If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. —William Blake
Giving others the freedom to be stupid is one of the most important and hardest steps to take in spiritual progress. —Sayadaw U Jotika
It is interesting that in his groundbreaking Buddhist Dictionary the venerable Nyanatiloka, a great pioneer in the Western interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, defined the important Pali word āsava as “bias.” (He wrote it, incidentally, in a British concentration camp during World War II.) His follower ven. Nyanaponika, who edited and revised the latest edition, changed Nyanatiloka’s favored rendering to “canker,” which has continued to be one of the more common renderings for the term, along with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s favored “taint.” Neither “canker” nor “taint” is as precisely descriptive as “bias” is, though really none of them are literal translations. Āsava literally means something like “flowing towards oneself”; and I have read that the term was borrowed from the ancient Jains, who considered karma to be a kind of sticky substance which flows toward the jīva, or soul, and adheres to it, weighing it down and preventing it from ascending into the Jainist heaven. The Buddhists of course gave it a somewhat different meaning; yet āsava still seems to imply something sticky that encumbers us. The extinction of āsava is synonymous with enlightenment. And “bias,” even though it isn’t a literal translation, may actually fit this description fairly well. The overwhelming encumbrance of bias in unenlightened human nature has been making itself really obvious to me lately, and so I have become biased in favor of writing about it.
Many years ago someone bequeathed to me a little stack of Time and Newsweek magazines, so for several days I lay around in my cave in Burma catching up on the insanity of the outside world, so to speak. One big issue that kept cropping up in issues dating around 2004 was a controversy, started by the Republican Party of the USA, that Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry had been awarded medals for valor in the Vietnam War that he did not deserve. Some Republicans howled in indignation over this. Yet at the very same time their own candidate, George W. Bush, was known to have been a kind of legal draft dodger—his wealthy father got him placed in the Air National Guard or some such, and young George was not even required to show up for training. He saw no military action at all. So John Kerry, who actually commanded troops in combat, behaved much more valorously than did the Republican candidate, even if technically he really shouldn’t have been awarded the medals. It may be that the whole controversy was started and/or nurtured by Machiavellian conservative manipulators who were deliberately using it as a strategic smokescreen to draw attention from Bush’s much less glorious military record, yet no doubt many Republicans were sincerely indignant at John Kerry’s alleged theft of military decorations, conveniently ignoring, as much as possible, the even worse case of their own man. (To be fair to Mr. Bush, he openly admitted that he bore no disrespect for Mr. Kerry’s military record, admitting that it was better than his own.) The case was so obviously absurd as to be a remarkable highlight on the general insanity of American politics, and of the human race in general. And this sort of thing isn’t just an American phenomenon which flares up every four years at presidential election time. It’s not just a Republican thing either.
Lately I was informed that, more recently, an American congressman publicly stated his fears that if the USA established a military base on the island of Guam, the 212-square-mile island might become so overloaded that it would flip upside down. The congressman in question is Hank Johnson, a black Democrat representing the state of Georgia. On March 25, 2010, at a meeting of the Armed Services Committee, Representative Johnson, a member of this Committee, was questioning Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the United States Pacific fleet. The topic was Guam. The interchange in question went like this:
Hank Johnson: This is a island that at its widest level is what, twelve miles from shore to shore, and at its smallest level, uh uh uh smallest, uh, uhhh…location, it’s uh, seven miles, uh, between one shore and the other. Is that correct?
Admiral: I don’t have the exact, uh, dimensions, but to your point, sir, I think Guam is a small island.
HJ: Very small island and about twenty-four miles, if I recall, long, so it’s—twenty-four miles long, about seven miles wide at the least widest, uh, place on the island and about twenty, about twelve miles wide, uh, uh, on the widest part of the island. And um…I don’t know how many square miles that, that is…do you happen to know?
A: I don’t have that, uh, figure with me, sir, I can certainly supply it to you if you’d like.
HJ: Yeah my fear is that, uh, the whole island will become, uh, so overly populated that it will tip over and uh, and capsize.
A: Uh…we don’t anticipate that….
This was not a totally isolated incident of apparent bizarre cluelessness on Rep. Johnson’s part. For example, there was another well publicized occasion in which, one day after addressing Congress with a speech including a simile involving midgets confronting a giant, he addressed Congress again, informing them that he had just been informed that the word “midget” is politically incorrect and offensive, and so he apologized for using “the M word,” stating, in his rambling, inarticulate manner, that so-called midgets suffer from dwarfism, but that rather than calling them people with dwarfism he preferred the term “abnormally small people.”
