Sunday, July 3, 2022

Subjecting Experience to an Investigation

Jay Garfield hands down has the best translation of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (the discourses on the middle way and emptiness in Buddhism) and so I was pleasantly surprised to see that he has a new book out called Losing Ourselves: Learning to live without a self. We have covered this territory before but from a meditation practitioner's perspective. In short, in Mahamudra/Dzogchen, the practitioner learns to (i) first practice no-self wherein awareness is directly connected to phenomenal content with the self seen as a construct; (ii) next the practitioner gets behind everything and begins to see the entire world (including space and time) as a construct with awareness being the stillpoint of the universe; (iii) phenomenal content returns and in the one taste meditation, awareness/content is seen as simultaneous with a separate awareness being seen as a construct; (iv) the crossover instructions are taken to heart and the practitioner now sees each moment as awareness/content expressing itself to itself with meditation seen as a construct; (v) the Dzogchen practices then take over (automatic emptiness, Lion's Gaze etc.) with an extraordinarily simple non-practice practice wherein awareness/content is exhorted to stay and stay and with excessive retreat into clarity, stillness and bliss disrupted by the PHAT! instructions. (We have not yet covered Crossing Over and Dzogchen here on this blog.)

I mention all this just to say that Garfield roughly covers step 1 in this book. As such, this aspect of the book is extraordinarily useful. You have a top flight analytic philosopher tackling the no-self doctrine. He very carefully points out the danger of reification of the self, the historical impulses (Kant, most of Indian philosophy etc.) behind it and then brings his attention to modern approaches to the subject of experience. 

And then it all falls apart. Garfield's polemics are reserved for Galen Strawson's thin subject and Dan Zahavi's minimal self (with similar concepts in Evan Thompson's work). We have already covered this territory, and have pointed out how useful it is to have a non-Cartesian thin subject since it so directly corresponds to our experience. Strawson, Zahavi and Thompson have done us a huge service in unpacking this construct - enabling future researchers to include this minimal self into the world stream which they surely will. (We have attempted to do so in the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference series using category theory inspired models, but I digress.)

Why is Garfield so sure he is right? It's because of the very first premise in Galen Strawson's The Subject of Experience to which we now turn:

  1.  "Awareness is (necessarily) a property of a subject of awareness." (The Subject of Experience, page 193).

Garfield takes issue with this claiming that Strawson is reifying the self with awareness as its property (sorta like the property of an object). He then criticizes Strawson for descending into reflexivity of awareness since what usually happens when you go down this route is that you will get an awareness of awareness recursion causing - as Wilber said a very long time ago - centauric awareness to recede. (Incidentally, I was stuck here for a loooong time and let me tell you, the level of depression got pretty acute: and all stemming from mistaking awareness as "my awareness." The alienation from others and the world goes to infinity and you end up in existential despair territory pretty quickly.)  

But this is not where Strawson ends up! To cut a long story short, while he begins with step 1 which is a fairly simple existential level observation, that's not where he ends up which is:

  "All awareness comports awareness of itself" (page 195).
which is where Mahamudra/Dzogchen ends and begins: awareness/content expressing itself to itself.
I was curious to see if Garfield would reference and discuss The Embodied Mind co-authored by Evan Thompson and Francisco Varela (whom we all miss terribly) along with Eleanor Rosch. While that book covered similar terrain, it backed away from a univocal no-self doctrine by gingerly bringing emptiness of concept back into the picture. Garfield does not do so and this is a clear regression relative to The Embodied Mind. It is worth revisiting Wilber's criticism (page 691, note 1 to chapter 14, 1st edition) of the no-self arguments in The Embodied Mind since it applies to Losing Ourselves in spades.
"Nor, I believe, is Spirit's literal interpretation as "no-self" very helpful either......In short, both the cohesive self and the momentary states are relatively real, but both are ultimately Empty: the absolute is neither self nor no-self (nor both nor neither), neither momentary nor permanent (nor both nor neither), but is rather the "Thatness" disclosed by nondual Prajna or primordial awareness, a "Thatness" which, being radically unquaifiable, cannot be captured in any concepts whatsoever."

A bit more flowery than I would like but the point should be clear. Now, Garfield undoubtedly knows all this, so why does he do it? The answer, I believe, lies in this paragraph:
"...awareness can be the result of the cooperation of a number of psychophysical processes, and it can consist in a number of relations between aspects of a person and aspects of their environment. Awareness is most plausibly an umbrella property that reflects an extremely complex set of underlying properties and relations." (page 71).
To which I say bollocks. Garfield seems to be attempting to finesse away the hard problem  by attempting a solution on the cheap: this will never work considering that the problem of consciousness has been with us for a very long time. At times in the book, I almost caught a whiff of eliminativism in Garfield which he most likely does not hold but unfortunately the Dennetts of the world are surely taking notes from this book. To be clear, there is a way to interpret "an umbrella property that reflects an extremely complex set of underlying properties and relations" such that it honors both physicalism and consciousness but we must reject the perspective from which Garfield makes this observation: he views the self as a construct and the "underlying" brain processes as real and attempts to get the former from the latter without a fundamental rejiggering of our worldview which I think is impossible. It ends up in a complex systems or radical emergentist view of the world and will likely enable AI engineers to claim that their artifacts are conscious. Before you get upset, the likelihood of AI engineers claiming this is highly remote and I merely offer this as a possibility.

All this goes to show how even a highly principled and sincere investigation can go off the rails. I sometimes wonder if things would be different if  Galen Strawson had called  his concept a "thick perspective" interpreted as "bounded awareness of phenomenal content" (since I can prick you but not directly feel your pain) rather than a "thin subject," but the damage is done. And sadly, the solution is so simple. Acknowledge that the self is a construct (which is Strawson's point as well but Garfield seems to have not figured this out), but so is the world and quarks and leptons, bosons through to cells etc. But, it is a natural construct and not a cultural construct (like astrology). Garfield seems to think it is the latter and not the former, hence his polemics. He therefore selectively applies emptiness of self where it suits him leaving out the emptiness of the world while allowing physicalism to remain unchallenged. But, as Daniel Stoljar tells us, this will never work.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Liberalism versus populism

It is 2022 and I'm convinced that the US has now entered one of the most dangerous phases in its history. Don't think this is hyperbole and will try and justify this below. If all goes well, we will probably look back to 02/24/22 - the onset of the Ukraine war - as the turning point where a robust new liberalism seized back the initiative from the forces of oligarchy, plutocracy etc. worldwide. But this is not a given: the next few years will be gut wrenching if this transformation is to occur.

What has to die is the neoliberal economic order of the past 40 years. We have already mentioned the reasons why this order is going kaput but two excellent recent books - The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (by Gary Gerstle) and Liberalism and its Discontents (by Francis Fukuyama no less) - have considerably clarified the picture. Both books argue that the neoliberal order of the past 40 years is dead and that we must pave the way for a new economic order. Otherwise populist forces of the right and left will usher in oligarchic forces which will install a strongman, game the population and turn every intellectual into a bitter cynic. It will be game over if that happens, not just for America but for the world. Adapted from Gary Gerstle:

"A political order must have the ability to shape the core ideas of political life......The neoliberal order persuaded a large majority of Americans that free markets would unleash capitalism from unnecessary state controls and spread prosperity and freedom throughout the ranks of Americans...[Instead] political disorder and dysfunction reign. What comes next is the most important question the United States, and the world, now face.

Clearly then, the US central bank will be, er, central to the efforts aimed at ushering in the new order. But, this can only happen if there is a crisis and I believe we are hurtling toward such a crisis which will peak within the next few years. The crisis will probably involve the status of the US dollar as the world's premier reserve currency and just like Bretton-Woods was necessary in 1944, we might need to install a new financial order in 2022-2026. Since the US is a forward looking country, it could be something completely unexpected and new like the adoption of a crypto currency with communities worldwide being enabled by tethering to the US neodollar. Or something else.

