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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Enter the Dragon*

At around 5th century BCE in India there were those who considered the socio-religious Brahmanic structures maintained by the 'householders' to be oppressive. Such people wished to break free in order to seek an alternative understanding of the self and the world. These were the peripatetic 'renouncers' who attempted many different ways of gaining personal insight outside of any specific tradition, often subjecting themselves to extreme temperatures, hunger, thirst, and other forms of asceticism. They sought answers to the same big questions asked by the Vedas, the most important one being, What is the ontological status of the self? All possible answers to this question seemed to be held at the time:

The strong materialistic view in which there is no immaterial self at all.

The annihilationists who believed that, if there is a self, it is annihilated upon physical death anyway.

The eternalists, such as the Upanishadic brahmins, who held that the ultimate self is a permanent and unchanging essence, i.e., Atman (self) is Brahman (ultimate reality).

Others who, although rejecting an eternal self, believed in the existence of a self which survives physical death.

For those who did believe in some form of continuity of the self they would also have believed in karma and the transmigration of self which constituted samsāra and so the point of seeking answers to these questions was that knowledge of the nature of the self would have effected the moksha (liberation) from samsāra that they sought.

Such was the philosophical climate into which was born Siddhartha Gautama at around 485 BCE.

*In Ch'an Buddhist literature the enlightened are sometimes referred to as dragons. Also, of course, 'Enter the Dragon' is a definitive martial arts movie starring the legendary Bruce Lee.

Socio-morphic origins of causality in Indian Philosophy

As noted in previous posts with respect to the Orphic thread, in looking into the origins of causality in Indian philosophy one finds similar socio-morphic conceptions to those found in the writing of the early Western Presocratics. However, there are three significant differences I wish to comment on. The first is that causation seems to have initially been deeply intertwined with sacrifice, moreso than in anything I have found thus far in Western texts. The second is that causation is not itself within the dominion of a particular god or gods. The third is that causation is closely linked with a concept of rebirth.

In ancient Hinduism, sacrifices performed for the gods (devas) were crucial in obtaining the material benefits given to humans by the gods. The efficacy of these sacrifices was determined by their being performed in exactly the manner and order prescribed by the tradition and this proper order of a sacrifice was called rta (aka Rita).

In the Rig Veda, it is rta that controls all the changes and operations of the universe including the actions and thoughts of the gods. That is, the gods as well as humans were all subordinate to rta, so rta was conceived of as an eminent force in itself. The great Vedic deity Varuna, the guardian of the cosmic order, is the special guardian of rta punishing those who do not speak the truth or who commit improper actions, but not even Varuna created the rta. In the Vedas, it is rta that enables natural bodies to move rhythmically and in balance without undergoing the disorganizing and destructive effect otherwise implicit in motion*. It is because of rta that there is a cosmos, an ordered universe that undergoes change without becoming chaos. By adhering to rta the sun follows its daily path, rising and setting to support the world with its light. The stars fade at dawn but shine again at dusk. Rta is a dynamic principle of cosmic order, manifesting itself in change, not in rigidity.

In the Upanishads, rta is applied to the ethical realm of human society through the concept of karma. Karma entails that whatever you do determines what you become in this life and, by means of samsāra, in the next life. In relation to rta, karma means something like "the causal law of the deed" in which every act is the result of some previous act which caused it. Everything you do is caused by what you have done in the past and in turn will cause your future actions. In this sense the principle of rta implies a strict adherence to law and rule in conformity with the aim and purpose of the processes of the cosmos. Any action set in opposition to or incongruous with the universal order of rta sets in motion a natural reaction, endeavouring to set right the balance of cosmic equilibrium which has been disturbed by it. It is thus karma which subjects the doer of such action to metempsychosis (rebirth) in other conditions and environments than that in which the action has been done.

The Upanishads are most concerned with the freeing (moksha) of oneself from the suffering entailed by the causal processes of karma and samsāra, through identification of the self with the ultimate reality of Brahman. The nature of this suffering, the transformative means of its cessation, and of what this transformation consists, provide notable differences between Buddhism and the philosophical milieu out of which it emerged.

As a final note, one can see that, in ancient Indian philosophy, the impersonal causal principle of rta is applied to all aspects of activity in the cosmos, from the actions of an individual, to the movement of the stars, albeit operating over different timescales of relation. Thus, being equally impersonal from the outset, ethical and natural causal processes were ultimately no different in the Indian mind whereas, in the West, 'natural' causal processes left behind their ethical, personified origins, e.g., Ananke, as they were gradually depersonified by the later Presocratics, then by Plato and Aristotle and so forth. In doing so, the moral and physical processes of the world were gradually separated and the impersonal physical processes were eventually crowned 'reality'.

*The similarities of rta with the Chinese Tao should be apparent to those with an interest in Eastern philosopy in general.