Must-read PNAS article about COVID-19

Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment. See further

Lockdown (Stephen Batchelor)

Lockdown allows a breathing space to consider the tragic absurdity of our existence. By letting the chatter of our fears and anxieties subside, we can hear the inner silence of our soul. As we breathe more easily, we can re-examine our lives from a space of nonreactive awareness. Do we really want to be complicit in a consumerist lifestyle that is driving thousands of species to extinction? Do we wish to be part of an economic system that condemns millions of people to repetitive, meaningless work? Do we need even a fraction of the items we are daily encouraged to purchase, briefly enjoy, then discard? Do we like living in a world where a tiny minority control most of its resources and wealth, condemning millions to social exclusion and poverty? Do we want to contribute to making this planet uninhabitable each time we board another long flight to an overhyped tourist destination? If the answer to these questions is no, then we face the most challenging question of all: How are we to live together in this world? ~ Stephen Batchelor, in Tricycle Magazine.

The Idea of Progress (Sidney Pollard)

With the decline in the belief of supernatural sanctions, which began with the Enlightenment, it has, indeed, become much harder to find a firm resting place, a fixed point on which a moral system or a social objective greater than the individual can be built up. What is a crime from one point of view, is heroic self-sacrifice from another, and all the civic virtues of one system become persecuted vices over the border, where political power is built on a different class structure. In this ocean of restless waves there has emerged only one firm island outside the temporal and biased perspective of each separate interest: the continuous improvement, that is to say, the progress of humanity itself. It is a yardstick against which the separate contributions of men, of classes, and of theories, can be measured, and it can give moral reassurance to those who are well aware of the relativity of their convictions, but who yet require, psychologically, the assurance of a firmer morality. Conversely, without the conviction of progress, there is no alternative to an inevitable despair in reason and in a rational, scientific approach to society, and to the decline into a mythology of nihilism. (from The Idea of Progress, by Sidney Pollard, London 1968, p.180-181)

The Self in Buddhism and Western Philosophy (Moore)

The Self in Buddhism and Western Philosophy (from Political Theory in Canonical Buddhism, by Matthew J. Moore, in Philosophy East and West, January 2015)

Yet, not surprisingly, the Western philosophical tradition contains several different strands of thought about the self, which are more or less close to the [no-self] Buddhist position. The view that is the furthest from the Buddhist no-self theory is the Greek and Christian idea that human beings are or posses selves, and that these selves are indestructible, immortal natural essences (i.e. souls). A view that takes one step toward the Buddhist position is the idea that human beings are or posses selves, but that these selves arise more-or-less contingently from the functioning of the body and/or mind. In this group we get thinkers like William James, who argues that the self is ultimately merely a way of talking about some aspects of the body, like Kant, who argues that the mind’s perception of a single, unified self is merely the logically necessary but empirically unverifiable corollary of the mind’s perception of external objects extended in space and time, and finally like the contemporary “embodied mind” school of thought [cf. embodied cognition], which builds off of phenomenology to suggest that our experience of being selves may be rooted in both bodily and cognitive processes. The closest that Western thinking about the self gets to the Buddhist perspective comes in the work of Hume, who suggests that the self is an illusion but one that we cannot get rid of, and Nietzsche, who suggests that the self is an illusion that we might turn to our own purposes. One influential line of contemporary Western thought (which roughly corresponds to “postmodernism”) has built on the insights of Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche to argue that identity is either largely or wholly contingent or constructed.

Given this range of ideas, we can see, first, that while the Buddhist no-self position goes further in one direction than any influential Westerm theory, there are similarities between the two traditions, and, second, that the Buddhist position extends one of the Western approaches to its logical conclusion. The anatta doctrine would not be shocking to Hume, Kant, or Nietzsche, though none of them would be prepared to embrace it, and it, at the same time, represents the logical next step for contemporary theories of the constructed and contingent nature of identity. Thus, the Buddhist theory is not so foreign that it could not enter into conversation with Western theories, and it presents the opportunity to extend more familiar theories in their natural direction of development. For both reasons, it is simultaneously distinct from Western theories and an appealing alternative (or supplement) to them. (this excerpt compiled by

Emptiness or the Void (Frederick Copleston)

Emptiness or the Void (from Religion and the One, by Prof. Frederick Copleston, London 1982)

Denial of the existence of a permanent substantial self, underlying all passing psychical states or mental phenomena, goes back to the beginning of Buddhism. The adherents of the Madhyamika school insisted that all things, both mind and external things, were insubstantial, not in the sense that they were absolutely non-existent or unreal, but in the sense that there was no abiding substance or core in any of them. In other words, they applied a phenomenalistic analysis to all things. This view was expressed by saying that all things, including selves or minds, were ’empty’. They were not only causally dependent but also essentiallly changing and transient, devoid of any permanent substantial core or self-nature. They were all manifestations of emptiness.

