non + x: Issue Eight


Issue Eight of non + x is Out


(B ⊂ R) ⇒ ?: If Buddhism is a Religion, then what? By Richard K. Payne

This essay is intended primarily as an analysis. The one programmatic goal is to call into question the adoption of the category of religion by Buddhists.While in many cases this is simply a kind of default, there are also Buddhist groups that have purposely adopted the cloak of religion, and participate actively in the rhetoric of “we the religious (good, moral, etc.) people” in opposition to “those secular, humanist, atheistic, materialistic (bad, immoral, etc.) people.” Such a rhetoric generally employs a kind of nostalgic anti-modernism. Pointing out the rhetorical entailments of identifying Buddhism as a religion will hopefully help to make problematic the purposeful adoption of that category as a vehicle for solidarity with other religions in opposition to the realities of our contemporary existence.

A Buddhist Critique of Cartesian Dualism in the Cognitive Sciences By William S. Waldron

The task of “naturalizing mind” has been underway for some decades now and its assumptions either explicitly or implicitly underlie nearly all research in the brain sciences. “Naturalizing mind” refers to the attempt to understand how mind and mental phenomena work by reference to nothing but the material processes measurable, in principle, by the natural sciences. On the face of it, this is a promising direction. As technology keeps improving, so too does our ability to probe into neurological processes, revealing more and more about how the brain works. Unfortunately, the notion of “naturalization” carries with it certain philosophical assumptions about the relation between mind and matter that make it much more problematic than first appears.

Taking Anatman Full Strength and Śāntideva’s Ethics of Truth By Tom Pepper

There is probably no Buddhist concept that has caused more debate, confusion, and misunderstanding than the concept of anatman. Everybody seems to want to assert fidelity to this central Buddhist teaching, but nobody is quite as eager to embrace all the implications of what I will call a full-strength anatman. It is too troubling, for a multitude of reasons, to accept the possibility that the early Buddhists really meant that there is no atman at all, of any kind. So, we get a host of watered-down, more palatable versions of anatman, which turn out always to sneak some kind of atman in under another name. The implication of this, I will argue, is the complete elimination of any possibility that Buddhist thought and practice could function to decrease suffering in the world, the complete destruction of the bodhisattva path.

Creative Writing

Ninth Letter By Akilesh Ayyar

I’m telling her why New York now has bakeries to rival Paris when the sluices open and cold fact faster than a flood submerges me.

The words I just said did not come from me.

Those words came, and these words that I am thinking—these very words—come from elsewhere.

I am, after all, not sitting in some little workshop hammering out, from all possible words, these words. They just—zip—come to mind, sequential as a teleprompter. Only better, because this teleprompter reels off not just words but images and sensations of all sorts, like that red elephant on a beach ball I saw before drifting off last night, not to mention feelings and memories.

Strange I never noticed this before.


What Kind of Scientist was Buddha?
Review of The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., and Buddha’s Brain, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
By Tom Pepper

Donald Lopez begins the fourth chapter of The Scientific Buddha with a brief discussion of the history of phrenology. This is offered as a cautionary example, to remind us that what is widely accepted as scientific truth often comes to appear absurd in hindsight. How could anyone possibly have believed in such ridiculous notions as phrenology, alchemy, the four humors, and phlogiston? Lopez is interested in detaching the investigation of Buddhism from the claims that it is somehow scientific, that it is saying exactly the same thing as our newest scientific discourses and is therefore a spirituality perfectly suited modern times. I will return to a discussion of how successfully I think Lopez has accomplished this important goal; first, though, I want to consider another question that this discussion of phrenology raised for me: why do we persist in believing silly things?

I want to consider this question in connection with a book which is one of the most successful proponents of the scientific Buddha’s newest incarnation: Buddha’s Brain.

Please leave any comments you may have about the issue right here. Thanks.

37 responses to “non + x: Issue Eight”

  1. Mark Tatz Avatar
    Mark Tatz

    In regard to “If Buddhism is a Religion, then what?”, let’s not forget “Abingdon v. Schempp”:
    “…it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion.” (United States Supreme Court Justices Clark and Goldberg
    in Abingdon v. Schempp [1963]). This decision, which primarily banned Bible-reading and prayer in public schools, secondarily opened the door to the academic study of religion in higher education. There was subsequently a proliferation of Religion departments in American higher education. Liberally, Buddhism and other “non-Western” traditions were incorporated. That’s where the jobs are. Most American buddhologists are now trained in the various methodologies of Religious Studies, which were originally developed to explicate the “religions of the book.” Previously, buddhologists were nurtured in the historical and cultural womb of Area Studies, or Language Studies. In addition, the labeling of Buddhism as “religion” makes it difficult to break into departments of Philosophy. This helps to explain the divergence of Buddhist Studies in America from Buddhist Studies in Europe and Japan.

  2. matthewmgioia Avatar

    Tom: Thank you for your explication of the implications and meaning of anatman. It reminds me what initially interested me in Buddhism (as a recovering Rinzai Zen practitioner, I wonder how I got wrapped up in chasing satori when, as you show, the presumption that such an experience is possible clearly contradicts a core insight of Buddhism – at least I’m out before age 30).

    Please help me to understand a couple things a little better:


    the benefit of grasping the meaning of anatman is
    that we can see exactly how these selves are constructed, how the social structures which construct them contribute to suffering, and how we can work to change those structures and reduce suffering…anatman means that there is no transcendent soul, self, or consciousness of any kind, but only this socially-constructed self exists, the obvious response, the only response that makes sense, is social action.

    I know this has come up in different places on the blog already, but I’m wondering about the nature of social action driven by insight into anatman. Of course, many people and groups who are explicitly or implicitly atmanists undertake social action and charity work. The “Engaged Buddhists” preach compassionate action. What is different about the social action of a “full-strength” anatmanist? What is different about her daily routines? What do you do? I notice that one thing you do is write articles and participate in blogversations – is that part of the task of anatmanist (to preach the gospel)? What about traditional religious duties like tending to the sick and the downtrodden? What about teaching children to think critically and carefully? Does that improve the symbolic/imaginary system? (Just to be clear – those are all sincere questions).


    This particular mechanism for the dependent arising of the mind may not be one that
    can be found in early Buddhist texts, but I believe it in no way contradicts them. It is simply our modern explanation, a more familiar discourse, in which to explain how the mind occurs completely within the laws of nature, how it arises and thinks and changes and grows, with no need for recourse to any kind of eternal or dualistic entity.

    If you describe the mechanism accurately, why do you think it is entirely absent from the canon? Are there any references to a “collective mind” or a “symbolic/imaginary system”? If there are not, do you think “the protagonist” was aware of these things? Is the collective mind you describe similar to the collective consciousness of Carl Jung?

    3. What does “nibbana” mean in light “full-strength anatman?”

    sorry for so many questions

    thanks a million


  3. Danny Avatar

    Tom: re “Taking Anatman Full Strenth”

    Thanks for this Tom. This essay should be required reading for all buddhists and non-buddhists–but especially western buddhist teachers. It would be interesting to hear some reaction from them. Full strenth anatman brings with it a deeper apprehension of conventional truth and engagement with conventional reality, the only reality we have.
    This really resonates with me having just finished reading Moonshadows essays by the Cowherds, particularly the last chapter on ethics.

    Thanks again for writing so clearly about what is often a very confusing subject…

  4. Tomek Avatar

    The goal of Buddhism has not, generally, been comfort and the maintenance of an indifferent ignorance about the nature of reality.

    Since the full understanding of the causes and conditions that give rise to phenomena is one of the actual goals of Buddhism in many of its manifestations, someone interested in learning about Buddhism would be far better served by reading Lopez’s book than by wasting their time trying to achieve a permanent state of infantile bliss.

    This version of Buddhism, I would suggest, denies us any capacity to overcome the powerful fantasy of imaginary plenitude that is at the core of most Western Buddhism today. (What Kind of Scientist Was Buddha? T. Pepper)

    For those reading Peppers review: remember that his x-buddhistic fantasizing about reducing suffering is based just on his own idiosyncratic rendition of Mahayana doctrine and its goal – “awakening” or “seeing into the real nature of phenomena” or “Buddha-hood” – not on Buddhism in general as he clearly wants to picture it. The following verses might be his starting mantra:

    There is not the slightest difference
    Between cyclic existence and nirvana.
    There is not the slightest difference
    Between nirvana and cyclic existence.

