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Personal Agency across Generations: Evolutionary Psychology or Religious Belief?

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Although the authors of modern scientific psychology agreed on precious little, Freud and Jung both insisted that any complete science of psychology requires some way to explain the intergenerational inheritance of character traits or personal habits of mind and action. Yet neither they nor their heirs in contemporary philosophy, psychology or cognitive science have been able to provide a plausible conceptual framework, much less a mechanism to account for the conservation of forms of personal agency across multiple lives. Is there a role in contemporary philosophy and psychology for an intergenerational theory of human agency informed by the Buddhist theory of karma? This paper argues the affirmative case, offering both a current scientific reading of karma and a Buddhist scientific approach to the metaphysical and metapsychological problems caused by the divergence of modern science and religion in the West. The model of intergenerational agency I present here is based on a comparative study of ordinary language philosophy in ancient India and the contemporary West. Its premise is that most theories of moral development and psychological agency are limited by the insistence on a substantial or essential ground for the designation of a person or self. Ordinary language philosophy offers greater conceptual freedom because it accepts a distinctively human theory of self as a linguistic construction that refers to mind/body systems and elements in which there is no substantial or essential self. This conceptual freedom permits a model of human agency as an open system of linguistic reference that can be transmitted across generations in the course of language acquisition. Such a system is not merely discursive in that language serves to guide the social construction not just of discursive thinking but also of learned patterns of perception and action mastered together with language in the course of neuropsychological development. This model has implications for both Buddhist and Western worldview, popular and scientific, as well as for bioethics and the practice of psychotherapy.

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  1. Stephen Bachelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs (New York: Tricylce Press, 1998).

  2. Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (New York: Hacket & Co, 2007).

  3. Joseph Loizzo, Intersubjectivity in Wittgenstein and Freud: Other Minds and the Foundations of Psychiatry. Journal of Theoretical Medicine Vol. 12, No 3; 1997

  4. Joseph Loizzo, Safeguarding Patient Agency, in Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, Vol 7, No. 2, 2000.

  5. Joseph Loizzo, Nagarjuna’s Reason Sixty with Chandrakirti’s Commentary (New York: AIBS/Columbia University Press, 2007), henceforth, Loizzo, Nāgārjuna.

  6. Joseph Loizzo, Meditation and Psychotherapy: Stress, Allostasis and Enriched Learning, in Annual Review of Psychiatry, American Psychiatric Association Vol. 19, No.1, 2000

  7. Joseph Loizzo, Mary Charlson, Janey Peterson. A Program in Contemplative Self-Healing: Stress, Allostasis and Learning in the Indo-Tibetan Tradition. In W Bushell and E Olivo, eds, Longevity and Optimal Health (New York: Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 2009).

  8. This is discussed at length in chapter nine of the Treasury of Scientific Teaching (Abhidharmakośa), where Vasubandhu presents the Vaibhāṣika view that the Buddha declined to answer because his questioner could not understand that the person (pudgala) or soul (jīva) was only a superficial designation (prajñaptikasaṃvṛti) ) for the mind/body systems or aggregates. See Leo Pruden, trans., The Abhidharmakosabhasyam of Vasubandu, 4 Volumes (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press), 4, 330-1338 and Yosomitra’s Vyākhyā quoted in n.97: / prajñaptika iti prajñaptau bhavaḥ prajñaptikaḥ saṃvṛtisann api pudgalo nāstika kaścid gṛhṇīyād ity ato nāstīti nāvocat /.

  9. Hence, of the four periods in which the cycle of dependent origination operates, only one is “personal” (sattvākhya), in that it shows the continuity of agency across different lives. The other three periods, in which the cycle operates microcosmically within lifetimes, sequentially across specific causal events or mind/body states and microscopically within single moments, show the “impersonal” (āsattvākhya) nature of karmic causation. Ibid, AK, 3.26ff; Pruden, 2.404-407. In fact, this passage of Vasubandhu’s Treasury explains that the sections on the past and future are abbreviated to two links each simply for economy, since the causality of karma is the same in the past and future as it is in the eight links described as present.

  10. “Did I exist or not in the past? How and as what did I exist?…Will I exist in the future? How and as what will I exist?...What is this (present life)? What are we?”Ibid., AK, 3.25cd; Pruden, 2.405-406.

  11. Karl Potter used this traditional Buddhist point to open the discussion in his Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972).

