Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Rational Basis of Buddhism

The Sleep of Reason brings forth Monsters

The purpose of this blog is to explore how far Buddhism can be supported by rational arguments, both from the philosophical point of view, and also in terms of the observed effects of Buddhist practices.

In other words, if we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith? This is not to say that the religious aspect should be abandoned or disparaged in any way, and I am certainly not advocating the mechanistic reductionism known as 'Secular Buddhism'.

The advantage of  pursuing the philosophical and psychological approaches is that of maintaining a common basis for discussion with science, medicine and Western philosophy for as far as possible, until the paths diverge.

Buddha told us to analyse his teachings.
Of course most religions don't like having their basic tenets subjected to searching analysis, and one cult has abandoned reason altogether, to the extent that you're likely to get your head chopped off for being too rational. 

But Buddhism is different. In the  Kalama Sutra, Buddha said that all religious teachings, including his own should...

(1) Not be believed on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology by personal experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Buddha told his disciples time and time again not to accept his teachings out of blind faith, but to test them as thoroughly as they would assay gold. It is only on the basis of valid reasons and personal experience that we should accept the teachings of anyone, including Buddha himself.

The advantages of rationalism
One advantage of establishing a rational basis for Buddhism is that it gives  Buddhism an 'intellectual respectability' at a time when the intellectual prestige of other religions is in steep decline, due to increasing obscurantism, which takes variety of forms varying from creationist anti-science to outright terrorism.

This 'intellectual respectability' also may help to prevent Buddhism being hit by collateral damage from increasing prejudice against all religions resulting from jihadist aggression.

Reason versus Revelation
Most religions contain some 'revealed doctrines' or 'dogmas', which were revealed long ago to one person or a few people, and then not to any others.

In all religions other than Buddhism, these ancient, unprovable, unrepeatable revelations are fundamental articles of faith on which the rest of the belief-system is constructed.

In contrast, Buddhism's fundamental doctrines are accessible to reason and investigation in terms of shared, repeatable experience.

The Four Foundations of Buddhism
There are many different schools of Buddhism, but all are built upon the foundations of the Four Seals of Dharma. These Four Seals can be derived from rational analysis.

The four seals are
(i) Lack of inherent existence
(ii) Impermanence
(iii) Unsatisfactoriness
(iv)  Liberation of the mind

The most fundamental of these seals is the first, Lack of Inherent Existence, from which the other three follow logically*.

First Seal -  Lack of inherent existence (emptiness)
No phenomenon is a ‘thing in itself’.  The more you look for it, the less you find it. Things disappear under analysis.  A car exists as a conventional truth, convenient for our everyday lives - a kind of working approximation.  But on dissection, logical analysis can find no ‘essential’ car, just a heap of parts that at a certain arbitrary stage of assembly is designated ‘car’, and at a certain arbitrary stage of disassembly is designated 'pile of junk'.

Outside our mind there is no defining ‘carness’ .  Similarly,  if you gradually decrease the height of the sides of a box until it becomes a tray, there is no point at which 'boxiness' leaves and 'trayfullness' jumps into the structure, with the box being automatically transformed into a tray. It’s all arbitrary mental designation.  This arbitrariness is the ultimate truth of how things exist to our minds. And it goes all the way down to the fundamental particles of matter. 

So how do things exist?
According to Buddhist philosophy, all functioning phenomena are dependently related to other phenomena and their existence arises from three relationships:

(a) Causality: Phenomena exist dependent upon causes and conditions.

(b) Structure: Phenomena depend upon the relationship of whole to parts.

(c) Most profoundly, phenomena depend upon imputation, attribution, or designation by the mind. It's the mind that designates what's a tray and what's a box.

More on Lack of Inherent Existence:    
Inherent existence   
Existence and Impermanence    
Ideal forms and essentialism   
Partless particles

Second Seal -  Impermanence
The impermanence of all functioning phenomena is an inevitable logical consequence of their emptiness of inherent existence.

No functioning phenomenon can be static, because to function it must change and be changed, it must give something of itself or receive something into itself. A truly unchanging phenomenon would reside in splendid isolation and could never even be known to exist. All functioning phenomena are composite and impermanent.  What we term ‘existence’ is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

From  Impermanence, Interdependence & Emptiness
“The ideas of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness are central to Buddhist teaching - and to the whole Buddhist worldview actually.

What these ideas boil down to really is that there is no permanent essence to anything. No part of anything lasts forever or is eternal. Everything (and everyone) that exists does so because of the interrelatedness of various parts - not because it has a permanent essence or "soul" around which all the parts are organized..."

This is true of all things and all people. All things exist interdependently - not as permanent essences. Thus, all things are ultimately "empty" - which is the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.

