What do we mean when we say that something is morally wrong? Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what ”morality” and ”ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are. Our conceptions of morality need grounding in some larger conception of what life is all about, and it’s here where contemporary non-theistic attempts to ground ethics are most likely to founder.
Some post-Enlightenment Western philosophers (e.g., David Hume) have argued that statements about morality are really just statements of personal sentiment and preference rather than statements of fact. In other words, the statement that ”murder is wrong” means nothing over and above the statement ”Ugh! Murder. Don’t do it.” This belief that moral statements are merely sentiments is called ”emotivism.”
Other post-Enlightenment Western philosophers, seeking a more solid ground than emotivism in which to root moral statements, have successively tried — and failed— to ground morality in either rationality (Emmanuel Kant’s ”categorical imperative”) or utility (Jeremy Bentham’s ”greatest good for the greatest number”). Contemporary Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, however, that all philosophical efforts to ground morality in something other than sentiment are doomed by our modern commitments to a secular, scientific view of Nature which excludes meaning, purpose, or telos from its materialist description of the way things are.
MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s famous dictum that there’s no way to logically get to ”ought” statements from ”is” statements is, strictly speaking, not true. For example, if a watch always tells the right time we can reasonably conclude that the watch is a ”good” watch. We can conclude that the watch is ”good” because the very definition of a watch tells us what a watch is for. Watches, by definition, have a purpose; they are ”for” something. Things that conform to and fulfill their aim can be said to possess ”goodness” in a way that’s based on more than sentiment.
Classical philosophers like Aristotle, and medieval philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition like Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings, too, had a purpose. For Aristotle it was a telos or ”final end” intended by Nature — man’s telos was fulfilled by developing one’s intellectual and moral virtues so as to achieve a state of eudaemonia, often translated as “human flourishing” or “well-being.” For St. Thomas, man’s purpose was to live in accordance with God’s intentions for who we are to be and with Natural Law as established by God. Modern science, however, doesn’t countenance the belief that Nature possesses final ends, purposes or intentions. Within the confines of science’s world-view, moral statements are left hanging in air, ungrounded in anything that might make them intelligible. Moral statements, to mean anything, must have some standard that lies beyond mere sentiment and preference because different human beings believe and express a diversity of conflicting sentiments and preferences, and this diversity of sentiments precludes any rational means of resolving moral disputes. Without an external standard, Hitler’s moral judgments are no better or worse than your own.
Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the consensus scientific account of how we came to be cannot account for three essential human qualities: consciousness, reason, and value. He suggests that only some combination of panpsychism and telos can account for how we humans got to be the way we are. He believes that consciousness must originate in some form of panpsychism, and that, additionally, something about the laws of Nature must not only permit, but also encourage the timely emergence of increased complexity, consciousness, reason, and value. Nagel believes that Nature has a story to tell, and that it’s something like ”the universe is waking up.” Nagel’s controversial book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), was widely criticized, but it’s really a modest exploration of the kinds of problems the current scientific paradigm is incapable of successfully resolving.
As humans we’re, first and foremost, conscious beings, and our consciousness is riddled through-and-through with intentions, purposes, motives, and reasons; the kinds of things that Nature is allegedly devoid of. Value is an immediate property of consciousness. We immediately perceive a sunset as ”beautiful”; we don’t need to think it over. We immediately understand that the statement ”there’s no unicorn in this room” is ”true”; we don’t need to reason it out. We immediately know that rescuing a child who’s fallen into a well is ”right”; we don’t need to morally deliberate over it. While reason shapes and extends our immediate intuitions about beauty, truth, and goodness, and while we seek logical grounds for resolving value conflicts, our initial perception of value is inherent in consciousness itself. It’s a phenomenological given. That’s not to say that morality existed prior to human consciousness. No one accuses lions of immorality for killing their prey. But once human consciousness arises, beauty, truth, and goodness come along for the ride. While our specific apprehensions of what’s beautiful, true, or good change from culture to culture, era to era, and across one’s lifespan, the value realms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness universally persist, in much the same way that languages may vary from culture to culture and era to era, but Language itself is a human universal.
Evolutionary biologists wrongly believe they’ve a good candidate for a mechanism that can account for the emergence of morality. They point out that social animals like ants, wasps, and humans are among the most successful species on our planet. They say that sociality conveys evolutionary advantages that allow Nature to pay a premium for the modulation of in-group competition and the enhancement of in-group altruism. As compelling as this argument is, it can only explain why acts of cooperation and mutual aid are ”useful,” but never why they’re ”right.” When we say that something is ”right,” we intend something different than saying that it’s beneficial for survival. We rescue that child drowning in the well, not because we hope others will do the same if it were our child, but because it’s the ”right” thing to do. Moral underpinnings that emphasize reproductive fitness take us only so far. We need an explanation for ”rightness” that goes beyond social and biological utility. For example, the history of our own culture suggests an evolution in moral values marked by a gradual process of inclusion of ”others” onto the list of those to whom moral duties are owed, e.g., people of color, women, infidels, homosexuals, transexuals, unborn children, cetaceans, primates, elephants, endangered species, factory farmed animals, and so on. This gradual extension involves the spread of a standard of rightness that’s utterly divorced from in-group fidelity and reproductive fitness. It marks, in fact, the slow abolition of the very distinction between in-groups and out-groups, a distinction that’s necessary for any successful genetic account of evolution. While the spread of this evolving morality may eventually save us from extinction by nuclear holocaust, climate change, or some other unforeseen Anthropocene disaster, its salutary effect for our future can’t account for its present-day emergence. Evolution doesn’t permit the future to influence the present or the past.
But if science as currently construed is incapable of giving a coherent account of the-way-things-are that includes what we know best and most intimately, namely consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning, and if we’re no longer capable of or willing to believe in a Deity, what options are left to us? I want to address the question of whether Buddhism can provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense. In doing this, I’m not claiming any superiority or exclusivity for a Buddhist solution, only exploring whether a Buddhist solution is possible, and if so, what if might be. In a series of provocative essays, David Chapman has recently argued that mainstream Western Buddhism is incapable of providing any such framework. I think he’s wrong, and I see this essay as part of an ongoing conversation about whether and how Western Buddhism can, in fact, address ethical issues.
There are a number of possible strands within the Buddhist tradition which might allow for such a solution. The first is the classical Buddhist idea of karma as the determinant of the realms of rebirth and of sila (ethics) as part of the triumvirate of sets of practices (along with meditation and wisdom) leading to liberation and enlightenment. This is an idea that is already present in the earliest known strata of Buddhist thinking as preserved in the Pali canon. In this scheme, moral behavior plays a role in both determining more desirable rebirths and, ultimately, in attaining enlightenment, or freedom from future rebirths. This scheme answers the question of ”why behave morally?” with an appeal to freedom from suffering in this and future lives, and to a final release from any and all suffering that is our natural ultimate destination if only we knew it. Actions are moral if they create good karma and lead us towards these ends. This formulation is somewhat problematic for moderns who no longer believe in rebirth and freedom from rebirth, but it retains some attenuated force as a kind of Aristotelian path towards eudaemonia, if not to complete and perfect enlightenment.
There are two other strands of Buddhist thought, however, that suggest a different sort of Buddhist solution to the issue of contemporary moral incoherence. The primary Buddhist elements in this second framework are the twin notions of Dependent Origination and the Bodhisattva Path. These are notions that only reach their fullest expression in historically later strands of Buddhist thought within the Indian and Chinese Mahayana traditions.
Dependent Origination, especially in its Madhyamaka (i.e., ”emptiness”) and Huayan (i.e., ”interpenetration”) formulations, emphasizes the process-relational nature of reality. All ”things” (I use the word “things” advisably because there are no “things” in this model, only seamlessly interrelated processes, mutually affecting and transforming each other over time) immediately and intimately co-participate in the emergence of each moment of reality. Dependent Origination implies that the human qualities of consciousness, reason, and value are inherent in Nature, the outgrowth of the integral functioning of the universe, and not simply ghostly flukes residing somewhere between our ears and behind our eyes.
The Bodhisattva Path offers a telos, a final end, for us and Nature: we’re here to help all beings awaken, and because of Dependent Origination, the whole of reality supports us in this endeavor. It’s not just our endeavor, it’s the Universe’s. As the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen might say, ”earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles” co-participate in our enlightenment, our enlightenment transforming space and time as we co-awaken with the whole of reality. Within this non-dual framework, our purpose is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. It’s this purpose that provides an external standard for judging the morality of actions: Actions that help ourselves and others to actualize wisdom (i.e., the realization of emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self, and non-duality) and facilitate mindful awareness, non-harming, compassion and non-grasping are moral. Actions that detract from it are immoral. We instantiate this moral process in all of our activities, e.g., in meditating, raising and educating children, dealing wisely and compassionately with others, being mindful in speech and behavior, exercising restraint in our desires, and so on. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality achieves coherence through embeddedness within a cultural matrix of supporting practices, narratives and traditions. Buddhism happily provides all three.
