This Body is a Corpse

One being's journey through Samsara

Some thoughts on science, Buddhism, and the mind

Meditation the last few days has not been going well. My fat little legs keep falling asleep and compelling me to move and drastically increasing my grumps. No matter how I sit, I can’t seem to keep them from dropping out after about ten minutes; I swear, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that attachment to the body causes suffering.

I’ve been spending the time I should be meditating watching more debates online, which probably just makes my mind even more unstable. But I can’t keep away, especially not with a premise as delicious as Sam Harris vs. Deepak Chopra on the menu. The eminent Mr. Chopra never disappoints one looking for absolutely fucking bizarre statements like, “Consciousness is a dynamic flow of potential existences superimposed by a God-mover” or (I shit you not), “In the absence of a conscious entity, the moon remains a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup.” I felt so bad for Sam; how do you even argue against that?

On the whole, the debate went well and covered the normal scientific claims about God, the mind, and science, most of which Sam Harris and his partner Michael Shermer elucidated and defended very well. Especially interesting to me was the discussion on consciousness, thanks in no part to Deepak’s bizarre outbursts regarding “quantum nonlocality” as a base for experience. – but with his inanity as a sounding board, the two skeptics were able to make a lot of really fascinating points about the limits of knowledge in regards to what consciousness really is; Sam in particular should be lauded for his brave (but nervous) admittance that “…we simply don’t know how consciousness forms in the brain, or if it is from the brain at all, and we may never know.” I was reminded of an XKCD comic from a few weeks ago:

The fact that consciousness, the very thing through which the entire world is revealed, remains a fundamental mystery in its origins and operations is a fascinating concept. For a long time, we’ve been fighting to understand and quantify it, whether through neuroscience, biology, psychology, or even spirituality. But, just like the stick figures above, we always keep arriving at a brick wall – the ultimate realities of consciousness, of our brains and our minds, are always studied through our senses, and no amount of scientific rigor or philosophical examination can remove the inherent subjectivity of experience. To use a sentence as complex as the problem itself, it’s maddening to know that you don’t know how you know you know things.

But as I’ve spent more time exploring the Buddhist path, the search for fundamental reality apart from experience has begun to feel a bit like the search for a reflection apart from the mirror. I’ve begun to doubt, as I progress (however slowly) down the path, that it’s wise or even possible to know anything about this world except in terms of sense experience; whereas the modern Western approach seems to regard the exterior world as a true and constant reality accessed through an unreliable and emergent consciousness, I tend nowadays to believe that our consciousness is the true and constant reality through which we access an unreliable and emergent world.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can disregard that which we do experience and usher in some kind of epistemological anarchism of relativistic and baseless assumptions, but it does mean that we must come to terms with the fact that even the most concrete scientific, philosophical, and social constructions we have are, at best, an imperfect patchwork of concepts and categories placed over a never-ending stream of pure sense data. When we’re honest with ourselves and admit our fundamental inability to truly know something apart from our experience of it, we become healthy skeptics, capable of admitting the pragmatic benefits that these frameworks bring while still realizing their inherent shortcomings and assumptions. A consciousness-first, experiential relationship with the external world can bring us a much-needed distance from the universals that too often bind both the materialistic and the spiritual into restrictive and dogmatic ways of thinking.

That doesn’t mean we have to rid ourselves of these shorthand expressions; it’s a lot easier to refer to a sunset as a sunset rather than a bundle of sense impressions, or to just compliment a friend’s cooking rather than declare the ability of the meal’s qualia to be conceptually ordered as “delicious.” But there is a real danger when the framework of concepts we use to describe the world suddenly becomes the ultimate nature of the world itself – when we mistake, as the old Zen koan goes, the finger that points at the moon for the moon itself. And as much as I love science, I tend to think that perhaps we’ve already made this mistake any time we talk about “explaining consciousness.”

This isn’t to say that research into the brain is bad or counter-productive, because it isn’t. I just worry that, as we learn more about what makes that three-pound computer inside us tick, we’ll be more and more likely to reduce the fundamental element of consciousness to the conceptual; we’ll turn the light by which we see the world into a product of that world, a fundamental category error and leap of faith that undermines everything we really know about the nature of the world.

I love science, and I hope that we continue to explore the brain, both to improve the lives of those who suffer from neurological disorders and move towards an increasingly simple means of predicting phenomena. But I sincerely hope that with this new knowledge, we don’t indulge in the arrogance assumption that, through an unwarranted shift from the instrumental to the universal, we can subvert the most Properly Basic knowledge we have. Simplifying consciousness down to its materialistic constituent parts in the brain may very well be a great way to make pragmatic advances in the treatment of disease and the development of consistent biological theory – but it is neither a helpful nor accurate summation of the real, ultimate nature of this world.

Five common arguments for God and why they fail

Oh man. Thanks to a giant Youtube playlist of Christopher Hitchens debates, I’ve just come off a twenty-hour atheism binge. I watched about twelve different sparring matches between good ol’ Hitch and different Christian superstars like William Lane Craig and Dinesh D’Souza before I had to pack it up and go to bed, Chris’ waxy face raging me to sleep. The lineup of theist foes rotated a few times, but the general setup was the same. Almost all of the debates were predicated on solely discussing one topic, mainly “Is belief in God rational?” and everyone was instructed to stay away from specific issues like Old Testament morality or the utilitarian benefit of Christianity – although of course those two topics were essentially all Christopher Hitchens ended up discussing because Christopher Hitchens says fuck your rules.

Actually, his willful disregard for both the concrete arguments of his opponent and the most basic standards of hair combing helped me realize something I’ve secretly believed for a long time: The atheist’s favorite belligerent was not really that great at debating people. He was witty, and eminently quotable, but he rarely challenged with sustained argumentation, favoring clever ad hominems over airtight logic. And that’s okay; after all, he was a journalist and political agitator before he became the overexposed bastion of New Atheism, and his training was far more aimed towards the development of catchy soundbites and simplified but clever strikes against old and worn-out dogmas. Also ad hominems are okay to use against Dinesh D’Souza because that man is a batshit crazy British colonialist from 1824 born into the body of an East Indian Macaulay Culkin.

But when Hitchens went up against Craig (and his absolutely baffling monotone howl seriously calm down Bill), I couldn’t help but wish that someone would actually confront the shoddy arguments this “noted Christian apologist” was making. Besides repeatedly saying that Hitchens had not offered “even one good argument for why God does not exist,” as if that is a meaningful statement instead of just childish bullshit, Craig based his entire case on four ridiculous “proofs”: The Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Argument from Morality, and the Argument from Experience. Now, outside his Talbot School of Theology, all four of these arguments garner from philosophers about as much interest as, well, a degree from his Talbot School of Theology, but for people who are intent on believing, they offer clever if philosophically bankrupt defenses that the intellectually dishonest or desperate are happy to use on the less discerning. Seek and ye shall find, eh?

So without further ado, here’s a quick rundown of his four “proofs” and explanations of why they are at best inconclusive and at worst downright meaningless:

The Cosmological Argument – Everything that begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause.

This first argument, Lane’s favorite, falls into the “meaningless” category because it says nothing. The statement, “God must exist because you need something uncreated to create something” is, at its core, a tautology; it can be simplified into the self-evident, “Nothing can be uncreated except the uncreated.” This, of course, does not demonstrate why, if God can be uncreated, the universe could not contain the property as well, nor does it explain exactly why the “cause” of the universe could not have been natural. The Cosmological Argument leaves untouched essentially every theory modern science has suggested regarding the origins of the universe, as both a stable singularity disturbed by quantum fluctuations or a cyclical universe model both demonstrate either a non-theistic cause or a level of “uncreatedness” equal to that of God’s. If the second claim is true, then current science provides at least a plausible explanation of what “caused” it (hint: it wasn’t God) – and if the second claim is false, which it very well might be, the argument is meaningless.

The Teleological Argument – The Universe’s “fine tuning” suggests that it was designed by an intelligent being to support life.

