*
* the 18 dhātus are the six sense objects or external bases (cha bāhirāni āyatanāni); the six sense faculties (indriya) or internal bases (cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni), and the classes of cognition (cha viññāṇakāyā).
The procedure is like this:
Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati.
Seeing a form with the eye they investigate (upavicarati) a form which is a source of misery, or investigate a form which is a source of elation, or investigate a form which is a source of equanimity.
This sutta makes some distinctions. For example there is a contrast at MN iii.219 which asks about the six kinds of equanimity associated with household life. Here a householder having seen form with the eye uppajjati upekkhā bālassa mūḷhassa puthujjanassa... "He gives rise to the equanimity of the foolish infatuated hoi polloi, etc.". This kind of equanimity is of a lesser kind, because it dhammaṃ sā nātivattati "It does not transcend the dhamma." Dhamma here probably means "mental-object", which is how Ñāṇamoḷi & Bodhi translate it. The sutta continues to outline a complex system of practice.


In Practice.

At the end of the section on saṃvara the hatthipadopama says
so iminā ca ariyena sīlakkhandhena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena indriyasaṃvarena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena satisampajaññena samannāgato vivittaṃ senāsanaṃ bhajati araññaṃ rukkhamūlaṃ pabbataṃ kandaraṃ giriguhaṃ susānaṃ vanapatthaṃ abbhokāsaṃ palālapuñjaṃ. 
Endowed with this noble mass of virtue, and possessing this noble restraint of the senses, and possessing this noble mindfulness and attentiveness, he resorts to the wilderness, the foot of a tree, a mountain, a grotto, a mountain cave, a cremation ground, or a pile of straw in a clearing in the jungle. 
And here, of course, he or she sits down and deals with the five hindrances, and having abandoned them (pañca nīvaraṇe pahāya), enters the first jhāna, and so on. In the hatthipadopama, having purified, stabilised and made their mind malleable through jhāna, the practitioner then turns their mind to insight. In this case it is through contemplating the tevijja, i.e. the three mystic skills: the knowledge recollection of former births (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and the knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It seems very likely that the early Buddhists saw this passage as literal: they believed in rebirth and they believed that knowledge of the way that beings were reborn was attainable. But the tevijja is not the only description of Buddhist insight practice and anyone of them could be substituted at this point.

Thus there is a sequence of increasingly intensive practices:


sīla - saṃvara - sati-sampajāna - nīvaraṇe pahāya - jhāna - vipassana

What we can take from this, is that simple ethics is not sufficient to sustain a meditation practice. It is certainly necessary, but in fact we must prepare through a far more rigorous approach to sense experience. This essay has focussed on saṃvara or restraint, but having established saṃvara, there is still some way to go before attempting meditation. One must be mindful, in the sense of paying close attention to ones movements and actions. Certainly hatthipadopama associations sati-samapajāna primarily with awareness of the body. And then one is ready to tackle the hindrances. And it's not simply that the layers follow on from each other in a linear way. Each seems to me to be an order of magnitude more demanding. It's not a simple step from sīla to samādhi. In fact samādhi is several orders of magnitude more intensive than even a quite rigorous practice of sīla.

This gives us the sense that meditation proper is actually quite an advanced practice. We sometimes talk about the necessity for basic ethics in relation to meditation, but we seldom seem to have the approach of exponentially increasing focus leading to concentration. There's a passage from the Upanisā Sutta on the Spiral Path which supplies an image for this kind of progressive approach:
Just as monks, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains and water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies. Having filled the crevices and gullies small lakes are filled, and then the great lakes. The great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up. The small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
The passage is much more common in the Chinese Spiral Path texts found in the Madhyamāgama (see my draft translations), it's attached to almost all of the Chinese Spiral Path texts, not just the counterpart of the Upanisā. This suggests that it struck a chord with early Buddhists in the North. It is trying to say that if one only fulfils (paripūreti) the first stage, then practice overflows into the next. Another Spiral Path text describes this process as natural (dhammatā). Though experience shows that progress still requires continuity of purpose.

To me, Buddhism begins and, more importantly, ends with experience. This kind of approach to increasingly intensive explorations of experience seems particularly significant. It's probably not enough to be generally ethical and to attempt some meditation techniques. The text and it's counterparts suggest that a far more systematic approach is required. And that each layer of practice is more demanding then the previous. When we skip layers we all too often find ourself floundering because we have not done the preparation. 