Unfortunately, these general Buddhist principles fail to provide a means for resolving conflicts between specific moral intuitions. What if, in saving the baby drowning in the well, we’ve saved the baby Hitler? What if a compassionate action helps one person but disadvantages another? What if an act of mercy towards a perpetrator leaves an injured party aggrieved? What if saving an endangered species creates economic hardship for people living nearby? The answers to these sorts of questions often entail a resort to some kind of moral calculus, as if all goods could be measured against each other on the same scale, when in fact they are, often enough, incommensurable. While in Buddhism compassion trumps everything else, the primacy of compassion can’t resolve the question of ”compassion towards whom?” when people are differentially affected by actions. All philosophies face this problem of what to do when ”goods” conflict. Sometimes we just have to face the tragic implications of how life is structured with something approaching resignation or grace. Buddhist principles can anchor our ethics in a telos, but in and of themselves, can provide only minimal guidance on how to settle these disputes. Since Buddhism never developed its own tradition of critical ethical investigation, it may sometimes have to allow non-Buddhist philosophers to come to its aid with their ungainly mix of consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics to help think things through. Deciding what’s right is often complicated, but that doesn’t have to mean that the notion of ”right” itself needs be incoherent.
The problem with this second Buddhist solution is that one has to buy it’s premises for it to work. Not everyone can do so. Materialists, for example, could never buy into the premise that we have a purpose, or that our purpose is part of a larger narrative of everything ”waking up.” As a result, Western Buddhism has secular adherents who try to fit significant portions of the Buddhist project into a materialist frame. For secularists, the end point of Buddhist practice is again some version of eudaemonia, and the active Buddhist ingredients contributing to this eudaemonia include elements of mindfulness and compassion. Their answer to the question, ”why be mindful or compassionate?” needs be a utilitarian one: it contributes to one’s feeling happier and facilitates one’s capacity to make others feel happier. This probably provides sufficient reason for many people to engage in secularized Buddhist practice; after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? What it doesn’t provide is a reason why the Buddhist path to happiness is superior to everyone just taking some Valium. The secular response to this requires a theory of why some types of happiness are superior to others, and this requires a theory of what human beings are for, and how they’re supposed to be—just the sort of thing that secularists tend to shy away from. For example, in his book Flourish (2011), positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits a model of eudaemonia that includes the five factors of positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, relationship, and meaning. It’s not a bad list, but it begs the question of ”why these factors and not others?” since it lacks a larger theory of what human beings are for. Seligman defines meaning as ”belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than oneself.” This definition suggests that we’re all free to find our own meaning — that one person’s meaning is as good as another’s, whether one is a Bodhisattva, a Fascist, or an acolyte of the Islamic State. Whatever makes you feel you’re part of some larger story. You can see the inherent problem: we’re left with no way to establish a hierarchy of goodness within the universe of possible meanings. Secularized accounts can never adequately address questions of goodness without grounding the concept in some larger theory of what our lives are all about. That means acknowledging that human lives are, in fact, about something.
Everyone, knowingly or not, has a metaphysics. A materialist metaphysics can’t account for consciousness and value, and leaves our lives devoid of meaning. Materialism suggests our lives aren’t about anything — they’re just accidental byproducts of physical processes. Materialism can’t be empirically proven or disproven, any more than pan-psychism or teleology can. It’s just more or less useful, and depending on your point of view, more or less credible.
I think the Buddhist story has something special to contribute to our survival as a species. It clarifies our deep interrelationship with all beings and with Nature, clarifies our moral duties towards all beings without exception, and encourages us to move beyond the fragmented individualism and consumer mentality that are the twin scourges of modern Western society. As our fragile species lurches toward the possibility of extinction, we moderns are increasingly the inheritors of a conflicting set of historical grievances and irreconcilable world-views, while simultaneously the possessors of technologies that extend our ability to inflict exponentially greater harm on each other. Our current moral incoherence will not let us muddle through. Something very much like Buddhist ethics seems increasingly urgent if we’re going to make sufficient progress in resolving these conflicts to survive as a species. The Buddhist solution, however, requires us to think differently about Nature and our place in it. It also requires us to assume something very much like the Bodhisattva ideal — the belief that there’s a more enlightened way to be than the way-we-are-now (however we construe ”Enlightenment”) and that an engaged, compassionate regard for others is an indispensable component of that enlightened way.
28 Replies to “Buddhism and Moral Coherence”
1. Very good, as always, Seth.
2. This topic makes my head spin.
3. I see you co-relate Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Was Plato your starting point? His triad was Truth, Beauty and Justice, which in reality are supposed to constitute a unity, three facets of the same notion.
4. I am reminded of Hamlet’s saying “nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.”
5. I’m not sure that the Abrahamic religions can be the measure of good and evil as most normal, sane people understand them. Before Christ softened God somewhat, He was a murderous nut, responsible for several genocides, such as drowning almost everyone and every animal on the planet; sending two bears to murder children (4 Kings 2:23-24); ordering Abraham and Jephthah to kill their own children; releasing ten plagues that ended with the slaughter of Egyptian children; etc., etc. To top it all, this God has his own son killed. As Richard Dawkins puts it, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” And remember that Christians as well as Muslims incorporate the Old Testament into their faith. I don’t think human morality has much of a foundation in the myths of western religions.
Thanks, Amaury. I was thinking about the triumvirate of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, not so much using Plato as my starting point, but just thinking that these are the kinds of value (aesthetic, moral, and truth) that we directly perceive.
I think Hamlet is partly wrong, by the way, and that there’s a kind of immediacy to our perception of these things that precedes our thinking about them. if someone was to show us a video of someone torturing a child, for example, we would be immediately repulsed and nauseated without having to reflect on the morality of it.
Your comments on God in the Bible reminds me of what McIntyre says about the transition from ancient heroic ages to classical ages and then to modernity. Ancient texts like the Iliad, the Old Testament, and the Icelandic sagas have a different notion of virtue then texts from later ages. Homer’s heroes, for example, are the swiftest, the strongest, the shrewdest, etc. They are not the most compassionate, the most humble, the most merciful. The virtues in ancient texts are the competitive virtues, the virtues in later ages include lists of cooperative virtues. That’s because society is transforming and transitioning from a world of nomadic tribes to the Athenian polis, and them on to the Roman Empire, to feudalism, and to modernity, each with is own conception of virtue and morality. That’s why Biblical texts seem so horrifyingly odd and off to us.
When Jacob steals Esau’s birthright by tricking Isaac, we moderns feel he’s being deceptive and dishonest, whereas the people who first related that tale simply thought him the shrewdest. When I reread the Book of Genesis a few years back I understood for the first time that it was primarily a book about how the Hebrews laid claim to the land they came to inhabit and how that claim was passed down through the generations from father to son. It’s basically a statement legitimizing ownership of a parcel of land so that its ownership would be considered incontestable. When Abraham buys the cave to bury Sarah, we’re told how much he paid for it and who the witnesses were. We’re never told how Abraham felt about Sarah’s passing. We’re also to understand, through the Jacob/Esau story how that land passed to Jacob and not to Esau. Its also the story of the Hebrew’s covenant with God, and how he cut a special deal with them. God, in the Old Testament, is still a personification of Nature itself: cruel, irrational, unmerciful, mercurial, implacable, but capable of (this is the Hebrew’s magical hope) forming alliances with humans if properly propitiated. Jehovah is not any more immoral than Zeus or Wotan. He just isn’t our modern type of God. So basically, I agree, he’s not much of a model for the kind of morality we desperately need today. On the other hand, if we want to be able to sympathetically read ancient texts, it helps if we can try to imagine the life-world of the people who composed them and imagine how their needs and concerns might be different from our own.
1. I think Goodness is pretty close to Justice and is also directly perceived. Both Plato’s triad and yours seem to be equivalent.
2. When Hamlet refers to thinking, it’s not necessarily a deliberation. I think Shakespeare is just pointing out that the world is indifferent to our value judgments. If a man gets eaten by a lion, it may be bad from man’s point of view, but quite refreshing on the lion’s side. If an asteroid hits the earth, it’s a catastrophe from our point of view, but it means nothing in the overall scheme of things. That’s perhaps why the pre-Hellenic as well as the Greek gods, and the Jewish God as well, as you point out, can be so nasty.