Of all these arguments, I have the most contempt, both intellectually and emotionally, for this one. We’ll start on an intellectual level and consider the absurd selection bias inherent in this argument. Of course the universe we exist in is going to be fine-tuned for life – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t exist to make that judgment! There are, in all likelihood, innumerable universes out there that do not allow for any kind of life and there are no beings alive to notice it. Even if this is the only universe or life-bearing planet in existence (a very unlikely conjecture), the fact that we can exist in it demonstrates nothing except the obvious conclusion that our development was molded to the world we found ourselves evolving in. The world appears “fine-tuned” to us because we tuned ourselves to it; only a baffling amount of arrogance convinces us to reverse the obvious cause and effect.

For a great demonstration of this, look at the sidewalks downtown after it rains. There are going to be, between large stretches of flat ground, puddles that form in the random potholes and ditches, and each one will be filled to its brim. Does that mean that those holes were created to be filled with rain water, or that the “perfect fit” between the amount of rainwater and the size of the puddle demonstrates superintending?

The emotional side of this argument is less ridiculous and more upsetting. By claiming that this planet is somehow the best that God could throw together, you are essentially required to admit that every possible evil in the nature of this world was known and approved by God himself as part of his “design”. Rather than a defect of our evolution, the diseases that daily bring millions of human beings untold suffering and pain must be side effects of His imperfect or malicious workmanship. Instead of our planet’s geological history, earthquakes and tsunamis that bring untold destruction are actually to be blamed on a Supreme Being who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how to design a world where the Earth doesn’t occasionally shake entire cities to pieces. Worms that dig into the eyes of children in the Congo, each parasite lovingly crafted in the Lord’s workshop. Cancers that eat innocent people alive from the inside, carefully placed into each human’s DNA by a divine hand. A loving, just God who invents the synapses that plunge us into addiction and abuse, a kind and gentle Lamb who has killed over 99% of the species he supposedly created since time began. If the Teleological Argument demonstrates anything, it is that the only God capable of creating this world would be one either disinterested or downright cruel. More likely, an honest and intelligent exploration of our world and its nuances would demonstrate an obvious lack of a designer. William Lane Craig’s intellectually dishonest Teleological Argument doesn’t hold up to either scientific scrutiny or moral reasoning.

The Argument from Morality – Without God, objective moral values cannot exist; objective moral values exist; therefore, God exists.

I find it painfully ironic that Mr. Craig can argue for the impossibility of atheistic objective morality while simultaneously defending the myriad of genocidal, racist, misogynistic, and bitterly cruel actions either directly performed or unequivocally commanded by the God that he worships. I simply refuse to believe that the determiner of right and wrong is a slaver and a tyrant like Jehovah, and I don’t think anyone with their head on straight would criticize me for that. So while his claims about “objective moral goods” are dismissible solely for the reason that his God is scarcely above a capricious and immature child when it comes to any sort of ethical behavior, the argument actually falls flat even if you entertain its basic absurdity.

First, this argument fails to justify its first point; many other logical (and, might I add, far more “moral”) systems have been developed that rely on concepts such as self-ownership or utilitarian calculus. While the debate is still very much open regarding the efficacy of these systems, to base a logical argument on the assumption that God is the only possible moral ground is stunningly ignorant unless one is capable of refuting the core arguments made by naturalist moral realists like Bentham and Mills. It is telling, of course, that those who use objective morality as a proof for God seem to be uninterested in doing so.

William Lane Craig has an even greater hurtle hidden in the second condition of this argument, as the objective nature of morality is not self-evident by any stretch of the imagination. From psychologically-oriented expressivists to evolutionarily-minded biological nonrealists, the ability to craft and enforce a strong moral code through an examination of our evolutionary history or our social interaction is clearly demonstrable. Again, the jury is still out, and probably will be forever, on whether or not these systems reflect reality; what is important is that Mr. Craig has seemingly barreled past any sort of refutation of these points in order to arrive at his foregone conclusion that objective morality even exists. Nowhere has he attempted to tackle the Is-Ought problem, nor has he answered what is perhaps the most glaring issue facing theists today, mainly, why are those who reject moral systems aligned with God no less “moral” in their behavior? The ability of atheists to act in morally sound ways without the counsel or guidance of theistic schema shows undeniably that God is not necessary for ethics to have a firm and reasonable grounding. Of all the arguments put out to support Christian theism, this one may be the shakiest one of them all.

The Argument from Experience – I know God exists because I have experienced Him.

I mean, come on, is there anything I need to say about this? William Lane Craig, raised in a Christian family in a Christian nation, just happens to have direct experience of the Christian God? What a shock! The fact that human beings can have intense spiritual experiences, and that those experiences are easy to see through the lens of your culture, should surprise no one. Call me when Dinesh D’Souza has visions of the Phoenician Goddess of sex and war, or when a Yoruba man suddenly has an outbreak of Krishna Consciousness. Until then, this argument is meaningless and there is no need to waste any more time on it.

I would encourage anyone, theist or not, to examine these arguments and see if they really hold to up scrutiny; in addition, anyone who feels I have made incorrect statements or indulged in any logical fallacies is free to correct me. I would encourage anyone who does believe in God to point out where I have gone wrong or suggest other evidential approaches that I might not have encountered.

From the Jara Sutta of the Atthakavagga

 Daphne Todd's Last Portrait of Mother

How short this life!

You die within a hundred years.

But even if you live on, old age still claims you.

People grieve for what they call mine,

for nothing held onto is constant,

and nothing can be constantly held onto.

Seeing this state of deprivation simply as it is,

what use is the household life?

You shouldn’t be able to jerk off to feminism

A lot of screeds against pornography, promiscuity, “sluthood,” and all the other absurd and hateful ways men have coerced women into feeling good about being exploited come with a self-righteous, adjudicating tone that understandably annoys the shit out of a lot of women. So let me be clear: I don’t claim to know what a real, authentic female sexuality looks like, and I don’t claim to have the right to decide what a correct expression of that sexuality would be. But what I do have the right to do and the responsibility to do as a man is point out when a mode of male sexual expression deviates in absolutely untenable ways from even the most basic standards of respect – respect for a woman’s intelligence, agency, and humanity. And so, for what it’s worth, here it goes:

Pornography, casual sex, clubs and frat parties and the unyielding oversexualization of every possible aspect of our culture could not exist, either in practice or in principle, without legions of men who are actively aroused by the idea of demeaning, humiliating, hurting, and exploiting women. From Cum Splattered Sluts 4 to Yale Fraternity pledges chanting “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal” (clever!), it’s time that we admit the truth: The attitudes and assumptions of deeply misogynistic and generally shitty men pervade the sexual culture of this country and this world, and greater female involvement in social institutions designed from the ground up to oppress and exploit women will lead to nothing.

So this is where the title comes in. Men shouldn’t be able to jerk off to feminism. If it’s really feminism, those with a deep and abiding hatred of women should not be able to see it on the street and high-five their misogynistic, hateful friends about it. If it’s really women’s liberation, it shouldn’t satisfy the sexual predation of a man who sees women as little more than prey. And if it’s really going to stop rape, it’s going to happen outside of the clubs and bars and bedrooms that exist to get women raped.

This isn’t meant to be me attacking so-called “sex positive” feminists, although I have no problem claiming that many who identify as such are neither sex positive nor feminists. Instead, it’s just me, frustrated this morning from reading about another young woman being raped by another goddamn man who plied her with cheap alcohol produced by a company that knows how often predators use their swill for drugging girls, who took her to a party thrown for the sole purpose of allowing men to select women to abuse, where the music being played was produced for the sole purpose of entertaining misogynists, scumbags who enjoy hearing that vaginas and breasts exist as depositories for semen and pleasure toys instead of real flesh attached to real human beings. And I just get angry, bitter, and confused when I see so-called feminists arguing that the institutions and social structures that made this rape possible are somehow in need of re-appropriation or correction instead of outright destruction. Casual and impersonal sex, pornography, the culture of intoxication and hypersexualized partying, they’re all part and parcel of the rape culture, designed by misogynists and women-haters to allow for the convenient and guilt-free expression of the meanest contempt for women as human beings. They can’t be saved by the inclusion of feminists any more than the Neo-Nazis up by Hayden Lake can be saved by the inclusion of more gay or Jewish members.

And before you say that such a comparison is unreasonable, might I remind you that more than half of college-attending women report some form of sexual abuse; that almost three quarters of the offenders had been drinking alcohol; that more than three quarters of high-school age boys stated that “forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances” (more than half of the girls did too); that a third of elementary school girls, more than boys from the same age group, stated that a woman’s previous sexual experience makes it okay for a man to rape her; and that 43% of college-age men admit to sexual behavior that meets the definition of rape. If the links between intoxication, the male encouragement of promiscuity and casual sex, and the rape culture still aren’t  clear, I’d recommend checking out the writings of Andrea Dworkin and Derrick Jensen, both of whom nail down the specifics in ways I’m not qualified to do.

That doesn’t mean that I, like Andrea Dworkin, think that men and women should never have sex; however, only one who is willingly ignorant of patriarchy’s reach would deny that the default for sexual encounters between men and women in this day and age is one of disrespect, inhumanity, and exploitation. There is a real, honest, worthwhile female sexuality out there, and I don’t know what it is – but I do know that men and women have to actively fight against the current to find it. And I do know that when the majority of women are able to express their sexuality in ways that respect and honor their personhood, it won’t be easy for misogynists to jerk off to it. Hopefully, it’ll scare them shitless.

PS: While writing this, I’ve been watching VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 2000’s, which has been absolutely instrumental in keeping me enraged about the state of patriarchal sexual exploitation is media today. During the last segment I just heard a very famous woman say, in regards to Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, “It rocked so hard I didn’t even mind being called a bitch. After a bit, something can be so good you don’t even mind it when he ‘strong-arms a ho.'” Then she laughs. Good to see that more and more feminists are excited about getting women “involved” in popular music

 

As always, http://www.rainn.org/ is a great resource for those who need help, and a great place to donate for those who want to see and end to sexual exploitation in all its forms.

An Insurrection Against Ourselves

Yesterday, twenty children under the age of ten died for absolutely no reason.

And then, in the next sixty seconds, about twenty more died.

And by the end of the day, over 18,000 children around the world had died for absolutely no reason, a number that has remained constant for decades. A small fraction of those deaths took place in Connecticut, here in America, for one ten minute period where the average number of senseless deaths around this world was slightly, almost imperceptibly raised.

Every miserable instance that we witness these true depths of depravity, we are compelled, if only for one moment, to confront the fact that we live in a nation, a world, a universe where the lives of the most innocent among us can be destroyed en masse by someone who neither lacks nor possesses any quality absent from the hearts of every human being – a clarity that is never easily adapted to.

And so we pretend that the man, the woman, the universe itself, cold and indifferent and unfathomably there, is not us, apart from us. The essence of cruelty, of hate and fear and the desire to destroy, those Platonic forms of brutality and meanness that hide in the dustier parts of our souls, the baleful tendencies our comfort and stability prevent from manifesting – we bury the murderer and rapist, the cheat and the liar, the scared and bitter heart that beats in our meaty, rotten chest. The man who does not restrain that which is found in each of us, who murders and destroys, we make a “psychopath,” a “bad apple,” a specter of evil and malevolence that we can confine to the “other,” never needing to confront the fact that he, like us, is nothing but a piece of blood and foam, drifting in a universe that seems to, on the whole, favor his way of thinking than that of the Enlightened One.

But this is an illusion, and it is one that placates and perpetuates the ineffectual self-affirmation that our culture delights in when faced with tragedy. The truth, the shitty, tragic truth, is that those children died as we will die, terrified and helpless, murdered by a man who nurtured in himself that which cannot be denied in us – all in a world where death and weariness is the only guarantee, where a gnawing sense of not enough is the flavor of our lives. The most pernicious myth of all is that which hopes against reason that the essence of existence is separate from this cycle of birth and death, spread wide by years of sorrow – the lie that brutality and anguish are anything less than the most primal expression of what it means to be alive. If we are to ever find a way out from under the weight of our own hearts, we must come to realize that the most base evils of our species, from genocide and patriarchal oppression to ecological devastation and psychological alienation, are not extraordinary acts performed by subhuman monsters but instead the logical conclusion of the vices that reside in us all, and that only through consciously fighting against the meanness inside can we come to anything that resembles a life worth living. If we fail to admit that every act of kindness is a rebellion against our darker nature, every decent thing the antithesis of that which we are given, we are already dead.

For the last 200,000 years, mankind has raped and murdered, abused and destroyed and exercised with glee the most hideous forms of oppression and violence. From South Africa, where a woman is more likely to be raped than be literate, to Azerbaijan, where slaves are traded around the globe for about $80 per human life, to Latah County, where too goddamn many men are hollowing themselves out with methamphetamine, where too goddamn many women are being beaten by their good Christian husbands, where too goddamn many human beings are as alone and afraid and sad as I am – everywhere, there is no ounce of kindness and gentle compassion that we don’t have to wrest from the sticky, fat hands of this universe.

Each one of us is a heap of meat and skin and synovial fluid, filled with fear and hate and all too human cruelty. Look at yourself, look at all the evil that is inside you, and never forget that, unless you resolve to pull it out with your own two hands, it will stay there until the day your disgusting, dying body returns to the disgusting, dying earth. If we do nothing, if we expect this broken, empty universe to do anything but drive us towards collapse and spite and greyness and death, then we have abdicated our responsibility. If we expect anything decent, anything beautiful, to be born from anything but our own efforts, our own stubborn refusal to accept the brutality that the universe prescribes, then we will never stop seeing what we saw yesterday. And if, when faced with twenty dead children lying face-down in a bloody elementary school, we clasp our hands and pray, despairing and hoping instead of gritting our teeth and extending a defiant, hopeless middle finger towards the universe, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Sex and sweat and everything ever

A while ago, a friend sent me a link about a very interesting study done in The Netherlands:

Borg and her colleagues separated 90 female university students into three equal groups: one watched “female friendly erotica”; one watched a video of extreme sports meant to get them excited, but in a non-sexual way; and one watched a video of a train, meant to elicit a neutral response.

The women were then given 16 tasks, most of them unappealing. They were asked to take a sip from a cup of juice that had a large (fake) insect in it, to wipe their hands with a used tissue and to take a bite from a cookie that was sitting next to a living worm. The women were also asked to perform several sex-related tasks, like lubricating a vibrator.

Women in the “aroused group” said they found both the unpleasant tasks and the sex-related tasks less disgusting than women in the other groups. They also completed the highest percentage of the activities, suggesting that sexual arousal not only decreases feelings of disgust, but directly affects what women are willing to do, the study shows.

(No word on how they made sure that the women in the last group weren’t secretly turned on by trains like I am.)

Buddhism has long understood the way desire can blind us to the repulsive nature of things, from used tissues and bug-filled cups of juice to the very substance that makes up our own bodies. Just as these women were, in the grip of lust, willing to do that which the normal, undisturbed mind would find disgusting, so too are all beings capable of great delusion when desire and craving prevent them from seeing accurately the coarse and vulgar nature of their actions.

The experience of these women highlights the conflict between the rational, clearly comprehending mind and the infatuated, craving mind; it shows what can happen when we value a sensation so greatly that we are willing to ignore the repulsiveness of its vehicle, and how the fundamental differences between the mindful and unmindful approaches to life set us up for either contentedness and peace or suffering and distress.

With a mindful approach to life, one based in detached, non-conceptual observation, we can come to see that this world is empty. It is impermanent and unsatisfying, out of our control and relentlessly spiraling towards dissolution. It is a world free of guidance, of a master plan, of God or souls or much of anything except misery and tension. As the most Venerable Vajira said:

It’s only suffering that comes to be,

Suffering that stands and falls away.

Nothing but suffering comes to be,

Nothing but suffering ceases.

With a pure, concentrated mind, we can see the coarse and transitory nature of all constructed things – neither beautiful nor ugly but simply repulsive, not worthy of attachment. Like a curious couple may chip away the richly painted walls of a new home to find rot and decay only inches below the surface, the mindful person discovers through meditation the true nature of the world around them and reacts accordingly, determined not to make a home where suffering is bound to follow.

The unmindful way, the heedless approach to living that is ruled not by clear thought and wisdom but by desire and passion, leads us in the opposite direction. We engage with the world as though it was permanent and steady, basing our happiness on a foundation of sand. We grow infatuated with pleasant feelings, with delicious tastes and beautiful sights, and we decide to sacrifice our time, our money, our health and our peace to hunt them down; we give up control of our own minds and let desire take the wheel, driving us to the four corners of the Earth in search of the one body that will never grow old, the one possession that will never grow obsolete, the one thing that will never disappear before our very eyes in a pile of ash. We use the things we own to craft a fragile truce with sorrow, a ceasefire between us and the universe that reality is always equipped to break.

About a year ago, I read an article that illustrated just how much hurt some people will endure in the pursuit of sensual pleasure, the story of story of a man who arrived home to find his house consumed by an electrical fire. He called got out of his car, called 911, and then promptly ran through the flames in an attempt to save his most valuable possessions. The report stated he died of smoke inhalation and asphyxiation in the doorway of his bedroom, dead before he could even grab any of the things he cherished so deeply.

His greed led him to run without reservation into the center of a raging fire. And although we may laugh or at least shake our heads, the Buddha taught in the Adittapariyaya Sutta that we too run into such a conflagration every time we chase sensual pleasure:

“Monks, all is aflame. What is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame. Consciousness at the ear is aflame. Contact at the ear is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the ear — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The nose is aflame. Odors are aflame. Consciousness at the nose is aflame. Contact at the nose is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the nose — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The tongue is aflame. Tastes are aflame. Consciousness at the tongue is aflame. Contact at the tongue is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the tongue — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The body is aflame. Sensations are aflame. Consciousness at the body is aflame. Contact at the body is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the body — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

“The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

Any time we suspend our mindfulness and clear comprehension in the pursuit of pleasure, any moment we spend saturated with desire instead of wisdom, we are no better than the man who runs into the fire to save that which is impossible to save. Just like him, we blind ourselves to the danger, closing our eyes to the pain and anguish guaranteed to those who hold close that which is bound up with suffering. We delude ourselves, making pleasant sights and sounds and tastes a perpetual ambition that hangs in our vision like a rancid carrot on a stick, all the while never more than a moment away from recourse to the reprehensible.

The root of this destructive path is the mechanism demonstrated so perfectly by the women in the study up above; when our mind is muddled in pursuit of a sensation, that which a clear-headed and wise person would see as repulsive becomes just another avenue for pleasure. We don’t mind placing burnt skin and muscle into our mouths because our desire for the sensation it brings is great enough to overcome the part of the rational mind that screams for us to put down the lump of dead flesh at the end of our fork. We crave wealth and respect, too excited by the dopamine rush of fame and popularity to realize what worthless, painful hoops we’re jumping through to get it. and most inexplicably, we’re willing to suffer horribly, sacrificing our health and security and happiness, just for the chance to fuck a mass of blood and foam, full of disease and filth and putridity – all because the wise part of us that would look at a human body with revulsion, seeing the sweat and shit and fat and grease and snot, is being strangled by a desire for orgasm.

The hard truth is that our world is burning, aflame with aging and death, anguish and pain, sadness and fear and hurt; the question for us is how we react. Do we tell ourselves stories until we are convinced that we can survive the heat? Do we cover our eyes and rush into the blaze, propelled by a desire to hoard ash and dead wood? Or do we heed the Buddha’s advice and step back with a smile into the cool breeze?

Atheism does not imply materialism

I am an atheist, an infidel, a denier of God and the soul and the intrinsic meaning of anything ever – and as such a ne’er do well grump, I often encounter other such folks on the giant atheist convention center that is the internet, as well as in real life (not really) who share my views, and that’s always nice. Sadly though, I’ve realized lately that I do not actually meet the traditional, dogmatic definition of one who rejects tradition and dogma, and thus I do not seem to really fit in with most atheists. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like I would have any trouble. Let’s go through the checklist:

1) Do I believe that the universe was created, guided, sustained, or in any way related to the existence of any kind of Supreme Being? Nope.

