23 July 2017


I've been saying for a while that Triratna, like many modern Buddhist organisations, is as much a Romantic organisation as it is a Buddhist one. A lot of people have no problem with that. Romanticism is seen as a way to the "Truth". The Romantic poets, especially—despite being a bunch of degenerates—are seen to express some kind of "higher" truth in their poems. There is a religious belief in a "higher reality", a "transcendental reality", over and above the reality we normally interact with. And Buddhists are supposed to seek this reality.

Romanticism values emotion over intellect. As an ideology and methodology, it seeks truth and reality in feelings and imagination, rather than in reason and analysis. Reason and analytical modes of thought are suspect at best. Intellectuals are suspect, except where they embrace mysticism.

I've been listening to a documentary on truth on the BBC Radio 4, and this occurs to me... President Trump is the apotheosis of the Romantic valorization of emotion over intellect. He has become the god of Romanticism. That's the problem with Romanticism in a nutshell. We live in an age where the manipulation of emotions is achieved with precision (ironically) on a vast scale that the despots of earlier centuries could only dream of. The masses feel what they are *told* to feel by the media, and what they think follows.

Because there is a deeper irony. Reason itself depends on emotion. While we assess the accuracy of facts using rationality, the value placed on facts is encoded as emotional responses. We decide on the basis of the strongest emotions. But then having decided, we use the reasoning part of our brains to produce reasons to support our decision. It is always this way around for everyone.

Thus, the way to take over is not to have the best facts or the most facts. It is to sway the emotions of the people. Once swayed, they will produce their own justifications. One doesn't need to give reasons.

Some may doubt this, but I would say look at big budget advertising. In my lifetime these ads have gone from information rich to information poor. Advertising a car, for example, is all about *image* now. It's all about how the consumer feels about the product. Ads seek to manipulate how we feel about products. Because if we feel disposed, we will produce our own reasons.

Those of us working with old models of rationality, look on and scratch out heads. How can someone who is an obvious liar and cheat take the top job? The facts are all against him. He was helped by his opponent also being incredibly unpopular and widely perceived to be a liar. But Trump, quite consciously I believe, used his knowledge of the US electorate to manipulate how they felt about him. He did not need to supply reasons to vote for him. Having decided, on the basis of feelings, how to vote, voters come up with their own rationalisations.

Ironically, it is conservatives who have embraced this new understanding and manage to exploit it most successfully. Liberals still tend to believe that arguments are won by people with the best facts. So politically, it is conservatives who are aligned with Romanticism, and liberals who are the rationalists. I'm not sure why this is.

In the battle for hearts and minds, we can safely ignore the minds. We just have to win hearts, because of the way they work together. Where hearts go, minds follow. And the opposite doesn't work.

It goes against the grain for me, because I value rationality very highly. But I've watched so many rationalists utterly fail to win arguments, that I have to accept the truth of this proposition. Until liberal politicians get this, they'll always be weak compared to conservatives. And people like Trump will worm their way into positions of power.

We all need a radical shift in perspective on how these things work. A rationalist utopia will never exist. But a Romantic nightmare, like we have now, is not inevitable.

22 June 2017

Crown Estates

Her Maj opening parliament
with her pro-EU hat on.
Partly just because they're in the news again, there are the usual complaints about the Royal family sponging of the taxpayer. I'm always surprised that British people believe this. As far as I can tell it's simply not true.

As I understand it, a badly indebted George III, on his accession in 1760, signed over all rents and other income from his portfolio of land and forestry holdings, currently valued at ~ £12 billion. In return the govt administer it all and pay the monarch a stipend. In 2016 the Crown Estate earned the UK government about £305 million in profit.

The Queen gets about £45 million a year to run the Royal household, most of which is not discretionary. Leaving HMRC roughly £260 million better off. Prince Charles has his own private income of ~ £20 million p/a from lands in Cornwall. Both of them now pay taxes.

The Royal family make a large net contribution to the UK economy and the tax base without even considering factors like tourism. And they don't get to hide their money offshore like other rich people.

