Monday, 12 September 2016

The Unconditioned

From Beliefnet 

   "...Buddhists believe that Siddhartha attained a state that was free of conditions—things like upbringing, psychology, perceptions, opinions, presuppositions, and so on. To be Enlightened is to be Unconditioned, and a Buddha is free from conditioned responses such as prejudice, hatred, and greed. Rather, a Buddha is characterized by wisdom, compassion, and freedom. To be a Buddha is to see reality as it truly is. The word Buddha, in fact, is a title which means “one who is awake”—in essence, one who has completely awoken to reality..."

See also  Can you debiologize your mind? And if you do will anything remain?

Friday, 9 September 2016

Buddhist meditation helps kids unplug from their online world

From the Telegraph

"Children should be taught Buddhist meditation techniques and yoga in schools to help them "unplug from their online world", a minister has said.

Edward Timpson, an education minister, said that schools across the country should start teaching "mindfulness" as a "normal part of the school day".

The meditative practice, which has its roots in Buddhism, encourages people to focus on the present, rather than on the anxieties of the past or future.

Speaking during a debate in Parliament, Mr Timpson warned that “children cannot unplug from their online world, and that is changing the shape of many of their relationships and the pressures that they come under at a much more tender age”.

He said that mindfulness is “a modern innovation born from the deepest traditions of meditation” and that schools and colleges using the technique will “to enable all children to enjoy good mental health and emotional wellbeing...”.    More

See alsNumber of calls to Childline from children experiencing suicidal thoughts doubles in five years


Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Can mindfulness improve high school students' concentration?

From the BBC Magazine

"...The practice of mindfulness - which draws on Buddhist thinking - has become increasingly popular in recent years. There have been calls for brain-training techniques, using breathing to achieve mental clarity, to be introduced in schools.

In October, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group said the practice should be made more widely available and recommended the Department for Education designate three schools to "pioneer mindfulness teaching and disseminate best practice".

Political author and former head of Wellington College Anthony Seldon has called for daily "stillness sessions" in schools, saying a decline in traditional religious assemblies has left students with little space for reflection in the school day.

So can mindfulness meditation really help pupils concentrate amid the distractions of 21st Century living? A group of BBC School Reporters from Connaught School for Girls in Leytonstone, east London, decided to investigate... "

"... At the end of the two week experiment, the results were positive. Those who had taken part in mindfulness meditation successfully completed the concentration task an average of 2.15 times more than before, while the results of the control group improved by just 0.69 times..."

Full report here


Sunday, 21 February 2016

Be mindful when you smoke and booze.

A simple way to break a bad habit - Judson Brewer at

Can we break bad habits by being more curious about them? Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction - from smoking to overeating to all those other things we do even though we know they're bad for us. Learn more about the mechanism of habit development and discover a simple but profound practice that might help you beat your next urge to smoke, snack or check a text while driving.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

How things exist - according to Buddhism and Science


At a time when the old feud between science and religion is flaring up again, and common ground between fact and faith seem to be diminishing, one particular branch of Buddhist philosophy may offer some basis for dialog. That branch of philosophy is ontology - or how things exist. Buddhist ontology clearly defines the similarities and differences between the spiritual and scientific worldviews.

Impermanence and Process Philosophy
Buddhism is a process philosophy; it regards change and flux as more fundamental than ‘things’, or ‘things-in-themselves’

According to Buddhism, every functioning object is impermanent and constantly changing. In order to produce a change, all things must themselves undergo change.   This has of course been familiar to science from Newton’s times, with every action producing an equal and opposite reaction.

Subsequent investigations have revealed that impermanence is pervasive, right down to the interactions of subatomic particles, which can only interact by giving and taking something of themselves, usually photons and gluons.

And as well as going all the way down, impermanence goes all the way up, so things that previous generations regarded as permanent fixtures are now known to be dynamic.  Continents move, collide and break up.  Stars, like our sun, are formed out of debris of previous stars. They burn themselves out then either explode or collapse

So with regard to impermanence,  Buddhism and science are in increasing agreement

The Three Modes of Existential Dependence

‘One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought.
There are not three different roses but one rose existing in three different ways.’ 