Because things are empty, they are impermanent. We forget this, says the Buddha, and act as if things are permanent. We desire them to be permanent and when they turn out not to be, we suffer. We suffer especially when we desire permanent happiness from impermanent things or people. It is not possible for impermanent things or people to provide permanent happiness because they themselves are not permanent..."

More on Impermanence:    
Process Philosophy   
Existence and impermanence
Subtle impermanence, the quantum vacuum, radioactive decay and causality

Third Seal -  The Unsatisfactoriness of Material Existence
All emotions based on the three mental poisons of attachment, aversion and ignorance are ultimately painful. You can never have enough worldly possessions, and even if you did you'd worry about losing them since - as stated in the paragraph above - they are all impermanent.  And you've got to lose the lot eventually when you die.

This sense of unsatisfactoriness can range from the severe physical and mental sufferings of people being bombed, burned and raped in war-zones, to the feeling of humiliation suffered by a billionaire who discovers that his business rival has a slightly larger and more luxurious yacht. An object that appeared to be a source of pride and happiness when he bought it, has now turned into a source of shame and aversion.

All materialistic cravings eventually and inevitably lead to disappointment and worse. They cannot provide any ultimate satisfaction.  See  Dukkha, Dawkins, Darwinism and the Selfish Gene  and Symbiotic Mind.

Fourth Seal -  The Ultimate Liberation of the Mind
The first three seals of dharma analysed the factors that imprison our minds in a ceaseless and futile process of chasing after the mirages of impermanent phenomena as if they were permanent,  in the hope of achieving ultimate satisfaction. The fourth seal provides an escape route from this labyrinth of confusion.

The method for liberating the mind from its delusions consists of meditational techniques.   These techniques have been empirically tested and shown to provide psychological benefits in the here and now, though of course Buddhists would also claim that they provide benefits in the hereafter (of which more later).

So as far as clinical assessment is concerned, Buddhist meditation does do what it says on the box.  As Ed Halliwell writes:

"It is not long since just mentioning meditation tagged you as a gullible new-ager or self-indulgent hippie. Buddhism, if considered at all, had a reputation for promoting withdrawal from this pain-filled world. But in the space of a few short years, core dharma has permeated western society's most influential institutions.

Madeleine Bunting charts the cracks in our once-cherished concepts of individual identity, and notes how the Buddhist teaching of egolessness resonates with corresponding insights from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Ideas that chime with Buddhism are being championed by the Royal Society of Arts and the New Economics Foundation, and reported in mainstream media. Before cif belief, I never dreamed I would synchronise my journalistic career and meditation practice, finding national newspaper space to write from a Buddhist perspective.

Buddhism is reaching beyond academia, think tanks and the media. Most GPs are aware of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive therapy (MBCT), well-researched approaches to health problems which feature meditation as their core component. MBCT is endorsed by the National Institute For Clinical Excellence, and thousands of people are being referred to mindfulness training on the NHS. In Scotland, the government has funded more than 200 healthcare professionals to teach MBCT."

So does acceptance of the Four Seals of Dharma make you a Buddhist?
 "Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he."  - Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

However, 'the path' in Buddhism is considered to extend beyond the present lifetime, which brings us on to the next topic - the nature of the mind. According to Buddhist philosophy, the mind is non-physical and formless. The mind 'knows' its object, in the sense of designating meaning to it.

The mind survives the physical death of the body. It is a fundamental aspect of reality that cannot be reduced to physical or biological structures, and is not dependent upon them

The fourth seal of dharma aims to clarify the mind from delusions on a permanent basis, from this life onwards.
Buddhist philosophy rejects materialist explanations for the mind.
Materialism is the belief that all phenomena in the universe, in particular the human mind, are explainable in terms of matter.

In other words, such mental experiences as beauty, love, spirituality, pleasure and pain are reducible to nothing but physical and chemical interactions. According to the materialist view, the mind does not actually exist, but is an emergent property or epiphenomenon of matter.

Although there are not many people who enthusiastically promote the materialist worldview, it has become the default belief of many scientifically educated people that all phenomena are reducible to the activities of matter.

- The Malaise of Materialism
Materialism leads to a rejection of spirituality, both in terms of declining religious belief, and also in the arts where the cult of ugliness, with its obsessions with the sordid and brutalistic, seeks to reduce humans to biological automata.

Of course all religions reject materialism as an article of faith, but none apart from Buddhism attempts to provide any rational philosophical refutation of the materialist worldview.

- Buddhism offers the only coherent critique of materialism
Whitehead said "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion." In other words, Christianity does not have the metaphysical foundation needed to withstand materialism.

So nowadays it's left to Buddhism to defend the spiritual aspect of humanity from mechanistic materialism, and show that not everything about the human mind can be explained in mechanistic terms.

The Buddhist argument against materialism is to demonstrate that mind is an aspect of reality that is not reducible to material causes and structures.

Note that in Buddhist metaphysics, mind is not a kind of 'thing' or 'substance' because 'things' and 'substances' are dependent upon structure for their existence. The mind can apprehend structure, but does not itself have any vestige of structure, nor can it be reduced to structure (mind is said to be 'formless').

So how does the materialist worldview map on to the Buddhist worldview, and what are the discrepancies?

-  Materialism, physicalism and computationalism.
In discussing the differences between Buddhist metaphysics and materialism, we need a more precise definition of the materialist philosophical position, which introduces two rather more modern terms - physicalism and computationalism.

Physicalism is a more precise formulation of the rather vague term 'materialism'. It states that all phenomena, including the mind, are reducible to the laws of physics.

Computationalism is physicalism specifically applied to explaining the function of the human mind. Since all physical systems can be modelled, simulated and explained in terms of datastructures and algorithms, (see Church-Turing Thesis), it follows that if physicalism is true, then the human mind can be modelled, simulated and explained by a computer. This is a more precise statement than the traditional materialist view that the mind is a machine.

Buddhism versus Computationalism
The difference between the Buddhist and the Computationalist view of reality can be stated quite simply:

The Buddhist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure
- Designation by mind

The Computationalist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
- Causality
- Structure

...with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

To the Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality.

Arguments against computationalism.
If computationalism is false, then it seems very likely that mind must be an axiomatic aspect of reality, which is not dependent upon the mechanism of the brain or body, and so may continue to exist after death.

See here for arguments against materialism in general, and here for arguments against the computational theory of mind.

Metarationality versus irrationality in religion

Metarationality - the mental landscape beyond the end of the tracks

Metarationality deals with valid phenomena which lie beyond the limits of discursive thought.  Qualia are prime examples, and much meditational practice deals with the deliberate invocation of qualia. 

Also, some types of meditation deliberately seek to go beyond conceptual thought in order to reach nonconceptual awareness.

Other metarational phenomena are those paradoxes that lie at, or just beyond, the limits of logical thought, and which have been investigated by Buddhist philosophers such a Nagarjuna.

According to Hume, the entire field of ethics may be metarational, since reasoned and logical arguments are incapable of going from an 'is' to an 'ought'.  Ethics cannot be rationally derived  either from  knowledge based on logic and definitions, or from observation.

The difference between metarationality and irrationality, is that with metarationality you attempt to explore the landscape beyond the end of the tracks of logical thought, whereas with irrationality you come off the rails long before you reach the end of the line.

Irrationality - coming off the track before you reach the end of the line

Buddhist philosophy is rational until it reaches the limits of logic, wherupon it goes metarational, whereas some religions are just plain irrational from the very start of the journey.  See THE LIMITIS OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION.

Buddhism and ...
Faith, the ultimate F-word for rationalists
For rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, 'Faith' is very much an F-word .

Faith makes a virtue out of believing unprovable and often improbable propositions.  Dawkins contrasts this with the scientific method, which he describes as a system whereby working assumptions may be falsified by recourse to reason and evidence.

The Place of Faith in Buddhism
So is 'Faith' in Buddhism the same kind of unquestioning belief in bizarre and often mutually contradictory assertions as found in other religions, or is it more in the nature of 'Trust'.

Buddha, in his rejection of essentialism and affirmation of the importance of impermanence, displayed an insight into the way that things exist that has only recently been confirmed by science.   Buddhist meditational techniques have also recently been empirically verified to have measurable beneficial effects.  But how far should we trust Buddhist doctrine when it deals with topics that are metarational?

Trusting the Guide to the Path
Consider the situation where we are hiking on a mountain in the Scottish Highlands.

We are following a map, when suddenly a fog closes in and we can only see a few feet ahead.  We decide to get off the mountain as quickly as possible and wait for better weather.   The map shows a quick way down which appears to be shorter than the route we took to get here. But do we trust the map?

Well, there are good maps and not so good maps. There are maps originating from the observations of competent mountaineers using suitable equipment and accurate record keeping, and there are maps originating on the back of beer mats drawn from hazy memories in Highland bars at 11 o'clock at night after traversing the malt whisky shelf. 

So how do we decide whether to follow the route on the map? How do we know it won't lead us over a cliff or into a bog?   Are we prepared to stake our safety and maybe our life on this map?

One way to weigh the risks would be to judge the reliability of the map by what it has shown so far. Has it accurately described the route we've taken?
Or has it shown things that aren't there, and missed out major features that are?   

