Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 34:21 — 31.5MB)
This is a short preview of the full episode.
Discussing The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011) with Owen Flanagan.
What philosophical insights can we modern folks with our science and naturalism (i.e. inclination against super-natural explanations) glean from Buddhisim? Flanagan says plenty: Buddhism is founded on common human experience (not faith), and we can profitably put Buddhist ethics in dialogue with familiar types of virtue ethics. However, we need to be skeptical of any claims to scientific support the superior happiness of Buddhists.
We kick off with a general assessment of phenomenology and naturalist ethics, and Flanagan provides such a plethora of great insights that the regular PEL crew continued the discussion (without Owen) in Ep. 54. Get more info on the topic and obtain the book. Download Wes's summary of the book.
End song: "A Few Gone Down" from Mark Lint & the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.
Adam Brennan says
Wonderful episode! Great guest, well-conducted interview; everything was on key, guys.
Wes Alwan says
At 50:10 there is a burst of white noise. You owe me a new center channel speaker, punks.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for letting me know; I’ve replaced the file with a fresh one. Center speakers are for pineal ears only and should be eliminated.
excellent discussion (tho maybe in part b/c of a lot of name-dropping/shorthand-references), if we follow up on the line of thought of practices/habits without Grounds/Authority/Necessity (and after Rorty I think we should) than the work may be more like engineering (shaping practices to interests and interests to results) than say theoretical physics, and if this is so than is there a field to call Philosophy anymore?
Mark Linsenmayer says
In our ep. 54 discussion (which I aim to post next week at some point, but we’ll see…) we explain a bit of the name drops (G.E. Moore in particular; that one was my fault) and discuss the issue in general a bit. Mostly, Owen was providing footnotes; it wasn’t always necessary, and can be a little distracting if you’re trying to focus on the thought, but he I think always explained the point he was trying to make, which is the point of the rule.
His rootedness in Quine and Sellars does require more explanation; we’ll get to the whole science and philosophy relation according to those guys more in future discussions.
Martin Larsson says
Is it possible to link to the study by this Paul Anderson (about high-level structures in water) that was mentioned pretty early?
Seth Paskin says
I’ve just listened to the first 45 or so minutes again and I’m not hearing the reference. I don’t remember it – can you give me the time or some more detail and I’ll track it down.
Martin Larsson says
I tried to locate it by skimming through the first hour but I can’t find it now.
I don’t remember who mentioned it (it was not Owen though). You were talking about this guy who published a paper during the 70’s, talking about the structure of ammonium and water, and how the high-level structure isn’t predicted from the low-level laws that is postulated for how atoms interact (it was something along these lines anyway, if I didn’t missunderstand the whole thing completely).
Dylan Casey says
The paper I referred to is called “More is Different: Broken symmetry and the hierarchical Structure of science” by Paul W. Anderson:
Science, New Series, Vol. 177, No. 4047. (Aug. 4, 1972), pp. 393-396.
You can get a PDF of it here: http://robotics.cs.tamu.edu/dshell/cs689/papers/anderson72more_is_different.pdf
It’s also contained in an interesting collection of papers on emergence:
Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (Bradford Books)
I think we’ll be doing an episode in the not-too-distant-future on this sort of thing.
that’s great thanks for the link.
Martin Larsson says
Thanks for the refernces! An episode on emergence would be golden!
Very nice episode. The show shines more each week.
David Buchanan says
Definitely one of my favorite episodes. Delicious.
If I followed rightly, Flanagan was connecting or even equating the Buddhist idea of causal interdependence with Sellar’s view that we are causally determined animals. I’m not convinced that these can be equated. As I understand it, the Buddhist idea is not about causal relations in the scientific sense, as if everything acts according to mechanical laws. Instead, I think the idea is that everything exists in relation to, and is effected by, everything else. It a way of denying the separate and inherent existence of things and instead assert that everything arises together mutually. It’s like a more muscular and thorough-going version of the postStructuralist idea of language as a system of relational meanings. Each word in the system means what it means in relation to all the other words in the system. The Buddhist idea a lot like that, except it’s not just about language systems.