  12. One way to view the history of Buddhist thought is in terms of the need to find more and more refined middle ways, that is: models of the mind, self and person that are increasingly free of the burdens of reification, essentialism and objectivism, while being compatible with increasingly light-weight models of agency that account for the efficacy of intentions and actions without fixed notions of personality, selfhood or identity.

  13. Joseph Loizzo. Renewing the Nālandā Legacy: Science, Religion and Objectivity in Buddhism and the West. Religion East & West 2006; 6

  14. Namely: homogeneous (sabhāga), emergent (janana), transformative (vikāra) and generative (upabṛṃahaṇa). See Vasubandhu’s Treasury, AK, 2.65; Pruden, 1, 308-9.

  15. Namely{ the aversive (vidūṣanā), remedial (ānantrya), liberative (vimukti) and decisive (viśeṣa) paths. Ibid., AK, 5.61 and 6.65; Pruden, 3, 855 and 1020-1021.

  16. Technically, the primary distinction made on the table of elements (dharmasamketa) is described in two different ways: between contingent and non-contingent elements (saṃskṛta/asaṃskṛta-dharmas), and between pure and impure elements (anāsrava/sāsrava-dharmas). The two are not identical, the main difference being the elements pertaining to the path of self-healing. These are contingent since they depend on afflictive causes and conditions, but pure in that they counteract the defilements that drive compulsive life. In the more critical schools, the two distinctions converge somewhat, since even non-contingent elements like cessation and extinction are seen as dependent on causes and conditions, although those literally consist of the pure negations like the absence/termination of the causes and conditions which reproduce suffering.

  17. Including homogeneous (sabhāga), cooperative (sahabhū), associative (saṃprayukta), pervasive (sarvatrga) and developmental (vipāka). Ibid, AK, 2.49-55; Pruden, 1, 255-280.

  18. The outlines of this table are sketched in the first chapter of Vasubandhu’s Treasury., AK, 1.4-48; Pruden, 1, 58-131.

  19. Dialecticist Centrism (Prāsangika-Mādhyamika) and the Unexcelled Yoga Tantras (Anuttara-Yogatantra).

  20. As opposed to the contemporary mind/brain model of dual-aspect monism, I characterize this view as dual-aspect non-dualism. That is: mind and body are conceived as two empirically inseparable yet causally distinct aspects of the non-dual reality of emptiness or relativity. For instance, while the emergence of a given moment of visual consciousness depends on a bottom-up interaction with the neural infrastructure of vision and an object of sight, it is primarily dependent on the antecedent condition (samanatara-pratyāya) of a prior moment of mind, including a range of mental factors like conception, emotion and sensation. Vasubandhu’s Treasury, AK, 2.62; Pruden, 1, 297-302. Conversely, while the execution of a verbal or physical action depends on a top-down interaction with the mental act of intention that initiates it, it is primarily dependent on the physical elements which are the supportive cause (pratiṣṭāhetu) and sustaining cause (upastambhahetu) of the vocal apparatus and the musculoskeletal system. Vasubandu’s Treasury, AK, 2.65; Pruden, 1, 308-9.

  21. This focus on causal continuity through change is reflected in the choice of the term continuity (pratisaṃdhi) for this conservation over more literal terms like rebirth (punar-jati) or reincarnation (punar-bhāva).

  22. Vasubandu’s Treasury., AK, 3.15; Pruden, 2, 394-6.

  23. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1990), 28.

  24. Ibid., 38.

  25. Carl Jung, The Development of Personality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

  26. I. Boszormenyi-Nagy & G. Spark, Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy (New York: Bruner-Maezel, 1973).

  27. Pierce’s semiotic theory helped articulate a non-dualistic perspective that could embrace the development of human individuals, societies and cultures as well as the evolution of different species under a unifying rubric: the symbolic encoding and transmission of information. This application is most closely associated with the theoretical biology of Jacob von Uexkull and his followers. See K. Kull and T. Tiivel, Lectures in Theoretical Biology: The Second Stage (Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Sciences, 1993).

  28. Jaan Valsiner and Alberto Rosa, The Cambridge Handbook of Sociocultural Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  29. Nancy Budwig, Language and the Construction of Self: Developmental Reflections (Electronic Manuscript: Clark University Faculty Publications, 2008).

  30. Alasuutari, Pertti (1997) The Discursive Construction of Personality. In: Amia Lieblich and Ruthellen Josselson (eds.): The Narrative Study of Lives Vol. 5. Newbury Park, California: Sage 1997, 1-20.

