30 December 2011

Morality in Relationship

MANY OF MY BUDDHIST FRIENDS struggle with the idea that the intentions behind actions determine the ethical value of them, i.e. whether they are skilful or unskilful. Some really don't see how this could be. In studying the Kālāma Sutta a penny dropped for me about intention and action.

There is a tendency in the West to discuss ethics and morality in the abstract. We have hypothetical discussions about whether karma might have caught up with Hitler in his next life, or whether one could kill another human being if the intention really was kindness (in the case of euthanasia for instance). We don't always ground our discussion of morality in the day to day and personal. The Kālāma Sutta suggests that this is a mistake. The Buddha critiques a series of ten criteria for making ethical decisions. The first four relate to religious traditions: revelations, lineage, quotations, and tradition. The next five to ways of thinking: speculation, inference, interpreting signs, ideologies, and uncritical acceptance of what seems likely. The last criteria is respect for holy men. [1] He then offers the positive criteria of personal experience as a much better guide to ethical decisions.

My exploration of the terms and my justifications for these translations are set out in my full translation and commentary. Here I want to look at these criteria and what they tell us about the Buddha's morality. In the case of tradition the criteria refer to forms of knowledge which are revealed in various ways and passed down though a teaching lineage. Someone has a vision and organises a movement around themselves (or someone else organises it around them) and everyone who joins is expected to behave a similar way. The rationale for morality is the original vision - but this is not always rooted in practical relationships, and sometimes it ignores the reality of human interactions. Often this kind of morality includes arbitrary elements, morality which is not ethical but simply etiquette. The Vinaya rules for example are largely etiquette with no overt moral significance.

Similarly the various kinds of intellectual criteria refer to ways of thinking about morality which are not rooted in experience. The first is something like Kant's 'pure reason'. When we imagine what the world is like without any reference to experience we can come to some odd conclusions. Think about how influential the idea of the "four humours" has been in Western Society for instance - for may centuries they formed, on almost no evidence, the basis of psychology and medicine. This is one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment - that it grounded medicine in anatomy and physiology rather than abstract ideas. We might think also of some of the early psycho-analytic theories and how they sought to explain human behaviour in terms of imaginary psychic entities like ego, id, and super-ego; or complexes, or archetypes; or more recently 'repressed' memories. [2]

The last criteria amounts to aping the behaviour of a spiritual teacher. This has caused enough problems in Western Buddhism to need little in the way of elucidation.

Because the terms are actually quite vague and the translations less than certain, the thinking about them has been ambiguous. I wanted to relate the terms to what I perceived to be the dynamic of the sutta. Looking at what comes next the Buddha questions the Kālāmas about the effects of craving, aversion and confusion and points out that these root poisons make people behave unskilfully. The penny dropped for me when I saw that all of the resulting wrong actions are about how we relate to other people.

Buddhist morality is primarily about the quality of our relationships to other people. We extend this to all breathing beings (pāṇa), but it's mainly about people. Morality is often thought of as all of our behaviour, all willed actions. Ethics is the narrower subject of the limits which we place on our behaviour. Here we see that Buddhist morality is actually a slightly narrower subject again. It is not simply acting with craving or aversion that is problematic. It can be broader, but the basic Buddhist precepts emphasise relationship. It is relating to other people on the basis of craving or aversion that is primarily problematic, and it is working at this level which is transformative.

There is a caveat. Imagine that you eat what looks like a juicy sweet berry, but it turns out to be bitter. The aversion you feel is because the bitter berry is likely to be poisonous, and you spit it out in order not to be poisoned. This is not morally significant aversion. The attraction to the sweet berry in the first place is not morally significant craving. It is hunger, and a preference for high calorie food that is entirely logical and built into us by evolution. These kinds of attractions and repulsions are active within us all the time. Sometimes we make the mistake of demonising natural desires and aversions, and in doing so we miss the point.

Of course there are a lot of fat people in the developed world who just eat too much. But we could see this as taking the not given, as taking food which really would be better for someone else, perhaps a starving person to eat. Being fat does have health consequences for us, but the morally significance might be better located in the fact that other people are starving to death while we eat ourselves to death; and in the civilised world which has public health provision, the cost to other tax payers in dealing with the health problems that arise from obesity. Being fat is because we eat too much is a matter of moral consequence, though there is emerging evidence that our propensity to eat may be determined to some extent by how our parents and grandparents lived.

