Am I humanist? Am I liberal?

Homo Deus coverHumanist? Liberal?

I’m in the middle of reading Homo Deus, Yuval Harari’s follow-up to his excellent Sapiens. It is so fluently and clearly explained, that it easy to forget that it’s possible that he’s not right in some of the things he says, but I suspect he generally is! His theme is understanding humanity and it’s trajectory, especially the drives for human bliss, human power, and an unlimited human lifespan.

I was particularly interested in what he says about humanism, the doctrine that glorifies those three aims. What follows may not do justice to his arguments…

He points out that humanist ideas have replaced the old European reliance on forms of religious authority to such an extent that humanist assumptions tend to be invisible to us. Particularly liberal ones. And as he went through them, I had to acknowledge that I felt a shudder of horror at the sense that they are assumptions. So in Buddhist terminology they are they are ditthis, views, and ditthis at best need to be taken as provisional conceptualisations, and at worst may be wrong views. He describes three basic forms of humanism – evolutionary, socialist, and liberal.

The evolutionary form says that some people are superior to others, and the species will progress if the superior ones are allowed to dominate. This may be comparatively benign, in the sense of recognising genuine artistic or scientific genius, or in the sense of recognising the possibility of genuine spiritual progress. But we particularly observe it in the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. Like all forms of humanism, socialist humanism values humanity above everything else, but it does so in the mass rather than in the form of individuals, initially overthrowing the privileged few through class conflict, and dreaming of an egalitarian utopian society in the future.

Liberal humanism is probably the one most taken for granted, it started earlier than the other two, as the value of each individual was recognised. It led to a sense that one’s own wishes and preferences are paramount, the more choice the better, and perhaps “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, leading to consumerism, valuing immediate personal desires and so on. You need to think for yourself, and come up with your own set of values. The interior world of personal experience is far richer and more important than the exterior or shared worlds. All meaning is to be drawn from personal inner experiences. Human life is sacred, people must be kept alive at all costs. Free will and free choice are the highest authority. Be true to yourself: once you’ve clarified your feelings, they will tell you how to behave, and what is right. Something is bad only if it makes you feel bad, and as well as amplifying our own feelings, we should respect the feelings and sensitivities of others.

So our personal experience is prioritised – a combination of sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and we need to become increasingly sensitive to the flowing variety of our experiences. Thus we specialise like gourmets in our favourite range of sensations, sharpening our aesthetic sense, and also developing our ethical sense about what is right.

Now it seems to me that the basics of humanism have a lot going for them, and that basic Buddhism does include a humanist message, particularly the message of cultivating the psyche and its sensitivity. But it is salutary to me to notice how much I take the liberal humanist message for granted, and reinterpret the grand sweep of Buddhism almost entirely within that framework, though sometimes I use the evolutionary or socialist humanist frameworks. But is Buddhism really a framework that puts the individual human being, especially me, at the centre of all things?

I’ve long felt oppressed by the tyranny of my own preferences. And my impression is that most practising Buddhists I know are not very different from the mass of Western consumers in how strongly their decisions are based on what they happen to want at the time, whether it’s snacks, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the seat, the retreat or holiday destination, or even their moral judgements and political opinions… If you arrive at a retreat, are you eager to choose your own room and bed, hoping most are still free? If your bed is allocated before you arrive, do you find yourself complaining, at least tacitly, that it does not fully suit your needs?

Being governed by immediate preferences is giving priority to vedana. Vedana means the sensation, usually pleasant or unpleasant, that is an aspect of every moment of experience, and impels us to welcome and repeat the experience — or not. But my understanding of the Dharma is that vedana is, in a sense, given. I don’t need to pay very much attention to it, what’s important is karma, that is basing my decisions to act on whether it is skilful or unskilful, rather than on whether I feel like doing it or not. (Fortunately, the skilful is often quite pleasant!) In any case, is there really a unitary me with a deciding will?

Like a good liberal I aspire to improve my sensitivity; sometimes I am pleased to say it is my karmic sensitivity that I value. But how often do I prioritise broader issues of welfare and integrity over the ‘me’ and its petulant demands?


Is Ken Wilber mistaken? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

ken wilber

Ken Wilber

This is a rather critical book review I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Golden Drum in the 90s. Fans of Wilber, please forgive me!


Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber, published by Shambhala (Boston and London, 1995).

‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ wrote William Blake. Ken Wilber has created a grand system of evolutionary connections. Here is yet another book, his fattest yet, expounding it.

There is an X-shaped diagram of Wilber’s system on the end-papers. Levels of consciousness, their individual and collective physical structures, and cultures or shared world-views each have an arm of the X, and evolve in correlation with each other. For example, as conceptual thought became possible in consciousness, new brain mechanisms supported it, and it was reflected in village societies, with magical world-views.

Wilber’s synthesis, with its wealth of fascinating details, is extremely well thought out. If you are a believer in the idea that all spiritual schemes reflect intuitions of the same Great Chain of Being, then you will forgive his long-windedness, repetitiveness, jargon, surfeit of long supporting quotations, and his obsession with reducing every other analysis to its spot on the great X. But what I appreciated most was Wilber’s uncompromising evolutionary vision. We can indeed evolve as individuals and as a human world, and there are pioneers of consciousness who can show us the way.

What I think is Wilber’s biggest mistake stems from the rigidity of his X diagram. To fit the model, evolution must continue in the collective sphere, after the arising of self-awareness. So in general, a later society is likely to reflect a higher average form of consciousness than an earlier society. In recent centuries, he claims, the mental and biological parts of human experience have been differentiated on a large scale for the first time, a step forward allowing rationality to produce all its benefits. (Wilber’s mission is to encourage the next development: the re-integration of mind and nature on a higher level, in a global awareness and a global culture.) But is it really true that most people of today are more rational and independent-minded than most people in India or Greece (say), 2500 years ago? Is it easier to make spiritual progress now, and are we all starting from a higher base?

