How smart is the meat you eat?

By the same logic that it’s more ethical or moral to eat plants than animals, because plants are less cognitively complex than animals, shouldn’t people who need to eat meat for health reasons choose from among the least cognitively complex animals (i.e., small fish, birds, rodents, etc.)?

The swarm of self

According to early-to-medieval Buddhism, as I understand, the self and (probably) world are like swarms/flocks of bees, birds, or fish: each particle more-or-less doing its part for some larger purpose with more-or-less thought, each particle itself a swarm of smaller particles — momentary configurations of some basic, common-to-everything, connected-but-separate flashes (not stable points) of energy, with the swarm’s complexity having slowly aggregated/evolved over billions of years. A feeling of a stable self emerges from the swarm, but it is an illusion. Swarms of food, water, air, thoughts from other people or objects, etc. are constantly affecting or replacing parts of oneself. These are several ways in which ancient Buddhism was/is similar to modern physics, biology, and complex adaptive system theories.

“All composite things are impermanent. Strive for liberation [from this state of existence] with diligence” (the Buddha’s final words, my translation from Pali).

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.

10 tenets of global citizenship

As a social scientist, here are 10 things that I think should be basic tenets of global citizenship:

  1. Physical requisites: either a universal income stipend or a safe-enough job, on which one is periodically tested and found to be capable of performing, which provides enough income for access to the following: clean air and water, adequate and medically appropriate food, adequate shelter for one’s geographical location, basic privacy and security in one’s home, basic hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.), basic healthcare services, and a basic portable computer or smartphone with unlimited (but possibly slow) Internet service
  2. Mental requisites: universal access to the following basic mental requisites: a high school-level education, free online higher education courses, and merit-based scholarships for in-person higher education
  3. Freedom of identity, with respect: the freedom of all people to affiliate themselves with and/or to practice any identity (cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.) and/or language, as long as their behaviors are respectful of others, including of the majority culture in a given region
  4. Preservation and sustainability: preserving and protecting adequate natural habitats for the world’s non-human species, and seeking to counteract every environmentally destructive thing that one does, in order to live with no overall environmental footprint
  5. Affordable global transit: the ability to travel between any major city on Earth using only low-cost (possibly slow) public transit systems
  6. Sex and/or marriage by consent: that sex and/or marriage should involve mutual, written consent; that any two people over 18 years old can legally have sex or marry; and that any person who is in a sexual or marriage relationship can end their participation in the relationship for any reason
  7. One lingua franca: online collaboration in producing a single, international auxiliary language by and for all of humanity, and a working knowledge of its use
  8. Generosity: individuals with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 million, or corporations with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 billion, should donate the excess to underfunded social or environmental causes of their choosing.
  9. Universal arbitration: any dispute between people in any nation may be settled through low-cost, legally binding arbitration by an international consortium of arbitrators who follow common guidelines.
  10. Standards based on international consensus, in order to foster communication and ease travel: measurements, date and time formats, telephone number formats, electricity plugs and voltages, driving conventions and rules, college entrance exams, what to include (and how things are presented) in high school textbooks, business and financial conventions, etc. should be determined through national participation in international consensus organizations, like the ISO.

Scientific questions about mindstreams

As a Western scientist, here are the questions that I would ask the most accomplished Buddhists (i.e., Arahants, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas) about mindstreams and self-other mental construction:

  • Can we identify substances that act as substrates/support for mental phenomena, as well as their properties, how they nourish/support minds, and the ways in which certain mental phenomena can emerge from, or be encoded/preserved upon, certain substrates?
  • Is nirvana a more stable substrate for the mind?
  • Why is the mind radiant? Are mental phenomena encoded on some kind of light?
  • How cohesive and stable is a mindstream? Does it degrade, when the body is old or unhealthy? Between lives, can mindstreams split (like light) or fade/degrade (like radio waves), if they are not reborn quickly enough?
  • Could we develop signatures/fingerprints (like a hash function) for specific mental phenomena or for an individual’s mindstream, and track those phenomena’s movement through and between different substrates/lives?
  • Can the karmic seed-to-fruit metaphor be demonstrated under well-controlled (i.e., laboratory) conditions? How exact/one-for-one/fair is karmic retribution, and do any other forces intervene (e.g., the natural environment, genetics, the actions of other beings, etc.)?
  • Can we compare the mental and substrate phenomena of different species with our own?
  • If everything we see and think is a construct, are there methods of consciously controlling the constructions? For example, could I consciously construct the perception/vision of an apple sitting on a table, or of another person in the room with me, when there is not really one there (i.e., a waking lucid dream)?

Science as the new church

Atheism/scientism seems to me like more of a reaction against (mostly Christian) theism than a philosophy in its own right. It apparently lacks a clear system of ethics or morality, to prevent people from using it in selfish, angry, greedy, etc. ways. Most people never achieve science’s full understanding on any topic, or will ever see the inside of a real laboratory while a groundbreaking experiment is happening. Almost no one achieves science’s full understanding on multiple topics, and no one achieves science’s full understanding on every topic. One must have faith in the claimed scientific findings and knowledge of others as well as in scientific institutions run by self-interested people. And science reinforces federal government or large corporate control (e.g., that only large governments or corporations usually can afford, or are socially mobilized, to fund the largest, most groundbreaking research; that people should run out and buy the latest technology; that people should not object, or should be powerless, when new technologies put them out of a job; etc.), social hierarchies (e.g., levels of professors, administrators, and students), and gatekeeper institutions (e.g., large publishing companies). These things are very similar to how large Christian churches and monasteries have been run since ancient times. Scientists are like today’s monks — separated from the general population by their over-achievements or their mental obsessions, cloistered away in expensive controlled environments, trying to ignore most of life in order to focus intensely on something in order to find the truth of it — and normal people are often required to have faith in them.

Questioning STEM funding priorities

How does finding distant solar system objects or subtle gravity waves, studying distant supernovae, determining the geologic compositions and distant pasts of uninhabitable planets in our solar system, theorizing about the ultimate fate of the universe trillions of years from now, creating super-intelligent AI that could replace or kill us all, etc. solve humanity’s most pressing problems (i.e., old age, disease, death, poverty, ignorance, over-population / resource shortages / environmental destruction, natural disasters, etc.)?

Why isn’t the above research money being spent on healthcare research, poverty elimination programs, giant solar and wind farms in the Earth’s deserts, giant solar panels or shades in space, giant CO2 scrubbers for Earth’s atmosphere, propulsion systems and ships capable of taking many humans to other habitable worlds (or at least large-scale space stations and Mars colonies, so that not all of humanity is on one fragile planet), etc.?