Sunday, May 26, 2013

En Route

Touched down in Toronto, picked up at the airport by my father without a hitch.  Staying in their sauna in Sunderland.

Was approached by a young Chinese woman in the Winnipeg airport, "are you a real monk?" "What do you do?"  I explained that not only do I practice meditation but i teach it as well.  I gave her a booklet on how to meditate.  "So your a teacher?  And they pay you for that?"  It was funny in a nice sort of way. We talked about money and happiness and living and how if you have the last two you don't really need the first one.

I'm reading Thomas Nagel's terse Mind and the Cosmos, a difficult read, but well worth the effort.  I read most of Raymond Tallis's Aping Mankind as well.  The thought that arises from all this reading is of the Buddha's condemnation of both free will and determinism as well as most other metaphysical constructs.  I think the best conclusion we can come to is that determinism and free will only have meaning in relation to concepts; our belief that reality must be one or the other is rooted in the fact that thought deals inherently with concepts - you can't think about ultimate reality.  This is the difference between experience and thought.  You can't experience something like free will or determinism.

The importance of this idea comes from something I've been trying to enunciate for some time - the view that our thoughts change us by their very arising.  This view, espoused by the Buddha, I think, is key in discussion of things like free will and determinism, or materialist reductionism and idealism/dualism, etc.  The question becomes not 'which is true?' but 'what comes from which?'  As in, 'what is the result of holding such and such a view?'  I would argue this question is not only more important, but more valid as well, if it is accepted that such views are inherently conceptually-based.

Take determinism, for example.  It says that the present is wholely dependent on the past and the future is wholely dependent on the present.  In so doing, it relies upon an abstraction of reality into three tenses that are wholely absent from both experiential and physical reality. Meaning that discussion of determinism relies in principal on concepts, not realities.  Materialist reductionism fares no better; it states that experience itself is reducible to solely material causes.  Putting aside the strangeness of such a view, so contrary to empirical observation, it has the added deficiency of relying on a conceptual physical universe that, while appearing wholely objective, is yet wholely an abstraction from what is observed.  Neurons are not observed phenomena, they are abstractions of what is actually observed - the neurons themselves only 'exist' in our minds.

Idealism and free will fall into more serious problems - both rely on concepts that are wholely unobservable and thus entirely subjective in nature.  The point here is that it seems any view of the nature of reality beyond experientialism requires the appeal to concepts and thus fails immediately at what it sets out to accomplish.  This is what is meant by 'which is true?' being an invalid question.

If this conclusion were to be accepted, and I think it should be even though I may personally fail in convincing as much with my words, it would leave us free to explore the Buddhist paradigm of practical implications of views without having to worry about their veracity.  This is not theoretical; views dictate thoughts which in truth dictate acts.  When Richard Dawkins says we are shooting the messenger by complaining about telling our children they are animals, we should insist that it is in fact the message sending itself that we object to, not the message.  Or rather that messages (views based on abstractions of reality) are intrinsically objectionable not for what they contain (objective or subjective views) but for their very nature (being conceptually-based).  It's not that we object to information, it's that we object to abstraction.

For example, suppose someone hears voices in their head, loud and clear voices like most of us hear with our ears.  A strictly experiential conclusion would be something like 'an experience of hearing arises'.  That is really as far as empiricism gets us.  Even 'you hear a voice' is hopelessly tainted, let alone the dreaded 'you have schizophrenia' or worse 'you are schizophrenic'.  This, even though all three are in correspondence with the experiential reality.  This is the meaning of 'abstraction', which is the basic problem with conclusions in general.

It's a problem for what it does, not for what it is.  It may be 'true' to say that someone is schizophrenic, but it is an abstract truth in more than one sense.  Because of this, it will pose serious problems for the 'someone' who 'is' schizophrenic.  Suddenly, instead of a simple, innocuous experience, our 'someone' is faced with the horrible 'reality' that their very 'being' is somehow inherently flawed.  Neuroscience tries to ameliorate this by pointing out how the problem is in the 'brain', and thus not intrinsic to the 'self'.  Even a superficial exploration of this paradigm shows how insufficient it is - it still provides zero potential for solution, beyond killing the brain with psychoactive drugs, lobotomy, ECT, or suicide.  Again, complaining of shooting the messenger is not an adequate defence, since the wording of the message itself is flawed.

