Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review of TED Talk by Materialist Philosopher Stephen Cave

This is a review of the TED Talk by Stephen Cave titled

Sadly, this is one of the worst TED talks I’ve heard.  Perhaps my expectations are too high.

Mr. Cave focuses on “bias,” yet as a philosopher he shows bias too, but apparently unconsciously.  His bias is that there is no truth to be found in the “four” typical immortality stories that he has identified.  He shows his bias because he is a scientific philosopher, not a psychologist. The psychologist views these kinds of archetypal stories as myths, and takes their commonalities as telling us something true about our own psyches, not just fake fairy tales to be thrown out or left behind. Yes, we grow out of the literal belief in these kinds of stories, but we should be growing into discovering the truth that these stories are pointing us toward if our growth is to be anything remotely identifiable as maturation. 
For example, the sad philosopher Mr. Cave ignores what the essence of the “elixir” story is all about. He should read Carl G. Jung to know that there is an archetype of the “elixir” for the reason that there is an actual elixir in the human psyche (the heart-mind) that can lead us to understanding life and death and thus transcending death. In alchemy, "the One that dieth not" is the homo philosohicus, the One, who is the tincture or elixir of life.  Only the young child, the naive, and the uninitiated would imagine the elixir of life, the elixir vitae,  to be something only literally composed of physical molecules.  Always, the physical properties are merely the anchoring attributes for the transcendent qualities of the elixir.  In one instance it was said that the elixir was to be made from the "prime matter" that is taken from a single tree that "grows on the surface of the ocean as plants grow on the surface of the earth." Only a fool would think that this was speaking of an actual tree.  In our modern alienated view of reality we would call the physical aspects a metaphor.  However, in the premodern view, the metaphor was the actual living psychic property of the physical aspect.  So in the previous example, the alchemist knew that "the single tree" was an image of oneness to be sought growing "on the surface the ocean" of the mind's true reality.  Philosopher Cave seems to have the bias of scientific materialism that “the mind,” the psyche, is merely an epiphenomenon of the physical brain.

Elsewhere on his recent TED Blog titled "The immortality bias: Further reading on the 4 stories we tell ourselves about death," Mr. Cave has written about the “soul” story in this way:  

"Buddhism has a similar belief in reincarnation — the movement of the soul from one body to another — although it confusingly also teaches that there is no permanent soul or self."

That comment shows a woeful lack of knowledge (i.e., ignorance) about the Buddha Dharma. There is nothing confusing about teaching there is no permanent soul or self in rebirth because the Buddha Dharma does NOT teach anything remotely like "the movement of the soul from one body to another."  The Buddha acknowledged that reincarnation occurs as a law of nature, but radically transformed the naive understanding of a "soul" to point to the fact that there is no separate or individual "soul" that transmigrates even when there is the appearance of one. That is, the Buddha does not deny the naive "appearance" of a soul, but the Buddha says when we inquire deeply into the appearance of a soul we will see that it is a construct of our imagination. Still, the Buddha teaches that karma is relentless, regardless of the imaginary character of the soul, and that what is reborn is not consciousness but the mind. The arising and disappearing of consciousness is what appears to the ignorant as birth and death, but it is the activity of the unborn and undying mind of innermost thusness.

What is reborn is only the effects of the karmic waves. Modern physics would call this the noninterference of waves, as when there are countless electromagnetic waves coursing through a room but our cell phone picks up one frequency stream without any interference by all the others. The idea of a "soul" is the illusion of a standing wave formation formed by all the karmic waves from countless previous lives. We take the temporary appearance of a standing wave formation to be the "person" and then we assume that the "person" possesses something that is behind the appearance that is a "soul." That assumption is an unnecessary wish for the eternity of the "person." In fact, the true eternity is the constancy of the appearance of impermanent and transient waves. In other words, what is reborn in the wave formation of a single life is the ocean itself, not some thing called a "soul."

Mr. Cave’s conclusion is that “We believe these stories because we are biased to believe them, and we are biased to believe them because we are so afraid of death.” This is really just a statement about the bias of belief, not about the stories themselves.  When we are afraid, we are confused by what we call "belief." But when we become free from our fear, then we see the stories in a new light having nothing to do with belief.  Mr. Cave would have us ignore the truth of the stories under this new light and simply forget and ignore them altogether. He reasons we can give up our childish belief in them by giving up our fear of death. That is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and not philosophical at all.  Yes, we can find the way to no longer be afraid of death, but that has nothing to do with necessarily giving up these stories, only giving up the idea of a literal belief in them.

Mr. Cave has the personal bias that we are limited to “the one life we have.”  He says, “just as book is bounded by its covers by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death.”  He says the characters in a book don't worry about who wrote the book or what the world is outside of the book covers, so neither should we worry about what is outside of birth and death.  Sadly, he does not explore why or how he has this king of biased belief in the face of considering death.  Instead Mr. Cave would have up put aside the very consideration of death and simply adopt the view that since we will never “experience” death that we need not consider it.  He tells us don’t think about death and just enjoy life while we have it.  Certainly, there are some people like Mr. Cave who will find some kind of solace in sticking their head into the sand.
Mr. Cave says that we merely need to see how “the fear of death is not rational,” and then we will see how that irrational fear brings out our biases. In this we can see the confusion that Mr. Cave has about the role of rationality in life based on his own bias in the face of death. With his story, he has constructed an elaborate rational edifice, not to defeat death by a story of immortality but to defeat death by a story of why we should ignore death.  He doesn’t see that by ignoring death we only drive the archetype of death into the unconscious where it will come back to haunt us in so many ways.

If we want to find the truest story, we should tell the story that shows how all the stories are true given their presumptive perspectives. That is, we need a story that includes all of the other stories, without claiming that any particular one or all the others are totally false, because the apparent differences in all the stories are just because they are about other parts of the elephant in the room: death.


般若生 said...

it is great comment.

Angulimala said...

" Yes, we grow out of the literal belief in these kinds of stories, but we should be growing into discovering the truth that these stories are pointing us toward if our growth is to be anything remotely identifiable as maturation."

WTF, Gregory. This is a pretty reactionary response.

Your take on the Buddha Dharma's teaching on rebirth are not the point. The point is that a great number of people believe that their souls can be reborn in another body; whether in accordance with the teachings, as you see them or not, that is what they believe.

Do you posit an Atman? Does transcending the childhood beliefs in the stories to Jungian views point to a clearer view of "pure mind" or some other Buddhistic thaumatological refuge?

The "bias" that the author points out is nothing more than a form of atman that people have in hopes of escaping death unscathed. The author argues anatman full strength. You damn him as a scientific philosopher while using Jung, who claimed to be a scientific psychologist, to make your point.

Just a few thoughts. Thanks for you original posts; present and past.


Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Thanks for you comment Bill. My response is in two parts due to the length.

I don’t see the reason for calling my response “reactionary” since that word has connotations of opposing political or social change. I’m reacting, yes. and reacting strongly, because of what Cave said about the Buddha Dharma view of death and immortality. His childish and simplistic approach to the most important question of life and death is presented in the name of materialism and philosophical common sense, so to me it deserves a strong reaction.

My point about the Buddha Dharma view of rebirth is directly on point in response to how Cave says the pre-Buddhist view and the non-Buddhist view is the same as the Buddha Dharma view.

Buddha taught for those people who do believe in a soul, so it seems that Cave should have done his home work and examined how that teaching relates to his thesis of 4 views of immortality. Cave doesn’t say that in Buddha Dharma there is a teaching that doesn’t view rebirth as being about a soul so something different is being said than his category of a soul story of immortality.

No, I do not posit an “atman” or separate self of any kind, except the imaginary kind. I posit that the “atman” is a mental fabrication of the Fourth Skandha, or in Jungian terms a complex or archetype, sometimes called the ego complex and sometimes called the self archetype depending on the depth of the fabrication. By seeing that the atman, soul, self, ego, are all the appearances of the constructed complexes or the inherent organizational structure of the archetypes we do get a clearer view of how consciousness functions and how ignorance arises within the mind.

Now your question about a "’pure mind’ or some other Buddhistic thaumatological refuge” is most interesting and relates to Cave’s analysis. Which of his four categories would this fall into? Or would this be a fifth category story of immortality?

But, also, what are you implying? Are you saying that there is no refuge at all or that going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is just a belief in miracles? Are you saying that Buddha was just a thaumaturge, a miracle or wonder worker? Of course, in Zen we might affectionately refer to Buddha as “that old magician” but it would have a double entendre embedded in it.

I don’t see Cave’s argument as positing the teaching of "anatman" at all, much less “full strength.” I wish he were. Cave doesn’t say that we don’t have a separate self or real ego. Cave only says we have no way of knowing if we have an immortal soul that survives death. By that analogy, Cave is accepting that we have a soul while living. Cave is positing agnosticism of the immortal soul, and he doesn’t address the self at all. He says “worrying about it just creates bias and the bias just creates more worry, so don’t even think about,”

comment continued in part 2.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Continuation of Comment part 2.

As for Jung, I do accept him as a scientific psychologist, because he used science as the frame of reference for the study of the psyche. Jung said that if we take science seriously, we have to start from the recognition that to study the psyche we cannot get outside of our own psyche, and therefore any study of the psyche is to study how our own psyche functions as it studies the psyche. Jung was the greatest scientific psychologist we have on record, which is why so many of his insights parallel the psychology of the Buddha Dharma such as the 5 skandhas of personality, the eight-fold consciousness, and mind-only (cittamatra). I am not opposed to scientific physiology, but I am adamantly opposed to confusing or conflating physiology with psychology which is going on in the universities today.

As for Cave being a “scientific philosopher,” I admit that the label is vague. Perhaps I should have said materialistic philosopher to be more precise, to show that it is not science as a Dharma that I was indicating but the false conclusion of science that all we are is the composition of material substances for the time while our molecules and chemistry are animated. That is the philosophy that Cave is espousing that I am strongly challenging and calling out as junk science because it does not address the hard problem of consciousness and the even harder problem of the psyche, i.e., the mind.

Angulimala said...