It would seem that with self-awareness, further evolution focused on the individual. Societies and world-views now only evolve if they are reformed by self-aware individuals, the number of which does not necessarily grow steadily. Cultures are not caught up in Wilber’s grand current of evolution. It is true that science is genuinely cumulative in its discoveries, and this fact may have misled Wilber. The progress that science makes, in extending the scope of models of the physical universe and making more sophisticated technologies possible, cannot be ranked in alignment with advances in consciousness.

Wilber’s method leads him to judge Buddhism on the basis of the type of language used in its writings, though he comes to mistaken conclusions through relying on modern commentators rather than the original sources. His image of evolution is still a Hindu one of consciousness emerging from a Ground of Being (or World Spirit, or Emptiness: terms from diverse traditions are bunched as ‘identical’ by Wilber), and passing through an arc of development until it can reunite with this Ground (from which it has never separated). Statements couched in ‘non-dual’ terms must, Wilber seems to believe, have come from this ultimate state of being, and he implies that he can recognise their authenticity because he has been there himself. Actually, blarney is all you need to pen don-dual paradoxes.

Blarney or not, this language is what he seeks in Buddhism, so he approves of Nagarjuna and Zen, and disapproves of early Buddhism. The Buddha encouraged a radical renunciation of the deluded, cyclical habits of life, because the ‘ground of being’ for Buddhism is ignorance, something to be transcended, and it is frustration that emerges from ignorance, something to be eradicated. So Buddhists have used the ‘dualistic’ language of transcending and developing (‘follow this path to this goal’) more than the language of paradox or of immanence (‘uncover your existing Buddha-Nature’), something that Wilber sees as a limitation.

Similarly, Wilber dismisses the teaching of no-Self, incorrectly seeing it as a dualistic denial of the ‘stable cohesive self’ that one should strengthen to progress psychologically. No, the Buddha was concerned to identify ‘wrong views’ – attitudes which impede the evolution of one’s consciousness by tying one to a limited sense of one’s own identity. ‘No-Self’ is no more, or less, dualistic than ‘no-duality’ (or indeed ‘no-World-Spirit’). The Buddha wasn’t bothered about fitting into a grand system or abiding by a metaphysical taboo against dualism. He was concerned to promote provisional right views which helped people to transcend themselves until they could dwell in ‘no-view’. Later, the increasing sophistications of the deluded mind called for more sophisticated countervailing right views, such as Nagarjuna’s.

Buddhism can be presented in many formats. Wilber’s system may lead you to believe that the later ones must supersede the earlier, and the linguistically non-dual ones must be higher than those that teach a path. On the contrary, an effective path of practice is essential, I would say, and the best way to choose a system of spiritual discipline is not to collect from a warehouse of words teachings that fit our preconceptions, but to meet the people who tread a coherent path. Are they kind? Are they deeply sensible?

Reading Ken Wilber is rather like being drawn to listen to a brilliant, manic and rather tipsy monologue at a party. As we imbibe the system of another man, I think it is worth taking care. Is it liberating, or is it enslaving?

Buddhism and Science: a book edited by Alan Wallace

Wallace Buddhism and ScienceBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground

Alan Wallace (editor) Columbia University Press, New York, 2003

Review by Ratnaprabha (Robin Cooper)

First Published in The Western Buddhist Review, Vol. 4 (2003).

The great Marxist sinologist Joseph Needham blamed Buddhism for stifling science and technology in China while they flourished in Europe.  In claiming that everything is an illusion, Buddhism “played a part in strangling the development of Chinese science”.  Zen Buddhism, in “rejecting all philosophy” was also unfavourable to a scientific view.  Since the Buddha refused to speculate, Buddhism discouraged scientific research. Above all, its main object is to escape from this world, not to try to understand it.  A “despairing” and “perverse” philosophy, he concludes.[1]  Needham’s analysis stands in marked contrast to all the sixteen contributors to this book, and indeed to the prevailing view today that of all the religions Buddhism is the most compatible with science.

It is certainly a fact of history that a great surge in systematic scientific research, followed by technologies with overwhelming effects, took place in Europe from the 18th Century on.  Despite its sophisticated civilisations, science in Asia had to await influence from Europe before it was able to make comparable advances.  A common view has been that there was a religious factor in this difference, that something in Protestant Christianity favoured science.  However, an excellent essay in this volume by Jose Ignacio Cabezon indicates that the conditioning factors were far more complex, and that when Western science did arrive in Asia, it was treated by Buddhists in an open and welcoming way, in contrast to the responses to science of many European churchmen.

When science did arrive, some South Asian Buddhist monks were tempted either to detect prefigurings of scientific discoveries in Buddhist texts, or to laud Buddhism as the most scientific of religions, and the Buddha as the first scientist.  They were supported, from Victorian times onwards, by westerners’ responses to Buddhism.  Cabezon points out that human beings have at first a tendency to treat what is culturally very different in terms of the culturally familiar, so a host of compatibilities between Buddhism and science were discerned.  Buddhism was seen as undogmatic, giving authority to the individual, critical in spirit, with a universal impersonal causal law (like science), and with a scientific ethics.  Colonel Olcott, a Theosophist instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, pointed out around 1889 that Buddhism shared an evolutionary vision with science, both teaching: “that man is the result of the law of development, from an imperfect lower, to a higher and perfect condition” (p. 44).  (I have explored this connection elsewhere.[2])

Cabezon argues that the unsophisticated view of compatibility, or even identity, between Buddhism and science is now being replaced by one of complementarity.  Each has something to offer the other.  The contributors to this volume point out a number of such cross-fertilisations, concentrating on two areas in which Buddhist thought may be able to advance scientific understanding: cognitive science and modern physics.

There is one man in particular who should be credited both with stimulating Western scientists to investigate Buddhism, and with reassuring Buddhists that they have nothing to fear from science — the Dalai Lama.  As an inquisitive boy-Lama roaming around in the vast Potala Palace, he loved to investigate exotic Western mechanical devices, as well as quizzing his tutors on science.  Somewhere, he relates how, as he turned a globe in his hands, it gradually dawned on him that this was a representation of our spherical world, and the flat cosmology of the ancient Indian texts had now been superseded.  He has never lost his eager fascination for science, and he instigated a continuing series of biennial meetings with groups of Western scientists, in which a number of topics have been freely explored.  (The meetings are organised by the Mind-Life Institute, and an appendix in the book lists those which have been published so far.)

