After looking at the relative nature of truth as we accept a thesis, we trace the problem of finding a thesis unbelievable back to its source, to the tacit, unexamined beliefs that make a thesis seem unbelievable.
How to reconsider your standards for believability
The method here is to open our minds to exotic beliefs through loosening up pernicious fixed preconceptions.
Have you noticed how each of has such a sparklingly clear view of the world that we wonder why no one else does, such effortless insight into right and wrong, into what is really the issue here, into what is viable and what is not, that it seems to us just common sense or a matter of clear, rational thinking, faculties with which we happen to be almost uniquely endowed? We wonder that others can be so dense. The reason we think this way, is sparkingly clear to me and to anyone else with common sense or with a faculty for rational thought: A foundational layer of views has been laid down at such an uncritical, unquestioning and unremembering age that we can no longer even wildly imagine that they might be mistaken. They were, in short, acquired like this:
Since their acceptance skipped the evaluation stage altogether, the tacit preconceptions that underly our extreme confidence in the rightness of our later views are themselves high on faith and low on reason. Whenever someone says with utmost confidence, “That’s just common sense,” or “I am just saying what is obviously true,” or “As anyone with eyes can plainly see …,” he is almost certainly presupposing tacit views that he has never thought to question or challenge, or that he might not even be aware he has. We acquire a lot of these views in childhood before our faculties for discernment have developed. They produce the illusion of a cartoon world that we don’t have to think too hard about, such that we wonder that others have such mistaken views about it.
Tacit views, for their part, tend to constrain what theses we then consider believable and later accept.
For instance, one might have tacitly acquired the view that free-market capitalism is good, efficient, conducive to human thriving. One might also have tacitly acquired the view that socialism is inimical to free-market capitalism. In this case, any proposal that seems socialist (or that someone in authority simply labels as socialist) will be rejected out of hand as unbelievable. The result is a misplaced skepticism, a strident skepticism based not in questioning but in already having the answers.
It is inevitable that we, as wide-eyed innocents, should acquire many such views at an early stage of our development. This gives parents a special responsibility to make sure children are exposed to healthy wholesome views, rather than sickly and pernicious views. Fundamental values are acquired this way, ethical standards, religious and political views, social and cultural norms and so on. It is much better if children grow up thinking, “A kind response is just common sense,” or “The need to respect the dignity of every individual is obviously true,” than that they grow up thinking, “As anyone with eyes can plainly see you need to take care of Numero Uno even if it means knocking a few heads together.” Belief in the authority of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha arises in this way for most Buddhists at an uncritical age, for those who are born Buddhist. Likewise, belief in the authority of science arises in the uncritical years of childhood, for those who are born modern.
Tacit views, though often wholesome, are also the stuff of delusion. Differences in tacit views easily give rise to interpersonal friction in which each party is astounded that the other cannot see what is obviously true. The Buddha advocated a rational examination of views. As B. Alan Wallace puts it:
The challenge that Buddhism presents is to develop a true spirit of skepticism toward our own unquestioned assumptions, for it is these – not the beliefs of others – that lie at the root of our suffering.
Our foundational views may differ from those of others around us, but in fact there are widespread commonalities within any particular culture. For instance, many moderns tend to believe in materialism without question, that is, in the reality of an entirely physical universe, and to harbor a particular distrust of organized religion. Behind any widespread view is generally a long causal history reaching back at least a few hundred years. I would like to focus on these two views in particular, because they give repeated rise to teaching-believability mismatch, and therefore deserve careful scrutiny in Buddhist circles. Reconsidering these views leads to greater openness toward a number of Buddhist teachings that are often dismissed as unbelievable.
Private religion. The Protestant Reformation, starting as a protest movement against the excesses of the Catholic Church, reshaped the scope and appropriate setting of religion. McMahan1 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:
… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.
Religion became primarily a private relationship between the individual mind and God, or Jesus, whereas before it had a communal basis, rich in ritualized behaviors and relations, with a special role for robed priests, who not only oversaw ceremonies and education but also interceded personally between God and His children. Religious practice had previously been inseparable from other communal functions, even in the workplace and Protestant Christianity tended now to marginalize these communal aspects. To this day there is a profound suspicion of, and distaste for, the communal, institutional and ritual aspects of religion in Protestant lands. The force of this tacit view in the religious context is striking when one considers that there is little resistance to communal, institutional and ritual aspects of analogous areas of life, for instance, in the military, at sports events or in academic or political life. Consider flags, salutes, awards, uniforms and ranks, graduation ceremonies, homecoming ceremonies, cheerleading and group chanting, national anthems, the national spirit, and so on.