So what I'm saying is that the most morally significant craving is the craving that is expressed in relationship to other people, that makes us take their life or well being, their property (their food), their sexual partner, or lie to them. The Kālāma Sutta leaves off the fifth precept but adds that we might also incite other people to these kinds of acts. Similarly with aversion and confusion.

In the Kālāma Sutta the ideal Buddhist—the ariyasāvaka—is portrayed as radiating loving kindness to all beings everywhere. The morally bad person relates to people from craving and hatred and causes harm and misery. The morally good person relates to people from love, compassion, joy, and equanimity and not only does not cause harm or misery, but causes benefit and happiness. For someone who relates in this way there are said to be four consolations.

Now much too much has been made of these consolations, people see the Buddha equivocating on karma and rebirth, but I think they have been over interpreted. I do not think this text provides any justification for not believing in karma and rebirth (my reasons require more space than I have here, so please read my Kālāma Sutta commentary if you are interested). The Buddha clearly understands that acting unskilfully causes harm. I would like to comment briefly on the consolations regarding karma though. The Pāli is
sace kho pana karoto karīyati pāpaṃ, na kho panāhaṃ kassaci pāpaṃ cetemi. Akarontaṃ kho pana maṃ pāpakammaṃ kuto dukkhaṃ phusissatīti?

If evil is done to the [evil] doer, but I do not think (na... cetemi) evil of anyone - not doing evil acts, how will misery touch me?
Here, again, we see an evil action (pāpakammaṃ) explicitly linked to an evil thought or intention (pāpaṃ ceteti). The logic here is: because I do not intend evil, I do not act evilly, and therefore no evil will befall me. However we know, from hard experience, that life is not so simple. Evil happens to good people and vice versa. This cannot be a generalised statement about the nature of reality. But they are words to guide how we relate to other people.

If we approach people with aversion, for instance, we repel people. I have observed that no matter how apposite and insightful the information one is trying to convey, shouting it angrily almost guarantees that the intended recipient is not listening. If we are communicating angrily then the message is just "I am angry" and all subtlety is lost, the non-verbal communication overwhelms the verbal. I notice that street evangelists often sound angry because they are shouting, and here in England people avoid them like the plague.

Similarly we all know what it is like to be approached by someone who only wants to take from us. Take the case of the professional street fund-raisers who way-lay shoppers in the streets (called charity muggers or 'chuggers' in the UK). They use all the forms of polite human interaction: they greet with a smile, make a cheerful and often witty approach; they may even be a bit flirtatious. The forms are OK, but the context is all wrong. In the UK strangers do not approach you in the street, and if they do—if for instance they are lost or need the time—the approach is very hesitant and apologetic even. Under normal circumstances people here would not even make eye contact, let alone speak to strangers at random. The Chuggers exploit the conventions of intimacy without offering any actual relationship, they just want to get your money. So my sense is that there is something terribly wrong about chuggers. They give me the creeps.

When we see Buddhist ethics in this framework of the quality of our relationships and interactions it seems to me that the link between intention and outcome is much clearer. The consequences of our intentions manifest in our interactions with other people. It also becomes clear why skilful/unskilful are preferable to the more absolute terms good/bad. If ethics is concerned with how we relate to others, then this is a practical matter. So the notion of skill is relevant and skill is a spectrum: we can be more or less skilled. Also we can learn skills, which gets us beyond the idea of inherent good and evil which seems quite prevalent.


  1. Some people interpret the 9th criteria differently and group it with the 10th. For instance Nyanaponika & Bodhi in their Aṅguttara Nikāya anthology, Numerical Discourses, translate it as 'the seeming competence of the speaker' which is how Buddhaghosa's commentary understands the term. There is a certain symmetry to this and I may just be wilfully idiosyncratic.
  2. See also: 'Theory, and Why it's Time Psychology Got One.' Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists. 10.11.2011

See Also

On Action and Intention

On the Kālāma Sutta

23 December 2011

Of Miracles.

