Jun 4, 2007

Actually, he was spot on

A friend sent me an email suggesting I have a look at a website whose author has apparently been making a lot of noise over at the e-Sangha discussion board. The site has the deliberately cheeky name "The Buddha Was Wrong." There's nothing really new here, it's the same tired old retreads of the materialist/skeptic position.

Take his article on Rebirth as an example; he states that "there are literally hundreds of scientific studies of brain death which proves the mind does not exist when the last neuron in the brain fires." This is the kind of zero content statement materialists love to throw around. What studies, where and by whom? Obviously there are no such studies, nor ever could be even in principle. How can you prove that mind does not exist?

On the contrary, materialist science is quite unable to account for what philosopher of mind David J. Chalmers calls "The Hard Problem." That is, the simple reality of knowing; consciousness or in Pali citta. Consider the difference between facial recognition software looking at your face and your best friend doing the same. In both cases, there is an initial impact of light waves on a sensitive mechanism (eyes, camera) then the signal is converted and sent to a processor (fibre-optics to a computer, nerves to a brain) where further parsing and decoding occurs. In both cases the output is a "recognition" of your face. But only in the case of your friend is there a subjective, first-person singular experience of seeing.

This end-point of knowing is so perfectly immediate and simple that it cannot, even in theory, be reduced to an algorithmic explanation. There is either a knowing (in the case of your friend) or there is not (in the case of the facial-recognition system.) Everything else in the system can be explicated algorithmically, at least in theory. This last and crucial step cannot.

Why is this important? Because if mind were a physical process, depending on neurons, then it would have to be capable of an algorithmic explanation. "Neuron A fires and sets off neuron B which constitutes knowing." Even to put it in these terms demonstrates the absurdity of it. No, the Buddha was right after all.

Incidentally, perhaps the only statement on this web-site that I agree with is this; "Without the concept of rebirth, the rest of Buddhist philosophy breaks down and becomes irrelevant." I've been saying that for years.

Fortunately, we don't have to abandon rebirth or accept materialism. There is really zero evidence for the latter and quite a bit for the former. The author of the site mentions the recently deceased Ian Stevenson, just to dismiss his meticulous case-studies as "anecdotal." Really, by the nature of the problem, how could there be definitive evidence that isn't of an anecdotal nature? Anyone who has taken the trouble to look into Dr. Stevenson's work will know that he has collected hundreds of cases where a child's past life memories have been objectively verified, even to the remembering of specific names and details of someone's life in another town.

But there are other indicators of rebirth in the common domain. For instance, the remarkable cases of child prodigies. Someone like Mozart learning to play the piano at seven, or Morphy learning chess even earlier simply by watching adults play. The remarkable thing about these individuals is the culturally specific nature of their precocious ability. It isn't a case of strong general intelligence, but of coming into the world with a narrowly specific skill already there, taking only a little nudge to recover.

Furthermore, any parent will tell you that children come into this world with strong personal traits. And the case of identical twins proves that there is something other than either nature or nurture at play. Twins who came from the same zygote, with the same DNA down to the last base pair, and raised by the same parents, can still manifest different personalities.

I could go on. There is the odd phenomenon of people developing strong affinities to a particular foreign culture or historical period. There is love (or aversion!) at first sight. A totally irrational sense that I already know this person, this person is important to me.

None of this this will convince the "skeptic" (in quotes because most of them aren't sceptical at all, in the real sense). Their minds are already made up and they don't want to be bothered with what they dismiss as anomalies. And admittedly, none of this should count as final definitive evidence. But it is fair to say that all of these things are more easily explained with rebirth than without it.

Back to the Buddha Was Wrong website; the author's strong bias shows through in many spots. In his entry for "The Buddha" he shows a picture of a mud shack and claims that this is what the prince Gotama's famous palace must have looked like. I'm not sure what he was trying to prove with this, but it just shows the typical ahistorical prejudice of the modern materialist. Ancient India was quite a bit more advanced than this, as both archaelogy and literary sources attest. Nor is there any justice to his snide comment that "There were no tooth brushes in those days and human hygiene wasn’t much better." Even a cursory reading of the Vinaya texts demonstrates that there was meticulous attention to personal hygeniene not excluding oral. There are numerous passages about the proper manufacture and use of "tooth-sticks." The author doesn't serve the credibility of his cause with such ludicrous historical errors.

I won't go into his very protestant diatribes against the monastic order, for fear of sounding partisan, except to note that like many of the "skeptic" critics who denounce cultural baggage, he quite fails to notice the enormous pile he is dragging around himself.

Finally, for a really good web-site with numerous articles dealing with all the issues involved in the confrontation of Buddhism and materialism you can't do better than "Buddhism vs. Materialism."

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

As I've stated repeatedly, the issue isn't "materialism" per se, but the 19th century version of it. The problem is that the scientific community has totally disregarded philosophical education; there are few scientists who are philosophically sophisticated or willing enough to get scientific thinking out of its 19th century rut. David Bohm tried to create a radically new form of "materialism" that abandoned 19th century mechanistic notions and was based on the implications of QM and relativity but, for the most part, he was completely ignored. Bohm's thinking could have rekindled something like the noumenal/phenomenal paradigm provided by Kant.

http://twm.co.nz/prussell.htm

I also recommend David Hildebrand's book "Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism."

http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Realism-Anti-Realism-Neopragmatists-Vanderbilt/dp/0826514278

Anonymous said...

"Fortunately, we don't have to abandon rebirth or accept materialism. There is really zero evidence for the latter and quite a bit for the former. The author of the site mentions the recently deceased Ian Stevenson, just to dismiss his meticulous case-studies as "anecdotal." Really, by the nature of the problem, how could there be definitive evidence that isn't of an anecdotal nature?"

I also recommend Deborah Blum's book "Ghost Hunters." It gives a good overview of the research of people like William James.

http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Hunters-William-Search-Scientific/dp/0143038958/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/105-7128873-1669207?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1181017104&sr=8-1

onemind said...

Thankyou for your critique of my website but I must say you provide equally as little evidence for buddhism as i have for materialism.

"Why is this important? Because if mind were a physical process, depending on neurons, then it would have to be capable of an algorithmic explanation. "Neuron A fires and sets off neuron B which constitutes knowing." Even to put it in these terms demonstrates the absurdity of it. No, the Buddha was right after all."

And who says it isnt capable? Its a young science and more is being found everyday, it is hardly conclusive of anything other than this field of research is in its beginning stages.


"There's nothing really new here, it's the same tired old retreads of the materialist/skeptic position."

Equally, there is nothing new here, it is the same tired old buddhist monk position trying desperately to defend his begging lifestyle with zero evidence.

"Take his article on Rebirth as an example; he states that "there are literally hundreds of scientific studies of brain death which proves the mind does not exist when the last neuron in the brain fires." This is the kind of zero content statement materialists love to throw around. What studies, where and by whom? Obviously there are no such studies, nor ever could be even in principle. "

There are many many studies not to mention the numerous accounts of people brought back from death who claim they simply blacked out and ceased to exist. There is more evidence for mind death than there is for rebirth. Where is your evidence?

"No, the Buddha was right after all."

lol

"Incidentally, perhaps the only statement on this web-site that I agree with is this; "Without the concept of rebirth, the rest of Buddhist philosophy breaks down and becomes irrelevant." I've been saying that for years."

Finally, a buddhist with balls. Its so good to hear this instead of the usual response that buddhism is still worth its weight in gold even if rebirth doesnt exist because it stops them from raping and murdering. These people should see a psychiatrist, no amount of dogma can mask their true sociopathic natures.

"Fortunately, we don't have to abandon rebirth or accept materialism. There is really zero evidence for the latter and quite a bit for the former."

There is far more evidence for the latter and zero for the former.

"The author of the site mentions the recently deceased Ian Stevenson, just to dismiss his meticulous case-studies as "anecdotal."

If anything, Dr Stevensons work provides more evidence for the hindu concept of reincarnation and not the buddhist non self rebirth.

"But there are other indicators of rebirth in the common domain. For instance, the remarkable cases of child prodigies. Someone like Mozart learning to play the piano at seven, or Morphy learning chess even earlier simply by watching adults play. "

Ludicrous. Autistic savants and various ther GENETIC disorders account for your so called anomolies. Nature vs nurture is more valid than ever compared with your claims of the supernatural.

"None of this this will convince the "skeptic" (in quotes because most of them aren't sceptical at all, in the real sense). Their minds are already made up and they don't want to be bothered with what they dismiss as anomalies."

Not at all. If my mind was made up about buddhism i would be a monk. There is zero reason to have that level of faith in any dogma to justify the stance. I am as open minded as ever because as we all know science does not have the answers to the big questions as any sane scientist will admit. Even so, there is zero reason to turn to religion and swallow dogma whole for lack of a better theory. I am promting free inquiry and openmindedness, not dogma like the buddhists. Simpy shaving your hair off, leaving your family and begging for a living is dogmatic enough as it is to have the cheek to even talk about free inquiry and openmindedness.

"Back to the Buddha Was Wrong website; the author's strong bias shows through in many spots. In his entry for "The Buddha" he shows a picture of a mud shack and claims that this is what the prince Gotama's famous palace must have looked like."

The disclaimer on that page admits its for a bit of a laugh. Regardless, there is ample evidence given by BUDDHIST archeaologists that living conditions at that time and place were little more advanced than rural accomodtation of that period. You talk about my historical bias when it is infact you who has the bias. The brightest buddhists i know realise the traditional story of the buddhas birth and homelife is full of symbology and is not an accurate biography. The virgin birth with the white elephant is just like the virgin birth of krishna and christ and is pure bronze age mythology. Continue preaching your fairy tales as though they are historical fact just like any crazy christian.

Monks are so dogmatised and closed minded with their faith to even have a valid discussion of conciousness with. If you start off with preconcieved ideas you will constantly try to fit the facts to the faith instead of updating your theory as evidence reveals itself like all sensible people endowed with common sense.

If this is the only evidence you have to justify your stance my argument on the relevency of sangha in the 21st century stands.

P.S I will be discussing your article on my forum and you are more than welcome to join the debate.

pdxstudent said...

"if mind were [just] a physical process, depending on neurons, then it would have to be capable of an algorithmic explanation. 'Neuron A fires and sets off neuron B which constitutes knowing.' Even to put it in these terms demonstrates the absurdity of it."

I highly recommend Kathrine Hayle's three-part analysis of digital subjectivity and subsequent critique of a pervasive view in, practically constituting cybernetics that the mind or consciousness can be digitized and effectively stored and "ran" on computers. How We Became PostHuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (University of Chicago, 1999); Writing Machines (MIT Press, 2002); and My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (University of Chicago, 2005).

I recommend it especially for the latter aspect I describe above. She tackles essentially the point you make in what I quote above, though it's totally lifted from any properly religious or scientific context. Rather, it's a pretty simple philosophical issue: if a digital information is just ones and zeros, then where is there room for metaphor; or, in other words, mind is neither properly in the brain nor apart from it.

Of course, this is approaching consciousness and the mind with a different set of philosophical lenses and concepts, and with other philosophical commitments. I think that what you get in the same analysis, insofar as critiquing a materialist account-- though specifically a popular one in the West-- of the mind is concerned. Where that leaves us ethically is another ballpark, but I remember Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, making a gesture towards an ethics that lets go of metaphysics.

pdxstudent said...

Another good place to go for understanding the problem with scientifically establishing consciousness, which is really and probably strictly an issue of epistemology, is Foucault's The Order of Things. Specifically his critique of the concept of man in the "Man and His Doubles" chapter towards the end of the book. By Foucault's time phenomenology had run its gammut, and the cognitive-neuroscientists were just start to probe the brain, effectively laying the groundwork for its claim to be what Kant would have called a Transcendental Psychology.

The problem with science being the basis of knowledge about consciousness/mind, which is to say the basis of knowledge and knowing itself, is that science already has its metaphysical commitments. In other words, science cannot be epistemology. For this reason, it will ALWAYS and FOREVER remain to be explained even as cognitive-neuroscience's account of the relationship between the brain and mind grows.

Anonymous said...

my question: why does he did that site? because e-dharma? we should not be fundamentalism like the moderator of e-sangha or like him.the diversity makes the world better.

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

Actually, I don't blame eSangha in the least for banning OneMind. In a forum for discussion of Buddhism, set up for practicing Buddhists, someone whose only purpose is denigrating the religion is nothing but a pest.

This isn't a free speech issue. He has plenty of other places to propagate his wrong views, he doesn't need to bother the good folks at eSangha.

jnanadharma said...

Into any bright clear blue expanse a sky a dark cloud may interject itself from time to time. Thank you, Ajahn Punnadhammo for clearing the air.

Nothing anyone says (not "the Buddha was wrong," or even "the Buddha was right") alters the reality of the power and worth of the Buddhadharma. It stands on its own. It is up to each of us to realize what we can, when we can, sharing our experience when appropriate and welcome, without imposing our concepts on others.

As for allowing webspace to unruly dissenters (and I suspect that the key to the ban here is not the dissenting, but the nature of the behavior of the dissenter), the Buddha himself would never prevent someone from speaking his mind. But he would also point out their misunderstandings, and either attempt to illuminate them or let them walk away. He would not force the sangha to listen to incessant mumblings of wrong views, distracting students from their focus and dedication to the practice of genuine Dharma.

P.S. As to existing evidence on the physical life of the Buddha, extensive archaeological excavations extant in Nepal since the nineteenth century have been pursued recently to confirm whether the vast site (including streets and a "fortified suburb"), believed to be Kapilavastu, is the Buddha's birthplace. Preliminary results date pottery remains to the period 1000 to 600BC, when the Buddha lived. (See for example, http://www.hero.ac.uk/uk/research/archives/2001/in_the_footsteps_of_the_b834.cfm) ).

Mark said...

What about the vision of the "spiritual machine", as promoted by Ray Kurzweil. He predicts that within a couple more decades we will have machines that claim to be human, and that we will believe them when they say this.

Imagine a machine with the raw processing power of a human brain. It is able to represent all the neurons, neuronal connections and firing patterns that we find in an organic brain. Now, suppose you have a (non-destructive, one hopes) method of scanning an actual human brain so that this scan can be used to make all analogous connections in the computer. The machine is able to perceive through instruments similar to human sensory organs.

So, this machine is running and it says, "Yes, I consider myself to be John. Of course I recognize you, Mary. We're old friends." The machine will tell you that it "knows" Mary's face in the same sens of "knowing" that you are using here. Who can say it is wrong? Is it a "sentient being"? An incarnation? An interesting problem.

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