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso  in Joyful Path of Good Fortune  p349

This is where the difference between the Scientific Materialist (Physicalist) and Buddhist interpretations of reality become apparent.  

Buddhists claim that three modes of ‘existential dependence’ are necessary to explain the world - dynamics, structure and mind. 

Physicalists say that only two modes - dynamics and structure - are needed, with the mind being reducible to the first two.

In this context, near synonyms for ‘dynamics’ are ‘causality’,  ‘function’ and ‘process’.

Near synonyms for ‘structure’ are ‘mereology’, ‘composition’ and  ‘arrangement’

Physicalism is a reductionist interpretation of science, which claims to explain all mental factors in physical terms.  (There are also more participatory interpretations of science in which the observer is part of the system - e g Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics -  but these, whether they acknowledge it or not, are closer to Buddhism than to reductionist physicalism.)

Physicalism and the Church-Turing Thesis
Fortunately, for the sake of discussion, there is a clear-cut definition of physicalism based on the Church-Turing thesis.   To be a purely physical system, a phenomenon must be capable of being completely simulated by algorithms acting on datastructures (without any unexplained remainder).

Buddhists would claim that there is always going to be an unexplained remainder, because algorithms and datastructures are not self-interpreting. Instead, any assignment of ‘meaning’ has to come from outside the system.

So how does this apply to Roses?

The complete quote from Geshe Kelsang is

‘There are three levels of dependent relationship: gross, subtle, and very subtle. Every functioning thing that we perceive directly is gross dependent-related. For example, a rose arising from its causes is gross dependent-related. However, the rose existing in dependence upon its parts is subtle dependent-related, and the rose existing as a mere imputation by thought is very subtle dependent-related. One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought’

We can easily see how a rose can arise from its causes - rose bush, water, nutrients, sunlight etc without paying too much attention to the rose itself.

The dependence on parts is a bit more subtle. We need to look more closely at the rose to appreciate the complete anatomy of what it is in terms of its parts, which may not be grossly obvious. We may need a microscope to see the pollen and cells of the petals. And the cells have components and subcomponents.

Dependence on mental designation
The third mode of dependent existence, dependence on the mind of the observer, is even more subtle, and is best demonstrated by examining the arbitrary way that a rose comes into and goes out of existence.

Not quite a rose

Is a green shoot a rose?
Is a green bud a rose?
Is a bud showing some petal color a rose?
Has it become a rose when you can see all the petals?

Falling petals

Has it ceased to be a rose when the first petal has fallen?

…or a majority of petals, or all the petals?

No longer a rose

Or do you have to wait till it becomes a rosehip until it ceases to be a rose?

There is no rule which tells us at exactly what stage it becomes a rose and at what stage it ceases to be one. 

The decision is a subjective one,  made by how closely the botanical specimen in our hand matches a ‘generic image’ or picture of a basic rose in our mind.   And the judgement will differ from person to person.  

A generic image of a rose in our mind

There is no fixed specification for a rose ‘out there’ that tells us when an opening bud becomes a flower, or when a fading flower becomes a hip, any more than there is for when a high-sided tray becomes a box,  or at what stage of disassembly Milinda’s chariot becomes a heap of firewood.

Neither is there any permanently existing 'specification' , 'divine blueprint' or 'ideal form' of the various rose species that differentiates them one from another, or from other members of the rose family. 

Looking back along the evolutionary timeline, the judgement as to when and at what point the ancestral rosoid became a rose, is quite arbitrary.

The Rose Family (Rosaceae)

The involvement of the observer’s mind in creating reality is very subtle for everyday objects, but becomes more obvious at the quantum scale of reality.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Monday, 11 January 2016

Sentience, suffering, and the futile quest for homeostasis

The first priority of all living organisms is to maintain a steady state, known as homeostasis - the regulated stability of structures, organs and internal systems that allows life to continue.

