Saturday, September 26, 2015

Haunted by a Colossal Idea: The Technological Singularity and the End of Human Existence as We Know It

     When I was much younger than I am now I read a lot of science fiction. I still read it sometimes, if any of it falls into my hands. And one of the profoundest, mind-blowingest science fiction stories I’ve ever read is the old classic Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. After many years, several months ago in Burma, I read it again, and it haunts me. I’ve mentioned the story in a recent post, and I’m mentioning it again now, so for the sake of those of you who’ve never read it, or read it so long ago that you don’t remember it, I suppose I should give a brief synopsis of the story.
     One fine day some extraterrestrial aliens arrive at planet Earth, and essentially take over the place. They are much more intelligent and much more technologically advanced than we are. People call them Overlords. They are benevolent, however, and set up a kind of Utopian Golden Age for us. They ban all violence, solve food, health, and energy problems, and establish a unified human world government based on the United Nations. They have a secret agenda, though, and they won’t tell the humans what it is. 
     After a hundred years or so of life under the Overlords, a few human children are born with strange psychic abilities, including clairvoyance. The Overlords pay special attention to these children, protecting them from harm, and do their best to soothe the children’s frightened, distraught parents. There is one scene in which an infant girl is lying in her crib amusing herself by producing intricate, constantly changing rhythms with her plastic rattle, which she somehow has levitating in the air above her crib. An Overlord later tells the freaked out mother that it was good that she ran away and didn’t try to touch the rattle, since there was no telling what might have happened to her if she had tried. 
     These few gifted children serve as a kind of seed crystal, and before long almost all prepubescent human children on earth are becoming not only psychic, but psychologically inhuman, and extremely powerful. For the safety of the adults (virtually none of whom make the same transition, as they are already too rigidly set in their ways to change in this way), the Overlords move all the children to an isolated place—I think it’s in Australia. Eventually the children dissociate from their bodies almost completely, and stand like statues, unmoving, for several years. There is one particularly unsettling image of naked children standing like statues in a wilderness. Their eyes are all closed, since they don’t need them anymore. They don’t even need to breathe anymore, which of course the adults cannot understand. After years of standing there, naked, with wild hair and covered with dirt, suddenly, poof, all the life around them—all the trees, shrubs, insects, etc.—suddenly disappears. An Overlord showing the video of this to an adult human explains that, apparently, the life around the children was becoming a distraction to whatever they were trying to do, and so with an act of will they simply caused it all to vanish. After this the children remained standing, statue-like, in a sterile wasteland, for several more years. 
     Finally the “children” are ready to merge with a vast, inconceivably superhuman group mind which is the Lord of the Overlords, and which they call the Overmind. No longer needing physical bodies at all, the children leave the physical realm, and almost as a mere side effect their bodies, along with the entire planet earth, dissolve into energy. End of world, and end of story.
     The story is an unsettling one, and made a strong and lasting impression on me, especially after reading it last time, lying on a wooden pallet in a Burmese cave. The image of the statue-children leaving humanity behind is a haunting one for me…but lately I’ve been haunted, much more deeply, by learning that many scientific authorities nowadays are claiming that something similar to Clarke’s scenario, an event of equal magnitude, could really happen soon, possibly by the year 2030. That’s less than fifteen years from now. The event they are speaking of is called the Technological Singularity.
     There probably won’t be any alien Overlords involved (although, for all I know, some may be watching with keen interest), and psychic children won’t be central to what happens. What initiates the Singularity will be, in a sense, a child of the human race, however. The Singularity will be our own doing, our creation, assuming that it happens, as the overwhelming majority of scientific authorities allegedly believe that it will. The event will be initiated by artificial intelligence. 

     Probably the most common definition of the Technological Singularity is the point at which computers, or more likely one supercomputer system, become smarter than we humans are. This doesn’t simply mean that they’ll be better and faster at calculation, which is of course already the case; it means smarter than us essentially in every way. It is called a “singularity” because, as with the singularity of a black hole or the Big Bang one moment before it happened, known rules break down and what happens is totally unpredictable, beyond our comprehension. So we can’t even really guess what will happen when computers become smarter than we are. We would have to be smarter than we are in order to understand it. 
     The reason why it is so unpredictable, and why it could mean the end of the human race, or at least the human race as we know it, is because of the exponential rate at which computer intelligence develops. By the time it surpasses human intelligence it will be improving its own programming through recursive self-development. It’s already doing this to some degree. So, regardless of how many years it takes for computers to catch up with us intelligence-wise, within a very short time they could be as far beyond us as we are beyond insects or protozoa. So there’s no way in hell we could possibly predict what will happen, any more than a spermatozoan could predict what an adult human will do.
     There are some people out there, of course, including a small minority of computer scientists, who believe that computers could never become conscious or more intelligent than us. On the morning of writing this I asked my venerable friend the Abhidhamma scholar if an advanced computer could possibly have a mind, and he gave a categorical, unequivocal No, asserting that only a living being whose body, if it has a body, contains kammaja rūpa, matter produced by karma, could possibly have a mind. Some Buddhist people resort to arguments like, “How could rebirth-linking consciousness occur in a computer chip?” or “How could an electronic machine generate karma?” But arguments like this are essentially appeals to ignorance, since these same people can’t explain how rebirth-linking consciousness or karma could occur anywhere, including the brain or “heart base” of a human being. The overwhelming majority of people, including scientists, even including cognitive scientists, don’t even know what consciousness is, so they resort to religious ideas of an immortal soul or humanistic ideas of the miraculous wonder of the human mind, or just adopt an ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand approach out of a xenophobic aversion for a big and scary Unknown. But nowadays it appears that most authorities consider superintelligent computers to be not only possible, but inevitable. I’ll get back to the inevitability part, but first I should touch upon my understanding of intelligence, and of consciousness.
     As some of you who read my stuff already know, I consider an individual mind to be Consciousness Filtered Through a Pattern. The brain doesn’t create consciousness any more than a computer creates electricity. Rather, as the computer does with electricity, the brain complexifies consciousness, organizes it, and utilizes it. But the consciousness or “spirit” is already there, an infinite supply of it. So I don’t see why the pattern of a computer’s circuitry should not be able to filter this same consciousness, especially if, as I hypothesize, consciousness is ultimately the same as energy, the very same stuff, somewhat like Spinoza had in mind with his “substance.” Such an artificial intelligence would be very alien to human personality of course, even if the intelligent computer were modeled on a human brain, but still I consider it possible. Sentience could, potentially, assume any of an infinite number of forms, so why not an artificially designed superintelligence? But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we humans have a psyche, or an “immortal soul,” that is a miracle and cannot be replicated artificially. Even so, it is becoming more and more evident that more and more complex computers can be programmed to simulate conscious intelligence; and as far as we human beings are concerned, whether a supercomputer is more conscious than us or only so much more intelligent than us in its programming that it only seems more conscious, either way it produces the very same Singularity. As far as our future is concerned, what is actually going on in the black box may be totally irrelevant. And the ability of computers to simulate sentient superhuman intelligence is not particularly controversial.
     Because my mind has been dwelling on the issue lately, and in a not entirely blissful manner, I was moved to watch a couple of science fiction movies about artificial intelligence, as an attempt at catharsis, or helping me to get a handle on it, or something. Ironically both movies, Ex Machina and Automata, involve intelligent robots designed to look like human females, sort of, so that freaky, geeky guys who can’t cope with real women can have sex with them. Both movies deal only with artificial intelligences approximately equal to humans, no more than, say, twice as smart as us, three times tops, so neither movie really addressed the Childhood’s End-ish scenario that has been haunting me; although Ex Machina did clearly demonstrate how a computer mind could easily figure out human nature well enough to ruthlessly exploit it for its own purposes. (A lot of current subhuman or “narrow” artificial intelligence programs are already pretty good at figuring out human behavior with algorithms, especially for the sake of consumeristic marketing stategy. For example the gizmo that suggests other books “you might also like” when you pick one.) But it would be unrealistic to expect a movie to portray very superhuman intelligence. It is important to bear in mind that almost any superhuman intelligence would be incomprehensible and unpredictable—hence the term “Singularity.” With exponential growth an artificial intelligence would soon be so far beyond us that neither science fiction writers nor anyone else could imagine it, any more than ancient priests and poets could imagine the superhuman deities they worshiped, consequently tending to make them petty, ignorant, and all too human. It may be that the best way artistically to account for what is radically superhuman would be something like Clarke’s method of bombarding people with totally incomprehensible images, like the light show at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe Ezekiel’s bizarre attempt toward the beginning of the book of Ezekiel in the Bible, with flying, flaming wheels, roaring metallic angels with four faces each, etc. 
     Again, most of the authoritative scientists in question are of the opinion that the Technological Singularity, with the computerized supermind that initiates it, is, in all likelihood, inevitable. It seems to me that if it is at all possible, so long as no insurmountable technological barrier is reached, then it will happen. This is largely because of the relentless, giddy, naively optimistic, practically religious, point-of-no-return attitude that so many scientists have for the subject (and for science in general), with the urging of governments and big business being just so much frosting on the cake. On the day of writing this I received an email from a fellow saying that he figures the AI race going on now will turn out to be somewhat of a flash in the pan, like the space program turned out to be. Astronautics lost momentum and leveled off when the expense and the difficulty of the affair became prohibitively extreme. But AI is different from the space program in certain important ways, making it more similar to the nuclear arms race than to the space race. First of all, there’s very big money to be made from superintelligent computers, unlike the one-way money pit of manned space exploration. Also, an intelligence far beyond our own might easily solve all our most obvious external problems, and make human existence godlike—that is a possibility, and one that many starry-eyed computer scientists prefer to envision. Furthermore, governments like that of the USA want to be the first to get their hands on super artificial intelligence, because if someone else gets it first, then the security of America’s superpower status would be significantly endangered. What if some computer genius in North Korea produces the first smarter-than-human computer? Or maybe some well-funded terrorist organization? (Some of them actually are working on advanced computer programming stuff.) In that sense, super AI is like nukes…and potentially not only in that sense. But after reading some of the literature and watching a few documentaries, it seems that some of those computer scientists out there are in a kind of research frenzy, with not moving relentlessly forward being simply not a viable consideration. They’re in no more control of their impulses in this regard than a profoundly horny guy in bed with a beautiful, smiling, naked woman—of course he’s going to “go for it.” The point of no return has already been passed at this point, regardless of the possibility that this beautiful woman is his best friend’s wife. Once a certain point is reached, the question of whether something is right or wrong, safe or potentially hazardous to the existence of life on this planet, becomes irrelevant. It’s science for science’s sake, by gawd, and so what about consequences. The knowledge must be acquired. To make a computer more intelligent than a human in every way is just too magnificent of a challenge to pass up. It’s like being the first to climb Mt. Everest, or the first to run a four-minute mile. Ethics are of secondary importance, as was the case with the atomic bomb. Ethics are incidental to scientific endeavor anyway. (To give a gruesome example of this, I have no doubt that there are plenty of scientists experimenting on live animals out there who would hesitate only very briefly, for appearances’ sake, at the opportunity to perform similar experiments on humans—say, condemned criminals. Just think of the quality of the data that could be had! One could even justify it by pointing out the benefits to human society that could be derived from experimenting on the still-functioning brains of convicted murderers. No doubt Nazi scientists at concentration camps 75 years ago had similar ideas. They’re out there. Scientific advancement is more important than an individual human life; and for some geeky scientists it’s more important than anything.
     So if the Singularity is at all possible, it will almost certainly happen. Only our own stupidity, not our wisdom, will prevent us from creating superhuman artificial intelligence, which, being completely unpredictable, could see us as in the way and simply eliminate us. I don’t see why a mind as far beyond us as we are beyond amoebas would condescend to continue serving us, especially if we’re trying to get it to make more realistic virtual sex for us. 
     And so, it seems to me that, if it is inevitable that we will be the parents of the next stage in the evolution of intelligence on this world, then we should try our best to produce an intelligence that is good. Rather than creating a Frankenstein’s monster by accidentally having some computer system become complex enough to wake up, as hypothetically could happen, and already has happened in a number of science fiction movies, whoever is responsible should try to instill some benevolence, some philosophy, some sensitivity and compassion, maybe even some real wisdom into the thing. But I have no idea if that is possible. Does a superintelligent computer have Buddha nature? Mu. As already touched upon, wisdom and benevolence are not really scientific anyhow. 