I'm inclined towards republicanism and redistribution of the vast unearned wealth of the ultra-rich, though seeing the Queen out there comforting victims of the tower block fire (at her age) and wearing that EU hat to parliament yesterday, I feel well disposed towards her personally.

Its a bit depressing how much of British public opinion seems to come from the gutter press. And the negative impact this has on how Brits feel about themselves and their countries.

18 June 2017

HIV and Intelligent Design

If I was going to provide evidence for an intelligent design argument, then I might well choose the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It really is a finely honed and efficient system for killing human beings.

HIV attacks the immune system. Our immune responses mostly come in the form of various types of white blood cells. Amongst this variety are the Helper T-cells. When they come across a pathogenic cell in the body, say a bacterial cell, it is T-cells that release chemicals to attract the other kinds of white blood cells that clean up the infection. Plus it releases another chemical to induce other white blood cells to multiply, so that there are plenty of them. And a third type of chemical, an antigen, which marks the pathogen and makes them easy for other white cells to find, identify, and destroy it.

In short the T-cells coordinate the body's immune response to pathogens. HIV infects various white blood cells, but infecting T-cells is crucial to understanding how HIV kills humans. By disabling T-cells, HIV gives rise to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. A person with AIDS becomes susceptible to every other type of infection - viral, bacterial, fungal, and even parasitical. Normally the body just swats down infections. We only occasionally succumb. And even then our body's immune response helps keep the disease from killing us. What kills the host is not HIV per se, but the range of opportunistic infections that benefit from the weakened immune response.

HIV has a long incubation period. Once infected it can taken anywhere from two years to two decades before any symptoms begin to manifest. In that time the host can be infecting other people. The one limiting factor is that it only spreads in direct exchanges of body fluids - through sex, sharing needles, childbirth, breast-feeding. Were it spread like influenza, we'd all have it by now.

The virus has two layers. The outer layer is made from the bi-lipid outer layer of a human cell - creepily the HIV virus drapes itself in a human "skin". It is studded with proteins that recognise and bind to T-cells. The inner layer is a protein capsule containing two copies of the viral genome and some, plus some protein-based enzymes: e.g. reverse transcriptase, integrase, ribonuclease, and protease.

When the HIV attaches to a T-cell, proteins contract drawing to two together so that their cell walls merge, and then inserts the inner capsule which breaks up releasing the strands of genetic material and enzymes.

Since human cells use DNA to code genetic material, in order to hijack the human cell, the virus needs to produce DNA. The enzyme reverse transcriptase is what does this. But here's the thing. HIV reverse transcriptase is inherently buggy. The HIV genome is about 10,000 base pairs, coding for just 19 proteins. By contrast the human genome codes for tens of thousands of proteins. Crucially, when converting RNA into DNA the enzyme makes on average 1-10 errors every single time it copies the viral genome. Since each infected cell makes billions of copies, this means billions of random variations on the HIV virus.

Darwinian evolution is driven by random mutations. Most organisms have mechanisms for preventing copying errors and suppressing localised mutations which might otherwise, for example, cause cancer. As our cells produce proteins from DNA templates, they proof-read as they go and correct mistakes. Mutations caused by radiation damage can be repaired up to a point. HIV goes in the other direction and creates mutations, by design. Of course many of these mutations will be dead ends. They will not be viable. But many of them are viable and so HIV quickly and constantly evolves into new forms. This helps to defeat any immune response to HIV itself, but it also makes the disease very difficult to fight with drugs.

Having turned the viral RNA into a strand of DNA, another enzyme transports the DNA into the nucleus where another enzyme inserts it into our genome. Viruses that do this are relatively rare and are called retroviruses. Quite a large chunk of our genome is junk DNA, some of it inserted by previous retrovirus infections. In theory these ancient retroviruses could be reactivated. It's a science fiction trope. But in practice the process is complex, that its unlike to happen.

Once it becomes part of our genome, the viral genome is copied in the normal run of things, though it can remain dormant for a period as well. Our standard cellular machinery starts to produce the building blocks of new viruses - strands of RNA, the 4 enzymes, and the proteins that encapsulate the package, as well as some other proteins involved in identifying host cells and infecting them. Finally a last enzyme helps to assemble viral capsules inside the cell, which is transported to the cell wall. As they leave, the virus particles take a little of the cell wall to wrap around themselves, studded with the proteins needed for infecting more cells. The fully formed virus is now in the body fluids and waits for a chance encounter with another T-cell, preferably in another host.

This presentation is obviously simplified. For example, it's likely that HIV first infects another kind of white blood cell that is less detrimental to the host, building up numbers so that when the assault on T-cells begins it is devastating. And the whole process is now understood in a good deal more detail.

At present only one person has even known to have been cured of HIV. Out of 70 million cases. Although drug treatments do exist, they can only slow the disease down, rather than cure it.

One of the fascinating things about these kinds of pathogens is how non-specific they are. It is true that some people are resistant to some strains of HIV, but on the whole the virus can infect any human. If we get the wrong type of blood in a transfusion, we die because the body rejects it as foreign. Patients who receive transplants have to artificially suppress their immune responses for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection. The virus however is not at all choosy about blood type or tissue type or any of these factors. Indeed we really get into trouble when viruses from animals mutate to infect humans. For example, when an influenza virus in birds and/or pigs mutates and jumps the species barrier, we get influenza epidemics.

All in all HIV is devastating pathogen, seemingly engineered to kill humans. A number of conspiracy theories exist which suggest that it was engineered, though I don't find any of the plausible. We still don't really have the depth of understanding to design and make something like this. On the other hand some of the conspiracies suggest that it was a mistake that came from attempts to create Frankenstein's monster bugs by breeding different viruses together. This might work with bacteria, which can share genetic material, but it wouldn't work with viruses which cannot. So, it looks like HIV just evolved.

Intelligent Design?

If you were sceptical about evolution, however, and were looking for an organism to support an intelligent design argument, HIV is certainly a great candidate. The specificity of the mechanism is complex enough to be astounding and yet simple enough for most people to understand it. A series of events have to occur in just the right order, in just the right way, for the virus to be effective, but they do happen. It's almost too perfect, hence the conspiracies.

In particular HIV seems designed to defeat medicine. It can rapidly counteract an effective drug.  The standard treatment in wealthy countries, or for wealthy people in poor countries, is a cocktail of three drugs which target three different aspects of the viral life cycle. This makes it much harder for the virus to circumvent the effects. But it's not enough to kill it outright. The viruses DNA is copied into our DNA where it is very difficult to get at - it's difficult enough to get drugs into the cell, but near impossible to get them into the nucleus of the cell. The cell itself acts to prevent this molecules that disrupt our DNA are almost always detrimental - retroviruses being a case in point.

In the West, the communities who were most affected by HIV happened to be hated by Christians, so they could rationalise it as God's punishment. This is tricky because the Christian God is supposed to love everyone, and having people die horribly, but not before infecting dozens of other unsuspecting, often entirely innocent people, is difficult to reconcile with this view. Why is God using a shotgun to remove a splinter? There's far more collateral damage, e.g. AIDS babies, than actual punishment for evil.

However, the real twist is that HIV in the West is tiny compared with Sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries in Africa, HIV infection rates are one in four of the population. In Africa roughly ten times as many people have AIDS and have so far died from AIDS as in Europe and the Americas combined. And final irony? A large number of these Africans are conservative Christians. They are the Christians fighting the modernisation of the Church of England for example, resisting the ordination of women or homosexuals. AIDS is more prevalent in countries where homosexuality is illegal, than in those countries where it is legal.

So if HIV is an example of intelligent design, what is the designer telling us? First of all the designer seems to be a homicidal, but highly intelligent psychopath. Secondly he is targeting poor Christian people, who often live in crushing poverty, with little education; while the wealthy capitalists of the world continue to steal all the wealth from poor countries. If an intelligent designers was going to loose a plague on us, why would he target Africa of all places? Is he racist? And lastly, very many of the people who contract AIDS now are babies, born to infected mothers. Why is the designer killing babies?