DAVID HUME is perhaps the greatest thinker to write in the English language, or so everyone says. I've been looking at his 1748 essay Of Miracles [1] which is very readable and couched in English not too different from my own. I think it is still relevant to the kinds of discussions that religious people still have about unusual experiences. The crux of the argument is this:
"...no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish..." (p.32)
Hume begins by establishing how we make decisions about reported facts. He argues that when we hear a report about something we weight it against experience. So if I tell you that I met an elephant on the road, you might immediately be doubtful because their are very few elephants wandering the streets of Cambridge. If I add that I was India at the time, my report becomes more credible because India is the kind of place on might expect to meet an elephant on the road. (It was in Kushinagar)

One of Hume's great insights is that we do not see causation per se. If we roll two billiards balls toward each other, they collide and continue on in different direction. The inferences we draw about the nature of their interaction is not based on observing causation, but "...are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction." In other words the collision of two balls has a predictable sequence. Hume is not, of course, the last word on this observation - probably Kant had the last word (to date), but Hume's is a very important observation. We do not see causation, we see a sequence of events, and it is the regularity of our observations which gives rise to the idea of causality.

However none of us will only believe things that seem likely. Unlikely things do happen. People win billions-to-one lotteries, are struck by lightening, etc. But, Hume argues, we do require stronger evidence in order to establish the veracity of and extraordinary claim. It is reasonable to entertain doubts about unlikely events. Hume sums up the reasons why we might doubt a report:
"We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations." (p.28)
So we must weigh up evidence when deciding whether what some says is true, or whether they have been deceived, or are trying to deceive us. With regard to miracles, these are all extraordinary because they defy what Hume calls the "laws of nature". Hume is not using this phrase in the scientific sense; nor, notice does he absolutise the idea by capitalising the words. He means such things as are observed with universal regularity:
"that... all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water". (p. 31)
This might these days be seen as a quaint definition, but in fact it still carries a lot of authority. We might quibble with the notion that the sun rises everyday - by saying that actually the earth turns; or that the sun will die in 5 million years; or by saying that it does not rise in the high Arctic during winter - but in everyday life the sun is observed to return each day by everyone on the earth, and the exceptions are do not deny the regularity of the observations of billions over thousands of years. The sun always rises. A miracle, according to Hume, is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent". The example he uses is the raising of a man from the dead. It would be extraordinary for a healthy person to drop down dead. But it would not be a miracle because we know that such things have been observed in the past, and that it breaks no law of mature. But the opposite, the raising of a person from the dead into life, does break the laws of nature. Hume probably chose this example to directly irritate Christians whose religion centres on the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected, and that they themselves will have everlasting life after death.

But note that Hume is not denying that miracles can happen. What he is doing is trying to establish the basis on which a reported miracle might be credible. And in Hume's mind a miracle would only be credible if other explanations were less believable, less consistent with experience, than the miracle itself. In the case of a dead Jesus being reanimated the report is scarcely credible at all, and is most likely false. At least there is no evidence presented which outweighs the breaking of the laws of nature. In which case Christians have most likely been deceived in the first place, and are deceiving us when they insist it happened.

Hume sets the bar for credibility rather high. And this will be a difficult bar for Buddhists, let alone Christians to reach. One of the ways we escape it comes from the psychoanalytic movement. We can see miracle stories as allegories for how our mind functions. Dreams, and fantasies need not obey the laws of nature. In stories we can do whatever we like. But traditionally religieux have taken miracle stories as literally true, and this modern view, while rescuing us from literalism is not necessarily one that was available before Freud and company. In any case Hume hoped:
" [this argument will] ...be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures; for so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane." (p.25)
I would say that after 263 years the argument has stood up well to the test of time.


