My Conversation With Kenneth Folk

Today I had the good fortune of spending several hours shooting the breeze with Kenneth Folk. He just happened to be in town and was game to have lunch with me and a fellow dharma geek (though lunch got long). If I had had the presence of mind to think ahead, I probably would’ve made a point of taking mental notes, but (alas and alack) I did not!  But it was a most fascinating and enlightening (ha!) conversation, ranging from fMRI studies of meditators’ brains, to meta-models of enlightenment, to our individual practices (thanks for the advice, Kenneth!) and much else besides.  It’s not every day that an opportunity like that crops up.  I haven’t much to say about it right now – I need to give time to my subconscious to grind away until something good comes out of it – but I think this will provide fodder for this space, in any case.


EDIT: I posted this before I was finished, so I added a little more.


Arguing Idealisms: Epistemological

I have been having a whole bunch of fun thinking about idealism lately (and then immediately putting on my unoriginal theologian’s hat) [1].  Of course, there is a raft of meanings that people attach to the term idealist and obviously I can’t be meaning all meanings all the time, so I will only be speaking here about those that I find particularly compelling.  First, there is epistemological idealism, a family of views [2] that concerns itself with the contents of experience and which asserts that we cannot know objects in a mind-independent way (how this washes out is somewhat different for each theorist).  Then there is ontological idealism, which makes the much stronger assertion that reality is, in one way or another, at base fundamentally mental, not material.  I am going to present, across an indeterminate number of posts, some arguments for each that I have cooked-up myself.  I make no claim that these arguments are original to the history of philosophy – I wouldn’t know because during my undergraduate degree idealism wasn’t a big topic of discussion, due to too much worrying about free will in light of the obvious fact (?!) of causal determinism – but at least they are my own.  On, then, to…

Epistemic Idealism:

Of the two, epistemological idealism (henceforth: EI) is by far the easier to argue for and is actually, I have found, a quite common, if very much implicitly held, belief among scientifically literate people (and others besides) [3].  To put my cards on the table, I take EI very seriously – I haven’t encountered an argument yet that seriously threatened idealist skepticism of knowledge about the external world.  Although I may deal with such criticisms in some future post, at present I am interested in presenting my own reasons for accepting EI.  As such, I present the following argument:

Say I have two apples (yum!) and I want to know what colour they are.  No problem, I just look at them – “oh, one is red and one is green” – and that would count as sufficient evidence for most people that one of the apples is red and the other is green.  They could repeat the experiment and confirm my results.  If there was a large enough group of people, however, there would inevitably be a few colour blind people who would insist that “there are two green apples and what the heck is this ‘red’ thing you people are always on about?”  They would be doing the same experiment and actually getting different results.

A simulation of how the colour sighted and the colour blind would see the apples.

We cannot merely dismiss the colour blind as being wrong about the colour of the apples simply because there are fewer of them – after all, if we were in a hypothetical colour sighted minority we wouldn’t accept that red doesn’t exist simply because most everyone else couldn’t recognize it.  So what becomes obvious is that we have a problem, which is that the apples seem to be differently coloured (red and green) only within certain frames of reference (i.e. those including organisms with perceptual apparati like that of colour sighted human beings), while they are identically coloured within other frames of reference (e.g. those of colour blind human beings).  With this recognition it becomes easy to imagine further frames of reference in which the apples seem to be multi-coloured, or to have no colour at all, or even to be visually absent (e.g. worms don’t have eyes).

Still, the question stands: what colour(s) are the apples?  What is obvious is that we cannot answer the question by piling up a list of the apples’ seemings-to-be across the complete set of possible and actual frames of reference for the apples.  That such a piling-up of seemings will bring us closer to the facts of the matter is difficult to believe, particularly since in only a trivial number will they even have colour, let alone be red and/or green [4].  What we want to know is what colour the apples are independent of how they seem – that is, what colour are they from no frame of reference?  Unfortunately, this is impossible to answer.

