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.