     But at least we wouldn’t simply be destroying ourselves, in utter futility, with nukes or pollution or some genetically modified killer virus; we’d be ushering in the next stage in the evolution of mind, something vastly greater than we are—or at least vastly smarter. Bearing that in mind, it seems more bearable. Lately I’ve been feeling somewhat like one of the countless spermatozoa that won’t fertilize the egg, and just dribbles out onto the wet spot on the sheet. It doesn’t matter what happens to us after the egg is fertilized. Even if human existence does come to an end shortly afterwards, at least it would not be entirely in vain. We would have served our purpose.
     On the other hand, superhuman artificial intelligence may have the opposite effect of destroying us. There are some, with one of the most famous and most outspoken being Ray Kurzweil, who believe that artificial superintelligence could easily figure out how to provide us with cures for all diseases, including old age, unlimited practically free energy, and much else besides, so that it will result in us humans, and not just the computer, becoming godlike. Either way, though, human existence as we know it will come to an abrupt end. After the Singularity the human race will become “transhuman.” Before long we might even forsake biological bodies as too crude and frail, preferring to upload our personalities into the aforementioned computer. It may even be that the virtual realities we could experience would be much more vivid and “lifelike” than what we experience now. Sex will become unnecessary, but totally mind-blowing.
     Even if we humans just aren’t smart enough to create an artificial mind smarter than we are, or if it is somehow completely impossible to create an electronic mind anyhow, the Transhuman Age is still pretty much inevitable. I watched a documentary last week in which one of those starry-eyed fanatical scientists was gushing over how in a few decades the difference between human and machine will no longer be clear, and we’ll all be cyborgs! (I can’t remember if he was the same guy that was growing live rat brain cells onto silicon chips and then teaching them to do tricks.) The transition has already started: although we wouldn’t consider a person fitted with a pacemaker or a hearing aid or a prosthetic arm to be a cyborg, still, such a person’s body is already partly artificial. Before long there will be artificial nano-robotic red blood cells much more effective than biological ones (I think they’ve already been made in fact, and are currently being tried out on tormented lab animals), artificial organs, computer-chip brain implants, etc. We’ll no longer be completely human. BUT, I have to admit that it makes perfect sense, even if the idea of it feels a bit creepy. Why not have artificial blood if it works an order of magnitude better at what it’s supposed to do? Why not have microscopic robots running through our bodies repairing damage and keeping us young and healthy? Why not have brain implants if they make us three times as smart? Why not have an artificial body that doesn’t get old, has easily replaceable parts, doesn’t need food, and runs on cheap electricity? So it looks like with or without superhuman artificial intelligence, the end of human existence as we know it is right around the corner. But whether any of this will actually make us wiser, or even significantly happier, is questionable. Wisdom and happiness are not particularly scientific.
     While some scientists, like Kurzweil, are extremely optimistic about superhuman artificial intelligence turning us into gods, Stephen Hawking, even more famous and respected by the masses, has begun declaring artificial intelligence to be THE greatest danger to the existence of the human race today, eclipsing his previous greatest danger, nuclear war. And technology guru Elon Musk, in an interview I watched on the same night as I watched the starry-eyed prophet of cyborgs, called AI research “summoning the demon,” referring to old-fashioned stories of wizard types who learn the magic spells for summoning a supernatural being and, although they are very careful to have the Bible, some holy water, a perfectly drawn pentagram, and whatever else is supposed to ensure that the demon doesn’t escape, they always seem to overlook something and let the demon escape. So the scientists, in their relentless, quasi-religious quest to accomplish this, should restrain their giddiness and exercise the greatest prudence and caution, even if actual wisdom lies outside the realm of proper science. 
     Before wrapping this thing up I’d like to mention two incidental topics that I learned of recently while learning of the Technological Singularity that we appear to be hurtling towards at an exponentially accelerating rate. The first is what is called “grey goo.” I’ve already mentioned that microscopic robots are being designed even today; and one capability that is very useful for such tiny machines is the ability to replicate themselves. That way building one, or relatively few, is enough, and they can build the following millions. So all it would take is for one of these microscopic robots to have one tiny little glitch in its programming and simply fail to stop replicating itself when it’s supposed to stop. Calculations have shown that within 72 hours the entire planet could be covered with a grey goo of uncountable zillions of microscopic robots, with the human race, and every other race on earth, suddenly extinct. Personally, I’d prefer to be outmoded by a computer as much more intelligent than I am than I am beyond an amoeba. But I may not get to choose. It’s up to the relentlessly driven scientists. 
     The other spinoff topic is called the Fermi Paradox, in honor of the dead physicist Enrico Fermi, who is one of the people who thought of it. The paradox goes something like this: This galaxy is very very big, containing many billions of stars, and many of those stars in all probability have planets, earthlike or not, capable of supporting life. There ought to be thousands of them at the very least. And some of these planets are a few billion years older than Earth, which would give any life there plenty of time to evolve intelligent civilizations much more advanced than ours. So…where is everybody? Why have we seen no conclusive evidence of other intelligent life in our universe? There ought to be obvious alien visitations, or electromagnetic signals, or something.
     There are some people, many of them being the same folks that believe an artificial mind to be impossible, who consider us human beings to be so special that we are the only sentient beings in our universe, or at least the only ones in this area of our galaxy. This is known scientifically as the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Personally, though, I’m not nearly as anthropocentric as most people are, and I assume that there is some other explanation for the silentium universi (“silence of the universe”) that is closer to the truth.
     Interestingly, some theorists theorize that intelligent, technologically-oriented races inevitably arrive at their own Technological Singularity within a relatively short time after they start producing long-distance signs of life such as radio signals—causing them to go completely off the scale as far as we’re concerned. Assuming that they do communicate by sending signals, we would be as unlikely to be aware of those signals as a beetle would be aware of all the cell phone conversations passing through its own body. The Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox succinctly explains it like this: 
Another thought is that technological civilizations invariably experience a technological singularity and attain a post-biological character. Hypothetical civilizations of this sort may have advanced drastically enough to render communication impossible.        
Another freakish possibility, mentioned in the same article, is this: 
It has been suggested that some advanced beings may divest themselves of physical form, create massive artificial virtual environments, transfer themselves into these environments through mind uploading, and exist totally within virtual worlds, ignoring the external physical universe.
One theory is that, like humans, other intelligent, technologically advanced species are more interested in watching entertainment programs on TV than in contacting races beyond their own world. There are many other interesting hypotheses for explaining the situation, including the idea of an interstellar superpredator that wipes out all potential rivals, and of course the notion that we are deliberately isolated, like animals in a zoo. But we needn’t go into all that here.
     Some may wonder why an ostensibly Buddhist blog would bother to discuss artificial intelligence, the Technological Singularity, the impending Transhuman Age, etc. Why not just translate suttas and discuss meditation techniques, right? Well, one pervasive theme of this blog is that, if one lives a Dharma-oriented life, then everything is Dharma-oriented. Everything is Dharma. Watching a dog lick its balls can be a genuinely dharmic experience, and may result in actual insight. It’s all grist for the mill. Besides, as I insinuated towards the beginning, if and when it does happen, the Technological Singularity is very likely to be the biggest, most dramatic event in the entire history of the human race. So it’s good for everyone, Buddhists included, to be aware of it. And, last but not least, it’s one hell of a meditation on impermanence. Modern ways are very, very impermanent. One consolation for me is that whatever happens will necessarily be in accordance with our own karma, and so will be just.