The Buddhist idea of nothingness is related to this point too, I think. As Flanagan mentioned, 19th century Europeans were delighted by the apparent nihilism and relativism they found in Buddhism. But if we think of “nothingness” or “emptiness” along similar lines as above, then those terms are basically denying the same essentialism again. Think of nothingness as “no things” and emptiness as “no foundations” or “no essences” and “no things-in-themselves”. It’s a way of saying there is no ultimate ground of reality beyond or behind these relations.
William James’s description his radical empiricism was a lot like this too. Maybe his image will help here. Imagine that reality as we experience it is a mosaic, except the tiny tiles cling to each other at the edges without any gap or glue and there is no bedding. The whole thing is held together by nothing but countless relations.
Or think of the way a forest is both made of living things and serves as a habitat and even a micro climate for those living things at the same time. It’s easy to imagine every life form on the planet as one whole system that shelters and feeds upon itself. That’s a nice way to picture “mutual arising” or “co-dependent origination” or “causal interdependence”, I think. The relations are going to be more complicated than that that because rocks and ideas are involved here too, not just biological systems.
The Buddha walks up to a hot dog stand and he says…
Descartes can’t just exist as a disembodied subject. Brains in vats? Please. Even if you want to be a naive realist about it, the Earth exists, so that life can exist, so that humans can exist, so that the French language and culture can exist, so that Descartes could doubt his existence and thereby confirm it. The idea here is simply that nothing exists in and of itself but always within countless contexts.
I would rather stick with Flanagan and others after Darwin who would replace your “so that” with a such that. Not sure if you meant to imply/import any species of telos or not but surely none is a necessity to understanding emergence, right?
David Buchanan says
No, dmf, I was not speaking to the issue of emergence and did not intend to imply anything teleological about the topic I was discussing. I was using language and the biosphere as analogies, as a way to pictures systems of mutual interdependence. The point is to say that everything “causes” everything else to exist, rather than read the idea to mean that every thing is determined by the laws of causality. You’re free to “stick” to that view, if that’s what you’re saying. But they are two different ideas, I think. That was my point.
not sure about the difference you are gesturing to but maybe when our good hosts get around to fleshing out some of the implications of the basis for the author’s reliance on current models of the physical sciences (as was suggested in the H2O exchange) we can get clearer.
David Buchanan says
Maybe a few lines from “Two Strains in Buddhist Causality” would help to clarify the difference between Buddhist causality and Western causality:
“The key to this metaphysics lodges in the Buddhist concept of experiential process, technically known as pratiityasamutpaada which is variously translated as relational origination, international origination or dependent origination. It refers to the Buddhist concept of causality but, as we shall see, it is a unique concept with more than the usual Western connotation.
“The concept is the deepest metaphysical penetration into the nature of experience attributed to the historical Buddha. It delineates in general terms how the presence or absence of certain relational conditions (pratyayas) will produce certain consequences. …”
“If Buddhist reality is to be found in the experiential dynamics, as it should, then we must examine the nature of the dynamics itself. This is best done by re-examining the ordinary concept of causality with which we view the occurrence of events. Generally speaking, we associate it with the notion of efficient causation in the manner of a simple cause-effect relationship. Yet we know that this relationship is suspect as brilliantly analyzed by David Hume. Hume denied any causal connection of two events, although man is always desirous of imposing such a connection, a cement, in the whole experiential process. …”
“The Buddhist position, like Hume’s, does not rely on sense data or the empirical realm for the cause of continuity and consistency of perceptions. “Causality” in the nature of Buddhist relational origination is much more comprehensive and inclusive and will not permit the empirical elements to persist in and of themselves. Furthermore, it will not allow any dichotomous function, the subject and object relationship, to continue in the empirical realm; indeed, the dynamicity of the process of relational origination will prevent any subjective or objective component from arising. The process will go on despite the arbitrary or conventional way in which we attempt to impose a subject or an object to our perception.”
Andrea Collisson says
There isn’t a buddhist idea of nothingness.
Here is Al’s take on it all…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppyF1iQ0-dM
I thought that was where DB was going with this but apparently I misunderstood.
THis was MUCH better than I was expecting and more insightful. I was expecting some like B. Alan Wallace which is basically Buddhist apologetic. It is not. IT goes into Abhidhamma. Living in South Korea, and having a background in Buddhism myself, I found this REALLY clarifying.