  31. Michael White & D. Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (New York: WW Norton, 1990)

  32. The idea that the development of the mind, seen as a natural processor of learned information, should be subject to a causality that begins and ends with one brain, seems out of place in a model of life that views the natural history of the brain in terms of a continuum of genetic information stretching across the lives of countless individuals and species.

  33. Chandrakirti, Madhyamakāvatāra, henceforth MA, VI, 158, Tibetan in P. Fenner, Ontology of the Middle Way (Dordrecht: Klewer, 1990, henceforth Fenner): de ni de nyid du `am `jig rten du // rnam par bdun gyis `grub `gyur min mod kyi // rnam dpyad med par `jig rten nyid las `dir // rang gi yan lag brten nas `dogs pa yin //.

  34. “It is language which sees everywhere deed and doer; this which believes in the ‘ego’ as being, in the ‘ego’ as substance, and which projects its belief in ego substance on to all things. Only thus does it create the concept ‘thing.’” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (New York: Penguin, 1985) 37.

  35. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Psychology (London: Basil Blackwell, 1977b) 11.

  36. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953, henceforth, PI) 307.

  37. One living system in which the interaction of social learning and gene regulation has been studied recently is in songbirds. See D.F. Clayton, “Role of gene regulation in song circuit development and song learning,” in Journal of Neurobiology. 1997 Nov;33(5):549-71; and S. Iyengar and S.W. Bottjer, “The role of auditory experience in the formation of neural circuits underlying vocal learning in zebra finches,” in Journal of Neuroscience. 2002 Feb 1;22(3):946-58. In humans, a tantalizing bit of evidence supporting the physiological impact of self-reference is a fine retrospective study that found a number of highly significant correlations between the use of personal pronouns and the incidence, morbidity and mortality of coronary heart disease: Larry Scherwitz et al., Self-involvement and coronary heart disease incidence in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 84:187-189, 1986. The literature on the link between self-concept and mental and physical health is vast, and I have reviewed one aspect of it in a chapter on the neuropsychiatric mechanisms of meditation and psychotherapy: see J Loizzo, Meditation and Psychotherapy, op cit.

  38. In a sense, this model takes the classical Analyst (Viabhaṣika) view of self as a “designation” (prajñapti) to its ultimate conclusion, by qualifying the discursive self more strongly as a “mere designation” (prajñapti-mātra).

  39. Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvali, henceforth RA, I, 29

  40. Ibid., I, 33-34. The three “pathways” referred to here are aspects of the developmental cycle, namely: (1) karmic action-patterns from “beginningless” past lives, inherited as self-reifying misknowledge, compulsive attachment, etc.; (2) karmic actions driving development in a present life, such as obsessive craving, compulsive grasping and addictive lifestyle; and (3) the developmental effects of past and present actions in present and future lives, namely, alienated consciousness, a reified self-image, reactive perception, traumatic experience, aversive sensation, compulsive repetition, and the triad of traumatic illness, aging and death.

  41. This passage from Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakāvatarabhāṣya, VI, ad.k.28 is cited in Tsong Khapa’s Legs-bshad sñing-po and quoted as translated in Robert Thurman, Tsong Khapa’s Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence (Princeton: Princeton, 1986, henceforth Essence) 309. This deep linguistic model of self-reification is further refined by the Centrist distinction between consciously acquired or constructed self-habits (parikalpita-ātmagraha) and instinctive or innate self-habits (sahaja-ātmagraha). In this view, learned forms of self-reification are especially harmful since they rationalize and reinforce the self-reifying instincts we share with more primitive life forms, making it harder for us to use language liberatively, to see through, override and reform such self-limiting instincts.

  42. PI, 415.

  43. PI, 111.

  44. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper, 1970, henceforth OC) 144.

  45. PI, 106.

  46. “We are up against one of the main sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and the Brown Books (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 1.

  47. Yuktiṣastika, henceforth YS, 32, translated in Loizzo, Nāgārjuna, op cit., 123.

  48. YS, 37, Loizzo, Nāgārjuna,123.

  49. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel (Berkely: University of California Press, 1967), 545.

  50. Frans de Wahl, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

  51. PI, 244.

  52. Ibid, 372.

  53. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (new York: Harper & Row, 1967), 26.