  1. Hume, David (1985) Of Miracles. Illinois: Open Court. [first published 1748]

For a slightly chaotic, but none the less fascinating introduction to Hume try listening to the BBC's In Our Time podcast. A more thorough online introduction can be found in the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

16 December 2011

Commodification of the Self

I HAVE WRITTEN THAT I do not believe in virtual community, that the phrase itself is a misnomer, and I have been critical of the role of technology in our lives. Recently my attention was drawn to a rave entitled Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace by Carmen 'humdog' Hermosillo posted on The Well, an early online "community" in which she talks about the commodification of the self via the Internet. If anything this phenomenon has become more ubiquitous since she wrote her essay in 1994. [1]

The self here is obviously self without any of the technical spin normally associated with a religious point of view. A single example will suffice to show how the internet commodifies and on-sells the self. This process is exemplified, and perhaps even finds it's apotheosis in Facebook and other online social networking sites. Facebook is a profit making enterprise. It exists to make the owners rich, which it has done beyond their wildest dreams, and it does this by pushing entertainment and selling advertising. The form of entertainment it uses is ersatz social relationships and commodified thoughts and emotions. Each user expresses them self by broadcasts their verbalised thoughts and emotions. This is then re-presented for our 'friends' along with a number of adverts. The friends are supposedly people we have a social relationship with, though often there is no offline relationship at all.

It is the adverts that pay for Facebook. "Free" blogs, like this one, are more or less the same business model. I broadcast my thoughts and opinions which you consume and it's paid for indirectly. I do have Google ads, and get paid about USD10 per year for them. Google don't mind that this is not a popular blog, as long as it's active and some people read it and see the ads. Google's business is all about aggregates of activity. There are tens of millions of blogs like mine, and 100,000s more each day, and some get massive readership. The popular ones subsidise the rest of us. If you want to write an uber blog then lists of top blogs suggest you write about celebrities, technology, politics (certainly do not write the arcane elements of early Buddhist philosophy and linguistics!)

If you don't like my opinions, you don't stop using the internet, you just go consume some other opinions that suit you better - that you find more entertaining. The Internet is an almost infinite source of entertainment. And what is entertainment? Entertainment is an activity we undertake purely in order to experience certain emotions. Emotions are the opiate of the world, which the Buddha clearly knew when he described people as intoxicated by sensory experience. We are often blind to the emotions naturally occurring in us, and only feel the kind of intense emotions evoked by more extreme stimuli. News media actively seek to stimulate our reptile brain, to induce fear, disgust and anger. Just occasionally they try to make us laugh or coo (what I call kitten stories). On the internet the range of emotional provocation is much broader. Whatever emotion you want to feel in yourself, you can turn to the internet to stimulate it. We live in environments that are highly artificial and hyper-stimulating. Modern life dulls our emotions, and so in order to feel alive we seek out artificial stimulation: we're like people who have to have chilli on every meal, and have lost any appreciation for subtle flavours.

Since these personal opinions and stories are now a product being on-sold by Facebook, Blogger, Google et al, then our inner lives have become a commodity with a commercial value. And do we ever stop to ask whether this is a good thing? Should we not be paid by social media for providing them with entertainment content for the businesses that have made them mega-rich? Facebook is basically a social parasite. It kids us that by repackaging a service we already have (email) into a broadcast medium, that we are more in touch with people. But there is no 'touch' involved in email.

In my critique of so-called "virtual community" - ersatz community would be more a more accurate name - I said that online relationships lack eyebrows, they lack the multiple dimensions of personal relationships. Psychologists have coined a term for these non-real relationships: they're called Parasocial Relationships. These can include TV and novel characters, as well as internet friends we've never met. The former are like imaginary friends. Why do we indulge in this kind of relationship? We are social primates. We thrive in small groups where we experience a sense of belonging by being involved in the lives of our community. One of the ways we express our membership of the group is grooming each other. Some people have theorised that language evolved as a form of grooming, and I imagine that language can certainly play this kind of role - especially our non-word sounds. I wonder if texting is another form of grooming.

In the absence of a community to be involved in, we find substitutes in, for example, soap operas. Even quite intelligent people can get caught up in the lives of fictional characters, or in media creations in the form of pop stars. Whether it's JR Ewing, Harry Potter, or Lady Gaga, we want to feel like they are part of our lives. We know all kinds of details about the lives of people who've never existed, because we have a faculty and a drive to be socially involved, and if we don't use it we suffer. Just like a horse or a dog kept in isolation will slowly go mad, we humans do not thrive alone. But more than this we don't thrive when we are surrounded by strangers most of the time. The individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. However our communities are no longer spatially contiguous, and we have begun to rely on technology to bridge the gap. For many people their "community" is a disparate group only loosely connected. Such a community may be no more than a series of overlapping sets of cellphone numbers. I suggest that this is why people will interrupt a face to face meeting to answer their phone. Community is a value we all share. But note how isolating relying on the one to one connection of the phone is in case of the interrupted personal conversation.

Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype. All of our selves become commodities to be bought and sold. Nowadays our electronic identity can literally be stolen, and the selves of some celebrities are being hijacked by online impersonators. And we buy into this system, I suggest, at least in part because we are no longer embedded in a community. The whole enterprise is presented to us as a remarkable leap forward in human interactions that is facilitating closer relationships and easier communication, but it only seems attractive in a world where our neighbours are strangers and people are isolated. Accept no substitute.


  1. The full text of Humdog's essay is online in many places. I consulted the version on The Alphaville Herald website.

"When girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they used IM, nothing happened. By the study’s neurophysiological measures, IM was barely different than not communicating at all." Wired Science. 7.1.12

09 December 2011

Saṅkhāra qua Construct

This word saṅkhāra is one of the most puzzling terms in our Buddhist lexicon. It is used a number of different ways, meaning quite different things in different contexts. There is no reason why a word should not have different senses - a phenomenon known technically as polysemy 'many meanings'. Indeed polysemy is the rule with words in most languages. Take a word like gravity. It has a sense in Physics as one of the fundamental forces. As an adjective in ordinary speech it might signify that someone, or something is important or wise. Incidentally the Sanskrit word guru is cognate and means 'weighty'. Context usually resolves any contradictions so if I say that "Newton spoke with gravity about gravity", you'll probably be able to see the two distinct ways I'm using the word gravity. However within a technical jargon it is much less useful to have important words being polysemic, in fact it's downright confusing. And yet so many of our important Buddhists jargon terms are polysemic: dharma is particularly troublesome, and whole books have been written on this one word.

I want to highlight a particular use of this word saṅkhāra in a Pāli text, but let's see if I can encapsulate the main senses of the word to begin with. The Pāli saṅkhāra is equivalent to the Sanskrit saṃskāra - the skā conjunct being reduced to khā in Pāli. The root of the word is √kṛ 'do, make' and here the prefix saṃ is equivalent to the Latin com- and means 'with, together; or complete'. The basic sense here is 'to construct or make up', and a close English cousin is confect, where -fect is from the Latin facere 'to make, do'. The word has a technical meaning in Vedic, but we'll leave that aside for our present purposes.

Saṅkhāra occurs in Pāli as the second of 12 nidānas, and the 4th of 5 khandhas. In the first instance it seems to mean volitional activity (and is defined in terms of cetanā). In the second it suggests a wider definition of all mental activity or indeed everything constructed from conditions - e.g. in the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. It is used in the sense of 'function' in reference to the body, speech and mind. So we might say that it has the active sense of "putting together" and the passive sense of "having been put together". [1]

In the text I am exploring today - The Pālileyya Sutta (SN 22.81; S iii.94f) it seems to have the sense of 'construct'. I'm particularly interested in this sense because it appears to confirm an intuition I've had about this term for some time (which should alert readers to the problem of confirmation bias!). In the Pālileyya Sutta we find this equation - I have simplified the text a little:
rūpaṃ attato samanupassati... yā samanupassanā saṅkhāro so.
he perceives form as his self, that perception is a construct.
Why is the perception (samanupassanā) a construct? Because in order to have a perception sense object and sense faculty must come together in the presence of sense cognition - perceptions are constructed (saṅkhāta) from these specific building blocks. The text asks the same question and answers (again simplifying a little:)
avijjāsamphassajena vedayitena phuṭṭhassa [tassa] uppannā taṇhā, tatojo so saṅkhāro
thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance.
Bear with me here as this sentence is not easy to translate. Firstly uppannā taṇhā is easy 'desire has arisen'. Here tassa 'for him' is standing for assutavato putthujjanassa 'for the unlearned ordinary person' and phuṭṭhassa tassa 'for the one who has been affected (phuṭṭha)'. Then vedayitena 'by the experience [which is] 'avijjāsamphassaja'. This last compound needs unravelling: it is made up of three parts: avijjā 'ignorance' + samphassa 'contact, reaction' + ja 'born'. So the whole thing is probably: 'born of contact with ignorance' or perhaps 'born of a reaction from ignorance'. I suggest the latter makes more sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi has come up with a particularly torturous translation here: "When [he] is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises." It's not clear what "ignorance-contact" is. [2] Thanissaro does better on Access to Insight with "To [him] touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises." But what is "contact with ignorance"? In the Buddhist model of mental functioning it can only be contact while being ignorant surely? Hence my translation: "thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance." Thirst for existence perhaps?

The sutta notes that this construct is impermanent (anicca), constructed (saṅkhāta) and arisen in dependence on conditions (paṭiccasamuppanna). Similar constructs include
rūpavantaṃ attānaṃ samanupassati - perceiving myself as endowed with form
attani rūpaṃ samanupassati - regarding form as within myself
rūpasmiṃ attānaṃ samanupassati- seeing myself amongst forms
All of these are conditioned and impermanent constructs. The whole formula is repeated with other four khandhas vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. Note the statement that saṅkhārā are a saṅkhāra does not seem to bother the author of the text, probably because he is consciously using the word in two different senses. In the plural it is defined in some places as the cetanā or 'intention' associated with the six senses (e.g. S iii.60).

So we may say that these perceptions of a being a self are only what we project onto experience., they are a construct, and not a property of experience. By the way, I see no connection here with Upaniṣadic thought on the nature of the ātman. There's no reason to think that this formulation of the teaching was in reaction to Brahmanical metaphysics.


  1. Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary insists that the interpretation of saṅkhāra as 'subconscious tendencies' (which is common in the Triratna Movement) is incorrect and "entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pali Buddhism" (p.193).
  2. Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. P.922.

02 December 2011

On Credulity.

Mandlebrot crop circleJUST A LITTLE WHILE AGO at a Saṅgha picnic one of our group remarked that an elaborate crop circle had appeared in fields near where they live. The person began to speculate about the mystical symbolism of the crop circle and seemed unaware that crop circles are all artificially made. I mentioned that the original crop circle makers—Doug Bower and Dave Chorley—had confessed their hoax and demonstrated their method. My informant, tried to dodge the fact of the hoax, and pursue the mystical significance of the new crop circle. I'm puzzled by the attraction of mystical explanations for things—spirits, aliens, etc.—especially when there are more straightforward answers. When the original crop circle makers have confessed and showed how they did it, and crop circles are now routinely used by the advertising industry, why are people still attracted to the idea that crop circles have mystical significance?

What really sparked me off, however, was watching a documentary, Messiah [1], in which Derren Brown, an entertainer who specialises in using the power of suggestion and an ability to 'read' people's body language and facial expressions to create the illusion of psychic powers. Brown is different in that he admits he is a showman, and explains how he does what he does. In Messiah, Brown travels to the USA where he is virtually unknown, and proceeds to try to obtain personal endorsements from leading members of New Age or Alternative groups: psychics, mediums, alien abductees, and an evangelist. The evangelist is impressed though not willing to publicly endorse Brown, while the others—experts in their 'fields'—are entirely taken in and enthusiastically offer to endorse him.

In other words Brown uses his skills to convince a group of psychics that he is real psychic; a couple of alien abductees that he was abducted by aliens and can now tell them their medical histories; a group of strangers that he is in touch with their dead relatives (and knows intimate details of their relationships); and a prolific New Age publisher that he can record and play back her dreams with his dream device. With the evangelist he demonstrates an ability to instantly convert a roomful of sceptics to belief in God. He actually does this with a simple touch in one case, and by imitating those evangelists who "bring down the Holy Spirit" in another case, though his method for the rest is clearly plain old hypnotism. The pastor alone is cautious about accepting Brown on face value, but he is still visibly impressed.