Co-dependent becoming is Buddhist and process thought as I think Owen noted in the talk. To speak about becoming, especially within hierarchical processes, emergence naturally comes up.
To avoid getting bogged down in telos-speak, as dmf suggests we should, it is important to bring in the relationality that fuels the process of emergence – immanence.
MS Word is an emergent process of the electronics of a computer. While seemingly two different things, they are ontologically dependent and immanent to one another via shared electricity and compatible interfacing design.
For emergence and immanence, you can watch a western phenomenological realist’s understanding of these often misunderstood concepts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKqOic0kx4U&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=SP560C2ECA895EAA0B
MDeL ,after Deleuze, is not a phenomenologist but he has some interesting thoughts on why we might still benefit from neo-Aristotelain metaphysics:
In this podcast he’ll speak of “emergence”, think of water (H2O) it’s only hydrogen and oxygen but when they come together there emerges properties of water freezing/boiling points/etc. that are not properties of oxygen nor hydrogen alone, but no new/other stuff is added.
Episode 62 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Warren Brown, PhD, co-author (with Nancey Murphy) of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. This book was discussed in detail back in Episode 53, but this interview gave me a chance to discuss some of the book’s key ideas with Dr. Brown. We focused on why a non-reductive approach is needed in order to formulate ideas about moral responsibility that are consistent with our current neurobiological understanding of the mind.
qapla (and maybe dmf), I linked to this video elsewhere on PEL, but it addresses what we say here on emergence in BSP and DeLanda on Deluze. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUUXoI4KrBc&feature=related
I am highly attracted to Manuel DeLanda (not sure if our shared background in architecture/structures, or what). Pretty sure at the end of Cahoon’s emergence vid I link, he refers to renewed interest in ANW in relation to Deluze, DeLanda, Shaviro, etc.
thanks for the link, great lecture – 21. Emergence and Whitehead, and seems like a great series of lectures
these also tie into the podcast:
Sam Harris on “Free Will”
RS37 – The Science and Philosophy of Happiness
RS32 – Value-free Science?
I have listened to all of Ginger Cambell’s BSPs and most TSN videos where Churchland and Harris often appear.
What specifically is your interest in BSP” Emergence? Is it the cognitive sciences in general?
My emergence and immanence interests stem from Whitehead 1st and foremost, but the parallels of him w/ buddhist metaphysics is close.
I am seeing DeLanda very much clearly since yesterday, and now understand precisely why Deluze likes Whitehead and was angered when he saw how the logical positivists shut him out of the business – I think this may well be changing through the continental guts and Delanda and Shaviro.
I will listen to the two podcasts you linked, but must warn that my buddy ANW was diametrically opposed to vacuous actuality (materialism) and value free science (logical positivism)
All this stuff about H20 is based on a really misleading notion of emergence. When people say that “H20 is water” that is only a deliberate generalization, or the result of a bad misunderstanding of the world. Emergence does not consist in our inability to obtain enough information about the actual situation in order to explain it by way of more fundamental underlying rules. When we say that “Consciousness in people arises as neurobiological processes, largely concentrated in the brain,” we do not nearly mean the same thing as, “There are physical processes at play other than hydrogen and oxygen atoms in proximity to one another that determine the macroscopic state of water.” What I find strange is that the people who always put forward this kind of explanation for consciousness are the same type who believe that empirical science on its own will not conceivably revolutionize the folk psychological conception of autonomy anyway. There are not going to be any more findings that could significantly change the basic idea of consciousness as an emergent feature in the world, all that will change are increasingly more detailed theories about our highly complex neurobiological processes. The reason we say that human consciousness is emergant is because we really do believe that it must arise as something at least very much like this system of physical processes, not that there are other physical processes at work that would make for better explanations.
David Buchanan says
Emergence is a worthy topic but I’m a huge fan of relevance. What about Flanagan and Buddhism and happiness? Just sayin’.
aren’t you the one who raised the issue of metaphysics in this thread?
I saw your comment yesterday but wanted my pre-intellectual faculties to have the night to mull it over.
Buddhism is certainly relevant to Owen’s project on its naturalization – taking out the transcendent stuff, like reincarnation. This was discussed in the ‘cast and will be in a follow-up ‘cast. Similarly, Buddhism was a central element in ZAMM, yet it was mostly absent from the Episode 50 podcast – except in an experiential way (dylan on the fast cycle, etc).
Since dmf just mentioned metaphysics here, I would like to throw out a new insight that I gained from one of the DeLanda vid lectures. He describes how metaphysics got a bad name after Kant seemingly forced it into the realm of the transcendent, like Owen says of reincarnation. O.K., if that is all metaphysics is about, ‘let the motherfucka’ burn.’
Now, says DeLanda (a materialistic realist), let’s get our terminology straight: when we talk about the nature of things in a natural world — that is ontology, not metaphysics. If your ontologic study is of a naturalized Buddhism with its relational processes, immanence and emergence become the major ontological classifications for discussion (along with experience of them). These ontological entities cannot be avoided, especially when the very topic of discussion is what needs to be dismissed from your ontology.
David Buchanan says
I’m thinking that Flanagan’s avoidance of the “ineffability thesis” (i.e. limiting his interests to the parts of Buddhism that can be stated) might be a substantial mistake. In order to make Aristotle’s happiness comparable to the Buddhist’s happiness, the esoteric idea of enlightenment is pushed aside in favor of an exoteric taxonomy of naughtiness. You know, thou shalt not be a shallow greedy hedonist or a dirty rotten bastard, etc.. Like the seven deadly sins or the ten commandments, Buddhist ethics on this level is about “virtue” as adherence to an explicit moral code (sometimes literally carved in stone). To be fair, that is what Buddhism is to most Buddhists. “Esoteric” basically means that it’s easily understood and commonly believed by the general public whereas enlightenment experiences (nirvana, etc..) are not commonly had or widely understood.
I suppose Flanagan does this for understandable reasons; not the least of which is that such claims can sound too “religious” or supernaturalistic and of course talking about the ineffable is extremely problematic for obvious reasons. But it seems like we can rightly say that most Buddhists do not meditate and are not enlightened and also rightly say that enlightenment is the central aim of meditation and seeking nirvana is the esoteric core of Buddhism. As I see it, at this esoteric level Buddhism is a kind of non-theistic mysticism or philosophical mysticism, one that definitely includes the ineffability thesis.
The view shared by philosophical mystics is that the fundamental nature of reality is ineffable, is outside of language BUT this does not mean that reality is some hidden ontological reality that lies beyond appearances but rather that it’s known in experience by direct acquaintance. On this view, as Williams James used to put it, experience and reality amount to the same thing. Experience itself comes whole, as the mystics say, but language chops this unanalyzed totality, as Dewey called, into bits, into concepts and definitions, which we then mistake for reality itself. On this view, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is pretty much thee main problem to be overcome and reality as we understand it conceptually is one big reification, a giant illusion to be overcome – illusory to the extent that we mistake our concepts as actual ontological realities. (Physicalism almost always commits error, i.e. does not take H2O as the results of a procedure within a theoretical web, but as a bedrock ontological reality. In that sense, philosophical mystics have no ontology – other than experience itself. For James, for example, all ontologies are just hypotheses. They are good and useful to the extent that they can successfully guide experience or help to further inquiry but they when taken as a metaphysical certainty, they’re just conversation killers or they put you to sleep intellectually. Anyway, the basic idea is that experience comes whole but that thoughts and words chop up this unity (hopefully for good and useful reasons). The purpose of meditation is to quite the mind and stop the chopping for a while. To fully realize that reality is undivided, is to become enlightened. Since the distinction between self and world is conceptual rather than ontological, to stop chopping is be “become one with reality” as they say. It’s not that the self merges with the physical universe but rather those two “things” are seen as concepts that we carved out rather than reality itself.
From “Dewey’s Zen”: “…experiences come whole, pervaded by unifying qualities that demarcate them within the flux of our lives. If we want to find meaning, or the basis for meaning, we must therefore start with the qualitative unity that Dewey describes. The demarcating pervasive quality is, at first, unanalyzed, but it is the basis for subsequent analysis, thought, and development. Thought starts from this experienced whole, and only then does it introduce distinctions that carry it forward as inquiry.”
“It is not wrong to say that we experience objects, properties, and relations, but it is wrong to say that these are primary in experience. What are primary are pervasive qualities of situations, within which we subsequently discriminate objects, properties, and relations.”
I’m always on the lookout for podcasts and lectures to listen to at work, and one of the places that has pretty consistently good content is the podcast lecture series at the University of Sydney. I just checked to see if they had any new updates and saw this:
Haven’t listened yet, but I thought it was highly relevant and that you (and your listeners/readers) might be interested!
David Buchanan says
Here’s a short but interesting video of Flanagan answering questions and objections from Buddhists. In the last two minutes (of nine) we hear a pithy little lecture from Teed Rockwell, (I’ve been quoting him for years and was glad to see what he looks like, etc.) wherein he characterizes the apparent battle between naturalism and Buddhism as a game of “my friends are smarter than your friends.” If you’re only half as amused,…
Although many of the concepts of Buddhism such as impermanence and not-self are touched upon in Western philosophy, I think a core distinction is that in the Buddhist traditions, a heavy emphasis is placed on realizing or experiencing these things in a manner that is not purely conceptual. Thus the methods of Buddhism do not involve only discourse, but also meditation, wherein one practices the skill of settling the mind (concentration) in order to support the skill of phenomenological observation and deconstruction of the contents of experience (insight). So whereas a Humean might have the abstract conceptual belief that the self is not as solid, substantial, and enduring as it appears, a practiced Buddhist meditator might have achieved an alteration of the moment-to-moment appearance of phenomena in consciousness such that they do not yield the same sort of enduring, solid sense of a substantial self to begin with.
It may be that many people who self-identify as Buddhist do not place central emphasis on meditation, but this is in direct contradiction to the core doctrines of Buddhism that are attributed to the Buddha, so it’s not clear to what extent this observation is relevant to the discussion. By way of analogy, we might observe that many self-identifying Christians do not do much in the way of donating to charity (or perhaps some do in a perfunctory way, perhaps not unlike a perfunctorily daily 5 minute meditation). But of course, that behavior is not really in line with the central doctrines of Christianity that are attributed to Jesus. Perhaps it is important to distinguish between cultural Buddhists as opposed to doctrinal Buddhists (doctrinal in the sense of following the exhortations of the original doctrines of the tradition).
Hume(ans) of course referred to lived experiences as do all of the existentialist/phenomenologists, pragmatists, etc., but how does having an experience ‘count’ in terms of establishing what sorts of physics are at work in the world vs understanding something like folk-psychologies?
That’s a question of metaphysics (do these experiences reveal the way things really are?) by way of epistemology (do first person experiences hold any special kind of epistemological authority?).
From the Buddhist perspective, I think the more relevant question is experiential and ethical, i.e. does experiencing things directly in such-and-such a way (rather than merely agreeing with the claim that things are such-and-such a way) enhance the well-being of oneself and others?
From this there arises the second order question addressed in the podcast, does experiencing things in such-and-such a way *necessarily* enhance self/other well-being, or does it only do so in the context of a certain set of background beliefs and practices? I think the correct response would be the latter (at least for Theravada Buddhism), since the Noble Eightfold Path prescribes not only a regiment of meditation, but also that one hold a certain worldview or overall outlook (Right View), value system (Right Intention/Mindfulness/Effort), and course of ethical conduct (Right Speech/Action/Livelihood). So I think the observation that what one ‘sees’ in meditation is influenced by such contextual factors is correct but besides the point, where the point is essentially “Does this system *work* for the purpose of alleviating suffering?”
So the orientation towards the purpose of (say) revising one’s notion of the self is different for a Humean and a Buddhist, which perhaps partially accounts for the differences in how one approaches such a revision. I think the difference is roughly the kind of difference one would find in the theoretical and applied branches of a field of inquiry. A Humean might be concerned with the nature of the self as a purely theoretical concern, for which purpose discourse alone might be sufficient. A Buddhist might be concerned with the nature of the self precisely to the extent to which such matters have a bearing on the moment-to-moment experience, in which case it is functionally more useful to have the revision of the self-concept occur at the Gestalt level of perceptual experience as such, rather than only at higher, more abstract conceptual levels that act as commentaries on that first-order level of experience.
