Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science and the Realm of Values

The major issue I have with current philosophy is the presumption that the methods of the objective sciences can be applied to questions of value and meaning with regard to human life.

This was the subject of a contentious essay from late 2013 by Steve Pinker, called Science is Not your Enemy (linked at right, together with some critical responses.) Pinker says in his essay that 


the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.

One issue is that 'spiritual values' do not necessarily rely on 'ecclesiastical authorities'. This blog, and most of my spare time, is devoted to consideration of the questions of moral and spiritual values, about which I have consulted neither scientists nor priests. From a Buddhist point of view, the Buddha points out the source of values, which are oriented around what steers you towards nirvana, but nirvana is not reliant on 'ecclesiastical authority' and in fact Buddhism arose as a reaction against that very thing.

But then, Pinker also relies on a 'straw God' definition of religion:


There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.

The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Now I would take strong exception to the peremptory dismissal of 'karma', which in its most basic form, is simply the observation that moral choices inevitably entail consequences. The difference between acknowledging that and dismissing it, itself has great consequences, which again are not dependent on 'ecclesiastical authority'. 

And who does really promote 'human sacrifice, witch hunts, trial by ordeal and the persecution of heretics?' What would be the point in 'scientifically refuting' such archaic practices in this day and age, and why would such refutation constitute a general argument against religion? It implies a pretty jaundiced view of what religions mean.  How many of those advocating religious arguments endorse any such thing? 

That is what I mean by a 'straw God' argument: it is an argument based on a notion of 'religion' that hardly anyone actually entertains.  If one were to argued against science on the basis of the failure of phrenology or eugenics then surely one would be taken to task for misrepresenting science.

Anyway, at issue in all of this is the question of 'the meaning of being human' - the domain of values and meaning. I maintain this is categorically different to the kinds of questions which the scientific method is intended to address on its own term, as it is by definition a qualitative matter.  

On the one hand, the advocates of the scientific approach frequently state that the Universe itself is natively 'devoid of reason, purpose or value', which are, in their view, wholly and solely subjective (or inter-subjective, i.e. social). Then, having dismissed the possibility of 'real values' we are told to look to science, which claims to have dismantled any basis for values outside the utilitarian. 

One can fully and completely accept the utility of science, and even the ability of science to ongoingly reveal profoundly important facts within its domain of applicability, without however agreeing that it is a source of values as such.

I think the basic problem is a very deep confusion about the nature of knowledge with regards to questions of meaning and value. Religious ideas are clearly often couched in terms of mythology and symbolism; but I think both religious fundamentalists, and scientific atheists, somehow loose sight of the meaning of that. The fundamentalists insist that the symbolical and mythical accounts are actual or literal (''mistaking the finger for the moon" in Buddhist parlance); on the other side, scientific atheists take them to be simply mistaken scientific hypotheses, i.e. claims about actual entities which are to be understood in by the same means as the kinds of things which can be examined scientifically. In this way, atheists and fundamentalists are strangely alike (a point which has often been noted.)

So why do myths and symbolic forms have such a prominent role in religious ideas? It is because they are attempting to depict intuitive understandings and visions which really are of things that are 'over our cognitive horizon', as it were; among other things, they provide a way of relating to the unknowable. But the unknowable is actually something real in the midst of human affairs; the domain of knowledge shades into that of the unknowable on all sides; this has become abundantly clear even from physics with the appearance of dark matter~energy and the notions of parallel or multiple universes. 

Religions, however, have a tacit understanding of the unconscious and unknowable dimensions of human experience; which is something which not only does science not have, but can't be expected to have.   The domain of values and meanings plumbs the depth of the psyche and the predicament of 'the human condition'1; in doing so, religious thought charts things completely out of range for quantitative judgement and analysis.  

But what this is in service to, is the disclosure of a different way of being.  However neither its advocates nor its proponents seem very clear about that (with some notable, and noble, exceptions.) This type of understanding of the meaning of religions, is far more characteristic of comparitive religion and depth psychology (think Jung, Eliade, Hillman) than mainstream religious thinking (although again there are exceptions).