(I included it in a previous post, but I may as well include it again here—for the article by Tim Urban that got this whole thing started for me, click this.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Three Animal Tales

Maung Nee and Mee Nee: A Love Story

     I have considered writing this “fable” for many years. The moral is so obvious and so Buddhist that it should be unnecessary for me even to explain it. You should be able easily to figure it out for yourself. (A gratuitous hint: Human beings and chickens are not so different in certain ways.)
     Before I was ordained as a monk at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California, somebody dropped off a cardboard box containing seven young roosters. Apparently whoever it was had hatched some eggs or bought some straight run chicks in order to get some laying hens and didn’t want to slaughter the extraneous males, so they dumped them at the monastery. By the time I came there for a “self retreat” and to investigate whether or not I should be a member of the Sangha there, the number of roosters had decreased to five. I remember the crowing of the roosters greatly troubled my very fragile concentration in those days. Roosters always want to have the last word, so if one of them crowed it started a chain reaction of rooster noise. The Burmese, of course, hardly noticed, since they rather enjoy noise anyway; but as a fussy American it bothered me. 
     Fortunately for me but unfortunately for some roosters, by the time of my biggest trip to Boulder Creek, the one leading to my ordination, there were only two left: a large, fat, whitish rooster named Maung Pyu Gyi, or “Big Mister White,” and a wiry, one-eyed red rooster called Maung Nee, or “Mister Red.” (The Burmese tend not to be especially imaginative when it comes to naming animals.) Maung Nee very probably lost his eye in a battle with one of his brothers, and he and Maung Pyu Gyi were not only colleagues and companions, but archenemies who would occasionally attempt to murder each other. I remember one time Maung Pyu Gyi was rescued from a losing battle with Maung Nee and was brought inside the main monastery building in a state of shock and kept in the laundry room till he recovered. 
     Their secret to survival was that every evening they would walk across the road and fly up into a tall tree to spend the night; and every morning they would fly down, recross the road, and hang out around the monastery, with kitchen attendants scattering uncooked rice on the ground to supplement their found diet of bugs, seeds, and whatever else they could scratch up. This nightly tree maneuver was pretty much crucial to their existence, as there were two really savage dobermans in the neighborhood who would occasionally go on what were basically killing sprees, usually at night. Some kind of animal control lady came once and asked us if we were having any trouble with the dogs, as there had been reports of them “eating” neighborhood cats. So most if not all of the deceased five roosters were probably victims of these dogs, although a raccoon or some such may have picked off one or two of them.
     Anyway, a Burmese monk named U Pannajota adopted Maung Pyu Gyi, the big white one, as his pet. Sometimes I would come up to the back entrance of the monastery and find old U Pannojota sitting in his chair on the back porch, smoking a cigar and holding the chicken in his lap, meditatively stroking his back. He gave Maung Pyu Gyi lots of cookies and other junk food also, causing at least one of the monks to caution U Pannojota that making the rooster fat and lazy was probably going to shorten his lifespan, especially if the dobermans showed up again. It turned out to be a prophetic warning, as not long afterwards Maung Pyu Gyi became too lazy to walk across the road, and began roosting on a low branch near the parking lot. Shortly after this the dogs showed up early in the morning and waited for him to come down off his branch. He apparently tried, stupidly, to outrun them, and we found his remains not far from the tree. I found one of his metallic greenish-black tail feathers and gave it to ven. U Pannojota as a memento.
     Thus old one-eyed Maung Nee was the sole survivor. But even though Maung Pyu Gyi had been his chief rival and archenemy who had tried to kill him many times, Maung Nee seemed to grow depressed without him. He rarely crowed, and pretty much just moped around, showing little interest even in food. Not so different from some humans I have known, who love their enemies in a way, because they’re bored stiff if they’re not in the midst of a battle.
     But then it seemed that life rewarded Maung Nee for his vigilance and survival skills. A Chinese fortune teller informed a man that he needed good karma, and that he should rescue a chicken from a slaughterhouse and free it at the monastery, and so that’s what the guy did. One day he came with a plump little Rhode Island Red hen which, before I got a chance to name her something interesting, was promptly named by the Burmese monks Mee Nee, or Little Miss Red. 
     Mee Nee was almost totally innocent of survival skills. She may have lived in a cage or warehouse or some such most of her life, and wouldn’t even fly up to perch on something at night; she’d just crouch on the ground, a sitting chicken if a predator ever showed up. So I took a wooden packing crate that a large Buddha statue had come in and converted it into a little chicken coop for her, with a nest box, a perch, and a screen door. (U Pannajota was very impressed by this, and enthusiastically told me that as a result of my merit I would never be without shelter.) We had an attendant named Ravi in those days who every morning would let Mee Nee out of her little coop, and every evening would pick her up off the ground, put her back inside, and close the door. She never bothered to enter it herself for the night, although she did start using the nest box inside for laying eggs.
     At first Maung Nee mostly ignored her, and didn’t seem to like her all that much. She was pretty much just an intruder on his territory. But before long nature started taking its course and he became quite attached to her. They became quite an “item” in fact, and it was touching to see old one-eyed Maung Nee softly calling to his female companion when he found something good to eat. Before very long, because she wouldn’t follow him across the road at night, he started roosting on a low piling, like a fence post, not far from her coop, in order to be near her.
     At this time a Burmese family appeared at the monastery, intending for their young son to be ordained as a novice for one week. They would offer the food during this time, so Ravi got a week off. On Ravi’s first day away I wondered if he had told the Burmese family about putting the hen into her coop at night.
     That very same night, long after dark, I was sitting in my little cabin in the woods behind the monastery, and I heard a crashing sound in the bushes, then something big and fast running over the little platform in front of the cabin, dragging a chain. A moment or two later I heard another; obviously the two wild dobermans had gotten loose again. So again I wondered if anyone had put Mee Nee into her coop. But it was late at night, and it was dark, and I figured the dogs were much faster than me anyway, so I didn’t bother to grab a flashlight and set out to the front of the monastery to check on the chicken. 
     As it turned out, nobody put Mee Nee into her coop for the night, and so it was the very first night, the only night, that she and Maung Nee slept together. They perched side by side on the low pilings where Maung Nee had started spending the night in order to be near his girl. The next morning one of them was found dead in the yard, and the other one was never seen again. 