  54. See Vasubandu’s Treasury, AK, 3.15; Pruden, 2, 394-6.

  55. I often think of this in light of Daniel Dennett’s notion that the brain produces “multiple drafts”—that is, parallel lines of symbolic action from which the narrow stream of consciousness is selectively constructed as a moment-to-moment gestalt, under the influence of complex contextual factors and cues.

  56. Not to be confused with Jung’s collective unconscious, the pool of prior habit patterns from which the child draws reflects the confluence of two or more individual streams of mental genealogy, each of which is made up of a multi-life sequence of prior minds that may or may not line up with the child’s lineage of genetic heredity. Nor do these streams converge on the child’s life-world from some disembodied mental realm, but rather from the parents’ personal unconscious, which is consubstantial with the caregiver’s neuropsychological individuality.

  57. MA, VI, 39-71.

  58. Thus, this model can also accommodate the transmission of agency across intimate mentoring relationships other than parent-child bonds, as in the case of the Tibetan Buddhist institution of grooming a recognized reincarnation (sprul-sku).

  59. In terms of traditional Buddhology, this model places the transmission of agency in ordinary lives somewhere along the same spectrum described by the diffuse influence a Buddha has by means of a beatific body (sambhoga-kāya) and emanation body (nirṃāna-kāya). Unlike a Buddha’s influence, however, that of ordinary beings may be positive, negative or mixed, depending on the individual’s particular style and habits of agency.

  60. Mūlamadhyamakakārika, henceforth MMK, XVII, 20, Sanskrit in K. Inada, Nāgārjuna (Tokyo: Hokeseido Press, 1970, henceforth Inada), 109: śūnyatā ca na cocchedaḥ saṃsāraśca na śāshvatam / karmano `viprañaśca dharmo buddhena deśitaḥ //.

  61. Vasubandu’s Treasury, AK, 3.18; Pruden, 2, 399.

  62. Thus we find the following dialogue in the Milindapanha, “How, Bhante Nagasena, does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating? Give an illustration.” Suppose, your majesty, a man were to light a light from another light; pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light? “Nay, verily, Bhante.” In exactly the same way, your majesty, does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating.” Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translation (New York: Harvard University Press, 1963), 234.

  63. Nāgārjuna’s Mahāprajñāparāmitaśastra, chapter 12.

  64. MMK, XVII, 31-32, Inada, 111: yathā nirmitakaṃ śāstā nirmimāta ṛddhisaūpadā / nirmito nirmimātānyaṃ sa ca nirmitakaḥ punaḥ // tathā nirmitakākāraḥ kartā yatkarma tatkṛtaṃ / tadyathā nirmitenānyo nirmito nirmitastathā //.

  65. So Nāgārjuna says, “If human and god were [intrinsically] other, they could not properly constitute [successive forms of] a continuous process.” MMK, XXVII, 16, Inada, 168: devādanyo manuṣyaścetasaṃtatir-naopadyate //.

  66. MA, VI, 41, Fenner, 235: ji ltar yul ni yod ñid min mtshungs kyang / rab rib can gyis sgra shad rnam par ni / mthong gi dngos gzhan rnam par ma yin ltar / de bzhin smin las slar smin min shes kyis //.

  67. “If a cause could produce a heterogeneous effect, then total darkness could arise even from a flame, and anything could produce anything, since everything other than the cause would be similarly heterogeneous (from the effect).” MA, VI, 14.

  68. This choice operates not just at the conscious level in which we can identify with others we see as distinct, but also on the unconscious level of seeing ourselves as others we’ve internalized. This deep level of identity is betrayed in common slips of the tongue in which adult children use first person pronouns when recounting their parents’ narratives, e.g., referring to their uncle as “my brother” or their grandmother as “my mother.”

  69. PI, 410.

  70. OC, 160.

  71. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), 64.

  72. MMK, XVIII, 5, Inada, 114: karmakleśakṣayānmokṣa karmakleśā vikalpyataḥ / te prapañcātprapañcastu śūnyatāṃ nirudhyate //.

  73. MMK, XXII, 7-8, Inada, 133: rūpaśabdasparśā gandhā dharmāśca ṣaḍvidhaṃ / vastu rāgasya dveṣasya mohasya ca vikalpyate // rūpaśabda sparśā gandhā dharmāśca kevalāḥ / gandharva nagarākārā marācisvapnasaṃnibhāḥ//.

