Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity

In spite of Japanese Uniqueness Theory painting all of Buddhism with the broad brush of compassion for animals, a thorough historical survey of the tradition reveals a much more nuanced reality.

Buddhist cosmology initially defined animals as fallen beasts necessarily fated to endure lives of endless suffering, a characterization that does not evoke feelings of empathy or compassion. This hierarchy of the cosmic realms entails an anthropocentric metaphysics, and thus a speciesist animal ethics.

The early Buddhist tradition held mere membership in the human species to be a moral achievement. Further, this achievement was viewed as elevating members of the species to a status that entitled them to benefit from instrumental, obviously harmful uses of other animals.

—Reiko Ohnuma, quoting Paul Waldau, in Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (2017)

But this cosmology was established centuries before Chan and Zen schools, and the Buddhist understanding of sentient being interconnectedness has evolved over time. Stewart informs us that although “Buddhist moral principles have gone relatively unchanged throughout the course and development of various Buddhist traditions, […] Buddhist metaphysics underwent radical transformations in its travels from India to China, Japan and elsewhere” (Stewart 649).

It is the case that early Buddhist conceptions of animals were unflattering at best and openly disdainful at their worst. However, the unfortunate destiny of nonhuman animals in the cosmos was primarily the result of humans defining their own lived experience contra the Other, and rarely was it a justification for violence toward animals.

When the human subject ponders her own attempt to eradicate suffering and reach the ultimate goal, there is a need to distinguish herself from the beastly realm and invest herself in those capacities she possess that are believed to be uniquely human.

–Reiko Ohnuma, Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (2017)

When viewed in the context of the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity and the evolved ontology of the nonhuman animal found in Zen, “there is a need to see the world from the other’s perspective be alive to the reality of their suffering, and shine the harsh light of truth upon one’s own moral shortcomings” (Ohnuma 180).

The emphasis on compassion for all sentient beings within Zen, the inclusion of animals within the class of sentient beings, and the key principle of intersubjectivity point toward the possibility of an evolved Buddhist animal ethics.

In general, human/human intersubjectivity is essential in that it allows for empathetic understanding between beings in the world. In particular, there is nothing precluding animals from inclusion under the Buddhist model of intersubjectivity, which is based in comprehending the relationship of another being’s skandhas and dharma as being interconnected to all other sentient beings, including oneself.

The animals are here with us, not for us.

Sources for this post

  • Ohnuma, Reiko. Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity

From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics

With the emergence of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen around the 6th century, Buddhism underwent an evolution in metaphysics, and an accompanying change in the ontology of the nonhuman animal.

A prime example of the conceptual transition of the nonhuman animal from beast to sentient being is seen in The Platform Sutra: an autobiographical account of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng (638-713 CE).

Considered a barbarian by the monks from whom he sought kinship, Hui-neng was not initially welcomed with open arms into the sangha. Upon his arrival to pay homage to the Fifth Patriarch, he was put to task splitting firewood and pounding rice in the back of the monastery.

The [Fifth] Patriarch said, “You are a barbarian from the south; how could you expect to become a Buddha?”

I replied, “there are people in the south and people in the north, but their Buddha-nature is the same. As a barbarian I may be different from you physically, but what difference could there be in our Buddha-nature?”

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

After eight months of pounding rice, Hui-neng’s understanding of the Dharma (and specifically of the essence of mind) was recognized as distinct by the Fifth Patriarch. Upon transmitting his robe and bowl to Hui-neng as the mark of succession, the Fifth Patriarch assigned Hui-neng a new task:

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.” He then gave me this stanza:

Sentient beings sow their seeds
And cause the earth to bear fruit and return to birth;
Nonsentient beings have no seeds,
And their empty self-nature has no rebirth.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

As seen previously, the Buddhist cosmology views nonhuman animals as karmic beings that experience rebirth, so from the stanza above we can infer from the Fifth Patriarch’s words that animals are to be included in the class sentient beings rather than nonsentient beings.

Although my research has not returned any explicit evidence of such a theory, my interpretation of Hui-neng’s initial reception by the sangha as an outsider is that his experience afforded him unique insight into the nature of Otherness.

Combined with the Fifth Patriarch’s parting stanza, this unique insight may have contributed to the development of Hui-neng’s compassion for animals as sentient beings. As beastly and different from humans as early Buddhist texts represent them, Hui-neng nonetheless came to view nonhuman animals as worthy of moral consideration.

