Naturalizing Buddhism and other traditions

In the previous three posts I aimed to show, contra Evan Thompson’s response, that the philosophical core of the karma doctrine does not have to do with explaining why bad things happen to good people, but rather with how good and bad actions produce good and bad results for the agent. As such, eudaimonic karma is not “incongruent with its traditional meaning and function.” (I also agreed that the fact of bad things happening to good people is a problem for naturalized eudaimonic karma, but discussed attempts to resolve that problem.)

Now let us turn back to the wider argumentative context in which the karma discussion is set. At this point our disagreements may prove smaller than they seem. Thompson, it turns out, does not deny that

given a certain conception of well-being, cultivating mental intentions in accordance with that conception increases the likelihood of experiencing that kind of well-being. What I deny is that the conception of well-being can be derived from science or justified by descriptive (non-normative) psychological propositions about how things are (as, for example, Sam Harris tries to do).

On this, I think, we are more or less in agreement. In his video dialogue with Robert Wright (around 55:30), Thompson says he understands naturalism to be a “viewpoint that gives final authority to science on how things are”. Naturalism in that sense is close to what I call scientism, which I reject, along more generally with a strong empiricism. There are plenty of things, especially in the domain of value, which are beyond science’s jurisdiction to resolve, though the claims of science typically remain relevant to them (one could say science is an expert witness but not the judge). The nature of well-being is one of these – including the key question of whether well-being properly includes goals other than dukkhanirodha, a question I do not attempt to settle on scientific grounds.

So we are agreed that there are things beyond science’s authority. I do not think that rebirth is one of these things, however. Rebirth is a descriptive theory about how human and animal lives function, and observations that disconfirm that theory need to be taken seriously. I am happy to accept claims that are transcendental, in Thompson’s Kantian sense of “normative meaning that lies outside the conceptual framework of” natural science. Many of the most important claims we can make are non-scientific. What I do not accept are claims that are unscientific: claims for causal processes that are implausible given the findings of natural-scientific research, of which I take rebirth – like creationism – to be one. That is the sense in which I consider myself a naturalist. Theists who accept the conclusions of natural science need to find ways of reconciling their theism with the theory of evolution by natural selection, and I think Buddhists similarly need to find ways of reconciling karma with a view of mind that does not treat it as detachable from the body. I think the theory of eudaimonic karma that I have outlined does this well.

The comparison to theists brings us to the idea that Thompson describes as the object of his principal objection. That is “Buddhist exceptionalism”: “the mistaken belief that Buddhism is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical.” I agree there are some modernist Buddhists who hold that position, and it is fair for Thompson to point out that Ken McLeod appears to be one of them. However, I don’t think that this Buddhist exceptionalism is necessary for the kind of modernist Buddhism I have been articulating, for I don’t think I myself am a “Buddhist exceptionalist” in this sense. Do I think Buddhism superior to, say, Christianity? Yes, because I think that the ideas I take to be core to Buddhism are truer than those that I take to be core to Christianity – just as Thompson takes embodied cognitive science to be superior to evolutionary psychology because its core ideas are the truer of the two (Why I Am pp. 70-2). But I don’t think Thompson sees embodied cognitive science as superior to evolutionary psychology “in being inherently rational and empirical”, and I don’t think that is Buddhism’s advantage over Christianity either.

Especially, I do not think Buddhism is particularly more open to my kind of naturalizing than Christianity is. The existentialist theologian Rudolf Bultmann was already naturalizing (or “demythologizing”) Christianity long before anybody was talking about eudaimonist Buddhism or evolutionary psychology. And the Abrahamic traditions have long been fitted to eudaimonism: a specifically Aristotelian Buddhism is a new idea, going back no more than a few decades, whereas a specifically Aristotelian Islam has existed for over a millennium, Aristotelian Judaism and Christianity for almost as long. I acknowledge all this. If I think Buddhism is “somehow more suited” to a naturalized eudaimonist project than those traditions, it is at most as a matter of degree, not as an exception. So I don’t think I’m a “Buddhist exceptionalist” in Thompson’s terms, and I think one can pursue the kind of naturalized modernist Buddhism I have been articulating without being one.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

One Reply to “Naturalizing Buddhism and other traditions”

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