3. I lack the erudition to be able to track the evolution of ancient religious texts, but I read a controversial work by a scholar, Julian Jaynes, who did just that in connection with his analysis of human thought: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He shows their evolution in both style and content, and mentions, among other things, how the Greek epic poems were among the first writings to reflect and value this shrewdness that you mention. According to Jaynes, humans were not even conscious as late as about 10,000 years ago; they were guided by inner voices, much like schizophrenics. When we made a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and developed city-states, life became too complicated for the guidance of the inner voices. We came to rely more on language and therefore thinking, which created a stress, which broke down the bicameral mind, which gave us modern man. It’s an interesting hypothesis and supported by tons of research, exegesis, and careful footnoting. I think I mentioned this book in a prior posting. I highly recommend it, if nothing else because the psychology establishment went bonkers over it.
Amaury, I see justice as giving to each person that which is due to them, which is one form of goodness, but there are forms of Goodness which have nothing to do with justice: e.g., acts of compassion towards those who do not necessarily “deserve” them. As an interesting aside, Plato’s word for justice (dikaiosyne) is derived from an older Greek word (dike) which meant acting in accordance with the cosmic order. Actions which could be described by dike included rendering unto the gods and kings what was properly due them. The concept was broadened into a justice which involved giving every person what was due them. This is just one example of how the meaning of the virtues shifted from the heroic to the classic era in Greece, and Socrates’s asking “what is justice?” was an attempt to clarify that shift in meaning.
I still haven’t read Julian Jaynes, so I can’t really comment on him, but I appreciate your sharing his perspective with me and other readers of this blog.
One last point. You say “If a man gets eaten by a lion, it may be bad from man’s point of view, but quite refreshing on the lion’s side. If an asteroid hits the earth, it’s a catastrophe from our point of view, but it means nothing in the overall scheme of things.” The first part of that statement concerning the lion is a wonderful example of what Nietzsche called “perspectivism” and it’s undoubtedly true. The second part of the statement concerning Nature’s indifference to our fate is a somewhat separate matter. Most people would agree with you. I might even agree with you too, but it’s a proposition I’m beginning to question. Nature seems to support and encourage our being conscious beings who are aware of value. We are a recent, late development in the evolution of things. We may be part of a larger story of Nature “waking up” and becoming self-aware. As such, we are no doubt a very, very small part of that story and of no terribly great importance to the larger scheme of things, but perhaps, if the larger story is true, Nature may not be 100% indifferent to our experience. In Alfred North Whitehead’s process-relational theory, for example, “God” has a “consequent” nature that is altered by his experience of our experience. God’s consequent nature affects all the present and future processes in the universe to some degree. Your and my experience is a very tiny part of the sum of all the experiences of all the processes that are currently occurring; they don’t matter an awful lot, but they do matter some, and the small effect they have can be thought of as “immortal” in the sense that they become, like our karma, part of the history of all future processes in the universe. I find the idea of a universe that is not totally indifferent an idea worth considering. Just thought I’d mention it, because it’s an idea I’m currently playing with.
Thanks for being a great friend of this blog, amigo!
Hi, Seth — I’m glad that my writing provoked some thoughts. Thank you for the invitation to reply!
It’s a bit difficult to respond because I’m mostly ignorant of the Huayan perspective. The Avatamsaka was not influential in the Tibetan tradition, which I know best.
The approach you take here would count as “eternalism” from the point of view of Tibetan Buddhism. (I think this would be the view of all Tibetan Schools; I’m most confident it’s the view of the Nyingma, which I practice.) Eternalism (as the word is used in Vajrayana) is the error of supposing that some metaphysical principle can hold form in place, and thereby failing to recognize that all things are empty of any inherent nature. In this case, ethics is the form that would be held in place by a teleological cosmic consciousness. Tibetan Buddhism emphatically rejects such things.
So the approach you suggest may be *a* Buddhist solution; but it can’t be *the* Buddhist solution. (Even less for modern Theravada, which of course doesn’t accept the Avatamsaka at all.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve recently sketched some aspects of what a modern Vajrayana approach to ethics might look like, on my blog.
Thanissaro Bikkhu and David McMahan have pointed out that modern Buddhisms often conflate the Avatamsaka view with the Western tradition of Romantic Idealism. The approach you present seems squarely in line with that Western tradition. Sometimes Romantic Idealist ideas are misunderstood to be Mahayana ones, which are different in some ways. I don’t know enough about Huayan to say whether that might be an issue here.
This is the existentialist approach, isn’t it? I think you are right that it can’t work. I’m curious whether this represents a change of view on your part, stepping away from existentialism, or if your blog title is using “existential” in some other sense.
Thank you very much for an interesting read, and the conversation!
Thanks for your original stimulating posts on Buddhist ethics, and for accepting my invitation to comment on this post. I want to respond to some specific points, and I will put your original points in italics to clarify the exchange of ideas.
Interesting. So, in the Tibetan view there can’t be any universal laws that describe how interrelated processes interact, and so there can’t be any explanations for the causes and conditions that led to this particular way things are as opposed to any other particular way they might otherwise have been. Am I understanding this right? So there would be no point is asking, for example, why the matter in the universe is clumped into structures as opposed to homogeneously distributed, as there would be no physical laws that would govern the processes leading up to it.
I suspect that when it comes to East Asian Buddhism, the same is overtly true. Covertly, however, it seems to me that Sino-Japanese thought sneaks some such notions in, or at least sneaks in notions that have implications that go beyond what perhaps they initially intended. I am thinking, for example, of the tradition extending through Huayan, Tientai, Chan, and Zen about ”inanimate” or ”non-sentient” beings (grass, trees, mountains, rivers, tiles, and fences) possessing Buddha-nature and ”proclaiming” the Dharma. In this tradition, when we realize our already enlightened nature, it’s not ”we” who do it, but something that happens together with grasses, trees, tiles and fences, and indeed, something that involves the transformation of all of time and space. In response to your later comment regarding David McMahon’s and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s fine work, this organic co-participating wholeness of things doesn’t need to be imported from either German Romanticism, or from Whitehead’s process-relationalism, or from Spinoza’s ”one substance,” or from Plato’s Timaeus. It’s already fully there in the East Asian tradition. There are, of course, ways that the East Asian tradition can be misunderstood by Westerners, in the much the same way that the third century Chinese are alleged to have misunderstood Buddhism during the supposed Geyi period because a conflation of Buddhist and Taoist terms, but I don’t think this is the case here.
Anyway, the crucial question for me is ”why are we supposed to become Bodhisattvas” in the first place? What’s the point, unless that’s something that the very nature-of-things points us towards? If there are no underlying universal principles, if there’s no trajectory to the universe, if there’s no specific moral content to ”Buddha-nature,” why bother to help others realize their ”true” nature? Isn’t the logical endpoint of Mahayana Buddhism that we all wake up together? This is the same problem, by the way, that I see with Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s Existentialism, which suggests that people should realize their freedom and take responsibility for it, but doesn’t contain any reason within itself for why such authenticity is ”good;” it’s simply asserted as self-evident.
I believe, David, that your take on the Nyingma view of ”eternalism” is an accurate account of that view, but 1) do you personally think that such a view is adequate to explain why we ought to aim for enlightenment and the enlightenment of others, and 2) do you think that kind off view is sufficient to account for the nature of the kind of universe we find ourselves in?
What a perceptive question. I was kind of hoping no one would ask it! My answer is two-fold. First, my original comfort with the designation ”existential” came from the way I became familiar with the concept through my psychotherapy practice. It was a practice that emphasized themes of phenomenologically understanding the client’s life-world, understanding human existence as both a being-in-the-world and a being-with-others, and emphasizing I-Thou encounter and the importance of meaning and authenticity in life. It never grew out of French Existentialism, per se. I am currently reading De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, and I’m aware of how much I disagree with her (and Sartre’s) stance which seems to view our subjective consciousness as being inherently at odds with society and the consciousness of others.
Second, there is a way in which I’m edging away from existential positions I formerly espoused — the naturalist position that the world is meaningless, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and derives from matter which is not conscious, and that whatever meaning we find is one we make up for ourselves and project onto the world. This movement away from that set of beliefs has been occasioned by my ongoing reading of A.N Whitehead, Eugene Gendlin, Gaylen Strawson, Thomas Nagel, and others. I currently meet weekly with a friend (who’s a devoted follower of Gendlin’s) to read Whitehead’s ”Process and Reality” together out loud and discuss it together. It’s a challenging read and we sometimes end up spending two hours unpacking a single paragraph. I suspect it will take us over a year to finally get through it. There are places where we strongly disagree with Whitehead, but struggling with him provides it’s own rewards. Doing this after completing a semester on Eihei Dogen offered by Taigen Dan Leighton through the Institute for Buddhist Studies has led to a fertile period of trying to compare and contrast their ideas.
Thanks for your thoughtful response to my ongoing effort to clarify and articulate my own somewhat hybridized Buddhist practice!
