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. Because I think one of the most deep and important elements of Buddhist tradition is precisely its atheism. That atheism is, indeed, a great part of what brought me to Buddhism in the first place. The teaching on suffering was what really got me hooked on Buddhism, but it wasn’t what had got me interested in the first place; indeed, it had initially repelled me. Even despite my repulsion, I’d done a lot of reading on Buddhism during my time in Thailand; that was what made it possible for me to see how Buddhism applied directly to my life, when the time came for me to make that grand discovery. And why? Well, part of it, as I’ve said in telling the story here, was that the temples were so gorgeous and I was drawn into the worldview behind them. But there was also something that had drawn me to Buddhism well before I ever saw a Thai temple, and that was its atheism. In a journal that I wrote while travelling around India at age 19, I had noted that “in my Indian travels it was Buddhism, more than Hinduism or Islam, which seemed the most profound and interesting of the Indian religions — probably because it’s not technically a religion at all. You can be an agnostic or even an atheist and still be a Buddhist, because God or Gods don’t figure.”
I still think this is something remarkable about Buddhism, at least in its Theravāda variant. Unlike Epicureanism, a similarly atheistic tradition which died out within a century or two, Buddhist tradition survived for thousands of years while denying that there were gods out there. And I don’t think it’s just me for whom this is an appealing point: in an atheistic age where we are more aware than ever of the hideous sufferings that befall our fellow human beings, and where Darwin managed to dispense with God as the explanation for life’s diversity, Buddhism provides the kind of wise and enduring tradition that the various theisms provide, without having that God at the core. It is significant in this respect that an outspoken atheist like Sam Harris has spoken highly of “Buddhist wisdom,” even as he wishes to divorce it from “religion.”
But just as Buddhism has some of the advantages of atheism, it can also face its disadvantages – and especially, the one I first spoke of three weeks ago. I discussed the ways that the atheistic thinkers of early twentieth-century analytic philosophy, like Ayer and Moore, struggle to make sense of ideas of value and goodness, often giving highly implausible responses. But I am increasingly thinking that Buddhists face the same difficulty.
Damien Keown, widely regarded as one of the most prominent experts on Buddhist ethics, has increasingly begun putting forth the view that there is no such thing: that Buddhism is “morality without ethics,” in that Buddhists do little to justify the claims they make about what we should and shouldn’t do. I have disputed this claim in my dissertation; in Śāntideva I have found many arguments why certain actions are good and others are bad. I think such arguments are found in other Buddhist thinkers as well. But I also think there is a certain way in which Keown is on to something. The most persuasive of Śāntideva’s ethical arguments appeal to values Śāntideva expects us to already have. They have a means-end approach: since we all wish to end suffering, we should therefore take whatever action is being recommended (avoid anger, avoid lust, and so on.)
But why should we wish to end suffering? What makes suffering bad? Śāntideva responds to this question directly, in a way that no other Buddhist (that I am aware of) does. But I do not find his very brief answer satisfactory. It occurs in Bodhicaryāvatāra verse VIII.103, within his famous equalization of self and other, in which he argues that since the self is unreal, one should prevent everyone’s suffering and not only one’s own. Having said this, he entertains an objection (pūrvapakṣa) to the effect of “Why is suffering to be prevented?” (kasmān nivāryaṃ cet) and responds with sarveṣām avivādataḥ: literally “Because of the non-dispute of everyone.” Or in Crosby and Skilton’s simpler and crisper translation: “No one disputes that!”
But this won’t do. It is not just that his imagined objector does indeed seem to be disputing that suffering should be prevented. What Śāntideva is doing here is very similar to Mill’s argument in Utilitarianism that the only reason one can give for finding happiness or pleasure (or anything else) desirable is “that people do actually desire it.” G.E. Moore thought this the classic example of a “naturalistic fallacy,” of illegitimately deriving a “should” from an “is,” in that “desirable” means what should be desired rather than what is; it does not mean “able to be desired” in the way that “visible” means “able to be seen.” But as Alasdair MacIntyre points out in A Short History of Ethics, there is a way to read Mill which does not rest on linguistic equivocation, and I think the same applies to Śāntideva (changing “pleasure” to “the absence of suffering”):
He treats the thesis that all men desire pleasure as a factual assertion which guarantees the success of an ad hominem appeal to anyone who denies his conclusion. If anyone denies that pleasure is desirable, then we can ask him, But don’t you desire it? and we know in advance that he must answer yes, and consequently must admit that pleasure is desirable.
I think Śāntideva’s argument is most persuasively read as just this sort of “ad hominem appeal.” But this is still insufficient. For one thing, many would indeed argue against ending suffering – most notably Nietzsche, who believed that suffering can ennoble us and make us better people. Or even Penelope Trunk, who, after considerable reflection, decided she would rather suffer because happiness is boring. One could, I suppose, bite the bullet and say “fine, then, those people don’t need Buddhism and their life will be perfectly good without it,” but this is not a response that would be acceptable to the vast majority of Buddhist tradition to date – certainly not to Śāntideva himself.
Moreover, Śāntideva’s very argument rests on denying one of our most deeply felt beliefs – the existence of a self. If even our basic selfhood – the one sole thing that Descartes thought completely indubitable – is available for dispute, then surely the prevention of suffering is as well. One might well reply to the ad hominem: “Well, yes, I believe my suffering should be prevented. But I also believe that there’s a self, and that that’s the whole reason it makes sense to prevent any suffering at all. If you really knock down the self, you knock down the prevention of suffering – and maybe the existence of suffering – with it.” (This point is roughly similar to Paul Williams’s objection.)
In short, Śāntideva – possibly the most sophisticated ethical theorist in Buddhist tradition – fails, like the twentieth-century analytic philosophers, to provide a satisfactory account of why we should value the things we do value. And I suspect that this is not a coincidence: that Buddhists, like empiricists, have a hard time justifying their value system because they do not assign value a place underlying the metaphysics of reality. The obvious objection to the claim is karma; but karma is held to be a potentially observable causal law of the universe, comparable in theory to the laws discovered by scientists. Karma does not make things valuable, and so it does not suffice as an explanation of the nature of value.