Later in life, when forced into hiding due to being “pursued by evil men,” Hui-neng recounts the way he modeled and enacted this compassion, and how he fulfilled the mission tasked to him by his predecessor.

To avoid trouble, I took refuge in Szu-hui, where I stayed with a group of hunters for 15 years. I occasionally taught the Dharma to them, in accordance with their capabilities. They often asked me to watch their nets, but when I found a living creature, I set it free. At mealtimes, I added vegetables to their pots where they cooked their meat, and when they questioned me, I told them I would only eat vegetables.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

Buddhist Metaphysics: The Self and Intersubjectivity

In Buddhist metaphysics, the individual is seen as a collection as skandhas, or constituents of existence. In definite terms, the skandhas are known as form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness (Addiss 268). When taken as an aggregate and situated within natural phenomena (dharma), one’s lived experience emerges. Understanding the interplay between one’s skandhas and the dharma of one’s life is key to setting one on the path to cessation of suffering.

Image Source: TheZenUniverse.org

As explained by Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer:

Seeing clearly into the characteristics of one’s own existence and the connection that creates this existence, and in which it is embedded, is the goal of Buddhism, which should lead to an ending of suffering. Suffering is the result of the opposite; the less clearly the characteristics of being are recognized, the more a human being suffers in life.


–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Because the dharma of one’s own life and existence is determined by the cause-and-effect principles of the cosmic Dharma, it is necessarily interconnected with the dharma of all other sentient beings within the karmic cycle of birth/rebirth.

A keen awareness of this metaphysical state of affairs, namely that one’s place and experience within the cosmos is connected to and dependent upon the place and experience of others, is key to the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity.

In basic terms, intersubjectivity can be understood as “seeing from the Other’s point of view.” However, intersubjectivity is distinct from the modern concept of empathy, which is a much simpler notion used to describe the ability to understand or accurately detect the emotional and mental states of others.

More technically, one might define intersubjectivity as the ability of an embodied subjective agent to comprehend the experiences, intentions, desires, and interests of another embodied subjective agent, and to contextualize that understanding within the broader scope of one’s own life experience (dharma).

To put the term in the context of Buddhist metaphysics, intersubjectivity is the ability of one sentient being to understand the interplay between another sentient being’s skandhas and dharma in relation to one’s own life experience, and the interconnectedness of it all more broadly within the cosmic Dharma.

One particularly powerful and well-known illustration within Buddhism is Indra’s Net. Indra is revered in Hinduism, Jainsim, and Buddhism, and each tradition mythologizes the Vedic god in its own way. In Buddhist cosmology, Indra rules over the realm of the devas, and along with Brahma, he is seen as guardian of the Buddha Siddhartha.

Indra’s Net shows the interplay between Buddhist principles of emptiness, interconnectedness, and intersubjectivity. As described by Virtbauer,

Indra’s net is depicted as an endless fishing net with jewels on its knots. The jewels hang in such a way that in each jewel all other jewels are reflected. When looking at one jewel, one sees all other jewels within this particular jewel. Because of the infinity of the net, each jewel, in fact, reflects infinitely many other jewels. The characteristic appearance of each single jewel is only guaranteed due to the connection and mutual dependence to all other jewels.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)
Indra’s Net. Image source: Buddhism.org

When enacted, intersubjectivity is characterized by one’s respect for the bodily autonomy, self-determination and non-interference in the life of another sentient being, especially through methods of harm reduction and the avoidance of inflicting suffering (known in sanskrit as ahimsa).

Where the Buddhist value of compassion is concerned, intersubjectivity necessarily originates with an empathetic stance toward the material conditions of the Other’s existence, and an understanding of the Other’s place in the cosmos more broadly, especially in relation to oneself.

Such a conception of intersubjectivity is taught by the Buddhists of today, as Virtbauer quotes the Vietnamese monk and vegan Thich Nhat Hanh:

When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Sources for this post

  • Addiss, Stephen, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Virtbauer, Gerald Dōkō. “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis.” Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 11, no. 1, 2010, pp. 85–102.

Posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity (coming 1/24/20)

Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism

The ontological status of animals is well established in early Buddhist cosmology, which is divided into six realms: heavenly beings, devas and demigods, humans, ghosts, beasts, and the damned.

Relegated to a cosmic realm only one degree removed from the eternally forsaken, nonhuman animals inhabit the beastly realm. Here they are defined as creatures of “unfortunate destiny” due to their fallen status and lack of praiseworthy features in comparison to humans. In this way, animals occupy a caste against which humans can define themselves as beings of distinct cosmic identity worthy of moral consideration.

Image source: ComicNewbies.com

As Ohnuma describes the beastly realm, there is “not a single notion of pleasure—no kinship, no communication, nothing but disgust and revulsion. The distinction between human beings and animals must be total and categorical” (Ohnuma 13). Humans are separated from animals on the basis of diet, physicality, and virtuous capacity. The animals are born in filth, move without dignity, live in waste, feed on corpses, engage in cannibalism and commit incest.

Even the Buddha spoke to the fallen pitiful status of the beasts, telling the monks in the Balapandita Sutta, “in that realm, there is no righteous conduct, no tranquil conduct, no wholesome action, no meritorious action. In that realm, Monks, there is only mutual devouring and devouring of the weak” (Ohnuma 12).

Unlike western philosophy, which primarily marks the capacity for reason as the basis for differentiating humans from animals, some Buddhists have based human/animal individuation on the basis of the capacity for gratitude.

For example, Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250 CE), the Indian philosopher and founder of Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, spoke of the karmic implication of a beings capacity for gratitude in The Treatise on Perfection of Great Wisdom:

Knowing gratitude is the root of great compassion and the first gate to establishing good deeds. […] Upon death you will attain rebirth Heaven and in the end you will attain the way of the Buddha. Those who do not know gratitude are beasts.

—Barbara Ambros, quoting ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence” (2014)

Despite their incapacity to cultivate the virtue of gratitude because of their beastly nature, there are instances in Buddhism of animals gaining enlightenment, or at the very least karmic advancement, through the prasāda mechanism.

Described by Ohnuma as a loophole of sorts in the cosmic Dharma, it is through this mechanism that “animals are capable of catapulting themselves up the karmic hierarchy to become deities in heaven, and may even make progress toward the final goal of release” from samsara (Ohnuma 40).

Often translated as faith, prasāda is seen to arise within the heart of animals in close proximity to the Buddha Siddartha as depicted in the Divyāvadāna and Avadānaśataka texts.

The animals in these tales appear as animals and not as mere symbolic representations of moral precepts. That is, they are depicted as conscious beings trapped in samsara and in desire of liberation. Although they are clearly seen as members of a subcaste of creatures by humans in the tales, the animals are present as demonstrably bound by karma, just as humans are.

Through these tales, we witness a bull saved from slaughter and foretold to be reborn as a king named Asokarvarna after ninety-nine eons, a talking parrot granted “stream-entry,” and a flock of geese reincarnated as faithful Buddhist practitioners who offer alms to the Buddha upon their return.

We also see the Buddha tame a charging buffalo that is then predicted to be reborn as a heavenly deity, and a venomous snake compelled to bring about its own annihilation through starvation in order to be “reborn among the the superior Trayastrima gods” (Ohnuma 38).

In each of these cases, the animal is able to make cosmic progress after entering the presence of the Buddha and merely laying eyes on him. Acting as prasādika, or attractive agent of faith, the Buddha’s charisma, poise, and grace are sufficient to spark prasāda within even these cosmically-determined fallen creatures.

Characterized as a “wonderful refuge for the powerless,” “the mental inferiority of the animal here becomes irrelevant, since the mechanism of prasāda appears to bypass the mind altogether” (Ohnuma 27).

Again, the key is not the capacity for reason, nor some other form of higher-level consciousness or cognitive function. Through prasāda–faith in the Buddha and proximity to him–the dissolution of karmic chains that encumber the animal is catalyzed, and liberation (moksha) is achieved.

Interestingly, in cases where animal representation appears in the literal sense, we begin to see a striking similarity between humans and nonhuman animals. Though believed to occupy a different cosmic realm depending on the context of incarnation, the being is capable of karmic advancement or release, regardless of whether the being is human or animal.

Sources for this post

  • Ambros, Barbara. “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence.” Religion Compass, vol. 8, no. 8, 2014, pp. 251–263.
  • Ohnuma, Reiko. Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity (coming 1/24/20)

Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism

In early Indian Buddhism, animals appeared as symbolic representations primarily for didactic purposes. In other words, they were used to teach moral principles. Animals weren’t present as sentient beings or as beings worthy of moral consideration, but were instead used as metaphor and in allegory.

Even in cases where animals are depicted as capable of superhuman or mythical abilities, it is in service of teaching a greater truth meant to be grasped by human practitioners, not for the purposes of understanding animals in a literal sense. As further evidenced by Ambros,

Even scholarship that deals with animal-related topics usually places emphasis on human concerns. Relatively few studies have explored how Buddhism has affected the lives of actual animals; instead, scholarship has focused on the metaphorical uses of animals in Buddhist literature and has been preoccupied with mythical and hybrid creatures.

—Barbara Ambros, “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence” (2014)

The pre-modern Jataka tales are an example of animals appearing as metaphorical representations in Buddhist texts. There are literally hundreds of individual stories comprising the Jataka tales, many of which depict the former lives of the Buddha as incarnated in animal form.

These tales often show the Buddha performing meritorious acts, or interceding on behalf of other animals, who are depicted as unintelligent and incapable of feats reflecting an enlightened nature. In his analysis of the Jataka tales Paul Waldau, states that

[They are] good examples of the Buddhist belief that one should give generously to ‘others,’ and that one should not violate moral principles even if it is extremely disadvantageous to do so. But the stories reveal that it is humans, rather than other animals, who are beneficiaries of this kind of thinking.

—Paul Waldau, The Specter of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals (2002)

In other tales, such as the Kurunga Jataka, the Buddha interacts with humans by taking animal form as a way of again conveying a didactic message. Here the Buddha has been incarnated as the bodhisattva deer who avoids being trapped and killed by a hunter:

The hunter, enraged, says, ‘Be gone! I’ve missed you this time,’ and in response the bodhisattva deer replies, presumably in response to his slaying of other animals: ‘You may have missed me, my good man, but depend on it, you have not missed the reward of your conduct, namely the eight large and sixteen lesser hells and all the five forms of bonds of torture.

—James Stewart, “Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animals Ethics” (2014)

Finally, with the emergence of Zen in 6th c. CE, we see the presence of animals in Buddhist texts turn toward positive representation. The Ox Herding Poems, composed around 1050 by Ch’ing-chi, describe the process of seeking, losing, then gaining enlightenment (Addiss 85).

Here the oxen are not present as oxen in the literal sense, but they are metaphorical representations of enlightenment pursued by human Buddhist practitioners. After searching for the ox, seeing it, and catching it, the practitioner turns to taming the ox:

Image Source: Columbia.edu

Don’t lose the whip, hold onto the rope
Or he’ll buck away into the dirt.
Herded well, in perfect harmony
He’ll follow along without any constraint.

[…]

Whip, rope, self, ox—no traces left.
Thoughts cannot penetrate the vast blue sky,
Snowflakes cannot survive a red-hot stove.
Arriving here, meet the ancient teachers.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

Sources for this post

  • Addiss, Stephen, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Ambros, Barbara. “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence.” Religion Compass, vol. 8, no. 8, 2014, pp 251-263
  • Stewart, James. “Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animal Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol 21, 2014, pp. 623-655.
  • Waldau, Paul. The Specter of Specieism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity (coming 1/24/20)

Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animals Ethics

To what extent are animals present in Buddhist teachings and what is their place in the Buddhist cosmology? What can we learn from Buddhist metaphysics about the ontological nature of the nonhuman animal, and to what extent has this ontology evolved over time?

This week, I will publish a five-part series in which I will explore (1) the appearance and representation of animals in Buddhism, (2) the application of the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity between sentient beings, including animals.

After first exploring how animals appear as symbolic representations in early Buddhist texts, I’ll examine the literal representation of animals in the Buddhist cosmology and tradition. Finally, I’ll discuss the shift in Buddhist metaphysics that occurred around the 6th century CE, with the emergence of Zen.

I will argue that this shift, which placed an increased emphasis on the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, might reasonably be taken as a basis for the extension of moral consideration to animals through the application of the intersubjectivity principle illustrated by the mythical example of Indra’s Net.

Illustration by Lasha Mutual. Purchase a print of this illustration here.

The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness Theory

It may surprise those of us in the West, who are likely to subscribe to a conception of Buddhism shaped by Japanese Uniqueness Theory, to learn that in sum and over time, Buddhism has proven itself far from universally nonviolent when it comes to its treatment and conception of animals.