I think that’s a consistent extrapolation of the Tibetan view, yes. “Universal law” in the modern scientific sense, and “process” in that sense, weren’t available concepts in the tradition, so they wouldn’t have said quite this. Nor would they have asked “why is the universe clumped”—although it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder what answer they should have given, if the modern scientific understanding had been available.
This would count as “nihilism,” defined in the tradition as the denial of form. There are regularities to experience (forms), so one can give causal explanations. It’s just that they have no ultimate, absolute, or universal basis. (That would be eternalism.)
Generally, Buddhism is interested in the life-world of experience, rather than physics, so extrapolating this view of emptiness and form to gravitational cosmogenesis is probably a mistake (although interesting as an intellectual exercise). FWIW, my take is that fundamental physics has been at an impasse for the past half-century, which might be consistent with emptiness. However, there may well be universal laws at the level of subatomic particles, while macroscopic phenomena inherently lack them. (In fact, the mathematics of dynamical chaos suggest that this would be the case.)
I find this inspiring as a poetical metaphor!
And, it may be an accurate description of personal experience. If taken literally, it seems wildly implausible, though. Why would one believe it? I have an essay titled “Epistemology and enlightenment” about this. What do we know about enlightenment, and how? What kinds of evidence should we take how seriously? “The transformation of all time and space” is an extraordinary claim; it would take extraordinary evidence to establish. More modest conceptions of enlightenment seem more plausible.
“Supposed to” is an interesting phrasing… it suggests that there is someone, or something, doing the supposing. In the Western tradition, that is God. From the Dzogchen point of view, any other God-substitute that underwrites morality or teleology would imply eternalism (and so must be rejected). This would include, for instance, “the very nature-of-things.”
(I say “Dzogchen” rather than “Tibetan” here, because only Dzogchen bites the bullet and applies this explicitly to karma. For Dzogchen, the consequences of karma can’t be subject to a universal law. Karma is empty, and so the supposed “law” is only a tendency, and does not always hold.)
Yes… and if taken seriously, this winds up in nihilism. That’s not just the logical conclusion, it’s what actually happened historically. Camus did the best diagnosis of this, I think, particularly in The Rebel, written after he had seen through and abandoned existentialism.
I think the value of the view is in pointing out that eternalism and nihilism are both false and harmful, and that they are not the only possibilities.
Eternalism and nihilism are both based on the implicit assumption that meaningfulness must have some ultimate basis. Eternalistic systems make claims about what the basis is: God, tathagatagarbha, the universe’s panpsychic benevolent intention, the Law of Karma, scientific rationality, superintelligent UFO aliens, whatever. None of those things exist. When one realizes that no such Ultimate Principle can exist, one is likely to fall into a nihilistic depression, because it seems that everything must be meaningless.
But meaning does not depend on an ultimate cause. It happens, reliably, for whatever non-ultimate, empty reasons. We don’t need to understand those reasons to accept that we do have morals, purposes, and value. That is, quite obviously, the situation we are in. We can go forward from that recognition without agonizing about Ultimate Principles.
Hmm. “The nature of the kind of universe” sounds somewhat as though the question expects an eternalistic Ultimate Principle as its answer—and the view rejects those. However, it does say that the life-world of experience has a particular texture, namely a blending of emptiness and form in varying relationships. The sort of universe we are in seems to provide that quite reliably.
Yes, this was a major failing. (It goes back to Kierkegaard, via Heidegger. In Kierkegaard’s case, it was about rejecting the conventional Christianity of the day, which was probably sensible, but Heidegger overgeneralized it, and Sartre oversimplified it, and then the New Left gave it an aggressive edge, and further intellectual descendants are still causing unnecessary rage, pain, and confusion.)
On the other hand, The Ethics of Ambiguity is one of the very few works in the Western tradition that acknowledge that morality is inherently ambiguous, which I think is true and important. (Ambiguity is a correlate of emptiness.)
Your informal seminar sounds very interesting! Whitehead and Gendlin have both been on my really-need-to-read list for some time. From what I’ve read about them, they seem to have ideas that resonate with Buddhism, and considering such Western thinkers together with Buddhist ones may cast light on both.
I hope you blog about that as insights arise!
Thanks, David, for taking the time on Christmas Day to try thinking this through along with me. You given me good stuff to chew on. I’m going to just briefly (and perhaps too impulsively!) and then take time off to visit family for a few days.
True. But Buddhism has the same problem that Western philosophy and psychology has with mind-body dualism. If one tries looking at this from a Northhead-type panpsychist point of view, however, physics and the life-world aren’t governed by different set of laws. They both can be described by the same process-relational principles. Granted, Buddhism never tried to do this. It’s fun to think about, though.
Here’s a crucial point on which we differ. I’m increasingly open to these possibilities.
I struggled with the word ”supposed to” because I share your qualms. But surely that’s what Buddhists think — that being a Bodhisattva is in some ways ”better” than being a self-absorbed shmuck. If so, there must be some external measure of goodness involved here, and my contention is that is must be one based on more than just simple “utility”.
We agree here. No need to agonize about ultimate principles, but I can’t help from wondering about them. I think all ethics rests, ultimately, on one’s metaphysics.
Enjoy the holiday season, and many thanks for contributing here!
Maybe when Dogen was revealing a profound, literal truth that is totally beyond our comprehension when he said things like this:
Great Master Kuangzhen of Yunmen said, “Eastern mountains travel on water.” The reason these words were brought forth is that all mountains are eastern mountains, and all eastern mountains travel on water. Because of this, Nine Mountains, Mt. Sumeru, and other mountains appear and have practiced realization. These are called “eastern mountains.” But could Yunmen penetrate the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of the eastern mountains and their vital
If mountains can travel (at times Dogen says “walk”) and practice realization, aren’t they somehow conscious? Can it be that consciousness is not the unique attribute of sentient beings? Could it be that consciousness inheres in relationships among any complex systems, including the brain, but also the galaxies and the universe as a whole? Could it be that the fourth great vow is a literal necessity for “personal” liberation because there is no personal other than in relation to the whole?
Amaury, I’m inclined to agree with you — and Whitehead would agree that all things that he calls “actual entities,” that is entities that are holistically organized, have some kind of awareness (he calls it “prehension”), although not necessarily what we might call full “consciousness.” Only more complexly integrated systems reach something like what we mean by consciousness. But for Whitehead, actual entities prehend other actual entities and chose in some meaningful way how to relate to them. He would include atomic particles, molecules, single celled organisms, plants, etc. in the kinds of actual entities that prehend each other and manifest their future self states (a process he calls “concrescence”) through their interaction. And Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra which you quote above is a prime example of how Dogen sees the whole of universe alive and responsive — for Dogen, the mountains love the sages who dwell on them, and he means this quite literally, and not just poetically. I also agree with your last point, that there’s no personal liberation separate from others and the whole, but only liberation in conjunction with the whole.
The question I’ve raised is why seek liberation at all? What makes liberation a worthy goal? Buddhism needs some principle that explains why liberation is the proper goal for human beings. I think Zen may have accomplished this with its take on Buddha-nature, but some schools of Buddhism would see this as an illegitimate importation of eternalism. David thinks that Buddhism cannot include such a principle because it would be a violation of a correct understanding of emptiness. I think the process towards greater complexity and consciousness that has been part of the history of the universe so far may make human consciousness and awakening concordant with the meaning of how things are. David thinks positing such a directional process has no place in Buddhist thought and is unneccesary. So that’s where the conversation stands at the moment. Any thoughts?
I don’t understand why can’t the existence of empathy and the desire to live be what drives one’s social actions, and which can only later be regarded as good, as moral, or neither? Isn’t our social nature what ethics is all about? And wouldn’t our social nature extend to our environment through our senses, and thus coming to awareness of pleasant and unpleasant experiences we would judge them similarly as good or bad, as right or wrong, or neither? Aren’t these part of our emotional responses? Maybe if we root the discussion in our emotional responses this would build upon what the actions are based on.
I think it is an overstatement to regard the descriptions of science’s lack of ability to address ‘meaning’ as a failure to “provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense”. When does one need an explanation first before acting in a way that can be said to be moral anyway? Why is there this need of an abstract framework? Why would we expect science to answer such a request? I wouldn’t. Physics aim for a TOE really isn’t going to explain everything. That is just a misnomer. A poor choice of words.
Maybe the question for me would be to focus on the reactions within a social act between people, then to wonder about the feelings that came about biologically, and maybe to wonder how these shape one’s behavior. At the very least this would relate to Buddhism’s experiential level of understanding.
Last, I am not a fan of panpsychism. Would a mountain regard a sunset as beautiful? If not, then why use the word consciousness in regard to the universe? Let’s first be clear what we mean by consciousness. For me it involves memory, which I see no evidence of in mountains. The inserting of consciousness outward is common. Humans always want to be in the center of things where we are central and seemingly in control. It seems to me this is simply because that is how we perceive, not that consciousness itself is everywhere, only that the only means we have to experience the world is through consciousness.
