22 August 2017


Thinking about uniforms. Most schools I attended were run like North Korea.

Inmates wore uniforms. Uniform codes were strictly enforced.

There were many arbitrary rules. Breaking rules resulted in arbitrary detention and in my day beatings, some of which were quite brutal. Prisoners were often kept in solitary confinement.

There was "nationalism", school songs and so on.

We were all indoctrinated with the same useless knowledge designed to make us better citizens.

In my day this included systematic lies about the history of our country and especially the wars of aggression we fought against the Māori in order to steal their land. I believe this has changed to some extent in NZ. Here in the UK, they mostly still seem to believe that the British Empire was a benign force for spreading civilisation.

The leader or headmaster generally had a funny haircut and we had to treat them with exaggerated deference. They held assemblies in which we were forced to listen to interminable speeches which extolled the ideology of the state. [An obvious difference is that we did not have to salute].

The schools were surrounded by fences and no one was permitted to leave.

The staff were frequently paranoid about what inmates got up to and we were constantly under surveillance. Teachers had networks of informants.

I've never been to school in the UK, but looking at the uniforms and the environments, as well as what I can glean from TV, the whole set up is far worse here.

A lot of work places are also like North Korea these days. Democracy has seldom extended to the workplace or school. And they wonder why we don't take it seriously?

20 August 2017

Persuasion (reprise)

A consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity is that we can no longer think of space and time as distinct:
“Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” — Herman Minkowski, 1908.
I more or less understand the reasoning behind this (if not the maths), but I admit that in terms of my experience it is completely counter-intuitive. So in fact, a century after Einstein, space by itself and time by itself have not faded into mere shadows. Maybe they have in the higher echelons of university physics departments, but not in general use.

And this is the thing about intuition and counter-intuitive ideas. For many people, evolution is simply counterintuitive. It feels wrong. So facts presented without values don't make much difference to how people *feel* about evolution. And how they feel about it determines how they think about it. This is simply a fact about how humans work.

The question then is not why ordinary people who find science counter-intuitive don't change their minds. Why would they? The question is why scientists are so bad at communicating? In fact, there is a well-developed science of persuasion, which we see at work in our daily lives across the media in advertising, promotions, political speeches and so on.

A single example will suffice. A century ago in the West, very few people were in debt. Since the 1970s this has changed so that now almost everyone is in debt. From credit cards to payday loans, we all seem to have forgotten the virtues of thrift, saving, and financial prudence. That we would borrow money rather than save up for something would have been considered counter-intuitive 100 years ago. If my great parents had talked about borrowing money at 30% APR while inflation was at 2%, just to buy something they wanted by did not absolutely need, their family and friends would have thought them mentally ill. Now it is just what everyone does.

I have no credit rating in the UK, having never borrowed money here, and I am still regularly sent credit card applications by major banks.

The counter-intuitive becomes intuitive and vice versa. Persuasion is rocket science, but it is science. It's about time that scientists cottoned on to this and stopped blaming other people for their failures to communicate.

16 August 2017

Buddhism and Cessation

I was talking with my friend Satyapriya last night. We were discussing my work on the Heart Sutra and his experiences in meditation.

The non-Buddhist approach to life is generally to cram in as much experience as possible. In NZ people used to say they "lived life to the full" and this meant having as many experiences as possible, and as intense as possible. Extreme sports, bungy jumping, white water rafting, night-clubbing, and so on.

The Buddhist approach is the opposite. Buddhists, ideally, strive to calm down, to eliminate unnecessary distractions, to reduce the intensity of experiences. Ultimately the goal is to meditate in such a way that one is aware and alert, but there is no sensual or mental experience whatever. A state traditionally called cessation (nirodha) or emptiness (śūnyatā).

I should emphasise that this is not ceasing to be. It is not non-existence. It is a state of perfect balance and contentment, with no attention being paid to the senses or too superficial mental processes (like our inner monologue). One is emphatically alive and *existent*, just without all the distracting effects of experience.

Which already sounds weird to people oriented towards experience. Why would you want to experience nothing?

Cessation is not an end in itself. The experience of no experience is *profoundly* transformative. It reorganises how you perceive the world. It often results in an attenuation of the first-person perspective so that "ego" or self-seeking drops off. One stops being selfish and self-centred because there is no self to centre on. (This practical result has led to much unhelpful metaphysical speculation, but I'm not going to get into that today).

The trouble is that it takes a particular kind of person to experience cessation. In our Order, to 2000 members we have a handful with any experience of cessation, and a minority of them have any great depth of experience.