A similar hoaxProject Alpha [2]—was perpetrated by the magician James Randi, aka The Amazing Randi. He commissioned two amateur sleight-of-hand magicians—Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards—to convince a team of researchers at the University of Washington that they could bend spoons with their psychic powers along the lines of the infamous faker Uri Geller. This they successfully did, managing to bypass all of the 'scientific scrutiny' of the research team, including video cameras! Shaw and Edwards continued with the hoax for a considerable time, even after it became clear to the university that when the experimental protocols were tightened up that the two could not perform any psychic feats. They became minor celebrities travelling the country to demonstrate their "powers". However eventually Randi himself admitted the fraud and the credulity of the "psychic" community was painfully exposed. Project Alpha subsequently inspired a number of copy-cat hoaxes with more or less the same result.

Randi has exposed other fraudulent psychics. Recently in the UK psychic Sally Morgan was exposed as a fraud. [4] She apparently uses the same technique as seen in the lesser known Steven Martin film Leap Of Faith: where assistants gather information from the crowd as they take their seats, and feed it to Martin through a concealed ear piece. However being exposed does not necessarily mean that a psychic is put out of business. In 1986 Randi exposed Peter Popoff as the same kind of fraud on Johnny Carsons's Tonight show, but he is back with a vengeance fleecing the credulous and making tens of millions of dollars doing it.

The message seems to be that people want to believe. They want to believe in spirits, in immaterial beings and gods, in mysterious energies, in crystal vibrations, in psychic powers. People want to believe in magic. This desire to believe affects our judgement: it affects what we pay attention to, and the weight that we give to what we see and hear. The effect of this is that what we believe is apparently confirmed. It's called confirmation bias. For every "proof" that people have psychic powers, there is a demonstration of cynical fraud. So we should at least be very sceptical about psychic powers. But a lot of us are not. We only look for evidence that confirms our views, and we wilfully ignore any contradictory evidence.

But more than simply wanting to belief, people don't want to not believe - they consciously reject the rational alternatives to magical thinking. People apparently don't want to believe in science which they see as prosaic, mundane, and uninspiring. Accurate, but dull and limited. Whereas magic is exciting and has infinite possibility. My own experience of science is completely the reverse of this: my encounters with science continue to expand my mind, make the world seem more amazing, more wonderful, more inspiring, more alive, less limited.

The real down side of credulity is that every day people are being ripped off by unscrupulous con-artists. For instance they are paying for 'healing' that at best is the placebo effect, but which as worst is harmful. Recently in the UK the writer Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association because he said "... it happily promotes bogus treatments" and that the treatment could be "lethal". [3] The law suit was eventually dropped as it became clear that they would not win. Singh had made truthful statements, based on published research, even if he was being sarcastic. One cannot be sued for being sarcastic in the UK, nor for being a science journalist how reports on research. This is not to say that science or medicine has all the answers. Patently it does not. Or that scientists and doctors have not harmed people. They have. But within medicine and science there are checks and balances. Magical thinking allows for no checks and balances. If something goes wrong it is because you did not believe. And of course we do know that the placebo effect is dependent on you believing you've had an effect treatment, but this is not very reassuring if we are genuinely ill.[5]

Somehow, because science undermines magical thinking, some people see it as destroying meaning, of making the world less meaningful, though only because "meaning" is associated with "magic"! I have never agreed with this. Knowledge comes from paying close attention to how things are. And as über-scientist Richard Feynman said:
"Science—knowledge—only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts." [6]
In the past I have been critical of the way Buddhists present their own beliefs as simple representations of Reality. (e.g. Rescuing the Dharma from Fundamentalists) This so-called Reality is often simply an intellectual regurgitation of metaphysical theories found in popular books on Buddhism. As such it's a blind belief not rooted in experience. David Chapman has referred to this as "effing the ineffable". And since we are explicitly against this approach to religion we Buddhists appear to be incoherent and self-contradictory at times. Buddhists, like other human beings, want to believe, and are often credulous in their approach to the traditional Buddhist narratives. Such credulousness is not helpful, but breaking out of it requires us open our minds to the possibility that we are wrong.


  1. Derren Brown. Messiah.
  2. James Randi. Project Alpha.
  3. 'Beware the spinal trap: Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all but research suggests chiropractic therapy can be lethal.' Guardian.19 Apr 2008.
  4. 'Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece).' Guardian. 20 Sept 2011.
  5. For a discussion of the other side of the placebo effect look at: The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills; and What's the Harm?
  6. Feynman. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. BBC

Tim Minchin. If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.

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