If Buddha's map to the path has proved accurate up to where we are now, then maybe we should have sufficient faith in it to take us a bit further along the path.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

* I have listed the Four Seals out of their traditional order to correspond to the logical development of this particular presentation. Impermanence is usually number one.

- Sean Robsville

Monday, 16 February 2015

Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind

Convergence of Physics with Buddhist Philosophy
One of the interesting aspects of quantum physics from the Buddhist point of view is that particles, which in classical physics were once regarded as little pieces of matter, are now regarded as processes consisting of continuously evolving and changing wavefunctions.  These processes only give the appearance of discrete and localized particles at the moment they are observed.

So particles are forever changing, and lack any inherent existence independent of the act of observation.    Consequently, everything composed of particles is also impermanent and continually changing, and no static, stable basis for its existence can be found.

Therefore, at a very generalized level, the scientific view of the world has converged with the Buddhist view.   Buddhism is a 'process philosophy', holding that the underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence. Becoming is more basic than being, and existence is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

The converse view is substantialism, which holds that constant realities or substances underlie phenomena.   In the transition from classical to modern physics, atomic theory has changed from substantialism to being in agreement with the Buddhist process view of reality.

Furthermore, when we look at the interaction of the wave-particles with the observer, we find additional interesting correspondences between Buddhist philosophy and quantum physics, as discussed below:

The observer is part of the system
The strange interactions of fundamental particles with the mind of the observer ('quantum weirdness') have long been of interest to philosophers. There are two opposing views: (i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind, versus (ii) The mind produces quantum weirdness. 

(i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind
Materialist philosophers have suggested that quantum weirdness offers a means  of filling the explanatory gap
(known as 'The Hard Problem') between the machine-like neurological functions of the brain, and the subjective sensations of the mind such as qualitative experience and 'aboutness'.

Materialists claim that quantum effects offer a way of generating non-mechanistic mental activity from a purely physical basis. These suggestions have met with a number of objections, and don't seem to have the explanatory power to fill the gap. (see The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture later in this article).

(ii)  The Mind produces quantum weirdness

In contrast, Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, which is 'axiomatic', in the sense of not being reducible to a physical basis, such as to the physico-chemical activities in the brain. 

Buddhists regard the mind as a primary fact of reality, like space-time, in which we live, and move, and have our being. This axiomatic mind cannot be reduced to other facts. It is implicit and foundational in all facts and in all knowledge. 

Mind is clear and cognizing, and for Buddhists is the basis on which all other explanations rest, and is one of the three foundations of functioning phenomena  (the other two being causality and structure).

Classical prediction vs. quantum observation

So where does the weirdness come from?
For Buddhists, the freakiness at the smallest scale of physics is the result of our realisation of our mind's involvement in producing reality - that 'the observer is part of the system'.

This mental involvement is actually also apparent on careful examination at our everyday scale of reality, but we don't think about it unless it is painstakingly pointed out, as with King Milinda's chariot. 

However, when we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality. 

Observation resolves the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details of mind/matter interactions see Quantum Buddhism. 

So how does quantum reality fit with Buddhist Philosophy?
The two aspects of Buddhist philosophy that are relevant to observations at the quantum level are The Four Seals of Dharma and the Three Modes of Existential Dependence.  These teachings were established centuries ago, long before modern physics evolved, and were derived from careful philosophical and meditational analysis of the world.   However their description of quantum reality is remarkably accurate, as they predicted that:

(1)  Particles are not inherently existent. No particle is 'a thing in itself' with a self-contained identity.   An inherently-existent particle would be indestructible, unitary and indivisible.

(2)  Particles are not causeless.

(3)  Particles are not partless, they do not exist as indivisible points.

(4)  Particles are not  'permanent' in the sense of having a unchanging, static identity.

(5)  Particles exist by interaction with the mind of an observer.

...and what we actually see is...

(1)  Particles cannot function as stand-alone entities.  They can only interact with the rest of the universe by exchanging something of themselves - for example gluons or photons. Their properties can only be known by their interactions with other particles, and thus cannot be completely accurately established.

(2)  Particles are brought into existence by energetic events.  The mother of all energetic events was the Big Bang, which brought most of the existing particles into existence.    But natural energetic events such as cosmic rays and beta decay continue to produce particles, and energetic man-made events in particle accelerators produce secondary particles by hadronization  and  creation of particle-antiparticle pairs.

(3)  The tiniest particles (quarks and leptons) do not have parts because they are physically indivisible, but according to the Madhyamika school they have directional parts and so are mentally divisible. If even these smallest forms have parts, it follows that all gross forms that are composed of them also have parts. - Ocean of Nectar p 164

But if, according to Buddhist philosophy, partless particles cannot exist, how can we avoid the infinite regress of small building-blocks being composed of even smaller building-blocks, all the way down for ever?