1. From Gloria Orrigi's review


Philosophers and humanists are interested in what has been called, in  20th-century continental philosophy, the human condition, that is, a sense of uneasiness that human beings may feel about their own existence and the reality that confronts them (as in the case of modernity with all its changes in the proximate environment of humans and corresponding changes in their modes of existence). Scientists are more interested in human nature. If they discover that human nature doesn’t exist and human beings are, like cells, merely parts of a bigger aggregate, to whose survival they contribute, and all they feel and think is just a matter of illusion (a sort of Matrix scenario), then, as far as science is concerned, that’s it, and science should go on investigating humans by considering this new fact about their nature.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion is....

...the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

A N Whitehead, quoted by James le Fanu

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Life eternal - it's nothing personal

I am of the view that 'the eternal life' is a reality, and the central concern of all of the various spiritual faiths and philosophies. It is obviously central to the New Testament, but it is also represented in the Pali Canon, in passages such as these:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at the Eastern Gatehouse. There he addressed Ven. Sariputta: "Sariputta, do you take it on conviction that the faculty of conviction, when developed & pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal & consummation? Do you take it on conviction that the faculty of persistence... mindfulness... concentration... discernment, when developed and pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal and consummation?"

But 'the deathless' does not refer to the life of 'the person'. It is not as if the person, or the personality, is preserved for an infinite duration of time. There is a very real sense in which the 'eternal' is outside of time, not 'an interminable period of time'. This is altogether impossible for the mortal mind to envisage or imagine, however this is the realm that the Buddha has entered into.

Nirvana, for which 'The Deathless' is another name, is the extinction of the ego. This doesn't mean simple non-existence, but higher being. This is why the Buddha is called 'Tathagatha', 'gone thus'. That which is eternal is 'the supreme identity', the immortal spirit which is our real being - the buddha-nature, in some Buddhist traditions. Through discernment, as the Buddha says, this being can be realized, and when realized, then there is liberation from death through attaining an identity that is greater than that of the mortal body.

This is also expressed in Christianity, when Jesus said: 'He that looses his life for My sake will be saved' [Matt 16:25].  This was also exemplified in His own self-sacrifice.

You might say 'but this is a type of impersonal monism'. But just as the eternal is revealed in the particular, so the spirit is made real in the form of one who has transcended the ego. This is the universal message of the spiritual philosophies of the world.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Belief and Believing

I write as someone with a long-standing interest in religious and spiritual philosophies. I generally argue against materialism, which means I am usually understood as being 'religious'.  But I am also not aligned with mainstream religion, as my general philosophy is informed more by comparative religion and meditational practices.

The point of this post is to consider ideas about 'believing'. Nowadays it is just automatically assumed that if you're religious, you're 'a believer'. Religion and belief are practically the same thing in most people's minds. The main belief that religious people are supposed to have is that there is a God - and much else flows from that. This belief, furthermore, is understood to be something that can never be demonstrated to be true. So in the popular mind, religion is almost always assumed to amount to 'belief in something which can never shown to be real'. In fact, many people assume that this is what the word 'religion' means. They will often say, 'I don't have beliefs', meaning 'I am not religious'.

However through Eastern philosophies - manly Yoga-Vedanta, and Buddhism - there are different approaches to the whole question. These approaches are based on experience and insight. This insight comes about spontaneously for some people, but for others requires long periods of meditative discipline, along with reading, discussion, and contemplation. It is religious in a sense, but quite different to the above-mentioned belief-based approach.

In these types of schools, belief is certainly required, in that, you have to be willing to take the time to really go into the questions and do the practices. But what comes out of it is a realization. 'Realization' has two meanings: one is to 'understand something that has previously not been understood' and another is to 'make something real'.  Realization contains both meanings. Through it, we begin to understand something about the way things really are; and our way of living actually begins to reflect this understanding.

Another key difference with this approach is that, where belief is something that can be easily manipulated through organisational power structures, individual realization is quite an autonomous process. In other words, if you can become established in it, you really can become a light unto yourself, rather than someone who is dependent upon a dogmatic belief system to give them a sense of identity and direction. This has a lot of implications for the way 'religion' is conducted in the world. In fact, I think the whole tendency of the 'Eastern' approach is about empowering the individual search for truth, rather than subordinating the individual to the organisational dogma.

The Case of Fr Anthony de Mello is an interesting illustration of this. A Jesuit and psychotherapist, Fr De Mello became an inspirational spiritual teacher and wrote many popular books on the spiritual path. He thought himself part of the Catholic Faith, however his books were subject to caution - short of outright condemnation - by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be known as 'the Inquisition'.) The caution was based on the fact that Fr De Mello's ecumenical and universalistic approach was incompatible with Catholic dogma. Nevertheless, his books remain popular with progressive Catholics.


