Atman, Aporia, and Atomism (Tom Pepper Critiques Alan Wallace)

He Who Shall Not Be Named shared this essay on FB today.  I've just read the intro so far, but it looks interesting and thought it worthy of sharing here, especially since I recently posted something by Alan Wallace (the subject of the essay) in the video section recently.

Feast, Interrrupted

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This looks promising...


Tom Pepper: My argument will be that Wallace’s attempt to resuscitate James’s radical empiricism, his misrepresentation of quantum theory, and his implication that reductive materialism is the only existent, and only possible, philosophy of science, all serve to produce his subtle atman as the one remaining conceivable explanation for the existence of consciousness; furthermore, the social and political implications of this version of Buddhism are horrendously elitist and oppressive. I will then suggest one other possible explanation for the existence of consciousness, which I believe is more in agreement with the basic concept of Buddhism, and could possibly make Wallace’s ostensible project more likely to succeed—and without the negative social and political implications.

As I've long argued and Wallis agrees, Wallace's type of Tibetan Buddhism (shentong) posts an ideal atman (with 'radical duality'), the latter's protestations and denials notwithstanding. And as I've also long attested, this has tremendous political and ethical implications and repercussions. "Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century." No shit. And picked up hook, line and sinker by kennilingus.

Wallace's insistence that the quantum universe requires the participation of an observer is in line with this idealism and contra the insights of OOO, for example, and embodied realism as another. He also lists Bhaskar, not coincidentally, as another example.

As I've also noted extensively William James is arguably the founder of the contemporary transpersonal psychology movement. His radical empiricism is, as Wallis says, a "glaringly reactionary, elitist, and theistic form of capitalist ideology" much in evidence in current transpersonal and integral circles.

As an aside, I appreciate this excerpt:

"As Christopher Norris has pointed out...Bohm...always held that there were alternative, realist models capable of explaining all of the quantum 'facts.' This alternative was ignored largely for ideological, extra-scientific reasons."

One can see the same type of elitist and idealist roots in quantum dogma as in the above criticisms.

Also see the lengthy comments section, where Wallis, Pepper and even Batchelor chime in. From the latter:

"Alan Wallace is...strongly influenced by Dzogchen, a practice and philosophy found in the Nyingma school, but a view that is rejected vehemently by Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk school, in which Alan and I were trained as monks. Alan has followed the Dalai Lama in embracing this practice, a move that has caused the Dalai Lama to be shunned by members of his own Geluk school (this is what much of the Dorje Shukden/NKT schismatic movement is about). The Prasangika-Madhyamaka philosophy of the Gelukpa has no time at all for any kind of primordial or pristine consciousness, which, correctly I believe, it regards as a return to Vedanta."

And this:

"This kind of view is becoming normative of much 'Eastern spirituality' in the West, particularly under the influence of the neo-Vedantist Ken Wilbur and his followers/admirers — it is hardly surprising that Wilbur practices and endorses Dzogchen."

This is a sharp take-down of Alan Wallace and his misconstruals and misuses of science. It’s also quite illuminating on William James and Freud. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced about James as arch-conservative but it’s certainly a view-point worth testing out. And his thumbnail on Freud is also thought-provoking: the environment is very often the real issue it turns out, and psychoanalysis both clarifies this state of affairs for the patient, and better ‘arms’ him or her to take action. Thus psychoanalysis is radical, viz a viz society, while pragmatism is deeply conservative.

What I find less appealing is Pepper’s solution – he suggests that an atomised view of the subject needs to be exchanged for the individual as subject-node in a web of social relations. I thought this top-down view was last seen with Athusser. It certainly doesn’t sound like he’s been reading any Latour, Harman, or Bryant.

Pepper: Eighty years ago, V. N. Volosinov proposed that we drop this line of pursuit. “Consciousness,” he suggested, “becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud and most thoroughly with Lacan, presented a radically empty subject, arising not from deep within but from without, in a socially produced symbolic network.Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals.

I think I can see what he’s getting at, but to be more compelling Pepper needs more on how brain (and body) as material substrate on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other, interact and feed back into one another. He appears to offer a very binary and simple view of consciousness set against a material world. I’d much rather see the flat ontology of Latour and OOO and the sense of actors and bodies everywhere in promiscuous interaction and assemblage. Perhaps Pepper has all this and more, but they don’t seem at all present as far as I gather. All in all his conception seems rather thin. If anyone can direct me to where he makes a more extensive argument in support of his views, please do. I'd like to understand him better.

I wonder what Levi Bryant would make of his use of Lacan?

...while pragmatism is deeply conservative.

This is a reductive generalization that might be at least partially true of James but not of some of the other early American pragmatists like Mead. And certainly not of the cogscipragos like Lakoff & Johnson, heirs to that tradition and which take into account the interactive feedback loop you mention. I discussed James conservatism and idealism, and its influence on kennilingus, in this thread. You can see my discussions of L&J in many threads, this one on Mead as but one example. And yes, speculative realism and OOO add more flavor to this stew.

I'd rather that read Wallace's 'misconstrual of science and the happy bind it places him in.'

I have a large amount of respect for James - largely received -, so it's a little disconcerting - in a good way - to hear him described as 'deeply conservative'. Your list of some not-conservative pragmatists is more in line with my understanding.

The site the Pepper article comes from is interesting. I've just had a brief glance at the host's discussion of Laruelle as a means to out-Buddha the Buddha. Correct or not, I would place his use of Laruelle as an attempt to think existence in just that way Bryant claims philosophy cannot do. And, doing it via, what are, basically, rhetorical means - as per the sometime recommendations of Morton or Harman. In this light Laruelle's high abstraction is a sort of mannerism. I have a taste for mannerism so that's good. So far I like the site's ambitions and approach very much.

The quote below is Ray Brassier on Laruelle quoted in Glen Ellis' 'Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism'. That, and other articles on this page.

Those who believe formal invention should be subordinated to
substantive innovation will undoubtedly find Laruelle‘s work
rebarbative. Those who believe that untethering formal
invention from the constraints of substantive innovation—and
thereby transforming the latter—remains a philosophically
worthy challenge, may well find Laruelle‘s work invigorating.
Regardless of the response—whether it be one of repulsion or
fascination—Laruelle remains indifferent. Abstraction is a price
he is more than willing to pay in exchange for a
methodological innovation which promises to enlarge the
possibilities of conceptual invention far beyond the resources of
philosophical novelty‖ (―Axiomatic Heresy: The non-philosophy
of François Laruelle,‖ in Radical Philosophy,
[September/October 2003]: 25-26).

This is a very interesting site.  I only came across it because somebody mentioned to me that you were discussing my review.  I’ll have to look around some more!

Dial: You’re right, I am absolutely suggesting an Althusserian approach to understanding consciousness and the subject.  I think, though, that it a misunderstanding (although a common one) to suggest that this is a “binary” view of “consciousness set against the material world.”  It is quite the opposite, since consciousness exists completely in materially existing practices.  This is, in part, why I don’t feel the need to get more into how the brain works, either as a “substrate” or as consciousness.  The brain is perhaps the link between consciousness and the body, but it does not produce consciousness, and is not “set against” it.  I’ll take the risk of using a metaphor here: imagine a radio tuned to a particular station.  We can perfectly well explain how the radio receives that station, but that will never explain what is being broadcast on the station.  On the other hand, we can perfectly well explain, completely naturalistically, what is being broadcast, but that will in not way guarantee that any individual radio is receiving static-free.  Caution: this is a metaphor, it is only a metaphor Do not reify.  Do not attempt to overextend.  Failure to follow these caution may result in ...

Another reason I didn’t do more is that my focus was on reviewing Wallace’s book.  I am at present working on a more detailed resuscitation of Althusser, part of which I hope to post on Speculative Non-buddhism in the not too distant future.  

And no, I haven’t been reading Latour, Harman or Bryant.  Do you have any suggestions concerning work of theirs that might have a bearing on this issue?  I’m particularly curious about Bryant, since I understand he is a Lacanian--but I’m not familiar with his work at all.  