~~oOo~~

21 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part II


plausible
Part I of this essay introduced Justin L. Barrett's ideas on reflective and non-reflective beliefs. Non-reflective beliefs are formed through experience of interacting with the physical world and unconsciously assimilated from people around us as we grow up. Reflective beliefs are thought through, but are shaped by non-reflective beliefs before we become aware of them. We find concepts plausible to the extent that they match our existing non-reflective beliefs. In part II we move on to discussing how supernatural beliefs fit into this basic pattern. 


Minimally Counter-Intuitive Concepts 

Belief in supernatural agents, gods or ghosts, does not require a special part of the brain. What is required is a concept that mostly fits our non-reflective beliefs, and thus feels intuitive, but that has a few counter-intuitive characteristics, enough to make it interesting and memorable. 
"These minimally counter-intuitive beliefs may be characterized as meeting most of the assumptions that describers and categorizers generate—thus being easy to understand, remember, and believe—but as violating just enough of these assumptions to be attention demanding and to have an unusually captivating ability to  assist in the explanation of certain experiences. "(Barrett 2004: 22)
Concepts that are maximally counter-intuitive are simply not believable.  Concepts that are maximally intuitive are believed without question and become part of the background. It is the concept that is mostly compliant with our non-reflective beliefs, but which violates them in an interesting way that captures our attention. Barrett offers the following examples: A dog that grows old and dies is unremarkable; but a shoe that behaved the same way would be a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Similarly an inanimate object that talks, an agent that can break the laws of physics, or a plant that eats animals are minimally counter-intuitive. Of course the latter really exists in the form of the Venus-flytrap. So being minimally counter-intuitive does not rule out the concept from being true.

A dog that talked might be minimally counter-intuitive, but a dog that wore a suit and ran a Fortune 500 company would be violate too many of our non-reflective beliefs and would be considered bizarre. Though this would work in a cartoon. Barrett asserts that what counts as bizarre varies according to individual experiences and cultural factors, but that whether a concept is minimally counter-intuitive does not vary. This is because all people have roughly the same collection of mental tools doing the categorising and describing that produce non-reflective beliefs. 

If a concept has too many counter-intuitive elements it seems implausible, but just enough makes the concept more interesting and memorable. And such concepts constitute a special group in Barrett's theory, precisely because they are interesting and memorable. Myths, legends, films and cartoons all play with this distinction. For example the talking wolf in the story of Little Red Riding-hood or the little bear in Goldie Locks are able to play an active role in the story and help to make the story memorable. Similarly for Pinocchio the wooden toy who becomes a real little boy. Many religious beliefs fall into the category of being minimally counter-intuitive, or are made up of minimally counter-intuitive elements. 

One of the key minimally counter-intuitive ideas is that death, the end of the physical processes of life, does not mean the end of mental processes. Children, for example, can readily conceive that death means the end of physical processes, but regardless of religious background, they tend to assume that mental processes continue independently of the body (Bering et al. 2005). So they are able to correctly assess that dead people no longer need to eat, but will assume that they still get hungry. This is very similar to the belief behind Brahmanical ancestor worship involving offerings of food and drink to the departed (preta). The offerings are transformed into smoke by the fire, the smoke drifts up into the sky where it nourishes the departed. Buddhists (rather cruelly) parodied the Brahmanical pretas as a class of tormented beings who can never slake their thirst or sate their hunger. Children of all faiths and none seem to reason this way about death from an early age. They do not see death as a full-stop, but assume that mental processes of the dead keep going, despite the death of the body. Many factors go to sustaining and reinforcing this kind of mind/body dualism. But underlying it are non-reflective descriptions of agents that do not rely on embodiment, so that unseen agents are minimally counter-intuitive. 

As Thomas Metzinger has said: 
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (Metzinger 2009: 78)
The separation of mind and body is a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Most of the time we experience our minds and bodies as inseparable. The out-of-body experience conflicts with this in an interesting and memorable way and it also consistent with our other non-reflective beliefs about death. We can go further, because this concept of being disembodied goes towards explanations of the world that address some of our deepest fears. If the thinking part of us can exist disembodied, then the Just World (or Moral Universe) Theory is a possibility, because life after death is a possibility. An afterlife is attractive and satisfying on all kinds of levels. So a complex of non-reflective and reflective ideas and concepts reinforce each other and make religious beliefs seem plausible, even though they contain counter-intuitive elements. It is this explanatory power that explains the success of religious ideas, despite the presence of counter-intuitive aspects. 


To summarise, a concept will seem plausible to us if it fits with many of our non-reflective beliefs (feels right), and also with our current reflective beliefs (makes sense). The relationships between reflective and non-reflective beliefs is recursive, a reflective belief seems plausible if it concurs with our non-reflective beliefs, but is also shaped by them to be more plausible. A minimally counter-intuitive concept fits with a large number of our non-reflective beliefs, but violates a small number of them. This feature makes the minimally counter-intuitive concept interesting and memorable. If the minimally counter-intuitive concept can also be put to use explaining mysteries, then it can seem extra-ordinarily plausible in our minds, despite the remaining counter intuitive elements. For example, religious miracles are implausible, but in the context of religious belief as a whole, this implausibility is what makes them interesting and memorable.

Of course many religious ideas, such as the Christian creator/law-giver/saviour God or Buddhist karma, are neither simple nor minimally counter-intuitive. Barrett offers two solutions to this problem.

Firstly a complex belief might be made up of parts that are minimally counter-intuitive. For example the idea of life after death is minimally counter-intuitive. The idea that morality can be understood via an accounting metaphor is broadly intuitive and seems to be common to many cultures (not least to Buddhist and Christian accounts of morality). And a just world is also a minimally counter-intuitive concept. So a complex concept such as a just world involving moral accounting in the afterlife, which is not itself minimally counter-intuitive, might not violate the principle because its parts are minimally counter-intuitive. And this this may be facilitated by the way we think about such things. When trying to think about karma we seem to take parts of it one at a time. Although Buddhism teaches that "actions cause rebirth"; we tend to think in terms of "actions have consequences" and a range of other partial concepts are are either intuitive or minimally counter-intuitive, so that the whole seems plausible.

Secondly systematic religious education (not to say indoctrination) and experience of religious practice might shift our non-reflective beliefs, so that what we feel to be intuitive may shift to accommodate what was previously felt to be counter-intuitive. For example we may not find "higher states of consciousness" an intuitive idea until we begin to meditate and start to experience them. The reinforcement that comes from being in a group dedicated to certain propositions cannot be under-estimated. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it:
"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."
However we've already seen in Part I of this essay, that under time pressure people tend to revert to non-reflective views about God. Some complex theological concepts crumble when people don't have time to be reflective. We may consciously take on religious beliefs for reasons other than their plausibility or implausibility. We may, for example, want to fit in with a community we find attractive. I think Barrett plays down, or overlooks, the importance of social factors of religious beliefs in his account.

We've already mentioned in passing that unseen agents meet the criteria of being minimally counter-intuitive (they are typical of agents except for the fact of being invisible). We must now consider in more detail how our brains process information about agents.


Finding Agents Everywhere

A key mental tool in religious beliefs is what Barrett calls the Agent Detective Device. What he means by this is the complex function of our minds which scans the environment for agent directed activity. This ability has clear evolution advantages. We need to be able to identify the presence of other agents. It is a key ability of social animals that we recognise others of our kind as agents of the same type as ourselves. Social primates, for example, work together to ensure that the group has gets enough food and is protected from predators. Predator detection is another key task for agent detection. When we're outdoors there are all kinds of sights and sounds, all constantly changing. Working out if the bump in the night is something to be afraid of, has clear survival benefits. And better to err on the side of caution and have a first approximation that the sight or sound is an agent, because taking evasive action from an inanimate object costs us little, whereas failing to take it against a predator might cost us our lives. This is why noises at night cause our hearts to race. That raised heart-rate prepares us for decisive action that may save our lives. For this reason Barrett refers to the Agent Detection Device as hyperactive, hence his acronym for it is HADD.

Barrett does not go into this, but it's seems that humans are not the only animals who do agent detection in this way. Mammals and birds also scan the environment for agents and tend to err on the side of treating movement as caused by an agent. This video of a cat being freaked out by a cucumber is both amusing and demonstrates the principle. The cat's owners have sneakily placed a cucumber behind it while it was focussed on eating. On seeing the harmless vegetable it launches into a spectacular defensive manoeuvre until recognition dampens the response. Similarly scarecrows deter crows because they set off the HADD.