All living things need to protect and maintain a minimum functioning structure to survive.    An animal deprived of functioning limbs, or a plant deprived of leaves, will soon die. 

Metabolic homeostasis

In addition, all organisms need to regulate a complex set of interacting metabolic chemical reactions. 

From the simplest unicellular organisms to the most complex plants and animals, internal processes operate to keep conditions within tight limits to allow these reactions to proceed. Homeostatic processes act at the level of the cell, the tissue, and the organ, as well as for the organism as a whole.  
Maintenance of homeostasis requires a continuing input of energy in the form of food for animals, and sunlight for plants.   If the energy needed to maintain homeostasis exceeds the energy input, the organism will die once its reserves are exhausted.  In terms of energy expenditure, you’ve got to keep running just to stay still.

In addition to maintaining structural integrity and metabolic stability, a juvenile organism will have a secondary priority to grow, and an adult organism a secondary priority to reproduce.  But without homeostasis, these secondary aims cannot be achieved.

Conscious and unconscious homeostasis.
Non-sentient organisms, such as plants and bacteria, maintain homeostasis by purely mechanistic processes, using automatic feedback in the same way that a centrifugal governor mechanism maintains a steady speed for a steam engine.    Even in sentient animals, many homeostatic processes are unconscious, and we have no awareness of their operations.

Automatic feedback mechanism

But the game completely changes when sentience comes into the picture.  Two non-mechanistic factors come into play - qualia and intentionality - which allow far more adaptive homeostatic control strategies than purely automatic feedback loops.

Qualia (singular quale) are qualitative experiences including experiences of suffering such as  thirst, hunger, fear, pain and so on.

Intentionality is the property of being ‘about’ something, of having 'an intentional object'.

So the quale of thirst forces the mind to become obsessively intentional about water, the quale of hunger forces the mind to become similarly intentional about food, and the qualia of  pain and fear force the mind to become intentional about avoiding the causes of these unpleasant sensations (objects of aversion).

Did sentience evolve, or was it co-opted?
Now the interesting thing is that neither qualia nor intentionality are physical phenomena (as was first pointed out by the Victorian physicist John Tyndall 140 years ago).  Neither are they in any sense mechanistic phenomena.

Consequently, there is no known process by which sentience could have arisen by Darwinian evolution.  Evolution can account for the physical structure of the bodies of sentient beings and their automatic homeostatic control mechanisms, but it cannot bridge the explanatory gap between the physical and the mental.

As Thomas Nagel argues, the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is incomplete, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness.

So if sentient minds haven’t evolved, have they nevertheless been co-opted by evolutionary processes to improve the homeostatic behavior of animals?
Suffering, unpleasant though it may be for the individual, has survival and evolutionary advantages for the species. 

To quote Richard Dawkins:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

Mental states such as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and pleasure are qualitative subjective experiences, which carry strong immediate meanings, and do not exist in automata - mechanistic systems such as relay networks or computers.

It is for this reason that complex animals have evolved neural structures which attract and capture minds. Fundamentally, it is the suffering and grasping of their minds - the need to avoid pain and seek pleasure - that provides the driving force for survival and reproduction of complex animals. The physical body enters into a symbiotic relationship with a non-physical mind.

In Buddhist philosophy, the mind of a sentient being is not a product of biological processes, but something primordial which has existed since beginningless time, and which will be drawn into another body once the present one has died. But reflecting on Richard Dawkins' description of the horrors of Samsara, it's surprising that sentient minds allow themselves to be co-opted by biological systems again and again. Maybe they've got no choice, maybe they're deluded, or maybe they just don't know how to get out.

The brain is a device which has evolved to delude the mind.
It could also be argued that in addition to biochemical and physiological mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis, evolution has also given sentient beings a psychological homeostatic mechanism by constructing the illusion of a stable self, which can and must be maintained.

This false sense of a stable self is, of course, a delusion, though from the evolutionary point of view, a very useful one.

Survival advantages of sentience
In evolutionary terms, any adaptation or feature must have some selective benefit for the organism that possesses it. Obviously, a physical body equipped with sentience will have an improved chance of surviving to propagate its genes over any mindless competitor which is not deterred by pain or motivated by pleasure.

