I have an interest in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and completed a Master of Buddhist Studies, having previously finished a BA (Hons) in Comparative Religion. My interest in meditation came out of experiences that I had had early in life, and the subsequent realisation that I was on a spiritual path - something which I didn't know existed until I found I was actually on one! In the last 10 years I have formally 'taken refuge' as a Buddhist, endeavour to maintain a daily meditation practice, and am part of an informal sangha which meets bi-monthly. (I am also likely to seek a more formal affiliation with a Buddhist teaching centre in the future.)
In addition to Buddhist philosophy I am also interested in particular aspects of Western philosophy, mainly Platonist and idealist, but am pretty eclectic in my reading. A list of the books (mainly Eastern) which have influenced my outlook is here.
Naturalism and Materialism
The prevailing outlook of the 'secular West' could be described as 'evolutionary or scientific materialism'. It is closely linked to 'scientism', the view that 'all that can be known, can be known by means of science'. This attitude, generally described as 'positivism', developed largely out of the European Enlightenment as a reaction against the prevailing religious dogmas.
When I was an undergraduate student, the Chair of Philosophy was occupied by a philosopher whose magnum opus was called 'A Materialist Theory of Mind'. I have thought, since I was a young child - and why a child would think about such things beats me, but I put it down to past-life memories - that this is an abberant, mistaken, and wholly incorrect attitude to life. I have since formed the view that 'philosophical materialism', which is advocated by many supposed intellectuals is really an anti-philosophy disguised by the use philosophical terms and techniques (but even if you put lipstick on a pig...)
Many of my interactions on philosophy forums have been influenced by that, although I have discovered that many people nowadays are materialist by default - that is, they reflexively adopt a materialist attitude, but without really thinking through what it means or understanding it in any depth. For many of them, materialism or scientific naturalism is what remains after anything deemed 'religious or supernatural' has been shorn off. In effect it is the common-sense view of today's secular intelligentsia, and questioning it generally evokes a reaction not too dissimilar to the response of a conscientious Christian had one questioned Holy Writ three or four centuries ago.
However I have been interested to observe that there are many criticism of materialism and naturalism (the terms are not synonymous but overlap in many ways) starting to bubble up in literature and the media; the tide, perhaps, is turning. One criticism in particular that interests me is from Thomas Nagel. He is a well-respected philosopher (a rare bird in this day and age) who has taken a skeptical eye to what he has called 'Neo-Darwinian materialism', which is very much the entrenched view of the secular intelligentsia; predictably, Nagel's questioning of it had him designated heretic:
Regardless of these slings and arrows, Nagel's dissidence is not really religious (although I sometimes wonder if he is not headed for a conversion experience.) But the basis of his argument is simply that:
The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.
So the physical sciences, in spite of their extraordinary success in their own domain, necessarily leave an important aspect of nature unexplained. Further, since the mental arises through the development of animal organisms, the nature of those organisms cannot be fully understood through the physical sciences alone. Finally, since the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory 1.So the question then is, what would be 'more than just a physical theory'? As soon as you acknowledge that there is more to life than what physics can account for, then what other fundamental thing needs to be invoked? I think that would be 'mind' - and indeed Nagel goes on to say that:
Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy......which were largely erected, I maintain, as a consequence of the rejection of one half of René Descartes' famous mind-matter dualism, specifically, the notion of the 'thinking substance' (res cogitans) and the insistence that everything could be understood solely in terms of material stuff (res extensia) - which remains the dogma of materialism to this day, for obvious reasons. (A profound account of the ascent of materialism is given in this lecture by Buddhist scholar Bikkhu Bodhi.)
However I think it would be neither remotely practical, nor desireable, to restore Cartesian dualism. (I actually think that Descartes' model was just that - a model, an abstraction. There is neither 'a substance' which is purely material, nor one which is purely mental. Furthermore, the very notion of 'substance' has changed so utterly since Descartes' day that the sense in which he used the term is to all intents unintelligible to current thought 2.) Rather, the totality has material aspects and mental aspects. But the question of what that 'larger whole' is, is still wide open, as far as I am concerned.
Nagel has at least recognized that those 'explanations of mind' which begin from the analysis of the objects of the physical sciences are radically mistaken and incoherent. He speculates that individuals are in some sense the universe becoming self-aware, which, I think, is a profound idea, and one which I have always entertained. But what it means is another huge question. (Nagel's summary of his book is on the right menu, along with some responses to the storm of criticism it provoked.)
Buddhist Philosophy of Mind
In any case, here is where another of my basic interests comes to the fore. Buddhism has a very sophisticated understanding of the nature of mind 3 which takes into account the fundamental conundrum inherent in that particular subject. And what conundrum is that? It is that 'mind' is obviously, clearly, unarguably, not something objective. When the question is asked 'what is the nature of mind?', the subject at issue is at once 'that which knows' as well as 'that which is sought'. The fact that this sounds like a Zen koan is not co-incidental. However Indian philosophy, generally, has recognized and understood this conundrum since at least the time of the Upanisads, which has given rise to the profound understanding of 'non-dualism' (Hindu: advaita; Buddhist: advaya.) The non-dualist perspective is generally absent from Western philosophy (although some comparisons have been made in recent times.)
Much could be said, but one key point is that non-dualist philosophies are both existential and experiential. They are existential insofar as to understand them at all requires that one realise them - 'realise' in the sense of 'actualise' or 'make real'. They are experiential because realising that perspective changes one's relationship to experience as a whole. It does this by exposing the normally unconscious and unintentional conditioning factors inherent in one's own mind (in Buddhist terms, through insight into reflexive craving, aversion and ignorance). Now the fact that this doesn't sound like anything taught nowadays in the subject of 'philosophy' is also not co-incidental (however the educated reader will see certain parallels with Kantianism and phenomenology. There are also some scholars of Western philosophy who do understand 'philosophy as a way of life', the exemplar being the late Pierre Hadot.)
The Idea of 'Spiritual Practice'
So putting that 'liberative insight' into practice and bringing that together with the experience of living it, is the aim of what is generally thought of as 'meditation'. The first Buddhist books I read on the subject were both staples of the 1960's and 70's 'eastern spirituality' milieu - The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The latter laid great stress, as Zen does, on 'just sitting' (shikantaza) and on persistence, commitment, and maintaining that 'just sitting' for your whole life. And anyone who does that will find it has a religious dimension - perhaps for the simple reason that to do anything that way - that is, purely for the sake of doing it - is to 'do it religiously'. And if you do something religiously, in some sense you become religious. Zen also teaches that if you do it, you will learn something from the doing that you will never learn by other means.
So elucidating these themes is basically what this blog is concerned with.
The iconographic image of Sophia on the top of the page is because after my first meditation retreat I had an unnaccountable attraction towards the legend of 'Sophia' who can be thought of as 'personification of wisdom'; she is almost a deity in some gnostic and Eastern Orthodox schools of thought. I wrote the song which appears underneath the image in response to that awakening experience, and it was regularly performed by the late, great Kerrie Biddell and her band, Compared to What, at a Sydney jazz venue called The Basement in the late 1980's and early 1990's.