Materialist Neoplatonic Buddhist Reincarnation

As you might be able to tell from the title, I’m trying out for a new television series, kinda like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but with philosophy.  It will be phenomenal.

Ok, now that I just lost almost all of my audience, what the heck am I talking about?  I would like to bring back a poetical version of reincarnation.  By Materialist, I mean that I am not supposed any sort of supernatural forces at play – I think that this view is perfectly compatible with saying that everything in the world is reducible to the laws of physics, for example.  By Neoplatonic, I’m acknowledging my debt to Plotinus for the idea.  By Buddhist, I mean that I reject the notion that an individual has a single identity; they are many identities, changing for time and context, with no one single underlying “person” tying it all together.  And by Reincarnation, I mean that what we are (as multiple and as subject to the laws of physics) can be embodied at different points in space and time.

Keep in mind, this is less a strict philosophical treatise and more an aesthetic treatment of our experiences.  Positing new forces in the world which would yield differing empirical outcomes is a matter of truth and falsity.  Drawing new metaphors with which to experience the world is a different task, one equally important for human living, though neither the former nor the latter are reducible to the other.

So, let’s start with Plotinus.  Plotinus holds that there are multiple levels of reality, which I will proceed to butcher for the sake of a quick overview (if you find this at all interesting, I do recommend Hadot’s Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision.  Even as a card-carrying atheist, I still find Plotinus to be one of my biggest intellectual influences, up there with Moshe ben Maimon and Carl Sagan).  There is the level of matter, where everything is disorganized and chaotic.  Then there is the level of Physis, Nature, where we experience order within matter.  Next is the level of Psyche, Soul, where there are many forces and flows working together.  After that is Nous, Mind, which is like a single, unified, multi-faceted gem: everything reflects everything else.  Finally, at the top, is (the) One, or the one-not-appearing-in-this-post.

Now, Plotinus gives some interesting thoughts on reincarnation.  He is not sure whether it occurs.  However, if it does occur, it’s not the soul that migrates from one body to the next.  It’s the logos of a person, the rational principle that makes them what they are.  Think of it like this: does it make any sense to ask what you would have been like in another time?  What would you have been like as an Egyptian?  In ancient Sumer?  Millenia from now?  Plotinus holds, in effect, that this question could have a real answer.  Whatever it is that makes you, you, could be instantiated in a different time and place.  That is reincarnation at the level of Nous rather than the more typical notion of souls flitting about from one body to the next.

Maybe you want to hold that this logos is your DNA, for example (hence why this is compatible with materialism).  But I doubt that there is a single constituent to it.  For some purposes, I might indeed say that my DNA is what makes me, me.  In other contexts, it might be my personal relationships.  In still others, it might be the ideas and ce I act behind.  I see no reason why any particular answer should trump the others in all cases.  I am a metaphysical mutt, of no single purebred self-existing substance.

But for that reason, I am tied in to things beyond this present point in space-time.  More than tied-in: I am those things.  When I fight for truth and freedom, I am a vantage point of the universe looking at itself, the exact same vantage point as others participating in the same task.  I am reincarnated as them in the past, present, and future.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I am part of the multiple-embodiment of those ideas.  The ideas don’t exist outside of bodies, but there’s no particular reason to think that their bodies must have contiguous atoms.

Against Agnosticism

Sometimes, atheists are called to come to center. This may be from believers: if you simply don’t have evidence that God exists, then the rational thing to do is to withold judgement on the matter, rather than to disbelieve in God. Or it may be from moderates who lambast atheist “fundamentalism” as much as that of the religious.

It’s a fair complaint, so I figured that I would answer it.1

So first off, I’m both a mathematician and a philosopher, so let’s hear it for definitions. “God” will refer to a personal being, who may be communicated with through prayer, who works in history, who has given some sort of revelation, and who has some level of concern for the human species. Alternative, impersonal views of God are not under consideration. Tell a random person on the street that you believe in God, but not prayer, heaven, hell, any scripture, etc., and they will practically consider you an atheist. Philosophers such as Spinoza who believed in Deus sive Natura (God/Nature as one entity) were considered atheists, as were the Epicureans who denied that the gods really interacted with human life. Also, the point under consideration is “why don’t atheists act as if there were a God,” which assumes that there would be a God who had something to do with humanity. So I am not debating whether a proof of God’s existence works (I think some do, and I think that they might simply be calling the fundamental laws of physics “God”), but rather whether there is a Being who can to some extent be understood (even if merely analogically) through human patterns of thinking, intending, willing, feeling, etc., as intimately involved with the events of the world.

So this God, being a personal God, has revealed Godself through some way of interacting with the world. Perhaps as God Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps as God inlibrate in the Qur’an as revealed by the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad. Perhaps through laws and commandments to Moshe and promises to Avraham. Perhaps through incarnations of Vishnu concerned with preserving the dharmic order. We could also go through other Hindu movements, Sikhism, Baha’i. If we wanted to extend the notion of God, we could include Buddhas and Tirthankas amongst human beings and Kami amongst more natural elements.