But what does the mind gain from this symbiotic association?   Usually little or nothing. 

When the life of the biological partner comes to an end, the mind has to endure the sufferings of death and then leave its home, being unable to take anything with it. It must then enter the unstable hallucinatory state of the bardo,  and perhaps soon after find a new body

Or even worse, if it doesn't find a new body quickly, it may stay in a nightmarish state of karmically induced hallucinations - a perpetual bad trip that lasts indefinitely: 'for in that sleep of death what dreams may come...'.

Parasitic body, parasitized mind?

In Buddhist terminology these minds are wanderers or migrators in samsara (the realms of suffering and delusions). The mind is non-evolved and non-evolving, at least not by the normal processes of natural selection. The body uses the mind for its own purposes, not vice versa as we may like to imagine.

So, perhaps the relationship between mind and body is more one of parasitism than symbiosis. The biological body gets a better chance to propagate itself.  But the mind has to endure dukkha -  the ever-changing experiences of craving, suffering and attachment, that the body imposes upon it in order to force it to do what is necessary for survival, competition and reproduction.

Homeostasis is a mug's game
Since maintaining homeostasis is like running to keep still, sooner or later the body's systems will wear out, with the inevitable results that the Buddha observed on his ride outside the palace...

The Four Sights

See also Buddhist Philosophy

and Can you debiologize yourself?

Friday, 27 November 2015

Why are our minds repeatedly trapped in the bodies of animals and humans?

Sow a thought, reap an action
Sow an action, reap a habit
Sow a habit, reap a character
Sow a character, reap a destiny

Why are the minds of samsaric beings repeatedly drawn into the bodies of animals and humans?  If the mind is capable of existing independently of the body, then why doesn't it do so?   What drives it to biological rebirth? 

Why can't we debiologize ourselves once and for all?
If there is a path to enlightenment which leads out of this continual cycle of birth, aging, sickness and death, why doesn't everybody take it?   If we all have Buddha nature, why do we always end up in such a mess? Why do we seem to take a perverse delight in spiritual self-harm?

The reason for this endless cycle of suffering is that we always have 'something on our mind'; and that something is karma.  The true nature of our mind is clarity, but that clarity is obscured, distorted and weighed down by the imprints of millions of nasty, brutish and usually violently short lifetimes. 

Our minds are deluded into thinking that happiness can be found in samsara, and though it has never worked in the past, this time we'll finally get it right. So after death we are drawn into another rebirth in the biological realms.

Fortunately, we can accomplish a karmic detox of all this accumulated delusional crap, and bring about long-term mental peace and clarity, leading to release from samsaric rebirth for ourselves and others.

More at Buddhist Philosophy

Friday, 20 November 2015

Meditation, Downward Causation, Neuroplasticity and the Quantum Zeno Effect.

Recent research has shown that Buddhist meditation can not only affect long-term behavior, but can actually alter the structure of the brain (1, 2, 34).

So how does something as non-physical as the attention developed during meditation affect physical structures of the brain?  According to the mechanistic materialist worldview, this sort of 'downward-causation' (mind over matter) shouldn't happen.  To a materialist, mental activities result from physical processes, not vice versa.

One possible mechanism for downward causation has been suggested by physicist Henry Stapp, who proposed that the Quantum Zeno Effect  allows the observer to hold patterns of energy states in a stable condition where they would normally, if left unobserved, decay randomly .  

The Quantum Zeno effect (also known as the Turing paradox) is a situation in which an unstable quantum system, if observed continuously, will never decay. One can "freeze" the evolution of the system by measuring it frequently enough in its known initial state. 

A watched quantum state never changes

The prolonged processes of attention in Buddhist meditation are good candidates for the kind of mental activities that could affect the physical state of microscopic brain structures.

Related Articles

Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind

Quantum Buddhism

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Tonglen Meditation - Mutually Assured Destruction of Bad Karma

Meditation environment

To perform this meditation it helps to be in a suitable environment and maintain a correct posture.