The rest of us know fairly early on that we're not that kind of person. If you discover meditation and just naturally start doing it for two hours a day, then you're in with a chance. If you struggle to sustain 20 minutes a day, then you're not in the running. You still *benefit* from calming down, but you'll always be too over-stimulated for cessation. We don't often state this up front. Indeed we tend to maintain the myth that anyone can experience cessation. In theory, maybe, but in practice, no.

One has to be thoroughly disinterested in the pleasure of sense experience. To be happy with very low levels of stimulation. To be fascinated by just watching one's mind for hours on end. One has to be quite non-reactive to other people. Most of these qualities cannot be learned, at least not to the extent required. We can get better at all of them, but unless we have the temperament or talent to start with, we're always going to be mediocre.

So the rest of us form an auxiliary that ideally would support the people who are experiencing cessation/emptiness, or who genuinely have the potential to.

For example, I try to write about issues of conceptualising this process and the philosophy that is often invoked. In doing so I'm trying to clarify things, to eliminate wrong or unhelpful views, and assessing whether or not certain ideas serve the greater goal of our community (i.e. cessation). On the whole, our conceptualisation of the process and the goals appear to be highly convoluted and confused. Our metaphysics are a mess. I advocate a radical clean out - we could eliminate all the history and 90% of the metaphysics we talk about without any deleterious effect on those who seem cessation.

Indeed, the history and a lot of the stories are to gee up the auxiliary. Because, deep down, we know that we're not going to be anything special. We're not going to experience cessation or anything like it. So we constantly have motivation problems. Pursuing a low stimulation lifestyle against one's natural inclinations is pretty difficult. Without the payoff of deep meditative states, it is not very rewarding and we end up getting a bit nihilistic or cynical. There is only so much reward to be gained from taking the moral high-ground and criticising people who seek pleasure. There's a lot of that about. A lot of criticising other people for not being good enough Buddhists from people who will themselves never experience cessation.

It's a weird thing to be involved in. At first, it seems like a cornucopia - a solution to all of one's problems. Many of the people get religion have major problems (or they wouldn't be looking). Religion promises the universe. We all start off with convert zeal. What religion delivers, on the whole, and at its best, is a supportive group of like-minded friends and one or two inspiring role models. If you have the kind of talent required, you'll find an outlet for it one way or another. If you don't, you'll be filling the pews, making financial contributions, and hanging out with the talented people. At its best, this set-up does allow some people to shine in mundane ways. Me as a writer for example. Someone else as an administrator. Another as a teacher of values or basic principles.

Still, the ideal of cessation inspires many people to slow down, to calm down, to stop being overstimulated, and so on. And on the whole, I think many of us who live simpler, calmer lives, find them more satisfying than the usual alternatives.

12 August 2017

The Evil of Mercantilism

When I was studying library management I clearly remember reading a book on technology published in 1971. It noted that immediately after WWII there were very significant gains in productivity due to mechanisation of work. The early prediction was that everyone would work less and retire early. Filling up our leisure time was predicted to be our pressing problem. ROFL.

Here it is, 2017, and productivity is something like hundreds of times higher than it was in 1945 and we are working longer and retirement as a concept is being phased out. What went wrong?

One answer is that the share of the wealth created by the economy going to the ruling classes has increased exponentially. So despite the fact that productivity has increased by so much, inequality has grown even faster.

Capitalists will rightly point out that everyone has benefited - we are all richer than we were in 1945. We all eat better, lived longer, child mortality is down etc. This is all true. But the rich have benefited more.

The thing is that if you worked hard to get by in 1945; your family are probably still working hard to get by in 2017. The poor still have to work very hard just to get by. And that is the plan. That has been the plan for 600 years. Marx and Engels noted it 150 years ago, but even then it had been going on for more than four centuries.

The plan is always for the poor to have to work hard all their lives just to get by.

600 years ago it wasn't like this. Poor people mostly worked in the fields and had little supervision. Staying alive was quite a good motivator. They might have paid a tax once per year, but the rest of the time ordered their own lives. They worked hard at planting and harvest time; moderately in the middle, and not much at all over winter. They grew all their own food, mostly on common land. If they were lucky they might own a cow or a goat or two. At that level, they all had to look after each other and work together. At that point it was probably the Church who inflicted artificial rules on the people, telling them how to live.

The ruling classes technically provided law and order to enable trading on a wider scale (between towns for example) but in practice, they often just fought amongst themselves for profit. The taxes paid for a standing army, and crimes like theft and murder were adjudicated by a ruler, if at all.

Gradually work and wealth took on moral tones. Being rich or working hard were good. Being idle or poor were bad. Working hard but being poor was OK; being idle but rich was also OK. Working hard and being rich was the ideal. Working hard was linked to being rich, though for most of history and now, the two are usually unrelated. The people who work the hardest, doing physical labour, are paid the least.