Setting aside these speculations, what are the implications from a consciousness studies perspective? To put it simply, I think the coastal elite have to become the new conservatives and broadcast messages of inclusion to the entire country. The US has to secure the foundations of a new order which will treat everyone equally (thereby taking the wind out of identity politics of all stripes) while maintaining the social gains of the past 80 years (which saw all kinds of marginalized people enter the mainstream). To achieve this, the baby boomers and millennial followers (sorry Gen-X) have to keep repeating that we are all in this together and that democracy itself might be at stake (in the world's oldest democracy). The formerly radical boomers - the most narcissistic generation ever produced by America - should now strengthen institutions and ward off attacks by the populists (who are now the new radicals). We have to become the new conservatives if America is to hold together.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The nation breathes a sigh of relief

The title says it all. One of the worst presidents in American history was narrowly defeated and not permitted a second term. If 20,000 votes were changed in AZ, GA and WI, this would not have come to pass. To put things in perspective, only Jimmy Carter did not get re-elected from a similar position in 1980. As we have previously mentioned, the defeats of George H. W. Bush and Herbert Hoover don't count since both followed Republican presidents and therefore represented continuations of the same theme. We have to go all the way back to Benjamin Harrison to see a similar pattern but that's too far over the horizon for consideration.

How did this happen? It should not have been close. With a pandemic raging out of control and "King Lear" at the helm, it should have been a slam dunk for Biden. Instead it was a nail-biter which went down to the wire. Biden ended up winning only 509 of 3143 counties---mostly urban and suburban counties---which is, hands down, the smallest number of counties won by a presidential candidate. All this goes to show that it is really difficult to defeat an incumbent, no matter the situation. But it also points to a much greater schism in present day America and a harbinger of things to come. 

What is that schism exactly? Liberals and progressives find it easy to talk of the "rubes" who---living in echo chambers----have been brainwashed into voting the way they do. They point out, rightly so, that the Republican party has all but abandoned all its principles and is now a party that is just focused on power and obtaining it by almost any means necessary. While there are many things accurate about this perspective, it also leaves out much more than it explains and also hides the fact that liberals and progressives may be guilty of living in their own bubble---one which we should closely examine to discover clues that could lead to healing the schism.

We have previously mentioned that "Spiral Dynamics" offers a great framework to understand present-day America. This election validated the spiral dynamics worldview in spades. It is now extremely clear that individualism (and not whiteness or Christianity or fascism etc.) is on the rocks and is dying. Economic orange (as per spiral dynamics) is driven by supply side economics and is reaching its end stage which is not surprising. But what is more interesting is the death of social orange---something rarely discussed but even more relevant in the age of the pandemic: if I do not listen to authority and do whatever I please, people die which is simply unacceptable. So, we can agree with spiral dynamics and bid adieu to social and economic orange (or individualism and laissez faire capitalism) and wait for something new. 

But, it's not as simple as this. The death of social orange should also mean the death of technocracy since these are correlates. Technocracy after all is the latest attempt to reduce each human being into ever narrower expertise-based atoms. At the same time, the technocracy is speeding up everything else (through automation) making the fragmented and bifurcated human multi-task at a pace that will not stop. Period. We are therefore headed for a soft civil war decade which should first see the death of individualism and laissez faire economics (with the latter already headed to the dustbin thanks to the Great Recession of 2008). But, it should also see the death of the technocracy as the rise of AI leads to a level of speed up and opacity wherein we do not understand our complex systems any more. Technocracy then will lead to a rapid increase in the credentialed class who will have no place to go and in an AI-fueled turbocharged world in which humans won't be able to understand their systems and keep up with the blistering pace set by the machines. This is what's coming and it is not going to be pleasant as we feel the impact of both of these forces at once.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mahamudra: One Taste

I've been working with George Protos (PointingOut Way) for a while now and he has been very good in pointing out the One Taste state/level in Mahamudra. I'm now going to take a stab at describing this. 