Part 1

Hi, Alan and thanks for the thoughtful response. First let me say that my comment about you being “reactionary” was poor internet manners on my part. In the past I have read your blog posts and have lurked over at ZFI and know that what you write has a passion behind it as well as respect for your readers.
I watched Stephen Cave’s video over at TED and then did a little further looking after our first exchange. I am now of the opinion that Cave does not nearly rise to the level of the title “philosopher” in my opinion. I think his TED talk might be a sneaky way of hawking his book, “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization”.
In the preface he writes:
“I am aware of the immodesty of making sweeping claims about such grand matters. Experts will shudder at my simplifications of complex debates, some of enormous antiquity. But it was always my intent to keep the book short and succinct, and hope that some readers at least will be stimulated to go further down alleyways of knowledge to which I could only point.”
I am aware that he got his PhD in metaphysics from the University of Cambridge, but even Amazon has his book listed with the tags Religious > New Age, Mythology & Occult. I do not offer any of the above as proof of anything about Mr. Cave other than my inability to take him or his video very seriously. The video played out like lectures I attended in philosophy 101 in community college forty some odd years ago. Yet, I am also aware that our now conversation is “dependently arisen” from the extinguished. LOL!
Mr. Cave starts off with his “first” experience of death as if it were some kind of tabula rasa event. I posit that even as a child Cave’s experience was and could only have been experienced within the bounds of the cultural ideologies in which he was ensconced. He describes his experience in terms of concepts; so, in other words, he is already in one of the “stories”. The fact that he was then unaware of himself as being an ideologically formed social creature was not necessary in the formation of his conceptual and emotional response to “death”. At the very least one might say he experienced the concept of death on the background of The Collective Unconscious. One might also wonder if Cave actually saw the dead body of his grandfather or was it hidden from view, save for possible ritual viewings. I know that my exposures to corpses under different circumstances have always challenged what I previously thought were my views up to that point. Bodies are for the most part kept from view here in the west. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to do a sitting at the charnel ground; could I keep my attention on the out breath and sit with thoughts arising and passing away. Or, how about a sky burial in Tibet?

I do not doubt your personal views on what the Buddha Dharma teaches. Where I become confused is the seemingly vast array of what different practitioners and critics have to say on the subjects of rebirth and Atman/Anatman. For example, over on The Zennist’s blog he claims that the Buddha did not deny the “self” (atman) but rather cautioned against identifying the self with the five Skandhas, that being suffering (Anatman, false self). Then there is the Speculative Non- Buddhist Project, which I assume that you are aware of, who claim that all x-buddhist sneak in a “hidden atman” that mends the void for western Christian refugee’s latent need for the salvific or soteriological. One might glimpse it in the subtlest forms of “I practice” or “my practice”. In other words, a little pie in the sky hidden in the commentary makes for a more palatable Western Secular Buddhism. And let us not forget the personality cult and hierarchies possible in the sangha.

Angulimala said...

Part 2

You wrote in the original post: “When we are afraid, we are confused by what we call "belief." But when we become free from our fear, then we see the stories in a new light having nothing to do with belief.”
Could you expand upon how “we become free from our fear”? I ask because it seems to be the global aporia and what you say is as opaque as Cave’s asking us to free ourselves of our “biases” without any clue as to how this is to be attained. If I were to pose this question in the “Ask a Teacher” forum over at ZFI I would get instructed to find a teacher, a group to sit with and exhorted that Zen or “sitting” does not address my presenting problem. If I were to go to one of the many churches around my part of the country and ask the same question I would be instructed to give myself over to Jesus Christ and be born again by baptism. In both cases I would have to have some degree of preliminary faith that the given practice would help me for it to have any efficacy at all.
I might point out that the question of “what category are you in” is speculative. The answer would be dependent on how and when I am going to die; the scenario does change a bit from youth to old age. I like to think that it would be a peaceful letting go of that which was only a fabrication to begin with. But then again, given the culture I was raised in, l might cut and run to Jesus. I think that someone with a lot of years invested in a belief or practice is more likely to stand steady in the face of death. But I have been a wanderer in the world of spirit which has been intellectually stimulating through the years but has also left me without any reified belief to fall back on.
“The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they found not what they sought. They prayed me let them in and besought my word, and thus I began my teaching.
Harken: I begin with nothingness. Nothingness is the same as fullness. In infinity full is no better than empty. Nothingness is both empty and full. As well might ye say anything else of nothingness, as for instance, white is it, or black, or again, it is not, or it is. A thing that is infinite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities.” - SERMO I, VII SERMONES AD MORTUOS ~ C.G. Jung, 1916
I have a soft spot for Jung. I was introduced to his works by Stephan A. Hoeller in his lectures on Gnosticism at a little store front church in Hollywood back in the 80’s and 90’s. The name of the church was Ecclesia Gnostica. Google Stephan A. Holler if you are not familiar with him and his writings and lectures on Carl Jung the Gnostic. Given his history and achievements I was thrilled that the Red Book was released and he lectures on the material to this day.
I am sorry it took me so long to get back but I am no typist and the older I get the harder it is to organize my ideas and appear half way coherent.