  74. YS, 38, Loizzo, Nāgārjuna, 123.

  75. Gananath Obeyesekere, Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (University of California Press, 2002).

  76. The Vātsīputrīya, Samṃitīya and Chandrakīrti’s Prāsaṅgika.

  77. Since the pedagogic consensus of Chandrakīrti’s Brilliant Lamp (Pradīpoddyotana) insured the complementarity of exoteric Mahāyāna and esoteric Vajrayāna traditions by restricting teaching in the neurolinguistic depth psychology of the Unexcelled Yoga Tantras to private meetings, it left public discourse to rely on a symbiosis between Dialecticist Centrist philosophy and Idealist Centrist psychology and ethics.

  78. “…it would be better (to avoid it [idealism] from the first, as it is better) to stay away from the mud, rather than getting soiled and having to wash yourself off.” Prājnapradipa, as quoted in Legs bshad snying po, IV.II.2, translated in Thurman, Essence, 274.

  79. Joseph Loizzo, “Kalachakra and the Nalanda Tradition,” in E. Arnold, ed., As Long as Space Endures: Essays on the Kalachakratantra in honor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2009).

  80. This tradition is personified in our day by the avid curiosity expressed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his many dialogues with Western scientists.

  81. This maps consciousness onto a model of the nervous system featuring all the explanatory elements of modern neuroscience, including neural energies (prāṇa), pathways (nadī), complexes (chakras) and drops (bindu), all interactive with mind but made of “subtle matter” (sukṣmarūpa).

  82. Buddhist science from the Treasury to the Wheel of Time sees consciousness (vijñāna) as one of six primary elements or states (mahābhuta) present in all living matter; and as naturally impure or contaminated (sāsrava) by the root toxins of instinctive delusion and compulsive emotions evolved from “beginningless time.” Vasubandhu’s Treasury, AK, 1.28cd; Pruden, 1, 89.

  83. Vesna Wallace, The Inner Kālacakratantra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 63; AK, 3.8-9; Pruden, 2, 380-383. Classically, the subtle mind/body in transition to a new incarnation is not just analogous to the subtle mind/body state of a being in contemplation but fully equivalent. In fact, those who die in a state of formless absorption are reborn directly in the formless realm without any transition state at all. See AK, 3.10; Pruden, 2, 383, specifically n. 85. Of note, formless realm beings are said to have bodies made exclusively of the space element and minds sensitive only to sounds, a clear reference to the linguistic cosmogony that the Buddhist Tantras share with the Hindu tradition.

  84. Of further interest, the imagery of the Unexcelled Buddhist Tantras is also consistent with a psycholinguistic view of agency in that, when the process of death, transition and rebirth is rehearsed in that context, the image typically used is that of a seed syllable (bīja-mantra) visualized at the heart of the central nervous system—said to signify the extremely subtle, indestructible mind-energy-drop (susukṣma-akṣara-bindu) that transmigrates—dissolving into and resurrecting out of the clear light of death (mṛtyur-prabhāsvara). See Joseph Loizzo, “Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibetan Perspective: A Spiritual Science of Civilized Happiness” in P. Bilimoria (ed), Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophy. (London: Routeledge Press, forthcoming, 2011).

  85. The rhetoric here is striking, as we can see from the language of Dharmarakṣita’s classic Wheel Weapon of Mind Training (bLo-‘byong mTshon-sha ‘Khor-lo): “In brief, when calamities befall me, it is the weapon of (my own) evil karma turning upon me, just like the ironsmith who is slain by his own sword.” Thupten Jinpa, trans. In Mind Training: The Great Collection (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 140.

  86. For instance, the popular idea that an abuse victim must somehow have caused their abuse or a subjugated group caused their repression conflicts with the requirement that karmic effects not be transferrable.

  87. By inflaming negative thoughts and emotions that could block objective insight and empathy, psychotherapy may unwittingly lock individuals in a childhood stance of helplessness and hyper-vigilance that only reinforces traumatic memories and the repetitive experience of past traumas.

  88. Joseph Loizzo, Meditation and Psychotherapy: Stress, Allostasis and Enriched Learning, op cit.

  89. The intimate tie between Sanskrit linguistics, the mantric view of world-creation and the yogic map of the nervous system as a subtle body (sukṣ ma-śarira) goes back at least as far as the early Upaniṣads.

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Loizzo, J. Personal Agency across Generations: Evolutionary Psychology or Religious Belief?. SOPHIA 50, 429–452 (2011).

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