Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Evolutionary quality

Some more thoughts about "values" as providing a descriptive basis of a workable paradigm. In retrospective terms, we could say that evolution is the creation of valuable information through selective replication and innovation. That is, information - and its phenotypic extension - that survives environmental pressures becomes valuable by virtue of its being successfully propagated.

On this subject I found this short article at which pursues this same naturalisation of values:

While primary values cannot be derived from nature, they must be consistent with evolution and natural selection, the primary mechanism that has generated all of nature. This mechanism has an implicit value, as selection entails a preference for certain states of affairs over others. Natural selection can be seen to strive to maximize survival or fitness. Thus we take survival, in the most general sense, as the primary value. If we also take into account reproduction, the more general evolutionary value is fitness: maximizing the probability that our genes (or memes) will still be around in future generations. Because of the "Red Queen Principle" the seemingly conservative value of survival necessarily entails continuing progress, development, or growth: if you do not innovate by constantly trying out new variations, you will sooner or later lose the competition with those that do innovate. Thus we can from there derive the ultimate good as the continuation of the process of evolution itself, in the negative sense of avoiding evolutionary "dead ends" and general extinction, in the positive sense of constantly increasing our fitness, and thus our intelligence, degree of organization and general mastery over the universe.

Pirsig's MOQ takes the same two basic aspects of value, or quality, described here - survival and progression - and builds everything else from them. They are described as static quality and dynamic quality respectively. "Dynamic" is usually capitalised to signify its priority, both epistemological and ontological, but I don't want to get into that here other than to say that if natural selection is the mechanism that creates everything through replication and innovation, then some kind of innovation has to have come first. Anyway, Pirsig puts the "priority" of innovation like this:

The decisions that directed the progress of evolution are, in fact, Dynamic Quality itself.....Naturally there is no mechanism toward which life is heading. Mechanisms are the enemy of life. The more static and unyielding the mechanisms are, the more life works to evade them or overcome them.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch11)

(Note: So Dynamic Quality has to cover all aspects of variation such as replication errors and mutations and the "spur of the moment" selection of parental genes that are spliced to create the DNA of their offspring as well.)

As is an ever more popular thesis, Pirsig then applies evolutionary principles to everything, using his own static-Dynamic vocabulary to give us a rich description of the process:

The division of all biological evolutionary patterns into a Dynamic function and a static function continues on up through higher levels of evolution. The formation of semipermeable cell walls to let food in and keep poisons out is a static latch. So are bones, shells, hide, fur, burrows, clothes, houses, villages, castles, rituals, symbols, laws and libraries. All of these prevent evolutionary degeneration. On the other hand, the shift in cell reproduction from mitosis to meiosis to permit sexual choice and allow huge DNA diversification is a Dynamic advance. So is the collective organization of cells into metazoan societies called plants and animals. So are sexual choice, symbiosis, death and regeneration, communality, communication, speculative thought, curiosity and art. Most of these, when viewed in a substance-centered evolutionary way, are thought of as mere incidental properties of the molecular machine. But in a value-centered explanation of evolution they are close to the Dynamic process itself, pulling the pattern of life forward to greater levels of versatility and freedom.

Sometimes a Dynamic increment goes forward but can find no latching mechanism and so fails and slips back to a previous latched position. Whole species and cultures get lost this way. Sometimes a static pattern becomes so powerful it prohibits any Dynamic moves forward. In both cases the evolutionary process is halted for a while. But when it's not halted the result has been an increase in power to control hostile forces or an increase in versatility or both. The increase in versatility is directed toward Dynamic Quality. The increase in power to control hostile forces is directed toward static quality. Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed.

(ibid. Ch11)

The questions I have at the moment are:

Is anything added to the theory of evolution by all this talk of values?
Does our understanding of values benefit from their linking to evolution?
Are values implicit in evolutionary theory?

With respect to the last question, if value are implicit in evolutionary theory and evolutionary theory can be applied to everything then values can be applied to everything.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I've been thinking lately about the metaphor that all things are systems completely embedded in an environment which also comprises a system and so on. I read this article which proposes a universal principle which amounts to the opposite of entropy - enformy -:$wsr02.html

..and found some interesting ideas which I'll come back to. Here is a snippet:

TES [Theory of Enformed Systems] explains the origin, fundamental properties, and behaviors of holistic systems at all ontological levels. TES does not displace the current scientific paradigms; instead, it forms their foundation. Four statements place TES in the context of the current disciplines: (a) A general theory of systems is necessarily a theory of organization; (b) because TES is a general theory of organization, it belongs to systemics—the science of holistic systems; (c) because organization per se is fundamental to all observable phenomena, systemics is the most basic branch of science; and (d) because TES is foundational to the prevailing paradigms of science, it is outside the prevailing Weltanschauung; i.e., it cannot be understood or interpreted in terms of the prevailing paradigms.

The prevailing paradigms address systems that are already organized, whereas TES addresses organization per se—its origin, elaboration, and maintenance. Organization per se is traditionally assumed to be a necessary precondition for scientific study, and not itself a subject of study. For instance, the standard model of the cosmos holds that the universe consists of (a) matter, comprising fundamental particles such as quarks, electrons, photons, etc.; (b) the properties of these particles, including charge, polarization, spin, etc.; and (c) mass and energy—two fundamental, conserved principles that determine the behaviors of matter. The work of science has been to discover and describe patterns of these behaviors. In physics, this work entails applying the organization inherent in mathematics to map the organization inherent in matter. As a result, the worldview of mathematical physics is blind to organization per se because organization is intrinsic to mathematics.

Systemics radicalizes this. It allows scientists to turn their attention to the question, "What is the origin of organization per se?"

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Quantum Darwinism

If one major thesis running through this blog is panrelationalism then another is the applicability of the basic premises of the Darwinian theory of evolution to almost any area of inquiry. Below is an article published in in 2004 describing how Wojciech Zurek and colleagues have attempted to show how a Darwin-like process of selective propagation of information can be used to describe the transition from quantum to "preferred" classical states:

If, as quantum mechanics says, observing the world tends to change it, how is it that we can agree on anything at all? Why doesn't each person leave a slightly different version of the world for the next person to find? Because, say the researchers, certain special states of a system are promoted above others by a quantum form of natural selection, which they call quantum darwinism. Information about these states proliferates and gets imprinted on the environment. So observers coming along and looking at the environment in order to get a picture of the world tend to see the same 'preferred' states.

If it wasn't for quantum darwinism, the researchers suggest in Physical Review Letters, the world would be very unpredictable: different people might see very different versions of it. Life itself would then be hard to conduct, because we would not be able to obtain reliable information about our surroundings... it would typically conflict with what others were experiencing.

The difficulty arises because directly finding out something about a quantum system by making ameasurement inevitably disturbs it. "After a measurement," say Wojciech Zurek at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and his colleagues, "the state will be what the observer finds out it is, but not, in general, what it was before."

Because, as Zurek says, "the Universe is quantum to the core," this property seems to undermine the notion of an objective reality. In this type of situation, every tourist who gazed at Buckingham Palace would change the arrangement of the building's windows, say, merely by the act of looking, so that subsequent tourists would see something slightly different. Yet that clearly isn't what happens. This sensitivity to observation at the quantum level (which Albert Einstein famously compared to God constructing the quantum world by throwing dice to decide its state) seems to go away at the everyday, macroscopic level. "God plays dice on a quantum level quite willingly," says Zurek, "but, somehow, when the bets become macroscopic he is more reluctant to gamble." How does that happen?

The Los Alamos team define a property of a system as 'objective', if that property is simultaneously evident to many observers who can find out about it without knowing exactly what they are looking for and without agreeing in advance how they'll look for it. Physicists agree that the macroscopic or classical world (which seems to have a single, 'objective' state) emerges from the quantum world of many possible states through a phenomenon called decoherence, according to which interactions between the quantum states of the system of interest and its environment serve to 'collapse' those states into a single outcome. But this process of decoherence still isn't fully understood.