Since the ruling classes wanted to see the poor working hard, they took away the common land and forced the poor to pay for food. The industrial revolution offered crippling hours and dangerous conditions for the poor, so they could just about earn enough to live in unsanitary conditions and eat food that was often unfit for consumption. Sometimes whole families had to work for 12 hours a day to achieve this. And this was seen as a good thing by the mercantilists. It also broke up communities and the networks of care and assistance that had existed for centuries.

The mercantilists gradually took over running things from the aristocracy and the church. Hereditary wealth replaced mere birth as the mark of the ruling class, and morality changed from saving souls to ensuring that people were useful.

Increased wealth and reach required increased administration and bean-counting. Universities that used to train priests now trained civil servants. The middle classes were inculcated with the values of mercantilism: consumerism was born. From the middle class, some hoped to ascend into the ruling class - though opportunities for outsiders were strictly limited. Others simply became acquisitive.

As technology destroyed more and more of the jobs of traditionally working class people, the idea of social mobility was born. Let the working poor become middle class. Infect them with the virus of consumerism and acquisitiveness to distract them from the fact that their communities were being destroyed. Flood the market with cheap imitations built by their even poorer counterparts in Asia.

The thing is that this story arc is hardly affected by the politics of the government or by wars. Women hail the "progress" of them re-entering the workforce, but they mostly did so at rock bottom wages. Nowadays only a two salary family can afford to own a home. 70 years later they have almost reached pay parity, but generally speaking wages are falling and the poor and getting less and less from participating in production. Far from winning, they have simply played into the hands of mercantilists. The idea is that we all work very hard to just get by. Nothing we do is going to change this unless we stop acting like mushrooms. A smart woman might have fought for her right not to work. Nowadays women's empowerment seems to mean parading around in your underwear, while the idea of empowering men is seen as akin to genocide or eugenics.

Humans need time for socialising. For sitting around chewing the fat, telling stories, and laughing. We need time to make music, to sing and dance together. Working together for a common goal is uplifting, but what is the common goal of most workplaces now? Certainly screwing workers out of their fair share is inherent in all workplaces these days. We thrive in small communities where most people are social equals but merits are acknowledged. We still have not figured out a good way to organise ourselves in larger units. Democracy is, as that epitome of the ruling classes, Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

But until workers get their fair share of production; until workers own the means of production; this world is going to be unfair and unjust and it will continue to break the backs of the poor so that the ruling classes can be comfortable and fight wars when they get bored.

I have no hope that technology is going to change the basic philosophy of mercantilism. Look at the internet. It was supposed to give power to the people. But it is clearly just another tool for enslaving people now. I get to say what I like, but amidst millions of conflicting voices, what I say doesn't register or matter. Those who do register are part of the system and therefore part of the problem.

Mercantile capitalism, or mercantilism, has been winning, largely in the background, for 600 years. Despite changes in technology, revolutions, wars, and empires.

01 August 2017

Are We Living in a Simulation? No, we aren't.

Anyone who has listened to the latest Infinite Monkey Cage (BBC Radio 4) and is worried that we might live in a simulation can relax. Anil Seth was talking bollocks. He and a lot of other bad philosophers have this method that is mostly hand-waving. It breaks down like this:

To yourself
1. State your belief.
2. Derive assumptions from this belief
To others
3. State your starting assumptions as axioms.
4. Use straight-line deduction to produce a paraphrase of your starting assumptions.
5. Claim that *logic* supports your conclusion.

Assumptions are propositions that you believe in the absence of evidence or things you take on faith. Axioms are propositions stated as universal truths. If you are reduced to stating assumptions as axioms, you're already floundering. Far from being "logical", this is completely irrational.

And then deduction is a very weak logical operation. All you can do with deduction is draw out the implications of your starting axioms. And what this usually boils down to is a paraphrase of your axioms.

All of the assumptions that Anil Seth stated last night struck me as demonstrably false or at best highly questionable. Here is his "logic".

1. Assume we live in a simulation
2. State some fact consistent with living in a simulation
3. Restate that fact as a universal truth
4. Deduce from this that *must* live in a simulation
5. Therefore it is only logical that we do live in a simulation

For example, he glibly stated that it would be possible to replace a neuron with an electrical device in such a way as you would not notice. For a start to do this you'd have to crack my skull open and I promise you I'd notice! Second, this is a bold claim for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence. No one has ever accomplished this or anything like it and had the recipient *not notice*.

The surgical techniques currently do exist to operate on the molecular level. And really there's no plausible way to do this type of surgery - our synapses are chemical, not electrical. It's not remotely plausible to transplant an identical neuron, let alone some electrical device that imitates one. So Anil Seth is asking us to take a science fiction idea as a universal truth. And he can just fuck off as far as I'm concerned. He's just making shit up and giving public intellectuals a bad name.

Furthermore, there is a 1mm long round worm called C. elegans. We know that it has exactly 280 neurons with  6393 chemical synapses, 890 electrical junctions, and 1410 neuromuscular junctions. It's whole brain has been mapped out in exquisite detail at the cellular level. So you'd think that we'd be able to exactly simulate the worm. Yes? No. Not even close. Else modelling the brain of C elegans would be easy and you'd be able to buy scaled up working models that had all the same behaviour by now.

So Seth takes this idea as trivial and true, but in fact, it is very, very complex and almost certainly false. His starting assumption is nowhere near plausible, let alone "true". And if this is so, then his subsequent "logic" is dubious at best.

I call bullshit. This is bullshit philosophy. And it's not the only bullshit philosophy I've seen associated with Anil Seth. He is a bullshitter and no one need be perturbed by anything he says.

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!

27 January 2017

Don't Panic

My latest in-depth critique of Buddhist karma doctrines concludes that karma is not compatible with reason.

However, I remain committed to the proposition that actions have consequences. I go further and suggest that, within social groups, fairness and justice demand that actions have appropriate and timely consequences. But I think the social environment is the limit of this idea - it does not extend to a just-world; there is no guarantee of fairness or justice; there is no post-mortem reckoning.

To my mind this means places a greater onus on everyone to be moral, to ensure fairness and justice are part of our social environment, to do our bit to ensure fairness and justice characterise our social milieu. It's up to us, but we're evolved for this shit and we have all the skills necessary.

That our supernatural beliefs seem to be false does not mean that I abandon hope of finding meaning in life. On the contrary meaning emerges from our social interactions, our membership of, and service for, the community. Although I have chronic depression and anxiety (and very often live with a sense of despair and hopelessness) and though I find most people annoying at best, I am *not* a nihilist. Meaning is to be found everywhere. Feeling despair does not necessarily mean that there is no hope. It's just a feeling in response to a situation. Usually it means we're a little to isolated and need to get more involved in our community.

I am optimistic for humanity. I don't think we should be too narrowly focussed on any one individual or today's news headlines. As one of my intellectual heroes, René Dubos, said: "Think global, act local." Keep a weather eye on what is happening beyond your sphere of influence, but do what you can within it. As grim as things look in the artificially sustained hysteria of modern politics, we've survived far worse, like millennia long ice-ages for example.

Don't Panic.

26 January 2017


Some years ago, there were about 120 Order members living in Cambridge and attendance at our public events was declining (which is no longer true). We were having Order meetings in those days and the subject came up. I suggested that instead of our usual offerings of graded classes for beginners led by "teachers" that we should instead all turn up on one night a week, meditate, perform a devotional ritual, and then have a cup of tea and a chat with whoever was around. I suggested that 120 of us, in one place, at our best, could inspire a lot more people to join us, just by befriending them, than by relying on the atmosphere of the classroom that we cultivate at present. My plan was to eschew any formal instruction, but to allow people to interact with a large number of Order Members in an unstructured way and thus absorb our culture more naturally. Anyway, we are mostly not teachers per se, but exemplars, i.e. people who strive to cultivate virtues and transform our minds, and to relate to other people on this basis. A classroom-style setting is really not the best way for people to experience this. A period of formal practice followed by a social interaction seems to me to be far better. It is better when it happens.

But the response was lukewarm at best. One Order member present said she would not participate in anything that was required of her. Other's felt that even the structure that I suggested was too rigid (!). No one saw the point I was making about members of the Order being exemplars rather than teachers. The idea was a complete flop. I still think, however, that our approach is wrong. It's geared to middle-class British people. They have a particular kind of relationship to school and education that makes it hard for them not to see the paradigm as attractive.

So we still offered structured classes and formal study groups. We have no events that are aimed at socialising. We don't see ourselves as exemplars we see ourselves as teachers. And I don't see how this helps us to build a community.

Perhaps this avoiding of purely social events is because of a bias that goes beyond our movement. There is a tendency in WEIRD countries to see the "real Buddhism" as being about inner transformation and to relegate all the other aspects of Buddhism to a lower category that might scornfully be called "cultural Buddhism". We can call this Two Jewels Buddhism, in contrast to Three Jewels Buddhism which values Saṃgha alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddhism is often reduced to mere meditation. But ethics is part of our path as well, and ethics is all about how we interact with other people. So opportunities to see how Buddhists interact with other people must be valuable. The more formalised such opportunities are the less we see how ethics shapes the Buddhist's life. We have to see Buddhists in informal situations, and share their lives to some extent to really see how being Buddhist shapes that life. 