    Whatever is the limit of nirvana,
    That is the limit of cyclic existence.
    There is not even the slightest difference between them,
    Or even the subtlest thing. (MMK, XXV: 19, 20)

    All in all he’s right that the full understanding of the causes and conditions that give rise to phenomena is one of the actual goals of Buddhism in many of its manifestations, but contrary to what he writes understanding of causation in Pali Suttas was always about one Remote Goal – the main goal of Pali Buddhism – that is, the ending of the individual rebirth cycle crowned with the magical disappearance in wholly transcendent nirvana, which to every reasonable person living in XXI century is nothing else but exactly achieving a permanent state of infantile bliss, comfort and indifference. Or in other words escaping unscathed from the empty reality. This is the Real End of Suffering that Pali Buddhism was always teaching about. The highest dharmic good. Not some reduction of suffering that Pepper turgidly fantasizes about.

    Consider the following fragment from The Making of Buddhism Modernism by D. McMahan which I hope can be of help in recognizing the subtleties that make Pali Suttas depending origination different from Mahayana’s. Understanding this important distinction can be helpful in tracking down the fountainhead of Peppers x-buddhistic faith that fuels his unyielding devotion to propagate his own version of x, Peppers liberative vision, the highest truth.

    His version of Buddhism, I would suggest, is at best a good point to drop the mask of being Buddhist not a method to overcome the the powerful fantasy of imaginary plenitude that is at the core of Western Buddhism today and has always been through the ages in Asia.

    Rather than attempting to attain nirvana and reject samsara, Nagarjuna and the Perfection of Wisdom literature suggest that what is important is stopping the conceptual reification of any dharma at all, thus seeing all of them as empty. Apprehending the true empty nature of the dharmas that make up dependent origination, therefore, can be the occasion for liberation, for their nature is ultimately the same as that of nirvana itself.

    Seeing dependent origination, therefore, is awakening. This is not a new idea: Pali suttas claim that on the night of his awakening, Sakyamuni Buddha “saw” dependent origination, beholding the causes and conditions that produce both suffering and its cessation. Through this sweeping vision of all causes and conditions, he was able to enact his own liberation (Ud 1.3). There is a subtle difference, however, between the emerging Mahayana understanding of “seeing” dependent origination and that of the Pali traditions. The biographies of the Buddha present him as seeing dependent origination first in the specific case of the trajectory of his own karma extending back into the infinite past, thus apprehending all of the causes and conditions that have brought him to the brink of awakening. This vision then expands to encompass the causes and conditions of all sentient beings and the karmic trajectories by which they have come to be what they are. The seeing of dependent origination, therefore, is not in itself liberative; it is not a becoming one with the world, merging with the infinite web of existence, in fact, the Buddha becomes “disjoined” from the world (Iti 112). This, in turn, gives him a thorough understanding of the entire process of dependent origination, that is, the factors that give rise to dissatisfaction. His vision was a kind of map or instruction manual of the way of their undoing, leading to liberation (see e.g. Ud 1.3). It is possible to read Nagarjuna, however, as abandoning this interpretation of “seeing dependent origination” as a map in favor of simply seeing any dharma in its emptiness as sufficient for apprehending the highest truth. Seeing the emptiness of all dharmas renders one liberated in this world. Revulsion for dependent origination is no better than clinging to it; the important thing is
    not so much transcending it altogether as seeing into its true nature.

    This reading of Nagarjuna is supported by quite a few Mahayana sutras that reinterpret the ultimate goal of Buddhism, shifting the focus from transcending samsara to various conceptions of awakened life in the midst of the world. Subsequently, tendencies emerge toward a view of this “seeing” of dependent origination as a kind of vision of the cosmos that is itself liberative, aside from any “instructive” elements showing the causes and conditions of both bondage and liberation. (p. 157-8)

  5. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    RE #2: To answer your questions (somewhat) briefly,

    1) There are thousands of kinds of social action we could take. There’s no single best project, with so much to be done. My first goal to help teach people to grasp the nature of anatman, because we can’t do anything unless we first realize that we can actually reduce human suffering by changing the social systems that produce subjects. But there are many other activities that would be useful. One example, just to highlight the difference between real social action and attempts to make the system more tolerable: I’ve read a ridiculous number of essays by “engaged” Buddhists about being “mindful” while driving, trying to reduce our angry reaction, to be more calm and kind on the road. But if we understand the nature of anatman, and the dependent origination of the subject, the goal would be, instead, to eliminate the need to have everyone driving around all day in cars—the most wasteful and deadly form of transportation possible, killing about 600 people a week in the U.S. alone, and destroying the planet faster than all other uses of energy combined. A really engaged action, to reduce human suffering, would be to forget about trying to drive calmly, and start getting active promoting truly useful public transportation and changes in lifestyle that make cars less necessary (and not by just giving up your own car, which wouldn’t really help anyway until the public transportation is working). The action is simple: understand dependent arising, locate a cause of human suffering, and then start working to eliminate it. Of course, you will be told by everyone that this is pointless, nothing can be done, capitalism is natural and inevitable and so the destruction of the planet and the suffering of humanity must go on . . . , but then you have to ignore the reactionaries, and keep trying.

    2) I think there are plenty of references in Buddhist texts to the collective mind—but, like the example of Santideva, they have been mostly misunderstood, and most x-buddhists and Buddhist scholars insist they are either profound, mystical, and ineffable, or they are just unclear and poor thinking. Karma is the language in which early Buddhism explained what I call the collective mind. Symbolic/imaginary system is just a more contemporary discourse for it. I wouldn’t expect so see this language in the early cannon any more than I would expect to see the language of contemporary theoretical physics. I think of Buddha as a collective subject, a literary discourse lasting centuries, and yes, at times, this discourse is aware of the concept of the collective mind. No, it has nothing to do with what Jung meant by collective unconscious, which was very close to the idea of “substrate consciousness” or atman. It is much closer to what Freud meant by collective unconscious—which is that the unconscious is to a large extent in our culture and language, and so shared by a large group of people.

    3) What is nirvana? On this, I would suggest that I agree completely with Nagarjuna. It is the ability to act in the world with full awareness that our ideology/conventional reality IS an ideology/conventional reality, and so can be changed to reduce suffering. Sounds easy, but really, go to the corner bar and try to convince the guy on the next stool that his beliefs are a culturally produced ideology. Hell, try going to the nearest university and try convincing a psychology or economics professor of this. Most people just will not consider this. And we don’t have the ability to change our ideology alone—it is always a collective thing, so we can’t get to Nirvana until we all get there.

    Sorry for such long answers.

    Re#3: Yeah, I love the book “Moonshadows.” If more people read that instead of all those Thich Nhat Hanh books, Buddhism might be more useful today. And I’d love to hear what all the brand-name Western teachers have to say about “full-strength anatman,” but I won’t hold my breath. I’ve interacted with some of them, and the response I get is usually a list of their credentials—they start naming all the “famous” Buddhists they’ve “studied” or “practiced” with, or telling my how much time they spent in eastern countries. They never respond to what I say.

    As for #4: I’ll continue my policy of not responding to reactionary nonsense. I just don’t have the time or inclination right now.

  6. Tomek Avatar

    Tom (#5), yes, you have you policies but fortunately I can read between the lines… Your explanation of karma as symbolic/imaginary system is a classic example of modern demythologization of karma where the most salient feature is the dispersion of karmic responsibility into the social system. In that you’re hand in hand with your favorite x-buddhistic foe Mr. Thây and his doctrine of interbeing in which not individual’s morally significant actions – as in early understanding of dependent origination – are the direct causes of the rebirths in various circumstances (six buddhistic realms) but systemic causes. Through the understanding of karma as yours, moral responsibility is decentered from the solitary individual and spread throughout the entire social system. This is pure form of modern engaged Buddhism that you so despise, which again emphasizes systemic and not just individual causes of suffering. Let me again use the help of McMahan, who so incisively analysis the modern reinterpretations of x-buddhistic doctrines as the one you preach:

    In classical portrayals of karma, nature responds to the individual’s actions to produce circumstances resulting from those actions. Disease, floods, injury—or in contrast, a narrow escape from such things—may all be interpreted as the results (phala) of the individual’s actions (karma). Variations on this view that nature responds directly to human action are pervasive in ancient and medieval worlds. (…)

    We may dismiss such things today as symbolic, but we cannot dismiss their important part in the way many people have understood their lives. The idea of random chance, while perhaps not unique to the modern period, is atypical in nonmodern societies. Solar eclipses, thunderstorms, illnesses, and coincidences have meant things, on a personal or communal level, that they have tended not to mean to those who subscribe to a scientific worldview. They were warnings, signs, or consequences. (…)

    The classical idea of karma is more a systematic regularization of nature’s supposed responses to human action than a “natural law,” as it has often been called. The underlying idea is that moral responses are intertwined with natural processes, and that they shape individuals’ circumstances in direct response to their morally significant actions. Karmic results, however, do directly shape a great deal of one’s life. They determine the realm of life one will be reborn in, whether one is born into high or low social standing, and whether as an animal, human, or other order of life. And there are more specific correspondences between particular actions and characteristics a person acquires as a result. People who harm other creatures tend to be sickly in this or future lives, while those who do not are healthy. Those who are irritable tend to be ugly, while those who are not are handsome. Jealous people tend to be weak, while those free from jealousy are strong (MN 35). The early understanding of dependent origination was of a piece with this doctrine of karma, in that it described not so much how natural phenomena in the world arise but rather how beings have come to be born and reborn in various circumstances through their own karma. The idea that the circumstances in one’s life are primarily determined by one’s past actions is obviously more difficult to accept today. The modern view of causality supposes that any event comes about through a multiplicity of causal trajectories that cannot be understood as governed primarily by an individual’s morally significant actions. (173-4)

    I wouldn’t mind if you try to reduce suffering using theories created by, say, Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Lacan, Zizek, whatever, I would even like to learn from you because you obviously know great deal about those thinkers, but when I see your no matter how sophisticated mutation of dharmic x being projected onto those thinkers and their theories, I cannot help saying that its just another example of x-buddhistic decisional bullishit.

  7. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Tomek, I’m familiar with your tired reactionary argument. You’ve been asserting the same objection for a year, and I’ve explained the conceptual error in your objection a hundred times. It has just become tedious and unproductive. McMahan simply assumes that what most x-buddhists understood to be Buddhism is the only thing we can call Buddhism, and this is true for Buddhist scholars, who must remain “objectively” descriptive. However, because most x-buddhists have been reactionary Buddhist subjects does not require us to abandon the truth found in Buddhist thought. This is like arguing that because the theory of evolution has been misrepresented and used to produce evil right-wing ideology every since it was first propounded, we must abandon the theory completely and stop studying evolution.

  8. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tom
    Thanks for this essay…. you wouldn’t believe how long I have scoured X buddhist sites in the past for something such as this! (not to mention bookshops!) At last someone has explicitly included social , cultural, political and ideological factors in their exposition of dependent origination! Such an obvious move but seemingly a step that secular buddhists find impossible to take ; for obvious reasons of course- to do so would demand engagement with issues that would take the exposition of buddhism out of its cosy individualist nook, and expose it to the barbs of contemporary political polemics!
    The concept of anatman is almost always presented by xbuddhism as a core belief, As Richard k Payne has pointed out in another essay in this issue the idea of Buddhism as a set of core beliefs is suspect; a possible imposition of a christian theological construct on an ancient corpus; worse an imposition of narrow definitions of the individual as an essentialist monad , a vision beloved of contemporary neo-liberals and one perfectly adapted to the vision of unending development and over consumption of late capitalism!
    The presentation of anatman, or emptiness, as a core belief abstracted from any social context, (both the one it arose out of and the one they actually operate within) is also an attempt by xbuddhism to do the opposite from the above –an attempt to put Buddhism on an equal footing with science .
    The presumption here is that since (in the popular imagination) the reductive procedure is scientific it follows that the reduction of the self to the skandas in the early sutras and the summation of it as a reduction applying to all entities( as in Nargajunas explication) is also scientific. Since science is seen to be national and since the reduction to the skandas is presented as rationally justified and even experientially confirmed (by way of meditative introspection) surly then buddhism is scientific? or at least not in contradiction to science but even complimenting it in some way, This I think is an accurate description of the way in which most of xbuddhism is presented.
    The point here is that the whole notion of the advantages of this reduction is just assumed. It appears to be a reasonable assumption and has the advantage of providing buddhism with a double- edged sword, on the one hand allowing buddhism to appear in a superior light in comparison to the other ‘world religions’ and their reliance on ‘revelation or an outlandish metaphysics. And on the other by removing buddhism from the category of religion altogether. This approach is embedded within a broader confluence of unexamined notions introjected whole , including the notion that science, modernity, rationality just are superior, and that because the objects of scientific analysis , material and biological entities, are seen to be composed of levels or stratum , an analogy can be drawn with the ‘journey inward or down’, of buddhist practice; moreover a turn inward to stratum that can be got at by applying the procedure of conceptual reduction , but thereafter requiring another methodology (meditation) to enable further enquiry.
    And once the meditative process can be shown to be just a refining of the scientific method the trope of the journey in or down can continue until one reaches the ground of mind itself, and beyond that the primordial ground of the all ! And here xbuddhisn can claim another fortunate correspondence——–surely this primordial ground is that same ground proclaimed by quantum physics… a mysterious realm in which all of the Newtonian laws are overturned! Again it should be emphasized that the question here is not one of epistemological validation —- is the scientific method superior,is the reduction to the scandas truly a scientific approach, is meditation a form of scientific enquiry, is there a correlation between a primordial ground and the quantum realm ( to my mind the answer to all these questions is no)——–but rather that these tropes are an underlying introjected structure upon which xbuddhists build what looks like a viable spiritual ‘practice’ but is in reality a practice as flimsy as a house of cards. In other words I am arguing against a covert ideological move by xbuddhism.

    This is of critical importance for any discussion concerning the meaning of anatman.
    If non-buddhism is a move that allows a distancing from buddhism in order to expose its ideological excess than it is better to my mind to start by arguing from the present—-that is from the position of what the sciences, and modern/ postmodern thought has to tell us about the nature of phenomena, including the nature of the social, economic, cultural, language and conceptual processes that condition how any set of human beings view ‘ self and environment’ and not from a position visa vie buddhism or from a particular buddhist trope such as anatman. From the position of the present state of knowledge atman can be examined as a trope embedded within the structures of classical buddhist society, or as one embedded within the processes of late capitalism. Starting from this standpoint one can discuss Atman in a way that keeps the ideological aspect to the fore while giving ample scope for investigating the usefulness of the concept of Atman and the uses to which it is put as an ideological element functioning in an actual world.
    But the study of what the concept anatman actually refers to ,dependent origination , is not an esoteric trope immune from scientific or investigation; dependent origination is the very stuff of science.
    Science and rationality are the final arbitrators of what the notion of anatman could mean and not classical buddhism or its modern xbuddist variant. Indeed science and critical thought (and not x Buddhism) are also the arbitrators of how anatman functioned within classical society and how it might function now as a trope within the structures of late capitalism. The meaning of anatman can never be just abstracted out of its historical and social context without reducing it to an irrelevance! Indeed a view of anatman is available without reference to Buddhism at all——-I mean a systems or field view of the individual entity (human or otherwise) that sees it as the in the context of a complex web of interactions; in which the individual is a nexus of effects(events?)occurring simultaneously within a multi-dimensional field; a biological/physical, mental/ psychological, economic/social/cultural nexus of effects dynamically interacting. Critical thinking is that form of thinking that tries to explicate the unfolding dynamic of this field of interdependent events as reflected within human consciousness visa vie particular social contexts.
    Your presentation of mind as a collective imaginary/symbolic system is an example of what can be done when one starts from the position of the state of present knowledge rather than from abstract definitions rooted in particular readings of ancient forms of discourse.
    Using this approach does not , as you rightly say, exclude or undervalue the insights of classical Buddhism but allows their retrieval of such insights in the context of a critical understanding of their function as ideological tropes and their possible value for us here and now.

  9. Craig Avatar


    What the fuck are you talking about? Seriously, I have no idea what you are saying in any of your comments on this blog. I’m curious if you have anything to say. Tom says your points are reactionary. I don’t even see that. I just see gibberish. Could you state something clearly?

  10. Tomek Avatar

    Don’t you think Tom (#7) that it would be more honest of you if you actually stop using this loaded Western neologism “Buddhism” for your “truth” that you allegedly find in Buddhism thought? Don’t you think that by this simple move you would immediately drop the whole reactionary buddhistic ballast so uncomfortable for you. The burdensome ballast which when it is seen through a prism of historical and ethnographic research in fact constitute this broad cultural phenomenon – or this “Buddhist nebula” as B. Faure calls it – that since 18th century Jesuits has been known in the West simply as “Buddhism”. Why not abandon the label and save your “truth”? Why not risk the legitimization that the label obviously brings to your project and be free of its inevitable burden?

  11. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Re #10: No, frankly, I cannot see how intentionally being deceptive and pretending that in our modern superiority we can now uncover a truth that has never been thought before is in any way “more honest.” I think it is more honest to admit that this truth has been uncovered repeatedly throughout human history, and that our ability to understand it today depends completely on the collective mind, not on ahistorical and unique “genius” of present-day individuals. To ignore the history of this truth would also be to abandon all the lessons we can learn from the thousands of years of attempts to misrepresent, obscure, and repress this truth–and so, we will fall into the same reactionary and obscurantist traps that have worked so often in the past. It would be just as foolish as deciding to abandon all of psychoanalytic thought and start from scratch, just because of the “reactionary ballast” that makes it so difficult to get anyone to understand psychoanalytic theory correctly.

    Wouldn’t it be more honest, for you, to admit that your goal is to avoid the recognition that capitalism is a humanly created social system, designed to oppress the majority in the interest of the minority, and that as such it can be eliminated? That your interest is to prevent any appearance of, or fidelity to, truth? Isn’t this obsessive attempt to obfuscate the reason you keep repeating the exact same tired argument, and refusing to understand any response to it? Isn’t this why you wind up with absurd and contradictory arguments, like your claim here that the “label” Buddhism is both the source of “legitimization” and a “burdensome ballast.” Surely, it can’t be both, both the legitimizing term which makes my argument (falsely) effective and the burdensome term which makes it absolutely ineffective?

    Once again, and then I’ll stop trying: just because “Buddhism” has been misunderstood, and used to produce reactionary ideology for centuries, does not mean we must therefore ignore the truth it offers us. To do this is as foolish as it is to reject the theory of the unconscious, or historical materialism, or evolution, simply because they have been consistently and willfully misunderstood for over a century. It is to give in to the reactionary and obscurantist attempts to prevent the appearance of truth–if a truth can be distorted and obscured for long enough, and by enough people, then we have to give it up, and attempt to start again. Because the mind is collective, we can never “start from scratch,” and the foolish idea that we should try to do so is just the triumph of reactionary ideology.

  12. Tomek Avatar

    Hi Craig (#9), your having no idea of what I’m saying in any of my comments on this blog is probably the mixed result of my bad English and your not much time spent seriously considering the possible implications of Glenn’s article Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism for any permutation of “Buddhism”, past and present. And what about returning to Tom’s post Samsara as the Realm of Ideology and starting reading comments, let’s say, from #66? Who knows maybe this will change your thinking about my “obsessive attempts to obfuscate the reason”. After all, maybe I’m not such a fool as you think I am? Take care!

  13. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    As an addition to my already too-long comment #5: It is also important to point out that the “Buddha Event,” as I see it, is the truth that our mind IS collective, and socially constructed, and yet completely real and not in any way an “illusion.” Exactly HOW the mind is socially constructed can, then, vary according to what particular social system is producing (and re-producing) the particular collective mind. It is entirely likely that the importance of the symbolic system was not as great in a pre-literate or early-literate culture as it is for us today; not that there was NO symbolic system (there clearly was, there was language) but that rituals and practices in the register of the imaginary carried a much greater relative weight, compared to today (when, of course, they are still significant but perhaps dominated somewhat by the symbolic). So, it is possible that the exact mechanisms of the construction of the mind wouldn’t appear in earlier texts, and what we will discover as the present-day causes and conditions of mind are somewhat different from what was discovered thousands of years ago. The important point is to see that the mind is socially constructed, and we can investigate AND CHANGE the way it is constructed–this is the truth that it important to hold on to.

    There are, though, going to be some similarities–we aren’t a radically different species from the humans of 2600 years ago.

    RE #8: This problem of reductivism and the reification of “experience” is as old as meditation, apparently. Already in the 6th century, the Tientai Buddhist Chih-i warned that it was common to become attached to the experience of “meditative absorption” and forget to investigate, in thought, the causes and conditions of our suffering.

  14. Tomek Avatar

    Tom (#11), some conservative American freaks call such self-styled European social-democrats as me by the term communist! And you once again accuse me of being capitalist subject and so on. Don’t you think it’s amusing? I simply charge those accusations off to your cozy American provincialism. I’ll repeat this argument from one of our past conversations here on this blog that your perception of communism is highly idealistic and is probably magnified by too much reading of French intellectuals who are famous of being ridiculously infatuated by the communist utopia. But returning to my capitalism, I’m very critical, for example, of the way the economic transition had been done after 1989, the end of the so called communism period (since 1945) in this country, which was carried out according to the dictates pressed on Poles by IMF and American neoliberalist economists following free market prophesies of M. Freedman, founder of the Chicago school. This was enormous rip off done by neoliberal hawks and their bankers. The same happened all over the world. Read, if you haven’t, Naomi Klein book The Shock Doctrine – there is a special chapter devoted to this difficult transformation period in Poland. But even so the differences between what was here in the past before 1989 and what is here now is totally incomparable. For the better of course and this refers to all the countries of the former Soviet block. I’m saying this to make you think that what from your narrow American perspective can be experienced as capitalistic oppression from perspective of other individuals having actually to do with attempts of building communist utopia on Earth can be seen as liberation. Yes, you will tell me that it was not communism proper but Stalinist fascism but I wish you had a chance to live here or in Ukraine in 70 or 80. You might change your perspective. At that period we’d been long after Stalin and it was much easier to live and although paradoxically some especially elder people feel nostalgia for those past times – majority of Poles can not imagine being brought back to this time of communistic oppression. Think twice before accusing others of enjoying to some degree the regulated movements of the invisible hand of the market. Yes, I’m aware of the enormous disparities of income and where some of that money robbed by IMF after 1989 went to but still it’s incomparable to the rickety movements of the centrally controlled economic system…

    Back to Buddhism. Yes, that’s true. I wind up again and again with these “absurd and contradictory arguments”, with the exception that these are precisely your absurd and contradictory arguments. This is the core of the problem with your project of “forcing the Truth”, namely, the paradox of your wanting to cast away the dharmic ballast and at the same time your bitter awareness that without the legitimization of the label of “Buddhism” you and your plan are doomed to failure. You simply, due to the inbuilt reactionary mechanisms of the “collective mind”, can not have both of them. It hurts. I know. That’s why when I point it to you you make a scene such as “Once again, and then I’ll stop trying”…

  15. Jonah Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    Two questions re: anatman peice (which was great):

    “It is important here to keep in mind that our non-verbal sensations and perceptions are always just as thoroughly socially constructed as our language and concepts.”

    Would you say that said perceptions/sensations are at some level biologically determined? Or is it social construct all the way down, so to speak?

    “We can do this [live in Joy] only when we abandon ethical systems dependent on rules or ideological values, and embrace an ethics based on extending the symbolic/imaginary system to include ever more of the world.”

    What exactly does extending the symbolic system entail? How important is Science in that scheme? I get the sense from other things you’ve said that you are not necessarily of the opinion that being a practicing scientist leads to great joy.


  16. Patrick Avatar

    Hello tom
    I’ve a question along the line of Jonahs concerning science -more particularly concerning the imaginary symbolic system and the idea of a collective mind. I accept that it is not a question of just mapping thought to its correlates; that thought is not reducible to the firing of neurons and yet must be in some way dependent on the brain. I think the idea of a collective mind entirely plausible and the correlation between thinking and language—I mean that thought just is language but;
    Given a connection with the brain how is that connection envisaged? I can’t see how the extension from a solitary mind to a collective sheds light on the exact connection between brain and mind? Maybe I am missing something entirely obvious!

