Laurie Zoloth has recently been chosen president-elect of the American Academy of Religion; she will be chairing the AAR’s 2014 annual meeting in San Diego. In that capacity, she has decided to emphasize climate change as a major theme of the conference, and has sent out a two-page memo explaining her decision.
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. Continue reading
One of the most fundamental things a philosopher does is to ask why. When someone says “you should do x” or “y is good,” it seems to me, the true lover of wisdom needs to ask why this is the case. If someone tells me I should do something and can’t provide a reason, I see this as grounds for questioning whether it really is something I should do at all. Nietzsche, if he does nothing else, shows us that the things we take as obvious may well not be so.
So what happens when we try to take our reasons all the way down? When we continue asking why we should do anything? We begin to get to a complex meta-ethical question: what constitutes a reason for action? What is it to have a reason to do something? (Warning: this will be an abstract and theoretical post, but it is important to fundamental questions like why we should do anything at all.) Continue reading
Today’s post follows up on those from two and three weeks ago, and there’ll be another one next week. I intend the four posts, taken together, to make a statement about the continuing importance of the idea of God: why, in the face of the very real problem of suffering and the scientific ability to easily do without God as an explanation of life’s apparent design, God is still hard to do away with. I mean this on an intellectual and philosophical level, not merely an emotional one; it is not just that we need to bother with God because so many people out have some neurological need for him, but that there yet remain ways in which God helps us to make sense of reality.
I’m going to begin this week not with God, but with Buddhism. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I previously called the problem of good. Those who believe there is an ultimate goodness central to the universe face the problem of the universe’s imperfection and badness. The most obvious form of this problem is the Abrahamic problem of suffering; it’s also a problem for Advaita Vedānta, in which it’s hard to explain how ignorance can be possible. But for those who don’t believe in that ultimate goodness – which includes Theravāda Buddhists as well as naturalistically minded scientists – there is an alternate problem, of how we explain the existence of value in the first place.
This problem is not quite the opposite of the problem of suffering. Those who don’t believe in an ultimate value of this sort – I am here going to call them “atheists” as a shorthand, though I think that runs the risk of oversimplifying the matter – have no problem explaining the existence of particular good things, the way that theists have a problem explaining the existence of hurricanes or ALS. The problem they face, rather, is in the basic question of how things can be good (or bad) at all, of how the very ideas of goodness or badness can mean anything. Continue reading
I’m returning today to the idea of perennial questions: questions that recur throughout the history of philosophy, where both sides of a debate keep getting articulated in many different places. The key feature of these perennial questions, to my mind, is that they are large: they cannot be narrowed down to a single precisely defined question within a single philosophical subfield, of the sort that analytic philosophers aim to ask, but extend their ramifications across multiple fields of theoretical and practical inquiry.
So far I’ve explored two major perennial questions: ascent versus descent and intimacy versus integrity. I have taken these as two different axes along which philosophies can be classified – in their ethics and soteriology as well as their metaphysics and epistemology.
But why should we treat these as exhausting the perennial questions? Continue reading
The most recent book from Donald S. Lopez, Jr., one of the most widely read contemporary American scholars of Buddhism, is entitled Buddhism and Science. Unlike most books with this title, it does not explore similarities or complementarities between Buddhist tradition and the natural sciences. It is instead best described by Lopez’s original intended subtitle: A Historical Critique. Alas, Lopez’s publishers apparently thought this subtitle boring, and therefore required him to replace it; his chosen replacement, A Guide for the Perplexed, is not particularly exciting either, and more importantly makes it impossible for the casual reader to find out the ways that this book is drastically different from all the other books out there with the same title.
I am not here to write about dreadful editorial decisions, however, but rather the content of the book. Lopez undertakes what has become one of the most standard methodologies in the contemporary academic humanities: following Foucault and ultimately Nietzsche, it is typically known as genealogy. One starts with a widely used contemporary concept and goes on to show the history of its usage, in order to create doubts among those who might otherwise use it. This has already been done plenty of times both for the concepts of “Buddhism” and of “science”; Lopez’s project here is instead a genealogy of the joint concept of “Buddhism and science,” the frequent form of inquiry that tries to link the two conceptually or analytically. As is typical for contemporary genealogies ever since Edward Said (though not for Foucault’s own and certainly not Nietzsche’s), Lopez finds the origins of “Buddhism and science” in the colonial nineteenth century. He shows us that claims about Buddhism’s compatibility with science remain remarkably consistent from the late 19th century to the early 21st, even though the science itself has changed drastically.
Now what is the purpose of showing us this point? From Nietzsche onward, the genealogical method has never been neutral. The point has always been to undermine. Lopez doesn’t like “Buddhism and science” any more than Nietzsche liked morality. Continue reading
Aristotle, chastened intellectualism, Four Noble Truths, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jesus, Julia Annas, Lorraine Besser-Jones, Martha Nussbaum, Mencius, nonhuman animals, Śāntideva, Seneca, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath
Thill makes an important point in response to my recent post on virtue and pleasure (as well as to a commenter named Bob). The post articulated the view, attributed to Aristotle via Julia Annas and Lorraine Besser-Jones, that the fully virtuous person will take pleasure in virtuous action. Against this position, Thill claims: “Even if you want to kill a dog or a horse in order to put it out of misery and you do it skillfully, it would still be a gross distortion to describe this act as one which gives pleasure to the agent.”
Thill is, I think, getting at an important philosophical debate here: over the value of compassion. Most of us, were we to be faced with the necessity of euthanizing a horse, would feel a painful emotion occasioned by its suffering – that is, compassion. The same would happen if we needed to discipline a child – even if, in either case, we had all the best reasons to believe that this action was the best action to take. But there is still a question: is this feeling a good thing? Continue reading
Alasdair MacIntyre, especially in his Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, has frequently tried to make the case that adequate moral inquiry needs to be embedded within a tradition. In the book he makes the case by arguing that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris shows a fuller and more adequate understanding of the attempts to get beyond tradition (Nietzsche’s genealogy and the Ninth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica) than they show of themselves or each other. I’m not going to address the details of his case here. But I want to note one point that MacIntyre frequently seems to shy away from: for Leo XIII and the Catholic tradition that precedes him, it is not the case that adequate moral inquiry must take place within a tradition. Rather, it must take place within this tradition, the universal and apostolic Catholic Church. The inquiries of the Confucians or Muslims are not significantly better, in this respect, than those of deracinated cosmopolitans like the Encyclopedists or Nietzsche.
In this, MacIntyre skirts around on an idea that endures through the history of the Abrahamic traditions: that the ultimate truth is tied to one single historical event, time, place and/or people. It begins with the idea recorded in the Book of Exodus that the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews are God’s chosen people, and continues with the idea that the single human person Jesus of Nazareth was the only begotten human son of God. The Qur’an, too, is a single set of revelations made in a small geographic area to one human person, not adequately translatable (so the claim goes) into a language other than the original, which is better than any other revelation that has been or will be made.
It is in this context that I am intrigued by the Buddhist claim that there are multiple buddhas. Continue reading
Possibly the biggest philosophical question on my mind is this: why should we do anything at all? Or, why should we do one thing and not another? What is it to have a reason for action, a reason to do anything? It’s difficult to have a coherent ethics without answering this question in some respect; but in some ways it’s even more difficult to answer the question itself.
There are, I think, two basic classes of answer to this question, which analytic philosophers classify as internalism and externalism with respect to ethical motivation. On an internalist view, to have a reason to do something is to have a motivation, perhaps even a desire, to do it. If you don’t at some level want to do something, or at least feel or believe that you should do it, then you shouldn’t do it. On an externalist view, by contrast, reasons are independent of us. There are things we just should do, period, whether or not we have any desire or other motivation to do them.
Each position faces wrenching difficulties. The externalist view is always subject to the laughing, scathing criticism of a Nietzsche. If you can’t tell me why I would want to do something, then bollocks to your “should.” I’ll do what I want instead. External reasons don’t feel like real reasons; Bernard Williams, indeed, has argued that they only really become reasons for action if we acquire motivations to do them. Yet the internalist view seems to collapse into relativism and conservatism. If our existing motivations are the only source of reasons for action, then how can those motivations ever be criticized? On what grounds can you tell Pol Pot he’s doing the wrong thing by killing his citizenry? You run, effectively, into the problems with classical relativism, which show up in a variety of ways, such as the political problems of postmodernism, or the problems of contradiction for spiritual growth.
Some way of reconciling internalism and externalism, without the problems of each, seems necessary. But what way?
What makes the question of ethical internalism and externalism still more intriguing is that it seems to parallel a very similar theoretical question about truth. Could there be a truth we can’t know? Say, a kind of knowledge only achievable by gods and not humans? If so, on what grounds can we say that something really is a truth, if we can’t know it? If not, do we not collapse back into the problems of relativism, where everything is subjective, since knowledge is reducible to our own minds?