25 January 2017

A political rant...

I find the liberal enlightenment project very attractive. It has given us the concept of universal rights and helped to break down divisions based on superficial differences. On the other hand I was a teen in the 1980s and witnessed first hand the rise of what we now call Neoliberalism and the betrayal of liberal enlightenment in favour of profit.

But there is one thing about the present that continually galls me. Yesterday I noted how scientists fail to get their message across because the one problem they seem determined not to apply science to is getting their message across! But it goes further than that. 

In 1971 Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In this memo he suggested that conservative businessmen take over media and universities and convert them into conduits for the message of conservative businessmen. Conservative businessmen did just that, and what I would now call Neoliberalism was born. Though in fact Neoliberalism is profoundly anti-liberal. Powell also suggested that they form organisations to employ graduates of these programs to keep the momentum going. So think tanks began to form, which employed Neoliberal intellectuals to lobby politicians and churn out Neoliberal analysis to the media (which, being owned by Neoliberals tended to simply repeat it). 

And thus conservative business people began to take over the world. The end of the era of empires saw the political equilibrium shift to nation states; from racism to nationalism; from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. The present day harks back to those days when the wealth of businessmen gave them the power to eclipse and sideline the aristocracy in the UK. Of course USA never had an aristocracy...

But the nation state, with all its rules and regulations, is a barrier to profit making, so the larger businesses went multinational and began to play state off against state - offering jobs to the state that would require the least taxes for example. And they created tax havens to hide their money and prevent nations from taxing it. They resigned from society as we understand it and formed a new strata of humanity, insulated by vast wealth from the lives of those they exploited. This is far more exclusive and stable that the relationship between master and slave: we are the slaves that want to be enslaved; the cow that wants to be eaten. 

The point I'm getting to is that Neoliberals accomplished this revolution by understanding how people make decisions and exploiting it. The most obvious level of this is advertising. Joe Bloggs who wants to sell you widgets will tell you how good they are and leave it up to you. The multinational employs an army of psychologists who design ads to exploit vulnerabilities in how our minds work to make us buy shit we don't need. Exploitation of workers has gone meta and we didn't even notice. 

By contrast liberals still have their heads in the clouds. The idealism of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is awesome. The reality a bit less awesome, since millions of people are still routinely denied those rights. But still, the liberal project is admirable and inspires most of the people I know. 

But that idealism is also our flaw. Part of that idealism is the assumption that people are rational. Liberals believe that if you just present people with the facts they'll make a rational decision. But this is simply wrong, as the political events of 2016 proved beyond doubt. That is *not* how people make decisions; it is not how *we* make decisions! We know this from extensive studies of decision making. But scientists and all kinds of rights campaigners seem to refuse to acknowledge the reality. They certainly refuse to make use of the science science of decision making and persuasion. 

Part of the reason is that liberals are fundamentally against exploiting people. The very fact that one can employ psychological techniques to manipulate the masses is unpalatable or even disgusting to liberals. Marx lurks in the background telling us that we ought not to exploit workers. Neoliberals have no such compunction. Power is its own reward. Look at how busy the new President is this week. There is a man who understands power, who sought power, and who damn well plans to use it now he has it. Unlike Obama, Trump is likely to make good on his campaign pledges. 

But for all the demagoguery of Trump, liberals thought, and apparently still think, that if they just expose him as a liar and a crook he'll be defeated. But it won't work. The facts are important to me. I may even be persuaded by facts. I often fact check claims (and so much of what passes for "fact" is false!). But most people are not persuaded by facts. Nor do they make rational decisions. We're just not geared for it.  Any introduction to clear thinking or cognitive bias makes this clear. We are far more affected by, for example, what people around us think, than we are by facts. 

When it comes to decision making we all decide by introspecting our emotions and choosing what feels right. Then we look for reasons to back up our decision, and we stop looking when we find the first plausible reason. You're thinking, "I don't do this!" But you do, I do, we all do. Our weakness, our vulnerability is not that we are irrational, but that Neoliberals know that we are, while we refuse to admit it. 

What we don't realise is that the war for our attention, the war to make us choose Neoliberalism, the war to make us into poorly paid mindless consumers, all started around 1971 (I was 5, now I'm 50). Lewis Powell was more prophet than leader. His Memo sums up the zeitgeist rather than being a true manifesto. It's just that in retrospect we can see that conservative business people did exactly what he recommended and in doing so they took over the world.  