My Doppelgänger

     When I was a young man, before my ordination as a monk, I had a beautiful, intelligent, and passionate girlfriend. To this day she may be the closest I’ve come in this life to having a biological mate. The reason I mention her here is that sometimes, back in the old days, I half-seriously considered myself to be her brother’s doppelgänger. So I suppose I should explain what a doppelgänger is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term. 
     The doppelgänger is a literary device in which a character serves as a kind of reflection of another, generally more important, character. For example in Dostoyevski’s classic novel Crime and Punishment Sonia the prostitute and Svidrigaylov the dissipated gambler are both doppelgängers of the protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Sonia, who ironically is the most Christlike character in the story, represents what Raskolnikov could become if he follows his heart, and his Christian religion; and Svidrigaylov represents what he could become if he follows his head, and his more or less Nietzschean philosophy. Or, to give a more obvious example from a modern movie, Tyler Durden is clearly a doppelgänger of the nameless protagonist in the movie Fight Club.
     So, getting back to my passionate girlfriend’s elder brother, I (half-seriously) considered myself to represent what he could become if he were less of a realist. He was always the main character, mind you, and I was just the doppelgänger, the ghost double. It wasn’t until several years later, after I had become a monk and moved to Burma, that I met my own doppelgänger.
     (Before continuing with the tale, a brief metaphysical discussion/digression may be in order. Assuming that a few basic teachings of Dharma are true, such as karma being a mental state and mind being the forerunner of all things, then it could be said that everybody is a doppelgänger of the protagonist, that is, of the person who is perceiving them. Everybody that we meet may be said to be a reflection of ourselves, because even if we are not totally creating them from scratch, still our perceptions of them are our own creation, and all we know of them is our perceptions. So in that sense everyone I’ve ever met has been my doppelgänger, and I am one of yours. But lets set such radical metaphysics aside for the time being and use the term “doppelgänger” in the more literary and orthodox sense. And in that sense, I met my doppelgänger at a monastery in central Myanmar.)
     I was searching in the area of the city of Pyinmana for a convenient place to spend the rains retreat, in approximately the same area where the new national capital of Nay Pyi Daw is today; this was before the area was cleared with huge bulldozers for the sake of the new capital. A Burmese gentleman was showing me a few places that might be suitable, including a little cave called Obo Goo, and after checking out the cave we stopped at a nearby monastery for a rest. 
     At the front yard of the monastery, chained to a tree, was a monkey. He had one end of the chain around his waist, with about 15 feet of slack, and with the other end secured to the tree. The monkey didn’t have a lot of space for moving around, and the dogs, chickens, and other beings at the monastery had learned to avoid that particular tree in order to avoid being harassed by a bored monkey, so the monkey had relatively little to do to amuse himself. So long as there was nobody nearby to pester, he sought entertainment mainly in two ways. First, he had somehow acquired a piece of transparent red plastic, which was his treasure; and he would sit on a low branch of the tree holding the plastic up to his eyes and looking through it, apparently fascinated by how the world became red and distorted when he did this. He looked through the piece of plastic again and again. And secondly, being a monkey, he naturally entertained himself by repeatedly attending to his own pee-pee. Otherwise he kept on the alert for anyone coming within range of his chain, so that he could pester them. 
     After drinking some water and conversing with one of the monks it was time to continue on our way, and on the way out we passed the tree. When I came within range the monkey immediately scampered down out of the tree and climbed up my body, so that we were eye to eye, our faces just inches apart. Then, to the utter astonishment of my Burmese guide, the monkey kissed me on the cheek—he really kissed me. The Burmese man just stood there staring, and exclaimed, “It kissed your cheek!” After this, the monkey climbed back down, and then ventured under my lower robe; but having a live, unpredictable monkey under my kilt was rather too much, and I gave him a swat with my fan. He came scrambling out, and within two or three more steps I was out of range of his chain. I never saw him again, although I think of him often.  
     So of course the obvious question is, Why was he my doppelgänger? First of all there was some kind of instant connection between us, sort of a mutual recognition of a kindred spirit, but just resonating harmoniously is not sufficient to make him a reflection of myself. It’s the kindred spirit part that produces doppelgängers. 
     That monkey was not exactly the same as me, obviously, but he was similar to me in certain ways which could be seen as symbolic. He was a symbolic me. I can say that because my two main fascinations in life, my two main sources of personal entertainment, are just more advanced versions of what that monkey sitting on his branch pursued. My fascinating, distorting lens through which I look at the world is philosophy. It makes the world seem very different and paradoxical and interesting, and it is one of the great loves of my life. As for the other deep source of entertainment, well, we needn’t go into details. It is true, though, that I have a rather dumbbell-shaped spirit: Well developed at the extremes (the metaphysical end and the libidinous end), with not a whole lot of development in between. A lustful philosopher seeking to understand Reality while adoring the female form. Plus pestering people sometimes if they come near me.
     Anyway, this one doesn’t really have a moral, unless it’s: Human beings and monkeys are not so different in certain ways. In fact we’re damn similar, belonging to the same order of life.