Japanese Uniqueness Theory, as articulated by Ambros (2014) is the propagation of “oversimplified notions to construct premodern Japan as morally superior to and less dominion is tic than its Western and Asian counterparts” (Ambros 259). Although vegetarianism is common (though not universal) among Buddhist practitioners, a detailed historical survey of Buddhism reveals a morally problematic view of animals that is far from constant or continuous over time.

In fact, within Buddhism, we find “a high degree of ambivalence toward animals by presuming a fundamental kinship between humans and other animals while also taking for granted that nonhuman animals occupied a subhuman status” (Ambros 259).

As I will show in the posts to follow, animals appear in Buddhism in two distinct ways. First, they appear as mere representations of other concepts. Second, animals appear as animal in the literal sense vis-a-vis their presence as fallen beastly creatures in the Buddhist cosmology, and later as sentient beings in Zen.

Sources for this post

  • Ambros, Barbara. “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence.” Religion Compass, vol. 8, no. 8, 2014, pp. 251–263.

Other posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity (coming 1/24/20)

A Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

The invention of the idea of a theory—a systematic set of logically related propositions that attempt to explain the phenomena of some domain—was perhaps the greatest single achievement of Greek civilization.

– John Searle

Ryan Holiday recently published a piece about Why You Should Study Philosophy. It’s a good read, and Holiday makes a number of insightful points about the value of inviting big ideas into one’s life. Philosophers through the ages have had a lot to say about the widest possible range of topics, spanning from the broadest generalities to the oddest particularities. They’ve mused on how to live a good life and the sorts of endeavors that are worth pursuing; they’ve argued about how to discern right from wrong and what it means to be a moral person; and they’ve postulated innumerable theories about the nature of reality and the origins of human consciousness. And these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the painstakingly researched esoteric minutia the philosophers of today dedicate their lives to litigating, one peer-reviewed journal submission at a time. Truly, there exists no lack of rigorously interrogated philosophical scholarship regarding just about any specific domain of inquiry today.

Studying philosophy has long been more than a pastime of mine, to the extent that I’ve devoted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing so in the form of pursuing a Philosophy degree. And one realization I’ve come to as a student of the discipline is that studying philosophy is quite different from doing philosophy. Just as reading a chemistry textbook is quite different from spending time in a laboratory, studying the latest anthology of contemporary problems in philosophy of mind is quite different from spending time methodically formulating one’s own beliefs into a rational and coherent framework by following a predetermined recipe for rational thinking.

But in spite of the preponderance of philosophical literature available today, these are troubling times for knowledge creation and the recognition of true facts, with practices of thoughtless information consumption and pseudointellectualism running wild. Even trusted news sources walk the line on a regular basis between sensationalism and blatant disinformation. The Washington Post, for instance, recently ran the following headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. Despite the Lovecraftian mental images this headline may invoke, the “horns” referenced in the article turn out to be what are more accurately (but less sensationally) known as bone spurs: a phenomenon commonly linked to poor posture. Further, a day after its publication, WaPo prepended the following update to the article:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

This is only the most recent case of flagrant sensationalism and click-bait reporting to come across my newsfeed, but more extreme and potentially harmful stories have abounded for years. During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we saw false reports of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton spread like wildfire across social media. We also saw verified reports of Macedonian troll farms employing disinformation artists working full time to corrupt the flow of factual information from reputable sources to the screens and eyeballs of would-be voters.

I posted last year about the telos of fake news, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.” In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized. All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill.

In light of this rather bleak state of affairs, I propose the adoption of the following model: a Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry. It is my belief that if we arm ourselves with a more robust framework for discussing, debating, deciphering, and deconstructing today’s never ending waterfall of digitally distributed information, we might have a better shot at coming to a higher number of valid conclusions about the world. Indeed, this is the very purpose of philosophy in its most pragmatic sense: to make our ideas clear, not to muddy the waters.

Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

  1. Define the domain
  2. Explore the domain
  3. Initialize the argument
  4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style

1. Define the domain: What are we talking about?

This is your first opportunity to state what it is you’ll be talking, writing, or arguing about. More generally and in short, simply (but precisely) state the topic. In addition, be sure to inform your reader or audience of what will not be part of the discussion. This is called restricting the scope. Another important step in defining the domain is “bracketing,” which is a term used in philosophy to set aside special cases. These special cases are technically part of the domain of inquiry, but due to a number of factors specific to each case, they don’t fit neatly within the path of discourse that will be followed as the inquiry progresses.

