God’s natural law?

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A few years ago I discussed why the debate between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of God (is God an intellect or a will?) was so important in the medieval Western world. (The West here includes medieval Muslims, who not only started the debate, but were often further west than the Christians – in what is now Spain and Morocco rather than France and Italy.) I followed up by speaking of the modern practical implications of this debate: how it shows up in modern conceptions of law, and democracy. I think there are also some interesting things to say about the ethical implications of the debate in its own context.

Above all, if God is taken as a supremely good being, then our conception of him is inextricable from our conceptions of goodness and morality as such – and for that matter, of how we can tell what is good. This was the context for the debates that raged in early Muslim ethics, perhaps best chronicled by George Hourani. Muslims of the time agreed that the good life should be thought of in terms of law (shari’a): the prohibitions and obligations set out by God. But how do we know what God’s law is, exactly? It depends on what God is.

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Bultmann for Buddhists

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The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.

All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.

The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.

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In praise of platitudes

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Donald Trump has not received enough votes to remain President of the United States. Joseph R. Biden Jr. received enough votes, in the states that matter, to be insulated from recounts and legal challenges. Blessedly, very few major right-wing figures are urging Trump to challenge the result, and at this point it is not clear how he could; thus, despite Trump’s refusal to admit the legitimacy of the election, it appears there will indeed be a peaceful transfer of power. So, on Wednesday, 20 January 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be president; Joe Biden will. And I expect most people reading this, inside and outside the United States, will breathe a sigh of relief.

The 2020 election campaign was a referendum on Trump, with his opponent something of an afterthought. According to polls, about 67% of Biden supporters considered their vote primarily against Trump rather than for Biden; about 71% of Trump supporters considered their vote primarily for Trump rather than against Biden. As for Biden, he had trailed in the Democratic primary field for a long time, behind the more exciting candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, after he turned in lacklustre debate performances that left no one enthusiastic about him. He trailed, that is, until two moderate candidates suddenly dropped out and endorsed him, because they prioritized beating Trump and thought a moderate like Biden was better equipped to do it than their other rivals were. Then, campaigning against Trump during the COVID pandemic, Biden kept a light schedule and campaigned from home. The election was never about him – and that worked well for him.

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How capitalist modernity makes things interchangeable

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Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, have some basic things in common: German philosophers writing in German, deeply influenced by Hegel, separated by less than a century. One was taken, however unjustly, as inspiration by murderous political régimes a hundred years after his lifetime; the other proclaimed his support for a murderous political régime during his lifetime. But something else about them has struck me more recently. Both are attempting in some way to come to grips with the philosophical meaning of the modern capitalist world in which they lived and we still live.

Specifically, I see a striking similarity between the analysis of commodities with which Marx opens Capital, and Heidegger’s analysis of electrical energy generation in The Question Concerning Technology. Both thinkers are examining something in the physical world which is characterized by interchangeability, in a way that it was not in earlier times, and they find this interchangeability weird. Not weird because it is unusual; quite the opposite. It is a commonplace in their world and ours. But they are acutely aware that this commonality is something new, something in its way idiosyncratic to the modern capitalist world, not found in the worlds that preceded it. Most of us in this world don’t normally see how weird the interchangeability is, and Marx and Heidegger want to make us see that. I think neither could do this without the background of Romanticism and its lionizing – romanticizing – of the premodern world, though that is not to say that either thinker is a Romantic himself.

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The need for subjectivity

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I first read Quentin Meillassoux in a local reading group in summer 2016, and thought at first that I was largely in agreement with him. That changed in 2019 when the same group read the Kyoto School‘s Nishida Kitarō.

Nishida reminded me of the importance of subjectivity in our thought about the world – something which Meillassoux is at pains to deny. It was particularly striking to hear this from Nishida since he was a self-proclaimed Buddhist – a tradition so often thought to deny subjectivity. Nishida says:

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The world before and after us

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Over the past several years I have moved steadily away from any views that see value at the heart of reality, especially natural reality – views that often lead one to some sort of God as the author of these values. I haven’t yet mentioned a recent book that helped crystallize these atheist-ish thoughts for me. That is After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux (may-ah-SOO) – a book that basically kickstarted the Speculative Realist movement.

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When virtue is not in our control

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I’ve been thinking a lot on a recent exchange I had with Seth Segall, in the comments on my post about terminology to use for karma. Seth’s comment specified a distinction that is important elsewhere in my exchange with Thompson, on how eudaimonism works. This is a distinction between external goods, on one hand, and on the other – what exactly?

The term Seth used in contrast to “external goods” was what one might take to be its obvious opposite, “internal goods”. I used the exact same term, “internal goods”, in my own later post. Yet in response to Seth’s comment I told him we had to be really cautious about using that term. This indicates to me that my own thought on the topic has not yet been sufficiently clear, and I want to take some time to clarify.

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A god for the real world

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I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that God might need to be Krishna.

I have come to believe that the problem of suffering is effectively insurmountable. That is, the vast suffering in the world clearly implies that there cannot be an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, as the God of the Abrahamic traditions is generally supposed to be.

But what about a god who isn’t omnipotent or omnibenevolent?

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Is the eudaimonist proposition true?

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Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.

Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.

If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: Continue reading

When does karma stop being karma?

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Evan Thompson has made his last statement in our correspondence. Before I make mine, a personal note: our series of responses to date has become increasingly confrontational in tone, in a way I imagine our readers have noticed. Thompson and I have spoken about that tone in private and we agreed that it is not where either of us had hoped or intended for this conversation to go. I hope to end this series on a note of gentler and friendlier disagreement, one that invites both of us and our readers to new avenues of inquiry that the dialogue has opened up. For one thing, from the beginning, I have appreciated Thompson’s willingness to take Buddhist thought seriously by acknowledging where he finds it inadequate; this is a valuable and refreshing contrast to the kind of kid-glove treatment that it is too often given in religious studies. I think that this aspect of Thompson’s approach is very helpful for advancing contemporary discussions of Buddhist thought, and I think I should have led my opening review post with my appreciation of his work on that point.

Now to recap the state of our debate. Thompson, in his June reply, had stood his ground on the claim that karma is fundamentally about why bad things happen to good people. My ensuing July-August round of posts addressed in detail why I think he is wrong about this. While I think it was important to go into those details, I think I didn’t spend enough time on the big-picture questions that motivated them, which remain important to both Thompson and myself. So, while I didn’t think the wordplay in his June title was accurate, I think the current one was. That is, I did, to some extent at least, “lose the thread”. I am happy that the final exchange can now take us back to those larger questions.

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