This infinite regress...

... doesn't happen with the building blocks of matter

The resolution of this apparent contradiction came with discoveries in quantum physics in the early twentieth century. When physicists arrived at the stage where further subdivision was no longer possible, they did indeed find numerically irreducible particles. However these particles are no longer discrete 'things', but are smeared out into a myriad of fuzzy probabilistic 'parts' - a continuum of probabilities distributed in a wave function with spatial 'directional parts'.   

And they can even be in two places at once.

(4)  All particles show 'subtle impermanence' - they do not remain in exactly the same state from one moment to the next.  In the nucleus, protons and neutrons are constantly exchanging mesons to hold themselves together.  

In the outer layers of atoms the electrons are never at a single location in their orbitals, but vibrate like a standing wave on a string 


(5) The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.

The mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they predict the potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation.

Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they are observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details see Quantum Buddhism.

Triple slit experiment

From Nature
by Jon Cartwright 
'If you ever want to get your head around the riddle that is quantum mechanics, look no further than the double-slit experiment. This shows, with perfect simplicity, how just watching a wave or a particle can change its behaviour. The idea is so unpalatable to physicists that they have spent decades trying to find new ways to test it. The latest such attempt, by physicists in Europe and Canada, used a three-slit version — but quantum mechanics won out again...  Full article

The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture

From http://philosophy.uwaterloo.ca/MindDict/quantum.html

Penrose's main argumentative line can be summed up as follows:

Part A: Nonalgorithmicity of human conscious thought.

A1) Human thought, at least in some instances, is sound , yet nonalgorithmic (i.e. noncomputational). (Hypothesis based on the Gödel result.)

A2) In these instances, the human thinker is aware of or conscious of the contents of these thoughts.

A3) The only recognized instances of nonalgorithmic processes in the universe are perhaps certain kinds of randomness; e.g. the reduction of the quantum mechanical state vector. (Based on accepted physical theories.)

A4) Randomness is not promising as the source of the nonalgorithmicity needed to account for (1). (Otherwise mathematical understanding would be magical.)

A5) Conscious human thought, at least in some cases, perhaps in all cases, relies on principles which are beyond current physical understanding, though not in principle beyond any (e.g. some future) scientific physical understanding. (Via A1 - A4)

Part B: Inadequacy of Current Physical Theory, and How to Fix It.

B1) There is no current adequate theory concerning the 'collapse' of the quantum mechanical wave function, but an additional theory of quantum gravity might be useful to this end.

B2) A more adequate theory of wave function collapse (a part, perhaps, of a quantum gravity theory) could incorporate nonalgorithmic, yet nonrandom, processes. (Penrose hypothesis.)

B3) The existence of quasicrystals is evidence for some such currently unrecognized, nonalgorithmic physical process.

B4) Future theories of physics, in particular quantum gravity, can be expected to incorporate nonalgorithmic processes. (via B1 - B3)

Part C: Microtubules as the means of harnessing quantum gravity.

C1) Microtubules have properties which make certain quantum mechanical phenomena (e.g. super-radiance) possible. (Hameroff/Penrose hypothesis.)

C2) These nonalgorithmic nonrandom processes will be sufficient, in some sense, to account for A5. (Penrose hypothesis.)

C3) Microtubules play a key role in neuron function.

C4) Neurons play a key role in cognition and consciousness.

C5) Microtubules play a key role in consciousness/cognition (by C3, C4 and transitivity).

C6) Microtubules, because they have one foot in quantum mechanics and the other in conscious thought, provide a window for nonalgorithmicity in human cognition.

D) Quantum gravity, or something similar,via microtubules, must play a key role in consciousness and cognition.

I would go along with this as far as B2, but I can't see how any scientific explanation can incorporate nonalgorithmic processes because:
(a) It's impossible to describe how non-algorithmic phenomena work (otherwise they would be algorithmic),   and
(b)  Scientific explanations and models require algorithmic compression to be effective and useful. It's difficult to see how algorithmic compression could apply to a system that was nonalgorithmic.


Read more at 

Buddhist Philosophy

Quantum Buddhism

Meditation, Downward Causation, Neuroplasticity and the Quantum Zeno Effect

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Refuting the computer theory of mind - and why it matters to Buddhists.

The Computational Model of the Mind


Computers can simulate all physical processes.
There are some mental processes that computers cannot simulate.
Therefore, some aspects of the mind are non-physical.

Materialism, spirituality and art
Materialism is the belief that matter is the only reality in life and everything else, such as mind, feelings, emotions, beauty etc are just the by-products of the brain's physical and chemical activity, with no independent existence of their own.  Once their material basis is gone, mind and consciousness just disappear without trace.   Needless to say, materialism denies the validity of all religions and spiritual paths, not just Buddhism

In addition, the growth of the materialist worldview within the Buddhist community is having and will continue to have a harmful effect on Buddhism, especially in the form of materialistic Buddhism aka 'Secular Buddhism'.