Thus many of the contributors have been involved in the Mind-Life conferences, and have to varying extents practised or studied within the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Alan Wallace, the editor, is one of his translators as well as being a writer on Buddhism and science; the Dalai Lama’s chief translator, Thupten Jinpa is probably the only Tibetan monk to have studied Western philosophy to a doctoral level, and offers an interesting essay on Tibetan responses to science.  Geshe Jinpa informs us that the Dalai Lama does more than encourage a dialogue between Buddhism and science.  He is prepared to let science change Buddhism, so that if a fact emerges that is incompatible with Buddhist theory, he says, “there is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research” (p. 77).  He “believes that the dynamic encounter with scientific thought could help revitalise Buddhist analysis of the nature of objective reality and the mind” (p. 78).

After all, as the Dalai Lama writes in a short piece for this book explaining the nature of mind in Tibetan Buddhism for the benefit of scientists: “The mind is transformed when one ascertains and thoroughly acquaints oneself with fresh insights into the nature of reality that invalidate one’s previous misconceptions or false assumptions” (p. 96).  A Buddhist is interested in the way things are, not in clinging to any specific description, even descriptions hallowed by centuries of transmission in a Buddhist tradition.

The section on cognitive science includes a very stimulating paper by the neuropsychologist David Galin.  He engages thoroughly with Buddhist ideas on self, being cheerfully prepared to challenge them, without being dismissive.  It is well worth breasting the current of his sociological jargon for the sake of several gem-like insights on the human mind.  How do we deal with the complexity of experience?  Well, we “seek and find, or project, a simplifying pattern to approximate every complex field… by lumping (ignoring some distinctions as negligible) and by splitting (ignoring some relations as negligible).  Both… create discreet entities useful for manipulating, predicting and controlling… [but] may impose ad hoc boundaries on what are actually densely interconnected systems and then grant autonomous existence to the segments”  (p. 108).  Even the contents of our own consciousness have to be dealt with in this way, resulting in our array of fragmented self-concepts, and we just put up with the anomalies that arise.  Buddhism, he explains, agrees that discovering entities is conventionally indispensable, but attachment and aggression arise through reifying them, which violates the principle that all things are interdependent, and all entities are conditional approximations.

Galin is unhappy with Buddhism’s moral disapproval for these self-errors, since since they are “an essential evolutionary adaptation” (p. 132).  He applauds: “the Buddhist solution to the modern suffering of alienation and anomie… to completely contextualise self, not to simply erase it.” (p. 137)   He doesn’t, I think, have confidence in the possibility of an unmediated immersion in experience, making all self-views obsolete.  However, he recognises the importance of meditation.  We evolve to act in cumulatively more sophisticated ways on the environment, and have become able to model the states resulting from alternative courses of action (ie karma).  Sitting meditation eliminates physical action, and progressively limits mental action by interrupting the loop that connects action-observation-action.  Thus peripheral awareness has the space to grow, and to notice more and more facets of interrelatedness, allowing a more integrated mental structure to coalesce.

Historically, the schools of psychology in the West have sought to arrive at a final analysis of what the self actually is, and thus represent the operation of the first fetter that, according to the Buddha, prevents irreversible Insight: fixed self view (satkayadrsti).  However, the present contributors do not represent this trend, which may have run its course.  They recognise the fragmentary and contingent nature of the empirical self.  William Waldron connects the accounts of evolutionary psychology and Buddhism concerning the deeply rooted defensive predispositions erected around the sense of an independent ‘I’ .  Human evil and suffering are caused by attempts to secure constructed selves, often at the expense of others.

Waldron connects Buddhism and evolutionary psychology, claiming that both show that negative behavioural patterns (‘evil’) have a big influence over long periods of time in evolution, being present in ourselves as inherited capacities, active all the time as predispositions.  We can break such vicious, self-centred patterns by firstly understanding the human condition, and then working to overcome their influence.

Here, Waldron misses an opportunity to discuss the systematic teachings of Buddhist ethics, an astonishing lacuna in the whole book.  The simplest Buddhist formulation of the way to emancipating enlightenment outlines three trainings: the training in morality, in meditation, and in wisdom.  Buddhism and Science makes an excellent contribution to discussing the second and third in the light of modern scientific approaches, but hardly mentions the first — morality.  Yet the connection between morality and scientific enterprises is a live topic in current discussions of science, with very good reason.  New scientific developments almost always have implications for human well-being beyond the satisfaction of the curiosity of the researchers, and beyond the promise of technologies for entertainment or labour-saving.  For example, transport, agricultural (e.g. genetic modification) and power generation technologies can have major environmental impacts.  And medical technologies can involve potentially harming some beings (including experimental animals) to fulfil the wishes of others.  The book is rich in philosophical and psychological topics, but hardly mentions ethics.[3]

Another highly technical paper, again worth the effort, is by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz.  A Chilean neuroscientist who tragically died in 2001, Varela has for some years been making very fruitful connections between Buddhist non-dual understandings of the mind (informed by his ground-breaking work on brain states), and the work of the French phenomenologists.  Having established that actual experience and the states of the brain act reciprocally upon one another, so that it is incoherent to say that brain states simply cause mental events, he and Depraz show how perception can be regarded as subsidiary to the mental function of imagination.  Perception refers to what is present, imagination to what is not present, and the two mix so that in every moment they are emerging into awareness from an unconscious background, as a living present.

It is still the case that the dominant view among neuroscientists is, in effect, that processes in the body cause the mind.  But Varela and Depraz have shown that one’s state of mind can access local neural processes, so that neither can be reduced to the other.  The mental state corresponds to a particular neural state, and actively incorporates or discards any contemporary neural activity in the relevant brain region, evaluating many potential neural states, “until a single one is transiently stabilised and expressed behaviourally” (p. 213).  Mental states require both a phenomenological and a biological account.  The neural elements and the global cognitive subject are co-determined; the subject is emergent, not just from the neural base, but also from preceding mental states.  Buddhism extends this account by offering its pragmatic consequences, showing how the living present, with imagination active, is a means for human transformation.  The authors then describe empathy-enhancing Tibetan visualisation techniques that effect this process.