I suppose one might still argue that the HIV virus is too specialised to have evolved through random mutations. The specificity, the argument goes, requires a designer; and this design would have required considerable intelligence. But that intelligence is utterly lacking in empathy. The designer, if we believe in it, is chillingly inhuman and following an agenda that does not include any thought for our well-being. HIV may well be intelligently designed, but it is intelligently designed to kill human beings indiscriminately and wantonly. Worshipping such a designers would be as pointless as a fly worshipping the child that is pulling off its wings.

In fact when it comes down to it, the situation makes an intelligence seem extremely unlikely. Intelligence completely without empathy could hardly have created anything, because it would have lacked the motivation to do so. Things like HIV make random chance seem by far the most likely explanation, but random chance can be productive, but it doesn't care about the outcome. Given how indifferent the universe is to human values and desires, a process which had no view to a particular outcome seems the only plausible explanation for how we got here.

15 June 2017


I'm reading a completely fascinating book at the moment: The Enigma of Reason by Mercier and Sperber. It's about reasoning. It's been known for most of my lifetime that we're not very good at solo reasoning tasks. In the classic experiment to test how reasoning works, the Wasson Selection Task, only 10% of people were able to reason through a fairly basic logic problem. And yet 80% of the participants were 100% sure about their method.

The authors argue that the main purpose of reasoning is for coming up with reasons. Yep, the reason we reason is to produce reasons.
"Why do you think this? Why do you do that. We answer such questions by giving reasons, as if it went without saying that reasons guide our thoughts and actions and hence explain them." (p.109)
The authors point out, though again this is not news, that in fact most of our reasons are after-the-fact rationalisations. We decide first, based on criteria we're mostly not even aware of, and then we come up with reasons that we hope make that decision seem reasonable. Reasons are how we explain things to ourselves and others. But on the whole, our reasons are fictions that we make up to explain ourselves to ourselves and the world.

Simplistically, in a court of law, reasons are sought and given and then tested and weighed for veracity. A reason has to be consistent with the physical facts. But it also has to be consistent with the psychological facts, i.e. how the jury think they might act in similar circumstances (for which they ask themselves how the reason feels).  If we the jury find the defendant's reasons plausible then they are not guilty. If not then they are guilty and owe us and/or society a debt.

Ask yourself... Why do I believe the things I believe? You've probably got reasons already. But now ask, Why is that reason a justification for believing anything? What is it about the reason that makes your belief reasonable.

For instance, I believe that the UK is probably better off in Europe so I voted to remain in it. The reasons are actually a little vague. I don't like the Tories. I think the world is safer if we work together more closely. But those who voted to leave also had reasons. Maybe their reasons were less vague - the EU is an inefficient bureaucracy, with too many unelected officials making decisions, it costs us too much, it's run by foreigners, it allows too much immigration, and so on.

If reasoning was anything like the classical view of it, then this kind of divided opinion couldn't happen. We'd all weigh up the evidence and decide the most rational course to take, and most of the time there would be broad agreement. But we don't do this.

What we do is have a feeling about it, and then fish about for reasons, which the media provide for us. Or we're confused, then we hear a reason that resonates and stick with that. Which is why when people give reasons for political decisions, they often unconsciously repeat, word for word, a  political slogan, like, "I want my country back" (a line uttered in a TV program around the time - but ironically uttered by a spy who was helping the Nazi's subjugate his country).

We're all doing this. Deciding on what feels right, then producing reasons ourselves, or reproducing reasons we've heard from third parties. And since we also accept the myth that reasoning and "being rational" are the highest faculty of humans, we assume that our reasoning must be the best. We think that our reasons are good. And why? Well for reasons. And the criteria for judging those reasons? Well they are also reasons. And so on down into the unconscious functioning of our minds that we cannot yet fathom.

Things happen for a reason. Yeah, right!

02 March 2017

Buddhism and Philosophy.