"Decoherence selects out of the quantum 'mush' states that are stable, that can withstand the scrutiny of the environment without getting perturbed," says Zurek. These special states are called 'pointer states', and although they are still quantum states, they turn out to look like classical ones. For example, objects in pointer states seem to occupy a well-defined position, rather than being smeared out in space.

The traditional approach to decoherence, says Zurek, was based on the idea that the perturbation of a quantum system by the environment eliminates all but the stable pointer states, which an observer can then probe directly. But he and his colleagues point out that we typically find out about a system indirectly, that is, we look at the system's effect on some small part of its environment. For example, when we look at a tree, in effect we measure the effect of the leaves and branches on the visible sunlight that is bouncing off them. But it was not obvious that this kind of indirect measurement would reveal the robust, decoherence-resistant pointer states. If it does not, the robustness of these states won't help you to construct an objective reality.

Now, Zurek and colleagues have proved a mathematical theorem that shows the pointer states do actually coincide with the states probed by indirect measurements of a system's environment. "The environment is modified so that it contains an imprint of the pointer state," he says.

Yet this process alone, which the researchers call 'environment-induced superselection' or einselection, isn't enough to guarantee an objective reality. It is not sufficient for a pointer state merely to make its imprint on the environment: there must be many such imprints, so that many different observers can see the same thing.

Happily, this tends to happen automatically, because each individual's observation is based on only a tiny part of the environmental imprint. For example, we're never in danger of 'using up' all the photons bouncing off a tree, no matter how many people we assemble to look at it.

This multiplicity of imprints of the pointer states happens precisely because those states are robust: making one imprint does not preclude making another. This is a Darwin-like selection process. "One might say that pointer states are most 'fit'," says Zurek. "They survive monitoring by the environment to leave 'descendants' that inherit their properties." "Our work shows that the environment is not just finding out the state of the system and keeping it to itself", he adds. "Rather, it is advertising it throughout the environment, so that many observers can find it out simultaneously and independently."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Preferata! Good or bad poetic science?

While reading Dawkins' Unweaving The Rainbow I've been thinking about the distinction between literal and metaphorical description with respect to philosophy and science. The dictionary definitions of the words basically state that literal description gets at the "essential or genuine character of something" whereas metaphorical description is where "a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another." It seems to me that the way science sometimes claims to be providing literal descriptions is by inventing new words - by spinning out something from a more familiar term for similar observed or hypothetical phenomena (e.g. gluon* for the force that sticks quarks together), often by taking or amending a (sometimes quasi-) latin synonym (e.g. gravitas, latin for heavy) for what they are describing - thus avoiding the charge of metaphor.

So perhaps I could do the same and invent a word for describing how subatomic particles, chemicals, cells, animals, people, institutions, and everything else we can think of appear to express preferences in their observable behaviour and are in fact definable by the range of preferences they can express and the probability of them expressing them. I could call the smallest unit of anything a preferatum (plural: preferata) and explain their existence and behaviour as being a particular mode of preferation. So, for example, with a sufficiently serious look on my face I could say that it is not that there are electrons which can be said to express preferences but that electrons are in fact a species of inorganic preferata and that experimental data are in fact a record of the preferation from which the existence of electrons is inferred.


A hypothetical massless, neutral elementary particle believed to mediate the strong interaction that binds quarks together.

[glu(e) + -on1.]

: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 21, 2006

12 Threats to Global Security...

...according to Robert Harvey in his Global Disorder. Just wanted to spread the good news and also remind myself to learn a bit more and maybe write a bit more about each of them here.

1. Terrorism
2. Islamic Fundamentalism
3. Oil
4. Nationalism
5. Nuclear proliferation
6. The Rogue State
7. The Disintegrationist State
8. Poverty
9. Overpopulation
10. The environment
11. Crime
12. The Globalisation of Human Rights

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Latest stats on the Evolution vs Creation debate in the U.S.

From New Scientist today - "Why doesn't America believe in evolution?" by Jeff Hecht. (Not sure how Intelligent Design figures in these stats):

Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact.

Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."

Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That's despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says.

There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last year. "That is a group of people that can be reached," says Scott.

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6000 years ago.

Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind act is instituting standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level.

Miller thinks more genetics should be on the syllabus to reinforce the idea of evolution. American adults may be harder to reach: nearly two-thirds don't agree that more than half of human genes are common to chimpanzees. How would these people respond when told that humans and chimps share 99 per cent of their genes?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Suffering succotash

Further thoughts on karma, suffering and evolution. I have linked the constraining aspect of karma with suffering by virtue of the replication element of evolution (biological and cultural). The flip-side of this condition of suffering is the clinging to patterns in the face of the variation and selection needed by evolution.

Thus we have the twin barbs of suffering:

Wanting things to change when they are constrained to stay the same.

Wanting things to stay the same when they are driven to change.

Inorganic patterns of value (#2)

I would think it is largely uncontroversial to use values to describe and understand cultural phenomena but Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality attempts to argue that all phenomena can and should be described and understood in terms of values, including physical phenomena. In the last post I summarised what I consider to be Pirsig's arguments for using the term "inorganic patterns of value" over the more traditional "substance" as:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported
- a scientific choice between the two theoretical terms is underdetermined by the data
- a philosophic choice favours the use of "value"
- in wider terms the use of "value" provides a more parsimonious and inclusive paradigm of systematic inquiry

Here are some objections which spring to mind:

- One could object to the use of empiricism by pointing out that, since the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, the primacy of experience on which empiricism is based is untenable.

- One could extend the argument of underdetermination from science to philosophy and ask how "value" could be philosophically preferrable.

- One could object to talking of particles expressing preferences as gratuitously bestowing intentionality upon such phenomena.

- One could argue that paradigmatic parsimony is but the positive face of reductionism.

- One could simply say - why bother?

I have some initial thoughts on these objections.

Although I'm not wholly convinced by the "linguistic turn," I wouldn't argue against it, preferring, instead, to claim that the validity of the replacement of the term "substance" with "value" is not really dependent on the empiricist principle invoked by Pirsig. Particularly as the same principle would apply to the term "inorganic patterns of value." So I consider this objection as superfluous as the argument to which it objects.

As to the philosophical underdetermination of theory, for Kuhnian reasons I would be tempted to agree that data alone cannot be depended upon to choose between two philosophies and to instead draw on an evolutionary epistemology which "favours" theories and contexts through a cultural version of natural selection. I could argue that the essentialist and deterministic context in which "substance" has survived has largely "died out" with respect to subatomic physics and "value" is a variation which may or may not prosper as a new context.

The objection about misplaced intentionality could be treated in a couple of ways. First, one could follow the likes of Nietzsche and Davidson and argue that the hard distinction between literal and metaphorical is untenable such that whether electrons literally or only metaphorically express preferences is moot. Second, one could point out that science is littered with similarly anthropomorphic terms and phrases such as in chemical "attraction" whereby atoms have an "affinity" with other atoms or perhaps the increasingly popular references to "self-organisation" in atomical and molecular systems. In fact I recently read something by string theorist Brian Greene saying that cosmic strings "prefer" to resonate at certain frequencies.

The objection that an attempt to explain everything in terms of value is an attempt to reduce everything to value stands up with reference only to the theory as presented so far. However, Pirsig goes on to categorise value such that everything is not reduced to one type of value, thereby, I think, avoiding the negative aspects of ontological and explanatory reductionism.

The objection that this redescription is simply unnecessary is one that may be addressed as this blog progresses. It is also partially addressed by the claim that, insofar as it is desirable, a more inclusive paradigm is created by the redescription. Finally, it is perhaps addressed by thinking of all of the things that, at first glance, evoked the response of, "Why bother?" which turned out to be worth a lot of bother. In fact, this doing-of-new-things-anyway* is built right into the principle of evolution.

