Monday, June 14, 2010

More on Reincarnation and Buddhism

As I was reading the recent book on Hakuin to the left, it became clear to me, a quite rationalist, scientific minded person, that the notions or rebirth do indeed permeate much of the thought of Edo-era Japanese Buddhism.  Hakuin, is quite cosmopolitan in his use of devices which, if interpreted literally,  would be dismissed as woo and superstition today among the skeptics and rationalists.  And frankly, those bits would get in the way   of the larger purpose of Hakuin.  Similarly, jn my opinion, attachment to the tulku system and the merging of politics with religion has been disastrous for Tibetan Buddhism and the young boys who undergo déformation professionnelle to support that system.  What is the place, if any, for rebirth in Buddhism?  Yeah, we can interpret rebirth in such a way as to reconcile it with modern notions of multiverses, of awareness arising and descending and so forth.  But a literal rebirth?

As I said, Hakuin uses many opportunities for introducing the supernatiural into his writing.  Among the opportunities taken, there is kami speaking through a young boy, as well as the implicit understanding of a soul-less rebirth in which the reborn has no prior memory of "his previous life."  And of course there's the precipitating events of his life, about being worried about being reborn in a kind of Buddhist hell.   Although I have not read all of the existing English literature of Dogen,  what I have read does not leave me with a memory of what I would call the superstitious, so perhaps in this regard the Soto folks have it easier.

How to reconcile all of that with a modern outlook?  Well, is that even the right question?  In a certain sense, I think it it is: clearly if one engages in the practices developed and promulgated by Hakuin, one clearly develops an understanding and skill to be able to function in previously difficult circumstances.  There is no doubt about that, and I could set up an experiment to verify that, and indeed these practices do have their counterparts in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy.   So the reconciliation of the more superstitious elements of the traditions of Buddhism is a) something humans do naturally (resolve issues of cognitive dissonance) b) is useful for deepening the practice, and c) is a way of enhancing the view of the world that allows for this practice to be extended and useful for all beings.  So, yeah, how to reconcile?

Well, I would submit that it is necessary that, as I've previously written, that claims that are at variance with that which can be falsified via science should not be made as though science does not matter.   And those claims which cannot be falsified one should not demand that others respect them or honor them, simply as a matter of compassion and mercy as well as  savior-faire. Realistically, Tibetan monks finding the dead lama reborn as a young boy are treating the dead lama as the Virgin Mary and the young boy as a piece of toast in which they see her, or at least it is impossible to to show that they are not, and it is a bit arrogant to suggest that the rest of the world honor that decision simply because it is a "belief."   It may be honored for other reasons (such as wanting to not injure others' feelings, or wanting to ensure that things of higher priority are given the attention they deserve),  but there is no more reason to accept these sorts of things than it is to allow creationists to teach their kids creationism instead of science.

So my basic "reconciliation" is simply: that which is not useful to the objectives of Buddhism (helping beings, remember them?) should be treated sensibly and with compassion and mercy.  But we should be sincere about what is and what is not science and what is and what is not verifiable. 

In good science we have well-constructed experiments; these experiments allow for observation of results of  hypotheses to be well-separated.  That means that the possibility for  mis-identificatin of hypotheses causing the observation is minmal, or as we say there are a minimum of false detections and false alarms (or false positives and false negatives). In addition, these experiments are repeatable; they can be done time after time after time,  and the outcomes can be predicted. In communication systems, for example, a radio receiver is in effect a device which is constantly separating hypotheses of one type of signal received compared to others or no signal at all.  When real scientists speak of evidence, they mean  evidence in this way.  That's how you can tell a scientist from a non-scientist .  If they are talking about anecdotal evidence (e.g, "evidence" of reincarnation) , they are not talking about scientific evidence in the sense that scientists would use.  They may be talking about observations which might be able to be verified scientifically, but if such phenomena cannot be separated from naturally occurring explanations, we should insist that extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof.  With regard to reincarnation, there just has not been that kind of evidence shown, and to insist on agnosticism in the face of such a damning lack of evidence is, in my opinion, unreasonable; it is as unreasonable as asserting that  we should be agnostic as to whether unicorns exist because there has been no good observation as to whether they do or do not exist.

So regarding my comments on Dr. Tart's work previously: if he does want to subject his work to scientific scrutiny, I will be happy to assist him in the protocols,  if I have the time, to help him collect $1 million from the James Randi foundation. 

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