Saturday, November 20, 2010

Buddhist "rationalism," "metaphysical naturalism," good science and good Buddhism

The issues of karma and rebirth aren't that difficult to deal with as a westerner, as noted in the text and comments, with the understandings of non-duality, dependent origination, and emptiness as meant in Buddhism.

I did want to post a few other things here though on this point.

  • We in the West are often somewhat anachronistic in our imputing viewpoints to people in the past.  We have been jaded somewhat by our Western, scientific, rationalist viewpoint that, even if many people in their day to day existences are bat-poop crazy, have at least exposure to the idea that logic and empiricism exists.  It is not at all clear if these ideas were known to Hakuin, let alone Dogen.  
  • Barbara draws from a Buddhist Geeks blog post here, by Dennis Hunter.   Frankly, I don't have the time to read all of it, but I'm reminded that I still have a blog post coming on why Charles Tart appears to be  a woo-filled crackpot, and what science is and is not, and why from my more-or-less Mahayana postmodern phenomenological existentialist point of view a  metaphysical naturalist perspective critiquing Tart would be erroneous, even though my critique arises from the very same scientific method that metaphysical naturalists would use to dismember Tart's arguments.  I probably share a lot of Hunter's sentiments, but as a scientist with a  more-or-less Mahayana postmodern phenomenological existentialist point of view.
  • And yes, yes, yes, those are Western philosophical concepts through which I apprehend Eastern philosophy.  I am not and cannot be a metaphysical virgin in my thinking here.
  • And none of it matters unless it is useful to my realization in practice.
  • So I myself am not really swayed by critiques on Batchelor on rebirth, though I'm not that intrigued to go into depth on Batchelor in the first place! See my recent posts here and here.
  • I do  wish to critique though, in the spirit of inquiry, Hunters bit here:
But there is also good reason to feel ill-at-ease about the agenda behind this movement [ of Buddhist rationalism]. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the whole movement is founded upon the prevailing materialist assumptions of Western scientism (“mind = brain function, nothing more”), and fueled by a wish to dismiss rebirth and karma in order to bolster the illusion of intellectual certainty and further reinforce that doctrine. One can dress up this kind of reductionist philosophy and call it “agnosticism” but—as they say in the advertising industry—that’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

 I don't think that any modern philosopher in the vein of myself would hold this view of being either ill-at-ease with the metaphysical naturalist perspective applying to a rejection of  a literal rebirth (as I note on Barbara's blog, karma's a whole other kettle of fish).  A literal rebirth is a falsifiable hypothesis, and the fact that life has the characteristic that there are an exponentially increasing number of live beings on earth over time has always posed a fundamental conundrum for this viewpoint, if one assumes that the literal rebirth is on earth (and if it's on the planet Ogo, well then it's non-falsifiable as a belief of course, and literal assertion of such beliefs becomes sundered from observation and therefore neither worthy of respect nor defense, but of course disrespect, ridicule and all that should only be applied insofar as it can be skillful to help increase wisdom, compassion and generosity).

We scientists though, express our certainty tentatively, as I wrote recently in a comment on another blog, but I'm willing to bet my salary that Dr. Charles Tart's "evidence" for rebirth is not what one would normally recognize as being consistent with well conducted scientific experiments, and therefore,  scientfically, phenomenologically, existentially, almost everywhere, except on a set of measure zero,  as far as we can tell, for all intents and purposes, it indeed is a false hypothesis.   This is not from the position that this is all there is, a metaphysical naturalist position.  Metaphysics, by its very nature, deals with issues that are "above" or "beyond" or "outside" of the scientific domain.  To have the position "This is all there is," or "There's more to us than what we can measure and observe" are metaphysical positions and neither one is in the domain of science!!!
More on Charles Tart later...


Paul Garrigan said...

I have found that keeping an open mind on karma and rebirth is a practice in itself - by this I mean that it stops us becoming too rigid in our thinking. I try not to view Buddhism as an intellectual enterprise and I don't trust the scientific method to provide all the answers. I think that there is a path to understanding that can be found in Buddhism but to benefit we have to be willing to abandon our opinions and not shut the door on anything. I agree with much of what Barbara has said about this in the linked article.

Trusting in those who we believe to have reached high attainments can mean considering ideas that we are not comfortable with - being open to having all our opinions shattered is probably a requirement of any type of enlightenment experience. I can't imagine how any type of profound experience could be just about confirming what we already know. I think 'don't know' is the best attitude until we are really sure that we do know; otherwise we are just confusing ourselves and possibly other people. There are many elements in Buddhism that would not have made sense to me a few years ago but my view has now changed; I’m sure that this process will continue in the future as well.

I think the danger with adapting Buddhism to suit our own views is that it could lose a lot of its value and ends up just bolstering our own ego. I’ve lived in Thailand for the last ten years and there is much about Buddhism here that makes me uncomfortable – I do try to keep an open mind about the whole thing and realise that all is probably not what it seems.
Of course this is all just my opinion and it could also be wrong.

Mumon said...


The scientific method is very good for what it's intended to do.

It might not tell you with whom to fall in love, which political party to join, etc.

It is very wise to have an open mind, but that should never mean letting just any kind of thing in. There's a difference.

Mumon said...


One other comment I'd make:

Even people with ridiculous viewpoints are worthy of respect and compassion. That's an important point.

Also when someone holds a belief that is demonstrably false it does not mean there are no things they say from which one cannot learn.

And so listening to people with an open mind does not mean being credulous.

I would say also therefore that I see no justification that it is any kind of a requirement for any kind of "enlightenment" that one accept viewpoints that are demonstrably false.

Paul Garrigan said...

Hi Mumon, I don't think it is a good idea to accept ideas that are false. The problem is that I'm not convinced that rebirth and karma have been proven false; perhaps if they were it would simplify things. The most wonderful thing about the universe is that it is so mysterious - anything is possible. Of course there may be things that are more likely to be true than others, but that is another story and probably highly subjective. My point here isn't that we should just accept everything, but that we realise that by accepting things we are making a choice that might not have any bearing on reality.