Buddhist causal networks

A little-publicised development in statistics over the past two decades has been the admission of causality into respectable statistical discourse, spearheaded by the computer scientist Judea Pearl. Pearl’s definition (joint with Joseph Harpern) of causation (“X having setting x caused effect E”) has been formulated approximately as follows:

  • X=x and E occurs.
  • But for the fact that X=x, E would not have occurred.

Of course, Pearl is not the first person to think carefully about causality. He would certainly recognise the similarity to Koch’s postulates on demonstrating disease causation by a candidate microbe:

  1. No disease without presence of the organism;
  2. The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease ;
  3. The disease must arise when the organism is introduced into a healthy animal;
  4. The organism isolated from that animal must be identified as the same original organism.

I was reminded of this recently in reading the Buddhist Assutava Sutta, the discourse on “dependent co-arising”, where this formula (that also appears in very similar wording in a wide range of other Buddhist texts) is stated:

When this is, that is;

This arising, that arises;

When this is not, that is not;

This ceasing, that ceases.

When did the sixties end?

The Guardian’s obituary for Baba Ram Dass comments about his most famous book

He wrote about his conversion in Be Here Now, which became popular in the 1960s and provided a road map for the burgeoning New Age movement of spirituality.

Now, this should have given the writer pause, given that a prior paragraph dated his travel to India and religious conversion to late 1967. Indeed, Be Here Now was published in 1971, making its popularity in the 1960s of a particularly esoteric sort.

I suppose they’re not talking about the literal 1960s — as in, the span of ten years beginning from 1 January, 1960 AD — but rather, about the cultural 1960s, that began between the Chatterley case and the Beatles’ first LP, continued, as Hunter Thompson put it, only in San Francisco,

in the middle sixties… a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.

and concluded

now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Or maybe it never ended. Donald Trump is in many ways the apotheosis of the 1960s. The reduction of politics and traditional institutions to pure id and appetite. The unmasking of the White House mystique as just a cranky old antisemite with a fourth-grade vocabulary and a jones for Big Macs. He’s not what Abbie Hoffman thought he was fighting for, but in retrospect it turns out that’s what he was fighting for.

The nature vs. nurture debate: High Christology edition

At least since the late nineteenth century the social interpretation of biology — and of genetics in particular — has devolved repeatedly upon the nature–nurture dispute: To what extent is a human’s individual characteristics determined by a predetermined essence or nature — qualities they are born with, commonly identified with inheritance; or by nurture, the particulars of the physical and social environment in which they develop after birth. From one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, I learned that an analogous debate roiled the early Christian Church.

One of the key disputes among early followers of Jesus concerned the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divinity. At the extremes you had the “low” christology belief that Jesus was a wise man and preacher, of the same nature as any other human; and the “high” christology claim that Jesus was identical with the creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and only appeared to be human. (Perhaps even more extreme were the gnostic claims that Jesus was an even higher being than that nasty Yahweh, who obviously fucked up his one major task*, for possibly nefarious purposes. In between were a range of beliefs that Jesus was entirely divine and entirely human. Ehrman points out that in the ancient Mediterranean world there were two “major ways” that it was believed possible for a human to be divine:

  • By adoption or exaltation. A human being… could be made divine by an act of God or a god…
  • By nature or incarnation. A divine being… could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.

In other words, God by nurture or God by nature. Nurture is particularly emphasised in the Gospel of Mark, Nature in the Gospel of John. Reflecting the common prejudice in favour of “nature” as the more powerful, one typically thinks of incarnation as representing a more exalted view of Jesus. A Jesus who grew up as a human, and only in adulthood was adopted by God seems less genuinely godlike than one who is, so to speak, fruit of God’s loins — hence the virgin-birth story of Matthew and Luke.

One of the more fascinating novelties of Ehrman’s account is his elucidation of adoption customs in the Roman world, particularly as regards nobles and rulers. Of course, we know that Roman emperors commonly adopted heirs — most famously, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — but Ehrman explains how prevalent views of adoption were that today would be called progressive: Adoptive families are families by choice, so could be considered superior to the accidental biological families. An heir chosen by a great leader for the qualities he has demonstrated better incorporates and perpetuate’s the leader’s essence than his biological descendant.

Thus, a Christ nurtured by and ultimately adopted into the divine family by God after he had proved himself worthy is a more genuinely divine being than any merely so-to-speak genetically divine progeny, who might ultimately turn out to be a disappointment to his father.