  17. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Jonah: first, be careful of the “all the way down” metaphors, which suggests something like layers. Certainly, we have biological predispositions to perceive certain kinds of things, and even biological limitations on what we can perceive. But those perceptions are going to be completely culturally shaped. For instance, we no doubt have a biological predispositions to notice and be attracted to flowers, because they would indicate sources of food and water. But we cannot say that this is somehow “deeper” than the cultural preference for flowers because they are a sign of affluence, an indication that we can invest resources in growing purely ornamental plants. The biological dispositions is there—we like sweet foods, for instance—but this disposition is always completely occurring within some cultural context as well. We cannot “strip away” the cultural and live as pure animals in our instinctive tendencies, because as humans who use symbolic systems of communication, we always have a culture as well. Even our most biologically determined perceptual tendencies will have a cultural significance.

    As for extending the symbolic system, well, that’s only part of it. We have to extend the imaginary system as well. We can increase our conceptual understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the natural world in science (although what passes for science all too often is trying exactly to avoid doing this); but we also need to increase our ability to interact with and “understand” the world at an imaginary level, and the level of bodily practices and sensations. So that it is an important source of joy to produce theoretical and scientific knowledge, but it is just as important to produce social practices which enable people to interact more fully with one another and the world. For many of us, our interaction with the world means getting in the SUV to drive to the building where we sit in a cubicle in front of a computer until evening, then get back in the SUV to drive home an sit in front of the TV screen. This is suffering. Doing something that increases our interaction with the world beyond what is necessary to produce corporate profits is an important source of joy.

    Patrick: The brain/mind thing is probably the biggest stumbling block to convincing people of the collective mind. What if, to oversimplify a bit, we were to say that the mind is completely in language (of course we know it includes other symbolic systems and the imaginary order, but for now)—then what is the role of the brain? Doesn’t the subject exist in the symbolic order completely before the brain even has any capacity for language? Most of us are born with names and social classes and family expectations, we are a part of the symbolic system, part of some collective mind, and this brain must be incorporated into the symbolic system correctly. We don’t perceive the outside world and then make up words for it, we learn an already existing symbolic system as a way to interact with the world. To use the dangerous computer network metaphor, the brain may have unique data stored on it, but it has to communicate with the network in already existing languages and for already existing purposes. The whole network, though, isn’t on any one computer. Most thought occurs in language, not in “brains.” The brain is necessary, like the wood is necessary to the existence of the chair, but it is not what makes the mind a mind. This is a very important point to get clear on—and I’m probably not doing a good job of clearing it up here. At the moment, I have to go to a meditation group, but if this is still unclear I can perhaps try to explain it better later or tomorrow.

  18. Craig Avatar



    I apologize for about my earlier response to you (#9). Ridiculous and uncalled for. Thanks for taking the high road and not responding in kind. The reality is that I have a difficult time understanding where you are coming from and don’t see in your comments what Tom sees. I guess I don’t want to miss anything 🙂 Going back to re-read some things and try to get a better handle on things before responding,


  19. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tom,
    Thanks for your response.
    I understand perfectly that this question cannot be summarily dealt with; so my question was probably unfair. On the other hand it needs to be asked; as you say’ its the biggest stumbling block to convincing people of the collective mind’
    The collective mind, I mean that whole area of Lacanian discourse is fraught with difficulties, especially for my generation (I’m almost 60). I was weaned on classical Marxism and indulged throughout the seventies and eighties in periods of intense activism followed by a period of disillusionment. ( more a result of the situation in Ireland at the time — I mean settling ideological disputes on the republican left by killing your opponent —not that I was directly involved in that I hasten to add! )
    At the moment I am reading commentaries on Lacan’s ideas ( I find the original transcriptions of his seminars unreadable) I’m complimenting this with a reading of Sokal and Bricmont’s ‘Fashionable Nonsense’!
    I think certain of his ideas are probably indispensable—– my attitude at the moment is to resist dogmatic or totalist formulations in any area of discourse and try to address my superficial grasp on certain ideas ,along with my propensity to become infatuated with the ‘jargon’ used in any particular discourse. ( I continually produce written examples of obscurantism rather than clarification! Ha!)
    I am fascinated by your use of Buddhist, Lacanian and Marxist terminology————I think you have brought together a series of related discourses in a way that has great potential.
    As for the subject of the collective mind and its exact relation to the brain, I would be grateful for any suggestions you might have in relation to books or essays that helped you to clarify your own understanding ( especially in relation to a Marxist take on Lacans ideas ( My problem is that his ideas are embedded within the tradition of Freudian psychoanalysis and I can’t see a coherent way of connecting them to a social and political critique of existing conditions ( a huge subject I know!)
    At the moment I feel like I am ‘lost in a thicket of views’ to use one of the ‘protagonist’s’ catchphrases (I love referring to him in that way!)
    I would be very interested in an essay from you on the ‘brain/Mind problem’ I wish I could agree with you that it dissolves away in the context of the collective mind but I suspect that its a bit like Marx and his whithering away of the state–no sign of such a thing was ever on the horizon ( a species of his own wishful thinking? -but thats another question!)
    This is, by the way, an incredibly good site—I hope it continues to be free from Buddhistic? niceness, without collapsing into downright acrimony.

  20. Patrick Avatar

    HelloTomek, re#14
    Read your post with interest…. I had a German friend staying with me for a week… he was born in 1954 and raised under ‘communism’. He expressed much the same sentiments as you… horror at the thought of returning to a centralist planned economy and disgust with the neo-liberal free market economy.
    I put ‘communism’ between marks, because, as you probably know, the word, what it actually might refer to, the means by which it might be arrived at etc, was from the very first contested ( between Marx himself and Proudhon for instance at the inception of the first international). and thereafter between anarchists, syndicalists, menshevics, bolsheviks, stalinists, trotskyists, maoists, social democrats, neo-marxists ect, ect, ect)
    Which indicates the potency of Marxists ideas on the one hand and the propensity for human beings to create ideological formations, become absolutely identified with them, and proceed to kill one another in their name!
    Which is one of the reasons why I think that some form of ‘practice’ is needed to intervene at that crucial moment when the ( collective?) mind is poised between visceral reactivity and the possibility of taking a step back and simultaneously assessing both the situation and one’s response to it.

  21. Tomek Avatar

    Tom (#17), you’ve got a lot of clearing up here if you want to sound persuasive to your readers. In your wood-chair metaphor that is to explain “what makes the mind a mind” you completely obscure things like the fact that before you can even say things like “mind is completely in language” you have to explain how is it possible that the world appears to us in the first place. In other words, how in conscious experience there is a world, there is a self, and there is a relation between them. How this world appears to the experiencing self? And here comes my guide Metzinger once again – “If you want to linguistically refer to, say, Gödel’s theorem or to a friend living on the other side of the earth, you can only do so if you have, in whatever sketchy and rudimentary way, phenomenally simulated them. There must be a representation of them that is globally available for speech control and cognitive processing. Linguistic reference functions via phenomenal representation. (…) A speech act always presupposes a phenomenal first-person perspective. The same is true of thought. Only phenomenally represented information can become the object of explicit cognitive reference, thereby entering into further thought processes which have been voluntarily initiated. If you refer linguistically to events in the distant past or future you can only do so by first representing them within your own virtual window of presence. If only very briefly, they have to become an element of global working memory.” (Being No One, p. 573)

    So what I understand is that in order that humans have the ability to linguistically refer to anything, first there must exist capacity to phenomenally simulate the world by the biological system (human organism). This appearance of the world (or precisely simulation of the world) is the preliminary step in the process of creating the first person point of view and only then any kind of intersubjective information processing in societies can take place.

  22. Tomek Avatar

    Hi Patrick (#20), thanks for writing. This point is exactly the point that I was trying to highlight. I’m aware that the communism might have various theoretical interpretations but unfortunately most of those of us that were traumatized by those communistic ideologues that had come to power after the Great Event of 1917 and the subsequent chain of historical events they initiated have been very reluctant to accept any form of communism in the aftermath. It can be very difficult point to explain to those individuals that were born in more stable and affluent parts of the world flirting now with the communistic ideology, not to mention armchair revolutionaries that never encountered tanks on the streets of their sleepy towns.

  23. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Re #19: Just to clarify, when I say that the mind/body problem dissolves, I am not saying that we then have nothing else to do, that all questions have been answered. I am simply saying that this problem dissolves, that it is no longer a question at all, that instead we can begin considering the real question. It is sort of like the Coppernican discovery of that the earth is not at the center of the universe: now, we can stop the endless pursuit of a system of mathematical formulas to explain the locations of the planets around the earth, a problem that seemed enormously “complex” and “difficult’, but was really the wrong question. On the other hand, there were entirely different problems to be solved–to begin with, the shape of the planets’ orbits, the shape of the galaxy, the nature of gravity, etc. To “dissolve” the problem simply means to begin asking the correct question.

    The mind/body problem is so difficult because for most people, like Tomek, we must begin with the empiricist model of mind (as Metzinger does), and absolutely never question the assumptions of empiricism. This is why, although I have responded to the glaring error of Metzinger’s work a dozen times, Tomek can only repeat the same tired assertion–the possibility that empiricism might be wrong is unthinkable, just as it is unthinkable for him that capitalism is not natural and universal–the horrors perpetrated in order to make capitalism exist, the billions who have starved and been massacred, are invisible to the reactionary–their deaths must be unnoticed, or understood as natural, and the create the illusion of all of America sitting in the lap of luxury in quiet small towns as the only “truth” of capitalism–the millions of African and Asian people we oppress are, for them, not part of the global capitalist machine. This is the attachment to ideology that is so hard to overcome–for everyone, Americans in particular. We are attached to the idea that our minds are atomistic and arise in our brains, and idea of a collective mind must begin by explaining how the atomistic mind occurs in the individual brain and THEN becomes part of a collective. This is, of course, to miss the entire point, and follows the same logic as the reactionary assertion that we must begin by assuming capitalism is natural, and then try to discover a way to make it more (artificially) socialist and less oppressive.

    On the question of psychoanalysis and politics, I think of psychoanalysis as having always been political–as Russell Jacoby explained in his book “Social Amnesia.” Pretty much all of Zizek’s work is an effort to use Lacan to talk about politics. And jargon, well, that’s usually just another way to say that only common language is acceptable, which means that only the existing dominant ideology is acceptable, and we must never think outside it. Of course, as Sokal demonstrated years ago, we must avoid assuming that any “new” or “different” term is necessarily smarter or better–on the other hand, Sokal and Bricmont just aren’t smart enough to tell the difference between someone who does understand Lacan and someone who just uses his terms incorrectly, so they want to dismiss anything that requires new thought as “nonsense.” That kind of reactionary laziness doesn’t help much. Although making editors a little more careful about what they are willing to publish (maybe try to understand it first?) is a good thing, it isn’t necessary to only publish things that absolutely everyone can understand–we’ll never get anywhere that way. People like Tomek will just keep refusing to understand, and keep asserting the same arguments over and over, so nobody can make any progress.

  24. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tomek,
    Well, on one level we probably have a lot in common –being Irish and Polish we share a traumatic (traumatized) relationship with history and Imperial power ( which has a bearing on the question of ‘communism’ of course). But this is not the place to explore that.
    It is also feasible to think that a form of Marxist analysis might be useful (in part anyway) in working out exactly why certain forms of dogmatic ideology and the advocates of a centralized state apparatus triumphed after the Bolshevik revolution (putsch?) Its one of those large questions spanning disciplines. This of course had little to do with the ruthless subjugation of Poland after the second world war by what was ,to any neutral observer, an occupying power!

    Re #21
    Regarding your quote from Metzinger I have problems with that approach but I am not in a position to give a coherent account of them… I have too little knowledge and the subject is very complex… but I can’t resist the comment that this idea of a phenomenal simulation seems to me to be just another version of the Kantian ‘veil of appearances’ …a something acting as a barrier between the perceiver and the ‘thing in itself’. This raises the old hoary question of the infinite regress .. I will just always be on this side of perception and never actually arrive at the thing since I can posit an infinite sequence of ‘simulations of the simulation’. Which is why it leads to either an agnostic or a fully fledged idealist position. Or a position something like Husserls ‘phenomenological bracketing.’ in which the problem of how mind actually interacts with the ‘thing’ is just dropped in favor of an insistence that appearance just is the thing! I hope I am making this clear.

    Leaving that aside I don’t think that any of this negates the value of the idea of a collective mind and the position that the mind just is language ( once conceptuality arises and no matter how that might happen)
    And that ‘ we learn an already existing symbolic system as a way to interact with the world.’ as Tom put it. We introject the symbolic world as represented in language as we learn language and this becomes our way of moving about in the world. This is the point at which ideology , language and the subject interface with the social world, creating either repressive or liberative social structures and all that unfolds from there. However I cannot see how this bears on the essential problem of how the mind (collective or otherwise) interacts with the biological organism. ‘
    At this stage I don’t think I can even come near to an answer but its the essential question, now as ever!

    I’m afloat without a raft ( is that good or bad? )

  25. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tom,
    Thanks for your post. I want to take a little time to digest the points you have made .
    Re your point

    ‘We are attached to the idea that our minds are atomistic and arise in our brains, and (an) idea of a collective mind must begin by explaining how the atomistic mind occurs in the individual brain and THEN becomes part of a collective. This is, of course, to miss the entire point,’

    This seems to me to be crucial !

  26. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Re#24: I think the point for me is to recognize that “how the mind interacts with the biological organism” is NOT the essential question, that it is the wrong question, like asking which planet’s orbit around the earth is the smallest. The symbolic/imaginary system is (re)produced by a group of biological organisms. To ask how the brain “interacts” with the mind is like asking how the wheel interacts with the chariot. It is not a chariot without the wheels. Or how the chair “interacts” with the wood. It is made up of wood, but also of the form and the social structure in which chairs are recognizable items and the existence of bipedal apes that sit on their buttocks. Does the wood “interact” with the chair, or is it simply a part of the chair, without which the chair wouldn’t exist? We might want to study the nature of wood, to determine what kinds of chairs we can make it into, and we might want to understand the nature of the brain to understand what kinds of collective subjects it can support. But to think in terms of radical dualities which have points of “interaction” is to reach over and over the same impasse that leaves us, like Metzinger or Hume, declaring that at a certain point consciousness is just ineffable.

  27. Tomek Avatar

    You Tom are simply saying that the problem dissolves! Bingo! And then magnanimously offer your audience this pity wood-chair metaphor, which of course has nothing to do (ZERO!) with the incomparably complex relation between the “vehicle” of human organism and “phenomenological content” of it’s consciousness. For you the fundamental question of how the world actually appears to us – bipedal apes – does not exist, let alone how the inter-subjective linguistic communication happens between individuals and groups. It just dissolves magically in this mystico-religious “collective mind”, which is an example of that imperturbable anti-Enlightenment philosophical idealism. And Metzinger explicitly warns their readers that “the vehicle-content distinction is a highly useful conceptual instrument, but it contains subtle residues of Cartesian dualism. It tempts us to reify the vehicle and the content, conceiving of them as ontologically distinct, independent entities. A more empirically plausible model of representational content will have to describe it as an aspect of an ongoing process and not as some kind of abstract object. However, as long as ontological atomism and naive realism are avoided, the vehicle-content distinction will prove to be highly useful in many contexts. I will frequently remind readers of potential difficulties by putting “vehicle” in quotation marks.”

    Yes, the key word here is ongoing and material process, which means that this body/mind relation can be a subject of analysis that proceeds from the third person perspective, the analysis that is gradually uprooting the hegemony of the naïve, introspective modes of probing the body/mind and self-world relations. Analysis that does not treat (self-)consciousness as Zizek does in his Parallax View, namely, as “the ontological incompleteness of “reality” itself; (…)” assuming correlationist perspective that presupposes the existence of “’reality’ only insofar as there is an ontological ‘gap’, a ‘crack’ in its very heart, that is to say, a traumatic excess, a foreign body which cannot be integrated into it”. “The thesis”, says Brassier, “that consciousness or subjectivity is not a substantial entity but rather an insubstantial gap fissuring the ontological order lies at the heart of Zizek’s (brilliant) hybridization of Lacan and Hegel”. And further ends his note in Nihil Unbound (p. 245, n. 7) saying that “However, it is difficult to square Zizek’s putative ‘materialism’ with his assertion that reality itself is structured around the traumatic kernel of subjectivity. If reality in-itself is necessarily constituted in relation to the fissure of self-consciousness, then all those material processes which, according to Darwin, preceded the emergence of self-consciousness, must be dismissed as phantasmatic ‘false memories’ generated by a delirious transcendental subject.”

    Couple of times you evoked the theory of evolution to boost your rhetorical maneuvers in this discussion. Would you be so generous now and let the readers know how do you exactly square your imaginary symbolic system and the idea of a collective mind with that theory? How exactly our evolutionary ancestors actually produced this system of yours? Or maybe it was the other way round and all of that popped up from the “delirious transcendental subject”?

  28. qmfx Avatar

    I must congratulate comrade Pepper on his text on Anatman, truly pivotal for me. I see analogy to Žižek’s understanding of Christianity, the death of Christ as the death of God Himself, and what’s left is the Holy Spirit – the “holy communal consciousness”. – I’ve always thought one could read the jewels as a dialectical triad: Buddha -> Dharma -> Sangha. – I think this idea of liberation – not of an individual – but of the collective, has some historical embodiment in the history of Japan … we know Japan isn’t the most “revolutionary” country, quite the contrary, yet the Shin Buddhist impetus did create a “revolutionary class” of “warrior monks” who stood and fought the samurai – the ikko-ikki. If even in Japan this could happen, influenced directly by Buddhist’s ideas of radical equality (everyone has Buddha-Nature; and later: everyone can access liberation through the Name, the Nembutsu) – then I think comrade Pepper’s ideas are not only theoretically interesting but somehow historically validated as well. –

  29. Tomek Avatar

    Partrick (#24), the infinite regress in the context of phenomenal simulation (or also called self-modeling) is an interesting logical issue. Breaking this reflexive loop according to Metzinger is solved by the biological system (human organism) – operating under real-world constrains and evolutionary pressure – by inbuilt auto-epistemic closure (phenomenal self-transparency) which drastically reduces computational load and prevents inevitable paralysis of the system that primarily has to deal with practical issues of survival. So basically the result of this closure is formation of subject. This self-reification can be viewed then as a computational strategy that generates a simply structured and safely closed user surface for those parts of an organism’s nervous system that are engaged in processing information about this organism itself. This auto-epistemic closure makes certain input information immediately and globally available to the system, but at the same time is responsible for our naive-realistic self misunderstanding. I don’t think that it will ever be possible for any individual to get to this other “side of perception”, that is, to actually experience the contents of our self-consciousness as the contents of a representational process, to experience them as some sort of causally active internal placeholder of the system in the system’s all-inclusive model of reality. We simply experience ourselves as ourselves, living in the world right now. Metzinger says in Ego Tunnel that “Even if we believe that something is just an internal construct, we can experience it only as given and never as constructed. This fact may well be cognitively available to us (because we may have a correct theory or concept of it), but it is not attentionally or introspectively available, simply because on the level of subjective experience, we have no point of reference “outside” the tunnel [simulated transparent self model]. Whatever appears to us—however it is mediated—appears as reality.” (p. 44-5)

  30. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tomek. (#29)

    Thanks for the carefully worded explication!

    This is a notoriously complex issue and very slippery…

    My problem is that Metzinger’s argument seems to me to be undermined by its own premise.
    If phenomenal simulation is a microbiological construct —the ‘now’ of an organism embedded within a phenomenally ‘real ‘ exteriority (thing in itself) that remains unverifiable ( experientially by the fact of regress and in temporal terms by the fact of being necessarily ‘late’ owing to the time needed for cognitive processing to occur) this is just the Kantian position in another guise, bolstered by a vast array of observations of cognitive and neuron-biological sequences which re-define the ‘Object’ as ‘Process’ ( good) but which situate this process as a phenomenal simulation forever this side of the perceptual/phenomenal divide (bad).

    Moreover Metzinger must then make another version of the Kantian transcendental move- by insisting on an a priori existing phenomenal realm ! . Worse his own admission of closure puts the epistemological validity of neurobiology itself under suspicion. (disastrous)
    I could state this as in stronger terms and say that it invalidates the epistemological basis of neurobiology by closing off phenomenological reality from the reach of neurobiology .———logic of logics———a brain studying ———a simulation of itself forever closed off from itself by itself!

    Having said all that I am grappling with this concept ‘phenomenal self-transparency’. I think there is something there that I am not quite getting!

  31. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tom, (#26)
    You say;

    ‘The symbolic/imaginary system is (re)produced by a group of biological organisms’

    Doesn’t this statement itself imply some sort of duality? . Doesn’t it only restate the question in a new form?
    How exactly does a biological organism reproduce the symbolic /imaginary system?
    Not all biological organisms produce a symbolic /imaginary system. There is an evolutionary trajectory and at a point along that trajectory both brain and symbolic/ imaginary systems make their appearance in some sort of determinative relation.
    Unlike the chair which is made of wood there is no way in which biological organisms are ‘made’ of symbolic/imaginary systems (idealism) and no way in which symbolic/imaginary systems are made of biological entities (reductionism) The relation of chair and wood is one of identity ; the relation of biological organism and symbolic imaginary system is one of determination; on an individual level a developmental acquisition of motor and perceptive skills all the way up to language acquisition; on a species level the evolutionary acquisition of nervous systems and primitive brains all the way up to frontal lobes. At no point along these two trajectory are biological/physical and symbolic/imaginary identical, since one precedes the other. But as you say;

    ‘ to think in terms of radical dualities which have points of “interaction” is to reach over and over the same impasse that leaves us, like Metzinger or Hume, declaring that at a certain point consciousness is just ineffable.’

    In my view this may be where the evolution of knowledge at this historical moment just is; but I would rather hope not!

  32. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    No, there is no “duality” in the strict sense of the term. I know the term duality is thrown around a lot these days, as a way to quickly dismiss anything (That’s dualism! There, I don’t need to think about it anymore). But “dualism” doesn’t mean that there is more than one thing—things like tables and chairs or bosses and workers aren’t “dualistic”; in the technical sense, dualism means that there are two distinct orders of things which can exist completely separately—such as the soul and the body. In that sense, the brain and the symbolic/imaginary system aren’t dualistic, because there is absolutely no sense in which a symbolic/imaginary system could exist without a brain. To say they are dualistic is like saying there is a dualism between the football players on the field and the game of football they are playing. Of course, we can distinguish between the two, and the sophist will then say we are being “dualistic” and there is no such distinction; still, she would be wrong to make such a stupid argument (although this particular stupid argument is quite common these days) and we need not accept her misuse of the term dualism.

    There is no sense in which the wood and the chair have a relation of identity. If we smash the chair, the wood has exactly the same physical characteristics and continues to exist, although the chair no longer does. In my metaphor, the chair is the symbolic/imaginary system and the wood is the brain: we could not have the chair without the wood, but the chair is only a chair because of the shape the wood is in and the existence of people who make and use such furniture. A human who never had any contact with other humans would not be part of a symbolic/imaginary system, but would still be a human animal.

    Because of some accident of mutation we have brains capable of using symbolic systems to communicate with other individuals, so we produce symbolic/imaginary systems. There is no way that this includes any kind of duality. The brain and the symbolic/imaginary system could not be identical in any sense, because the symbolic imaginary requires multiple brains. What is unique about the human brain that enables it to produce and use symbolic systems is an interesting problem, but it is not an ineffable mystery. It is simply a problem that has never been investigated because of the assumption that the mind is atomistic, occurring in an individual brain and interacting with the external world.

    When you assume that an individual begins with perception and works up to language, you are remaining within the empiricist position. This is the common problem—we assume that the empiricist position is the only possible one, and then dismiss any other position because it cannot be explained within a strictly empiricist framework. The mind is collective, and precedes the individual brain’s interpellation; the empiricist insists that we must explain how the mind arises individually in the individual brain first, and then connects to larger collective brain. It is like explaining how the midfielder learns to play his position in complete isolation from any other players, or even from the idea of a game with rules, and then attaches those skills learned in isolation to a game in progress. Or like assuming that wood has the natural tendency to take the form of a chair, which then can be of use to people who want to sit down.

    One can say that’s just the way things are, we can’t explain this, it is just the limit of our knowledge—this is Metzinger’s answer. Or, one can actually answer pose the correct questions and begin to answer them—but then, we have the unpleasant prospect of recognizing that we might need to change our social formations to stop human suffering. So, most people prefer to say that this is just an impossible problem. That may be one of the attachments that make this simple point so difficult to grasp—no matter what absurdities it leads us into, we want to come back to the assumption that the mind is atomistic, dualistic, and ineffable.

  33. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tom,
    Thanks for your long post.
    To begin with your last point first:

    I start from the conviction that radical social /political action is necessary ( by radical I mean action that addresses the central question of the transformation of existing social relations)
    My reticence concerning these questions is not a matter of the absence of such conviction but the concern to put it on a sound philosophical footing,

    As for duality I understand your point…about it being possible to have two factors not in outright opposition but co-existing as it were in some sort of unity; I used identity in that sort of way in relation to chair and wood but its probably sloppy usage. I was trying to express the fact that the chronological sequence is important in the relationship between biological organism and mind , they did not arise in tandem as it were but one (the biological organism) preceded the other (the mind). This is where I think I misunderstand you
    You say;
    ‘The mind is collective, and precedes the individual brain’s interpellation; the empiricist insists that we must explain how the mind arises individually in the individual brain first, and then connects to larger collective brain.’
    From a evolutionary perspective what does that mean?
    I cant conceive of a collective brain. I can conceive of a collective mind posited on a group of individual brains——-that is to say individual in the sense of being effects of a larger network of biological/environmental /evolutionary processes; not individual in an essentialist way. Such a collective mind would ‘precede’ the brains interpellation (much as an individual interrupts an already ongoing conversation and is governed by the rules and conventions already laid down etc.).
    However on the evolutionary level humans existed (as human animals as you say) and at some moment along the evolutionary trajectory they evolved symbolic/imaginary systems in tandem with the development of language and brain capacity.
    Is that a fair assessment of your position.

    I wonder where perception of sense data etc fits with this picture…there must be some way in which perception is part of the symbolic system…I mean not simply neutral but in some way conditioned from above although that’s a clumsy way of putting it.

    I think I need to do a lot more reading , especially of Lacan and Badiou to get a handle on of all this!

  34. Tomek Avatar

    The mind is collective, and precedes the individual brain’s interpellation; the empiricist insists that we must explain how the mind arises individually in the individual brain first, and then connects to larger collective brain.

    Tom (#32), it’s really striking how you use the word “mind” in this fragment. You simply misapply it with the result that reader may start to think that “empiricist” who tries to understand processes occurring in the individual brain talks about some “mind”, which according to your “truth” can only manifest as “collective mind”. It’s not so, first of all, “empiricists” these days do not use such vague terms as “mind” to describe what they think is taking place in the brain. They have a special theoretical tool kits to help them clarify complex processes and relations that may occur in the brain. They say that there must be a way for an organism to represent the world in which it lives to itself, activate low-level motor resonance and imitative behavior, not to mention attentional, cognitive abilities. Only then any kind of inter-subjective linguistic/symbolic communication between individuals can take place. If in your rhetorics you ascribe this vague term “mind” to the individual brain you simply obscure not only what actually happens in the brain, but above all it’s easier for you to further spin your story about “collective mind” to which the brain supposedly, as you say in you essay, “must, in a sense ‘tune in’”. But of course you say nothing about the process of tuning in, because it might require of you to find a place for subsymbolic and nonlinguistic levels of representation in your theoretical edifice which would in turn threaten the dominance of the symbolic/imaginary elements of its facade.

  35. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Tomek,

    I have been looking again at what I said in my last post concerning Merzingers position and I find my argument to be irrelevant. Metzingers position visa vie simulation is perfectly plausible from a practical point of view…that is to say even if we consider his point about simulation to be true this does nothing to alter (of course!) the actual situation . If there has always been for human beings the experience of a simulation rather than a direct experience of the thing in itself’ than it follows that since empirical investigation has been seen to be successful in its procedures and produces results that can be replicated than it also follows that the simulation is for all intents and purposes an accurate reflection of the ‘real’ situation.
    ‘Whatever appears to us—however it is mediated—appears as reality.” Metzinger (p. 44-5)

  36. Tomek Avatar

    Having said all that I am grappling with this concept ‘phenomenal self-transparency’. I think there is something there that I am not quite getting!

    Yes, Patrick (#30), I agree. This ‘phenomenal self-transparency’ is probably the most intuitively unbelievable part of Metzingers model. I’ve been flipping through the book (Being No One thinking about your “problem” with Metzinger and I gathered some interesting excerpts that will spare me the impossible task of explicating this very complex issue. So I’ll once again give voice to my guide:

    It is phenomenal transparency, a very special kind of darkness, which generates this fundamental deficit in subjective knowledge concerning the constitutive conditions and the deep structure of our own phenomenal self-consciousness, which later leads to misguided philosophical theories like the Platonic metaphor of the helmsman or the homunculus in the cave, which leads to the birth of the Cartesian ego and eventually to the Kantian notion of a transcendental subject, to the many false theories of “the pilot,” whose existence preceded that of the body and who only episodically “entered” into it. (…)

    The Cartesian intuition of the indivisible self, the Kantian notion of the transcendental subject—the reassuring idea of the “I think” that can, at least in principle, accompany all my conscious Vorstellungen—are rooted in this feature of our representational architecture, in the functional inability of the system as a whole to split its PSM [phenomenal self model]. This is why monist or naturalist theories of subjectivity inevitably strike us as deeply counterintuitive, and frequently even as emotionally unattractive. (…)

    Many classic theories of mind, from Descartes to Kant, will have to count as having been refuted, (…) The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is that all the theories operate under the “epistemic transparency” assumption of self-consciousness: they assume that within the self the light of knowledge shines through and through, thereby making unnoticed errors about the content of one’s own mind logically impossible. (…)

    (…) could it be that the conscious experience of being someone itself hinders growth of knowledge in these disciplines, by making certain theoretical positions or solutions of problems look utterly implausible, dangerously provocative, absurdly humiliating, or simply inconceivable to beings like ourselves? A lot of today’s physics, for example, describes the world in a way that is extremely counterintuitive, and certainly hard to conceive of. Yet most of us believe that these theories are among the best mankind has so far created. Basically, we trust those physicists. In the mind sciences things are different, and in an interesting way. (…)

    Take as an example the sketch of an interdisciplinary, representationalist theory of consciousness, the phenomenal self, and the first-person perspective I have offered in this book. Even if you should think that at least some of the ideas involved are potentially worthy of discussion, you could never really believe that the SMT, the self-model theory of subjectivity, actually is true. You cannot believe in it. Take what may be the central idea, the idea that metaphysically speaking no such things as selves exist in the world; that the conscious experience of selfhood is brought about by the phenomenal transparency of the system-model; and that what philosophers call the epistemic irreducibility of conscious experience—the fact that it is tied to a first-person perspective—can be exhaustively analyzed as a representational phenomenon, which in the future will likely be fully explained on functional and neurobiological levels of description. You cannot believe in the truth of this idea. “Being convinced,” like smelling mixed amber and sandalwood or being someone, is here interpreted as a phenomenal property. But for the current theory you cannot in principle have that property, because phenomenally simulating the truth of the SMT would involve a cognitively lucid, nonpathological way of dissolving your sense of self. It would involve being convinced and phenomenally being no one at the same time.

    My second conclusion in this final section therefore is that the SMT [self model theory] is a theory of which you cannot be convinced, in principle.

  37. fionnchu Avatar

    Tom and non + x Staff:
    Re: What Kind of a Scientist was Buddha?

    I had submitted this snippet to you all as part of my own review of Lopez’s new book six weeks ago. It stir-fried and revamped my own review on my blog from last autumn, to bring up relevant contexts. As it was neither acknowledged nor rejected explicitly by non + x, I assume implicitly the latter. But, here ’tis a snippet if it helps spark discussion, from a relative newbie, usual SN-B lurker, and interested bystander.

    After this survey of that manufactured scientific Buddha, Donald Lopez examines the problem of karma. Darwinism ensures a species’ survival by random mutation and natural selection, whereas Buddhism encourages natural extinction. It insists that creation must lead to cessation, an end to attachments by “conscious intervention” of the advanced sentient being. Darwinism finds physical endangerment in pollution; sentient beings in Buddhism find mental entanglement in preservation, by karmic perpetuation, by polluting desires for permanence rather than liberation.

    He rejects “mindfulness” and quantum analogies by medical and pop-culture practitioners. He proposes “seeking extinction rather than survival, seeing persistence only in impermanence, stressing intention over compulsion, consciousness over matter.” This potent Buddhism may enable its power to remain metaphysical, “beyond the world, completely at odds with the world, and with science.”

    My question: what’s your take, gang, on Lopez’s assertion for the Buddha, especially contrasted with Darwin? (I also alluded in my review to Owen Flanagan’s recent “The Bodhissatva’s Brain,” by the way.)

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: