Responses on humanity, rebirth, and a minimalist model

Seth Zuihō Segall wrote a helpful response to my review of his Buddhism and Human Flourishing. Seth’s1 response makes four points, groupable in two categories that correspond to the division of my original post: the first two points, roughly, have to do with endorsing modern Western views, the second two with rejecting them. I will move roughly from (what I take to be) our points of greatest agreement to our points of greatest disagreement.

So I will begin with the fourth and last of Seth’s points, which is the one where I think we agree most. This point is about transcending the constitutive conditions of our humanity: a key point at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum. As I noted in my review, I do actually stand with Nussbaum and with Seth against Śāntideva on this question: I do not think we should try to transcend these conditions. My concern was that this point needs to be argued, we can’t simply assume Nussbaum is right – because if she is right, then Śāntideva is wrong, and I think it’s important to be clear about that.

I agree with Seth that human nature is not infinitely malleable, and we cannot just shape people into a new form – but that’s not at the heart of my disagreement with Śāntideva, because I think he shares that view. Most people are not bodhisattvas, at least not in this life, and we can’t expect them to be so. But we, we agents aiming to be better, can still try to transcend our humanity, and, Śāntideva thinks, we should. I don’t believe that that is the case, because I believe there is an inherent worthiness to goals beyond the removal of suffering. In my response to Evan Thompson I’ve said more about why, and I’ve been appreciating the way both that dialogue and this one have helped me deepen such arguments.

On point 3, I don’t have an objection in principle to a “minimalist model” that avoids dispute on certain points controversial to its interlocutors. I think that Jacques Maritain’s approach to rights, which led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, takes up such a model. And in the context of the Universal Declaration, the advantages of a minimalist model are significant: they can build on preexisting agreement on supposed rights for the practical purpose of presenting violations of those rights. In such specifically practical contexts, the advantages of a minimalist model are clear. It’s in a philosophical context where I think it is important to go deeper – for one typically does not go very far in philosophical discussions before one encounters differences with deeper roots, often metaphysical ones.

That, perhaps, brings us to the other two points. Regarding point 1 (arguments on rebirth): Seth claims that the evidence against rebirth is not as strong as the evidence against creationism or anti-vaxxing. That is a tricky point. The evidence suggestive of rebirth collected by the likes of Ian Stevenson, though controversial, does matter. But I want to reiterate a point I made with respect to Jan Westerhoff: even if Stevenson’s evidence did somehow indicate rebirth happened – in a way that goes against many fundamental presuppositions of contemporary psychology and would require a drastic reevaluation of many of its established theories – it would still give us no reason to believe that rebirth happens in the way that traditional Buddhist theory needs it to, where being good gives us better future lives. We have zero evidence for that. Moreover, it does seem to me that we have a great deal of evidence for the bodily nature of consciousness, such that if rebirth even existed in the way Stevenson suggests, it would constitute such an anomaly for the entire neurobiological research program of contemporary psychology that that program would become degenerating in Lakatos’s sense; in Kuhn’s terms, it would require a dramatic paradigm shift in the way the entire discipline of psychology now works. I have enough trust in biological and psychological authorities to reject such a view at present – but all the same, Seth has led me to realize I have not explored the evidence myself in as much detail as I should have. Does Stevenson’s evidence require a complete rethinking of neuropsychology? Seth seems to think that it might; I am doubtful, but I admit it does merit closer examination.

I suspect that it is on point 2 (others’ embrace of a traditional model) that Seth and I the biggest disagreement, and I think that is the point that is at the heart of my original objections. For that reason I will give that point its own post, next week.

1 It’s always tricky to know when to use first or last names on a scholarly blog, with someone one is personally on a first-name basis with. Since his response was informal, I think the informality is called for here as well.

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.

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