As an example, we may want to set the stage for a philosophical inquiry concerning the nature of consciousness. We may state, while defining the domain, that we will be concerned with differing states of consciousness such as sleeping and waking states, but that this particular inquiry will not be concerned with what are known as “out-of-body experiences.” Thus, the domain of our philosophical inquiry is defined as one concerning the nature of consciousness as restricted to sleeping and waking states, but bracketing (or setting aside) out-of-body experiences for consideration at another time.

The goal of defining the domain and restricting its scope is simply to narrow down the range of possible inquiries from an infinite set of topics or questions to a single clearly defined area of interest. The goal of bracketing is to make further progress by clarifying which possible points of contention within that area of interest are up for grabs, versus which ones we will reserve our judgment for at another time. There are a number of good reasons to bracket special cases within any given domain, including that they fall outside one’s expertise or individual knowledge, or because they’re problems that are too easily solved and consensus is already assumed, or even because they are simply too boring to discuss at this time.

In the example given here, out-of-body experiences are bracketed because although understanding their intricacies might be useful for understanding the nature of consciousness as a whole, these experiences are brought about by a number of various factors (e.g. meditation, intoxication, near-death experiences, etc.) which are necessary to be discussed in detail individually and in their own context. Out-of-body experiences are certainly within the domain as defined, but to include them in the broader discussion would only serve to slow down or hijack the inquiry as a whole.

2. Exploring the domain: What have others said?

Exploring the domain can be half the fun of the entire philosophical inquiry. In the previous step of the inquiry we defined the domain to say what it is we’ll be talking about. In this step, what we present our readers or audience with are the ideas and arguments of others working within this domain. A thorough explanation includes defining technical terms often encountered within the domain, as well as explanations of common themes or theories espoused by those working within the domain.

Taking again the example domain of the nature of consciousness, here we might explore the mind-body problem, or we might explain what philosophers of mind refer to as the hard problem of consciousness. It might also be useful in this exploration to define terms such as intentionality or qualia. These are terms and ideas that our argument might intersect with or rely upon at various points within the broader inquiry, but unless we establish a foundational understanding of them first, our argument will be less coherent to our reader or audience, and the philosophical inquiry as a whole will be less fruitful.

Exploring the domain is also an opportunity to discuss specific works by other thinkers within the domain as a way of providing necessary context for the remainder of inquiry. In cases where we plan to argue in opposition to a particular theory or thinker, this is the appropriate place to introduce the argument we intend to oppose. For example, we might provide a description of Daniel Dennett’s view of Physicalism or his definition of “wetware,” or we may choose to present an overview of his characterization of the mind-body problem by paraphrasing his use of the well-known brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.

In any case, thoroughly exploring the domain also serves to establish one’s own credibility on the topic, and to illustrate one’s standing as a reputable (or at the very least informed) individual, whose opinions, beliefs, research, and conclusions ought to be taken seriously.

3. Initialize the argument: Where will I dive in?

Initialization is a term I’ve taken from computer programming. In the sequential process of running a program, initialization is the assignment of all variables to their original state. It is an essential step to running the program because it determines the resulting features or outcomes that follow as the program runs. If you imagine the domain as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, initializing an argument takes place the moment you step onto the diving board. It is the moment of truth before diving in, where everything is laid bare prior to fully progressing one’s own argument or viewpoint.

To initialize an argument, begin by acknowledging any presumptions you’ve made in order to support the argument you intend to progress. Some presumptions are easily conceded and generally agreed to be true, while others might merit entire philosophical inquiries of their own in order to establish their validity. The key here is to remember that presumptions underly an argument, but they aren’t necessarily part of the argument itself. For example, you might present a white paper from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of your argument that wide-scale anthropogenic climate change is occurring due to the increased presence of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Your presumption here is that the IPCC is a reliable source of climate data, and I would agree. This is a clear example of one type of presumption we make hundreds of times a day, often without a second thought: the presumption of a source’s reliability.

Next, you’ll want to explicitly state any attitudinal stances or biases you bring with you as an agent with a subjective point of view. Let’s deconstruct the term attitudinal stance, which is common in philosophy. Simply put, it is a sort of theoretical attitude, belief set, or state of mind about a specific topic that informs one’s opinion about a topic and in turn affects one’s interpretation or judgement of that topic. For example, you might have an attitudinal stance about Biblical reasoning, namely that it isn’t a valid basis upon which to form rational conclusions. Or, you might have an attitudinal stance about art, namely that it is a uniquely human endeavor that occurs at the intersection of creativity and spontaneity.