Now, as an atheist, I’m not terribly impressed by the arguments for any of these positions. If I were to grant that the experience of one group were truthy, I would immediately have to wonder why I shouldn’t grant the same privilege to the other groups. If this person’s experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit is indicative of God, why isn’t that person’s experience with Krishna? And so on.2

But at the same time, the reason for holding to a personal conception of God is because God has personally come down and done something. There is a particular story to God’s interaction with humanity. If I strip away the stories, I’m not left with some generic God whom I have a choice to believe in. I’m simply left religionless.

So I could perhaps be agnostic about Christianity in particular, if I thought there might be some evidence for Christianity but wasn’t sure. I could be a Muslim agnostic if I couldn’t pin down what I found appealing about Islam but heard something in the chants of the Qur’an.3 But there’s no “God” stripped of historical garb in whom to believe once I doubt all of these stories.

Now, each individual story needs to have its own evidence. If you come up to me and tell me that leprechauns might steal my girlfriend unless I pay up $100 a month (convienently to you, their emissary), I’ll laugh at you. I won’t pull a Pascal’s wager (my girlfriend IS worth a lot more to me than that money), I’ll just say that it’s nonsense. If you come up to me and say that God had a string of prophets culminating in one last one in the seventh century, with one last book that has remained pristine while all earlier ones have been corrupted, I have a default of not believing you until you give me evidence.4 Same thing with claiming that God became human, who then died to save us all from some mysterious sin-stuff (which, honestly, is a LOT harder to believe and which has many more fantastical elements, aside from the fact that I detect relatively little activity of the Holy Spirit in its most devoted followers).

In other words, it may sound compelling that one should withold judgement about God rather than actively disbelieve, so long as this God is generic. But there’s no such thing as a generic God who simultaneously works in human lives. And it is far less intuitive that we should withold judgement on this or that very specific story rather than disbelieve until evidence comes in, especially when we have a veritable smorgasbord of such stories.

tl;dr version: God only makes sense in particular stories. When you’ve got a bunch of particular stories conflicting, there’s no intellectual onus to believe that any specific one may be life-alteringly true. There is no generic God apart form these stories, so there is no God for an agnostic to (not-)believe in. Pushy moderates need to take a chill pill.


1At least, it’s fair from the religious side. My feeling about the fundamentalist moderates can be summed up in this comic.

2Of course, that’s rushing through things a bit. I’m explaining why the atheist shouldn’t have to consider agnosticism, not why they became an atheist in the first place.

3I could even be agnostic about everything, unsure about Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc. But at that point, it sounds more like I’m too lazy to look into anything than that I am taking up the virtue of epistemological humility.

4Perhaps more technically, I have a default of not acting on your story at all until you bring evidence. But then for all practical purposes I don’t believe you, regardless of what games my neurons might be playing at.

Without Shame

Shame is a useless emotion.

In fact, I’m going to go one higher – shame is a harmful emotion.

Let’s take the following situation: I’m on the bus, and I see someone of darker complexion than myself sit down next to me.  I get a little nervous because, maybe this person is a bit thuggish?  Then I feel ashamed, because I’m not that sort of person to think those thoughts.

So what happens?  I think of myself as non-racist.  I feel bad … and then I promptly find ways to excuse my thinking and go on with my life.  Because I’m really a “good person,” and that was either a momentary slip-up or excused by the bandana I saw hanging on his head (because I don’t wear bandanas, so they must be dangerous.  You could put an eye out with one of those!).

What’s the grand sum of this situation?  I felt bad, I didn’t change my actions, and yet I somehow remain fundamentally “good” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

How about we reverse this.  I’m no longer a non-racist.  I’m racist – not in the sense that I condone it, but in the sense that it happens to be true in this actual world rather than the ideal fantasy world I want to live in.  When I get on the bus and have racist thoughts, I now see an opportunity to improve.  I’m not a good person with a lapse, I’m a flawed person who’s been confronted with those flaws, and as such can seize the opportunity to correct them.  A woodcut is crafted by chipping away one bit at a time.

So I can feel good about improving (I’m a step better – however small – than I had been before), and actually change my actions accordingly (since I don’t have to defend my ideal self any longer) – I’ll make eye contact and say hi perhaps.  So better feelings and better actions, because I let go of already being a better person.

We all mess up, and all are messed up.  We aren’t “good.”  But that’s ok, because we can work each day at what’s given to us.

Of course, the flip side is that every day, we *will* have work to do.  There’s no arriving at some point where we are without lack.  There’s no time we’ve “done enough.” But really, that attitude – that we’re really already good – is self-serving.  It’s to make ourselves feel good, precisely by disengaging from the world.  Which doesn’t strike me as actually being very good people.

So let’s be free of our fantasy selves, and relish the opportunities today to grow and improve, precisely by casting off who we were yesterday.  It’s of no matter – today’s self will be thrown into the garbage bin too.  But not until tomorrow.

Life Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions bore me. Lose weight, eat healthier, blah blah blah. Really cool things to do take more than a year anyhow. And at the other end of the spectrum, I find myself a bit annoyed at questions like “What do you want to do?”, as if the point of my life were to be summed up in one career.

I’ve got a lot of things I want to do, a lot of long-term projects. They don’t fit nicely into either a one-year span, nor into a single conception of how I pay rent in the meantime.

But the thing about the long-term is that it’s made up of the short-term. What am I doing now to start reaching those goals, even if the goals are stuff I want to have done in the next three or four decades?

So here’s my list of things that I want to start accomplishing with my life, with the intent to take concrete action starting now. Not on everything, but at least on a couple things. I put this out there not to brag about my life, but because I want to see what stuff other people have on their lists – so please write your own and share!

Travel

  • Live in East Asia for at least one month
  • See India and Brasil

Music

  • Comfortably play improv jazz and bluegrass on mandolin
  • Pick up at least one other instrument (either return to flute, or guitar or violin)

Science

  • Learn quantum mechanics, at least to the point of understanding field theories and string theory in detail
  • Pick up at least the basic notions (at a graduate course level) of macroeconomics

Math

  • Learn Category theory
  • Be able to understand the math of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
  • Write material on making the above more accessible; in general, provide more intuitive examples of higher-level math to motivate people to go into it

Physical

  • Get at least 2nd degree black belt in Ninpo
  • Learn at least one weapon to black-belt level

Language

  • Get fluent in one Indo-Euporean language (probably French)
  • Be comfortably conversational in one non-Indo-European language (probably either Arabic or Mandarin)

Other

  • Write a novel

On a Tangent

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You might be thinking, what is that?  And what does it have to do with me?  Or maybe you’re just thinking: Gosh, that looks beautiful – I wish I knew how to make such pretty pictures.

For the latter sort, you could get a math degree, or you could take a shortcut and read my tutoring blog, where I explain other marvels and will soon get into some more technical detail about today’s work of art.  But for the former, read on.

We start off with some really weird curve (read: I mashed a few keys in a graphing program and worked with what came up).  Now, if you were an ant on there looking close up, how would you visualize that curve?

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Maybe you’d think that it was just a line, a line heading off at that same angle that you currently find yourself.  Maybe, as you walk along, you’d constantly revise your view of the world:

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Such an ant could manage themselves just fine.  As long as they keep looking at where they are, they can make it around the curve.  But their conception of the world at large is completely off.  Almost every single judgement they would make about other points on the curve would be wrong.  The ant can live in the “now” as long as they keep it to themselves.

But our ant could be a little more sophisticated:

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This second ant is still using data merely from their local environment; they just estimate a curve of best fit, instead of a line (in mathese: they find a tangent conic, instead of a tangent line.  In worse mathese: they use a truncated Taylor series as calculated at that point, the general technique for all estimations in this post).  This curve still doesn’t match the overall pattern very well, but it does a darn sight better at making decisions about the neighbourhood.

A third ant might be a little more resourceful, and come up with this:

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Or this:

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Now, this ant can start making broader claims about the world.  The ant will still be off, but significantly less so than the previous two.  And finally, we have genius ant here:

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Again, this ant’s knowledge is not perfect – but she absolutely nails entire portions of the world, using just the information that is at her immediate fingertips.  She doesn’t have a larger view of the world, she has a deeper view.  Maybe she still lives in the “here and now”, but she doesn’t rest content with mere appearances.  She doesn’t just calculate how things are, or how they are changing, but how change changes, and so on (technically, up to 8th derivatives).  By assuming that everything is changing, including change itself, she can understand.

And as a bonus (which I’m not sure has any analogical value, but which looks cool), here’s all of the approximations together in one animation:

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Arbitrariness and Meaning

Why drive on the right side of the road?  The left works for the Brits.  Why start question-words with wh- instead of k-, as does Sanskrit, Farsi, and certain dialects of Ancient Greek?  Why read left to right?  We could go right-to-left, like Hebrew and Arabic, or even top-to-bottom as is sometimes done with Chinese.  Why is i the square root of -1, when (-i)² also equals -1?  Why does a clock go clockwise, when making it go anti-clockwise would work just as well?

All of these choices are purely arbitrary.  The alternatives would have worked equally well.  But refusing to choose one between equivalent choices would have left confusion; it would have erased the possibility of meaning and cohesion.

Meaning starts from the meaningless; from de-cision, that is, cutting something away.

The paradox of “Buridan’s ass” is about a donkey that is faced with two equal succulent bales of hay, both the same distance away.  Does the donkey starve since there is no reason to choose one bale over the other?  Al-Ghazali similarly writes,

Suppose two similar dates in front of a man, who has a strong desire for them but who is unable to take them both. Surely he will take one of them, through a quality in him, the nature of which is to differentiate between two similar things.

So the rational rests on the irrational; because without this symmetry-breaking, nothing happens.