The doctrine of private religion is commonly misapplied to Buddhism; it rubs Buddhism the wrong way. First, Buddhism is at a very basic level a communal tradition itself, even while it extols as the highest ideal the individual renunciate who seeks seclusion in order to focus on the very private endeavor of attaining Awakening. The monastic Sangha, founded by the Buddha, is perhaps the oldest continual institution on the planet, and in that sense might be regarded as the most successful.
Second, Buddhism has a history that is quite distinct from the Catholic church and has never sparked protest on anything like the scale of the Protestant movement. Its communal structure has an entirely different basis, organized around a vulnerable monastic order, not around a hierarchical priesthood, that wields no coercive power and attains its authority only in its adherence to, and its role in imparting and inspiring, the teachings of the Buddha.
Third, the doctrine of private religion shows up in the believability standards which form the topic of this essay. The result is the common dismissal of many practices that characterize Buddhism, such as various rituals, incessant bowing, monastic discipline and the monastic/lay distinction. In A Culture of Awakening I argue that its communal structure has a critical function in Buddhism, that, in fact, it has played an essential historical role in the preservation of its functional integrity even as it has proved tolerant of cultural adaptations.
The point is that by understanding the conditioned history of the doctrine of private religion that is tacitly accepted as “just common sense,” one might just begin to question those presuppositions and thereby to become less constrained by them, and more willing to find those Buddhist teachings that conflict with those views believable. Many other tacit modern views that also rub Buddhism the wrong way have similar origins in European religious, cultural and intellectual history, particularly in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. McMahan’s Buddhism and Modernity provides an excellent catalog of the range of such view and their influence on modern practice and understanding of Buddhism.
This brings us to a critical function of the Triple Gem: To take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to accept the authority of these as primary sources of wisdom. This is not meant to discourage healthy skepticism and questioning around the teachings of Buddhism, but rather to encourage skepticism around tacit views, particularly those that seem contrary to Buddhist teachings. Refuge in the Triple Gem initiates the examination of our tacit assumptions.
The reduction of mind to brain. Scientific materialism, or simply materialism, is the view that universe is entirely physical, consisting of matter and energy. Psycho-physical reductionism, or simply reductionism in what follows, is the associated view that mind has a physical basis; it is generally assumed to emerge specifically in the functioning of the brain. Most biologists and psychologists and most educated lay folks accept these views pretty much without question.
Like private religion, materialism, rather than being simply something that is obviously true, has an historical basis, which in this case we can trace back to Descartes’ establishment of the dichotomy between mind and matter and his declaration that matter is the proper object of scientific investigation, with mind assuming something like a God’s eye view that makes the objective examination of matter possible. In the early nineteenth century, Laplace introduced the view of a deterministic universe, governed entirely by physical forces. In the middle of that century, Helmholtz formulated the law of the conservation of energy, which seemed to exclude non-physical and therefore external forces such as God from intervening in the world. It also thereby seemed to exclude intervention by mind. Once science became interested in human behavior and cognitive capabilities and discovered that brain impairments effected these, the reduction of of mind to brain function seemed viable, such that mind is now widely regarded as an epiphenomenon, an emergent reflection of purely physical cognitive processes.
Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Buddhism is profoundly subjective in its method, primarily concerned with mental phenomena as they arise in human experience, and the causal relationships among these. Matter shows up as that which impinges on sense faculties, or else as illusory mental imputations on an imputed outer world. Our practice is focused on the development and purification of mind. Materialism and reductionism, on the other hand, marginalize the mind, leaving scant foothold for values, for moral responsibility, for meaning, for choice. They tend towards making some core teachings of the Buddha unbelievable.