For example, we might try to resolve the issue by use of science.  We know that our perceptual apparatus works in particular ways and acknowledges different colours in response to certain wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of objects, so we could simply measure the reflectivity properties of the apples.  But if that is what we choose to do, although we would be learning something potentially interesting and useful about them, we nevertheless wouldn’t have ascertained what colour they are, merely something about their light-reflective properties.  Or we could measure the wavelength of the light reflected from the apples, but again we will not have identified what colour the apples are.  We could note what is going on in our nervous systems when the light reaches our eyes, but certainly whatever that research reveals would definitely not tell us anything about the apples!

This argument, while familiar to any who have spent much time learning about human perceptual systems, is still, however, one step away from full-blown EI.  I will now take us the rest of the way.

In a deeper sense, the question of what colour the apples are is incoherent.  Remembering that we cannot identify the colour(s) of the apples except from some frame of reference, for there to be the seeing of a red and a green apple requires the presence of both the apples and of a perceiver capable of the perception of red and green alike.  I can see both colours but colour blind people can’t, even if we are looking at the same objects.  The apples are able to cause different perceptions of colour in different organisms on the basis of those organisms’ perceptual faculties being of the sort that are capable, in conjunction with the right external causes, of producing ‘red’- and ‘green’-experiences.  Were there no such organisms, there would be no such thing as experiences of ‘red’ or ‘green’.  So to ask what colour the apples are from no frame of reference in particular is to ask what the non-experience of experiential qualities – as caused by some object(s) – must be like, which is an obvious non-starter.

The implication of this is that colour is not a property of the objects at all!  Rather, colour is a perceptual experience that may be said to have been caused along the lines explained above, so the very most we could say about the apples is that they have the property of being the sort of things that can cause ‘red’- or ‘green’-experiences (under the right conditions).  Now, the same holds true for all properties and all objects.  A challenge for the reader: identify even a single property of some object that is not relative to some particular frame of reference.  I believe that there is nothing – nothing – that may be posited as an observer-independent property of any perceived object whatsoever.  In fact, we do no not perceive objects at all – there are only our perceptions.  This is EI.


[1] What can I say?  I was always kind of weird – definitely never much of an outdoors kid (sorry, Dad).

[2] Just assume from here on that I am speaking about families of views.  It’s too much work to provide an in-depth and subtle comparison between, say, Berkeley and Kant.  In addition, I would have to understand Kant.  Ha! :S

[3] Which brings me sharp jolts of Schadenfreude any time it becomes apparent.  The irony of my sciencey friends making idealist arguments about perception when the very thought of idealism itself is repellent to them… it’s just too delicious.

[4] I suppose one could say that God could clear it up, that if any frame of reference is objective, it’s his.  To  which I would respond: “what, does God have eyes?”

Anatta and Sunyata: Substantially Different Concepts?

(Did you get the joke?)

Perhaps someone out there with deeper knowledge of the doctrinal subtleties of this can help clear this up for me, but I have to admit that I’m hard pressed to find a big, hairy difference between the two.

Anatta can be interpreted strictly to mean that there is nothing whatsoever that arises in perception that is or is a property of a self, soul, me, etc.  This would be a completely accurate interpretation.  This is also exactly identical to the emptiness of ‘the self’.  So far, so good.  But if we allow a somewhat greater degree of freedom in interpretation, we could say that anatta also applies to all phenomena, not simply the putative self – all things are without their own self-nature (that is, there is nothing that is or is a property of a self of those objects).  How do we know this?  Anicca: if things had their own self-nature, they would not change, now would they?  Which is precisely the evidence brought out to support the supposedly different (and putatively superior) Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.

Now, of course, anatta is (almost?) always used in Theravada parlance to refer to one’s own self, soul, me, ‘I’ (etc.) as a matter of training.  Theravada theory and practice aims to  produce arahants through the clear perception of the emptiness of their own selves – it is not entirely clear whether it follows from this that arahants must therefore have overcome the misperception of inherent existence (or self) in external objects as well.  Regardless, this seems much less different than the sectarian cheerleaders for ‘higher’ yanas seem to suggest – it seems as though Theravadins do not talk about emptiness much because it’s not really relevant to their aims.  Does it boil down to this, or is there a real distinction that I’m missing here?