Suitable Environment
Find somewhere crowded, noisy, hot, stressful and generally frustrating.  A packed commuter train or bus is ideal.

Correct Posture
Check whether you're sitting comfortably. If so, you're doing it wrong. Get up off your ass, hang on the strap and let someone who needs it have your seat.

The correct frame of mind
Concentrate on your own frustration, stress, boredom, discomfort and low-level hostility to the passengers around you who are swaying and bumping into you and crowding you in.   Visualize these negative feelings as a cloud of acrid black smoke swirling around your heart.

Next, imagine all your fellow passengers are experiencing the same hassles. 

On an in-breath, breathe in all their irritations as black smoke which mixes with and annihilates your own swirling black smoke in a burst of white light.

The light purifies and calms your body and mind.  Imagine the irritation of yourself and the irritation of others as antimatter meeting matter in a burst of mutually assured destruction, producing vast amounts of pure positive energy. 

As you breathe out, imagine this pure white energy radiating out into the hearts of all those around you, remaining in the form of a globe of white light, an abiding centre of calmness and clarity in their hearts.

Karmic supernova
Now repeat the procedure, but this time the energy release is going to be HUGE, like a karmic supernova.

Imagine all the problems and sufferings of your fellow passengers: sickness, pain, sick relatives, financial worries, work problems, loneliness, insecurity, fear, relationship breakdowns, legal hassles, mental illness, addictions and so on.    Then reflect that you yourself have the negative karma to experience all this, and much worse, for life after life.   This negative karma  swirls around your heart like a thick cloud of hot, acrid, black smoke.   

On the in-breath, breathe in all these present and future sufferings of your fellow passengers in the form of black smoke, which mixes with, and annihilates, the negative karma at your heart in an ENORMOUS release of energy in the form pure white light. This reaction utterly destroys the sufferings of others and your own bad karma like matter meeting antimatter.

On the out breath, imagine that this colossal burst of purifying energy radiates in all directions through everyone around you, cleansing all their negative karma, and their potential for future sufferings, and sweeping it all away, utterly destroying it never to be seen again.

Finally, dedicate any merit you may have created from this meditation to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

More meditations

Thursday, 12 November 2015

What is truth?

Philosophy is the search for truth, which is founded on the premise that there is at least one true statement that can be made about life, the universe and everything.

But how can we prove that there exists at least one true statement? 

Well, consider the negation of ‘There is at least one true statement.’

That negation is ‘All statements are false.’

But if all statements are false, then ‘All statements are false’, being a statement, must also be false.  So at least one statement must be true.  

So we have proved that ‘There is at least one true statement’ by reference to another statement.  Which means that the foundational statement of philosophy is not inherently existent, but is dependent for its veracity upon its relationship to another statement.

But the statement which it depends upon has no inherent existence either, because it’s false.

Very odd.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Islamic supremacists force Buddhism out of US schools curriculum.

From Breitbart

Aggressive Islamic supremacists and stealth jihadists with links to terror organizations are subverting American school curricula by enforcing Islamocentric standards in social studies, to the exclusion of Buddhism and other religions.

"All major religions – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam – were briefly summarized in the old standards. Students were introduced to the complexity of the various cultures in the world at an “age appropriate” level of detail.

In contrast, only Islam is given detailed attention in the new standards. In fact, as Breitbart News reported previously, 13 percent of the learning objectives of the current standards (10 out of 75) are devoted to instructing students on both the tenets and history of Islam."   Read it all

See also Islam will destroy Buddhism

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Mindfulness may get UK Government cash

By Abi Jackson in The Northern Echo

"... I'm in a small room off Westminster Hall in London's Houses of Parliament, along with a few other journalists, mental health charity bods and various MPs - all also sitting, eyes closed, hands on laps and breathing deeply, as Rebecca Crane of Bangor University's Centre for Mindfulness guides us through.

Never in a million years would I have imagined I'd be indulging in a spot of deep breathing in Westminster, with a panel of MPs - and yet here we are. And do you know what? It feels good.