There are have been thousands of such cases, and not only in Catholicism.  Most of the antagonism against religion is directed against dogmatic and authoritarian institutions. So it is interesting to reflect that there is a kind of 'natural spirituality' that is not part of any particular religious structure or authority. This also shows up Dzogchen, Zen, and Sufism, among other things. So it is important if you want to understand the wider spectrum of spiritual philosophy, to understand that it is not at all simply a matter of believing what you're told. The Great Way is broad enough to accomodate many different types of seekers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Nothing that is Everything

I have been a long-time meditation practitioner, for around 30 years. (In itself, that is no big deal, when anyone gets to my age they will have been doing a lot of things for 30 years.) But I have stuck with this practice, and it has changed the way I see the world - for the better. The nature of this change is very simple. But it is a real shift in perspective, which has many interesting consequences for philosophy.

Different Cognitive Modes

Meditation gives rise to a different mode of cognition. What is 'a mode of cognition'? I think the term was actually coined by Edward Debono, with his well-known technique of the Six Thinking Hats

This is a planning tool where you look at a problem from a number of different perspectives:
* Information: (White) - considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
* Emotions (Red) - instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
* Bad points judgment (Black) - logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch (and so on).

Now in many arguments with proponents of scientific philosophy, I notice that they and I are actually talking from different premisses - or wearing different hats.  The meditative attitude actually creates a different way of processing information - literally a different way of thinking. It is not about a set of scientific hypothesis, but about a different way-of-being. So we are not actually arguing or debating at all, but talking from 'different worlds'.

A consequence of meditative awareness is dissolution of the sense of separate self or ego. But this is a subtle thing. It gives rise to a different kind of thinking and being-in-the-world which gives rise to a sense of peace, contentedness and also relatedness.

(There has been a lot of research done on it, and 'effects of meditation' are measurable and specific, in terms of brain-wave patterns, and parts of the brain associated with compassion and holistic ways-of-being. I will provide some links if anyone is interested.)

So - what's the point? The point is this style of thinking gives rise to a very different way of relating to the world. Fundamentally, it is much more oriented around a kind of subtle emotional connection to life, rather than analytical problem-solving skills. This is not to disparage the analytical style of thinking, because it is essential for many tasks. But the analytical mind can't actually operate in this 'cognitive mode'. In fact the analytical mind doesn't even comprehend this other mode; it appears as nothing to it.

As a consequence, in many debates I am trying to get a point across about 'the nature of being'. One of the philosophical consequences of meditation, and the absence of a separate self, is that fact that we are basically all one, in the sense that I am no different and not separate from others. I can 'stand in their shoes' to some extent. This is very much associated with Buddhist meditation, in particular, but it subtly changes your appreciation of the nature of being itself.

This 'mode of being', however, is not anything objective. It can't be located anywhere or found through analytical thinking. Essentially one begins to realize that this being is 'never an object'. But analytical thought can only think in terms of objects. For it, nothing exists but objects, and if it can't be described in objective terms, well, then, it isn't there. Simply doesn't exist - you're talking about nothing.

But actually, once you understand it, it is 'the nothing that is everything' - and it is a marvellous thing.

"It is not existent - even the Victorious Ones do not see it.
It is not nonexistent - it is the basis of all samsara and nirvana.
This is not a contradiction, but the middle path of unity.
May the ultimate nature of phenomena, limitless mind beyond extremes, be realised."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Necessity of Dharma

One meaning of Dharma is 'duty'. It is what calls upon us, what leads us to do what may not be easiest, most convenient, or most pleasurable, but which is most important.

A life well lived requires sacrifice, something which causes you to overcome your own selfish impulses and serve the greater good. Dharma is that principle. Without such a principle, how can you guide your actions? Dharma is like the thread on which all of the moments of your life are suspended, to create a coherent shape.

People may be cynical about religion, but what principle will they replace it with, if they get rid of it? Certainly one's inherited drives do not often carry you towards the best of all possible outcomes. Why bother doing good, or being good, if there is no good? 

I think this is why the teaching about Dharma always calls for a lot of effort. Left to one's own wishes and devices, one is likely to pursue pleasure and comfort, rather than what is most needed. Simple fact, but important.