Just as the no self meditation in Mahamudra helps us realize that the self is a construct and the yoga of unelaboration demonstrates that the world is a construct (and that spacetime is a concept), One Taste shows that a separate awareness is a construct and that awareness/phenomena is simultaneous. 

To some extent this is obvious. If emptiness of phenomena shows that phenomena are constructs and emptiness of self shows that the self is a construct, then it's natural to affirm awareness and phenomena as co-present since you cannot have one without the other. However one has to be extremely careful unpacking this state as other traditions like Theravada tend to focus on phenomena only (via the dissolution experience) while Vedanta tends to affirm the pure consciousness event in which no phenomena are present. Mahamudra then sits in the middle (with the metaphor of being the flashlight and not the person carrying it or the illuminated content) adopting a post-tantric non-dual stance. It also refuses to conceptualize this state except to carefully point out a simultaneousness of awareness and content without reifying each one as a separate entity.  

It is important to understand the gains stemming from maintaining One Taste. There's an automatic emptiness wherein anything that arises is not elaborated but tagged as empty upon arising. The impact is that things tend to get taken care of immediately with high energy and without as much attachment (so you do have to be careful doing this in public since taboos could get broken very easily). There's also a brightness and clarity to events as if they are self-illuminated [which makes sense since every event is also simultaneously tagged with awareness and perhaps parodied as "I see god in everything" :-)].

Once again Tashi Namgyal:

 "[T]he meditator realizes [that] the awareness of one flavor manifests itself in diverse forms and how these appearances and existences are of one flavor in primordial evenness. The meditator has achieved insight into the essential nature of one flavor when he discovers the intrinsic identity of every appearance as a self-manifesting objectlessness and evenness in its primordial nature."

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mahamudra: The Yoga of Unelaboration

In a previous blog post, we discussed no self in Mahamudra, taking care to separate out "self as construct" from a more radical no-self of any kind whatsoever concept. Here, we continue with the next stage in Mahamudra which Dan Brown (in his fabulous Pointing Out The Great Way book) calls "the yoga of unelaboration."

The yoga of unelaboration is ostensibly concerned with the ordinary convention of time. Its goal is to see through the observable reality of moment-by-moment arising and passing away of events. In the previous no-self meditation, the ordinary habit of creating a self out of mental phenomena is seen through until no self can be found. In the yoga of unelaboration, the past, present and future as concepts are deconstructed: the past is done with, the future is unborn and the present does not stay. Time, like mind becomes a construct.

I had a lot of difficulty with the yoga of unelaboration and specifically with the emptiness of time practice as summarized above. A second retreat with Dan Brown in the fall of 2019 cleared it up. The yoga of unelaboration (called the nondiscriminatory yoga by Tashi Namgyal) is really about cultivating a perfect mirror in which all phenomenal content is apprehended without any discrimination. There is a shift in perspective away from any "objects" and toward the mind itself in its most natural state: Awareness itself in each and every moment is then realized but without the false identification of any self with that awareness. Emptiness of time then cuts through our habitual tendency to deploy awareness to "move toward or away" from phenomenal content thereby artificially amplifying, diminishing or otherwise distorting them. Take this moment right now: Use your awareness to "move toward" your big toe, apprehending the sensations and then "back away from it." Our habitual tendency is to assume that there is a self using its awareness to move toward and away from sensations. The emptiness of time meditation and the yoga of unelaboration cut through this process. Instead of continuing the narrative of a self that uses its awareness, after a no self state is established, awareness becomes a perfect nondiscriminatory mirror for all phenomenal content. In my case, there's a clear "black mirror" feel of getting behind all content. Furthermore, the content itself often recedes into the distance (but only after a careful process of disentangling awareness from amplified content). Tashi Namgyal, quoting the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, says of this extraordinary awareness:

It is neither dissolving nor arising,
Neither nihilism nor eternity,
Neither going nor coming,
Neither separate nor the same,
Completely detached from all conceptual determination,
It is the perfect quiescence.

The meaning should now be perfectly clear.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The new emerging mainstream consensus

Well the world changed again. After being cooped up for what seemed to be an eternity, we all exploded in rage, anger and well justified fury after George Floyd's murder by Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. The entire world watched that excruciating 8 minute 46 seconds video in which Chauvin kills George Floyd (while keeping one hand in his pocket for most of the time). There is nothing ambiguous or post-modern about the video: it's a clear and present reminder of what Black people face on a daily basis in the streets of America (for example I have a friend who gets pulled over every time he enters SC with FL license plates since apparently a Black person driving a car with FL license plates into SC signifies that he is a drug dealer). Please watch Dave Chappelle's special - 8:46 - on Netflix for what this all means.

What's especially significant about the aftermath of George Floyd's murder is the level of social responsibility shown by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in making sure that the protests didn't get out of hand. There are numerous stories of Black community organizers stopping street violence and opportunistic store looting. Equally strange is the often disproportionate response by the police - using tear gas and unnecessary violence against peaceful protesters. Watching all this, it has become clear that something has shifted in America. BLM is now spearheading the rainbow coalition and any attempts at false equivalence between BLM and the alt-right movement are now laughable. And finally, the non-response of Trump to the covid-19 pandemic coupled with his total inadequacy in understanding and communicating what this moment means to race relations (and much much more) in the US strongly suggests that he is toast. Things could change of course but it really feels like he had his chance and blew it. Of course, one could argue that Trump's fundamental character flaws would never have allowed him to adapt to these changed circumstances and his niece Mary Trump's book does make that claim based on first hand knowledge.

One framework that can be used to perfectly encapsulate what just happened is Spiral Dynamics (SD). Very simplistically, SD draws a three way distinction between blue (traditional/order), orange (modern/prosperous) and green (postmodern/communitarian). There are higher stages like yellow (integrated/inter-dependent) and turquoise (holistic/harmonic) but we don't need them for the purposes of this discussion. For the past 40 years, the US has had a culture war wherein traditional law and order (blue) and modernist business and free enterprise (orange) formed a nexus which ended up marginalizing non-whites, feminists, communitarians and LGBTQ+ people (green). (This is a strong claim but I think it holds up since suburban America is in the main still segregated.) While green values flourished in cities and urban centers, rural America remained staunchly blue/orange. This has resulted in the Republican party regressing to a mainly white and rural party and finally succumbing to a reality TV show grifter who exemplifies the worst of orange (no consequence individualism). Assuming Trump goes down in defeat this year (which is still not a given), we may see something that has never happened before: the rise of a green consensus at the policy level in the US driven by millennials and Gen-Z youth who would have taken the radicalism of the boomers and mainstreamed it. If this happens, we'll witness the emergence of a socially responsible rainbow coalition which handles climate change and healthcare for all going forward. The only fly in the ointment remains the poor white working class which may end up getting marooned on a traditionalist blue/orange island, but provided these folks are capable of dropping their worst instincts (racism, sexism, homo-transphobia and hatred of education), they too will have a seat at the table in the new egalitarian times to come.

Update (2020/07/20): A very interesting development in the past few days is the presence of camouflaged federal agents on the streets of Portland, OR who are "pulling up next to protesters on street corners, then snatching and arresting them with no explanation." Acting DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Chad Wolf has put out a statement condemning "violent anarchists" in Portland who have allegedly held the city "under siege for 47 straight days." This has the look of a trial run which will then be executed in major cities across the US in the next couple of months. Since the vast majority of protests are peaceful, it looks like DHS (under the behest of Trump) will try to gaslight Americans into believing that local law and order has failed and that "federal police" of some unspecified kind is needed to take over the policing of cities. This maneuver is unlikely to work and is in fact more likely to convince a majority of Americans that the Trump administration has completely jumped the shark. These are amazing times.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Storm Before the Calm (Review)

George Friedman (of Geopolitical Futures) has written a timely book - The Storm Before the Calm - which makes clearcut predictions on the 2020s and beyond. He also sets up a framework which is worth examining since the predictions directly follow from it.

Friedman seems to believe in cycles. He sets up two cycles - an institutional one and a socioeconomic one - and these two dovetail to create American history. In the institutional cycle, the US government is formed around 1780, it's relationship to the states is established around 1860, it's management of the economy via unbiased expertise is set up after WWII (1940s) and this institutional era is winding down creating chaos since the next institutional framework is not yet in place. There's also a socioeconomic cycle beginning in 1780. The first cycle lasts until 1830 or so (Andrew Jackson's presidency being the transformative one); the second cycle until 1880 or so (Rutherford B. Hayes being the transformer); the third cycle until 1930 (Roosevelt) and the fourth cycle ending in 1980 (with Reagan). It's the Reagan supply side economics era that is ending right now and following this 50 year socioeconomic cycle formula, Friedman predicts the next era beginning around 2028 or 2032 (at the latest).

We've been very syntactic about all this with no intuition provided. Friedman explains that the technocratic institutional framework (in place since 1945) led to algorithmic decision making (and corresponding convoluted regulatory frameworks) in which intentions of leaders cannot be communicated or quickly carried out any longer (as they will in all likelihood violate policy). He explains that the next institutional framework (after the collapse of the present technocratic one) will be about the government's relationship to itself and in particular will address the flow of intent in institutions. This connects to the hard problem of consciousness and so we'll postpone discussion of this fascinating idea for a later post. tl;dr: In the next institutional framework, the problem of how to quickly communicate the intent of a commander (or CEO, president) in an institution and to violate policy when required will be set up in the next era.

Friedman also points out that the bottom is dropping out of the US socioeconomic structure. Student loan debt is at 1.3T and people without college degrees are hooked on drugs, are jobless, divorced and dying early. They are also the old industrial working class and will decline further in this decade from middle class to the lower middle class. No one cares about them since the Democrats are only into ethnic minorities while the Republicans practice YOYO economics (you're on your own, kid). Friedman explains that this is a consequence of the end of Reaganomics (adopted by both parties) with the next cycle abandoning identity politics and creating strange bedfellows such as Southern racists and African Americans screwed over by trickle down (which didn't). He thinks that the university system will be overhauled (with the creation of an analog to the GI bill after WWII) since the top universities now only cater to the upper middle classes (who can game the system to get their kids into good colleges). He predicts that a technocratic president will be elected in 2020 (probably Biden at this point) and will be the last failed president in this cycle since he will continue implementing failed technocratic policies without realizing the need for a new institutional framework.

All in all, this is an interesting book - despite Friedman's obvious conservative blinders. He cannot bring himself to criticize the Republican party which now comprises grifters, religious nuts and racists. Consequently, he quickly glosses over Trump's failed presidency and moves instead to the next institutional cycle in which the technocracy (comprising of mainly Democrats) is defeated by the children of the white working class (probably Generation Alpha born after 2010). This also causes him to ignore the regressive tax cut of 2017 (a classic failed supply side move by the Republicans) which added to corporate coffers in an era of declining demand. But, despite these, the book is definitely worth picking up, especially due to its positivity (about the 2030s), its clear-headedness regarding the end of the information processing era (driven by Intel etc.) and its contribution to applied consciousness studies via the "flow of intent" problem in institutions.

Update (04/05/2020): Well, the world changed since the last post. Covid-19 will have long lasting ramifications regarding US policy. Quick predictions: (i) Supply side economics is dead; (ii) we will all come together despite our differences due to this extraordinary moment in world history; (iii) there will be a reckoning on Trump's response to the pandemic (regardless of whether he gets re-elected or not); (iv) technocratic expertise is back and (v) Friedman completely misunderstood the time it will take for the problem of "intentions in a complex system" to become widely understood. This will have to wait for the next iteration of the Prophet archetype (Missionary and Boomer generations being previous examples) and probably corresponding to kids born after covid-19 (Gen Alpha?). While experts will study this problem, there won't be any communication of their efforts to the public at large since the Millennials cannot be the vanguard of a social change that champions individual agency.