Getting back to the Guam incident though, Mr. Johnson later stated that he had been joking. He seemed quite deadpan from start to finish in his interrogation of the admiral, however; and even if he was joking (or just being poetic and rhetorical, as some others have claimed of him), that does not erase his seeming inability to articulate in plain, coherent language the dimensions of the island. This incident brings up two rather extreme examples of bias: the first is the efforts of political liberals to justify or excuse Rep. Johnson’s apparent ignorance. For example, here is the number one comment to the YouTube video I watched of the Guam interchange:
Actually a quite poetic and paradigm-shifting approach that served to shake-up the session and get some press. Notice how he slowly and deliberately dragged out the island dimensions, which Robert Willard did not know and maybe he should have. As well he brought attention to Guam, the military machine, and the environment. Even if Clyburn [?] was really concerned about the island "tipping over" (I don't think he was), his voice served a role in our democratic process.
Thus Mr. Johnson was actually praised for his stammering performance, with a hint of blame directed toward the ignorant admiral who didn’t know the exact size of the island. Here’s another comment to the same video:
oh come on, when it comes to unintelligent remarks about anything science-related Republicans take the cake by a mile! They've got Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Christine O'Donnel, Richard Murdoch, Todd Akin, etc, on their side. Not to mention this week you've got Michael Burgess saying fetuses masturbate.
This one essentially dodges the issue by making counter-accusations against allegedly even more ignorant Republican politicians.
So the bias of political liberals in favor of ignoring this fellow’s Guam farce is one case of bias; the other is the bias that got him elected as a US Representative in the first place. I assume that, all else being equal, if Mr. Johnson were not of African ancestry he would not have been elected to so high a political office in the United States. His blackness is a mark in his political favor nowadays, for although black people are not considered to be as sacred (from a politically correct point of view) as, say, homosexual people, it is much more acceptable to bash Christianity, for example, than a simple-minded black politician—with President Obama being less sacred possibly because he is in a traditionally very bashable office, and because he has above-average intelligence. So I assume that it was mainly the bias of politically correct and black voters for a black candidate that got such a fellow into Congress in the first place.
In an attempt at fairness to Mr. Johnson, I am willing to assume that he is a good man (although I suspect he may have lied about joking about Guam). Perhaps he is like Chance the gardener in the old movie Being There, a kind of saintly simpleton who usually does what is good. I don’t know, and don’t even want to know if he is still in Congress. Almost any representation of politics strikes me as dystopian and borderline creepy.
Also, in an attempt to demonstrate that America has no monopoly on mass irrational bias, I will mention another strange and striking phenomenon that I learned about just recently. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll to determine who the people of the UK considered to be the 100 greatest Britons, i.e. the 100 most important citizens in all of British history. Number three (#3) on this list, after Winston Churchill and Isambard Kingdom Brunel—and Isambard, an engineer who designed railroads, ships, and bridges, almost made it as the most important Briton of all time due largely to vigorous campaigning by students of Brunel University—number three, I say, was none other than Diana, Princess of Wales. She was considered by the British people at large to be more important than William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and any king or queen England or Great Britain ever had.
It has been suggested to me that Diana was and is so wildly popular in the UK because of her humanitarian work; although there are no doubt plenty of Britons who were more dedicated to selfless service who, like #52 Florence Nightingale, scored much lower than her, or who didn’t make it on the list at all. It seems to me that the main reasons why Princess Diana is so outrageously popular in Britain are 1) she was relatively pretty and became very glamorous, and 2) she occasionally behaved in a very plebeian manner which brought the nobility down to a much more comfortable level for the egalitarian modern masses—with it all amplified to a fever pitch, of course, by media hype. But this particular case is not one entirely of irrational mass bias. No doubt the masses’ ignorance of British history and culture caused many to vote for her because they simply couldn’t think of anyone better. (Incidentally, Boy George was #46 on the list, and Johnny Rotten #87. The likes of Francis Bacon, John Locke, Christopher Wren, David Hume, the Duke of Wellington, James Watt, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, and Sir Laurence Olivier didn’t make it onto the list at all. If a similar poll were conducted in America I would guess that Michael Jackson would score higher than Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, and anyone named Roosevelt—although I have enough faith in Americans that Lincoln, at least, would score higher. Bill Cosby blew his exalted place on the list with a recent sex scandal.)
These are just a few very obvious examples. Bias, as suggested by its aforementioned identification with āsava, pervades the unenlightened human condition. It isn’t just an artifact of media hype. For example, we are biased in favor of our own family and friends, and usually our own country and cultural conditioning, and biased against whatever challenges what we’re biased in favor of. Tell a mother that her son is a liar and a thief, and you can be sure she won’t like it at all, even though her son might be a convicted criminal sitting in a prison cell, after pleading guilty to his crimes, at that very moment. He could even be a serial killer and she might protest that really he’s not a bad boy; he was misled by bad friends who got him into trouble. I suppose most of you have seen such mothers making such statements on TV.
Also, we are biased in favor of what others around us are biased in favor of. This is a major ingredient in what is called “popularity,” and to some degree even of “common sense.” Hype bias is an exaggerated form of this natural phenomenon. And as with Buddhist ethics in general, bias can be extremely subtle, not just a matter of obvious irrationality.
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. —Leo Tolstoy
At this point, since I keep tossing the word “bias” around, I may as well define it: bias is a limiting perception which prevents us from seeing things as they are, and from seeing the big picture, especially if we are unaware that we have it. It provides us with an incomplete, lopsided view of whatever we are looking at. And virtually everything that an unenlightened human being sees is seen with such limiting perceptions.
Some sort of bias is a practical necessity: We have to limit our perceptions in order not to be overwhelmed and incapacitated by overdose of information. We have to employ some kind of limiting filter every time we open our mouth to say something, since there are potentially an infinite number of things we could say—we need filters for practical purposes. It’s mainly when we are oblivious to their existence that they get out of control and become an instrument of unenlightenment, and, by the same token, an instrument of suffering.
Which leads to a few recent issues that inspired me, or biased me, to start writing this thing in the first place. One is the notorious and egregious “Ammagate Scandal” which began flaring up into my world a few months ago. Some of the anti-Amma people who have endorsed Gail Tredwell’s whistleblowing book Holy Hell are conspiracy theorists of a rather credulous sort, but probably most of the people, at least in the West, who have used Holy Hell as a vindication of their cynical views of Amma “the Hugging Saint” are hardheaded materialistic types who normally would consider any testimony by the likes of Gail Tredwell to be pretty much worthless. The questionable validity of her testimony should be fairly obvious to anyone who reads the book, as I’ve discussed in a previous post; yet people predisposed (biased) to look for anything unsavory about a notoriously spiritual person, or about spirituality in general, all of a sudden consider Ms. Tredwell to be such a reliable person as to validate their point of view. But if she had spoken praise of Amma instead of condemning her, which is something she did many times before she left the organization, then many or most of these same people would dismiss her praise as softheaded rubbish. That’s how bias works. And, of course, it tends to be invisible to those who have it, regardless of how intelligent or rational they consider themselves to be.
In fact the most hardheaded rationalists tend to be very biased in their approach to reality, largely because they are head-oriented people and bias is largely an emotional issue—so their main approach to existence involves a kind of dissociation from such base motives to the extent of ignoring or denying their existence. Entire cultural mainstreams can be like this. But I’ll get back to that.
This leads to the interesting phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, as a result of which people believe or feel or act for reasons that they themselves do not wish to know. It is a kind of moha, or delusion; and as a rule we cannot see our own delusion, at least not at the time we are having it. (To the extent we are aware of it, to that very extent it isn’t delusion anymore.) So this kind of bias, great or small, no matter how glaring it might be to others, is practically by necessity invisible to the person entertaining it, no matter how intelligent he or she is.
While on the issue of “hardheads” and “softheads,” though, I may as well make a few observations. First I will stop using such derogatory terms (although I admit that I am by natural constitution a member of the hardheads), and will start using the more Buddhist terminology of “cleverness-oriented” and “faith-oriented.” In Buddhist ethical philosophy it is taught that the two faculties of paññā (“cleverness” in this context) and saddhā (“faith”) should be kept in balance by people practicing Dhamma; too much faith and one is able to believe just about anything one is told, and too much cleverness and you can’t tell such a person much of anything, not even the truth. A person with this kind of lawyer-like selective skepticism is likened in the commentarial literature to a sick person whose illness is caused by the medicine he takes. So anyway, it is my observation that faith-oriented people, like stereotypical New Age types, tend to have more positive bias in favor of new ideas as potential beliefs, while hardh— eh, cleverness-oriented people, like mainstream science advocates and stereotypical Western Vipassana veterans, tend more toward negative bias against what they cannot fit into their preferred intellectual systems and consequently do not want to hear. But I’ll get back to that also.
Another recent event which inspired/biased me to write on this topic involves some comments made, some of them on a popular Buddhist forum, with regard to my recent article on jhāna. (I rarely participate in Buddhist forums, for reasons which need not be discussed here; but sometimes if the stats pages of my blog show numerous “hits” from such a website I look it up to see what’s going on.) I found that some readers of that article on jhāna, in which I observed that, in my opinion, most of what is called jhāna is actually self-hypnosis, used it as evidence that all so-called psychic powers or superhuman states are simply hypnosis-induced figments of imagination or other kinds of hallucination. The purpose of the article certainly was not to discredit all non-mundane states, yet a few commentators predisposed to disbelieve what modern scientific materialism cannot explain apparently jumped at the opportunity to see it that way. One person had this to say about ancient Indian spirituality:
Again, Pali Canon doesn't have information about objective physical world above and beyond what people knew at that time...So much for various mystical powers... With all of that belief in rebirth (including as a living flying piece of meat or skeleton which crows peck at) just adds another nail to the coffin.
As though a spiritual approach to existence is supposed, as modern Western bias assumes, to describe the world in agreement with modern scientific materialism. One or two people on the same forum were mentioning how the decreased breath rate of deep meditation causes decrease of oxygen to the brain, thereby resulting in hallucinations mistakenly interpreted to be “superhuman.” One guy, who for all I know considers himself to be a Buddhist, even included the Buddha’s enlightenment in this, as well as in other possible causes of hallucination and delusion:
Traumatic experience... Check... Buddha had it
Oxygen deficiency...Sleep deprivation... Fasting... Buddha done that.
I don't exclude possibility of infections. After all, Buddha lived in the forest where one might get infected. Similar with many monks today.
Voices like this are often the loudest voices on such forums. The thing is, though, that such people just do not realize how their own cultural conditioning biases them in favor of, well, their own cultural conditioning. Scientific materialism is seen as gospel, with Dharma being valid only to the extent that it can find a niche within the scientific materialist world view.
Which leads to the climactic event which biased me in the direction of writing this thing. Lately I’ve been slowly, very slowly grinding my way through Karen Armstrong’s great book A History of God, which is a history of Western monotheism. In its early chapters it does, however, mention early Indian philosophy/theology, including Buddhism, by way of comparison and contrast with what prevailed in Western culture. The author discusses the Axial Age, a hypothetical “meta-event” which occurred in various places on this planet during a few centuries centered around 500 BCE. During this time a revolution occurred in the development of human thought and culture, with Confucianism, Taoism, etc. appearing in China; Vedanta, Buddhism, etc., appearing in India; critical, objective, rational philosophy appearing in Greece; and Western monotheism appearing in the Near and Middle East among the Jews and Persians (as the author points out, even the Jews were not really monotheists until around the time of the prophet Isaiah). The following statement by Armstrong serves as pretty much the nucleus of where I’m getting with this essay:
In the new ideologies of the Axial Age…there was a general agreement that human life contained a transcendent element that was essential. The various sages…interpreted this transcendence differently, but they were united in seeing it as crucial to the development of men and women as full human beings. They had not jettisoned the older mythologies absolutely but reinterpreted them and helped people to rise above them.
It should be noted that this transcendent element was not totally ignored before the Axial Age, but was merely implicit. The thinkers and mystics of the Axial Age brought it out into the open, so to speak.
The philosopher Karl Jaspers is considered to be the originator of the idea of the Axial Age; and he appears to have seen the same phenomenon that I have seen in modern Western culture. The Wikipedia article on Jaspers says this about him:
Beginning with modern science and empiricism, Jaspers points out that as we question reality, we confront borders that an empirical (or scientific) method simply cannot transcend. At this point, the individual faces a choice: sink into despair and resignation, or take a leap of faith toward what Jaspers calls Transcendence. In making this leap, individuals confront their own limitless freedom, which Jaspers calls Existenz, and can finally experience authentic existence.
What the modern age is doing is not only attempting to jettison all the older mythologies (in favor of an advanced new mythology), but to jettison the essential transcendent element itself, since the practically invisible limitations and biases of materialism cannot accommodate it. So one thing that modern Western culture is strongly biased towards, is utter spiritual bankruptcy.
But what will happen if the modern bias succeeds, and “transcendence” is contemptuously dismissed as a delusion brought about by oxygen deprivation, post-traumatic stress disorder, or fevered giddiness? Those who have experienced this essential element know that it is very real, even if science can’t explain it. It is more real than science, regardless of all the scoffing and dismissal that confronts it. And I personally cannot see how everyone could possibly dismiss it. I don’t think the dismissal can be total, except maybe in a culture of robots or zombies. Again, it is more real than science, which is an obvious fact to those who have experienced it, and silly nonsense to modern Western “enlightened” thinking.