Welcome to the blog, David. Let me address your questions — all of them good — one at a time.
In asking this question you’re in very good company. The idea that ethics arise naturally out of our emotions or out of the pleasant-unpleasant dimension is similar to the ideas posited by David Hume (Emotivism) and Jeremy Bentham (Utilitarianism) whereas the idea that it is based on our desire to live is similar to Spinoza’s idea of the “conatus.” Here’s the problem with those ideas. What happens when our ideas about what’s ethical imply doing something that goes beyond those categories? What happens when our idea of doing the ethical thing means doing something unpleasant, or risking one’s life, or extending one’s empathy beyond where it naturally wants to go, e.g., empathizing with people of different tribes or religions, or even with telemarketers and insurance salesmen? Well then, your argument probably goes, you extend these notions beyond where they naturally want to go by creating some kind of hypothetical external standard based on these original qualities by reason of a kind of generalization, but the standard is merely conceptual/hypothetical, not real like our original pleasantness or empathy or wish to live is. This is where people like me come in and say “Aha! So your ethics rest on a kind of unreal trick! Who’s to say your hypothetical yardstick is the correct one; maybe Donald Trump’s yardstick is the right one?” What I’m suggesting is that maybe this moral dimension isn’t a hypothetical trick that rests on something else below it. Maybe it’s a realm that is both real and directly perceptible, one that grows organically out of how things really are.
I’m not asking science to answer this question. In fact, I see science, as presently constituted, as part of the problem. It’s our scientific view of things which creates the vacuum that undermines morality and creates the problem in the first place. Our lives are meaningful and human actions are meaningful, but the scientific clockwork world made of mechanistic material processes is not. Try hard as you might, there’s no way to get from material mechanisms to meaning.
I address this question of why panpsychism at length here. The short answer is “Where does consciousness come from?” Science wants to say it’s an emergent property of the brain. In the article referenced above I explain why I think this kind of emergentism doesn’t carry water.
Hi Seth. Thanks for the reply. I hope I can disagree without being seen as an adversary. You are very thoughtful in your posts and I could not do as good a job as you do in creating such a forum. So even though I may not agree with what you say, here and there, I do appreciate the stimulus of you posting such a discussion. And I hope such an exchange points to how Buddhist concepts can be experientially varied in their interpretation.
It looks like we have differing positions across the board here. I can hardly identify with why you are so concerned with ethics that can be intellectually codified. Any intellectual understanding is for me secondary and ultimately symbolic, and therefore relative in its relation to the subject at hand. Depending on the terms referenced any intellectual understanding can be both insightful and off. Many of the famous people you cite seem to me to present arguments that in turn pivot upon specific frameworks that can be countered with yet another framework. It can be interesting, but I often see both sides of arguments describing different parts of an issue with differing frameworks, neither being wholly true nor wholly false, and both being partially right. Hopefully out of this type of exchange ideas form stronger models, but they are all symbolic models. This seems related to David Chapman’s comments on emptiness.
I would continue to push that our social nature is pivotal even with any extensions of ethical dilemmas into areas that are intellectually based. I would presume that even in these areas here too social implications rise to the fore. How ideas are shared, discussed, and taken on are also a social interaction with much the same tendencies for our emotional social desires to play out. We identify with our ideas and pursue bonding with others of like mind. In these exchanges there is nothing “unreal” about them and the idea of “the correct one” is still relative to how many people agree. Usually behind ideas that try to map out an issue is a desire to be correct, and onward the discussions go. If there is an unpleasant quality associated with any of these extensions you were considering it seems to me that they would become acceptable because behind them in the end there would be a greater social benefit for oneself or others.
I disagree with your comment that “It’s our scientific view of things which creates the vacuum that undermines morality and creates the problem in the first place”. Science studies patterns. That is all. It does not hold sway over all human activity. It is one amongst many disciplines. I think it is a gross exaggeration to blame scientific reasoning for some moral dilemma that you are struggling to explain. Science can explain some questions, and in the culture of thought philosophy continues to address other questions. Yes, one area will affect other areas, but none entirely explains everything possible. If one wants to blame some moral dilemma upon any area of human activity it seems to me we need to look at our desires. All human activity is laden with desires, any particular activity itself does not lead our base desires. Science is about a particular knowledge. What we do with that knowledge is dependent upon our underlying desires.
I wouldn’t make the same assumption that “there’s no way to get from material mechanisms to meaning.” How would you even know this? Just because the study the biology of consciousness is in its infancy doesn’t mean it is impossible to ever create an intellectual model that fits.
“I explain why I think this kind of emergentism doesn’t carry water.”
…and from your linked post:
“What the metaphor of emergence doesn’t do is offer any insight as to how non-conscious neurons, silicon chips, or any other non-conscious material, can produce the raw feel of consciousness. The experience of ”redness” arises when humans interact with certain wavelengths of light, but there’s no raw feel of the quality of ”redness” within the brain itself. When you look inside the brain, all you see are moving electrons and secreted neurotransmitters.”
Well, when you look into a computer all you see are circuits. Not sure we have much to resolve the intellectual problem of explaining consciousness until we know more about it. You seem to want to keep that door closed just as others approach it. All my life it has been quite apparent that I exist in this body and my head is central to consciousness. I don’t need an explanation to understand this. In meditation I have entered absorptions with drastically different experiences, one with a sense of self and rapturous billowing movement with a religious sort of awe, another devoid of the experience of a separate self, body, and most everything we consider essential, a base awareness without much input. These experiences point to the way our experience is itself compartmentalized with affective qualities coming out of each addition to any experience. The question of why there are affective qualities turns back upon the specific sense that they arise from. No problem here. If one’s perceptions drop out of awareness there are no affective qualities. I would presume that such a meditative experience is one of many possibilities and that such experiences were part of the Buddhist framework. Depending upon one’s desires these could be interpreted in many ways. For me this points to emergentism, at least as I understand it. As part of my experience they fit soundly within my general understanding.
And thanks, David for being willing to engage with me at some length and help me think through the issues here!
The stimulus for this piece was reading Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue and his compelling argument that we’re using concepts in our current ethics that are inherited from an older tradition that no longer exists intact, and which formerly served to ground them in a set of traditions, practices, and narratives which gave them meaning. The older tradition was undermined by advances of the renaissance and Baconian science. The ethicists I mentioned were attempting to put ethics together in the aftermath of this overturning of past traditions, but couldn’t. McIntyre’s argument was that all such efforts were doomed to fail in the absence of a larger supporting tradition that included a vision of what human life is for. My main argument is that Buddhism can provide such a supporting tradition, and in the Bodhisattva path, provides a ready-made sense of what human life is for. The sixteen Zen ethical precepts only make sense within that larger framework of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
We are in agreement here — Aristotle’s view of man as a zoon politicon is central to any ethics. Man expresses his true nature through his actions with others and in a community with others. Human Being is, as Heidegger expressed it, a ”Being-with-others.”
Is the ”correct answer” relative to how many people agree? Does that mean that slavery wasn’t immoral in the antebellum south? Or that the Japanese Zen establishment wasn’t wrong in supporting the Japanese war effort? One needs an external standard that is somehow independent of general social opinion. I agree that many discussions about what is ”right” seem to go nowhere, and MacIntyre addresses why that is so in After Virtue. People who share different epistemological and metaphysical frameworks can’t agree on how to decide moral issues.
While you’re right that moral actions which are unpleasant in the moment can have long term utilitarian benefit for someone, I still think we intend something more when we say something is ”right” than just that it leads to the greatest long-term good for the greatest number, or some similar idea. For one thing, we have difficult even defining what that long term ”good” is. For example, are all long-term forms of ”pleasantness” equal, or are some kinds of pleasant outcomes preferable or ”higher” in some way? If so, what kind of external standard should we use when rank ordering the different types of ”pleasant” outcomes?
But science has some underlying metaphysical beliefs, among them the belief in materialism, mechanistic determinism, the epiphenomenal nature of consciousness, the illusory nature of free will, etc. which make concepts like the ability of consciousness to do any real work in the world or for people to be moral agents rather meaningless. These ideas seep into the general culture, and other methods of interpreting the world have to do so within the constraints of that metaphysical framework.
But computers aren’t conscious. There is no way that it feels to be a computer. There’s no way to get to qualia from electrochemical activity, unless science comes to construe material matter in a radically different way than it currently understands it. I’m not closing any doors. Neuropsychologists are welcome to, and will regardless of what I say, continue to try that door from now until the next milennium and beyond. If I were a betting man, however, I would bet against their success.
We are embodied consciousnesses and our brains play an important role in our experiencing. No one disagrees with that.