Tom Pepper


Hi Tom, and welcome!  I enjoyed your dissection of Alan Wallace, and I look forward to reading  your resucitation of Althusser. Althusser is dead, long live Althusser... it’s an interesting proposition, although, you're not the first I've come across lately to praise him. I'm open to it making more sense as I learn more. My own, perhaps rather platitudinous view, in regard to an Althusser for 2012, would not be how true it may, or may not, be, but rather, how far we can run with it, how much does it set us thinking, how many projects can be hatched using a re-invigorated Althusser.  A view of how philosophy/concepts should work, that has been expressed by both Harman and Bryant, and, of course, Deleuze before them.

As for suggestions: Latour's We Have Never Been Modern is regarded by many as key. Harman's latest and most tightly expressed arguments (in his own view) are found in The Quadruple Object. And Levi Bryant is best explored through either his blog, Larval Subjects, or his recent Democracy of Objects. The latter is available free as a pdf file online from the publisher. And Wikipedia is not to be scorned. I see the Levi Bryant entry has some links to some good interviews which would serve to give you a quick and relatively easy taste. I would love to see how your Althusserianism responded to an encounter with these thinkers of objects and  flat ontologies.

My own interest, I should add, is more with Jane Bennet, Dogen, and the Foucault of the Care of the Self - those who motion us to move the body and mind to condition our being in the world. You can find me expressing my wishes for 2012 along these lines here.

Which brings me back to the blog your article appeared on. I continue to enjoy reading Glenn Ellis as I like his style. My pleasure has become rather more temperate, however, as the more I read, the more Ellis seems to be performing exactly as the object of his own critique, – a default hyper-reflexivity to a ‘Non-Buddhism – rather than ‘Buddhism’ -’ that clatters around within the same small container of moves without really seeming to take us anywhere much. I thought this was exactly what Non Buddhism was going to avoid as a scourge of sorts for ’ Xbuddhism’? Perhaps he has some notion of the refrain as transformative? Do I misunderstand? Anyway, I will persist and see where it takes me, as the reading is a pleasure for me and I like the ambition.

Archive Fire blog has recently posted this talk by Jane Bennett given at The New School. I particularly appreciate her "less verbose practices," like dance and performance art, that bring us into closer contact with "the call of things" (7:45), as this is the direction I've veered into of late. Hence my recent lack of verbosity and focus on enactive performance, which is withdrawn from the forum. I guess you'd have to be here to see for yourself.

Further into Bennett's talk on "the hoard" I'm reminded of Mark Edwards' talk on heaps in "Through AQAL eyes part I." This frames similar misgivings about the correlationist anthropomorphism inherent to the integral paradigm. For example:

"One researcher might see puddles, sand dunes and piles of dust as belonging to the category of 'heap', but that might only be due to a lack of knowledge of the developmental dynamics involved in those types of entities and environments. To specialists on aquatic, geological, or desert environments, the seemingly inert and randomly assembled entities such as puddles/ponds, sand dunes/beaches, or piles of dirt/rocks may each be regarded as a complete holonic ecosystem in themselves (again see Brian Eddy's very insightful remarks on this issue). And this criticism may be extended to every 'thing' that might be defined as a heap."

There seems to be an earlier/later Jane Bennet speaking the same tale but laying different emphases. The comments section ends with questions asking for praxis and how-to, and it's for this reason that I like the earlier Jane Bennet of 'The Enchantment of Modern Life', where suggestions towards exactly that can be found. In that book she doesn't so much offer a theory of animate bodies as a counter argument to modernity's self-perceived losses.  Animate bodies are in there, but so are many other resources.  I particularly like the links she makes between enchantment, aesthetics, and ethics, and how disciplines of the body enable these links to be made.

Interesting, also that Bennet mentions Althusser and his aleatory materialism at the very beginning of her talk.  Althusser is in the air. 

In reference to the first post here -- "He Who Shall Not Be Named shared this essay on FB today."

--You mean to tell me that VOLDEMORT is sharing essays on Facebook these days???   ;-)

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