David Buchanan says
C. Derick Varn linked us to a great video in a recent blog post (Dr. Jinpa’s lecture is titled “Buddhism and Science: A Brief History”). Jinpa explains that Tibetan Buddhists like himself (He’s a monk, an academic professional and he’s been the Dali Lama’s chief translator for 25 years) see themselves as integrators and extenders of a tradition that is primarily philosophical and meditative. More specifically, he says the tradition has four major components. 1) Causality as dependent origination, as opposed to causality as a mechanical law. (Think of the bee and the flower as causally linked rather than bouncing billiard balls.) 2) Non-essentialism in ontology, no Absolutes. 3) A sophisticated epistemology akin to what we’d call constructivism. 4) An emphasis on psychology and phenomenology as a kind of introspective spirituality. These are the elements of the tradition our of India that they wish to integrate and continue.
He also points out that their tradition does not suffer from the same sort of clash between science and religion. Most Christians will tell you that you’re not a Christian unless you believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ. (And many will dispute the theory of evolution.) That pretty much defies everything we know about birth, death, and biology in general. The core doctrines of Buddhism don’t clash like that. If reincarnation is taken literally or understood from a naive realist perspective, Jinpa explains, it might as implausible as heaven and hell but that’s just a misunderstanding.
What they’re working on is how to have meaning in a material world, which Flanagan calls “The Really Hard Problem”. They hope to show how science can be improved by including human values in its operation. Their aim is to produce healthy minds and idea rich enough to include facts and values. This is very different from trying to naturalize magic or miracles.
To naturalize Christianity, the core doctrines have to get thrown out right from the start. To make that work, the whole story has to be treated as a system of symbolic language, as a very different language game, if you prefer. But when you do that, it works pretty well. Then Christianity is about the symbolic death or transformation of the ego and starting a new life afterward. On this view, Buddha and Jesus are two versions or permutations of the same hero.
Billie Pritchett says
I think that Flanagan mentioned that the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists (most Buddhists?) believe that one can learn not only to control one’s (external) behavioral responses to situations that provoke danger or anger, etc., but also learn not to fear or be angry with respect to a given situation internally and emotionally. As a Western corollary, the Stoics held this belief too. For example, in the opening of Epictetus’s Enchiridion, he lists desires/control of desires as one of the few things that people can control. Here is the opening:
Part of this was informed by the Stoic belief that any given situation appeared good, bad, harmful and so forth only relative to a person’s interpretation of the situation as such. So Stoics believed that ‘good situations’ or ‘bad situations’ are mere situations. Realizing that allows a person to reject having strong emotions toward these things for the fact that they are, according to the Stoics, just appearances. Here is the part from Epictetus regarding that:
Just thought I would mention the corollary. Stoicism is fascinating, methinks.
Billie Pritchett says
I meant to say: “So Stoics believed that ‘good situations’ or ‘bad situations’ are mere appearances.”
Interesting podcast. However, surely something has gone really wrong with any theory of what Buddhism is that arrives at the conclusion that Buddism’s view of the good life is consistent with Hugh Hefner living well on account of him attaining pleasant mind states, assuming he does! Wow, better to just admit ignorance. Buddhism is vast, complicated and deserving of much more careful respect that it was accorded here. I would love to see Thanisarro Bhikkhu on here to give a proper account from someone who isn’t just getting it from books.
I absolutely back this comment.
I’ve just read Flanagan’s book, and found it sadly underwhelming – particularly in terms of clear engagement with Buddhist texts. He seems a little too happy to freestyle based on his own interpretations, while failing to clearly provide his workings and references.
Robert Wright does a little better, but still his actual engagement with Buddhist texts and philosophical traditions is a little lacking. He does well for an accessible introduction to Westernised-Buddhist concepts.
Can we please have a highly-regarded representative of Buddhist philosophy on the podcast? The three episodes you’ve done to date don’t get to grips with the detail.
James P says
I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast and how you wove together Buddhism and Humean/Smithian phenomenology and sympathy.