We can be dazzled by the power and scope of science into accepting the philosophical assumptions that many scientists live by.  But the materialist assumption, which includes the belief that the mind is only an epiphenomenon of the brain, is shown by analyses such as that of Varela and Depraz to be a very odd one.  After all, we know that we make free decisions to use our bodies in various ways: the mental is operating upon the physical, as well as being constrained by the limitations of the physical.  To suppress our knowledge of freedom of choice seems needless.  The difficulty is that notions of reciprocal and interweaving causal processes are comparatively new in the West, so a scientist would be afraid that granting causal efficacy to the mind would be to grant that the whole material universe came into being merely by the force of ideas.  A crucial contribution that Buddhism can make to science is to clarify the notion of dependent co-arising (pratitya samutpada).  When we observe a phenomenon, inner or outer, we can be confident that it arises and ceases through the coming together of innumerable cooperative conditions.  And that it forms an element in the complex of conditions out of which new phenomena are arising.  Consequently, no phenomenon exists independently, nor can it persist, since its conditions are inevitably changing.  The name that we give it does not refer to any real entity, but is rather a sort of focused torch beam selecting for our attention a little patch on the shifting cloudscape of experience.

Varela and Depraz are refusing to see brain and experience as isolated entities: “there is no gap to bridge, only traces to follow” (p. 226).  By allowing to experience a genuine causal agency, they are taking the subjective pole of reality seriously, something that is essential if we are to understand more fully the ways in which body and mind interact.  Continuing research need not exclude consideration of those mental states which are comparatively less closely jointed to a brain.  Buddhism at present diverges from science, in incorporating in its worldview various apparently out-of-body experiences, including the possibility of consciousness unlinking from a dying body, and relinking with a growing embryo — i.e. rebirth.  It is disappointing that this volume is almost completely silent on rebirth, despite the formidable investigations of Ian Stevenson[4].

Matthieu Ricard is a French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk with a background in science, whose published conversations with his philosopher father became a bestseller[5].  His article is on ‘Contemplative Science’, a vogue designation for Buddhism that is perhaps trying to appropriate some of the prestige of science.  However, the term does highlight the fact that meditation and other mental disciplines should be seen as valid methods for investigating the mind, complementing the objective techniques of brain scans and psychiatrists’ questionnaires.

Many centuries ago, the dialecticians of the Madhyamaka School of Buddhism (starting with Nagarjuna) tackled Indian philosophical positions that in some ways resemble the standpoints of modern scientists.  But it seems to me that Ricard shares with some of the other contributors to this book, notably Wallace, an unreflective overconfidence in the potency of these arguments against views that after all arise from a very different, and often very subtle, philosophical background.  Western thought already provides well-developed approaches to understanding reality, which have spotted the weaknesses of dualistic, mechanistic, essentialist and idealist views; in this volume, we have excellent presentations on Kant (Bitbol), and on phenomenology (Varela and Depraz).  One might add Spinoza, who so inspired Einstein, and is the subject of a recent book by neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio[6], as well as William James, Karl Popper and others.  Much hard work will be involved in integrating these thinkers with Buddhism (as the astrophysicist Piet Hut points out in the concluding paper in this volume), but it will be very productive, and surely they cannot be ignored.  Eventually, though, we will need a new Tsongkapa: a fine scholar with a brilliant mind, highly realised through meditation practice.

Meanwhile, the more unreflective western Madhyamikans, as well as putting old arguments into new bottles, also tend to conflate Buddhism as a whole with Madhyamaka thought, presenting rival Buddhist doctrines as if they had been been conclusively refuted by Nagarjuna and his successors in the Tibetan Gelugpa School.  There are scholars writing on science under the influence of other branches of Buddhism, and it is a great shame that the editor did not bring in their perspectives.  For example, several writers on Buddhism and Ecology (a topic unfortunately absent from this book) have practised in Theravada and Zen, including Joanna Macy, Kenneth Kraft, Leslie Sponsel, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and others.  (There is also a bit of a national bias, more than half of the contributors being Americans.)

The modern physics section of Buddhism and Science explores the surprising departures from down-to-earth realism that have been emerging mainly in quantum mechanics during the past century.  Fitjof Capra popularised some of the parallels with Buddhism, in a general and rather unconvincing way, in his very influential The Tao of Physics, published nearly 20 years ago.  Despite my protestations above, I must admit that a rigorous application of Madhyamaka epistemology to physics, as we see in several of the contributions here, promises to be far more genuinely illuminating than the vague (often verbal) parallels of Capra.  But the most impressive paper is by the French philosopher of science Michel Bitbol.  (He characterises Capra and others as offering: “mere analogy at an ill-defined level of the two discourses, with obvious apologetic purposes” (p. 327).)  His ‘Cure for Metaphysical Illusions’ is an extremely thorough, and difficult, elucidation of neo-Kantian philosophy of science, explaining how Madhyamaka approaches can build on it, and extend it radically.

Like Nagarjuna, Kant was aware of the limitations of concepts.  They are only for the formal ordering of the empirical contents, a process that will never end, though reason provides an inaccessible goal of complete rational understanding to regulate the process.  Unaware of this as we generally are, it is easy to take the form that our intellect gives to phenomena as being the form of the things in themselves, “projecting the a priori structure of the knowing subject onto the world, thus mistaking it for a pregiven worldly structure” (p. 328). This is the all-pervasive ‘transcendental illusion’, which is very hard to recognise, let alone to compensate for.  Bitbol calls on the neo-Kantian philosophers of science to help us with recognising it, but needs to bring in Buddhism to show us how to overcome the illusion.  “Nagarjuna’s exclusive mission was to free everyone from the spell of reified conventional truth” (p. 332).  (Bitbol helpfully points out in a note that samvriti satya, usually translated ‘conventional truth’, is more literally a surface truth covering over ultimate truth.) Thus, “to be in nirvana means seeing the very same things that appear to the deluded consciousness of samsara, but seeing them ‘as they are — as merely empty, dependent, impermanent, and non-substantial'” (333).