Acknowledging the former stance as part of initialization would have a drastic effect on the trajectory of an argument addressing the origins of our species. Likewise, stating an adherence to the latter stance would affect the trajectory of an argument addressing the moral status of non-humans, which by virtue of one’s stated attitude automatically precludes animals from being capable of producing art.

Finally, it’s always good form to acknowledge one’s own blindspots and potential conflicts of interest before progressing an argument. For example, if you intend to discuss the nature of consciousness, you would do well to distinguish yourself as a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist or psychologist. Each field boasts a number of strengths not shared by its counterparts, as well as a number of shortfalls. Additionally, when discussing the current opioid epidemic in America, it would be relevant to know if your viewpoint is informed by your experience as a member of the governing board of a pharmaceutical company versus your experience as a parent of a child whose life was lost as a result of addiction.

4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style: What do I have to contribute?

The fourth and final step of the Standard Method is where much of what everyday people associate with philosophy takes place. It is here that you finally present your own argument and engage directly with the ideas of others previously explored in the inquiry. In order to meaningfully engage with the domain of inquiry, we must take time to challenge any shaky propositions presented by other thinkers, clarify the meanings of words or concepts that have previously been accepted with little examination, and identify any logical fallacies that have been overlooked prior to our own inquiry into the domain. This is what is meant by proper inquiry.

There are many ways to formulate a skillfully crafted argument, but the minimum standard against which all philosophical arguments are judged is validity. An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the conclusion to be false while its premises are all true. In other words, if the premises of your argument are all simultaneously true, the conclusion must necessarily follow. In the context of philosophy, testing for validity sets the bar much higher than a simple “that makes sense.” This is what is meant by proper argumentation.

However, proper inquiry combined with proper argumentation is still not enough. As a final cherry on top, we must inquire and argue with style. We accomplish this through strict adherence to discourse ethics of high standards. This means that we elevate the discourse through deference for others working within the domain, and by honoring intellectual diversity as long as it’s authentically and respectfully expressed. We ask follow-up questions in good faith, and we offer a charitable reading of opposing viewpoints. We utilize humor tactically, deploy irony where appropriate, and we acknowledge our own human foibles as a way of constructing a bullet-proof ethos that even Ayn Rand would envy.

Multiple Intelligences: Biological and Artificial

The original draft of this post was written on May 26, 2013 as part of my unpublished (and as of yet unfinished) work, The New Era of Tech: How Emergent Virtual Constructs are Reshaping the World. As our civilization finds itself today on the precipice of fully embracing a world of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural engines, I find now to be a more appropriate time to publicly share this and other works I’ve previously held as works in progress. I ask that the casual reader forgive the formality with which I’ve chosen to write, as this is the voice and ethos of my training in the discipline of Philosophy.

These articles, and my thesis more broadly, are primarily grounded in the dialectic principles of Hegel, as observed through a specific understanding of historical progression. It’s my hope that as I continue to write and publish, it will become evident how virtual constructs in their many forms pull us ever closer to the inevitable moment of Singularity, perhaps best articulated by Ray Kurzweil, and to illustrate the myriad other ways in which EVCs have fundamentally changed our world for good.

It’s difficult to identify one achievement alone for which Kurzweil is best known, but his work expounding upon the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR) shines bright among many. Although Kurzweil may be credited with progressing one of the most formal and well-known articulations of the LOAR in his book The Singularity is Near, he’s not the first to make note of the increasing pace and significance of technological development that underlie the law itself. As he acknowledges in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind:

“A year after his [John von Neumann’s] death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that ‘the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ This is the first known use of the word singularity in the context of human technological history” (194).

Understanding our Biology in Context with Technology

How to Create a MindOn April 2, 2013, just 5 months after Kurzweil published How to Create a Mind, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: a government-funded project aimed at mapping the brain. The BRAIN initiative is precisely the sort of project Kurzweil argues is needed so as to further unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and more specifically the biological neocortex.

Using the neocortex as a basis first for understanding human intelligence and creativity, then as a model for replicating that intelligence primarily through the utilization of cloud-based computational processing power, Kurzweil believes we will soon augment human biology to such an extent as to achieve transcendent capabilities.