The debilitating effect of materialism doesn't just affect religions; it despiritualises everything in its path, degrading art and encouraging brutalism.

Philosopher Roger Scruton believes that all great art has a 'spiritual' dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as 'beauty'.

Materialism as Pseudoscience
Materialism is gaining ground due to an incorrect and scientifically unsupportable interpretation of neuroscience, which claims that neurological mechanisms are sufficient to explain thought-processes, emotions, consciousness and mind. 

This misinterpretation of neuroscience, together with all the other varieties of materialism are included in, or equivalent to, the the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM).  And because the Computational Theory of Mind encompasses and subsumes every form of materialism (according to the Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle), then if we can refute the CTM, we have also refuted materialism in general.

Pre-history of the Computational Theory of Mind
Although this article is primarily concerned with computers, its basic argument was stated 140 years ago by the Victorian physicist John Tyndall:

  [The] passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why.
 Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.
Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before. "

John Tyndall (1871), Fragments of Science

To put this in modern terms, there is no conceivable mechanism by which any form of  physical structure, either static or dynamic, can give rise to ‘intentionality’ (I feel love/hate about this person) or ‘qualia’ (I have the subjective experience of loving/hating). Both intentionality and qualia are non-algorithmic phenomena.

The activities and arrangements of the molecules and biological structures  associated with mental events are nowadays known as ‘neural correlates’. 

Of themselves, neural correlates have no known causative mechanism for producing thoughts. There is an explanatory gap between matter and mind, and an additional factor must be at work.  The Buddhist would claim that this explanatory gap cannot be bridged by building any further out from the physical side of things, as no further structural additions will make any difference.    Neuroscience may tell us in ever more complex detail how sense impressions are processed and structured by the brain, but it’s just more of the same.  We are no further on than we were in Tyndall’s time.

The Buddhist would say that the explanatory gap can only be bridged by building out from the side of the mind. The mind ‘goes to’ or ‘reaches out to’ the datastructures/neural correlates and gives them meaning.  The mind is not explainable in material terms, but is a fundamental aspect of reality, like time, that is irreducible to any other phenomena.

So what’s the significance of the Computer Theory of Mind for Buddhists?

In contrast to the Buddhist view, the computational theory of mind holds that the mind is a computation that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine. The theory can be elaborated in many ways, the most popular of which is that the brain is a computer and the mind is the result of the program that the brain runs. The CTM was very popular from the 1960’s to the late 1990’s, with the prospect of artificial intelligence promised as being just around the corner, available as soon as we had constructed the algorithms, datastructures and electronic neural nets that could emulate the mind. Of course it never happened, and computers are still just as dumb as ever.

This isn’t to deny that there are datastructures and algorithms operating within the brain, indeed the ‘neural correlates’ could be regarded as datastructures, and their dynamic changes could be regarded as being brought about by algorithms. But even if these could be emulated exactly in a computer, they are of themselves incapable of explaining the mind any more than could Tyndall’s conjectures about spiralling molecules. 

Nevertheless, if we accept this model as being valid as a partial explanation of the mind, we can see how and why it fails to be a complete explanation.

The significance of the CTM is that because we have an exact definition of a universal computing machine, in the form of a Turing Machine, we can explore why computers of all varieties cannot emulate the mind.   Every computer, no matter how powerful, is functionally equivalent to a Turing Machine.

And furthermore and most importantly, if we can show that a Turing Machine cannot emulate all the functions of the mind, then we have also shown beyond reasonable doubt that no physical system of any kind can emulate all the functions of the mind.  The justification for this far-reaching and rather surprising conclusion is provided by the Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle, which states that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process.   If we discover any processes in the real world that cannot be thus simulated, then we have discovered processes that are fundamentally and irreducibly non-physical.

Physical processes include chemical, biochemical, neurochemical and physiological processes, plus the operations of all mechanisms and electronic systems - no matter how complex.  Nothing within the remit of neuroscience, or indeed materialism in general, can escape the constraints of physicalism.   The failure of the CTM thus inevitably pulls all materialist, physicalist and mechanistic explanations down with it.

Understanding why the Computer Theory of Mind Fails.
I’ll discuss four levels of computer systems as examples, demonstrating at each level how the system fails to cope with meaning and ‘aboutness’.  I'll start with the familiar spreadsheet, and then go deeper into computer languages, and then delve into instruction sets and Turing machines.

