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John AbramsonJohn Abramson is retired and lives in the Lake District in Cumbria, England. He obtained an MSc in Transpersonal Psychology and Consciousness Studies in 2011 when Les Lancaster and Mike Daniels ran this course at Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently studying for a distance learning Buddhist Studies MA at the University of South Wales. He can be contacted at

Ultimate reality cannot be explained by physicalism

Reply to David Lane

John Abramson

Dear David

I'm indebted to Don Salmon for referring me to your posts. I've read a few and found them very stimulating and thought provoking with much I agree with. But as ever, it is disagreement that is most interesting and personally speaking what I learn most from. Based on the few posts of yours I have read so far, I disagree in some important respects with your approach to ultimate reality. My comments that follow provide some preliminary reasons for my disagreement and relate to your posts on Virtual reality ["The Avatar Project"] (Oct, 2015) and 'Why Karma Theory is Nonsense' (July 2014)

Virtual Reality

My issue with your post “How Virtual Reality is Ken Wilber's Subtle Realm Incarnated” is that although you “admit that a meditative experience is different than a VR one”, you seem to skate over the significance of inner world experience that is unavailable from VR. That is, VR may give as you say “feelings of being out of body to scintillating light shows, to adventures across spatial landscapes” but it apparently overlooks or understates that virtual reality excludes many of the important possible phenomena associated with accessing the subtle realm e.g. the spiritually transformative power of the subtle realm, precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, insight-awareness into impermanence and selflessness (in Buddhism).[1] When you say “In a very real sense, we are downloading the astral plane. Or more precisely, our idealized version of it”; I see it as downloading the sensational aspects while leaving behind almost all of its potential spiritual depth. For that reason, I think you are wrong to suggest that VR technology can replace arduous meditational practices. On the other hand, using VR technology as a spectacular introduction to just one aspect of what meditational practices can lead to as an incentive for people to adopt a spiritual practice is, I think, a great idea.

Karma Theory

My comments on your Karma post (July 2014) are particularly from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. I find your unequivocal trashing i.e. “Karma Theory is Nonsense”, of a central tenet of Eastern teachings puzzling because your line of reasoning demonstrates a misunderstanding of Karma. I will argue below that your interpretation of karma (see below) is simplistic and bears no relation to, for example, a Tibetan doctrinarian account of karma. You claim:

if everything is karmic …. then nothing in particular is karmic … since all karma is interconnected [or] … if everything is significant, then nothing individually is significant.

Compare this to a Tibetan account of karma:

  • Karma for humans arises from intentional virtuous and non-virtuous actions.
  • Such 'action resulting in karma' is stored as a 'seed' in the very subtle mind of the originator of the action.
  • This 'seed' retains, in some unknown way (that can only be understood by a Buddha) what might be described as the essential characteristics of the action that includes an implied level of intensity;[2] and therefore karmic seeds are different and distinguishable within the process as described in Tibetan doctrine of their formation, ripening and expiry.

You imply that unless the process karma is such that it enables an effect to be tracked back to a cause then it is meaningless. You also suggest that this inability to track cause and effect means that a particular effect might as well be regarded as having arrived at by pure chance. I argue that the above doctrinal account of karma is coherent and that it can thereby provide a logical explanatory basis for a general link between virtuous action and some later resultant happiness, and non-virtuous action and some later unhappiness. Thus I argue that karma offers a happy and unhappy circumstances are not dictated by chance but by prior virtuous and non-virtuous action respectively. And all this despite the fact that all humans (except Buddha's) cannot attribute the outcome of a ripening of a karmic seed (e.g. a broken ankle) to a prior cause i.e. the action that resulted in the production of this seed in the first place.

My argument is that although you correctly point out that it is impossible to identify a specific cause of something that has occurred (e.g. breaking ones ankle) you then extrapolate this as an implied necessary and sufficient condition to render the karmic process meaningless. I argue this extrapolation is wholly unwarranted. To illustrate my reasons for this I will use an analogy. That is, it is impossible to establish a causal link between a child eating a calorific rich meal and his or her subsequent growth but that does not affect the legitimacy of asserting the proposition that maintaining a certain minimum calorific intake of food throughout childhood will promote one's growth whereas consistently eating below such a minimum calorific level will arrest potential growth to some degree (Steckel, 1982, p.6, “Height and Per Capita Income”). Nor does the impossibility of establishing a specific link between an individual meal and consequential growth lead to a) the conclusion that the height one attains as an adult might as well be attributed to chance or b) that attributing the nutritional calorific value of ones diet as a causal factor is useless.