This view, taken by itself, did not of course entail the hypostatization of Emptiness or the Void as an all-pervasive reality. One might assert that all things are causally dependent, changing and transient, and at the same time deny that there is any reality beyond these causally dependent and changing things. But Buddhism is essentially a spiritual path, a path to Nirvana. And if Emptiness or the Void is simply a collective name for the changing Many, considered in regard to certain characteristics, it seems to follow that Nirvana, which involves transcending the world of time and change, is equivalent to annihilation. This was indeed what some Buddhists believed that it was. Others, however, regarded Nirvana as a positive state of bliss, not indeed describable or even conceivable, but none the less not equivalent in an absolute sense to non-existence. Given this point of view, there was naturally a tendency in the Madhyamika school to refer to Emptiness or the Void as though it were the Absolute, the One.

For Nagarjuna, the great Madhyamika philosopher, it was incorrect to say that Emptiness did not exist. It was equally incorrect to say that it existed. It was also incorrect to say both that it existed and that it did not exist. Finally, it was incorrect to say that it neither existed nor did not exist. In other words, one could really say nothing at all.. Nagarjuna developed an elaborate dialectic to expose the fallacies in all positive metaphysical systems and made no claim to expound a metaphysical system of his own. This clearing away, so to speak, of metaphysics was thought of as facilitating or preparing the way for an intuitive apprehension of Emptiness. This intuition can hardly be interpreted simply as an assent to the conclusion of an agreement, namely the conclusion that all things are insubstantial. For this conclusion can be established philosophically, according to Buddhist thinkers. The intuition might perhaps be interpreted as a more lively awareness of what is already known, as a personal realization of the emptiness of all things which goes beyond mere intellectual assent to the conclusion of an argument and which influences conduct, promoting detachment for an example.

At the same time the idea of philosophical reasoning as a preparation for an intuition of Emptiness naturally tends to suggest that Emptiness or the Void is the Absolute, the ultimate reality which is called ‘Emptiness’ because it transcends conceptual thought and all description.. Some scholars are sharply opposed to any such interpretation. In their opinion terms as ‘Emptiness’ and the ‘Void’ do not refer to any ultimate reality. They do not refer even to the inner reality of phenomena. They have no inner reality. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by the use of nouns and proceed to assimilate the philosophy of Nagarjuna to that of Shankara. The Madhyamika system is simply a faithful development of the teaching of the Buddha, who did not postulate any metaphysical reality.

The nondualist difficulty with theism (Loy)

The nondualist difficulty with theism (from Nonduality in the Bhagavad-Gita, in Nonduality, A Study in Comparative Philosophy, by David Loy, 1988, Amherst, New York, 1998, p.290-291, spelling slightly modified)

The nondualist difficulty with theism is not just that God is a person, but that this person is an ‘other’ to us – ‘Wholly Other’ as the early Karl Barth stressed and later repudiated. Of course, the two concepts are closely related. My awareness of being a person is dependent on there being other persons; a sense of self arises only in dialectical relation to other selves. Then is God a person only in relation to myself? If so, what will happen if I ‘merge’ with God – which is the goal of most theistic mystics, just as nondualists wish to realize their oneness with Brahman, and so on. In this union with God, I am of course transformed – but then won’t God be transformed too? Into what?

In samadhi the meditator seems to merge with the object of his concentration; my awareness of the object (physical or mental) is no longer distinguishable from the object. Usually this is only a temporary trance state, for the mind later becomes preoccupied with thoughts again. But the nondualist claims that this is not a delusion. On the contrary, it is a glimpse of the true nondual nature of phenomena: they are not other than ‘my’ mind. Because he was able to let his individual mind and body “drop away”, Dogen realized that “mind is nothing other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars” – the essential Mahayana claim that is equally crucial to Advaita. But unlike Buddhism, Advaita finds a role for God in Shankara’s distinction between Saguna (with attributes, i.e. Ishvara) and Nirguna (without attributes, i.e. completely empty of any phenomenal characteristics) Brahman. The transcendental latter, like Meister Eckhart’s Godhead, is inactive and immutable, whereas the former is not immanent ‘in‘ the world but ‘is’ the wold as the totality of Brahman’s self-luminous manifestations. Yet how is this description of Saguna Brahman equivalent to God? And, more generally, how can we understand the relation between these two Brahmans?