This failure to integrate mechanistic functionality (syntax and quantity) with semantics  (meaning and qualitative thought)  is characteristic of all mechanistic systems from the most sophisticated to the most primitive, and goes all the way down, as we shall see.  Humans superimpose a layer of meaning on the underlying mechanisms, and like a layer of oil on water, it never mixes.  

- The ‘Aboutness’ of Spreadsheets
Most of us are familiar with spreadsheets. They consist of a table of cells which are organized as rows and columns and identified by the their row/column location (C4, F12 etc).  These cells may contain simple data or formulae, where each formula is drawn from a small repertoire of operations - add, divide, multiply, etc.   Each of these operations can be thought of as a dedicated Turing Machine.  These little Turing Machines can be chained and networked together to fiddle produce annual accounts or construct complex models for financial ‘what if?’ predictions etc.

Text labels are usually put alongside cells to identify what they are:  Profit’, ‘Loss’, ‘Tax’, 'Depreciation', ‘Slush fund’, ‘Embezzlement Allowance’ etc.

Prudence may dictate that ‘Slush fund’ and ‘Embezzlement allowance’ should be renamed ‘Contingencies’ and ‘Sundries’ before submitting the accounts to the auditors.  But it doesn’t matter what you call these cash flows, their name has no effect on the underlying functionality.

Taken to extremes of caution, if you’re doing accounts for the mob, and remembering how Eliot Ness nailed Al Capone, it might be best to remove all text from the spreadsheet altogether and keep it on a separate piece of paper concealed in your moll’s undergarments.   The spreadsheet will still function perfectly well with all meaning removed, and the Feds can't get you for a meaningless arithmetical structure, or a list of words with no figures.

- The ‘Aboutness’ of High Level Languages
Young and old are likely to be familiar with high level computer languages such as BASIC and Python.   Those of intermediate age are less likely to be familiar with them due to dumbing-down of computer education in the intervening years.

High level languages are used for writing mathematical, scientific and financial formulae as statements that are both readily understandable by humans, and easily translatable into the instruction-set (machine level operations) of the computer.  One of the first such languages was FORTRAN - short for ‘formula translation’.   

However, in translating from a human-readable to machine-readable program, the translation software strips out and discards all meaning from the original source formulae.    Thus the following two statements are ‘about’ very different subject matter, but they are translated into exactly the same machine level operations:

(i) IF RoomLength * RoomWidth > CarpetArea THEN NeedMoreCarpet = TRUE

(ii) IF Audience * TicketPrice > HireOfVenue THEN AvoidedBankruptcy = TRUE

- The ‘Aboutness’ of Instruction Sets
Every computer has a surprisingly small repertoire of operations, usually numbering around twenty, which allow it to carry out all its calculation, simulation and modelling programs. 

Each instruction can be thought of as a dedicated Turing Machine (a low-level calculation or logical operation).  These operations are chained together to implement programs.  The full repertoire of operations ('opcodes') is known as the instruction set, and would typically consist of SET, MOVE, READ, WRITE, ADD, SUBTRACT, MULTIPLY, DIVIDE, AND, OR, XOR, NOT,  SHIFT, ROTATE, COMPARE, JUMP, JUMP-CONDITIONALLY, RETURN

Examination of each of these operations shows that none of them have the capacity to be ‘about’ anything qualitative.  None of them can process ‘meaning’ or ‘intentionality’, neither individually nor in combination.   No artiificial intelligence is ever going to ‘emerge’ from these operations of such limited scope, no matter how many we chain or network together.

So is there something omitted from the instruction sets of all computers which could be put right by devising a computational operation that could deal with meaning?   For instance, can we devise an operation code such as  UNDERSTAND? 

The answer is no.  This is an omission that cannot be filled by any form of Turing Machine, and since the Turing Machine is the basis of all computation, it cannot be filled at all.    To see why this is, we need to know a little more about the lowest level of all computation - the  Turing Machine.

The Aboutness of the Turing Machine
A Turing Machine is not primarily a physical device (although physical demonstrations have been constructed) . Its primary purpose is as a thought-experiment, or a precisely defined simple mathematical object, whose precision and simplicity produce a rigorous definition of the fundamental behavior of all mechanical devices and physical systems.

A Turing machine consists of just two main components: 
(i) A tape of characters, which may be limited to just 1’s and 0’s.
(ii)  A table of actions, which instructs the machine what to do with each character.

There are also two minor components:
(iii) A read/write head, which simply transfers symbols from the tape to the table and vice versa.
(iv)  A register that holds the numeric identifier for the machine’s current state.

The tape consists of a string of characters. These are sometimes imprecisely described as 'symbols', but this is rather confusing in that symbols often make reference to something beyond themselves (they exhibit 'derived intentionality' or evoke a qualitative state of mind.)   It is important to remember that the characters on the tape carry no intrinsic meaning.   