In the above analogy I am comparing on the one hand the inability of establishing a link between a nutritionally rich meal eaten by a child and their subsequent growth and on the other hand, likewise, the inability of establishing a link between an intentional virtuous or non-virtuous action and a subsequent experience of happiness or unhappiness respectively. But in both cases such a link can be established by appropriate studies of large groups of people e.g. Steckel, 1982, as above for nutrition v height and the connection between virtue and happiness is indicated in the widely cited[3] recent World Happiness Report (2013, p.93), Ed. John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs:

The evidence is very strong that a society cannot be happy unless there is a high degree of altruism and trust among its members. That is why Aristotle advocated that happiness should be mainly pursued through virtuous acts. The Buddha and countless other sages, as well as many of today's leading psychologists and moral leaders, argue the same.

Another example of evidence linking virtue to happiness is: “The exercise of at least some virtues tends to increase happiness” (Professor Mike Martin, 2007, Happiness and Virtue in Positive Psychology, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 37:1)

The Mystical Dimension

My final point is to point to an apparent equivocation on how you approach an understanding of ultimate reality. On the one hand you say:

What I have argued (as I repeat my position once again ad infinitum) is taking a practical approach and exhausting physicalist explanations first. Taking my boat, as just one telling instance, whenever the thing breaks down on the way to Catalina it seems quite reasonable to look at the engine first to see if something is broken before positing a Gremlin First hypothesis …

But in your “The Mystical Dimension”(2010) post you say something radically different:

Reality is always greater than our conceptions of it. Thus, contrary to our popular notions of mysticism, genuine spiritual practice is not concerned with increasing knowledge, per se, but rather reconciling man with his fundamental state of absolute ignorance.

If reality is always greater than our conception of it then this seems to imply that a physicalist explanation of reality is a non-starter. In the context of a Buddhist form of explanation of reality the above indicates you have failed to fully appreciate the profound difference between the “Two Truths” i.e. conventional and ultimate truth. Your example of your boat breaking down supports this criticism. The operation of your boat is clearly within the conventional realm of existence and a conventional (e.g. physicalist) explanation for its malfunction is not only appropriate; an explanation in the ultimate realm is clearly inappropriate. However, ultimate reality is, as you have said is beyond conception and this is a via negative description of the ultimate realm. Logically, the first place to seek an understanding something in the ultimate realm is some form of ultimate explanation.

If you were to respond that an ultimate explanation of ultimate reality must be nonsense because it is beyond conception, then I would say we are at least making progress if you accept a physicalist explanation will not do. But this is not the impasse it appears to be. For one thing, although an account of ultimate reality cannot say what it is, it can point to it e.g. as indicated by 'a finger pointing at the moon', using a via-negative approach. An illustration of this is T.R.V. Murti in his 1955 book “The Central Philosophy of Buddhism” where he says the 'Absolute' can only be known as an ascription mark, “transcendent to thought, as non-relative, non-determinate, quiescent, non-discursive, non-dual”. (ibid, p.228).

Best wishes, John


[1] Wilber expresses this: “[When] meditation … [reaches] a particular stage of illumination and insight—say, a subtle/luminosity state/stage [then] the subtle realm and its Vantage Point will determine what types of phenomena can arise in the first place—in this case, luminosity and insight-awareness into impermanence and selflessness—just like the dream subtle realm determined … feelings of love.” (Wilber, 2014, The Fourth Turning: Imagining the Evolution of an Integral Buddhism).

[2] That at one extreme, for example, will involve the perpetrator of the action of killing their parent will, at the time of their death, be cast into a hell realm; and at an other extreme a perpetrator of hurting someone's feelings will suffer something similar themselves at a future time (the precise form of what they suffer is unknown).

[3] 239 citations according to Google Scholar

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