Efforts towards a compromise between science and religion in the 19th-century West failed, leading to a schizophrenic attitude in which a system of beliefs and values were seen as indispensable, but the available system (monotheism) was incoherent in the light of science. Bitbol wishes to initiate the construction of a single higher-order tool, combining science, philosophy, and the “nondogmatic soteriology” offered by Madhyamaka.  The new tool needs to rely on the “dynamic potentialities” of doctrines, not their canonical texts, seeing them as operational rather than dogmatic.

Scientific theories are not representations of the world, but are for structuring our actions and anticipating their outcomes, with philosophy helping adjust us between all the possibilities of action within a value system; then Buddhism opens life out in self-transformation.  Science does not reveal a pre-existent underlying absolute reality (realism), yet it is more than a set of useful techniques (instrumentalism), being “the stabilised byproduct of the dynamic reciprocal relation between reality as a whole and a special fraction of it” — the subject (p. 337).  The structure of scientific theories is highly significant, they are not arbitrary, but it is possible nevertheless to remain metaphysically agnostic.  In fact, Bitbol convincingly argues that this kind of philosophy of science is far more compatible with modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, than the belief in a mechanistic world and a dualistic epistemology.  Scientists resist relationalist and nondual philosophies, through fear of having no ground to stand on.  They can take heart, says Bitbol. Madhyamaka dialectically deconstructs substantialist and dualistic views, but it also introduces “a form of life in which losing ground is not a tragedy (it can even promote enlightenment…) and in which an alternative (say, pragmatic, integrated, and altruistic) strong motivation can be given to science.”  (p. 339).

There is not space here to detail Bitbol’s compelling philosophical framework for quantum mechanics.  But I will mention his response to the problem of indeterminism — the unpredictability of quantum events.  Is it that chance is ultimate, and any deterministic laws that we find come from the law of large numbers?  Or is it that determinism is ultimate, and apparent randomness comes from the complexity of huge numbers of interacting events, as studied in chaos theory?  If we take a dependent co-arising-type approach, we will see that the causes of any event are not defined in the absolute, but are “relative to the very circumstances of the production of the phenomena” (p. 349).  Since phenomena arise in dependence upon an enormously complex context, a context which includes the person or instrumentation detecting the phenomena, they are immune to any certain determination.  Relations between things should be seen as being prior to the things that are relating; however, “neither connection, nor connected nor connector exist”, says Nagarjuna.  Buddhism’s radical analysis is needed to cap philosophy of science, since it comes from “direct stabilised experience of a disabused outlook” — i.e., non-conceptual Insight into reality — while the insights of Western philosophy, impressive though they are, are the products of the free play of ideas.

Buddhism and Science succeeds so well because all its contributors take both Buddhism and science seriously, seeing that both represent ways of understanding human experience, and both present opportunities for enhancing its quality.  Although Joseph Needham was able to write so dismissively of Buddhism only a few decades ago, we now know that he was mistaken.  We know because scientists are engaging personally with the practice of Buddhism.  They are finding in it a congenial spirituality, which does not nag at their work, so long as that work does no harm. They are also finding that it offers remarkable new vistas into the methods and models of science itself.  But will Buddhism ever actually influence scientific practice — where to look in one’s research, how to explain and interpret one’s findings?    This book will convince the reader that mind-science has already  been changed by Buddhism, but the jury is still out on physics.   Francisco Varela has no doubt. His assessment, thinking particularly of Buddhism impacting science, is that: “the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second Renaissance in the cultural history of the West, with the potential to be equally important as the rediscovery of Greek thought in the European Renaissance.”[7]  The dialogue has only just begun: we live in exciting times.

[1] Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pages 264, 265, 272.

[2] Robin Cooper, The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology and Consciousness (Windhorse, Birmingham, 1996).

[3] For a good survey, see Damien Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics (Macmillan, London, 1995).

[4] E.g. Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (University press of Virginia, 1974).

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher (Thorsons, London, 1998).

[6] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (Heinemann, 2003).

[7] Varela, Thomson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (MIT press, 1993), 22.

The Enriching of Memory


Yet into this world of the machine  – this mechanical disturbance surrounded by desert silences – a ghost has come, a ghost whose step must have been as light and imperceptible as the first scurry of a mouse in Cheops’ tomb.  Musing over the Archean strata, one can hear and see it in the sub-cellars of the mind itself, a little green in a fulminating spring, some strange objects floundering and helpless in the ooze on the tide line, something beating, beating, like a heart until a mounting thunder goes up through the towering strata, until no drum that ever was can produce its rhythm, until no mind can contain it, until it rises, wet and seaweed-crowned, an apparition from marsh and tide pool, gross with matter, gurgling and inarticulate, ape and man-ape, grisly and fang-scarred, until the thunder is in oneself and is passing – to the ages beyond – to a world unknown, yet forever being born.

Loren Eiseley, The Firmament Of Time (Atheneum, 1967), 55-6.

This quote is by one of the finest science writers of the 20th century.  I’ve added hundreds of quotes to this site, writing I’ve collected over the years, in alphabetical order of topic.  Browse here.

The Great Monkey and the discovery of mangoes (a Jataka story)


Illustration by Andy Gammon

Long ago, before men had tasted mangoes, the bodhisattva was reborn as a monkey, near the banks of the Ganges. Growing up strong and vigorous, he became leader of his troop. The monkeys found a huge mango tree on the river bank: ‘Its sweet fruits of divine flavour were as large as water jars, and from one branch the fruit fell on dry ground, from another they fell into the Ganges.’ The troop feasted eagerly on the fruit, but the bodhisattva pondered, and decided that he must not let the ripe fruit fall into the river, or there would come a time when disaster would befall his followers.

So after the next blossoming, he made the monkeys eat or discard all the fruitlets on the branch that overhung the river. However, one single fruit ripened because an ants’ nest hid it from view, and it fell into the water.