You’re right that qualia depend on the sense modality employed. The taste of strawberries has a different ”raw feel” than the sight of the color blue or the sound of a C Major chord. The difference probably correlates with which area of the primary sensory cortex was stimulated by the sense end organs in question. No disagreement there. But how being processed by neurons #1-25 leads to the ”raw experience” of flavor while being processed by Neurons # 26-50 leads to the ”raw experience” of color seems a bit inexplicable to me. It’s all just neurons all the way down, but thought, sight, and taste are all quite different experiences. Why have all these different experiences if they don’t do any work in the world separate from the electrochemical activity of the neurons themselves? We could be like computers doing the work without consciousness, what the philosophers jokingly refer to as ”zombies,” but we’re not. The important question is why is there consciousness at all, as opposed to just calculation.
”Is the ”correct answer” relative to how many people agree?”
I think morality is about group psychology. The widest group for us humans would include everyone, or expand it outward to all living beings, or wider yet to the care of the environment. The narrowest group would be oneself. With this in mind, morality can be said to be operating even in warfare between groups, each having its members living moral lives towards each other member, all while murdering outsiders.
Isn’t part of the working of morality a mode of judgement? What can be said to be ”right” for oneself can be judged to be ”wrong” by the group. But if you want a morality to be universal it will have to include as wide a group as possible. Any ”long term good” will depend upon the referenced group. What may be good for the modern way of life may not be good for the environment, etc…. One group may judge another as immoral all while they act without care towards someone, or something else.
Morality is a moving target so any external standard will not be adequate. It all depends upon what the issue involves and how large a reference one seeks to consider. It doesn’t seem to me to be something that can be codified in a singular statement.
”But science has some underlying metaphysical beliefs, among them the belief in materialism, mechanistic determinism, the epiphenomenal nature of consciousness, the illusory nature of free will, etc. which make concepts like the ability of consciousness to do any real work in the world or for people to be moral agents rather meaningless.”
I understand that any description will have a point of view that can form one’s world view in multiple ways. But in my life science hasn’t led me into a meaningless life at all. It has led me into understanding that the stories I hold are inventions, and it is true that this understanding can lead to feelings of disillusionment and aporia, but this is not a bad experience to pass through at all. It can be a coming to terms with one’s relation to experience that appears to me related to similar goals within Buddhism for understanding ”things as they are” for instance. (Oh, no. Did I say that? I do not actually like that slippery slogan.) To understand the relativity of one’s beliefs is not a bad thing. Though this does make it much harder to pin down explanations into singular models. Fortunately, although concepts may give one an advantage for doing any ”real work in the world”, they are not entirely necessary.
What I also thought when reading your quoted statement above is that yes science’s theories do alter one’s understanding of the world, but one misconception I sense is that even tough the physicalist models have been successful they have also given way with further investigations that currently do not resemble a solid materialist view at all. The most important fundamental principle within science is that there is a willingness to investigate the stories it tells and to alter them. For me, this means that statements like yours fall flat to my ears, because science is not so fixed as you make it out to be. The theories are evolving as time passes.
”But computers aren’t conscious. There is no way that it feels to be a computer.”
Yes. I was intending the computer analogy only to show that simple electrical impulses can result in a variety of phenomena: images, sound, language, etc…. The issue of consciousness is another matter. One notion I picked up from Douglas Hofstadter is how a feedback system can create levels of complexity far beyond the initial input. This seems like a sound way to understand how our own brain’s processes could create conscious experiences that seem unlikely given the apparatus.
”…how being processed by neurons #1-25 leads to the ”raw experience” of flavor while being processed by Neurons # 26-50 leads to the ”raw experience” of color seems a bit inexplicable to me.”
I liked the question behind this statement. I’ve seen many cases where people assume that because we do not know that we will never know, and then present some idea that is even more unprovable for where consciousness exists. I am just left shaking my head. What you say here though clears up for me where the present questions lay. I would think that only after further research into how the brain operates will the answer even begin to come. For us to attempt to do so now may prove to be just a will of imaginative storytelling. I can only assume that we have not even begun to grasp the manner in which the brain processes experiences. I will have to leave it to others to figure it out!
I agree that the underlying social evolution of morality has implied an ever expanding duty of care to wider and wider circles of being.
The problem with defining the “good” for ourselves and others is understanding that there is a hierarchy of possible “goods”, and that there must be some underlying standard or scheme that structures and orders that hierarchy. For example, there is the good of momentary sensual pleasure, there is the good of appreciating the aesthetics of higher mathematics, there is the good of reproductive fitness, there is the good of having a compassionate heart, there is the good of accumulated wealth, there is the good of a peaceful death, etc. When we intend good for others, how can these goods we weighed against each other? This is the ultimate problem with all utilitarian schemes such as “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
We certainly agree here. I wasn’t trying to codify what’s moral in a single rule or statement. I was only trying to say that resolving moral issues can only occur against the backdrop of a larger meaningful sense of what human life is all about and for.
It’s not that science makes our lives “meaningless” for us as individuals, but that it corrodes the glue that holds the fabric of communal moral life together.
Yes. Science is evolving and not a fixed thing. It has self-correction built into its DNA, which is the most wonderful thing about it — although given the social nature of self-correction, sometimes that self-correction can take a very long time. I’m all for the scientific project. I only question the underlying metaphysics which science need not, but currently does, rest upon. That metaphysics is ultimately unprovable, and while it has had some beneficial heuristic value, it may also prove, in the long run, to be a set of blinders.
It is precisely the Douglas Hofstadter/Daniel Dennett approach to consciousness which I am questioning. While “Godel, Escher, and Bach” and “Consciousness Explained” are two of the most brilliant books I have ever read, I find them — in the end — unconvincing on some critical points.
I think the possibility that we may never know is still a strong one. I also think our current thinking has reached a dead end and that radically different ideas need to be explored if we’re have any chance of succeeding. There’s a lot to be said for imaginative storytelling. I don’t think our current limitation is going to be overcome by simply “more research,” although, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more and better research. We are even more in need of imaginative leaps.
”It’s not that science makes our lives ”meaningless” for us as individuals, but that it corrodes the glue that holds the fabric of communal moral life together.”
I see no reason for you to say this. Can you give an example? How can a study of the physical world corrode moral life? It seems quite the opposite to me. Knowing more of the processes of our existence also reaffirms our dependence upon and existence within the world. Technology has shrunk our conception of earth to where we are growing closer to considering ourselves as a global humanity, and we now have even more awareness of our impact upon the earth. Knowledge brings responsibility. Has the knowledge of science been used wisely? If not, then is it the knowledge itself’s fault or those who directed its use?
Much more relevant are the forces of our economic structures and population growth that are having profound impacts on shifting perceptions of community and these in turn are affecting changes in the fabric of communal life. To blame science is in my opinion mistaken. Science is one field of study and does not rule over all our social issues. Religion could also be blamed for fomenting tribalism of belief and the discord that follows such tribalism. I wouldn’t paint with such broad assumptions though.
”I wasn’t trying to codify what’s moral in a single rule or statement. I was only trying to say that resolving moral issues can only occur against the backdrop of a larger meaningful sense of what human life is all about and for.”
Ah, what life is ”about and for”. What a human centric view. Sounds like a self in need of support. Well then, first a discussion on meaning itself would need to clarify where meaning exists and what creates it. For me this reflects back upon ourselves and our desires. We create meaning. We are born and we will die. How do we come to live with this? How do we support life and accept death?
”I only question the underlying metaphysics which science need not, but currently does, rest upon. That metaphysics is ultimately unprovable, and while it has had some beneficial heuristic value, it may also prove, in the long run, to be a set of blinders.”
Well, all thought can act as a blinder if you think about it. It doesn’t matter what thought one picks to use. It all becomes an abstract framework to view experience. Scientists themselves question their own theories. And, science is limited by that which can be investigated empirically in the first place, and because of this it cannot answer all questions. Besides, what answers are ever provable when answering metaphysical questions that are furthest from experience? To move further away from empiricism while denouncing it will not replace it. It might be more fruitful to let science sort itself out and to focus on valuing other frames of thinking that add to understanding.
”It is precisely the Douglas Hofstadter/Daniel Dennett approach to consciousness which I am questioning.”
I haven’t thought much of Dennett’s work, but the open ended approach to Hofstadter is much more moving for me. In reading of research investigating the brain what is most striking is how one would never have been able to think their way to what they are finding. Research is critical and in fact will lead the field farther than any philosophical reflection ever could, which is the main short-coming of Dennett’s work.
”We are even more in need of imaginative leaps.”
Seems like there are many imaginative people working today and yesterday and the days before. The question will always remain though, How does any idea becomes knowledge over imagination? Empiricism will always be of value, as will other areas such as morality, aesthetics, etc….