So, a rather brief treatment of a topic which could certainly expand, probably until it branched out into all of the usual arguments of epistemology and metaphysics. My basic answer to all of the other arguments would probably be the evolutionary argument used above - consider the redescription of the physical world in terms of values to be a variation in a pattern of knowledge which is subject to the same opportunities and pressures of selection as any other. Obviously objections, arguments and counter-arguments are among those pressures but I don't intend to be wholly absorbed into each one of them here.

*The MOQ attributes this to Dynamic Quality

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Inorganic patterns of value

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig claims that:

[The] problem of trying to describe value in terms of substance has been the problem of a smaller container trying to contain a larger one. Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value. When you reverse the containment process and define substance in terms of value the mystery disappears: substance is a "stable pattern of inorganic values." The problem then disappears. The world of objects and the world of values is unified.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.8)
Pirsig goes about this "reversal" by attacking the concept of substance using a principle of empiricism - that all knowledge must come from experience - and also a kind of underdetermination argument.

“Substance” is a derived concept, not anything that is directly experienced. No one has ever seen substance and no one ever will. All people ever see is data. It is assumed that what makes the data hang together in consistent patterns is that they inhere in this “substance.”


But if there is no substance, it must be asked, then why isn't everything chaotic? Why do our experiences act as if they inhere in something? If you pick up a glass of water why don't the properties of that glass go flying off in different directions? What is it that keeps these properties uniform if it is not something called substance? That is the question that created the concept of substance in the first place.

The answer provided by the Metaphysics of Quality strike out the word “substance” wherever it appears and substitute the expression “stable inorganic patterns of value.” Again the difference is linguistic. It doesn't make a whit of difference in the laboratory which term is used. No dials change their readings. The observed laboratory data are exactly the same.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The empiricist argument points out that we have no knowledge of "substance", nor a basis to say that it even exists, because it is directly unobservable. The underdetermination argument points out that there is no scientific basis to prefer the use of "substance" over "inorganic patterns of value." It is a philosophic question. The question remains then, Is there a philosophic reason to prefer one over the other?

Pirsig thinks so. He claims that the data of quantum physics have undermined the descriptive adequacy of the philosophic concept of substance to the "nature" of the subatomic level:

The data of quantum physics indicate that what are called “subatomic particles” cannot possibly fill the definition of a substance. The properties exist, then disappear, then exist, and then disappear again in little bundles called “quanta.” These bundles are not continuous in time, yet an essential, defined characteristic of “substance” is that it is continuous in time. Since the quantum bundles are not substance and since it is a usual scientific assumption that these sub-atomic particles compose everything there is, then it follows that there is no substance anywhere in the world nor has there ever been.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He states that, in terms of the behaviour of subatomic particles, "patterns of preferences" - patterns of values - is the more philosophically appropriate term:

[I]n modern quantum physics....particles "prefer" to do what they do. An individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behaviour. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He thinks that there is a further reason to prefer the term "values" over "substance":

The greatest benefit of this substitution of "value" for..."substance" is that it allows an integration of physical sciences with other areas of experience that have been traditionally considered outside the scope of scientific thought. [...] The "value" which directed subatomic particles is not identical with the "value" a human being gives to a painting. But...the two are cousins, and...the exact relationship between them can be defined with great precision. Once this definition is complete a huge integration of the humanities and sciences appears[.]

(ibid, Ch.8)

The "benefit" of integration seems to be based around the virtue of paradigmatic parsimony and a broadening of the scope of science.

So, in summary, I think Pirsig replaces "substance" with "value" as a term for describing inorganic phenomena on the basis that:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported (presumably we are to assume that this applies to inorganic values too)
- a scientific choice between the two theoretical terms is underdetermined by the data
- a philosophic choice favours the use of "value"
- in wider terms the use of "value" provides a more parsimonious and inclusive paradigm of systematic inquiry

I want to consider some possible objections to these arguments next.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Values and matter

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig tells us that he was drawn into the metaphysics of values via a failed attempt to contribute something to the field of anthropology in the form of a study of Native American culture and its influence on contemporary North America. He writes:

You can't get anywhere because you are forced to resolve arguments every step of the way about the basic terms you are using. It's hard enough to talk about Indians alone without having to resolve a metaphysical dispute at the end of every sentence. This should have been done before anthropology was set up, not afterward.

That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.5)

The problem with trying to use "scientific principles" to build anthropological theory, Pirsig states, is that:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that an attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can't.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn't scientific.

(ibid, Ch.4)

So Pirsig identifies the problem as the attempt to reduce values to the physical properties and behaviour of matter. Pirsig's answer to this quandary was to reverse the hierarchical primacy of patterns of matter over values such that matter becomes a particular pattern of values. Then, to the extent that metaphysics determines the purview of science, Pirsig argues that:

If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of what an anthropologist studies.

Kluckhohn's enormous mistake was his attempt to define values. He assumed that a subject-object view of the world would allow such a definition. What was destroying his case was not the accuracy of his observations. What was destroying his case were these substance-oriented metaphysical assumptions of anthropology that he had failed to detach from his observations. Once this detachment is made anthropology is out of the metaphysical quicksand and onto hard ground at last.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The reversal of the primacy of matter over values is the key to Pirsig's philosophical solution (the MOQ) to the obstacles faced by an anthropologist and this move, and its validity, will be the focus of the next post. More generally I want to consider how Pirsig's ideas bear up to recent developments in philosophy and science and how well my aontic approach aligns with the MOQ.

Identity and Violence

Just started reading an interesting book called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen. The ideas expressed so far resonate with the non-reductionist, anti-essentialist leanings of this blog and the multilateral, relational upaya which I'm advocating as an alternative mode of understanding. Of particular pertinence to the explicit value topography of recent global politics is this excerpt (taken from pages 10-12):

A remarkable use of imagined singularity can be found in the basic classificatory idea that serves as the intellectual background to the much-discussed thesis of "the clash of civilizations," which has been championed recently, particularly following the publication of Samuel Huntington's influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. The difficulty with this approach begins with unique categorization, well before the issue of a clash - or not - is even raised. Indeed, the thesis of a civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorization along so-called civilizational lines, which as it happens closely follows religious divisions to which singular attention is paid. Huntington contrasts "Western civilization" with "Islamic civilization," "Hindu civilization," "Buddhist civilization," and so on. The alleged confrontations of religious differences are incorporated into a sharply carpentered vision of one dominant and hardened divisiveness.

In fact, of course, the people of the world can be classified according to many other systems of partitioning, each of which has some - often far-reaching - relevance in our lives: such as nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, politics, and many others. While religious categories have received much airing in recent years, they cannot be presumed to obliterate other distinctions, and even less can they be seen as the only relevant system of classifying people across the globe. In partitioning the population of the world into those belonging to the "Islamic world," "the western world," “"the hindu world," "the Buddhist world," the divisive power of classificatory priority is implicitly used to place people firmly inside a unique set of rigid boxes. Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this allegedly primal way of seeing the differences between people.

The difficulty with the thesis of the clash of civilizations begins well before we come to the issue of an inevitable clash; it begins with the presumption of the unique relevance of a singular classification. Indeed, the question "do civilizations clash?" is founded on the presumption that humanity can be pre-eminently classified into distinct and discrete civilizations, and that the relations between different human beings can somehow be seen, without serious loss of understanding, in terms of relations between different civilizations. The basic flaw of the thesis much precedes the point where it is asked whether civilizations must clash.

This reductionist view is typically combined, I am afraid, with a rather foggy perception of world history which overlooks, first, the extent of internal diversities within these civilizational categories, and second, the reach and influence of interactions - intellectual as well as material - that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilizations. And its power to befuddle can trap not only those who would like to support the thesis of a clash (varying from Western chauvinists to Islamic fundamentalists), but also those who would like to dispute it and yet try to respond within the straitjacket of its prespecified terms of reference.

The limitations of such civilization-based thinking can prove to be just as treacherous for programs of "dialogue among civilizations" (something that seems to be much sought after these days) as they are for theories of a clash of civilizations. The noble and elevating search for amity among people seen as amity between civilizations speedily reduces many-sided human beings into one dimension each and muzzles the variety of involvements that have provided rich and diverse grounds for cross-border interactions over many centuries, including the arts, literature, science, mathematics, games, trade, politics, and other arenas of shared human interest. Well-meaning attempts at pursuing global peace can have very counterproductive consequences when these attempts are founded on a fundamentally illusory understanding of the world of human beings.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Smolin on relational physics

Lee Smolin is a process physicist who I find very interesting to read. The below is from an article featured in Brockman's The Third Culture: Beyond The Scientific Revolution - which you can link to here - in which he talks about a relational model of physics as having the potential to provide a theoretical basis for the elusive quantum theory of gravity. Bold italics are my emphasis:

[A]t the Planck scale, which is twenty powers of ten smaller than an atomic nucleus, space looks like a network or weave of discrete loops. In fact, these loops are something like the atoms out of which space is built. We're able to predict that — just as the possible energies an atom can have come in discrete units — when one probes the structure of space at this Planck scale, one finds that the possible values the area of a surface or the volume of some region can have also come in discrete units. What seems to be the smooth geometry of space at our scale is just the result of an enormous number of these elementary loops joined and woven together, as an apparently smooth piece of cloth is really made out of many individual threads.

Furthermore, what's wonderful about the loop picture is that it's entirely a picture in terms of relations. There's no preexisting geometry for space, no fixed reference points; everything is dynamic and relational. This is the way Einstein taught us we have to understand the geometry of space and time — as something relational and dynamic, not fixed or given a priori. Using this loop picture, we've been able to translate this idea into the quantum theory.

Indeed, for me the most important idea behind the developments of twentieth-century physics and cosmology is that things don't have intrinsic properties at the fundamental level; all properties are about relations between things. This idea is the basic idea behind Einstein's general theory of relativity, but it has a longer history; it goes back at least to the seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz, who opposed Newton's ideas of space and time because Newton took space and time to exist absolutely, while Leibniz wanted to understand them as arising only as aspects of the relations among things. For me, this fight between those who want the world to be made out of absolute entities and those who want it to be made only out of relations is a key theme in the story of the development of modern physics. Moreover, I'm partial. I think Leibniz and the relationalists were right, and that what's happening now in science can be understood as their triumph.


The picture that emerges from both relativity and quantum theory is of a world conceived as a network of relations. Newton's hierarchical picture, in which atoms with fixed and absolute properties move against a fixed background of absolute space and time, is quite dead. This doesn't mean that atomism or reductionism are wrong, but it means that they must be understood in a more subtle and beautiful way than before. Quantum gravity, as far as we can tell, goes even further in this direction, as our description of the geometry of spacetime as woven together from loops and knots is a beautiful mathematical expression of the idea that the properties of any one part of the world are determined by its relationships and entanglement with the rest of the world.

Karma and constraint

Following on from the last post, a couple more brief thoughts on how karma can begin to be related to evolution. As I see it, the propensity for patterns of values to recur in experience constrains change in the value topography* of any given state of affairs. This propensity can be seen as karma operating as a negative feedback loop writ large upon a world considered in its entirety as an open system. Without this constraint there is no possibility of the sustained development associated with any concept of evolution.

Yet this constraint also seems to be a salient condition of much suffering. I think this same propensity for recurrence of values is among the conditions that keep conflicts raging, unquenchable and destructive desires burning, prevent societies from flourishing and lead to beliefs stagnating.

* I am conscious that describing all phenomena in terms of values is a lemma in these recent posts about karma and evolution. The next few posts will be my attempt to support this proposition.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Notes on karma, suffering and Pirsig

If dependently arising values provide us with a way to think about all phenomena and if karma provides us with a directional process by which values are dependently arisen then one may be tempted to ask more about the direction in which we think these values may be headed. One answer to this has been provided by the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) proposed by Robert Pirsig in Lila. In it he writes:

Karma is the pain, the suffering that results from clinging to the static patterns of the world.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.32)

But he says of this suffering:

If you eliminate suffering from this world you eliminate life. There's no evolution. Those species that don't suffer don't survive. Suffering is the negative face of the Quality that drives the whole process.

(ibid, Ch.29)

So Pirsig is saying that the "direction" of the karmic process of dependently arising values is an aspect of that which is generally recognised as evolution. He elaborates on this in correspondence with Dr. McWatt:

The MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces. In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it’s not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all.

(Pirsig to McWatt, 1997)

For any readers who are unaware of Pirsig's ideas, and hence what some of the terms mean in the quotes above, I intend to spend a little time covering the basics with respect to what I've been writing about here. The only point I wish to make here is that of the link of karma to evolution.

Monday, July 31, 2006

More on karma

So what am I saying here? I'm saying that we, as humans, see patterns in our experience. We see repetitions of patterns which, for whatever reason, we tend to think of as having a cause or basis which exists in its own right, of its own accord. We think of this independent existence as an underlying core which structures the patterns of our experience by which we come to know it. I'm saying that the search for this underlying core, and the attempt to define it, and even "get in touch with it", once and for all, has largely been the goal of philosophy, science and religion.

So I'm saying, What if there is no underlying core? What if I give up on this reductionist urge? Well, there are still patterns to my experience. This doesn't make them fundamental or anything because "fundamental" is what I've given up on. But these patterns are my life and my reality, and I think they are reality enough. For the most part these patterns are consistent and expected. At times these patterns have changed dramatically and in unexpected ways. On a few occasions these patterns have almost completely dissipated. It was when these familiar, consistent patterns were almost entirely absent from my awareness that I first became convinced of their status as patterns, without any underlying core.

So do I think that the world is an illusion? No. I think it is best not to think of the world as an illusion, you will almost certainly get seriously hurt thinking that way. It is best, in my opinion, to think of the world in some way which does not contradict everyday experience. The idea that the world has an underlying core which determines its structure seems to me, from a historical perspective, to defy experience, or at least it seems dispensable. We have moved from one 'underlying core' to the next. From Plato's world of Eidos to the scientists constructing theoretical vibrating strings beyond the boundaries of observation, through to the mystics finding oneness beyond the boundaries of everyday perception and intelligibility, one underlying core steps up to replace the last. It seems there is always another way of reducing the world to one thing or another.

So I have said that, for example, the self is not so much this or that but this, that and anything else that is compelling enough to warrant continued focus. The cause of an event is not this or that, but those conditions which draw their salience from a given context of inquiry. I have said that if one is to adopt a model of the world, as it seems one must, then one of interdependent conditions is the least likely to admit of the reduction which I'm trying to avoid. So instead of reductionist inquiry, I advocate relational inquiry: an inquiry which seeks to sketch varying models of salient relations which enable us to understand and predict experience within multiple contexts. I have therefore advocated the application of the Buddhist notion of karma by which certain active values of the past can be thought of as constraining the emergence and evolution of active values in the future. For the reason already stated, I don't think karma is the fundamental process of the world. I do think one can gain multiple, instructive perspectives on most events by considering them within a karmic model of recurring value patterns. By creating, highlighting and promoting those values now which we want to see propagate and evolve in the future we may become active participants in the karmic process with which we understand the world.

As an inappropriately brief but pertinent example, if one thinks of the current Middle East crisis in these terms you can build various models of relations at work which can be seen to fuel the conflict in mutually dependent ways. There is the immediate salient condition of the conflict which is the capture of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah fuelled by their valuing destabilisation by provocation and maintenance of Israeli fear and unease. There is the recurrence of Israel valuing its unconditional right to defend itself by any means necessary. These two opposing values are largely dependent on each other. In the larger context of history there is the recurring Jewish value of the right to occupy the stretch of land presently defined as Israel. There is the recurring Arabic value of the resistance of the right of Jews to occupy said land. In a larger political context there is the recurring American and British value of the need to support western democracy at all costs in the Middle East. There is the recurring American and British value of resisting Iranian development of nuclear capability. In a religious context there is the recurring Judaist value of the right of Jews to occupy said land. There is the recurring Shi'a Muslim value of the desire to bring about a Shi'a majority in Lebanon. There is the recurring Judao-Christian value of resisting a dar al-Islam. There is the recurring Jewish value of feeling unjustifiably reviled throughout history.... I could go on but you can begin to see the complexity of values and dependent relations which one can discern in this present conflict, the great tragedy of which is that all of these related values appear to be stronger than the value given to a child's life. Any viable, multilateral solution to the crisis must spend some time with a variety of relational models to determine which values can be engaged and/or disengaged in order for the situation to progress to something better. The search for an unequivocal and underlying core to the problem is not the right approach, in my opinion.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Salient conditions

I spent a lot of time earlier on in this blog looking into causation and I want to briefly conclude the inquiry here. If, as I think is the case, any thing or event you can discern has potentially innumerable conditions and those conditions have their conditions and those conditions etc....then when you identify a 'cause' you are in fact selecting from a potentially unlimited number of related 'causes'. Clearly, not all conditions will usually be considered equally pertinent, and in any case it is neither practical nor desirable to include as something's cause the entire history and breadth of possible conditions. Generally speaking, it seems to be the case that some conditions will simply be more striking than others and will be the most likely to be described as a cause. Therefore, to avoid slipping into a deterministic or essentialist understanding, I prefer to think of causes as 'salient conditions'. The salience should be seen as dependent to some degree on the context of the inquiry and therefore different contexts may attend to other conditions.

Notes on karma

I think the self is best thought of as a locus of active relationships between beliefs, desires, memories and sensations, the delineation of which is dependent on a particular purpose. Furthermore, each active relationship is dependent on another without exception. In principle, therefore, the delineation of these relationships can extend to the whole interdependent network which constitutes the universe or, at the other extreme, contract into a single point. In this framework, looking for the 'real self' becomes problematic if not futile. This is not to state that there is no stability to the self. Rather, it is to state that such stability comes from the recurrent focus on certain relationships and that this focus is neither inherent nor immutable.

In the Buddhist tradition this process of recurrence is described by the concept of karma. Peter Hershok, in the Journal Of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 10, 2003, states that, "The teaching of karma invites attending to the consonance between the topography of our ongoing experience and the pattern of our own values and intentions. A basic insight resulting from this practice is that patterns of value and intention are in complex feedback with patterns of experience—a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship in which neither can be claimed fully foundational or original in the strict sense."* So the stability of the self, and of the states of affairs, both of which are inextricably and mutually co-dependent, is subject to the karmic process of evaluative contextualisation. Indeed, neither the self nor states of affairs stand apart from this evaluative context. Put another way, the self and states of affairs just emerge from and consist of this recurring yet changing evaluative context.

Thus the upaya of which I have recently written is perhaps found in a sensitivity to values and their 'karmic efficacy'. Its means is perhaps the ability to approach a troubled situation with the skill to redraw its 'value topography' in a way which redefines the boundaries of the self, the state of affairs, or both, in a new and better way such that the situation can proceed in a better direction. In a sense, this has always been what philosophy, science and religion do, when they are at their best. This is what I obliquely referred to when discussing alterity a couple of months ago.

What philosophy, science and religion do at their worst is take a particular value topography as final and in need of no further revision until it hardens and resists progression and new relation. This is what I have been roughly describing as essentialism. This 'error' isn't limited to these spheres of activity, however. Karma permeates everything, and so must the upaya by which it is approached.

*Pirsig readers will certainly be struck by the consonance between this concept of karma and the 'value-centered experience' at the heart of the Metaphysics of Quality.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Upaya: Praxis makes perfect

Following on from the brief notes on Buddhist wisdom I made the other day, here is a useful article - - to remind me, and anyone reading, of the spirit of upaya in which the Buddha taught, and the spirit in which I want my blog to progress. I've worked through a lot of the abstractions now and want to get to some specifics at some point. Anyway, here is the conclusion from Schroeder's essay, an essay in which he has criticised Buddhologists who are prone to metaphysical abstraction and analysis:

The prejudice of those I have criticized in this article has to do with judging the value of Buddhism apart from its upayic role. Neglecting the actual practices of a Buddhist life, they view the doctrines of "emptiness," "non-self," and "dependent arising" apart from Buddhist praxis. Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness," for example, is generally seen as a metaphysical maneuver: it deconstructs epistemological realism, essentialism, metaphysics, causality, and a referential view of language. It tells us something about how the mind posits "hidden" essences and "secret powers," how language carves the world into subject/object dualities, or how consciousness constructs an illusory world of "things" interacting "in" space and time. But it is precisely this metaphysical move that "skillful means" rejects because it forces us to think of Buddhist praxis in an abstract way, as something we can discuss apart from its rhetorical and pedagogical contexts.

Even more problematic is that many of the scholars I criticize see their interpretations of Nagarjuna as upayic. The majority of Madhyamika scholars I have discussed tell us that not only is Nagarjuna's critique of svabhava geared toward metaphysics but that liberation depends on understanding how it works. According to Murti, for example: The dialectic, then, as the Sunyata of drstis, is the negation of standpoints, which are the initial negation of the real that is essentially indeterminate. Correctly understood, Sunyata is not annihilation, but the negation of negation; it is the conscious correction of an initial unconscious falsification of the real. (Murti 1955, p. 271) Murti not only sees Nagarjuna as diagnosing a fundamental problem in human existence, but also thinks that his dialectical method will "cure" us. The problem is basically metaphysical in nature, and consists of "covering" the Real with a conceptual thought-which, according to Murti, amounts to an unconscious negation of "Truth." Thus, if we could reverse this process (negate the negation), then we would experience liberation. What is interesting about Murti's analysis is that it supposedly offers an upaya: "emptiness" is the "means" for correcting a "falsification of the real."

Frederick Streng also reads Nagarjuna in an upayic way. "Emptiness," he says, is the "means for quelling the pain found in existential 'becoming' which results from longing after an eternal undisturbed entity" (Streng 1967, p. 149). While Murti tells us that Nagarjuna is deconstructing a "conflict in reason," Streng tells us that Nagarjuna is attacking a referential view of language. By understanding what he calls a "relational norm of meaning," that is, that words are meaningful only in relation to other words, we will be "cured" of the longing for an "eternal undisturbed entity." C. W. Huntington, Jr., expresses a similar view: Recognition of the strictly contextual or pragmatic significance of the thoughts and objects that populate our mental and material world renders meaningless any search for a transcendental ground behind these phenomena . . . .What is immediately given in everyday experience is indeed all that there is, for the inherently interdependent nature of the components of this experience is the truth of the highest meaning: both the means to the goal (marga; upaya) and the goal itself (nirvana). (Huntington 1989, p. 40)

For Garfield, the upayic nature of Nagarjuna's philosophy lies in showing us the nature of what he calls "reification," or the tendency to take what is conventional for something essential: Reification is the root of grasping and craving and hence of all suffering. And it is perfectly natural, despite its incoherence. Nagarjuna intends one to break this habit and extirpate the root of suffering. . . Only with the simultaneous realization of the emptiness, but conventional reality, of phenomena and of the emptiness of emptiness, argues Nagarjuna, can suffering be wholly uprooted. (Garfield 1995, p. 314) According to Garfield, Nagarjuna's dialectic uproots this tendency to "reify" the world by showing not only that all phenomena are "empty" but that this very "emptiness" is itself "empty," or, as Garfield says, that it, too, is merely a conventional designation.

Given that all the thinkers above do see Nagarjuna's dialectic in an upayic way, how can I claim that their approach to Buddhism is, in fact, non-upayic? The main reason for this has to do with how they frame the problem. According to their accounts, Nagarjuna already knows in advance what everyone's problem is, and how to solve it. Whether the problem is "falsifying the real," a "referential view of language," "essentialism," or "reification," Nagarjuna is depicted as speaking universally; he not only diagnoses an innate "sickness" in human nature, but cures it by prescribing a set remedy: namely, "emptiness." However, both the problem and the cure on these accounts are abstract and essentialistic. Asserted independently of any rhetorical context and apart from the karmic dispositions of individuals, they are expressed with the assumption that there is a single cause to all human suffering and a single cure. If it is true that Nagarjuna is speaking in this way, and that his doctrine of "emptiness" is supposed to cure all "ills" no matter what the time, place, or cultural context, then it is debatable just how upayic his philosophy really is. Given that upaya rejects sweeping generalizations about human beings and their suffering, he would then suffer from the exact "illness" that "skillful means" is trying to cure. However, I have tried to argue against this view of Nagarjuna by showing how "emptiness" is a "skillful means" used against the Abhidharma Buddhists, and how it is making a claim about Buddhist practice. In this sense, sunyata is not a panacea at all, but an attack on the very tendency to think in this way.

After having attacked so many others for turning Buddhism into "bad medicine," however, and after having devoted this article to explaining how it is impossible to make sense of "skillful means" apart from the concrete needs and karmic dispositions of an audience, the position of my own argument is obviously problematic. Is this study an upaya? Is it grounded in the lives of others, a practical guide or a "raft" toward liberation? If it is true that "skillful means" is a practical guide, and that by thinking of it apart from praxis we lose sight of what Buddhism is all about, then have I not committed a grave error by offering an abstract account of up, upaya?

These questions expose my argument at its weakest point. This article is not a "raft" or a path toward liberation. It is not grounded in the Buddhist life of practice, nor is it a meditation device. Therefore it, too, is guilty of speaking about Buddhism apart from practice, and suffers from the problem of explaining its central ideas (e.g., upaya) apart from how they function in the lives of Buddhist practitioners. In effect, this article is afflicted with the very "illness" that the Buddha, Vimalakirti, Lin-chi, and Nagarjuna are fighting against.

On the other hand, what distinguishes my argument from those I criticize is that I am not offering a path to liberation. I have not determined in advance what any path is or said what one should do in order to attain liberation. On the contrary, I have tried to remain faithful to the doctrine of an upaya that undercuts our ability to say in advance-and previous to knowing who one's audience is-how liberation should be achieved. I believe that this is where my argument differs most from those I criticize. For most Western scholars, Nagarjuna's "emptiness" is a panacea, a medicine that will cure everyone regardless of the disease, and their interpretations are usually devoted to telling us what our problem is and how to cure it. And all of this, oddly enough, without even knowing who we are. I have simply tried to show why this approach "tends not to edification."

(John Schroeder, Nagarjuna and the doctrine of "skillful means", 2000)

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Relational Self in Buddhist Wisdom

I have written about the possibility of a new widespread conception of the self, one in which the essentialised, Cartesian image is left behind in favour of a relational and dynamic entity. I now want to briefly consider how this conception is already applied in terms of Buddhist wisdom.

Buddhist wisdom broadly consists of insight into the conditions - the network of interdependence - from which things may have arisen as they have, and a keenly attuned capacity for dissolving and revising the meaning of situations that seem to have gone astray. A key element of this wisdom is the teaching of the three marks of existence: all things are suffering, impermanent, and without any abiding self or essence. It is with this knowledge, according to the Buddha, that one can set about dissolving the conditions of suffering.

Although it can often strike people as a basically negative teaching, in practice an awareness of the three marks can bring about profoundly constructive and positive insights. Perhaps the most crucial in this regard is the realization that no situation, regardless of how hopelessly conflicted it appears to be, is finally intractable. Indeed, seeing all things as impermanent is to see that change is always already taking place. The question then is not whether change is possible, but in what direction should it proceed? Because of dependent arising there are no permanent selves, no cores or essences of things or states of affairs, therefore all situations are open to positive revision and/or redirection. Finally, seeing all things as suffering is to resist the tendency to feel that if things are okay for me or for us, then they must be okay for everyone. It is also a reminder that dissolving the conditions of suffering or conflict is not a teleological affair, but an ongoing, dynamic activity.

So, Buddhist wisdom emerges as a capacity for increasingly flexible and subtly attuned responsiveness to changing relationships and possibilities between self and environment. As such, training for insight into the emptiness, i.e. the dependent arising of all things is strongly associated with meditative discipline. Meditative discipline undermines the essentialising effect of habit formation that constrains our capacity for flexible, situational response, while at the same time building a capacity for situational attunement. The general Buddhist pattern of skillfully dealing with suffering and conflict can be seen as a systematic relinquishing of our present , often habitual, horizons for relevance, responsibility, and readiness, whatever these may be. More positively phrased, it consists of developing the kind of appreciative and contributory upaya needed in order to fully accord with our situation, to expand or contract its network of interdependence, and respond to it as needed.

Finally, Buddhism does not imply an ultimate transition from a deplorable or troubling state of affairs to one that is desirable and free of trouble—a transition from a hell to a heaven. Rather, it is an active process of continuously and skillfully reorienting the pattern of relationships in which we find ourselves, indeed, the patterns by which we are at all. Thus, Buddhist liberation does not consist in being free, but in relating freely.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Networked Self

There is an argument that essentialism has flourished as an evolutionary strategy because of its ability to exploit rich inductive potential. This makes perfect sense to me when you think about the valuable inferences one can make from something's sensual appearance to its likely nutritional value, for example. Getting a little more sophisticated, our ability to consistently manipulate our varied environments, an ability which continues to flourish at the pinnacle of engineering, gains enormously from the knowledge of a material's invariable set of properties without the need for continual investigation and testing. I think there comes a point, though, where the exploitation of rich inductive potential, via the reification of supposedly intrinsic relationships between properties, gives way to maladaptation and/or prejudice.

I think one of the victims of essentialisation throughout the past has been the human self. The idea that the human self has a core set of inherent properties which determine one's growth, boundaries, capabilities, and identity has been with us in various forms for some time. It seems clear that how one conceives of the human self has massive implications for behaviour and morality and so I have been considering how well the essentialised self bears up in the 21st Century. I came across an excellent article by Kenneth J. Gergen who argues that the traditional individual/community binary has given way under the pressure of a largely technological transformation of the processes of sociation and this leaves space for a new candidate for the role of moral agent. It chimes in with the way I've been thinking but is formulated in much clearer terms. The full article can be found here:

Here is an excerpt which questions the viability of the essentialised self as moral agent:

In my view the transformation of the technological ethos slowly undermines the intelligibility of the individual self as an originary source of moral action. The reasons are many and cumulative; I limit discussion here to several concatenating tendencies:

- Polyvocality. By dramatically expanding the range of information to which we are exposed, the range of persons with whom we have significant interchange, and the range of opinion available within multiple media sites, so do we become privy to multiple realities. Or more simply, the comfort of parochial univocality is disturbed....To the extent that these standpoints are intelligible, they also enter the compendium of resources available for the individual's own deliberations. In a Bakhtinian vein, the individual approaches a state of radical polyvocality. If one does acquire an increasingly diverse vocabulary of deliberation, how is a satisfactory decision to be reached? The inward examination of consciousness yields not coherence but cacophony; there is not a "still small voice of conscience" but a chorus of competing contenders.....if "inward looking" becomes increasingly less useful for matters of moral action, does the concern with "my state of mind" not lose its urgency? The more compelling option is for the individual to turn outward to social context - to detect the ambient opinion, to negotiate, compromise, and improvise. And in this move from the private interior to the social sphere, the presumption of a private self as a source of moral direction is subverted. If negotiating the complexities of multiplicity becomes normalized, so does the conception of mind as moral touchstone grow stale.

- Plasticity. As the technologies of sociation increase our immersion in information and evaluation, so do they expand the scope and complexity of our activities. We engage in a greater range of relationships distributed over numerous and variegated sites, from the face-to-face encounters in the neighborhood and workplace, to professional and recreational relationships that often span continents. Further, because of the rapid movement of information and opinion, the half life of various products and policies is shortened, and the opportunities for novel departures expanded...... It was only four decades ago when David Riesman's celebrated book, The Lonely Crowd, championed the virtues of the inner directed man, and condemned the other directed individual for lack of character - a man without a gyroscopic center of being. In the new techno-based ethos there is little need for the inner-directed, one-style-for-all individual. Such a person is narrow, parochial, inflexible. In the fast pace of the technological society, concern with the inner life is a luxury - if not a waste of time. We now celebrate protean being. In either case, the interior self recedes in significance.

- Repetition. Let us consider a more subtle mode of self-erosion, owing in this instance to the increasing inundation of images, stories, and information. Consider here those confirmatory moments of individual authorship, moments in which the sense of authentic action becomes palpably transparent. Given the Western tradition of individualism, these are typically moments in which we apprehend our actions as unique, in which we are not merely duplicating models, obeying orders, or following conventions. Rather, in the innovative act we locate a guarantee of self as originary source, a creative agent, an author of one's own morality. Yet, in a world in which the technologies facilitate an enormous sophistication in "how it goes," such moments become increasingly rare....Should one attempt to secure confirmation of agency from a public action - political remonstrance, religious expression, musical performance, and the like - the problems of authenticity are even more acute. First, the existing technologies do not allow us to escape the past. Rather, images of the past are stored, resurrected, and recreated as never before. In this sense, the leap from oral to print memory was only the beginning of a dramatic technological infusion of cultural memory. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid observations of how any notable action is historically prepared.

- Transience. To the extent that one is surrounded by a cast of others who respond to one in a similar way, a sense of unified self may result. One may come to understand, for example, that he is the first son of an esteemed high school teacher and a devoted mother, a star of the baseball team, and a devout Catholic. This sense of perdurable character also furnishes a standard against which the morality of one's acts can be judged. One can know that "this just isn't me," that "If I did that I would feel insufferable guilt." However, with the accumulating effects of the technologies of sociation, one now becomes transient, a nomad, or a "homeless mind." The continuous reminders of one's identity - of who one is and always has been - no longer prevail. The internal standard grows pallid, and in the end, one must imagine that it counts for little in the generation of moral action.

There is a more subtle effect of such techno-induced transience. It is not only a coherent community that lends itself to the sense of personal depth. It is also the availability of others who provide the time and attention necessary for a sense of an unfolding interior to emerge. The process of psychoanalysis is illustrative. As the analyst listens with hovering interest to the words of the analysand, and these words prompt questions of deeper meaning, there is created for the analysand the sense of palpable interiority, the reality of a realm beyond the superficially given, or in effect, a sense of individual depth. The process requires time and attention. And so it is in daily life; one acquires the sense of depth primarily when there is ample time for exploration, time for moving beyond instrumental calculations to matters of "deeper desire," forgotten fantasies, to "what really counts." Yet, it is precisely this kind of "time off the merry-go-round" that is increasingly difficult to locate. In the techno-dominated world, one must keep moving, the network is vast, commitments are many, expectations are endless, opportunities abound, and time is a scarce commodity.

Each of these tendencies - toward polyvocality, plasticity, repetition, and transience - function so as to undermine the longstanding presumption of a palpable self, personal consciousness as an agentive source, or interior character as a touchstone of the moral life. Yet, while lamentable in certain respects, the waning intelligibility of moral selves is much welcomed in other quarters. Both intellectually and ideologically the concept of the self as moral atom is flawed. On the conceptual level, it is not simply that the conception of moral agency recapitulates the thorny problems of epistemological dualism - subject vs. object, mind vs. body, minds knowing other minds - but the very idea of an independent decision maker is uncompelling. How, it is asked, could moral thought take place except within the categories supplied by the culture? If we subtracted the entire vocabulary of the culture from individual subjectivity, how could the individual form questions about justice, duty, rights, or moral goods? In Michael Sandel's terms, "To imagine a person incapable of constitutive not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth.

(Kenneth J. Gergen, Technology, Self, and the Moral Project)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Maladaptive beliefs?

Culture profoundly alters human evolution, but not because culture is learned. Rather, culture entails a novel evolutionary tradeoff. Social learning allows human populations to accumulate reservoirs of adaptive information over many generations, leading to the cumulative cultural evolution of highly adaptive social institutions and technology. Because this process is much faster than genetic evolution, it allows human populations to evolve cultural adaptations to local environments, an ability that was a masterful adaptation to the chaotic, rapidly changing world of the Pleistocene. However, the same psychological mechanisms that create this benefit necessarily come with a built in cost. To get the benefits of social learning, humans have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper. Such credulity opens up human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. Tinkering with human psychology can lessen this, but it cannot be eliminated without also losing the adaptive benefits of cumulative cultural evolution.

(Robert Boyd & Peter J Richerson, Culture, Adaptation & Innateness.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Haslam article on essentialism

Finally have some time to get back to this. I've found a good article by Nick Haslam on essentialism. It is a good overview of the essentialist/antiessentialist debate outside of a purely philosophical context and warns against its hasty polarisation.

This is his conclusion:

Throughout this paper I have argued that essentialism poses less of a threat than is commonly imagined, and that antiessentialist critique is therefore often misplaced and unproductive. Essentialism is neither a unified syndrome within social-scientific explanation, nor is it entailed whenever natural-kind concepts or biological underpinnings of human diversity are invoked. Accordingly, it is wrong to set up essentialism as a straw man whose demolition implies that human kinds should be given social constructionist (conventionalist or nominalist) explanations. Realist accounts of at least some human kinds can be developed that avoid essentialism but accommodate natural scientific and social constructionist elements where appropriate. Essentialism is equally differentiated at the level of laypeople's intuitive understandings of human kinds, and it is a mistake to treat it as a monolithic and purely pathological or ideology-driven phenomenon. Essentialist thinking appears to be grounded in basic cognitive principles and adapted to serve the process of social learning, and has distinct components with different implications for stigma and prejudice. In short, the binary opposition of essentialism and antiessentialism is one that social inquiry should aim to go beyond.

The full article can be read here

Monday, March 20, 2006

More notes on rebirth

Thinking more about rebirth in Buddhism I thought of Rorty's description of the self in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth:

"Think of human minds as webs of beliefs and desires, of sentential attitudes - webs which continually reweave themselves so as to accommodate new sentential attitudes. Do not ask where the new beliefs and desires come from. Forget, for the moment, about the external world, as well as about that dubious interface between self and world called "perceptual experience." Just assume that new ones keep popping up, and that some of them put strains on old beliefs and desires. We call some of these strains "contradictions" and others "tensions." ....the web of belief should be regarded not just as a self-reweaving mechanism but as one which produces movements in the organism's muscles - movements which kick the organism itself into action. These actions, by shoving items in the environment around, produce new beliefs to be woven in, which in turn produce new actions, and so on for as long as the organism survives. I say "mechanism" because I want to emphasize that there is no self distinct from this self-reweaving web. All there is to the human self is just that web."

(Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p93)

Using this definition of a self and applying it to a concept of transmigration one could say that samsāra can be understood as an uncontrollable 'rebirth' of beliefs and desires within each new situation. We are all familar with the short-lived quenching of desire which is soon followed by its resurgence, often in greater magnitude and potency. This cyclic arising, ceasing and re-arising of beliefs and desires is perhaps nothing short of the continuing rebirth of the self. Rorty is simply describing a process here for his own purposes but Buddhism pays attention to this process in the context of the suffering it entails when the same set of beliefs and desires, particularly those characterised by greed, hatred, and prejudice, are reborn again and again with less of the 'reweaving' occurring than perhaps should or could be.

To balance out my thoughts here, I have found a few articles which would view what I am saying with disdain. I copy below an example, taken from this link:

The aim of the Buddhist path is liberation from suffering, and the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death. To be sure, the Dhamma does have an aspect which is directly visible and personally verifiable. By direct inspection of our own experience we can see that sorrow, tension, fear and grief always arise from our greed, aversion and ignorance, and thus can be eliminated with the removal of those defilements. The importance of this directly visible side of Dhamma practice cannot be underestimated, as it serves to confirm our confidence in the liberating efficacy of the Buddhist path. However, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.

Notes on Psychological Essentialism

The basic tenet of psychological essentialism is the idea that key human cognitive processes, those which determine how we approach experience, reflect a basic belief that unobservable essences are causally responsible for the surface features we observe. As such, the world is divided up into essences from which preset associated properties can be inferred.

The concept seems to have been introduced by Douglas L. Medin (Psychological Essentialism, 1989) during his investigation into similarity-based and explanation-based categorisation processes. Medin argued that categorisation is theory-driven, whereby concepts must conform to an overall world-view, rather than just a delineation of phenomena by lists of observable attributes. He also suggested that psychological essentialism can function with "placeholders" in that one can believe that a given category possesses an essence without knowing what the essence is, thus supporting inductive generalisation under ignorance of 'true causes'. Seen this way psychological essentialism can be understood as a reasoning heuristic which, according to several studies, e.g., by Susan A. Gelman (Essentialism in Everyday Thought, 2005), is readily available to, and used by, preschool children and adults alike.

H. Clark Barrett (On the Functional Origins of Essentialism, 2001) argues that, scientifically speaking, it is not enough to see psychological essentialism as simply a useful strategy and argues that speaking of a propensity for humans to 'essentialize' entails making proposals about where such a propensity comes from and, in particular, the cognitive mechanisms by which it is subserved. He sees a process of natural selection, operating on competing representational and inferential systems, as a rich area for further investigation.

Gelman (2005) argues that the propensity for essentialization is influenced by the language that children hear. For example, she has some evidence that, to a child learning language, nouns imply that a category is relatively more stable and consistent over time and contexts than adjectives or verb phrases - e.g. "carrot-eater" was judged by a group of 5-7 year olds as being a more stable property of someone than if they are merely said to "eat carrots when they can."

Johannes Keller (In Genes We Trust, 2005) argues that, as well as epistemic motives, there are existential and ideological motives behind psychological essentialism which provide potential links to increased levels of prejudice and stereotyping.

I will look into some of this in more detail and I have made these notes simply to pull out some of the threads of what appears to be a burgeoning area of investigation. Despite the demise of essentialist metaphysics, it seems to me that essentialism nevertheless dominates laypeoples' beliefs and attitudes. Reading the likes of Keller there seem to be grounds for correlating essentialist beliefs and attitudes with some of the negative aspects of the present state of the world. This I need to do a lot more work on. As previously noted, I am currently most interested in seeing how far these contemporary studies of the ubiquity of essentialism underpin the understanding of perception held by Madhyamikan Buddhism and, consequently, how far Madhyamikan Buddhism offers an appropriate approach to moving away from its dominance, should that be desirable.

To wrap up these notes, I find it interesting that the propensity to essentialize may be best conceived as a successful evolutionary expedient. This fits well with a pragmatist perspective and curtails the scope of metaphysics (in its "How It Really Is" guise) somewhat. Also, it seems as though psychological essentialism could account for the ubiquity of folk theories of causation which I have touched upon recently and, perhaps, could be what was behind the beginning of philosophy when it first went behind appearances to unobservable true causes.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Buddhism without rebirth?

As the famous story goes, following a profound experience at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama professed to have penetrated through his ignorance and confusion to uproot the conditions of cyclic existence before proceeding to instruct those who followed him to do the same. As is also well known, he didn't write anything down. His teachings were 'preserved' orally for around 300 years before being committed to the written word. Despite the occasional claims of putative anthological eminence the sheer proliferation of 'Buddhist' texts makes any knowledge of what the Buddha taught a question of choosing a favoured school and interpretation*.

I choose the school of Mādhyamika, and more specifically, Mādhyamika as interpreted by Garfield and Magliola. One important reason for this is that it is evident from sections of the Pali canon** that Siddhartha Gautama believed in karma as the process of rebirth, as was the dominant belief during his time. Indeed most biographies state that it was the experience of 'seeing' his previous lives and how they conditioned his present one that was the first of three insights leading to his enlightenment. For reasons stated above, just what the Buddha understood by 'rebirth' and how it differed from the prevailing world-view at the time is far from conclusive and would be an interesting topic to investigate - one which I may need to return to. However, like the majority of the Western world, I don't believe in rebirth in any literal sense and so my present concern is how Buddhism - in particular dependent origination and how it relates to samsāra and nirvāna - can be interpreted in the absence of what many consider to be the fundamental concept of rebirth. I believe Garfield's interpretation of Mādhyamikan Buddhism provides a good account of how this is possible.

He does this by distinguishing the psychological/philosophical aspects of Buddhism from the cosmological and soteriological aspects which may or may not have been directly inherited from the Vedic tradition. Transmigration (rebirth) is discussed when focussing on Chapter XXVI of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā - Examination of the Twelve Links.

One is caught in cyclic existence for a reason, Nāgārjuna asserts, because one acts. There are three general kinds of actions distinguished in Buddhist action theory - physical, verbal, and mental. These actions in turn have immediate psychological consequences for the agent. That is they give rise to new psychological dispositions. In the framework of Buddhist action theory, these dispositions are themselves conceived of as actions existing in a potential form, and of course when actualised, they emerge as new actions of body, speech, or mind. These in turn lead to a variety of new such consequences and to the continuation of cyclic existence. Transmigration - the continuation of samsāra - for Nāgārjuna is then simply a dependent consequence of one's actions.

Continuing through the traditional presentation of the twelve links, Nāgārjuna notes that consciousness is a consequence of dispositions and depends on them and that "name and form" follow as a consequence of consciousness. These, therefore, are obviously also dependent phenomena.

There are two ways to think of the twelve links, generating two parallel circles of explanation: One can approach them from the standpoint of transmigration, which provides a standard Buddhist explanation of the cycle of life. Or one can think of them as providing a phenomenological analysis of the nature of experience. In the former sense, we could say at this point in the story that actions performed in the past and dispositions inherited from one's previous history lead to new actions whose consequences are cyclic existence. In particular, the actions and dispositions from one's prior life, on this view, lead to the generation of a new consciousness, which upon entering the womb, gives rise to a body that will get a particular name.

Or, from a phenomenological perspective, we can see dispositions to attend to or to interpret particular phenomena in certain ways (perceptual or conceptual "sets") and actions upon them leading to our becoming aware of external or internal phenomena (consciousness), which leads to our representing them as having determinate locations and denominations (name and form). These two levels of analysis are obviously quite compatible, and while the former plays a central role in Buddhist cosmological and soteriological theory, the latter is important in Buddhist psychology and practice.

(Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p336-337)

It is the latter understanding of the twelve links which I believe survives the transition to the contemporary Western world without much difficulty. I further believe that the Buddhist analysis of experience bears a strong resemblance to the contemporary study of what is termed psychological essentialism although I have only just started my reading on the subject. This is what I want to explore in more detail now.

* I should qualify this statement here and acknowledge that Zen Buddhism claims to be a "teaching beyond scriptures" and insists that what the Buddha taught can only be understood through direct experience.

** For example, in the Pali canon there are detailed descriptions of the six realms of rebirth, our human world being the most opportune for the achievement of nirvāna.