Meanwhile, many miles downstream in the great royal capital Benares, King Brahmadatta was idling away his life. His many wives did their best to keep him amused, his courtiers flattered him and devised elaborate feasts, and the king himself grew more fat and more bored. In the afternoon he would go with his court to his bathing place on the Ganges. Nets were strung across the river, upstream and downstream, to keep out the crocodiles, and the king would wallow in the shallows to his heart’s content, and then emerge for a picnic.

One night, after the king had returned to his palace, the fisherman who put away the crocodile nets found a strange object caught in the mesh. Was it the egg of some huge water bird? Red and green it was, weighty, soft to the touch; swollen, blushing, and fragrant. Did the fisherman know what it was? no! — So he gave it to the chief queen. Did the queen know what it was? no! — So she gave it to the king. Did the king know what it was? no! — So he asked the queen, who asked the fisherman, who did not know. The fisherman fetched the woodman: he would know. He said to the king ‘Eat it, sire’. Suspiciously, the king made the woodman taste some first, and an enchanting perfume filled the palace as the fruit was cut.

Yes, it was the very mango that had fallen from the monkey’s tree, and the king was soon guzzling its flesh, leaving some small pieces to tantalize his wives and courtiers. He was delighted, and the fragrant essence pervaded his body. They were ecstatic, and the fragrant essence pervaded their bodies. But when the mango was finished, the sensuous king craved more; the whole gourmand court were obsessed with mangoes. So Brahmadatta ordered an expedition for the next morning. They would all go up river to look for the tree. The bodhisattva monkey’s worst fears were about to be realized.

The king’s boats stopped under the mango tree, its branches bending with ripe fruit, and Brahmadatta and his wives and courtiers feasted to repletion, all falling asleep under the great tree. The moon rose. At midnight, our monkey troop arrived for their mangoes, not noticing their new and deadly rivals snoring contentedly on the ground. The noise of the monkeys woke the king, who saw them and smiled. `The mango is an ideal fruit, but it lacks a savoury. Tomorrow we will eat mangoes and roast monkey!’ Brahmadatta awakened his men and had the tree surrounded by archers, ready to shoot at first light.

Trembling, the monkeys came to their leader — ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Do not fear,’ he whispered, and climbed to the very end of the bough which overhung the river. With a prodigious leap, he made the far river bank, landing in a bush. There, he carefully calculated the length of his leap, broke off a long bamboo pole to reach the branch, tied one end to the top of the bush, and tied the other end to his waist. The great monkey gathered every sinew for a mighty leap, and ‘with the speed of a wind‑torn cloud’ he sprang for the branch. But oh! the pole was just too short. With a despairing convulsion, the bodhisattva clutched the branch as he fell. ‘O monkeys, my back must be the bridge. Run swiftly to the pole and safety.’

So the troop escaped the dreadful fate of adorning Brahmadatta’s breakfast table. But look — the last monkey to cross is the bodhisattva’s great rival, and he stamps on his chief’s back as he passes, causing his heart to crack in a wave of pain. The cruel rival fled, laughing. The bodhisattva was alone, lashed to a bamboo pole, hanging on to the tree.

Brahmadatta had seen all in the growing light. ‘This is but a beast, yet he risks all to save his kin!’ and at daybreak he sent his boats into midstream and had a platform built on them. Gently, the dying monkey was taken down and tended. The king sat next to him on the ground and spoke, his heart full. ‘You could have saved yourself, great being. What are you to those chatterers, what are they to you?’ ‘Those monkeys are my charge, king. In terror of your brutal arrows, they looked to me, and so I saved them. Neither death nor bondage will disturb my breast, since those I ruled are now safe. I tell this to you, O king, that you may learn that a wise ruler seeks the welfare of all in his domain.’

And so the bodhisattva died, and Brahmadatta gave him a monarch’s funeral, enshrined his bones, and abandoned his own luxurious ways to rule righteously, following the instructions of a monkey.

Catherine RhysDavids, Stories of the Buddha, Dover, New York 1989 (1st edn 1929), 149–53. Tradition says that the Buddha told this story when discussing the value of seeking the welfare of one’s kin. Feats of courage and self sacrifice in defence of the troop are well known among the macaque group of monkeys (an early illustration of this birth story from the Bharat Stupa shows monkeys of this type), and are ascribed to kin selection. The idea is that it is genetically worth while to risk your life if you save the lives of close relatives, since they carry similar genes to yours. However, despite the naturalistic observation of much of this two thousand year old story, it is important as a moral fable, and not for its portrayal of animal behaviour.

Have animal minds directed evolution?

chap4Mind in Evolution

From The Evolving Mind, Chapters 3 and 4.

We can be very confident that our earth has supported a continuous process of the evolution of the structure of living organisms. More tentatively, we can also trace how the ‘internal’ dimensions of animals – their minds – have evolved. It is fairly clear that the capacity of animals’ minds has been limited by the size, complexity, and degree of centralization of their nervous systems, so that the evolution of physical form has constrained the evolution of mind. But has the feedback worked in the other direction too? Did mind play an active role in evolution, or was the human mind just ‘an accidental afterthought in a quirky evolutionary play’, as the biologist S.J. Gould puts it?[i]

Natural selection leads to increasing adaptation to a specific environment; it tends to promote specialization. In the mind, specialization is served by very specific inborn habits and instincts, which evolve by natural selection. But mind has an element which works in the opposite direction, particularly if individual learning and cultural traditions are possible: mind can be flexible. It can adapt an animal by coming up with behaviours that suit unexpected circumstances.

Because of its great adaptability, it turns out that mind has indeed been active in evolution. In particular, through behaviour, it can influence the process of natural selection itself. Apparently, behaviour can direct selection.

Behaviour-led Selection: An Example

General behaviour-led selection process

General behaviour-led selection process

Here is a plausible example of how animals’ behaviour can direct the evolutionary line their species follows.[ii] As always in biological evolution, change is very slow, or if there are fast changes, they are very rare. This means that complete examples of behaviour-led selection have not been observed occurring in nature. In addition, fossil evidence for behaviour as opposed to structure is very hard to come by. So my example is of what may have happened, not of something that definitely did happen.

