Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Buddhism, Mystery and Evidence

There's an article by one Tim Crane on the "Opinionator" blog section of the NY Times on "Mystery and Evidence," in which Mr. Crane (an atheist) tries to "make sense" of a religious position.  I have a couple of comments about a couple of sections about it...

To begin with, scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. No-one can understand quantum theory — by any account, the most successful physical theory there has ever been — unless they grasp the underlying mathematics. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.
Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)
What is more, while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.
Yet another reason — and the one I am interested in here — is that most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it. Of course, educated people who know about science know roughly what Einstein, Newton and Darwin said. Many educated people accept the modern scientific view of the world and understand its main outlines. But this is not the same as being interested in the details of science, or being immersed in scientific thinking.
 I do not believe this is necessarily the case; many behaviors are learned, and one thing that Mr. Crane seems to discount is that science and math takes time and effort.   This has been true even for geniuses such as Edison and Einstein.   It is true that the overwhelming majority of people do not have the time, or opportunity or energy to pursue scientific endeavors, but that doesn't mean that the scientifically trained are a magical elite. 

We have been known to have all the foibles and ignorance of anyone else.

Some philosophers have said that religion is so unlike science that it has its own “grammar” or “logic” and should not be held accountable to the same standards as scientific or ordinary empirical belief. When Christians express their belief that “Christ has risen,” for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain “form of life,” a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation.
This view has some merits, as we shall see, but it grossly misrepresents some central phenomena of religion. It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

As any Zen Buddhist or Stephen Batchelor can tell you, the facticity of the Buddha's enlightenment is not really an issue for Buddhists, nor is the various hells mentioned in the sutras, nor is the plethora of Boddhisattvas and their dialogs in the sutras, nor are any of the dozens of other stories of Buddhas and Buddhists.  True, the Tibetans have a separate thing or three going on this end, and there are many people who are Buddhists among the masses that look upon the personalities of Boddhisattvas, Buddhas, et al. as separate beings who can do things for one.

But those aside, Buddhism doesn't really need all that. It doesn't really need a facticity of the panentheist proto-theology mentioned by Shaku Soen, which, even by itself stands apart from theistic interpretations of deities and what-not.

The "truth" of Buddhism lies in our ability to successfully practice being kind and compassionate and wise to other beings when we feel a strong desire to do rage anger instead.

No comments: