Listening to contemporary disengaged voices


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My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.

I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.

The tendency plays out in a different way in Joseph Cheah‘s Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Continue reading

Disbelieving in God without being an atheist


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In recent years – years since I began writing this blog – I have come to realize that I do not believe in God. This is not a mere agnosticism; I believe that God does not exist. The idea of God once helped us make sense of the physical world in a way that it no longer does; the learned men and women who have studied living organisms have been most successful with a paradigm that has no need for a divine plan. Moreover the suffering of the world gives us active reason to disbelieve in God. It makes the idea of an omnipotent omnibenevolent creator seem almost absurd. There is no particular reason to believe an omnipotent being exists; if he did, he could not be omnibenevolent. He would likely be indifferent at best, evil at worst. Certainly not a being to worship or trust. I have become increasingly sympathetic to the drastic atheism of the Speculative Realist philosophers, who take their metaphors for existence from H.P. Lovecraft.

I have tended to think the non-design-based arguments for God’s existence are not taken seriously enough, and have defended them here in the past. But in the end I do not think they succeed. Continue reading

The middle ground in philosophy of science


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Last time I looked to find a middle ground in philosophy of science, between Francis Bacon’s historically untenable inductivism and Paul Feyerabend’s irrationalism. I noted then that I think Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos all attempt to stake out a position somewhere in this ground, with varying degrees of sucess. I turn to them now.

Karl Popper rightly acknowledges the scientific importance of fallibilism and uncertainty: science is powerful not because its conclusions can be proved right, but because it can acknowledge when they are proved wrong. Popper notes that science in practice advances more by falsification than by induction: the role of empirical data is not to ground generalizations, but rather to disconfirm them. One can legitimately formulate a theory in abstraction that says all swans must be white; the important thing is that one reject it when one observes a black swan.

But Popper’s critique of inductivism does not go far enough. Continue reading

The spectrum of philosophy of science


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I have found myself thinking more and more lately about the philosophy of science, and finding it increasingly important for the rest of philosophy. There are multiple reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is simply the prestige (or normative weight) we attach to scientific knowledge, a prestige I take to be deserved. I would agree that to the extent that it is fair to say that “science has established” that human consciousness is not reborn after death, then it is true that human consciousness is not reborn after death. Science, in that respect, is what classical Indian philosophers would have called a pramāṇa, a reliable means of knowledge.

A second, related, reason is that it turns out that that very nature of something’s being scientifically established turns out on closer glance to be quite complex, itself its own kind of philosophical question – and one with bearing on philosophical questions well outside the natural sciences. Studies of the history of science – what science has actually been in practice, not what it is supposed to be in theory – show us a process much messier than an account in the standard mold of “build your theory by generalizing from the empirical evidence”. Often the theoretical insight comes first and the observations supporting it come only later. So Copernicus built his heliocentric model mathematically and only later would Galileo demonstrate it with a telescope, just as Einstein began with an “intuition” of the theory of relativity that was only later empirically verified. The way actual science – including the science of our greatest scientific heroes – has proceeded, turns out to be considerably messier than the standard account tells us it is supposed to be.

How then might we think about what science and scientific knowledge are? Continue reading

Making the case for non-Western philosophy


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If you are the sort of person who reads comparative philosophy blogs, you probably remember the widely read New York Times article that Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote two years ago, calling for the study of non-Western philosophies in philosophy departments. I agreed with their overall point, surprising nobody that I can imagine, but had strong reservations about their underlying reasoning, then as now: in urging the study of non-Western thought they said nothing about anything valuable it actually would have to teach us, treating geographical diversity as sufficient.

Van Norden has now expanded the article’s point into a book, Taking Back Philosophy. (He invited Garfield to join in writing the book, but Garfield was too busy with other projects.) Columbia University Press sent me a free copy of the book in the hope I would review it on Love of All Wisdom and/or the Indian Philosophy Blog; I mention that as a disclaimer of sorts, though there were no specifications on the content of the review. I offer my thoughts here. Continue reading

Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (3)


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My continuing dispute with Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, over the ideas of Buddhaghosa, now returns to where it began: the distinction between ultimate (paramattha) and conventional (sammuti or vohāra).

Heim and Ram-Prasad admit that for some Buddhist traditions these terms refer to different truths or levels of truth. (When Śāntideva employs the ultimate/conventional distinction, for example, he describes them explicitly as satyadvaya, two truths.) But Heim and Ram-Prasad claim that for Buddhaghosa it is not so. Continue reading

Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (2)


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I continue my argument from last time dissenting from Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s interpretation of Buddhaghosa. I turn to a second passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad use – incorrectly, in my view – to claim Buddhaghosa is not trying to take a position on the way things actually are. They note correctly that Buddhaghosa contrasts those who see correctly, one one hand, with those who “resort to views” (the diṭṭhigata) on the other. But what does this distinction mean, exactly? Continue reading

Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (1)


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Earlier this year I examined the classic Pali Milindapañhā dialogue and its claim that while one can speak of oneself as a “convention” (vohāra), ultimately (paramattha) a person is not found. I referred in passing to the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), the most famous work of the great Theravāda philosopher Buddhaghosa, as following this understanding. And I noted that on this view a person, or a chariot, can most accurately be described in reductionist terms, as atomized parts; the ultimate reality lies beyond that convention.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad took issue with this description in a comment, referring me to Maria Heim’s forthcoming book The Voice of the Buddha – and to an article he wrote with Heim in Philosophy East and West entitled “In a double way”. Neither of these has been officially published yet, but I could find a preprint version of “In a double way” on PEW’s site for “early release”.

The article claims that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories, such as the five aggregates (khandha), not as “as a reductive ontological division of the human being” but rather as “the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” (1)1 That is to say that according to Heim and Ram-Prasad, Buddhaghosa is not trying to talk about what exists or what human beings and other entities really are, just about the kinds of experiences human beings have, and especially those found in meditation. The article comes to this conclusion through a welcome close reading of the Visuddhimagga, something which, the authors note accurately and unfortunately, “has rarely been attempted in competing views of him…” They add: “It would be a welcome development in the study of Buddhaghosa if other scholars were to offer further or contrasting interpretations – e.g., as that he engaged in constructing a metaphysical dualism – based on such textual analysis rather than on an a priori commitment to a picture of abhidhamma and its interpreters.”

To this I reply: challenge accepted. Continue reading

The philosophy of The Good Place


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the good placeThe Good Place, an American comedy-fantasy series created by Michael Schur and airing on NBC, is perhaps the most explicitly philosophical American television show in recent memory. I think it aims to do for moral philosophy what Breaking Bad did for chemistry. (This post speaks of the second season, but does not have spoilers – at least in the sense that it does not reveal any of the show’s twists.) Continue reading

Of psychological depths


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In my previous post about the way the mind’s automatic processes get things wrong (and how that point is important to Buddhists), I turned to the experiments of Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Tversky) on false cognition. I claimed that the kind of automaticity they describe is a better explanation of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, citing the quip that “the unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed but because it’s not conscious.”

Some excellent comments from Patrick O’Donnell took me to task for this claim. Patrick is pointing to the importance of the distinction between cognitivist approaches like Kahneman’s on one hand, and a very different kind of modern Western psychology on the other. Continue reading

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