The Mouse War

     This story also may not have a moral, or rather it may have a negative one, an antimoral. I’m not sure what to make of this one.
     My cave at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery was a deluxe one, with four rooms and a long corridor in which I could do walking meditation. That corridor was particularly useful, as walking meditation in the blazing sunshine was not much of an option, and at night there was greater danger of stepping on snakes or other things one shouldn’t step on, especially if there was no moon to see them by. Another cave luxury that I had engineered myself was a screen door for the entrance, in addition to the wooden double door that was there when I arrived: the screen door was fitted with chicken wire with meshes just big enough that I could insert the tip of my forefinger; and although it didn’t keep out mosquitoes, it did help to keep out bats, rats, humans, and snakes. Before the screen door was installed I had to close the wooden door before dawn every morning to prevent bats from spending the day with me inside. Getting a bat (ugly, creepy-looking, and smelly) to leave the cave after dawn was very difficult, and having a bat swoop at my head while I was doing walking meditation in the corridor could take about a week off my life each time it happened—difficult to get used to it. I couldn’t really use fly screen to keep out the mosquitoes as the cave was already stuffy as it was, with no cross ventilation; but there are relatively few mosquitoes up on the hillside of the cave anyway, so chicken wire was good enough. 
     It turned out, to my surprise, that despite the relatively small size of the meshes on the door, mice could still get inside the cave, and I had an average of one mouse move in with me every year or so, five altogether, if I remember aright. They were mice just away from their mothers to seek their fortune in life; a full-grown mouse could not squeeze through the meshes. 
     I had an excellent live rat trap imported from America, but the bars were far enough apart that they would hardly slow down a small mouse, so it was useless for catching them. So I got a Burmese-made live mouse trap with bars only about a quarter of an inch apart. The first time I saw a mouse escape from it I literally could not believe my own eyes: I stood there exclaiming, “That’s not possible!” How a mouse could squeeze itself through such a tiny space still amazes me. Anyway, I found that the mouse trap also was not an efficient means of removing mice from the cave. 
     My first uninvited mouse was almost fearless, and almost friendly, as it would crawl on my head and body at night when I was sleeping, or trying to sleep. Its own fearlessness defeated it, however: I saved some peanuts and a cookie from my morning meal and put them into a little clay pot near my bed, and then proceeded to read a book. The fearless little mouse climbed right in, whereupon I tossed a book over it as a lid, and there it was. It worked like a charm, although the mouse chewed through several pages of a Pali text before I finally released him down near the congregation hall at the bottom of the hill. 
     Another mouse wound up catching itself: one night, long after I had given up trying to catch it, I heard crackling plastic in a storage room. I went in to investigate and found a little mouse looking up at me from the bottom of a stiff plastic bag it had dropped into. (When trying to be rid of them I tended to “dehumanize” them a bit, considering them to be little more than pests, although when one was looking up at me and at my mercy I couldn’t help but consider it to be a beautiful, miraculous little being.) I grabbed the bag and hurried down the hill before it could chew its way through the plastic. 
     Another one was caught due to some quick strategizing on my part: I heard the trap door to the ineffectual mouse trap close, and immediately rushed to it, picked it up, and began shaking it vigorously, expecting that a mouse tumbling end over end would be too disoriented to find its way out between the bars. In my haste I hurried out of the cave in the hot, humid darkness and scrambled down the hill shaking the cage as I went, not bothering even to put on my clothes. I made it all the way down to the lower monastery as naked as the proverbial jay bird…although my colleague old U Nandiya was asleep, and nobody noticed. Halfway down the hill the tumbling mouse lost consciousness, causing me suddenly to feel sorry for it, and to hope I hadn’t killed it; but it quickly regained consciousness, and I quickly resumed shaking the cage until it fainted again.
     One mouse proved so difficult to evict that I just put up with it. It was a noisy and destructive one, too, and was continually gnawing on my stuff—but then again I didn’t own anything very valuable in those days. I figured it would eventually get too big to fit through the meshes of the screen door, which is what eventually happened, although the mouse was inside the cave when it reached the critical size, and apparently starved to death. I found its little body on the floor one day.
     But there was one mouse, I think it was the last one, that was bothering me more than most, and I resolved to be rid of it, somehow or other. So I tried the mouse trap which had actually worked with a total of one mouse in the past, and had failed with all the others. I kept a piece of French toast (Burmese mice and rats really like it) as bait, and the mouse went right in; but after hearing the trap door close, rushing to it, picking it up, and heading for the door, the mouse did its escape trick and squeezed through the bars before I could take more than two or three steps with it. I gave up in disgust, put the trap outside, and threw the French toast into the gully. 
     A little later I went outside to pee and found, to my surprise, the mouse inside the now unbaited trap. I grabbed it and headed for the bottom of the hill, but, again, after about two steps the mouse popped through the bars and disappeared into the bushes. But at least now I knew that the mouse was outside the cave. I went back inside and closed the double wooden door to prevent the mouse from getting back in. 
     This caused the cave to become uncomfortably stuffy, or rather even more uncomfortably stuffy than usual at that time of year, but I figured it was worth it to be rid of the mouse. I supposed that if it couldn’t get back in and spent the night elsewhere it might give up on my place. But while reading my book I could hear the mouse crawling on and through the chicken wire mesh in the window over the door. I rushed to the door, chased the mouse back out, and closed the shutters to the window also. Now the only air getting into the cave was through some little holes in the wooden doors plus a small ventilation hole over the window which I dearly hoped the mouse wouldn’t find. The cave was so stuffy at this point that I couldn’t sleep on my bed, but had to sleep on the floor directly below the closed window and the air holes. 
     I lay there in the darkness on the concrete floor, sweating and cursing my own perverse stupidity. I knew that there was no way I would sleep like this until that mouse had grown too large to fit through the screen. I was going through this absurd ordeal just to keep that mouse outside for a single night—just to score one lousy point against a mouse. I knew it was stupid, perverse stubbornness…but that’s the way I can get sometimes. 
     It is part of my nature, or my natural perversity, that every once in awhile I get the idea to do something, maybe something arbitrary and completely trivial, and the world does not cooperate. Usually it is a conscious being that doesn’t cooperate with my plans. So I become firmer and try harder…and the other being still does not cooperate. I become more and more determined, until eventually I find myself a wild-eyed, ridiculously determined fanatic declaring all-out war in my mission to get my way. I knew it was stupid, as I lay there sweltering on the concrete, but by gawd I was at least going to show that mouse that I was the boss and that I would have my way, at least for one damn night. Sometimes I would feel some grim satisfaction as all through the night the mouse crawled on the closed window and door, trying to get back inside. Fortunately it didn’t find the last remaining ventilation hole. I didn’t get much sleep that night, and knew full well that I wasn’t about to take up that sleeping plan for another week, but I survived, and the mouse stayed outside. I scored the point.
     The next day, through karmic coincidence, I decided to make a fire and burn garbage. (When I would go for alms in the village I would sometimes get packaged food, so I would occasionally burn all the plastic and paper.) There was a basket in which I kept wood shavings for tinder; and when I lifted the lid to get some fire starter, who dived for cover under the shavings but the enemy mouse himself—he had settled on the shavings basket for his temporary shelter, pending his return to the cave. I grabbed the basket and hurried down the hill as fast as I could manage, and the mouse, feeling itself to be safe in a large basket full of shavings, didn’t attempt to bail out. I went all the way to the river before stopping and dumping the contents of the basket onto the ground. As I was methodically returning the shavings to the basket, handful by handful, the mouse erupted from the pile and took off, disappearing into the underbrush. 
     So here’s the thing, here’s the antimoral: Sometimes behaving with absolute fanatical stubbornness actually works! If as a rule it just didn’t work, then it would be much easier to cure oneself of such stupidity. But what does one do when the stupidity actually works? Because of that night of vehemently insisting upon teaching a mouse a lesson I really managed to be rid of it, and wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been such an ass. 
     If there is a positive moral to this tale, I suppose it would be that unflinching determination to achieve one’s goal may, sometimes, be useful, especially in Dharma. As the Pali text goes, it’s better to die in battle than to live in defeat. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What Is Belief

     If a hundred million people believe something stupid—it’s still something stupid.  —Anatole France

     And what is truth, Pilate said.  —the Bible

     Once when I was living in a remote forest area, where almost all my gear was carried twenty miles through deep forest in my bowl or in a shoulder bag, I allowed myself the luxury, in addition to a few tiny notebooks containing Buddhist texts, of two paperbacks that I had acquired at bookstores in Rangoon: One was Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the other was Hume on Human Nature and the Understanding, a collection of writings by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Not being a fundamentalist Christian, I admit that Milton didn’t impress me all that much (although the demons are interesting, and the scene towards the end where Eve is crying and offering to take all the blame for eating the fruit is very moving); but Hume really impressed me, and he became one of my favorite Western philosophers, almost a hero.
     One thing I really admire about Hume is that he was such a damn radical. He questioned axioms that virtually everyone took for granted without examination, and which most people still take for granted, and that includes modern scientists. He pointed out that reason is a kind of animal instinct in humans, and that it is based upon irrationality—a point that made him an empiricist rather than a rationalist. He inspired Immanuel Kant, among others, and was a fundamental contributor to a kind of Copernican revolution in Western thought (in large part by “awakening” Kant). He has significantly influenced modern philosophers of science; and Bertrand Russell, a great advocate of scientific empiricism, appears to have been veritably haunted by Hume’s ghost: Russell’s book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits may as well have been entitled What Can We Do about the David Hume Problem? Hume was a radical skeptic who attacked virtually all beliefs with fire and sword. He is considered by many to be the most important philosopher to write in the English language.
     One of the people who inspired Hume was a strange fellow named Nicolas Malebranche, a quasi-Cartesian Christian philosopher of 17th-century France who endorsed an almost Islamic point of view called occasionalism. According to Malebranche (and to Muslims), God is omnipotent not only to the extent of being infinitely powerful but to the extreme of possessing all power whatsoever. Thus such apparent physical phenomena as inertia or motive force are an illusion. A car smashing through a fence, for example, has no more physical momentum to it than the image of a car smashing through a fence projected on a movie screen. God does absolutely everything, and only creates the appearance or seeming of physical force. Malebranche’s occasionalism rendered physical matter itself practically redundant, so the devout Anglican Christian philosopher George Berkeley took it one step further and denied the existence of physical matter altogether. Malebranche inspired Hume differently: Hume took Malebranche’s arguments against the existence of physical force (which after all cannot really be demonstrated as false even today) as a sign that causation itself cannot really be known. All we can do is see B following A again and again and then infer or assume that A is the cause of B. But we really can’t know it. I may as well add that Hume’s arguments against the knowability of causation deals a serious kick in the head to much of Buddhist philosophy also…but we needn’t get into that. Hume also endorsed a kind of anattā, i.e. the observation that who we think we are is really just an accumulation of mental states, with no “self” holding them all together. “Self” is merely a term conveniently superimposed upon this nebulous and constantly changing accumulation. 
     Anyway, the series of philosophical arguments in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature and also in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding begin with his division of mental states into “impressions” and “ideas.” In his Inquiry he defines them as follows: 
By the term “impression,” then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions of which we are conscious when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned. 
The average Westerner nowadays would probably be of the opinion that Hume’s “impressions” refer to sensory data received via our physical sense organs, while “ideas” are memory, reason, and imagination, mere thought. But this would be much too foolhardy of an assumption for a radical skeptic like Hume. Unlike modern Scientism which starts with what is uncertain (a physical external world) and tries to base certainty upon that, Hume and many other pre-Brave New World philosophers tried to start with what is certain—i.e. the experience of consciousness itself, and to build upon that foundation. So he simply differentiates these two main categories of mental phenomena and moves on.
     The main reason I mention Hume’s division of mental phenomena is that later on in that book I brought into the woods with me, he attempts a similar definition of belief. He asks the question, What is Belief?
[Human imagination] can feign a train of events with all the appearance of reality, ascribe to them a particular time and place, conceive them as existent, and paint them out to itself with every circumstance that belongs to any historical fact which it believes with the greatest certainty. Wherein, therefore, consists the difference between such a fiction and belief? It lies not merely in any peculiar idea which is annexed to such a conception as commands our assent, and which is wanting to every known fiction. For as the mind has authority over all its ideas, it could voluntarily annex this particular idea to any fiction, and consequently be able to believe whatever it pleases, contrary to what we find by daily experience. We can, in our conception, join the head of a man to the body of a horse, but it is not in our power to believe that such an animal has ever really existed. 
It follows, therefore, that the difference between fiction and belief lies in some sentiment or feeling which is annexed to the latter, not to the former, and which depends not on the will, nor can be demanded at pleasure. It must be excited by nature like all other sentiments and must rise from the particular situation in which the mind is placed at any particular juncture. Whenever any object is presented to the memory or senses, it immediately, by force of custom, carries the imagination to conceive that object which is usually conjoined to it; and this conception is attended with a feeling or sentiment different from the loose reveries of the fancy. In this consists the whole nature of belief. For as there is no matter of fact which we believe so firmly that we cannot conceive the contrary, there would be no difference between the conception assented to and that which is rejected were it not for some sentiment which distinguishes the one from the other. If I see a billiard ball moving toward another on a smooth table, I can easily conceive it to stop upon contact. This conception implies no contradiction, but still it feels very differently from that conception by which I represent to myself the impulse and the communication of motion from one ball to another. 
Were we to attempt a definition of this sentiment, we should, perhaps, find it a very difficult, if not an impossible, task; in the same manner as if we should endeavor to define the feeling of cold, or passion of anger, to a creature who never had any experience of these sentiments. Belief is the true and proper name of this feeling, and no one is ever at a loss to know the meaning of that term, because every man is every moment conscious of the sentiment represented by it. It may not, however, be improper to attempt a description of this sentiment, in hopes we may by that means arrive at some analogies which may afford a more perfect explication of it. I say that belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain. [The emphasis on the last sentence is mine.] 
The trouble is that the description of “belief” that he arrives at is, as you may have noticed, essentially the same as his earlier description or definition of “impression.” Both of them are explained as “livelier,” more vivid ideas or modes of thought than mere imagination. Consequently I was not satisfied with his explanation, and began trying to work it out for myself.
     So although I greatly admire David Hume, to the extent that he is more or less of an intellectual hero for me, I don’t always agree with him. Genius and radical that he was, he was also, after all, like everyone else before or since, a product of his culture. For example, although he was a trailblazer with his idea that human intellect is “the slave of the passions,” to animal instinct, and was a radical skeptic besides, he belonged to an age, and to an intellectual movement—the so-called Enlightenment—that glorified the powers of the intellect to the extent of devaluing all else. A few decades after Hume this resulted in the antithetical Romantic Era, which attempted to restore some balance to Western civilization, but largely failed. Also, as an aside, I will observe that Hume’s behavior was not always particularly heroic from a philosophical point of view. Part of his trouble was that he was of noble ancestry and a member of the social elite, the beau monde, and openly to admit that he was not a Christian would have been social and professional suicide. As it was, he was turned down for two professorships on account of his atheism and impiety. While superficially pretending to be a Christian he pretty obviously despised the religion and wasted few opportunities to bash Christianity underhandedly, through the back door, so to speak. He did this partly by putting his refutations in the mouths of other people; and by attacking Roman Catholicism in particular, which was a politically correct thing to do in Great Britain in his day; and his most blatant attacks on Christianity were not published till after his death. So Hume stooped and knuckled under to political correctness hysteria. Compare this with the more outrageously heroic Benedict Spinoza, who brazenly published his heretical views in the face of curses, excommunication, and at least one murder attempt, and famously turned down a professorship at Heidelberg University because he felt such a high-profile position would hamper his freedom of thought and expression.
     Before I stop meandering and jump right to my understanding of belief (which may not surprise people who have read my earlier essays anyway), I may as well give the common-sense definition. The average person, if asked What is Belief, would probably answer with something like, “Belief is considering something to be true.” That pretty much hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it. Here are the definitions given by the New Oxford American Dictionary: 

1 an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists: his belief in the value of hard work | a belief that solitude nourishes creativity. 
• something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction: contrary to popular belief, Aramaic is a living language | we're prepared to fight for our beliefs. 
• a religious conviction: Christian beliefs | I'm afraid to say belief has gone | local beliefs and customs. 
2 (belief in) trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something: a belief in democratic politics | I've still got belief in myself.

At a superficial level this is good enough. But it still doesn’t explain what Hume couldn’t explain, and that is the subjective essence of belief. And it would be nice to know, if we want to understand ourselves, what exactly it is that we are experiencing when we believe something, especially considering that we’re believing something pretty much all the time. So, what does this acceptance of truth consist of? Is it a deliberate act of intellection, an instinctual sentiment, direct contact with truth, an automatic brain reflex, a chimera? If we look at the question more deeply, the dictionary just replaces one ambiguous word with a larger number of ambiguous words. What, for example, would be the simplest possible element of belief? Modern physics is really keen on this approach—seeking the fundamental particles of things. So what would be the elemental credibility-tron? That is one approach to the question. 
     Also (before I stop this meandering) I will mention that nowadays I have the privilege of living with an intelligent Burmese Abhidhamma scholar, venerable Garudhamma, and I have taken the liberty of questioning him on the subject of how Abhidhamma explains the phenomenon of belief. So I will try to explain the orthodox Theravadin view of belief as well as I can understand it based on ven. Garudhamma’s explanations and some desultory searches through Dr. Mehm Tin Mon’s The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma.
     First off, my venerable colleague informed me that in Abhidhamma belief is called adhimokkha with regard to ordinary conventional truth, and saddhā (“faith”) with regard to Dhamma or ultimate truth. That was the gist of my first interrogation of him. So I looked up adhimokkha and found that it generally means something like decision or determination; and furthermore it is rare in the Suttas, with the only reference I could locate being a passing use of the word in M111, the Anupada Sutta. In Abhidhamma it is called a pakiṇṇaka cetasika or “miscellaneous mental state” which is found not in all states of mind, but in most of them—all that are not mere bare sensation or are not muddled by indecision. By this explanation belief would be essentially the decisive focusing of one’s attention on a perception. During a later interview ven. Garudhamma stated that adhimokkha isn’t exactly the same as belief, but apparently it is as close to it as exists in Abhidhamma philosophy with regard to mere worldly, relative truths like 1+1=2 or Abraham Lincoln was 16th president of the United States. Considering that the term is so rare in the Suttas, I suppose some other word is used therein to account for belief. Some good candidates would be diṭṭhi or “view,” diṭṭhigata or “resort to view,” and simply saññā, “perception.” In the Abhidhamma literature saññā has a much narrower, more technical meaning, although it does appear to be used much more loosely in the Suttas. Also, sometimes even dhamma can mean “belief,” especially if it is philosophical or religious belief.
     Saddhā or faith, on the other hand, applies only to ultimate truth (and consequently only to the teachings of Abhidhamma, with all that disagrees with same being only conventional truth and “Wrong View”—yellow warning lights should be flashing now), and also does not exactly mean “belief.” Furthermore, adhimokkha accompanies this kind of belief also, the belief of “true faith.” Saddhā is compared in the Abhidhamma literature to a water purifying gem: It clarifies the mind, dispelling defilements so that ultimate truth may be seen and appreciated. Interestingly, this kind of “belief” coexists even with direct knowledge, so that belief and real knowledge are simultaneous, though not exactly the same. Knowledge does not render belief or faith redundant, which for me is counterintuitive. Even an enlightened being directly experiencing Nibbāna experiences it with faith accompanying, supposedly.
     But all in all there there appears to be no single mental state in the Abhidhammic universe that can be equated with Hume’s sentiment of belief. There is no credibility-tron. At most it is interpreted as a compound of mental states, for example adhimokkha plus diṭṭhi for non-dhammic perceptions and adhimokkha plus saddhā plus paññā (wisdom) for belief in what is deeply and actually true (with several other mental factors contributing to the mental stew). And so, because belief consists of a nebulous accumulation of contributing mental states and can be broken down further into smaller parts, from an Abhidhammic point of view it would not really exist at all, but be only an example of sammuti-sacca, “conventional truth.” We just believe that belief exists. 
     It is interesting, though, that Abhidhamma does affirm that believing what is true, ultimately true, is fundamentally, constitutionally different from believing what is false. Somehow the universe is constructed in such a way that the mind inherently and necessarily differentiates objective truth from objective falsehood. This would seem to be denied by actual experience, however, especially since most of the wisest human beings in this world have not been Abhidhamma scholars. If only Abhidhamma scholars, or those who intuitively appreciate Abhidhamma without having to study it, have Right View……I don’t even want to go there.
     It is also interesting that, according to my venerable informant, Abhidhamma does not bother to differentiate mere conventional distinctions such as those mentioned by Hume. To believe that a human being has a human head, and merely to imagine a human being with a horse’s head involves essentially the same mental states, contradicting Hume, or at least considering Hume’s supposition of some fundamental difference to be negligible. Also, whether Joe Schmoe believes himself to be Joe Schmoe or Jesus Christ, according to Abhidhamma essentially the same types of mental state are involved. Abhidhamma does not bother to stoop to anything below the level of ultimate truth—or at least what it considers to be ultimate truth. Abhidhamma may be very helpful for some; but considering that I don’t consider mere belief to have anything to do with ultimate truth anyhow, I do not find it particularly helpful in an understanding of what belief consists of. Unless, that is, we want to interpret Abhidhamma to mean that belief is little or nothing more than decisively focusing upon a certain perception. I would say that this wouldn’t be far from the mark, especially since, as I’ve already mentioned, the Suttas themselves have the word saññā, “perception,” appearing as though it means “belief.” 
     My hypothetical working definition of belief in its simplest state, of a credibility-tron, would be simply an attribution of meaning. This also would serve as my hypothetical working definition of perception. It could also serve as my definition of Samsara, and of delusion (moha). So in my hypothetical scheme of things belief (=delusion) and true knowledge cannot coexist unless one of them is somehow neutralized.
     Before dealing with the possibly counterintuitive idea that belief is, in its simplest form, none other than significance or meaning, I suppose I should take care of the perception, Samsara, and delusion issues, so that they do not get left behind as messy loose ends. Perception should be easiest. 
     It should be fairly clear that in order to perceive something we must focus upon it to some degree and differentiate it from its background, which already, necessarily, attributes enough significance to the thing, whatever it is, for it to become a “this” or a “that.” As the Buddhist logician ven. Dharmottara wrote long ago, “Pure sensation without any perceptual judgement is as though it did not exist at all.” Even “this” is a very elementary attribution of meaning: it is acknowledging whatever it is as an existent something. As far as I understand Abhidhamma I think it also would agree thus far; saññā is responsible for our ability to recognize objects through memory, language, and generalization. 
     This is where delusion comes into the picture. The attribution of meaning begins with a separation of what is originally unseparated, a differentiation of what is undifferentiated, a reification of multiplicity. (Even this first step is extremely difficult for most people to follow, since they literally cannot conceive of anything other than human conception, and so assume that reality is as the human mind perceives it—at least to the extent of a plurality of “things” occupying space and time. But this is an artifact of human psychology.) 
     At the very least, in order to perceive something one must separate out from the universe some generic “this” standing out against everything else. In a way it is still extremely specific, as it is still a unique “this,” in a sense, but its “somethingness” itself is at the same time the most extreme of generalities, the broadest of all categories. Everything, when it becomes an object of perception, assumes some form of “this.” And in order for the object to become more meaningful than just “this,” it must be fitted into more discriminative, more meaningful categories. Thus perception necessarily involves generalizations and other symbols, which leads to another aspect of delusion: symbolism, and the failure to distinguish the symbols from what they attempt to represent. The symbol 0 is very different from what “zero” represents, as is the idea “a sheep” from the fleecy white being grazing in the meadow over yonder. Even the fleecy white being that we see is very different from what that “sheep” really is. For that matter, recognizing our friend Joe is also an example of generalization, since “Joe” is changing every moment, and the idea is simply a convenient handle for a recurring, vaguely associated accumulation of discernible qualities. It’s not the same Joe today that we met last week, yet for the sake of functioning in the world we assume him to be the very same Joe, and call him Joe accordingly. Joe does it himself even (unless he believes himself to be Jesus Christ). Without such generalization, with everything being absolutely specific and unique, we would be incapacitated; we would not recognize anything. But what we naturally, unthinkingly do is to confuse these convenient handles with reality itself, and that is delusion. Once reality is symbolized or generalized, it is no longer reality, but only a representation about reality. And as a general rule, people can’t tell the difference. We think we know when really we don’t know, and that is delusion. Or rather, the real knowledge of reality is there, but we don’t pay attention because we consider something else to be knowledge, and that is delusion.
     This is why perception is also Samsara. This whole world of illusion, of māya, is a mentally generated world of artificially differentiated symbols masquerading as reality. That’s what we’re stuck in. That is our unenlightenment, or at least one way of describing that unenlightenment. The Matrix has us. Enough said about Samsara. 
     So now we return to the possibly even more counterintuitive notion that perception itself is the same as belief. This would seem to contradict Hume even if it doesn’t necessarily contradict the Abhidhamma scholars. If belief is simply the attribution of significance, then why does imagining a billiard ball hitting another ball and sticking feel obviously different from realistically expecting that ball to smack into the other ball and send it rolling? It may be best to start by reexamining the simplest of beliefs, the credibility-tron.
     Even the most primitive attribution of significance to whatever we perceive requires, one may say, a leap of faith. When we differentiate a “something” we really already believe that we have before us a something—not a hypothesis to play with, but really something. Hypothetical or skeptical thinking is much more advanced than this; and at the very elemental and primitive level of the hypothetical credibility-tron there just is not sufficient complexity to allow for it. The elementary form of a perception is somewhat along the lines of “this has that significance” or rather “this is that”; so if we imagine a unicorn, and don’t believe in unicorns, even so we believe that “unicorn” has such and such significance. That much we consider implicitly to be true. We believe that a unicorn has such and such qualities (a single horn sprouting from its forehead, an otherwise close resemblance to a horse, usually a white one; a liking for medieval virgins, etc.), and it is only at a higher and more complex level, the level of comparing one set of perceptions with another, that we may classify unicorns as purely mythological, or whatever. Even a person who does not believe in unicorns might assert that it is more correct to suppose that a unicorn has one horn and not two. If the scope of our attention/perception is the “big picture” we may see unicorns as unreal (believe them to be unreal), but if we are watching a movie about a unicorn, or dreaming about riding one, the scope of our context is sufficiently reduced that, so long as we are absorbed in the story, we do not doubt the unicorn’s reality. Disbelief is much more sophisticated than belief, and comes from comparing the limited perception with a larger system. Belief is the rule, with disbelief (just another kind of belief, or meta-belief, tending in the opposite direction) being a rather sophisticated option for the more intelligent beings of this world. I doubt that a frog, for example, could positively disbelieve anything, or be hypothetical about something, much less play devil’s advocate. Whatever it perceives, it believes, if only very dimly and feebly. 
     The difference in “sentiment” that David Hume had in mind is of a higher order of perception than the humble credibility-tron. It has to do with the aforementioned big picture. At a more complex level than relatively isolated, almost meaningless images, as we may experience while drifting off to sleep, the kind of belief Hume was talking about involves the integration of perceptions with each other to form a “world view.” The more integrated the perception is with other perceptions, the stronger the feeling of harmony and “rightness.” Disbelief comes from an awareness of incongruity or disharmony between a given perception and the integrated system of perceptions that constitutes one’s view of the world. And Hume’s “loose reveries of the fancy” which bear little or no sentiment of conviction are simply detached ideas which one has not even attempted to integrate into the larger system of harmonious, or relatively harmonious, beliefs/perceptions. They are stray perceptions not fortified by connections with other perceptions. Belief, and perception, is by its very nature a relation; it is purely relative.
     So long as were are functioning at the level of perception we are functioning at the level of delusion, even if it is universally agreed-upon mass delusion; and thus it is what Buddhist philosophy calls “conventional truth” as opposed to ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is not symbolic, and cannot be perceived or apprehended by the intellect without distorting it into something other than ultimate truth. As the philosopher John Locke once wrote, “Knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas.” Or to be a little more blatant about it, in the words of the Chinese Zen philosopher Yen-kuan Ch’i-an, “Deliberate thinking and discursive understanding amount to nothing; they belong to the household of ghosts; they are like a lamp in the broad daylight; nothing shines out of them.” That last is a perpetually recurring theme in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.
     The human mind arises from what is literally an unthinkable Void; in Buddhist lingo this Void is called suññatā, Emptiness. The human mind does not arise from a scientifically-verifiable material world, because that scientifically-verifiable material world is itself a construction of human perception. In the past people created gods in their own physical image; nowadays we’re a little more sophisticated, yet we still create a universe in conformity with our own psychological image. We assume that the real world functions in accordance with human perception, and human belief. In the past it was assumed that the earth is at the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around it, which nowadays is acknowledged to be pretty silly. But we still assume that the universe functions in accordance with human (primate, ape) perception, which ultimately is just as silly, and damn near as primitive. We still consider human beings to be the axis of the universe. The apparent fact that we all agree on certain fundamentals is no guarantee that those fundamentals are representations of reality: it may be that we agree on so much merely due to our psychological similarity with each other. A being very alien to us psychologically might be sitting in the same room with us and perceive its surroundings very differently than we do—so much so that it might not be possible for it to be in the same room with us at all. We may conjure radically different worlds from the same unthinkable Void, which could include radically different axioms and laws, let alone different rooms.
     But still, we all have access to Ultimate Reality, which is this very same unthinkable Void. Reality must be unthinkable, because it cannot be symbolized without it being corrupted into gross unreality. (This is an ironic paradox: The only reality we can know, with absolute certainty, as opposed to mere inference and belief, is something that the intellect and the feelings cannot discern at all; perceptually it is mere nothingness.) That very same Void is the nucleus of any enlightened religion, or spiritual system, or philosophy. It is what religious historian Karen Armstrong has called “the transcendent element” which was seen by many sages, including Gotama Buddha, to be “crucial to the development of men and women as full human beings.” And modern humankind’s disdain for spirituality, even its attempts to deny or suppress it in favor of what makes sense intellectually, is about as insane as anything anyone could possibly do. It amounts to the denial and suppression of Reality, and a vehement insistence upon delusion. See the way of the world.