23 January 2017

My Philosophy

I've mucked about with names for the kind of philosophy that interests me. And I was thinking about this yesterday and posted this on Facebook:
As I have thought through various philosophical issues over the last couple of years, and in the face of being called "materialist" or "nihilist" by detractors, I've often wondered what kind of philosophy it is that I'm into. A one word label seems not to exist yet.
I thought I'd nailed with with "dialectical naturalism", but this has been used already. Though I would argue the label fits my ideas better than it does Murray Bookchin's. 
So, in a nutshell, my philosophy is 
substance/structure dialectical naturalist—collective empirical realist—existentialism
I'm tempted to squeeze "evolutionary" in their somewhere. And in case anyone is wondering I put Buddhism in the category of methodology, which hasn't made it into the main description. So the long version would be: 
Evolutionary—Buddhist—substance/structure dialectical naturalist—collective empirical realist—existentialism.
One of my friends called my bluff and asked me to explain what I meant in a few sentences. So, without any justification, this is what I mean:

There is one world, the natural world. There is no supernatural. The world exists completely independently of our minds. It came into existence some 13-14 billion years ago. It is made of one kind of stuff, but all the stuff we can experience is structured to present us with pervasive complexity beyond our ability to easily conceptualise. Our experience is much simpler than the world itself. Both stuff and structure are real. Our minds tend to understand reality as a whole/part dichotomy, because its difficult to focus on parts and wholes at the same time.

All existence is temporary, except perhaps for the universe taken as a whole, which began at some point, but may continue expanding indefinitely.

The apparent distinction between mental and physical phenomena is not real - because there is one world, with one kind of stuff, there is only one kind of phenomena. However stuff is structured and our senses register objects in different ways. Mind and body are just two perspectives on one kind of stuff made into complex objects.

Our senses produce sensations that are interpreted in our brain. There is no such thing as "direct experience". On our own, we are subject to many cognitive biases and thus inference from experience is frequently unreliable. We get around this by comparing notes. By critically comparing notes we can make accurate and precise inferences about the world. At present on the human scale of mass, length, and energy our inferences are more precise than our ability to measure them.

The world looks different at different scales of mass, length, and energy (something that only became clear with the advent of accurate optics in the 17th Century). At the very least this means that we have to use different descriptions appropriate to those levels. But it is likely that the world is actually different on different scales, since we can make accurate and precise inferences about how objects behave at most of the levels that exist - though at the far extremes our present theories break down. Humans live somewhere the middle of the stack of the levels. We completely understand the physics of this level.

Seeking knowledge we can study lower levels to gain knowledge of parts and ultimately the stuff the universe is made of. Or we can study higher levels to gain knowledge of structures and systems. Different methods apply in either direction. Neither direction is more real or less real.

Causation is not a feature of the most fundamental levels. The world simply evolves in a patterned way. But causation at the human scale of mass, length, and energy emerges as a real feature of the world. And our prototype for causation is our own willed actions, so animism is natural.

We have conscious states but no consciousness. Conscious states are an emergent property of states in the brain as a system. One property of conscious states is that we have a first person perspective on experience. We don't know how yet.

Many experiences can be interpreted as motivated by an invisible external conscious agency, or as affirming mind-body dualism. To naive individuals such things are certain. The conflict around such things is more fundamental that a split between science and religion. It is between scepticism and naivete, where naivete is the natural position for humans to take.

Social animals have evolved empathy and reciprocity, and it is out of social interactions of individuals who prioritise these qualities that morality emerges. As it happens evolution is partly a matter of divisions, divergence, and competition, but largely a matter of combinations, symbiosis, commonality, and cooperation.

The lack of a supernatural, eliminating all gods, all forms of afterlife, and all extensions of moral concepts like fairness or justice to the world, does not make life less meaningful (nihilism). It makes our one and only life more meaningful (existentialism). But is also a burden.

Morality is partly a set of dispositions to follow the rules of our groups; and partly a choice to do so. We lean towards being prosocial, but there can be incentives towards being antisocial - a lot depends on what level of society the individual feels the strongest connections. Our collective dispositions and choices make the world moral or immoral.

Civilisation has changed the social environment so much that we now require a whole new skill set to thrive and prosper. Buddhism provides a number of skills for working with our minds and creating community amongst unrelated, disparate individuals. However, Buddhism, being based on pre-modern ideas, is itself in need of radical transformation. In my opinion this includes adopting all of the propositions stated above and understanding the justifications for doing so.

Everything changes, everything is up for debate.

20 January 2017

Recently I wrote about the role of reciprocity in the evolution of morality. Pretty much all social mammals understand give and take in a social environment. I also wrote about how George Lakoff identified the image of balancing the books or paying debts as essential to how we conceptualise morality. Obviously reciprocity lends itself to this debt and repayment model.

Here's the thing though. Marketing people have identified a cognitive bias that they exploit to lure you to buy stuff. If you give someone something for free, that person feels subtly indebted to you. They may not be consciously aware of the transactional nature of the exchange, but reciprocity goes very deep for social animals.

After you receive your free gift, or opportunities to taste something, your "on-sale" or "two-for-one" items, you can come away with a subtle sense of indebtedness. If you are in a shop that gives you something for free, you tend to feel an obligation to spend money there. That's why they have free tastings in supermarkets in the first place. It's not a compulsion and some people can walk away. It's more of a tiny voice in the back of your mind reminding you that fairness requires give and take.

It has become quite a common marketing trick on the internet too. I know some of my friends have been advised to take this approach, because, well it works. So I thought I'd point out the underlying psychology of the approach.

Rolf Dobelli lists reciprocity as a kind of cognitive bias in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly. Which surprised me at first. I thought of it as only as a virtue. But he points out that retaliation, revenge, feud, and vendetta are also forms of reciprocity. Thinking about stuff certainly makes life complicated. I sort of sympathise with people who just give up on it.

19 January 2017


Often when writing I subsequently discover that something I thought of myself has been thought before. I don't mind too much not being original, especially if the person who thought of it first is smart. After all, I got to the same conclusion on my own, right?

Sometimes however the idea is attributed to someone I don't like, say a post-modernist like Gilles Deleuze. Today's example is what he called arborescence - which he uses to refer to the overriding principle that sees nature in terms of a series of binary branches.

Back in 2013 I complained that the tree metaphor was hopeless for evolution because evolution was characterised as much by convergence as by divergence. For example all Europeans have Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, as well as genes from another human species of which we have no fossil record. The tree cannot show this. I suggested a braided river might be a better metaphor.

Now I discover that Deleuze and another French guy made the same kind of complaint in 1980! I disagree with him on just about every other aspect of philosophy - so far as I can tell. But I've adopted his term.

The same argument is made against seeing features like gender as a simple binary. Actually Edward de Bono mentions something like this in his weirdly titled book I Am Right and You Are Wrong (1990). He attributes these either/or watersheds to inherent features of neural networks.

14 January 2017

Antidepressants Don't Work. Sorry.

Are antidepressants effective? The definitive answer from a recent review seems to be "no". Antidepressants are typically no better than placebo and when they are better, the effect is tiny. And antidepressants often have unpleasant side-effects.

Why did we think otherwise? Why did we think Prozac, say, was a wonder drug, when in fact it has very little antidepressant effect? Why did people think it changed them?

The simple answer is bias. Biased studies, produced by biased researchers, published in biased journals, reviewed by biased editors and reviewers. Bias is very difficult to eliminate. In this case the drugs were very expensive to develop and test. So the temptation to exaggerate the effect was enormous. This was mainly done by not reporting studies that showed no or negative effects. But some of the studies were poorly designed and also allowed bias to creep in. Whether this was deliberate or unconscious is another matter. The fact is that bias was an important factor in the science of these drugs.

And this was backed up by the usual media hysteria about wonder-drugs. The media are a particularly pernicious element in this situation. Even more than the big pharmaceutical companies they are invested in bias. News media bias is towards any story that will provoke strong emotions, especially anger, disgust, fear, or lust. And if a promising story doesn't quite make the grade it can easily be sensationalised so that it does the job. Prozac became a sensation for precisely this reason. A lot of false information about "happy pills" circulated and the general public became thoroughly misinformed on the subject of antidepressants.

And because of the bad science and the media hype the people prescribing these drugs were already biased when they started dishing them out and this meant they were more likely to focus on apparent successes and less likely to even see apparent failures. Many people prescribed the drug were not really depressed. So a bit of placebo was all they needed to feel better.

All this adds up to a massive misunderstanding. We had to wait for a whole new generation of scientists to be hatched and start questioning the orthodoxy. Which is what is happening now.