We're here for the launch of the Mindful Nation UK interim report. The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, co-chaired by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, Labour MP Chris Ruane and Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt and in collaboration with The Mindfulness Initiative - which brings together a number of leaders in the field and key mindfulness training and research centres; Oxford, Exeter, Bangor and Sussex, as well as the Mental Health Foundation - have spent the last eight months looking at the benefits of mindfulness, evidence backing up these benefits, and how it might be incorporated across a range of UK services and institutions, mainly education, healthcare, work and criminal justice.

The hope, in a nutshell, is for the Government to recognise the importance of wellbeing in society, the role mindfulness could play, how this could follow through into policy, and how those holding the budget-strings could give it some funding..."

"... One of the things we need to think about is how this works long-term, not just short-term, which is what governments tend to think about, and that is pays to focus on prevention rather than cure," he says. "Nearly all these interventions require spending by one department, and will see gains elsewhere, and that's the bit we need to crack."

A pound spent on mental health, he notes, is "at the margin, hugely more productive than a pound spent on physical health", and yet that isn't reflected in the current system..."

"...For example, mindfulness in schools may or may not have a significant immediate impact on exam results - one of the key things currently used to measure success in education - but it could hugely improve harmony in classrooms, behavioural problems, stress among teachers, sickness rates, self-esteem - the list could go on and on. These things will then have a positive snowball effect through years to come, including, ultimately, less strain on the NHS and welfare budgets..."     Read it all   

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Mindfulness at risk of being 'turned into a free market commodity'

From The Guardian
by Harriet Sherwood

"The mindfulness movement is in danger of being turned into a commodity, “a product to be bought and sold on the free market”, a Buddhist Society conference was told.

“People are becoming professionally mindful,” Steven Stanley, a social psychologist at Cardiff University, told an audience of Buddhists and secular mindfulness practitioners on Wednesday.

It was possible to make a living from mindfulness, with growing opportunities for research, teaching and speaking, he said, adding that it is becoming an “increasingly professionalised domain” with a tendency towards standardised instruction.

The conference, Mindfulness: Secular, Religious, Both or Neither?, heard that more than 500 scientific papers on mindfulness were being published every year, and that more than two dozen UK universities now offer mindfulness courses. Global corporations such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and American Express have introduced mindfulness training for their staff.

However, amid the extraordinary growth of the secular mindfulness movement, there was rising concern about lack of regulation of the training of meditation teachers, the conference heard..."

"...An all-party group of MPs last week urged the government to fund the training of 1,200 new mindfulness teachers over the next five years to meet sharply rising demand for the technique in both the public and private sectors. This number of teachers would cover 15% of the 580,000 adults at risk of recurrent depression every year, said their report, Mindful Nation UK.

“The training of teachers is critical,” it added. “There is considerable and justifiable concern about the quality of teachers and how to ensure integrity.”

An estimated 2,200 mindfulness teachers have been trained to minimum standards over the past 10 years, but only about 700 were both active and had professional clinical training that qualified them to teach mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to people with depression, said the report..."

Read it all here


Friday, 16 October 2015

Iraq's leading Shia cleric declares jihad against Buddhists

Never mind the spelling - it's the thought that counts

From Jihadwatch

'During a recent televised interview with Grand Ayatollah Ahmad al-Baghdadi, the leading Shia cleric of Iraq made clear why Islam and the rest of the world can never peacefully coexist.'

"...As for the polytheists [Hindus, Buddhists, etc.] we allow them to choose between Islam and war!  This is not the opinion of Ahmad al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, but the opinion of all five schools of jurisprudence [four Sunni and one Shia]."

Read it all here  


See also Islam will destroy Buddhism

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Buddhism, David Hume and the Delusion of the Self

In this modern era of instant global communications, it's easy to forget just how difficult the transmission of ideas was in earlier times.  Indeed, the present global free marketplace of ideas has only become universal since the widespread adoption of the internet, so nowadays totalitarian regimes and repressive ideologies can no longer keep people in the dark.