The precise definition of the marks on the tape is that they are characters drawn from a defined alphabet, where the term ‘alphabet’ is used in a rather technical sense of a restricted  set of characters, such as the 26 characters of the  Latin alphabet, the 33 characters of Russian alphabet, the four characters of the DNA alphabet, or the two characters of the binary alphabet.   The size of the alphabet makes no difference to the capabilities of the Turing Machine, since all characters are capable of being encoded as binary.

The table consists of five columns, with as many rows of instructions as are needed to do the job.  The columns are:

1  The row's machine state identifier to be tested against the actual machine state.
2  The row's character to be tested against the current character as read from the tape.
3  The identifier of the new state to which the machine will change
  The new character to be written to the tape.
5  An instruction to move the head one character right or left along the tape.

The machine works by going down the table checking each row until it finds a row where the state identifier corresponds to the machine’s current state as held in the register, and the character corresponds to the character under the head.
In accordance with the three remaining columns in that row, the machine then:
(i) changes the state of the register
(ii) moves the head 
(iii) writes a new character on the tape
It then restarts the checking procedure from the top of the table.

- Computer equivalence of the Turing Machine
So it’s apparent why the Turing Machine isn’t a practical proposition for doing any useful tasks: the number of rows in the action table would become huge.   Real computers condense the action table into a small set of instructions or ‘opcodes’.    Nevertheless, the simple architecture of the Turing Machine can be mathematically proved to be completely functionally  equivalent to any real-world computer.

Computer geeks will have spotted that the tape corresponds to the memory of a computer and the table to its program.  The correspondence between tape and memory is direct and one-to-one, but the correspondence between the action table and a practical computer program is less direct and requires a different kind of architecture to keep the table in a manageable form.

- Physical equivalence of the Turing Machine
Not only can the  Turing machine simulate any other kind of computer, it can simulate and predict the behaviour of any physical system, including any other type of machine.

The tape corresponds to datastructures (including two and three dimensional structures which can be represented by the linear memory array of any computer.)

The table corresponds to causal relationships, including formulae for physical and chemical laws.

So Alan Turing had well and truly defined ‘mechanism’, including biophysical mechanisms such as the body.  We now turn our attention to the Buddhist understanding of mind.

Why Buddhist Philosophy goes beyond the Computer Theory of Mind

- The inability of the Turing machine to emulate mental designation
Buddhist philosophy states that the phenomena we experience depend upon  three modes of ‘existential dependence’:

Causes  - which correspond to the table
Structure - which corresponds to the tape
Mental designation or ‘aboutness’  - for which there is no equivalent structure in the Turing Machine!  As mentioned earlier, the tape consists only of character strings, which in themselves are not ‘about’ anything.

Since mental designation is a fundamental and axiomatic aspect of reality, and cannot be reduced to either structure or causality, it follows that there are aspects of our experience of phenomena that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

- The inability of the Turing Machine to hold and manipulate qualitative states.
The Buddhist practise of Lamrim meditation uses mental procedures to generate qualitative states of mind.  These qualitative mental feelings are known as 'qualia'.   They are internal subjective mental states which are produced by guided thought procedures.   However, the Turing machine does not possess any structure that could hold or experience such states, nor could any combination of instructions within the table generate such states even if there were something that could hold them.  

The inability of the Turing machine to hold internal qualitative mental states is obvious.  The only internal state it can have is the number in its register.    Even if additional registers were added, they could only contain ‘alphabetic’ characters or state numbers, for there is nothing else in the machine and nothing else can get into the machine. For more on this topic, see
Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine

For a general background see Buddhist Philosophy

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Process philosophy: Buddha, Nagarjuna and Whitehead

Here's a golden oldie by Thomas J. McFarlane from 15 years ago, which is well worth revisiting.  Nagarjuna and Whitehead were the most influential exponents of Process Philosophy in the Buddhist and Western traditions respectively, and the convergence of their views is quite remarkable...


Process and Emptiness:  A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy
Spring 2000
Revised and edited for the web March 2004

ABSTRACT: Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy is compared with Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. After briefly introducing the philosophies of Whitehead and Buddhism, some similarities between them are examined. The primary areas of convergence are:

(1) Impermanence and process as fundamental aspects of reality
(2) The emptiness and lack of substance of things
(3) The relational and dependent nature of things
(4) The notion of ignorance and mistaken perception
(5) The possibility of freedom from ignorance and mistaken perception
(6) The emphasis on subjective and experiential aspects of reality
(7) The fundamental limitations of language and philosophical systems in characterizing reality.

The paper concludes with a discussion of an important distinguishing feature of Buddhist philosophy, namely, its dialectical method of criticism.


Read more at Buddhist Philosophy