I used to be a firm believer. I bought the chemical imbalance narrative of depression and the drug treatment option. I took various drugs for decades. But they didn't really work. I still got depressed. I still got suicidal (despite being on two antidepressants). It's facetious, but there is some truth to the quip:
"Before you diagnose yourself with depression, check you are not surrounded by arseholes."  
Although I have some underlying pathology, the usual trigger for my depression is situational, and especially to do with conflicts in my living situation. Depression is an adaptive response to our environment. For example if it is triggered by hyper-stimulation, we may become aversive to sensory stimulation or find ourselves responding with anger to everything. Because of the distorting effect that psychoanalysis has had on our intellectual landscape we don't look for situation causes, we only look for individual psychological causes. But this is almost always a mistake. Environment, and especially social environment, is always a factor in mental illness. It is not always the immediate or necessary cause, but it is always a factor. In my case it has frequently been causal and it accounts for the underlying pathology.

So the whole long experiment with these drugs has been a misunderstanding based on bias and misinformation.

This raises the question that if ADs don't work, is there an moral argument for, say, homoeopathy? The homoeopath gives a null-treatment, delivered with conviction in a semi-ritualised context to cultivate belief. That belief in the treatment generates the placebo effect which results in a real increase in well-being!

BTW if you are taking antidepressants and this news tempts you to stop taking them, please do so gradually. Suddenly stopping them can have very unpleasant withdrawal effects. Taper off doses gradually. And let people know, because it will most likely be disturbing.

08 January 2017

Sangharakshita and Romanticism

Like Suzuki and Govinda, Sangharakshita embeds his characterisation of Buddhism and its relation to art in a discourse derived in part from Romanticism and its successors. This is apparent not only from his explicit estimation of Romantics such as Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Beethoven as representatives of the best of "naturally religious art" but also in the way he attempts to isolate the internal, experiential component as the essential element of religion to which all others are subordinate or of which they are corruptions. The influence of Romanticism is also evident in his critique of industrialism and its aesthetic sensibilities and his approval of the simple beauty of peasant homes. He echoes the Romantic, moreover, in his representation of art as expressive of sublime, interior, and transrational states, as well as his insistence that true art is conducive to morality, which nevertheless might transcend mainstream moral codes. 

McMahan, David L. (2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. (138)

06 January 2017

Survivorship bias.

One of my learning goals for the year is to become more familiar with biases.

Survivorship Bias is a bias of systematically over-estimating our chances of success because when we scan the environment for information on our chances, we see a lot of successes. However, this is because failures often leave no trace. Failures write no books, make no albums, etc. Failures are not usually celebrated. What we see are the survivors, e.g. Google rather than Altavista.

Most business ventures fail. Most musicians never get that record deal. Most authors never get published. Etcetera. The reason is not usually a quality issue. Good business ideas fail. Good authors and musicians are denied. A lot of it comes down to luck or persistence. Most small businesses are under-capitalised for example and are not able to persist long enough to get into profit, which can take five years of trading. A record deal often depends on the right person seeing an act on the right night and taking a personal interest. Or on what kind of pop music happens to be in fashion (a lot of people who make it by tapping into fashion don't last because fashions change).

This not to say that everyone is doomed or that we'll never succeed. It is a warning that in assessing our chances of success we need to look at examples of failures as well as successes. What did people get wrong as well as what they got right. We mostly underestimate the amount of persistence in the face of adversity required for success.

05 January 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts

My body has been taken over by a virus that has turned it into a croaky, spluttering, snot factory!

Actually, if you like the idea of micro-organisms taking over our bodies for their own purposes, then I recommend a recent book called The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

The basic premise is that spooky real life fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis aka The Zombie Fungus, which parasitises ants, suddenly crosses the species barrier and infects humans.

In real life, carpenter ants foraging on the forest floor get infected with spores. The spores produce an enzyme which melts the insects tough exoskeleton. Once inside the spore germinates and hyphae invade the ant's brain. This causes a behavioural change. Ants stop foraging on the forest floor and transporting food back to their treetop nests. They climb down the tree until temperature and humidity are just right for the fungus to thrive, typically about 30 cm from the forest floor. They then bite into the underside of a leaf and hang there by their jaws. The fungus slowly kills the ant by digesting its internal organs. When it matures a mushroom grows out of the ant's head. The mushroom then releases thousands of spores, which create a zone of about about 1 square metre in which more ants will become infected and repeat the cycle.

The Girl With All the Gifts is not quite a zombie story, but finds a relatively plausible way to have zombie-like characters that are not supernatural. The target audience is young adults, so the book is not too gruesome, though some of the scenes are quite grim and horrific. The author does a very interesting riff on the premise. The characters are engaging. Their responses to the situations they find themselves in make the reader think. The twist that wraps up the story is ingenious and given the alternative, quite satisfying. There is no deus ex machina to spoil the ending, no miracles or out of place magic.

This is naturalistic imaginative fiction at its best. It ought to defy the crippling genre pigeon holes that can limit readership, but probably won't, which is a shame.