The only mammals that survived the dominance of the dinosaurs were little shrew-like creatures, probably living in the undergrowth of woods and forests, and feeding by night on small animals such as insects. They had smallish brains and used their noses rather than their eyes to sense their surroundings. By 80mya, some of these insectivores had taken to the trees, giving rise to the order of primates, mammals such as monkeys, apes, and humans. Some of the earliest fossil primates were rather like bushbabies with buck-teeth, having big, forward-facing eyes, and large brains. How did the change in habitat and structure come about?

Imagine a particularly fearless early mammal running up a low branch one night. Perhaps it is being pursued by a predator; perhaps it is in pursuit of a large and juicy beetle; or perhaps it feels a vague stirring of curiosity. It finds up the branch a snug hole, and spends the dangerous daylight hours asleep there. It is safer from predators, flooding, and other dangers than its relatives, who still hide by day in burrows, under rocks, or in piles of leaves. So it teaches its own young to sleep a little above ground level. Perhaps other members of the same species imitate it, or discover the new behaviour for themselves.

Because of the extra safety, individuals with the new behaviour survive better and leave more offspring (which follow the new tradition) than conservative individuals, and scrambling into low branches every morning becomes the norm throughout the population, probably within a few dozen generations. What is more, the pioneering behaviour has opened up a new ecological niche for the species – the trees. Trees offer safer nesting holes, and also a new range of insect foods; perhaps berries and fruits, too. Our pioneering insectivore may be tempted to spend the whole time in the new habitat.

A change of environment, a new ecological niche, means new selection pressures, and this is where the conventional evolutionary mechanisms come into play. The animals are spending time in trees. However, they are not adapted for climbing but for scampering about in the leaf litter. Any mutations will be strongly selected for if they tend to develop hands that can grasp the branches, a bushy tail for balance when jumping, good binocular vision for safe climbing and finding food, and so on. So first we had a behavioural change which introduced the animal into a new environment, and then naturally selected inherited variations changed the animal’s structure. Even before the change of structure, incidentally, the new climbing behaviour could become an innate, inherited behaviour rather than one that has to be learnt afresh by each baby mammal. Natural selection sometimes ‘prefers’ instinctive to learnt behaviours, because they can be carried out more quickly and automatically, freeing the attention for other tasks.[iii], [iv]

Behaviour and Niche Change

The example of ancient insectivores discovering life in the trees showed how innovations in behaviour can open up a new environmental niche. The finding of new niches has been a vital part of animal evolution. Evolution requires not just natural selection but also a change in niche, and behaviour-led selection can be involved in niche change. If the environment alters, or if some individuals stray into a new environment, behavioural changes are very likely to play a role in helping them to survive. For example, if our primitive insectivores were plunged into a series of severe winters, behavioural innovations in making cosier nests might well prevent the extinction of the population for long enough for thicker and thicker fur to arise by the natural selection of inherited variations in fur length.

The potential for new behaviours is also, presumably, often important when an animal is faced with changes in local habitat and geography, food supply, predators, or competitors. If the insectivore lives mainly on slugs but the slugs die out, it must turn to another food or starve to death. (We must not forget here an even more direct way in which animal choice influences evolution. That is the selection of a preferred mate, whose genes will mix with the suitor’s genes to contribute to the next generation.)

New species are thought to arise usually by the splitting of an existing species, so we need some mechanism which isolates the population from any remaining members of the species still following the old life-style, so that the new and old groups do not interbreed. Some isolation mechanisms themselves involve changes in behaviour, so that behaviour-led isolation should be added to behaviour-led selection as a factor in evolution.

For evolution to proceed, reproductive isolation and niche change must occur together. In animals that can change their behaviour, new behaviours are likely to be the commonest way for that to come about. As the biologist C.H. Waddington observed:

Animals … live in a highly heterogeneous ‘ambience’, from which they themselves select the particular habitat in which their life will be passed. Thus the animal by its behaviour contributes in a most important way to determining the nature and intensity of selection pressures which will be exerted on it.[v]

It is through behaviour-led selection that animals may affect the future course of the evolution of their own species. Individual choices and preferences ensure that evolution does more than merely grope randomly into new areas. By way of recapitulation, here is how the philosopher Karl Popper summarizes this view:

At first sight Darwinism … does not seem to attribute any evolutionary effect to the adaptive behavioural innovations of the individual organism. This impression, however, is superficial. Every behavioural innovation by the individual organism changes the relation between that organism and its environment: it amounts to the adoption of or even to the creation by the organism of a new ecological niche. But a new ecological niche means a new set of selection pressures, selecting for the chosen niche. Thus the organism, by its actions and preferences, partly selects the selection pressures which will act upon it and its descendants. Thus it may actively influence the course which evolution will adopt. The adoption of a new way of acting … is like breaking a new evolutionary path.[vi]

[i] Gould, S.J., Wonderful Life, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1991, 233.

[ii] A similar example was given by H.W. Conn in 1900, quoted in Hardy, A., The Living Stream, Collins 1965, 179.

[iii] Reid, R.G.B., Evolutionary Theory: The Unfinished Synthesis, Croom Helm 1985, 244; Bateson, P., ‘The Active Role of Behaviour in Evolution’ in M.-W. Ho and S.W. Fox, Evolutionary Processes and Metaphors, 191–207, Wiley 1988, p6 of preprint. But John Maynard Smith (‘The Birth of Sociobiology’, in New Scientist 26 September 1985, 50) doubts that the behaviours themselves would become genetically fixed.