Rebirth: A Buddhist Doctrine That Doesn’t Quite Make Sense

This is not what Buddhists are talking about.

When people are introduced to Buddhism, one of the first things they are told is that Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is that after death one will live again and again in countless, innumerable bodies (of various sorts, human, godly, and demonic).  Most people don’t really get any further than this but, should they ask more questions, they will have it explained to them that this is not the same thing as reincarnation – how so?  Buddhists, it will be recalled, accept the doctrine of anatta, or ‘no(t)-self’, that there is nothing anywhere in existence that can be pointed to or identified as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – that is, there is no soul.  Now, reincarnation is the notion that oneself, the soul, moves from body to body and life to life, but since for Buddhists there is no soul, there cannot be anything literally moving from life to life – you cannot literally be reborn since you, properly speaking, don’t exist.  What to make of all this Buddhist talk about past lives, then?

The Buddhist notion of rebirth is bundled with the notion of karma.  Without going too deeply into details, the story is this.  Whenever we act intentionally, through those actions (karma) we are creating metaphysical causes that will have future results (vipaka).  However, since we act constantly and we only live for so long, by the time we die we will have created a bunch of causes that still have to manifest their results.  So what happens then is that these effects do come about by conditioning the psychology/life history of some yet to be born entity –  in a very important sense they are the causes of the existence of that being [1].  Rebirth is not of a person but of a causal process – what makes past lives mine is that they are the ones that directly conditioned the life I am now living.  Similarly, what will make future lives mine is that they are the results of the actions I take in this one.  But this account has some pretty big pitfalls (whatever one thinks about the metaphysical plausibility of the whole affair).

First off, there’s the problem of establishing diachronic identity conditions (which becomes even more complicated across lifetimes).  This is a very familiar problem to philosophy, especially when souls are abandoned – even if my actions cause a future being, in what meaningful sense is that being me if it is entirely different?  Say I am ‘reborn’ as a frog – what about the frog and its mind is similar enough to my own that we can be thought of as being the same in essence?  I should say nothing – the fact (if it is one) that I caused the frog and its mental states to come into being is irrelevant to identifying the frog and this human person as the same thing.  Consider that our parents also caused our existence but they are definitely not us [2].  I cannot see how being the source of the mental causation of some yet-to-exist entity qualifies me for identification with that being any more than its parents are so qualified for being the source of its physical causation.

It says it all.

Which brings me to the next trouble for the rebirth hypothesis – there are innumerable causes for features of my mental life that come from outside of myself.  Perhaps I watch an extremely sad film or I read a profound passage in a book that forever changes my life: in either case, my system of mental causation (and hence my future-life trajectory) will have been irrevocably altered by mental causation arising in other minds.  Similarly, my parents, genetics, and cultural environment all helped to mould my mental ecology.  Why should only one source of mental causation (i.e. ‘my’ past lives) be privileged over all the others in any analysis of future-life causation?  I can’t think of any non-tautological or non-overdetermined reasons to do so.

And looking to causation across lives, there are problems related to that just raised:

The first is that rebirths are presumed to be serial, never simultaneous.  This would, of course, be simple common sense were there a soul or self that travelled from life to life, body to body (“of course it can’t be more than one person at a time because it defines what it is to be a person and it is singular”).  Buddhists, however, deny that there is such a thing as a soul but still maintain that rebirth is serial.  I can see no reason for this – in the absence of a soul it is difficult to see why actions should produce results only within a single body-mind instead of several.  It would be like two billiard balls being struck simultaneously by the Cue Ball but only one of them reacting to the impact.  Surely everyone has committed enough intentional acts to build several future lives out of, so why shouldn’t they happen at the same time?

The second is that, having given reason to believe that multiple-source mental causation is active within one lifetime, there is no reason to rule it out across lifetimes either –  that is, perhaps I am not a consequence of just one individual’s actions, but of the actions of many.  Again, the soul hypothesis would preclude this possibility, but this is not a live option for Buddhists.  Similarly, future lives may in some sense be conditioned by one’s mental acts, and so in that sense are one’s own, but also be conditioned by other people’s mental acts, and so be theirs as well.  Again, I cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case.


[1] Indeed, whereas we consider the causes of pregnancy to be the presence and joining of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, Buddhists consider there to be three causes, the third being the existence of karma which must ripen.  Without such karma, mommy and daddy could try all they want but no pregnancy would result.

[2] At least, not at first – there is this utterly appalling tendency to ‘turn into’ one’s parents as one matures.

I considered tagging this piece under ‘travel’. 🙂

Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?

Buddhizing Halloween

As Buddhism left India it came into contact with other, sometimes remarkably different cultures.  The result is that there is a religion that incorporates and expresses itself through images (and the concepts they represent) as colourful, complicated, and symbolically laden as this:

Now that’s busy! (Click to embiggen some)

… but also as simple as this:

Enso. (Go ahead and embiggen if you want to, but I’m not sure what the point would be)

The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing – I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].

Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:

  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.

I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:

  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations.

I know that I’m not the only Buddhist to be thinking about this holiday specifically or about similar themes, so what does everyone think?  Western Buddhists, what are your ideas and suggestions?!

Getting in the *spirit* of things (har)!

Update:  The pic of the grim reaper on the lotus comes from here.  I wanted to give the artist any traffic that might flow through, ’cause I think that’s a pretty awesome pic (but sorry everyone, I bought the last print!).


[1] Buddhism is not the only religion to have done so – Christianity has done so for Christmas and many of its saints.

[2] Which has just now inspired a thought vis-a-vis the Christianizing of old Pagan traditions throughout Europe.  Modern historians generally talk about this in negative terms (since there is a palpable anti-Christian bias in academia) but I wonder how much of this really was imposed by the Church.  If I as a Westerner want Halloween Buddhized, couldn’t former Pagans have wanted their festivals Christianized?  Food for thought.

[3] I know it’s a little early yet, but I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about costumes!

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Progress’

Humans, being creatures that seemingly can’t live without meaning, [1] have always invented for themselves mythologies [2] that serve to provide the sort of meanings that the world doesn’t provide them gratuit. ‘Progress’ is just such a myth, operative in the political sphere that, like many myths, is taken to be literally true and which informs the sense of purpose, direction, and self of those who cling to it.  However, it is ultimately a false mythology – there simply is no such thing as ‘Progress’ – and its mistakenly being taken for gospel truth is something that strikes me as potentially dangerous [3].  So on this basis [4] I have decided to provide an argument why there is and never has been Progress or Progressives.

[NB: I am not making any arguments about the validity or value of those political parties, policies, or goals that are commonly identified as being ‘Progressive’.  This is not an argument against left-wing politics.]

How do you do that anyway?

Progress is an inherently teleological concept, a goal-oriented one.  Consider that what we commonly mean when we say we are making progress is that we are moving closer towards achieving some goal, destination, or desired state, whether that is reaching a desired level of physical fitness, getting closer to our destination on a road trip, or satisfying graduation requirements in our schooling.  The teleological aspect is no less true for, is in fact central to, the myth of Progress – that is, that we as a society are traversing the distance between where we are and some more (or ultimately) moral or desirable social/political order.  The trouble for the myth of Progress comes from how we determine that there is such a goal and in what it consists.

There are two seemingly obvious ways of going about doing so.  The first is to employ some sort of philosophical realism.  One could argue that Progress is possible because there is an objective moral order and Progress occurs whenever we (re)structure society and its laws to better conform to this moral order.  Similarly, one could make the case that there is an ideal (Platonic) Form of society and Progressiveness is measured by how closely our own society approximates this ideal.  The weakness of such arguments is, of course, that it is impossible to demonstrate that they are true.  If there really is an objective moral order, why is it so easily violated unlike, say, the law of gravity?  If there is only one true morality, what are we to make of moral disagreement between individuals and societies (more on this below)?  Plainly, such justifications are only convincing to those who are already on-side and, even then, only if one buys into the brand of realism on offer.

In light of the deficiencies of the above, the second route is to justify the myth of Progress on the basis of historical experience.  The narrative is (crudely) as follows:

In the past people were either ignorant, deluded, or evil and so were their societies.  Fortunately, history demonstrates that people and society have been growing in wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality and consequently human life has been improving across the millennia.  There remains much work to be done but the trend is unmistakable – future generations of humanity will be even more compassionate, wise, and moral than our own and it is our duty (and privilege) to facilitate this process.

Here, Progress comes to be seen as something of a law of history, the goal and its contents revealed as and through an inexorable marching forward and unfolding of “wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality.”  But there are two important reasons to reject this account of Progress.

We’re just lucky things didn’t go this way.

One is that history is, of course, strongly contingent.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War gives us good reason to think that, had cooler heads prevailed, Athens’ devastating war with Sparta might have been avoided or that, had the plague not routed Athens’ population, it might have ended very differently.  And looking to recent history, there is no reason to believe that, had Hitler’s inner circle been better strategic thinkers, Nazi Germany should not have been master of Europe to this day.

The other reason for rejecting this account of Progress is a corollary of the first.  Simply put, whatever Progress we see in the workings-out of history only appears to be such because of our particular historically embedded vantage point.  Our views on democracy, justice, racism, sexism, etc. by which we judge the historical process are the products of that selfsame historical process!  If one is a modern, liberal democrat, then of course history looks like Progress because it is that history that engendered one’s modern, liberal democratic values.  It is useful to think of it in this way: placing rocks one on top of the other only builds a pyramid if one is actively following a blueprint, otherwise it’s just a heap of rocks.  Historical processes build heaps, not pyramids.

No pyramid, this.

Note also that this means that to the medieval Church the early history of Christianity looked like Progress and that to radical Islamists the growing adoption of the burqa and niqab across historical time look like Progress.  If historical processes can offer up different value-sets from which one can make judgements about history, then there can be no one historical trend that counts as Progress unless it leads to the end-of-history: a static, global society containing a universally assented to morality.  But since, as I have suggested, history is contingent, the historical process resulting in such a  society is no more goal-directed than a rudderless ship at sea – wherever it washes up, there the winds have blown it.  Moreover, even were the end-of-history actually possible (a questionable proposition), why should we conclude that its values are therefore better than our own?  Most large-scale societies throughout human history have more-or-less taken the view that democracy is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps they are right – maybe the end-of-history will be governed by an eternal monarchy (or something yet undreamt of).  If we are to insist that it is our values that represent Progress, then we will have to do so on grounds other that those of historical necessity – that is, retreat to realism (with all its problems) or adopt a sort of values-chauvinism.

Not by design did it arrive here.

‘Progress’ is a flawed concept.  This isn’t to say that we can’t make progress toward our individual or collective goals, only that we must not assume that our goals have the imprimatur of reality.


[1] Nor, frequently, with meaning, e.g.: Jonestown, suicide-bombings, martyrdom.

[2] The meaning of which I must define myself since the Wikipedia article is a holy mess of missing the forest for the trees (no concise definitions for this topic). Myth, in the context of this piece, does not carry the popular definition of ‘story that is untrue’ but instead means ‘story that provides meaningful context for real-world happenings, whether or not that story itself is factually true’. By this definition all of the death and resurrection of Christ, the history of the American or French Revolutions, the self-made man, and “Yes, we can!” are equally mythological.

[3] I don’t believe that I need to elaborate too much upon why that might be (that would be a whole other discussion), but I can spare a couple of words here.  The quick-and-dirty is this – when people believe that they are on the side of the inevitable march of history/good/God/whatever, it tends to make them self-righteous at best (very annoying) and, at worst, complete, raging assholes willing to railroad others to implement their vision.  Examples: Nazis, Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, Jacobins, Democrats, Republicans, Zionists, anti-Zionists, medieval Roman Catholicism, Puritanism, residential schools, Richard Dawkins, the Black Panther Party, etc.

[4] And, not to mention, also on the basis that false beliefs deserve to be challenged, whatever they are – accurate knowledge of reality counts as a moral good, in my eyes.