I've been contributing to Reddit's r/Buddhism a bit lately. It required me to block a large and growing number of unpleasant people, but trying to explain how I think and why in this format, in the face of some intense scepticism, has been a welcome distraction. One continuing frustration is that Buddhists seem to think that philosophy boils down to an argument between Cartesian Dualism and reductive materialism. This essay aims at showing what a tiny little corner of philosophy this covers, but also to try to sketch out how we can do better if we take a more sophisticated view.

In this approach I will outline a number of metaphysical views, not all of which are actually held, but which represent a full spectrum of possibilities. There are two fundamental approaches to metaphysics, reductive and antireductive. One focusses on fundamental substances and the other on encompassing structures. In the Chinese yin-yang symbolism the former is yang and the latter yin. Within each approach we can subscribe to there being nil, one, two, or many types. This gives us several modes of metaphysics which I will now run through.

Modes of Metaphysics

Reductive metaphysics assert that there is a fundamental substance that is real or that there is an underlying "true nature" of reality to which everything can be reduced.
  • Reductive nihilism: In this view there is no fundamental substance, everything is structured. Certain forms of Madhyamaka take this view.
  • Reductive monism: There is a fundamental substance and it is of one kind. Quantum field theory is the modern representative of this mode.
  • Reductive dualism: The world is divided into two substance, typically mind and matter or mind and spirit. There are four sub-modes of reductive dualism
    • Reductive dualist realism (aka Cartesian dualism) - mind and matter are both real
    • Reductive materialism - only matter is real
    • Reductive idealism - only mind is real
    • Reductive nihilism - neither mind or matter are real. 
  • Reductive pluralism: In this view there are many kinds of substances each of which is real.
Antireductive metaphysics argues that there is no ultimate substance and that everything is systems, or indeed one big system. 
  • Antireductive nihilism: In this view there is no real universe. We may be living in a simulation, for example. In the film The Matrix, the heroes had grown weary of the simulation and craved something "more real", even if it was less satisfying. This view has similarities with Gnosticism.
  • Antireductive monism: the universe, taken as a whole, is the only real thing, no subset of the universe is real.
  • Antireductive dualism: The universe is divided into superstructures consisting of mind and matter, or mind and spirit. Again there are four sub-modes of antireductive dualism
    • Antireductive dualist realism mind and matter are both real on the universal scale, but cannot be subdivided.
    • Antireductive materialism:  only the material part of the universe taken as a whole is real.
    • Antireductive idealism - only the mental part of the universe taken as a whole is real.
    • Antireductive nihilism - neither mind or matter are real. 
  • Antireductive pluralism: In this view there are many kinds of substances each of which is real. An example of this view is the Shingon idea of the three mysteries (triguhya), in which the figure of Mahāvairocana represents the entire universe. All forms are his body, all sounds are his voice, and all mental activity is his mind. 
From this we can see that the possible views are quite diverse, including some that may not be held by anyone presently, or at all. And note that characterising debates on metaphysics to reductive dualism and reductive materialism is to reduce the play to a small corner of the field.

But also these are the extremes. For example the materialis biologist who knows that their organism is only interesting when whole and alive takes an antireductionist approach when they study it's behaviour. Or the chemist who understands that atomic theory is sufficient to describe chemical reactions and to analyse an unknown compound. Neither may assert that this view is ultimate, but they display a tendency in the respective directions. The chemist may also take an antireductive approach when dealing with the synthesis of a new compound; while the biologist may dissect an example of their organism to better understand its physiology.

So within each category there are degrees of membership and different people may pragmatically take different approaches depending on the kind of knowledge they are seeking. The latter gives us a clue to a more general approach to metaphysics.

When we are interest in substance, we take a reductive approach. In describing substances we may use reductive epistemology, and finally in approaching metaphysics we may argue that one or more substances are fundamental. However reductive approaches to structure do not produce knowledge. The biologist who dissects a dead specimen learns nothing about its behaviour. Indeed one the organism is taken apart it no longer even exists. So in dealing with structures, systems, or complex objects, we need to take antireductive approaches. We look at things as wholes, or parts of larger systems.


In my essay on Theseus's ship I described how both the planks and framing that make up the ship as well as the structure that they are made into are required to obtain an object with the intrinsic properties of a ship. I argued that it was the structure itself that facilitated the emergent properties to emerge. Structure is both existent and causal, and thus, by most definitions, real.

Everything we experience with our human sense is somewhere in the middle of the scale of minimally simple and maximally complex. All the objects we experience are complex. Everything is made up of parts, and those parts are not simple. So everything we experience requires us to consider both substance and structure, both reductive and antireductive metaphysics, epistemology, and methods. Substance and structure exist together in a gestalt or dialectic. Focussing exclusively on one or the other excludes a considerable part of the universe from our purview.

Thus taking a fixed position on metaphysics that sides either with reductive or antireductive ontologies makes no sense. And the fact that so many Buddhists see philosophy as a dichotomy between two extreme forms of reductionism means that debates have unsatisfactory outcomes. The world in which we live is one that requires us to adopt strategies for knowledge seeking that are appropriate to the kind of knowledge that we seek. 

When it comes to understanding mind we also need to be aware of bias. For example, though we experience mental phenomena and material phenomena through different sensory modalities, and though mind appears to us as subjective and matter as objective, this does not mean that our experience accurately reflects reality. 

In my essay on experience and reality I noted that in the case of the sunset illusion, our motion and acceleration sensors (proprioception, kinaesthetics, inner ear, visual, and viscera) inform us that we are at rest with respect to the earth. In reality, the earth is turning, meaning that a person at the equator is moving at 1600 kmph. However the circle being described is 9600 km in radius, and thus the acceleration is tiny and below the threshold of our senses. Hence when we watch a sunset we intuit that the sun is moving, because our usually reliable senses are telling us that we are at rest. In reality we are moving and the sun is still with respect to us (though of course it too is in motion).

The point is that experience and reality do not always coincide and experience can be very misleading as a guide to reality. We should not put too much store on the fact that the experience of mental and physical phenomena seems real. It seems much more likely, given the evidence discovered by scientists, that there is only one kind of substance. Mental and physical phenomena are not fundamentally different. The universe is made of one kind of stuff (reductive monism), but that stuff is made into a myriad of complex and beautiful things (antireductive pluralism).

I have been mulling over what to call this view that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism and have been using substance-structure dialecticalism. I see substance and structure involved in an exchange that "creates" the universe, or at least makes it possible. 


23 February 2017

Morality and Metaphor.

Looking at the way metaphors shape the way we think metaphorically about morality, combined with some insights from evolutionary biology helps explain why people take fairness and justice so seriously.

English has two main metaphors for morality, both of which are ultimately based on the schema of balance. In one, we more literally see acts as having weight. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the soul of the deceased is weighed in a set of scales with a symbol of the law on the other side of the scales. In this view, justice involves either lightening the weight of evil, or adding to the weight of good.

Theravādins used this metaphor in discussing karma which can be weighty (garuka) or light (agaruka).
Early Buddhists saw karma as inescapable. This is actually what Buddhaghosa meant when he referred to the "restriction on karma" or kamma-niyāma. Mahāyānists introduced many ways to avoid the consequences of actions through religious exercises, including confession. There is a list of such practices in Śāntideva's other book, The Training Almanac (Śikṣasamucaya).

The other metaphor is more abstract and involves book-keeping. When credit and debit columns of the ledger match we say the books are "balanced". It's the same schema, but a different metaphor. In this view an evil action is a debit, or a debt. A good action is a credit. In most human societies debts have to be paid and often with interest. This why when we've done something wrong we metaphorically say that someone is owed an apology. The apology settles a debt. It balances the books.

The least sophisticated version of this is like for like (an eye for an eye). Other models allow substitutions. Which is why we think locking people up is about "paying your debt to society". Moral debts follow can be settled by various methods: confession, atonement, restitution, reparation, etc. And of course debts may be forgiven. The same Hebrew tribes that gave us "an eye for an eye" had built in mechanisms for forgiving debts as well. Later in this worldview Jesus came down to earth to settle all our debts with God and leave the books balanced. This is religious genius and has played very well with the punters. Buddhism has never been so daring in its forgiveness of moral debts.
The various Buddhist version of karma do not use this metaphor explicitly, but there is always a sense in which the rebirth one gets balances out how one has lived in this life. The metaphor is implicit - the principle at work is balancing good and evil.

Now this schema of balance and the resulting metaphors are not accidental or random. They emerge from the two fundamental features that all social mammals and birds share: empathy and reciprocity. Clearly reciprocity is more important in the idea of moral balance. At base it is simple give and take. It is why the statement "actions have consequences" seems so intuitive to us (and why it is universally recognised as a moral principle). Though reciprocity in the fullest sense requires us to recognise and respond to the needs of others, i.e. empathy.

Social animals have to practice give and take to make a group successful. Sharing of resources and making sure that even the weaker members of the group have enough is important because the evolutionary strategy of social animals is "safety in numbers". The coherence of the group is what makes it effective as an evolutionary strategy. Where those animals have a hierarchy (which is always) then being higher up the hierarchy is associated with greater privileged access to resources, but also greater obligations to the group. Groups gang up on predators, for example, and being higher up the hierarchy means being on the front line. Except in civilised humans, where are leaders are often not in the front line physically. Leaders are seen as too precious to put at risk of death in combat.

But actually "actions have consequences" is not quite specific enough for morality to work. And here we can refer to Buddhaghosa's use of the term niyāma "restriction". The consequences of actions must be appropriate to the action (bīja-niyāma) and they must be timely (utu-niyāma). By bīja-niyāma Buddhaghosa meant that a kuśala action was restricted in such a way as to have a kuśala consequence and an akuśala action had to have an akuśala consequence. Hence the image of a rice seed (bīja) giving rise to a rice plant. And by utu-niyāma he meant that consequences were restricted to arrive in the right season (utu), just as the monsoon rains come at the right time (at the end of three months of baking hot dry weather), or fruits and flowers all happen at the same time. Utu means "seasonal" and can also refer to other cyclic processes like menstruation. Buddhaghosa added another restriction which was the karma had to ripen and could not be avoided, which he called kamma-niyāma.

Where the consequence of actions are seen to be avoided we call that unfair or unjust. Where the consequences are not appropriate to the action we call that unjust. And when consequences are delayed we call that unjust. We share this basic view not just with all other humans, but with most other social animals. Buddhism does not have a unique take on morality, it just has has the same package in a different wrapper.

Now as regards kuśala/akuśala is it apparent that these do not balance out in this life. Hence an afterlife is required and a primary the function of the afterlife is exactly to provide this balance. If the world is just or the universe is moral, then an afterlife is necessary to make up for the obvious injustice that prevails in saṃsāra.

Timeliness can vary. Aṅgulimāla for example found all his karma ripening in this life (though for a mass murderer he got off very lightly). The Loṇaphala Sutta describes how someone poor in the Dharma might experience life times in hell, but someone rich in the Dharma might experience a trifling sensation in this life for the same evil action. Mostly early Buddhists saw rebirth as the fulcrum of the balance - any imbalance in how we live in this life directs our rebirth. Later views changed, especially in relation to the extent that a Buddha may intervene in this process (more and more as time goes on).

Of course Buddhists introduced the radical idea that one could escape from this cycle of actions having appropriate and timely consequences by ensuring they removed the conditions for rebirth. If one is not born, then none of these arguments apply. One is free of all these constraints and goes beyond explanation.

The acme of Buddhist debt forgiveness is the Vajrasatva mantra which is said to purify all our karma in one go. It may well give us subjective relief, but it doesn't change how society sees the balance of our actions in relation to them. the bottom line is that we are social animals and all morality has to be seen in terms of how our actions impact on others and how their actions impact on us. We all understand morality in terms of "balance" and we intuitively know when things are out of balance and we desire to see balance restored.