”I think the possibility that we may never know is still a strong one.”
Yes, this is a strong possibility in all areas of knowledge. The aspect of what are the limit of knowledge fascinates me, especially in a field that requires verification.
”The problem with defining the ”good” for ourselves and others is understanding that there is a hierarchy of possible ”goods”, and that there must be some underlying standard or scheme that structures and orders that hierarchy.”
Yes. How would you organize it? I would begin with life and death and build outward to other issues of existence regarding the physical, emotional, and mental states, or all three together as representing a spiritual life. What is can be said to be ‘good’ for supporting their on-going existence?
”When we intend good for others, how can these goods we weighed against each other? This is the ultimate problem with all utilitarian schemes such as ”the greatest good for the greatest number.””
Yes, I agree. There are many more variables in any schema for morality than a single statement such as the greatest good for the greatest number can represent. Morality can also represent that one can think of oneself first.
Forgive me, David, if time does not permit me to respond to all of your points. I will just pick and choose from those that interest me the most.
”It’s not that science makes our lives ”meaningless” for us as individuals, but that it corrodes the glue that holds the fabric of communal moral life together.”
What I had specifically in mind in that statement are the consequences of the materialism, determinism, and moral relativism that grow out of the current scientific zeitgeist: the ideas that we are not responsible moral agents with free will but that our actions are determined, that our conscious awareness is merely an epiphenomenon of mechanical material processes which are basically amoral processes, that morality is basically a social fiction and that there is no way to adjudicate the differences between the varying moral claims of different social groups, that the universe is fundamentally indifferent to the choices we make, etc. These beliefs help justify hedonism, since moral statements are only sentiments, and help to undermine our sense of personal responsibility. In addition, to the extent that our collective sense of right and wrong rests to a certain degree on older belief systems (i.e., religious ones), new beliefs that contradict the older foundational beliefs without replacing them with cogent new ones serve to undermine the collective glue that holds social mores in place.
I agree that our modern mode of economic activity has a similar corrosive effect on our moral fabric. So does the increasingly rapid pace of technological change. And climate change. And the invention of thermonuclear weapons, advances in genetics, etc. Also the global village creates new problems as diverse historical grievances and moral divergences come increasingly to share the same cramped metaphorical space. I’m not sure that other factors such as modes of economic activity are more relevant, but I would certainly give them equal billing.
If human lives are about nothing except what we make up, then morality is only a convenient fiction. We can each just make up our own according to what pleases us. And yet, morality is so central to every aspect of the human project, so central to our sense of identity and how we aspire our children to be and the way we wish to see external conditions change and evolve. And it’s central to the way our minds apprehend the world. Its not an add on, but deeply embedded in our most basic perceptual processes. If the current theory of evolution was to be taken as a given, Nature had powerful “reasons” for baking morality and aesthetics so deeply into our perceptual world (excuse the anthropomorphism here, but it’s a convenient way to talk), in much the same way that it had powerful reasons for developing our capacity for reasoning and seeking truth.
That’s not a bad list, David, as a place for starters. You and I would probably find profound areas of agreement in our respective lists. The interesting question is why that should be so. We can think of the list of instinctual modules in Moral Foundations Theory, for example (compassion, fairness, respect, purity, and freedom) or of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in his Self-Actualization Theory, or of Aristotle’s list of excellences and his concept of eudaimonia, or of the Buddhist precepts and paramitas. The overlap between different approaches is impressive. My point is that these approaches to meaning and ethics are not just “made up” and “invented” but that they are rooted deeply in our nature and have an immediately perceptible and directly apprehended reality of their own. And our nature is not something accidental either, but is deeply grounded in the ongoing, open-ended process of the universe. Science elects to see that ongoing process as devoid of inherent meaning in-and-of-itself, but it makes that metaphysical assumption merely because the scientific method doesn’t provide a way of empirically testing it. What science can’t test doesn’t exist. Or, what can’t be tested can’t be spoken of. I prefer to see that process as being interpretable in some sense. We make up stories about it, and the stories have a value in terms of shaping our lives for better or worse. They have what James would call “cash value.” For example, to pick a somewhat trivial example, there was a study published just this month that college students who believe in free will achieve greater subsequent academic success.
I don’t believe that science’s current story, the one that the world is meaningless and that we make up meaning, is the best story for a well-lived human life. I believe that meaning is already pre-reflectively given for us in some important way.
Excellent discussion, Seth. Your blog is reaching new heights. My responses to your comments as follows:
“Only more complexly integrated systems reach something like what we mean by consciousness.”
Does that mean there is a quantum jump at some point in the scale of complexity where consciousness emerges, like a fully-developed Athena from Zeus’s head? Perhaps the story of Hephaestus’s cutting Zeus’s head open to relieve the god’s headache is a metaphor for the arising of consciousness — or else an indication of the ancient Greeks’ emerging conception of consciousness as something residing in the brain rather than the heart. How can anyone know whether or not the structures of the galaxies are complex enough for consciousness? I refer back to Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers sutra and your apt comments in the blog about Dogen, Spinoza and Whitehead:
”It’s a chiliocosm — a multiverse of infinite Buddhas and infinite worlds, even within a single atom or blade of grass. It’s a universe that makes no distinction between animate and inanimate, where mountains ‘walk’ and walls, fences, tiles, and pebbles endlessly teach the Dharma. It’s a universe where all things are in a constant process of change and derive their being from their interrelationship with everything else. It’s a universe where all things conspire to encourage us to wake up and recognize our true nature: our non-dual, compassionate relationship with all of reality.”
I’ll throw you a curve at this point. These observations curiously accord with the worldview of the Yaqui Indians revealed in Carlos Castaneda’s books, beginning with The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge and ending with The Eagle’s Gift. In the Yaqui world, there are not just organic, but also inorganic beings, and it’s quite possible–in fact, common– for the brujos to communicate with them, not in crude ways as in B-movies, but by learning unique skills through complex practices in the context of a student-sensei-sangha relationship, some of which resemble Zen sesshins and dokusans. Also curious, the Yaqui worldview encompasses the metaphor of an eagle that gives the spark of awarenes to sentient beings, and at the end feeds on our accumulated, life-long, collective consciousness—reminiscent of the notion you mention that the universe is evolving to recognize itself through our awareness of it.
“The question I’ve raised is why seek liberation at all?”
There is no need to seek liberation. We are already liberated. Those who seek will not find. There is no need to sit either. But sitting manifests our liberation. It’s what we want to do because of our human- or Buddha-nature. We want to be liberated for the same reason.
“I think the process towards greater complexity and consciousness that has been part of the history of the universe so far may make human consciousness and awakening concordant with the meaning of how things are.”
I go back to the Dhammapada: ”We are what we think / all that we are arises with our thoughts / with our thoughts we make the world.” Ultimately, I believe there is no evolution, no universe, no birth, no death. Only ephemera. Only particles arising from nothing, randomly crashing and returning to nothing. Only the illusion of solidity, identity and continuity due to the particular functioning of our senses. Only meaning because we need it. Only Mind spawning little minds. The more I read and the more I reflect on these issues–which are fascinating, by the way, but only an intellectual exercise–, the more rooted I become on the essential teachings of Zen. They have always resonated with me like no other religious or philosophical system.
“David thinks positing such a directional process has no place in Buddhist thought and is unnecessary. So that’s where the conversation stands at the moment. Any thoughts?”
I agree it’s not necessary, but that’s true of many things we enjoy. I think it’s fun.
Amaury, you’ve put your finger on one of the significant problems that all panpsychist theories have to deal with and haven’t yet succeeded at. If simple entities like photons possess some kind of proto-awareness, and if more complex living systems like amoebae have a greater degree of awareness but still aren’t fully conscious in the way that animals possessing central nervous systems are, then obviously complexity plays some role in determining the level of consciousness. These theories have so far failed to specify exactly how complex internal integration and the degree of consciousness are related. Can they successfully do so? Stay tuned.
Thanks for pointing this out, Amaury. We moderns tend to draw a bright line between the animate and inanimate and deride our ancestors for their “animism,” but there may be a certain kind of truth to a more holistic/organic view of the nature-of-things. I’ll leave aside any of the controversy surrounding the veracity of Castaneda’s account of the Yaqui way of life.
Yes, Amaury, but despite this traditional Zen rhetoric, Zen places a positive valuation on the process and act of realizing our already liberated natures. Why? It includes the value judgment that somehow realizing our true nature is better in some way than not realizing it.