[iv] Behaviour-led selection is a specific form of the ‘organic selection’ independently proposed by C. Lloyd Morgan in Britain and J. Mark Baldwin and H.F. Osborne in America. The history and status of the idea of organic selection is reviewed by R G B Reid, Evolutionary Theory, (Croom Helm 1985, 239–247). It is also discussed by (among others) the following biologists: Julian Huxley (Evolution, the Modern Synthesis, Allen & Unwin 1942, 523), G. Simpson (‘The Baldwin Effect’, in Evolution, vol 7 (1953), 110–117), E. Mayr (Animal Species and Evolution, Harvard University Press 1963, 95, 106–7, 604–5), A. Hardy (The Living Stream, op cit, 154–5, 162–207. Hardy gives a number of other references to writing on organic selection in The Living Stream and Darwin and the Spirit of Man (Collins 1984)), C.H. Waddington (The Evolution of an Evolutionist, University Press, Edinburgh 1975, 89, 279–281), J. Piaget (Behaviour and Evolution, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1979 (1st edn 1976), xiv–xv, 15–45, 134–145), Patrick Bateson, (‘The Active Role of Behaviour in Evolution’, in M.-W. Ho and S.W. Fox, op cit, 191–207). The philosopher of science Karl Popper is an enthusiastic proponent of behaviour-led selection as the source of direction in evolution. (Objective Knowledge, Clarendon, Oxford 1972, Chapter 7, and Unended Quest, Collins 1976, 173–80.) Interestingly, standard university textbooks on biology or evolution rarely mention organic selection or the Baldwin Effect (as it is also known), and negligible experimental work has been done on its behavioural aspect.

[v] Waddington, ‘Evolutionary Systems, Animal and Human’, in Nature, vol 183, 1634–8. Waddington included the selection of niches by behaviour in his ‘exploitive system’ (‘Evolutionary Adaptation’, S. Tax (ed), The Evolution of Life (Chicago 1960)).

[vi] Popper, Unended Quest, op cit, 180 (Popper’s emphasis).

An Indian Buddhist evolution myth


Illustration by Andy Gammon

In the ‘Dialogues‘, the Buddha is represented in several places as telling stories of `beginnings’ (Pali agañña), as he calls them. His listeners must have been highly amused by his tongue-in-cheek explanations of the origins of various current customs, sayings, and phrases. The intention seems in part to have been to satirise the solemn creation stories of contemporary Indian religious traditions, especially those involving a creator god or justifying the pretensions of the Brahmin priesthood. The longest text has a more explicit message; the Buddha is linking unethical behaviour with degeneration, and ethical behaviour with further evolution, both in the cultural sphere and in the spiritual life of the individual disciple.

The overall framework is similar to the cyclic Hindu myths mentioned above: an unimaginably protracted cycle of alternate involution and evolution of the cosmos and consciousness. At the limit of involution, says the myth, beings were reborn in an immaterial heaven world called Streaming Radiance. After ages, they were reborn on the youthful earth, but were still non-material; they were androgynous, dwelling in the sky, needing no food but rapture, and they shone brightly, immersed in their own radiance. The world was then `just one mass of water’, and dark so that sun, moon, and stars were not visible.

After a very long period, mighty winds whipped up and evaporated the water, and a rich, creamy essence solidified on its surface. One of the beings was of a curious or exploratory nature (alternatively translated as `greedy’); he dipped his finger in the essence and tasted it. He found it delicious and very sweet, like pure wild honey, and others followed his example. Craving grew in them, until they were breaking off lumps of the stuff to eat. Consequently their radiance dimmed, and the sun and moon could be seen, and so the days, months, and seasons came into being. At the same time, the world’s land-masses arose from the oceans: mountains growing like swelling bubbles on porridge as it cooks.

As the beings feasted, their bodies gradually coarsened, those that ate most becoming noticeably uglier than the norm. This induced conceit in the rest, who despised the ugly ones. As a result, the creamy essence disappeared, much to the dismay of all, and in its place a sort of fungus grew, also delicious (bitter according to one account), which became the beings’ food. The coarsening of body and disparity of beauty increased further, giving rise to more conceit and spite, so that the fungus, too, vanished, being replaced by a fast-growing creeper, and then rice. The rice could be eaten straight off the plant, and always grew again in time for the next meal.

For the first time excretion was necessary, and coarsening and distinctions increased further, until the sexes could be distinguished in some, `and the women became extremely preoccupied with the men, and the men with the women’. Thus they desired each other, and later had sex, first in public, but later in private because of the disapproval of the beings who were still androgynous, who threw cow dung at anyone seen in flagrante delicto. Hence the invention of huts!

An unusually lazy being could not be bothered to gather wild rice before every meal, and so started the practice of hoarding it for longer and longer periods. This once again affected the food supply; perhaps it was being over-exploited. The rice developed husks, and did not regrow when cropped. The beings held a mass meeting, lamenting the results of their `unskilful ways’, and decided they would now have to invent farming, and cultivate the rice. This led to property, as each had his own plot with a marked boundary, and to theft, when one greedy being stole rice from a neighbour’s field.

Now all the features of society as we know it crowded in apace. Caught, the thief promised not to steal again, but relapsed twice, and was seized, rebuked, and beaten up. Thus stealing, lying, censuring, and punishment all appeared. Another meeting was called, and the consensus was to elect the most handsome, capable, and kind-hearted of their number as a judge, to censure or banish wrong-doers. This first ruler was named ‘the People’s Choice’ (the Buddha in a previous life, according to one version). The ‘Beginnings’ text goes on to explain the origins of the various trades and occupations.

At first sight, this myth is describing a degeneration rather than an evolution. There is something in this, but I prefer to see it as a co-evolution of the perceived and social worlds as human nature comes to terms with external reality. The radiant beings at the beginning are completely subjective, self-absorbed, and passive; they may hint at the pre-self-aware state. A perceived world grows around them as they interact with it.

They carry through pre-human greed into a self-aware, social existence, and so the perceived world evolves to match that greed. (Objective reality is still, in a relative sense, objective, but how we perceive it stems largely from our emotional attitude to it.) Thus, for example, farming and property do not evolve in the myth until the wild rice is over-exploited. The greed and ignorance were already present in the shining beings, but it took active intervention in the world before evolution could solidify these tendencies into the social structures of self-interest and self-protection that we know today. At first, self-awareness gave expression to greed and delusion, but it is also the foundation for higher evolution. The shining beings were not enlightened, and were too passive to work for enlightenment. The human state, for all its faults, is said to be best for that.

From Appendix to The Evolving Mind, by Robin Cooper