As noted in our discussion of contextualization, few can live in a fully material world, even if they believe in it. The undesirable consequences of living in a material world is in itself is enough to expunge psycho-physical reductionism from Buddhist purview, independently of whether it is ultimately objectively true in a scientific sense, as unbeneficial. Materialism also entails annihilationism, the view that all mental factors, including karmic consequences, die with the body, which the Buddha explicitly dismissed for its detrimental ethical consequences in favor of the Middle Way. As Wallace (2012, 114) points out, the Buddha rejected any theory that undermines the sense of moral responsibility.
For materialism means that human well-being tends to be sought materially, in external conditions, or in ingestibles, because these have direct material effects. Contemplative practice seems of rather remote efficacy when a material measure is at hand. For many, meditation has become attractive only after neurological correlates have been discovered. It can then be understood as a matter of toning and building up neurons, much like physical fitness tones and builds up muscles. However, the efficacy of mediation for ethical purification of mind, for removing inclinations toward greed, hate and delusion then requires a long stretch of the imagination. Pill-popping seems, from a materialist perspective, a much more direct way of dealing with suffering than does a spiritual practice.
Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Nonetheless, it also turns out that psycho-physical reductionism is almost certainly wrong from a purely scientific or scholarly perspective. I hear some audible gasps out there, but bear with me. The many difficulties of reductive materialism as a viable theory have been well articulated by others much more familiar with the evidence and its interpretation than I, so I will briefly summarize the three forms these arguments take, each one of which, it seems to me, would be decisive on its own.
The first argument against reductionism is from quantum physics, which in the twentieth century completely overturned what seemed by the late nineteenth-century a firm basis for materialism, and which has interesting things itself to reveal about the real nature of mind. Quantum physics has become foundational to physics; modern electronics and nuclear power depend on the quantum understanding, and yet popular understanding of physics and the training in physics that biologists and other physical scientists obtain is generally stuck in the pre-quantum nineteenth century, probably because quantum physics, while unerringly accurate in its predictions, is at the same time “woo-woo and way out there,” in the common parlance. Quantum physics is a response to observational data from which it has failed to remove mind and intention (free will) from the universe at the most fundamental level. Let’s see how briefly I can put this:
A physical thing – like an electron or an atom, but in principle also a bigger thing like a cat – does not have a definite location (or any other state), but exists as a superposition, which is a probability function, also called a wave function, over locations … until you look at it, then it assumes a definite location, called collapsing the wave function, at which time not only does the thing assume a definite location, but anything else that is entangled with it, that is, whose definite location is predicted from its definite location, also collapses its wave function. For example, object a exists in more than one place at the same time, until you look at it, then a exists at only a single place. If the position of object b is predictable from the position of object a, then when the wave function of object a collapses, so does the wave function of object b, and so on. What is more, it does not matter how far away a and b have gotten from one another, or even if b is an object that existed in the past! Observation, in other words, makes the universe real, and even makes past history real, before which it hasn’t made up its mind. Observation, for its part, requires conscious mind, which John von Neuman identified as entanglement with the ich (the word Freud used for ego) that decided to look.
An interesting philosophical question for us is, Where does the mind, or the ich come from? Were little ichs around all along, collapsing wave functions willy-nilly? Reductionism seems almost the most absurd option: If mind is reducible to brain, which is also a product of evolution, then evolution could not have happened in any determinate form until it indeterminately created an ich that could observe and start collapsing wave functions so that its own evolutionary development could become determinate and it could itself exist. What is more, the experimental data seems to confirm Descartes original dualism between mind and matter, for the encounter with something distinct from matter is needed to collapse wave functions.
The tangle of paradoxes that arise from this boggles the, uh, mind. It even once boggled Einstein’s, uh, mind, who referred to the causal relationship between a and b above as spukhaft (spooky). It is therefore almost impossible to arrive at definitive conclusions, but let me reflect some speculations anyway. First, mind is much more fundamental constituent of the universe than physical reductionism would ever acknowledge. Second, what we are seeing in this observational data is the finishing touches of the creation of physical reality by mind. Physical reality, in other words, seems to reduce to mind, rather than the other way around. Spooky, but it sure seems to cast serious doubt on the enterprise of reducing mind to brain.