Evidence presented by early mathematicians and computer scientists (von Neumann, Moore, Turing, et al.) support the theory that the human brain processes information in ways similar to primitive computation machines, but as technology has advanced it has become clear that there are several key differences between biological human intelligence and technological computational power. For example, increases in processing capabilities and memory capacity within super computers has resulted in vast improvements to the overall computational power of machines, making them capable of tasks far beyond the scope of a human brain.

It has been posited by other modern thinkers such as Kevin Kelly that there are multiple and different types of intelligence, and that the best kind may in fact be the combination of human intelligence with super computer brain power. Today’s AI excels at automating the duties of household appliances, suggesting solutions to scheduling conflicts among groups, and intelligently routing us around traffic accidents on our daily commute, but it doesn’t do well at nurturing children the way human parents can, or catalyzing creativity and innovation in students the way an engaging teacher can. When we combine these intelligences together, we see great advances in efficiency, safety, creativity, and happiness in the home and in schools.

The growing chasm of capability between machine and human intelligence suggests that the creation of new and uniquely significant human knowledge without the aid of AI has come increasingly close to its limit. This isn’t to say that we’re approaching a point of absolute omniscience in which we will know all there is to know. This is only to say that very soon, the primary task of the creative human mind will be to develop insight into that which is already known: to make meaning from knowledge already made by humans and information already indexed by machines, through the exploration and expression of human experience.

Qualia and Consciousness

Not only does computational processing differ from human intelligence in scope by virtue of its capacity for infinite expansion, but it differs in method as well. As Kurzweil states, “There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software. Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate a brain, but the converse is not the case” (193). Personally, I would append but one word to this claim: yet.

The human brain has no formal or automatic method for weeding out inconsistencies in thought or contradictions of belief. This can result in a range of undesired phenomena, from irrational behavior to cognitive dissonance. Although humans are capable of what has been called “critical thinking,” Kurzweil cites this faculty only as a “weak mechanism,” and a skill “not practiced nearly as often as it should be.” For as he writes in Chapter 8 of How to Create a Mind, “In a software-based neocortex, we can build in a process that reveals inconsistencies for further review” (197). In other words, computer scientists can integrate superior methods of data processing and error-correction into the foundations of consciousness for artificially intelligent machines.

With the potential for superior error-correction built into AI, the question then arises whether or not an artificially intelligent machine can/will eventually replicate the workings of a biological human brain, and to what extent such a creation will resemble true human intelligence.

This is question can very likely can be answered via scientific inquiry: through experimentation and observation, along with proper interpretation and wise application of the results derived from said inquiry. This question asks us to shift from the brain as biological substance, to the mind and consciousness as Philosophical concepts.

Kurzweil continues, “Consciousness, and the closely related question of qualia are a fundamental, perhaps the ultimate, philosophical question” and “I maintain that these questions can never be fully resolved through science. In other words, there are no falsifiable experiments that we can contemplate that would resolve them, not without making philosophical assumptions” (205).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on the topic of qualia:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

Although there are a number of compelling theories that attempt to define the point at which a being is fully endowed with true consciousness, Kurzweil believes that in the end there is a fundamental need for a leap of faith on our part when assessing the (non)consciousness of machines. Whether or not they are in fact conscious, “machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia” (209). Kurzweil’s leap of faith is that once this convincing occurs, they [machines] “will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

I believe this leap of faith to be quite rational, as it follows from the claim that although not all beings with consciousness are capable of convincing others of their consciousness, that any being capable of convincing others of their conscious is, in fact, conscious.

The key to understanding the thought experiment of machine consciousness is to invest fully in the “convincing” itself. For if we are in fact convinced of a nonbiological, artificially intelligent being’s narrative of self-reflection and description of individual qualia, what difference does it make whether or not a true consciousness lies behind the eyes? Indeed, the bulk of this conclusion may translate to life in general: if you are fully convinced of anything yet act the opposite, where is your integrity? The feminist philosopher belle hooks once said in a lecture I attended that integrity is the congruence of that which we believe, think, and act.

The emergence, identification, and recognition of this consciousness will each undoubtedly stand as epochal moments in the history of what Kurzweil and others term the human-machine civilization. It may sound like the stuff of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Westworld’s Hosts to some, and they would be right to reflect upon the problem as such.

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