I think this gives a glimpse of the kind of problem that is intrinsic to views even before their 'validity' is verified by correspondence with observation - correspondence is necessary but not sufficient for equation.  Unfortunately, I think a full-blown exposé will make Pandora's seem like a Jack-in-the-box.  Take Nazi Germany, for example - though it may be denied by evolutionary apologists, Hitler really had the right idea in trying to use his naturally-selected brain to facilitate the very prima facie reason for its existence - survival of the fittest.  Surely natural selection demands that we should use our brains to encourage natural selection.  While this is an absurd conclusion, it is one that Hitler seems to have come to based on, not in spite of, appreciation of the theory of natural selection.  The theory has also been used to defend eugenics and forced sterilisation of the mentally handicapped.  This is not to say there is anything 'untrue' or even unethical about the specific theory of natural selection, just that its abstraction (and I would argue reductio ad absurdum) of empirical observation lends itself to abuse, by very nature of that abstraction (and oversimplification). 

True compassion, for example, flies in the face of natural selection - and yet, I would argue it is perfectly rational and beneficial in relation to experiential reality.  Mental development is likewise crushed under the weight of physicalist determinism, and yet anyone and everyone is capable of at least some mental development.  Regardless of whether determinism is 'true' (though as above I would argue such a statement is meaningless, as determinism deals with concepts, not realities), it is debilitating and often harmful.  Take a kleptomaniac, for example.  It is all well and nice to pity such a person, but what does such a label do to solve their repetitive impulse to take what is not given?  Unless we grant the thief some agency, or at least freedom from the belief that desire to steal is inherent (in what, I can't imagine), our therapy options are somewhat limited.  Further, such a person is given a get out of hell free card - they were just acting based on nature or nurture, neither of which is their fault, so neither of which is their responsibility to fix.

This, I think, is the general rule with views that seek to reduce observable reality to some set of abstract mathematical equations that appear prima facie to be 'true' in the sense of accordance, rather than equivalence with observations.  They tend to be self-fulfilling in their prophecy of natural order - materialists become materialistic in their pursuits, idealists become hopelessly idealistic, determinists become fixed in their ways, etc.  In short, they distort reality not by being out of line with it, but by being outside of it.  Maybe this is what Marshall McLuhan meant by 'the medium is the message'. 

I'm sure I could say much more on the subject; I'll leave it to my readers (should there be any) to fill in the gaps.  The idea is to facilitate a paradigm shift from views and theories to contentment with bare observation.  I would argue that the former are not only useless but harmful in their effect on the mind.  Telling children they are animals is wrong in the same way telling a schizophrenic they are psychotic - it says nothing useful and encourages inertia.  This is not my idea - as I said, the Buddha himself criticised such views as nothing more than a carte blanche for unethical behaviour, hedonism, and mediocrity.

And that's all I have to say about that.

If you made it this far, here's a note that everyone is welcome to visit next weekend.  Send me a note if you need info, otherwise, see you in Stoney Creek.


  1. Happy to hear you are part way here...looking forward to your visit next week. :)

  2. Brian9:02 AM

    With the above post, I felt a softening of my perception of what is really real. It is strange how even though it is not technically meditation, hearing talks, Q & A sessions, and reading blog posts, feel relaxing and brings peace. I feel and enlightening process arising.

    In my twenties I had this huge argument with a friend. I said the window blind was not a window blind, it was just a window blind because my friend thought it was a window blind. Needless to say, that conversation did not bring peace.

  3. matthew2morris6:56 PM

    Beautiful post. The freewill/determinism thing often enters my mind. Especially now that I am studying permaculture and ecology. Everything seems deterministic, yet the contributing factors are so complex and ever-evolving that to say it is so is almost useless. Now, to take it a step further as you just have, to the point where ALL conceptualizations, including empirical observations and the conclusions of such, too are merely abstractions, is very powerful and a healthy reminder.

    When observing natural processes, such as the patterns of relation between species, it is easy to come to conclusions about such behavioral phenomena. However, since everything is in constant flux, further observation of such behavioral phenomena wards new understandings, thus demands alterations to previous conclusions. So it is a rather difficult task (if not impossible) to claim 'true' knowledge about the world we observe. Thus, sciences attempt to do so is pretty futile and often damaging. It can easily place us in very dogmatic modalities of thought. And yet, this is the relation our mind has with the world, always trying to grasp at conclusions in order to promote confidence in actions that are directed towards securing the bodies survival.

    Anyways, good to see my teacher is still kicking. Hope to catch up with you more...

    From an old student of the jungle on that beautiful Tear Drop Isle,