Sir James Jeans stated in the 1930’s that, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Max Planck, the primary originator of quantum theory, stated toward the end of his life in the 1940’s, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” Physicist Andrei Linde states, “I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers. We are together, the universe and us, … I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness” (quoted in Tucker, 2013, 168, 189). Eugene Wigner states, “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” (Rosenblum and Kuttner, 2011, 237).
If the brain does not produce mind, what does it do? The answer may have been recognized by William James over a century ago: the brain enables or transmits thoughts originating in a non-physical source. Interestingly models of brain function along these lines have been proposed by physicists, most notably by Henry Stapp and by Roger Penrose. These are highly speculative and controversial, but illustrate, for our purposes, how abandoning reductionism opens up a world of possible understandings of mind. As I understand it, these models propose that the brain is an organ specialized to maintain particular superposition states that are subject to collapse with specific physical effects under the influence of consciousness.ii They account, for instance, how the thought, “I think I will raise my arm,” can be followed by the physical rise of the arm. Quantum physics has laid the basis for modern electronics. It might likewise explain the purpose and operating principles of the brain in a way radically distinct from conventional understanding.
The second argument against reductionism is the complete absence, after over a century of research, of any viable theory of how mind could possibly arise from brain, along with compelling philosophical arguments that such a theory is in principle impossible. In contrast to the situation with mind, biological life processes, at one time also often regarded as irreducible, have been quite successfully reduced to biochemistry, as has biochemistry to chemistry, and chemistry to quantum physics, which is to say, we see physical and chemical laws working exactly as they should to fully account for life processes. There is no hint of an equivalent analysis of the arising of mental states in accordance with physical or biological principles, only the repeatedly stated tacit but enduring hope that someday one is forthcoming. At one time many researchers doubted life was reducible, convinced that some irreducible life force was required in order to account for it. There were shown to be wrong. At the present time some researchers analogously doubt that mind is reducible, convinced that something irreducible is needed to account for it. Every indication so far is that they are right.
Some progress has been made in computational models that emulate human reasoning and cognition. (I used to work in this field myself professionally.) Although many reductionists think of mind and brain as related as software to hardware, the practical success of computational models can be deceiving. One difficulty is the absence of an intrinsic semantics in computational models. Whereas a computer program might perform expert tasks, like medical diagnosis, quite impressively, the medical doctor understands how the diagnosis relates to real ailments of real patients, living real lives, whereas the artificial expert is merely manipulating symbols, and still relies on a human to relate the results of reasoning to the real world, to understand what the diagnosis means, just as a book relies on a human to interpret the knowledge it contains. This has been argued most persuasively by the philosopher John Searle, who (it should be stated in all fairness) nevertheless holds out hope for a reduction of mind to brain.
The philosopher David Chalmers (1996) focuses specifically on the phenomenology of human subjective experience, that is, consciousness, allowing that maybe there is some possibility of a computational theory that can account for much of human (subconscious) cognition. Each of us has subjective experience; in fact it is the only kind of direct experience we ever have. There is nothing more real. Accordingly, there is something it is like to be you, there is something it is like to taste an orange, or to look at an orange. In a thought experiment he asks us to imagine a world in which there is someone exactly like you with the same cognitive capabilities and behaviors manifesting the same physical processes, but in which there is no conscious experience, like a computer that is doing the correct calculations to emulate human capabilities. Your twin, whom Chalmers calls a zombie, has eyes, visual processing, representations of information, decision making processes, and so on, but simply lacks conscious experience. Carefully arguing from the coherence of the concept of zombies, he concludes that consciousness is not entailed by, and therefore cannot in principle be reduced to, matter, or brain function. Yet there is, as plain as day.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel (2012) is concerned that biological evolution, as normally understood, cannot account for the arising of mind from matter. First, it has enough difficulty accounting for the arising of life from dead matter and its subsequent evolution through mutation and natural selection, in terms of physical laws. Next, it has the even more challenging task of accounting for the arising of mental phenomena, in particular of consciousness, in association with certain life forms, in terms of the same kinds of laws. In this case physical elements must give rise to something non-physical and entirely without precedent in nature: consciousness. Finally, it has the even far more daunting task of explaining forms of human reasoning that can reliably conceptualize objective reality. Whereas an evolutionary account of perceptions and desires might make sense in terms of survivability, the evolution of purer forms of reasoning, such as recognition that there is a difference between appearance and reality, correction of expectations, or moral or prudential reasoning, would have to presuppose their validity. One need only consider, it seems to me, When and how, within the evolutionary process, did mathematics come into existence?
The third argument against reductionism is that mind is not strictly conditioned by brain. A primary argument for reducing mind to brain is that subjective mental experience correlates with observable brain activity. For instance, physical injuries to the brain, the ingesting of intoxicants and degenerative neural diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, clearly effect mental functions. However, the intimate correlation between mind and body is complex and works both ways. To take an obvious example of the way mind conditions matter, the thought arises, “I think I will raise my hand,” and my hand rises.
Problematic for reductionism are cases in which mind intervenes in a way that is quite independent of known physical mechanisms. Until late in the twentieth century such phenomena were widely dismissed as unbelievable in the scientific/medical community. One of the first of these phenomena to receive wide recognition is the placebo effect, as when an inert administered substance takes on the causal properties of another substance because of a mistaken belief about what is administered. The placebo effect is now so thoroughly accepted in medical research that accounting for it is obligatory in the testing of pharmaceuticals.
For the materialist, physical health is the proper function of physical bodily processes, and should proceed independent of mind. Yet stress or depression has an effect on the immune system and on other bodily functions. The state of mind, even the opportunity for affectionate contact with family or pets, can influence mortality rates. Both meditation and religious practice improve rates of recovery from illness or surgery. These effects were rarely acknowledged by doctors and researchers for many years, and the mechanisms by which they happen are still not understood.
A long list of similar effects have been documented but are often dismissed, even though they should not be any more unbelievable than the previous examples. They likewise represent intervention of mind into what are otherwise regarded a purely physical processes in the body and are therefore of similar type to the previous examples. In a vodoo death, the firm expectation of impending death, regardless of reasonably good health, results in death on schedule. In contrast, dying persons have been known to postpone death until Christmas or until they have seen family members one last time. In false pregnancy a woman begins showing symptoms such as enlarged belly and engorged breasts because she mistakenly thinks she is pregnant. In hysteria, a bodily function is lost without discernible neurological cause. In stigmata and related phenomena, physical effects corresponding either to imagined wounds or to previous bodily trauma relived many years later, manifest as blisters or wounds on the body, as if one has been burned or otherwise injured. In multiple personality disorder, sufferers exhibit different physiological conditions associated with different personalities, including differences in allergic reactions, eyesight, color blindness and right- or left-handedness. In extreme cases of bodily control, yogis are able to regulate bodily temperature or other body functions at will, and certain people are able to cause discoloration of the skin according to certain patterns. In maternal impressions, thoughts and experiences of a pregnant woman seem to manifest as birth marks or other abnormalities in the child. Kelly, et. al. (2006) is a huge compendium of the scientific/medical research on these topics and those listed in the following paragraph.
Most problematic for reductionism, but also least well documented in medical literature (but possibly precisely because they seem far too “woo woo and way out there” to record), are cases in which mind seems to function with a high degree of independence from the body. Examples of this include out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, particularly memories from a period in which brain activity has ceased. Also among these are documented memories in children of verifiable past-life experiences. Although commonly dismissed, Kelly (2006, xxv), for one, declares that high quality evidence for basic phenomena of this sort has long been available beyond a reasonable doubt. Wallace (2012, 95) likens the common disregard for such evidence to the difficulty Galileo had in getting anyone to look through his telescope for fear of contradicting established beliefs.
In short, modernity’s encounter with materialism has been ill conceived. It has forced us into an unnaturally narrow view of mind that the practicing Buddhist does well to abandon. Doing so will open open up the full range of benefit from Buddhist practice and understanding in which mind is primary, like nothing else.
Conclusion. Giving up the sparklingly clear view of the world that accrues with one’s tacit unexamined presuppositions will feel like a sacrifice. Yet examining those views and discovering their weakness opens up a world of alternative understandings along with the capacity to engage the world as it is more completely. It also tends to clear away obstacles to accepting the otherwise least believable of the Buddha’s teachings.
In our final post in this series we will take up the last recourse to accepting the Buddha’s teachings. Having looked at the options of acceptance, rejection, contextualization, reconsideration, we take up upgrade, the most creative strategy of all.