However there was a question about whether the theory of Buddhism that teaches self death and then sympathy as a natural outgrowth actually is a self-fulfilling prophecy and not causally related. I think I can explain how phenomenology actually does lead to compassion and sympathy.
If you believe that the ego is false, then phenomenologically you don’t exist. The ego premises this ontologically stable identity with a history that reaches back into the past and the expectations of being rational or hopeful and making plans for the future. In other words, the ego exists outside of phenomenology, outside of ephemerality. To have ego death is to only exist right now.
So how sympathy flows from this is what Smith explains in TMS. The Chinese earthquake example is best. As long as we use our imaginations to think across space about other humans in that phenomenological moment in time, we can use empathy to out ourselves into their suffering (suffering is the first noble truth of Buddhism, this is not a coincidence IMO). But as Smith says, when the man of humanity hurts his little finger, he won’t sleep at night, even though he *can* sleep knowing about the deaths in the Chinese earthquake.
And the reason has nothing to do with his moral self or identity, in fact it’s not related to an “identity” trope at all, it’s related to the presence of himself as a thing in his sensual experience. The ego can only die if we use the imagination to empathize outwardly on others, otherwise the imagination immediately reassembles the fiction of the ego, because you begin to think of yourself outside of phenomenology, and then you blind your eyes to the suffering that is coexisting with you in time and possibly space.
At least, this is how I understand it, and how theory doesn’t sneak in for the Buddhists in the same way theory sneaks into the phenomenology of Western philosophy. Where Hume comes to this same point, he says we create convenient fictions, the primary of which is based on causality and ontology, and is best represented in the ego. Humean skepticism is still built on the fictional premise; Buddhism fixes it’s premise upon the denial of this fiction as useful, because it forces a non-phenomenological conception of the self, and this implies setting up goals, aspirations, telos, yearnings, desires, etc. This is the kind of desire Lacan talks about when poststructuralism assaults subjectivity. If you hold onto the ego then subjectivity is viewed as assaulted, but if you let go of the ego then subjectivity is sensual experience and that is what produces feelings of happiness and well being.
Buddhism and Hume are close in that they both share views of causality and phenomenology. But despite the skepticism that necessarily follows that, Hume tried to construct a science of man anyway, and positivism is rendered undone by poststructuralism, which itself is nothing more than a full development of Hume’s skepticism, which is what places Hume and phenomenology in conversation with poststructuralism. Buddhism, sharing the skepticism that phenomenology requires, rejects the task of building a science of man because that calls man into being as a category or object of analysis. Thus, Buddhism is also in conversation with where the poststructuralists have finally caught back up with the skeptical half of the Humean project after the diversion into the science of man that was Western philosophy since the Enlightenment.
This recent philosophy bites podcast talks about how Hume may have been directly influenced by Buddhism while in France, making this all more interesting. http://philosophybites.com/2013/09/alison-gopnik-on-hume-and-buddhism.html
Thanks! Love the show!
Compassion in Buddhism directly arises from the Four Noble Truths. It is more about how a Buddhist understands another persons condition in the world and how things are even if they are not aware of it.
Roger Garin-Michaud says
just a quick remark about Alwan’s summary :
” that a mediating monk had
unusually high activity in the left prefrontal cortex (LPFC), corresponding to positive mood; but a
definitive study would require a sample of at least 40 monks who do better than a control population, ”
should not that be : “a meditating monk”
I know that Buddhist monks are good at mediation, but it should really be reading “meditating”
Alan Cook says
Roger, you have created an Editor’s Dilemma.
If we correct the typo, then your comment no longer makes any sense. In fact, in a strict sense it would be in error, since it would quote Wes incorrectly. In any case it would confuse our readers. In order to maintain consistency, then, we would need to delete your comment–opening us to the charge that we are hypersensitive to criticism and correction, and censor those who point out our flaws.
If, on the other hand, we leave it as is, then obviously we don’t care enough about the quality of our site to correct typos even when they are graciously pointed out to us.
What to do?
Mary Ricci says
I think a reasonable thing to do would be to correct the typo, then reply to Roger’s comment with a “Thanks for the heads up, it’s fixed now” message.
I wonder what Nietzsche would think of the kind of scientism of philosophers like Flanagan, Rosenberg, Dennett?