Last year I would have heartily agreed with this statement about the random, meaningless nature of the physical processes that make up our existence. And the cosmology of early Buddhism supports your view with its eternally existing universe that goes through endless cycles of expansion and collapse and is never evolving to any final point. But later forms of Buddhism also posit a view of the universe as a Buddhaverse, an already fully enlightened Dharmakaya. It’s that later view that I’ve decided to play with for now to see where it takes me. Of course, in that absolute view of reality there is no evolution either — the universe already is and always was enlightened. But an enlightened universe is not a meaningless universe. How consonant is this traditional Buddhist view of the dharmakaya with Whitehead’s or de Chardin’s views of an evolving universe? There are differences to be sure, but also deep resonances.
Here, we are in complete accord, amigo!
Seth, thank you for the stimulating discussion. Some of your comments and my responses below.
”Yes, Amaury, but despite this traditional Zen rhetoric, Zen places a positive valuation on the process and act of realizing our already liberated natures. Why? It includes the value judgment that somehow realizing our true nature is better in some way than not realizing it.”
By qualifying as ”rhetoric” this traditional Zen ”teaching,” shall we say, undesirable connotations of the word spring forth: lacking sincerity or meaningful content. But another acceptation of rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, and maybe the Zen masters have warned about seeking enlightenment as part of their persuasive and effective teishos and upaya, since grasping and striving result in the opposite of realizing our true nature by feeding the ego. There is truly a paradox we must face in the practice: to find without seeking, and to realize what needs no realization because it’s so obvious it’s right before our noses. Sorry, there I go again!
” . . . the cosmology of early Buddhism supports your view with its eternally existing universe that goes through endless cycles of expansion and collapse and is never evolving to any final point. But later forms of Buddhism also posit a view of the universe as a Buddhaverse, an already fully enlightened Dharmakaya.”
That’s not necessarily my view. I was only proposing that everything is mind and so-called reality lacks any fundamental substance; which is something anyone can experience or deduce directly. For the rest, I have to consider the work of scientists and the resulting knowledge, which is ever-evolving. As to the nature of the universe, for years, cosmologists spoke of the Big Bang and perhaps coincided with the early Buddhist view. Then they started talking about an unending Bang-Bang-Bang. For centuries, they also spoke of a single Universe; now they speak of a Multiverse. (The latter makes no sense to me, because the definition of Universe is everything, and that would include however many ”verses” are floating in the foam where they are supposed to exist, but maybe we can speak of different universes if the laws or chemistry or physics were different in each). For centuries, they spoke of a stable universe. Then they started talking about an expanding universe. First, the universe was supposed to be expanding evenly; now it appears the universe is increasing its rate of expansion—which makes no sense to even the cosmologists. I wonder how much do we really know about these big questions.
”It’s that later view that I’ve decided to play with for now to see where it takes me. Of course, in that absolute view of reality there is no evolution either — the universe already is and always was enlightened. But an enlightened universe is not a meaningless universe.”
I’m not sure how the idea of an expanding and collapsing universe, or not, travels with the belief that the universe is already a fully enlightened Dharmakaya. But with things being so weird at the level of quantum physics, it wouldn’t be too extreme to conceive of an enlightenment that contracts and expands along with the universe, or that retreats into one of the ten or eleven dimensions that have been found necessary to explain it all, and then springs back into action. Is there any meaning to all of that? I think a fully enlightened Dharmakaya represents something meaningful, but my point is that meaning is also an empty concept, another process arising from circumstances and conditions.
How consonant is this traditional Buddhist view of the Dharmakaya with Whitehead’s or de Chardin’s views of an evolving universe?
I don’t know. Whitehead’s cosmic epoch changes, following the Big Crunches, introduce new elements of uncertainty as to the successive fundamental laws of the universe. I would rearrange Chardin’s cosmogenesis slightly, and backward: maybe it’s thoughts, as suggested by the Dhammapada, that evolve into matter. Instead of matter, life, consciousness, and the Omega Point, make it the One Mind, matter, life and consciousness. Matter is condensed interstellar gas in the presence of gravity. Maybe gas is the beginning of condensation of Mind arising from Nothing/One Mind/Omega Point.
What about the notion that, either in an infinite, unending or recurring universe or multiverse, everything must be repeated down to the last detail, an infinite number of times, and variations on each universe, different by only one atom and a little bit more different, and so on, must also be repeated an infinite number of times? I don’t remember who first suggested something like that, but I think it was Michio Kaku whom I heard discussing it recently. Scientists generally discard the idea, but let’s just dream of having all possibilities, expanding or contracting universes, gradual or sudden enlightenment, the universe as Dharmakaya or not, etc., etc. Much more interesting than speculating on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Except my head might explode before I wake up.
Oh what fun it is to ride in a horseless universe!
Amaury, I hadn’t intended “rhetoric” pejoratively. I only meant to point out that there is a discrepancy between the language of “no path and no attainment” and the clear valorization of zazen in Zen. Of course, no Zen master would sat we “ought to” sit, but we ought to, oughtn’t we? You’re right that what I call a discrepancy and what you call a paradox is in fact, at least in part, skillful means in teaching.
Be careful, Amaury, let’s not let that happen!
Seth: I know you didn’t mean to use “rhetoric” in a pejorative sense. I know exactly what you meant. As to my head exploding, maybe another Athena will spring forth!
Or else, like Avalokiteshvara, you will sprout eleven heads!
For coherence in morality, we need to define it in personal terms, and it has to go beyond subjectivity. Buddhism (or atleast core buddhist teachings) does exactly that , particularly with its concepts of anatta and PratÄ«tyasamutpÄda.
There are lot of loaded words in early buddhist literature…karma is not just pointing to literal future birth, but also to moment by moment birth/rebirth of a karmic tendency (“becoming”) in this very life. For example, a liar is prone to lie…and most probably lie if a future opportunity presents itself (rebirth! ). This cycle goes on, can even get worse depending on his karma (in same life) – if he devices more clever ways to lie, for example, he will rebirth even stronger liar. (all same life).
Buddhism has moral coherency, as the above is strongly tied to “bhavana”/cultivation (meditation). A liar can’t cultivate anatta if he can’t let go. All of buddha’s path is about cultivating anatta (which results in nibbana). So there is literally no choice, one has to follow moral/ethical constructs.
Bodhisattva takes this to whole another level, but the goal is the same, reach nibbana/anatta. This is more of karma yoga.
Defining moral coherence any other way is prone to subjectivity, and could seem meaningless even, or some kind of slavery (what is justice, who defines it, can i get away with it ?, etc).
Buddhist thought avoids all that.
“Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what ”morality” and ”ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are.” Theists do have a problem with answering this question – many theists see the answer you suggest as being overly simple. What you are suggesting is basically divine command theory — something is good because God says to do it and something is evil because God says don’t do it. However, divine command theory has many difficulties — would rape and murder be good if God decided to command it? If “good” is whatever God says, then isn’t calling God “good” essentially empty, reduced to a mere tautology? (If God makes up his own rules and then follows them, what is admirable in that?) But, on the other hand, if “good” is not simply whatever God says, but some independent standard against which God can be judged — then, the (mono)theistic claim that God is the greatest and the source of everything non-God is threatened, since this independent standard might be seen as being (in some senses) greater than God, and be something non-God of whom God would not be the source. There is an immense literature among theists trying to answer and solve these problems, but it isn’t easy.
So, while you are right that for non-theists, the question of how to ground ethics or morality is difficult, it is actually no easier for theists either.
Thanks, Simon for pointing this difficulty out. You are, of course, right.
I have not read your blog in a while. Catching up on recent posts and decided to reply to this one. I think you might find interesting ideas on biology and ethics in two papers under this link (Justifying Law and Of Humans and Squirrels The Origin of Rights and Duties):
I am in the camp with David S and find no separation between the co-arising of moral judgments as objects of personal awareness and the teaching of dependent origination and the teaching of suffering and the end of suffering. The properties of neural networks permit a conceptual model for local generation of awareness, of emotions, and of reasoning while not knowing the causal mechanism. I think this corresponds to the idea of dependent origination or co-arising and not knowing.
Biological and cognitive models suffer from a lack of integration of what I call a fuzzy emotional filter. Pleasure and pain are mixed together by a neural adaptation which explains the inability to separate “good” or “right” from “evil” or “wrong” on a universal scale of human values.
I have been contemplating translations of nama-rupa and superego as the product of a socialization process which becomes an internal process. Ethical, moral, and social interactions are deeply rooted in the fuzzy associations of early childhood. Jesus is the teacher of depth on the desire to experience a “good parent” in the self and others. Intellectuals ignore childhood, ignore emotions, and ignore the wisdom of Jesus in search of some theory divorced from the emotional realities from which causal reasoning emerges. The Common Law arbitrarily determined age seven as the age of reason even though some people never learn to reason very well in terms of what causes good or harm to self and others. Clearly the knowledge of good or harm is highly context specific since doctors must specialize and have court cases over the meaning of malpractice. Buddhists debate causes of good and harm on a subtle level where there are no strong empirical relationships or patterns to settle such disputes.