* A classic joke with a gnostic perspective: A man goes to the tailor to order a new coat. The tailor fusses around taking measurements, asking exacting questions about the fabric, the cut, and so on. Having finished he names a price and tells the customer the jacket will be finished in three weeks. “Three weeks! The Lord created the whole world in just one week!”

The tailor shakes his head, picks up another recently completed coat, and beckons the man to come to the window. “One week you want? Look at the work here. The precision cuts. The minute stitching. The harmonious interplay of the parts. And now” gesturing out the window, “look at this world…”

Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

The world’s easiest job

In six US states — Arizona, Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota — pharmacists are permitted to refuse to fill prescriptions to which they have moral or religious objections. In Idaho they can still be required to fill the prescription in life-threatening situations if no one else is available, and in Arizona they must at least return the prescription so they can get it filled from another pharmacist. In the other four, apparently they don’t even have to do that much.

So, I’m thinking, there’s hardly an easier job that Christian Scientists, in the last four states particularly, if they’re looking for easy work should apply to pharmacies. No matter what prescription anyone brings to them they can toss it in the bin and go back to playing solitaire, or reading the works of Mary Baker Eddy.

(You may think they’d have difficulties getting hired, and they may indeed have to acquire some formal qualifications. No lunch is completely free, though presumably they can obtain religious exemptions from most of the requirements of their course. But the drug store can’t refuse to hire them on religious grounds.)

The theosophy of Trump’s valets

“Il existe quelqu’un de pire que le bourreau, c’est son valet.”
— Mirabeau
There is someone more horrible than the hangman, and that is his servant.

For all the epic pathology of the Trump character spewing itself onto the stage of world affairs, one of his undoubted successes has been the ability to find lieutenants who are more depraved than the mad king himself, or are willing to learn to mimic and then exceed his madness. (It was almost amusing, in this regard, to read that White House staff mimic his lapses of grammar, spelling, and logical coherence in writing tweets in his name.
Now we have, after Trump tweeted a gratuitous insult of the Canadian prime minister, this comment by Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro:

There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.

The thing is, of all the insane boasts coming out of the White House, this is probably one of the more credible. I believe that there is a special place in Hell expressly for enemies of Donald Trump. At least, he surely has the right connections to get it set up. It probably looks just like any other Trump property, except that… Actually, probably no difference. The Trump Tartarus. Has a nice ring to it.

Brush up your Plato, start quoting him now

… at least, if you want to get recognised as religiously persecuted for your humanism.

This looks like a parody of English pseudo-education mixed with English xenophobia:

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

My guess is that he wanted to say he was an atheist, but recognised that that would subject him to discrimination here as well as in Pakistan, so he resorted to the more erudite-sounding term “humanist”, only to run into the buzzsaw of a classicist manqué.

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

“Who would believe this?”

This comment from Trump’s rally to launch his 2020 reelection campaign has gotten a lot of attention:

You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening. Last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.

(I’ve repunctuated from my source, since “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” doesn’t work grammatically.) Narrow-minded commenters have obsessed over the fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Sweden. (Not than anyone has presented proof that nothing happened…) But he didn’t say anything unusual happened. All he did was to ask “who would believe this?” They took in large numbers. TRUE! It’s a testimony of faith that “they’re having problems like they never thought possible”. Every day, including last night. Trump is inviting the elect to testify to their belief. “Belief” is considered a good thing in church, why not in politics? John McCain, at least, is on the same page:

“Can Americans be confident that a Republican-controlled Congress can investigate this President thoroughly if necessary?” Chuck Todd asked McCain on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

“I hope so and I have to believe so,” McCain said. “More hope than belief.”

We have to believe! We believe in congressional action unseen. Just because you’re in the Senate does not mean that you are responsible for causing the action to occur. It will happen. We just have to believe.

Don Quixote on sampling bias

Continuing my series on modern themes that were already thoroughly treated in Don Quixote, here is the passage where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss whether it is better to be a knight errant or a monk:

“Señor, it is better to be an humble little friar of no matter what order, than a valiant knight-errant; with God a couple of dozen of penance lashings are of more avail than two thousand lance-thrusts, be they given to giants, or monsters, or dragons.”

“All that is true,” returned Don Quixote, “but we cannot all be friars, and many are the ways by which God takes his own to heaven; chivalry is a religion, there are sainted knights in glory.”

“Yes,” said Sancho, “but I have heard say that there are more friars in heaven than knights-errant.”

“That,” said Don Quixote, “is because those in religious orders are more numerous than knights.”