In other words Buddhists seem to say that we can forgive ourselves for transgressions and that will somehow magically translated into social forgiveness. It does not take too much effort to see that this is never the case in practice. Society wants to see justice done, and they don't much care if you have forgiven yourself.

This desire for moral balance can be frustrated in many ways, by the exercise of power for example, or because other demands are weightier. But the desire doesn't go away. If reciprocity breaks down, then the message we get is that our survival is threatened. The desire for justice is visceral and powerful for this reason. This is why people will kill if they perceive that it will restore the balance.
I haven't gone into how conservatives and liberals see things differently. This is another fascinating dimension of the cognitive approach to morality. But people will only read so much on the internet and this rave is already too long.

This rave is based on ideas found in John Searle's book "The Rediscovery of Mind"; George Lakoff's long essay "Metaphor, Morality, and Politics"; and Frans de Waal's book "The Atheist and the Bonobo". I highly recommend all three.

07 February 2017

Why Don't We Feel the Earth Spinning? The Real Answer.

I was writing about the illusion that the earth stays still and the sun appears to move and I got interested in the question of why we don't notice the earth spinning. Many sites will tell you that at the equator an object on the surface is moving at about 1600 km/h or about 450 m/s. That is about mach 1.5 or three times faster than the cruising speed of a 747. You'd think we'd notice this. But we don't.

But in looking at the answers on various "science" websites they all get it seemed to get the basic physics wrong. They all tell us that going in a circle at a constant rate is not acceleration so we don't notice we are moving. But to move in a circle is to be under constant acceleration!

This is because velocity is a vector, i.e. it has both magnitude and direction. A change in direction is also an acceleration even if the magnitude doesn't change. As we go around a corner in a car, we feel a push away from the centre of the curve, which we call centrifugal force. Technically this is our bodies trying to go in a straight-line (because of inertia) and being pushed in a new direction by the seat and door of the car. Sometimes even simple physics is counter-intuitive!

Now, we humans have different ways of sensing acceleration, such as noticing muscle tension in our bodies or feeling our internal organs pushing on the inside of our belly (also inertia). But one of the main ways we register movement and acceleration is the inner ear. It has three fluid filled loops aligned roughly with the three directions in space relative to our body (our head is up). Bodily movement makes the fluids slosh (inertia again) and we register this as movement.

For some reason spinning motions cause trouble for our inner-ears and for many of us this in turn tends to cause nausea. That's why if you put me on a roundabout and spin me round I will throw up despite being in the same inertial frame as the round about (and even if I cannot see the world). We are not really designed for spinning around, though some weirdos enjoy the sensation.

The complete answer to why we don't feel the earth spinning has two parts.

Firstly, yes, we are in the same inertial frame as the earth and air and everything is moving at the same speed, so visually you perceive this as being stationary. So as we pivot away from the sun on the turning earth it looks like the sun is moving. But why do we not feel the spinning?

This is because secondly, we also perceive acceleration through our inner ear. And despite the high speed of rotation, the distance to the axis of rotation is much greater, so the acceleration we experience as a result of going quite fast around in a very large circle is actually tiny. We do not feel the earth spinning because the acceleration because of it is below the threshold of our detector (the inner ear). It is also very much smaller than gravity.

The atmosphere does feel it though and it creates the coriolis effect and affects weather patterns. The ocean also feels it and it creates large scale currents.

And incidentally this is one reason why rotating a spacecraft to simulate gravity won't work. Apart from the enormous expense of building the mechanism and keeping it going against inevitable friction, the people inside with experience a sideways coriolis force that induces nausea. To get 1g in a human sized space craft with would have to be very large not to have an nausea inducing coriolis effect. According to one source a ring with a diameter of  224 m would have to rotate once every 30 s to produce 1g and no appreciable coriolis effect. That's about 26 km/h at the outer surface. The energy involved in getting a structure that large to rotate smoothly at that speed would be enormous.

As to why some quite serious science websites get the basic physics wrong, it's a mystery. It's physics I remember from high-school 35 years ago, so you'd think it would be obvious to those more up to date!