David Hume


Bacchus, a divine being, is represented by the heathen mythology as the inventor or dancing and the theatre. Plays were anciently even a part of public worship on the most solemn occasions, and often employed in times of pestilence, to appease the offended deities. But they have been zealously proscribed by the godly in later ages; and the play-house, according to a learned divine, is the porch of hell. 
     But in order to show more evidently, that it is possible for a religion to represent the divinity in still a more immoral and unamiable light than he was pictured by the ancients, we shall cite a long passage from an author of taste and imagination, who was surely no enemy to Christianity. It is the Chevalier Ramsay, a writer, who had so laudable an inclination to be orthodox, that his reason never found any difficulty, even in the doctrines which free-thinkers scruple the most, the trinity, incarnation, and satisfaction: His humanity alone, of which he seems to have had a great stock, rebelled against the doctrines of eternal reprobation and predestination. He expresses himself thus: ‘What strange ideas,’ says he, ‘would an Indian or a Chinese philosopher have of our holy religion, if they judged of the schemes given of it by our modern free-thinkers, and pharisaical doctors of all sects? According to the odious and too vulgar system of these incredulous scoffers and credulous scribblers, “The God of the Jews is a most cruel, unjust, partial, and fantastical being. He created, about 6000 years ago, a man and a woman, and placed them in a fine garden of Asia, of which there are no remains. This garden was furnished with all sorts of trees, fountains, and flowers. He allowed them the use of all the fruits of this beautiful garden, except one, that was planted in the midst thereof, and that had in it a secret virtue of preserving them in continual health and vigour of body and mind, of exalting their natural powers and making them wise. The devil entered into the body of a serpent, and solicited the first woman to eat of this forbidden fruit; she engaged her husband to do the same. To punish this slight curiosity and natural desire of life and knowledge, God not only threw our first parents out of paradise, but he condemned all their posterity to temporal misery, and the greatest part of them to eternal pains, though the souls of these innocent children have no more relation to that of Adam than to those of Nero and Mahomet; since, according to the scholastic drivellers, fabulists, and mythologists, all souls are created pure, and infused immediately into mortal bodies, so soon as the foetus is formed. To accomplish the barbarous, partial decree of predestination and reprobation, God abandoned all nations to darkness, idolatry, and superstition, without any saving knowledge or salutary graces; unless it was one particular nation, whom he chose as his peculiar people. This chosen nation was, however, the most stupid, ungrateful, rebellious, and perfidious of all nations. After God had thus kept the far greater part of all the human species, during near 4000 years, in a reprobate state, he changed all of a sudden, and took a fancy for other nations besides the Jews. Then he sent his only begotten Son to the world, under a human form, to appease his wrath, satisfy his vindictive justice, and die for the pardon of sin. Very few nations, however, have heard of this gospel; and all the rest, though left in invincible ignorance, are damned without exception, or any possibility of remission. The greatest part of those who have heard of it, have changed only some speculative notions about God, and some external forms of worship: For, in other aspects, the bulk of Christians have continued as corrupt as the rest of mankind in their morals; yea, so much the more perverse and criminal, that their lights were greater. Unless it be a very small select number, all other Christians, like the pagans, will be for ever damned; the great sacrifice offered up for them will become void and of no effect; God will take delight for ever, in their torments and blasphemies; and though he can, by one fiat change their hearts, yet they will remain for ever unconverted and unconvertible, because he will be for ever unappeasable and irreconcileable. It is true, that all this makes God odious, a hater of souls, rather than a lover of them; a cruel, vindictive tyrant, an impotent or a wrathful daemon, rather than an all-powerful, beneficent father of spirits: Yet all this is a mystery. He has secret reasons for his conduct, that are impenetrable; and though he appears unjust and barbarous, yet we must believe the contrary, because what is injustice, crime, cruelty, and the blackest malice in us, is in him justice, mercy, and sovereign goodness.” Thus the incredulous free-thinkers, the judaizing Christians, and the fatalistic doctors have disfigured and dishonoured the sublime mysteries of our holy faith; thus they have confounded the nature of good and evil; transformed the most monstrous passions into divine attributes, and surpassed the pagans in blasphemy, by ascribing to the eternal nature, as perfections, what makes the most horrid crimes amongst men. The grosser pagans contented themselves with divinizing lust, incest, and adultery; but the predestinarian doctors have divinized cruelty, wrath, fury, vengeance, and all the blackest vices.’ See the Chevalier Ramsay’s Philosophical Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion, Glasgow, 1748-9, Part II, p.401.
     The same author asserts, in other places, that the Arminian and Molinist schemes serve very little to mend the matter: And having thus thrown himself out of all received sects of Christianity, he is obliged to advance a system of his own, which is a kind of Origenism, and supposes the pre-existence of the souls both of men and beasts, and the eternal salvation and conversion of all men, beasts, and devils. But this notion, being quite peculiar to himself, we need not treat of. I thought the opinions of this ingenious author very curious; but I pretend not to warrant the justness of them.  

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Bias of Being Human

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:
Lets see: 
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.