On delusions and their pragmatic efficacy

Continuing my response to Seth Segall, my greatest disagreements are with his second point. So I will begin by quoting that at length:

As a hospital pastoral care provider I minister to patients of all faiths, and I have been impressed at how their faiths shape their own understanding of the virtues and contribute to making their lives admirable. So, if you are a person who finds a belief in rebirth compelling, and if you find that a belief in rebirth inspires you to practice being more compassionate to others, I have no quarrel with you. Please continue. The only statement I am willing to make without hesitation is that a belief in rebirth (let’s just use “rebirth” here as a stand-in for all the parts of Buddhism I happen to disagree with) doesn’t work for me, and I expect it won’t work for the majority of modern Westerners. I don’t want to be imperialistic about my beliefs. My attitude is, “this is what works for me,” and if you are feeling the same kind of dissonance with aspects of the Buddhist tradition, see if it works for you, too. On the other hand, I would never want to tell the Dalai Lama that he is practicing Buddhism wrong.

I do recognize the importance of working with people as they are, especially in a difficult field like pastoral care. Still I am nervous about saying that false ideas – which I do take rebirth to be – constitute “the best model for” any given person. Here I think it is important to remember how classical Buddhist thinkers see our suffering as rooted in ignorance, and the way out of it as requiring the clearing out of delusion: seeing things as they are (yathābhūtam). Moha, delusion, is as destructive a mental state as craving and anger. So I think we must tread carefully when it comes to endorsing ideas that are false. And I think Seth and I can agree that some ideas (that the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism) do fall into that category.

There is indeed a longstanding Buddhist (and especially Mahāyāna) tradition of upāya-kauśalya, “skill in means”, where one teaches ideas that are false, or at least not strictly true, because they will be spiritually beneficial to the recipient. The most famous example is the Lotus Sūtra’s story of the man in the burning house whose children aren’t persuaded to leave because of the fire, so instead he tells them there are toys outside. But in the end of the Lotus Sūtra story the man actually gives his children even better toys, so what he said was barely even a lie at all. On the question of whether one should actually tell falsehoods, or let others live in falsehoods, for spiritually beneficial purposes, the story is something of a cop-out. It is still common in Mahāyāna tradition to say telling outright falsehoods is acceptable in order to reach those of lesser spiritual capacity – but even there, one needs to be clear to oneself that they are falsehoods. Delusion is never a good thing; allowing people to remain in delusion for their own benefit is, at best, a second-best approach. Given the depths to which human delusion can reach, allowing people to remain so is often important and even essential for their well-being, and I do grant that. But we should still acknowledge it for what it is.

I do not take the Dalai Lama to be infallible. If he believes things that are false, that is a problem. Can certain delusions lead people to better and more virtuous lives? Yes, under some conditions, and it may often be the case that letting people live in those delusions is more helpful than trying to cure them. But that remains a dangerous line to walk. Virtue-generating delusions can easily turn to be vice-generating. I could use as an example the fact that some Buddhists have advocated against government antipoverty programs on the grounds that poverty is karmically deserved. It is harder to argue against such people if one has already granted that their false beliefs about rebirth are fine because they “work for” them.

I must further admit a deep, and increasing, hostility to the use of terms like “imperialism” to describe an advocacy of true beliefs against the false. “Imperialist” is a pejorative (at least in the contemporary context), and one that I find entirely unmerited in cases like the ones under discussion. Seth’s comment here seems to suggest that merely to advocate for truth over falsehood counts as “imperialism”. Is it “imperialist” to deny the truth of the flat earth? How about the truth of climate denial? Anti-vaxxing? If this is “imperialism”, then truth requires imperialism, imperialism is an appropriate way to conduct ourselves, and everyone should be an imperialist. Now since misinterpretations on claims like these can easily get blown out of proportion these days, let me be clear that I intend that previous statement as a reductio ad absurdum: of course none of these latter claims about imperialism are true. For that reason, advocating for truth is not imperialism, and we must stop calling it that. If there is any place where my disagreement with Seth is categorical and absolute, it is on that point.

Truth matters; it matters that people see things as they are. I grant that there are many cases where it is pragmatically effective for people to remain in delusion, but we must at least be clear to ourselves that it is delusion. Given Stevenson’s kind of evidence, I could grant, for now at least, that perhaps – perhaps – rebirth as such is not a delusion. But as far as I can tell, ethicized or karmic rebirth – for which Stevenson &co. provide no such evidence – is. It may be helpful and even necessary to others to allow others to remain in delusion about it, but we must still be clear to ourselves that that is what it is.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *