Sunday, 30 December 2012

Secular Buddhism, Materialism, Physicalism, Naturalism and other vague and ambiguous terms.

'Secularist' means whatever I choose it to mean

Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought that 'secularism' meant a political belief in the separation of church and state.  The government doesn't meddle in religion and vice versa.  Secularism in this sense doesn't imply the endorsement of any particular philosophical or metaphysical view. But it seems that 'secularism' is now becoming a loaded word that, due to sloppy usage, is gradually accumulating a lot of baggage.

For example, this gem of wisdom comes from the Christian Peoples Alliance

"Creeping secularism has brought with it policies that have ravaged the planet, exploited vulnerable workers, caused financial meltdown, abused the sanctity of the person and marginalised family life."

Secularists ravaging the planet

Hundreds of Catholic Bishops have recently held a conference to denounce and campaign against secularism, and members of The Religion of Peace™ shot Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen-year-old girl, for 'promoting secularism'.   She survived, though is now seriously injured in a Birmingham hospital.   The brave jihadists have threatened to shoot her again to finish the job.

And it isn't just the Abrahamics who get their undergarments in a helix about secularism.  Consider the strange phenomenon of 'Secular Buddhism', which prides itself on being  'post-metaphysical' (whatever that may mean)  and whose assertions about what the Buddha really intended to say just happen to correspond to the materialistic assumptions of scientism.

B. Alan Wallace describes Secular Buddhism thus:

"There would be nothing wrong if Batchelor simply rejected the authenticity of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the core of his teachings, but instead he rejects the most reliable accounts of the Buddha’s vision and replaces it with his own, while then projecting it on the Buddha that exists only in his imagination.

Perhaps the most important issue secularists ignore regarding the teachings attributed to the Buddha is that there are contemplative methods – practised by many generations of ardent seekers of truth – for putting many, if not all, these teachings to the test of experience. Specifically, Buddhist assertions concerning the continuity of individual consciousness after death and rebirth can be explored through the practice of samadhi, probing beyond the coarse dimension of consciousness that is contingent upon the brain to a subtler continuum of awareness that allegedly carries on from one lifetime to the next.

Such samadhi training does not require prior belief in reincarnation, but it does call for great determination and zeal in refining one’s attention skills. Such full-time, rigorous training may require months or even years of disciplined effort, and this is where the Buddhist science of the mind really gets launched. If one is content with one’s own dogmatic, materialist assertions – content to accept the uncorroborated assumption that all states of consciousness are produced by the brain – then one is bound to remain ignorant about the origins and nature of consciousness. But if one is determined to progress from a state of agnosticism – not knowing what happens at death – to direct knowledge of the deeper dimensions of consciousness, then Buddhism provides multiple avenues of experiential discovery. Many may welcome this as a refreshing alternative to the blind acceptance of materialist assumptions about consciousness that do not lend themselves to either confirmation or repudiation through experience."


Both the 'secular' Buddhists and Evangelical Christians are misusing the words 'secular' and  'secularism' to mean 'materialist' and  'materialism', though in slightly different ways. 

The Secular Buddhists are trying to reduce all aspects of the mind to the mechanistic activities of matter, and are thus denying the existence of the spiritual or transcendental aspects of Buddha's teaching.  Their main motivation is the false belief that they are somehow making Buddhism more compliant with science by doing so.  The evangelical Christians are equating another aspect of materialism with secularism: that aspect being the excessive desire to acquire and consume material goods.

It would be more honest if the Secular Buddhists referred to themselves as 'Materialist Buddhists', though even this terminology is not unambiguous. Maybe calling yourself a 'Materialist Buddhist' could give the impression that you were obsessed with goodies, gadgets and gizmos

So how can we describe the world view of the 'Secular Buddhists if 'secularism' is a misuse of the English language, and 'materialism' is ambiguous and ill-defined? (It's surprisingly difficult to get a definition of matter - 'It is fair to say that in physics, there is no broad consensus as to a general definition of matter, and the term "matter" usually is used in conjunction with a specifying modifier. )


Another near synonym for 'Materialism' is 'Naturalism'. However this is highly ambiguous, even when understood in its philosophical sense rather than as people studying the habits of birds and bees while possibly running around stark naked.  Naturalism is also rather ill-defined and incoherent, since phenomena such as qualia, intentionality and free-will might be regarded as natural, while defying any physical explanation.


Physicalism is a better term to describe the Secular Buddhists' beliefs, though even this is not quite precise enough. To quote Wiki
"Physicalism is a philosophical theory holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things. The term was coined by Otto Neurath in a series of early twentieth century essays on the subject, in which he wrote:

"According to physicalism, the language of physics is the universal language of science and, consequently, any knowledge can be brought back to the statements on the physical objects."

In contemporary philosophy, physicalism is most frequently associated with the mind-body problem in philosophy of mind, regarding which physicalism holds that all that has been ascribed to "mind" is more correctly ascribed to "brain" or the activity of the brain. Physicalism is also called "materialism", but the term "physicalism" is preferable because it has evolved with the physical sciences to incorporate far more sophisticated notions of physicality than matter, for example wave/particle relationships and non-material forces produced by particles.

The related position of methodological naturalism says that philosophy and science should at least operate under the assumptions of natural sciences (and thus physicalism). Physicalism is a strong form of metaphysical naturalism.

The ontology of physicalism ultimately includes whatever is described by physics — not just matter but energy, space, time, physical forces, structure, physical processes, information, state, etc. Because it claims that only physical things exist, physicalism is generally a form of ontological monism."

The reason why physicalism is still too imprecise is that it lacks a coherent definition of physics itself. 

A more precise term than physicalism would be Mechanistic Reductionism, which is obtained by coupling physicalism with the Church Turing Deutsch Principle.

Mechanistic reductionism

Mechanistic reductionism is the belief that all phenomena (including the human mind) can in principle be simulated by, and explained in terms of, algorithmic models running on general purpose computing machines.  This, whether they realise it or not, is the logical consequence of what the secular Buddhists are advocating.

Simulation implies prediction.  An effective computational simulation of a real-world system is one that, given a set of input values, will predict output values within some arbitrary limits of accuracy deemed 'useful' or 'acceptable'.

Explanation requires the ability to lead the enquirer through a chain of effects assigned to their causes by mathematical or logical statements. The most exhaustive version of an explanation would be a high-level listing of the program running the simulation.

'General purpose computing machines' include both the theoretical (universal Turing machine) and the practical (stored program computers as actually constructed). 

Hence systems that can't be simulated by a machine can't be explained in physical terms.

The opposing view to Mechanistic Reductionism is Ontological Mysterianism, which states that no algorithm is capable of simulating or explaining the processes of the mind.   Mental phenomena include non-procedural processes, which will forever be beyond the limits of understanding in terms of physics, though as Alan Wallace points out, they are directly accessible to experiential discovery through meditation.

There is no alternative to Mechanistic Reductionism apart from Ontological Mysterianism, because if you could explain in a stepwise logical and mathematical manner how something worked, it would be algorithmic and hence mechanistic.   Epistemological Mysterianism is not really an alternative, because it is a form of reductionism which assumes an unknown mechanism, whereas Ontological Mysterianism requires no mechanism.


In describing Secular Buddhists as Mechanistic Reductionists in disguise, maybe I've set up a strawman that misrepresents their views.  If so, could someone please explain where I have gone wrong.

Secular Buddhism isn't Rational Buddhism.

Secular Buddhists may claim that they are reforming Buddhism to make it compatible with science, but all they are actually doing is making it compatible with scientism.  

Scientism is a misuse of scientific methodology beyond the limits of its applicability, including attempts to reduce all knowledge to only that which can be understood by mechanistic models. Scientism is a totalizing view of science as if it were capable of describing all reality and knowledge, or as if it were the only true way to acquire knowledge about reality and the nature of things.

While Buddhism is quite happy with science in general, and especially with evolution, it does not agree with scientism, and disputes claims that the mind can be explained or understood in physical terms, because its ultimate nature is non-physical: 'when the body dies the 'mechanism' of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately.'  - Alan Turing (Code Breaker, Mathematician and Buddhist Philosopher)

The Limits of Science

The Church-Turing-Deutsch principle helps to demarcate the limits of science.

The domain of science concerns those aspects of the world that can be modelled effectively and efficiently in terms of algorithms and data-structures.

'Effectively' means that the models have predictive power.

'Efficiently' means that the models are simpler and more general than the phenomena that they model (they embody 'algorithmic compression', Kolmogorov-style )

All non-algorithmic phenomena, are, by their very nature, outside the scope of science.

Consequently, the 'materialists', 'physicalists' reductionists and other practitioners of scientism are committed to trying to represent the three-dimensional world of causality, composition and mind, in terms of the two dimensions of algorithms and datastructures. This process requires them to insert various square pegs (qualia, semantics, intentionality, etc) into the round hole of computationalism . The lack of progress with The Hard Problem  is one of the best illustrations of the failure of their project.

Non-Procedural Processes

The physics-based sciences construct their models, predictions and explanations by abstracting and reducing the numerous natural instances of processes operating on structures, into a few generic procedures operating on data.

Hence physical explanations will be impossible to construct, will fail, or will be innapplicable as 'category errors' for any phenomena where

(i) Processes cannot be reduced to procedures
(ii) Structures cannot be reduced to data

I suspect that one of the intractable features of The Hard Problem is that some of the processes of consciousness are not even in principle reducible to procedures (they are 'non-algorithmic'). Consequently, attempts at physical explanations may be a category error. The non-physical mind will forever remain a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. See this New Scientist video (preceded by a short sponsor's ad).

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind.

- Sean Robsville

Related Posts

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

The non-physical mind

How do we bridge the gap between mind and brain?

How do we reconcile non-physical mind with the theory of evolution?

Buddhism and Quantum physics: does quantum weirdness produce the mind, or vice versa?

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can we not simply call it Apparent Buddhism, since its goal is only to coexist with the tremendously obvious?