2) Do I believe that there is anything more important or more worthwhile than the present life? Nah.

3) Do I accept belief in any system, religious or not, unless it can be directly verified through personal experience and objective investigation? Not in a million years.

But then a weird fourth question seems to get tacked on: Do you believe that there is anything except elemental, corporeal matter? And it is on that question that I falter. See, my dirty secret is that I am not a materialist, and that I do believe in the existence of non-physical qualia. Such a belief seems to make one a pariah amongst many atheists, who seem to be incredibly proud of their opposition to fixed, unchanging doctrine and their championing of rational, objective empiricism, except of course when such examination leads to positions that they have not sanctioned. So what is a man without a philosophical country to do besides write a grumpy, rambling discussion of consciousness on his own blog for the benefit of him and maybe four other readers?

Shit’s about to get philosophical.

I believe in a radical empiricism, one that holds experience not as a representation of a chemical or electrical process but as the forerunner of existence; our qualia – feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness – are not functions of a physical system such as the brain or nervous system but instead an emergent property of the non-physical experience of knowing. Our consciousness interacts not with physical objects, such as a chair or stovetop, but with experience, data, the knowing of soft or hard, cool or hot, pleasant or painful; consequently, what we conventionally consider to be ‘things’ are actually ultimately describable only as bundles of sensation or sense data. Reality is experience, the intersection between that which knows and that which is known. Human beings can only make sense of their place in the world through the observation of the consciousnesses that arise through contact between the mind and the physical world. This pragmatic empiricism is best described as phenomenalism.

I believe this because I am confident that objective, experiential observation of the nature of qualia will reveal a fundamental category difference between that which is known and that which knows, i.e. an ontological distinction between the nature of what can be referred to as the physical – people, places, and things – and what can be referred to as the mental – the subjective qualities of knowing related to sense data. The existence of non-physical qualia is to me a fundamental axiom in that we cannot examine any existent thing without first acknowledging that our ability to observe is in fact separate in nature from that which is being observed; to use the qualia generated from our experience of the physical world in order to then categorize qualia as not dissimilar from that which its generation springs is no more rational than taking the position that you are illiterate due to a particularly persuasive essay.

Thus I would argue that the existence of a differentiation between the known and that which knows, a category difference that not only reveals itself through literally every act of experiencing but also one that underlies the very logical conceptualization of experience, is not deniable in parsimonious or otherwise empirically grounded approach. One must make the presupposition of qualia functionally separate from the physical in order to justify the existence of experience – either that or one must invent a position neither supported by science nor reason that suggests the ability of physical matter to create systems with ontological properties separate from those found in its constituent parts, an emergent dualism that has no basis nor support in observable reality. The inescapable reality of our world is such that the inherent dissimilarity of physical matter and experience, both in fundamental category as well as ontological nature, cannot be denied unless one makes a prior recourse to a presupposition of materialism.

We call the opposite side of such a philosophical coin solipsism, the idea that a proper response to the apparent existence of the known and the knower is the assumption only of the knower. I would like to posit that materialism is equally groundless in its assumption only of the known, i.e. the physical. Both positions come in conflict with observable reality in that neither can explain within the confines of their worldview why the behavior of one category of existence does not match the model of the other; the solipsist, who struggles to twist the physical into some sort of debased mental projection, is equally as lost as the materialist, whose greatest possible answer for the undeniable discrepancy between the apparent function of the physical and the mental is a strained attempt to paint the experiential as a mystical projection of an assumed physical process for which there is no evidence.

Phenomenalism, which is actually simply the Western term for the epistemic base supplied by the Buddha as our means of interacting with the universe, rejects both dichotomies by making what is, in my mind, the only rational assumption: that what appears to be physical is in fact physical, and that what appears to be experience of the physical is in fact experience of the physical. By emphasizing empirically verifiable experience, formed through the contact of perception and perceived, as the base of reality, the Buddha’s teachings function as a characteristically ‘middle path’ between solipsism and materialism, one which follows direct observation to its logical conclusion by avoiding recourse to presuppositions based not in reality but conceptual conjecture and cultural bias.