One of the consequences of being predisposed to detect agency in the environment is that we attribute agency to things on very little evidence. Many a time we attribute agency to insentient and inanimate objects. Many people treat their computers as having agency for example, and this may be why artificial intelligence, in the sense of a human-like mind residing in a computer, seems so plausible to so many people. A sentient computer is minimally counter-intuitive, though scientists are not even close to creating an artificial mind. We also invoke Agent Detection in retrospect when we observe behaviour which is apparently goal seeking. Anyone who has sat around a fire, must have sometimes suspected that the smoke deliberately follows them wherever they sit. English people talk about the weather in a way that suggests they believe some moderately malign agent uses rain to torment them. Sometimes nature appears to pursue us, block us, or otherwise interact with us in a directed way. Our non-reflective fall-back is to seek an agent behind the action. Unseen agents are not entirely intuitive, but are minimally counter-intuitive.

Once an object is identified as an agent, or once a behaviour is identified as directed and therefore indicative of agency, it is passed to the Theory of Mind Device. The Theory of Mind Device recognises other agents as having a mind like ours, i.e. as having thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, memories etc. We model the inner life of the agent in order to predict what its next action will be and how we can best respond to that. With animals for example we predict whether it is likely to attack or retreat. We combine this with our knowledge of animals to predict the consequences of our own actions in these terms. This seems to be the evolutionary purpose of imagination, i.e. to model possible actions and consequences in order to determine a course of action. In the case of other members of our social group this ability to model potential actions and consequences is essential to being a group member.

Although Barrett does not say so, we might have extended his observation about hyperactivity of the Agent Detection Device, by observing that we are also predisposed to seeing all agents in human terms. In other words there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise non-human agents, to see their motivations for acting as being like our own. In the case of the dearly departed, we still identify them as agents, albeit disembodied, and our Theory of Mind Device describes what their inner life is like, and predicts what other kinds of properties the agent might have. Brahmins feed their departed ancestors because they understand that they themselves would hate to go hungry in the post-mortem gap between death and rebirth in heaven. It's not blind ritual or stupidity, as some Western scholars have ignorantly supposed, but empathy based on some very plausible suppositions that motivates the ritual behaviour in this case. That so many first world people fail to appreciate this and empathise with it, is more of an indictment of us, than of them. Which is not to say that ancestor worship is based on facts. It isn't. But it is a natural conclusion to come to and also expresses important values of caring for the community. 

Matthew Tyler Boden (2015) recently observed that supernatural beliefs do actually provide consolation. They help to explain why things occur and help people to understand themselves and the world (227). His 2015 study concluded:
The current study extends existing research by demonstrating that supernatural beliefs, broadly and peculiar beliefs, specifically, are considered adaptive in several ways, and the manners in and extents to which they are considered adaptive are associated with psychological benefits (229-30).
I know from long association with religious people of various stripes that part of the attraction of religious belief of any kind is the consolation it provides in the face of misfortune, old age, sickness, and death. 

Rationalists would have us replace religion with science. However, science is not always consoling or it is so complex that is does not help to explain to ordinary people why things happen. Also it explains how things happen, but not why. Science suggests that things just happen according physical laws and mostly without agents. This is not consoling (even to me and I love science). But worse, this view conflicts with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. If the question is how we should act with respect to other people, then a solid grounding in Newtonian mechanics is no help. General Relativity is more accurate, but still no help. Nor does Quantum mechanics shed any light. The "sciences" which might shed light on these subjects, i.e. the social sciences, are often hardly science at all. They routinely come out with simple truisms. I recall for example, seeing a scientific article that concluded that "time heals". Or they are deeply counter-intuitive - we want to have sex with one parent and murder the other. Or the vacillate between contradictory conclusions depending on the fashion of the day. From the point of view of the person in the street, the scientists cannot seem to make up their minds about anything. Whereas religious ideas seem "time tested and true", though this is an illusion since religious people argue more than scientists about what constitutes truth, and are prone to drastic direction changes inspired by revelations. From this point of view it starts to become clear why scientists have failed to persuade all, or even most, religious people to abandon religion. I would argue that the rise in secularism is not driven by people embracing science, but by a creeping nihilism. Not by finding meaning in physics, but by deciding that there is no meaning. And this is reflected in the growing prominence of Utilitarianism and Popularism in politics. 

What people actually believe is almost always a potpourri of ideas from a range of different sources. Modern Buddhists are unconsciously, but powerfully, influenced by the currents of modernity and have often tacitly adjusted traditional beliefs about karma and rebirth to fit with these currents. Many people are surprised when I tell them what the Pāḷi texts actually say about karma and rebirth. Very few, for example, seem to have grasped that the principle vipāka of kamma is punabhāva or rebirth. The Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon does not teach that "actions have consequences", so much as he teaches that "actions cause rebirth". 

A real problem with disembodied agents is that they have a superficial explanatory power and fit into our non-reflective beliefs about life. The fact that there are also counter-intuitive aspects to the belief is not, according to Barrett, a reason not to believe. Without specific training on how to observe events, we may miss the real extent to which a belief conflicts with the facts. An example I have used before, is that I know people who live in a "haunted" house. Many people who have lived there describe having met supernatural entities in the night-time. On face value a concept of a disembodied agent disturbing their sleep explains the situation. Then we read a description of sleep paralysis and realise that these particular hauntings are all classic examples of sleep paralysis, which does not involve any outside agency or disembodied mind. And yet some of my haunted acquaintances are reluctant to accept the sleep paralysis explanation because they are invested in the ghost: in a community of Romantics the supernatural interpretation is an important sources of kudos and social capital; having seen a ghost makes it more likely that the person will be seen as incrowd; but it also bolsters the non-reflective beliefs about the matter/spirit split and the afterlife. As Metzinger points out such experiences can be compelling in themselves, but they also often occur in a milieu where they fit hand in glove with other beliefs. Confirmation bias, that built in feature of reasoning, ensures that we treat confirmation of our beliefs differently that contradiction. We're likely to dismiss contradiction as irrelevant. 

We have particular ways of reasoning about agency. Most of the time it is transparent to us. We are aware of the results of this cogitation, but not the process. Agency Detection and Theory of Mind work unconsciously and produce non-reflective beliefs that both form the basis of comparison for reflection and also shape the reasoning process itself. With some introspection and a will to challenge conventional views we can have insights to some extent into how our minds work. What Barrett is doing is applying knowledge gained from neuroscience to construct a plausible narrative of how we navigate our world.


Conclusion

I find this account of belief in supernatural agency very helpful. It shows that belief in such agency is neither stupid nor crazy. It's not that believers are somehow inferior and non-believers superior. Religious belief is consistent with our non-reflective assumptions about the world, it is minimally counter-intuitive (or based on minimally counter-intuitive concepts), and emerges from the normal functioning of our minds. It is natural to have supernatural beliefs. Taken with ideas on how we make decisions, I think we begin to see why religious beliefs, like karma & rebirth, seem so plausible to so many people; and why simply arguing against them, or presenting "scientific" facts is not sufficient to change people's minds.

Karma & rebirth fit many of our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Although they contain counter-intuitive elements, these are not so great as to cause doubts in most people's minds. Indeed they make the concepts minimally counter-intuitive and thus more interesting and memorable. The explanations offered by karma & rebirth seem very satisfying. Many of my colleagues in the Triratna Order and acquaintances in the wider Buddhist world find that karma & rebirth both fit intuitively with their non-reflective beliefs, or as they say it both "feels right" and "makes sense". Rebirth seems consistent with how the world works for many people, especially if they have no training in Empiricism, and even for some who do. Karma, especially the more modernist "actions have consequences" style of karma belief, even more so. This is precisely what Barrett's theory predicts with respect to karma & rebirth. Arguing that karma & rebirth are counter-intuitive is not productive at this point, because it is precisely because the counter-intuitive elements that make them seem so plausible.

I follow Damasio in understanding the process of decision making as involving assessing our emotional responses to concepts. When a concept is consistent with non-reflective beliefs it feels good. When it conflicts with non-reflective beliefs, it feels bad. Feeling good, is more or less the same as feeling true. With minimal introspection we know what feels right, what feels intuitive, and we decide reflectively what seems true. Our reflective beliefs are shaped by and cohere with our non-reflective beliefs. If we ourselves or those close to us have experiences which can be interpreted as confirming our reflective beliefs as well, then we are ready to accept this. And as Metzinger points out in the case of out-of-body experiences, these kinds of experience are relatively common and extra-ordinarily persuasive. More so amongst a community of meditators.

In this way of thinking about the way we understand our world and make decisions, we also find the seeds of dissatisfaction and disappointment. While the "feels good = right" equation might have worked for pre-civilisation human beings, it does not work once we start living with the hyper-stimulation that comes with moderate levels of civilisation. And this may be why the upsurge in religious thinking in India is associated with the second urbanisation in the Central Ganges Valley.

The European Enlightenment bequeathed us two methods of approaching the world. The first was to pay close attention and to use instruments to get closer to the object, along with  standardised forms of measurement of increasing accuracy. The first such instruments used glass lenses to magnify objects, allowing us to see in more detail. We naturally seek to identify the regularities in our experience, so simply by paying close attention we improve the accuracy of our theories of the world. But the killer app for empiricism is not measurement per se, it is the second method, comparing notes. It is the comparing of notes that undermines the generalisations that any one person makes based on their experiences. Having multiple witnesses comparing measurements does indeed reveal the nature of the universe in a way that is almost impossible for the individual. The process of unravelling that nature is far from being finished, if only because each advance tends to also improve the accuracy and precision with which we can observe and measure. And limits of this improvement have yet to be reached.

The Enlightenment approach to understanding the world led to a devaluing of individual experience to some extent. Because if you are the only person who notices a phenomenon then it gets demoted to being an illusion at best and an hallucination at worse (presuming the witness is genuine and credible). This product of the Enlightenment provoked the reactionary Romantic attempt to revalorise individual experience. Romanticism is very influential in the English speaking world and has influenced how we see the arts especially. More particularly there are very strong threads of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, which are dominant because so few Buddhists have direct experience of practising Empiricism and so many have been taught to think of Empiricism as an enemy. Romantics like to validate individual experiences, the more unusual the better. The individual who has a peculiar experience is automatically seen as confirming the existence of a non-material world (essentially a world of spirit - see  Metaphors and Materialism). For a Romantic, unexplained phenomenon have the power of undermining reason and pointing to mysticism that cannot be explained by Empiricism because the experience is purely individual. 

It's important to understand the dynamic at work in the human mind, the inseparability of mind and body, of thoughts and emotions, the dynamic of what makes a plausible concept. Firstly it is important when we set out to examine our own conditioning and the views which shape our understanding of the world in order to free ourselves from intoxication with experience. Secondly, when we try to persuade religieux of our empirically derived point of view. In the first case this is a powerful tool for self understanding. We can see how views are like a gravity well into which we unconsciously fall and which takes a great effort to escape from. In a sense there is no such thing as a dispassionate point of view for the unliberated. What we must try to do is loosen the grip of views, by trying to see how views shape our world (our world of experience). It can takes years of practice to begin to see how the views we were conditioned to accept non-reflectively as children shape us, and to become disillusioned and disenchanted enough to set them aside. In the second case it means that we have to be extremely patient with people who do not share our views. Religious beliefs are some of the most intractable views there are, since they stem from our deepest desires and aversions. Arguing is unlikely to help. A Buddhist with no training in Empiricism, a strong conditioning in Romanticism, and a stock of personal experiences and anecdotes based on doing Buddhist practices, is not very susceptible to the argument I make here. I do not expect most Buddhists to be even interested, let alone convinced. None-the-less I think for those with experience of, or interest in, Empiricism, this argument provides a powerful explanation for the situation we are in vis-à-vis more traditional religious believers. We are more likely to understand them, than they are to understand us. And thus the onus is on us to be understanding.

It seems to me increasingly vital that we Buddhists make a distinction in what our goals are. The early Buddhists, at least, were clear that they sought to understand experience. When we say that we aim at insights into reality we are simply barking up the wrong tree. Nothing about the Buddhist methods will shed light on reality. Buddhists have little or no contribution to make regarding the understanding of reality. But Buddhist methods certainly do shed light on the nature of experience, particularly the first person perspective experience, and they certainly do provide some people with a sense of freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour. The trouble is that Buddhists find their own narratives about reality compelling.


~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

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

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607. http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/InstituteofCognitionCulture/FileUploadPage/Filetoupload,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

Cima, Rosie. How Culture Affects Hallucinations. Priceonomics.com. 22 Apr 2015.

Damasio, Antonio. (2006) Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

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

Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.
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