Even so, it is strange for me to think of what could happen if the scientific materialists have their way, and the old mythologies as well as the transcendent element are all eradicated from modern World Culture. According to the “various sages,” including Karl Jaspers, the most important aspect of human existence would be eradicated. Practically the life force of the human race would be extinguished, with little to replace it other than default animal instinct and the superficial pleasures and excitements of the Brave New World, covering up a deep existential bleakness. That is my guess. I don’t think it could last. I suspect it would result in such profound worldwide despair and desperation that something would explode, resulting in some new Renaissance if not in simple extinction of the race.
A very important point to remember is that a main point of human existence, probably the main point, is happiness, not being intellectually “right.” And modern Western culture fails miserably at this main point if compared with other cultures which it is replacing. It may not even succeed at being right. As Buddha and Eckhart Tolle say, the human race is insane. Tolle goes farther to say it’s dangerously insane; and modern Scientism is only increasing that danger, by increasing our technological ability to fuck things up, while at the same time trying to ban actual wisdom since science can’t explain it.
I conclude this rant with a quote from the Wikipedia article on Cognitive Dissonance:
Dissonance is felt when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others.
This is no less true of modern Western adherents of Scientism, biased against all else, than it was of ancient Jews and Christians who utterly despised polytheistic idolaters. Not only is bias involved, but also a certain amount of deep subliminal fear that maybe one is wrong after all. The “essential element” cannot be entirely suppressed.
OK, just one last quote, with regard to “objective” Westerners:
'True believers' think they have the truth. The point about really dogmatic people is they don't know that they have dogmas. Dogmas are beliefs and people who have really strong beliefs think of their beliefs as truths. They don't actually see them as 'dogmatic beliefs' just as most people don't see corporate media as propaganda. —Christopher Rudy
OK, just one more:
…although our age far surpasses all previous ages in knowledge, there has been no correlative increase in our wisdom. —Bertrand Russell
notice all the Vipassana meditators in the background
Just recently, as a result of karmic coincidence, I happened to stumble upon an interesting, non-Buddhist but sometimes Dharma-related blog, Wait But Why, created by Tim Urban. There I found one post, entitled "Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think" which deals with the issue of "conformity bias," as does the post above, except with more emphasis on evolution and sociology. It is well worth a read.
But more interesting, and much, much more mind-blowing, is his two-part article beginning with "The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence." According to him, with many scientists backing him up, within the next few decades there is a very good chance that we will have produced a computer system with superhuman intelligence—not just more intelligent with regard to speed and accuracy of calculations, which has already been the case for quite awhile, but more intelligent in essentially every way. Government agencies and university laboratories are rushing as fast as they can to accomplish this in fact. And considering the exponential rate at which computer technology develops, and considering that a self-improving computer with approximately human-level intelligence will probably continue to develop exponentially, within a relatively few decades we may have a computer system as far beyond us intelligence-wise as we are beyond the intelligence of an amoeba. Many scientists consider this inevitable, and some, like science guru and cultural icon Stephen Hawking, are positively alarmed. Many think that this event will be by far the biggest, most world-changing event in all of human history. Within the next few decades, depending upon whether or not this superintelligence continues to serve the human race, we may become practically immortal, or extinct. It's considered to be a much bigger deal than nuclear weapons, overpopulation, the greenhouse effect, or pretty much anything else imaginable. We may create a virtual omniscient Deity. It's a huge idea. Maybe so huge that people don't want to think about it.
I may as well mention that if the superhumanly intelligent computer does wipe out the human race it very probably won't be the way the science fiction movies like The Terminator or The Matrix describe it, by the computer seeing humans as a threat. Really, if it is as far beyond us as we are beyond amoebas, then we could hardly threaten it. (Amoebic dysentery can be very inconvenient, however.) What the scientists consider much more likely is that the computer will simply see us as in the way, using up resources that it prefers to use itself, or totally irrelevant, and dispose of us with no more scruple than we would have before exterminating a colony of bacteria or burning a pile of dead leaves. I keep having flashbacks to the old Arthur C. Clarke novel Childhood's End, except without the Overlords and with a superhuman consciousness even more alien, if that is even possible.
Anyway, I tried to submit a comment to part 2 of Mr. Urban's mind-blowing AI article, but it turns out that only people with Facebook accounts are allowed to comment, and I am one of the minority who doesn't even want a Facebook account. So I will leave the comment here, approximately as I wrote it there but couldn't publish it:
If the human race is going to create an intelligence as far beyond us as we are beyond amoebas, then it seems to me that it is as odd for us to worry about it exterminating us as it would be for spermatozoa to worry about dying after one of them fertilizes an ovum. It would be much sillier than a caterpillar worrying about dying to create a butterfly. If we really do create such a vast consciousness at the cost of our species, then it would seem to be worth it—especially if the superintelligence that replaces us is not simply an extremely advanced generator of signatures or paper clips.