Alison Gopnik gives a fascinating account of her investigations of how Tibetan Buddhist ideas about 'the self' reached and influenced the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, despite the obstacles of geography, and censorship by the Vatican's thought-police.

It's easy to see why the Vatican tried to suppress Buddhist philosophy: the process view of the mind seems, at first sight, to totally contradict Catholic dogma on the immortal soul.    This willful ignorance of Buddhism among Catholic philosophers has continued into modern times, with some of the more traditional ones making fools of themselves among a modern and better informed audience.

Read Alison Gopnik's article here

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Mind-Bending History Of Buddhism And Psychedelics

Opening the doors of perception?  Go ask Alice

by Carolyn Gregoire

In the Huffington Post

"The history of Buddhism and of psychedelics in American culture follow a surprisingly similar trajectory from the 1950s through the present-day.

But perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise, given that they share a common aim: the liberation of the mind.

Many of the thinkers who turned to Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies in the 1960s -- including Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass -- were influenced in some way by their experiences with LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield said that LSD, "prepares the mind for Buddhism," while Allan Watts described both practices as being part of a comprehensive philosophical quest.

Now, more than 60 years later, we're seeing a resurgence of popular interest in Buddhism -- with mindfulness meditation now firmly entrenched in the cultural mainstream -- and also in psychedelics, which are being investigated as therapeutic agents for mental health issues including depression, anxiety and addiction.

The intersection of these practices raises a number of questions: Are psychedelics an obstruction to a Dharma practice, or a helpful accompaniment? Are mind-altering substances a legitimate means of personal transformation..."    Read it all here  


See also Can you trust your brain?

and  Buddhism, Shamanism and the use of Hallucinogens   

Monday, 28 September 2015

Why Materialism is Crap

Catholic philosopher Ed Feser has published an excellent critique of materialism at the Claremont Review.

The points he makes are valid from a conventional and substantialist viewpoint, though a Buddhist might additionally question whether the very concept of materialism is fundamentally deluded and incoherent (perhaps, in the final analysis there are no such things as things - see later section of this post). 

Some quotes from Feser's article...

"Contemporary materialists ... routinely denounce Cartesian dualism, Descartes’s famous bifurcation of the world into mind and matter—or more precisely, into res cogitans or “thinking substance,” and res extensa or “extended substance.” And they do so in the name of science. Yet they remain essentially committed to Descartes’s conception of the material world; indeed, modern science would not have been possible without it. What they forget is that the res cogitans they deplore was necessitated by the res extensa they maintain. Hold onto the latter and you are implicitly committed to the former, whether you like it or not. This is the source of the perpetual failure of materialists to come up with explanations of consciousness, meaning, and morality that are convincing."

"To understand the problem requires going back ... to the beginning. Like Francis Bacon, Descartes wanted to make of modern science an instrument by which we might predict and control natural phenomena and develop new technologies. What he saw more clearly than Bacon was that mathematics was the key to realizing this aim. Hence he adopted a purely quantitative conception of the natural world, treating matter as entirely definable in terms of the geometrical property of extension or spatial dimension. Descartes’s successors would put less emphasis on extension, specifically. But the idea that what is material is what you can capture in the language of mathematics is still with us, as a glance at any physics textbook will show.

Now, where does this leave the qualitative aspects of the world of our experience—colors and sounds, tastes and smells, heat and cold, pain and pleasure? Where does it leave the meanings and purposes we see in the world around us, and the thoughts and choices we find within ourselves? Descartes embraced the obvious implications of the exhaustively “mathematicized” notion of matter he had introduced into Western thought, which the scientific revolution took and ran with. If matter is purely quantitative, and the qualitative features of reality cannot be reduced to the quantitative, then they cannot be material. And if these features don’t really exist in the material world but do exist in the mind’s experience of that world, then the mind itself must not be material.

Hence, Cartesian dualism was by no means a desperate rearguard action against the scientific revolution; on the contrary, it was the logical outcome of the scientific revolution. Matter, on the scientific conception, is comprised of colorless, soundless, odorless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force, governed by mathematical laws which describe how these particles happen to behave, but no purposes for the sake of which they behave. To be sure, we might, when doing physics, redefine certain qualitative features in terms of some quantifiable doppelgänger. Color, for example, can be redefined in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths. Sound can be redefined in terms of compression waves in the air. But these redefinitions, which even a blind or deaf person can understand, do not capture the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, and so forth. Color, sound, odor, and taste as we perceive them can—given the scientist’s essentially Cartesian conception of matter—exist only in the conscious experiences of an immaterial mind or res cogitans. Meaning can exist only in this immaterial mind’s thoughts. Purpose can exist only in its volitions."

"...having followed Descartes in defining matter in so thoroughly “mathematicized” a way that irreducibly qualitative features, meanings, and purposes are excluded from it, modern science itself effectively closes off the possibility of a scientific explanation of these features. Thus while materialists are right to complain that Cartesian dualism leaves mind-body interaction obscure, dualists are right to complain that purported materialist explanations in fact ignore, or even implicitly deny, the existence of mind."

"Cartesians and materialists alike are correct to regard modern science as having given us a very penetrating grasp of part of the natural order, namely the part susceptible of analysis in purely quantitative terms. Where they both go wrong is in supposing that modern science gives us the whole of that order."

"It is the way modern science characterizes matter, and not particular gaps in current scientific knowledge as described by Wilson, that leaves us stuck with Descartes’s dualism. Given this characterization, we may find ever more detailed correlations between the mental and the physical, but we will never be able to reduce the mental to the physical. Two celebrated recent books by philosophers—Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011) and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012)—see the problem more clearly than Wilson and other contemporary scientists tend to. Rosenberg’s mad but intellectually honest solution is to conclude that if matter as physics conceives of it is all that exists, mind must really be an illusion. Nagel’s sane but no less intellectually honest solution is to conclude that since mind and matter both exist but mind cannot be assimilated to matter as conceived of by physics, it follows that physics does not give us a complete account of matter. There must in Nagel’s view be more to matter than physics reveals, some additional ingredient that could account for the origin of consciousness, meaning, and value." 
  Read it all here  

The Buddhist critique of Cartesianism

While not disagreeing with Ed Feser's analysis of the implications of Cartesian philosophy, as carried to its illogical conclusions by eliminative materialists, a Buddhist might question the ontological primacy of both res cogitans and res extensa, on the grounds that the underlying nature of reality is process and change, rather than stable entities. 

Buddhists divide all processes into two categories -  mental processes ('nama')  and physical/mechanistic processes ('rupa').  Hence nama is the dynamic equivalent of res cogitans, and rupa is the dynamic equivalent of res extensa.

Parallelling Feser's analysis, Buddhists believe that although mental processes and physical processes interact, mental processes are not reducible to physical processes.

According to Buddhism, the basis of reality consists of ever-changing processes rather than static ‘things’ or substances.  If any ‘thing’ is analysed in enough depth, and observed over a long enough timescale, it can be seen to be a stage of a dynamic process, rather than a static, stable thing-in-itself. 

This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself a process (a continuing  expansion from the Big Bang), and so all that it contains are subprocesses of the whole.

Mechanistic processes (which include anything that can be modelled by algorithms) explain the working of all machines including computers, and all the classical laws of science including biology, chemistry, and physics.

In contrast, mental processes consist of irreducible aspects of consciousness that have no mechanistic or algorithmic explanation, for example qualia (qualitative experiences such as pleasure and pain) and intentionality or 'aboutness' (the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs).    For a more detailed discussion see Buddhist Philosophy  

Friday, 21 August 2015

Quantum Physics - excellent TV program by Jim Al-Khalili

Einstein's Nightmare by Jim Al-Khalili on BBC 4.  Do we create reality? Fascinating TV program on quantum physics

This is the most readily understandable and accessible treatment of 'quantum weirdness' I've seen.   

Please note that this TV program will be unavailable after mid September.  Watch it soon, then check out Quantum Buddhism, Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind  and Buddhist Particle Physics.