Shankara says that Brahman reflected in maya [illusion] is Ishvara (God), whereas Brahman reflected in avidya [delusion, ignorance] is the jiva (ego-self). Given that Shankara (unlike Gaudapada) generally seems to identify maya with avidya, this seminal statement must mean that the mystical experience of God as the true nature of the phenomenal world is still somewhat illusory (maya), the ‘other side’ of the delusion (avidya) of myself as still other than the world. A bit of maya persists if I perceive Brahman (Eckhart’s deitas) as God, but only because I experience him as other than myself. God is the Absolute viewed from outside, as it were: still a bit dualistically. Then the Impersonal Absolute is the true nature of God – nondual because completely incorporating ‘my’ consciousness as well. In other words, to experience God is to forget oneself to the extent that one becomes aware of a consciousness pervading everywhere and everything. To experience the Godhead/Absolute is to ‘let go’ completely and realize that consciousness is nothing other than ‘me’, fully becoming what I have always been. The sense of ‘holiness’ (Rudolf Otto’s ‘the numinous’) is not something added onto the phenomenal world in such mystical experiences but is an inherent characteristic of ‘my’ self-luminous mind, although realized only when its true nature is experienced.

Rejection of Material Attachments (Alan Fox)

Both Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and [the legendary and obscure ‘proto-daoist’] Yangzi seem to be as concerned with the quality of life as they are with its length. Thoreau further believes that the simple life is conducive not only to individual health, but also ultimately to social stability: “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

That is, it is to a certain extent our emphasis on, and imbalanced distribution of, material goods that cultivates negative moral values. This concern is consistent with the Yangist and Daoist traditions. As A.C. Graham points out [in his Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Chicago 1989]: “In the present-day version of the Lao-tzu there are many passages expressing this idea of prizing life and despising material things.” Besides the resemblance to, among others, chapter 3 of the Daodejing, where Laozi suggests that “not valuing what is hard to come by will prevent the people from considering thievery”, what is significant here is a utopic conception of primal simplicity. On the individual level, this kind of simplicity, for Thoreau as well as for Yangzi, constitutes a kind of efficiency, which conserves vital resources and ensures the maximum enjoyment or sense of fulfilment of life. On a social level, it leads to social stability and lack of friction and conflict in general social intercourse. In the broadest, most comprehensively ecological sense, we can also say that this kind of conservationism is also conducive to a healthy natural environment. Individuals, societies, and whole ecologies work better when they are allowed to operate in the most simple and efficient manner, according to this model.

In this regard, Thoreau and Yangist thought both seem inconsistent with adherence to formalities that involve affected manners and empty courtesies. On the other hand, such behaviour constitutes an unrecoverable waste of human and natural resources. But further, it also represents hypocritical distractions from the more subtle but truly important concerns of life. Thoreau says: “I delight to come to my bearings, not to walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, not in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody.”

This is generally reminiscent of the very common critiques of Confucian rites and manners (li) found in the writings of the Mohists and some of the Daoists. In some of these accounts, superficial virtues are accused of crowding out more substantial and authentic ones. For example, chapter 5 of the Daodejing emphasizes that the imposition of moral standards tends to impede the natural course of events, and specifically repudiates the cardinal Confucian virtue of ren (often translated as humaneness, benevolence or perfect social integration) as artificial and arbitrary. And Thoreau says of the truly good person that “his goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious”. That is, it is better to be good than to act good. Thus, the artificial, ‘manufactured’ quality of ceremony is rejected by the ideal person as inhibiting one’s intrinsically determined evolution and development. (Adapted from Rejection of Material Attachments, in Guarding what is Essential: Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu, by Alan Fox, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

Spinoza: Every Event a Necessary Part of the Whole (Cahn)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) viewed the world as possessing an intelligible structure according to which every event was in principle comprehensible as a necessary part of the whole. The logical order of that whole was to be understood only ‘through itself’ and was variously termed ‘substance’, ‘Nature’, or ‘God’. The geometric format of [his masterpiece] the Ethics illustrates this central thesis, since the propositions, corollaries and notes are all intended as deductions from the initial definitions and axioms, which are presented as self-explanatory. Part I contains Spinoza’s detailed demonstration of the essence of God. In Part II he offers his solution to the traditional philosophical problem of the relation between mind and body, regarding these not, as Descartes had, as two separate substances, but rather as two aspects of the one Substance. The remainder of the Ethics contains Spinoza’s moral theory and his view of the ideal life. The term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, according to Spinoza, merely words we use to express our own desires. In order to achieve salvation, we need to free ourselves from the bondage of these emotions and strive through reason to achieve knowledge of and identification with the order of the universe, thus coming to possess ‘the intellectual love of God’ which is ‘blessedness’. By thus reinterpreting the concept of God and imparting spirituality to the study of Nature, Spinoza fused his commitment to the scientific model of knowledge with the monotheistic vision of his religious heritage. (from Baruch Spinoza, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Indianapolis 1977)