Sunday, October 2, 2011

Atheism, Naturalism, and Buddhism.


The biggest confusion that always crops up in discussion is that atheists believe there is no god.  People like to call us intellectually dishonest, because you can't disprove the existence of god.  My reply, always, is "Of course you can't disprove god."  We don't try to disprove god because that's impossible; we can and do gleefully destroy the logical fallacies and bad arguments for the existence of god, gods, or the supernatural.  We show that the specific claims about the attributes of some gods are false.  Genesis, for example: science has demonstrated that life emerged through natural processes, as did the universe itself, although we're still working out the finer details.  So for someone who believes in the Christian god because they believe the Genesis account, it can be shown to them that that's a bad reason to believe in the God of Genesis.  The same goes for pagan gods as the source of natural phenomena like lightning, rain, storms, etc. Those gods, as best we can tell, seem to have been developed in order to explain those things, and when we have a better way to explain the phenomena, their necessity drops away.  It doesn't disprove their existence, however.  Anyone can come up with all kinds of theories about why gods might exist.  Here's one:  Gods pop into existence as the result of the collective psychic potential of people believing in them.  Occultism is full of notions like that and similar, and I used to justify my own belief in the supernatural that way.  It's a nonsense proposal, because the notion that belief can cause something to manifest has no evidence for it either, even though it doesn't assume a supernatural cause for the universe.  At best, it's an argument for memetics and their influence on human culture, not for a supernatural realm, and it's still at the mere hypothesis stage, needing confirmation.  But the point is that even if one eliminates the explanatory power that the gods used to hold, that doesn't rule out their existence as a point of fact.

To rule out existence entirely, one would have to search all of time and space, which we can't do.  On the other hand, proving the existence of a deity is relatively easy, a godlike entity can show up and present evidence of its own existence any time it likes if it does in fact exist (and it can avoid Oolon Colluphid and Babel fish).  This is why when people accuse atheists of having faith that there is no god, gods, or the supernatural, I'm always careful to specify myself as an agnostic atheist, and to clarify that when it comes down to it, most atheists are.  I admit to an outside possibility that a god might quit screwing around and present itself at some point.  But until that happens or any other type of evidence is presented, I have no reason to believe in any of them, hence, I'm an atheist, I have no belief in gods.  I have no belief in the existence of other things for which there is no evidence, either, so sometimes I use the word skeptic to be more inclusive, but atheist is usually sufficient.  I come into contact with more people who care about the existence of gods specifically than the other stuff.  

There's so many labels that fit me.  Skeptic.  Atheist.  Humanist.  Agnostic.  Epicurean.  Naturalist.  Shit-stirrer (that's nothing new).  The newest one that seems to fit, Buddhist, is funny given the others, but I'll get to that in a bit.  The problem with atheism is that it's narrow, it focuses only on what I am against, it doesn't say anything about what I'm for.  That's the topic of the rest of this article.

One of my online friends made an offhand comment the other day:  "I don't believe in the supernatural, I think the natural world is super."  That pretty much nails it for me.  Some people like to disparage those who don't believe in the supernatural, calling them materialists.  I am a materialist, but I think people like to conflate that word.  There's the economic materialist who views consumption and acquisition of goods as a good thing.  Then there's the philosophical notion who views everything as being made of matter.  Too many people seem to like to apply the oft-held disdain for the economic materialist to the philosophical materialist.  It's a word game.  To avoid it, I call myself a naturalist, since that's a better fit anyway.  What does a naturalist do?  Well, I'll tell you.

I contemplate the vastness of the universe and the scales involved, from the sub-atomic quark level and how much goes on there.  I think about the vast distances between objects in our own solar system, the distances between our solar system and our nearest neighbors.  I think about the vast amount of systems in our own galaxy and how many galaxies we can see out there, let alone how many exist.  I think about the growing possibility that even the immense totality of our own universe may be a single one in an even huger multiverse with whole universes popping into existence here and there every time we indirectly observe a black hole.

I contemplate the scales of time involved for galaxies and systems and stars and planets to form, the geological time scales involved in taking us from pre-organic molecules to complicated organisms, and the fact that it took billions of years even to get to those basic molecules even before life got going.  I think about how all of the component parts of everything we see on earth were born in the hearts of exploding supernovae.  How millions of years of evolution can take a single species and turn one branch into a T-Rex, and another into a peacock.  How thanks to a massive meteor or asteroid impact in the Yucatan 65 million years ago, we ourselves and all the other mammals were able to develop from small rodent like creatures dodging T-Rex footprints into one of the dominant families of organisms on the planet.  I think about how environment determines form, such as in the way whales and other cetaceans originally evolved from a wolf like looking creature that originally lived much of its life in water, like hippos do today.

I contemplate all of this and marvel at how it all fits together in so many vast combinations, constantly in flux and impermanent.  Everything is constantly adapting and mutating fractally on different time and distance scales.  Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable, everything flows stochastically from the smallest neutrino to the largest cluster of galaxies and everything else in between.  I see all of this and I elate in the fact that I'm here to see it, along with probably countless other species throughout the multiverse.  It's unlikely that we'll get to share that experience with them any time soon due to the distances in space and time involved, but it's sheer arrogance and ego to assume that in all of that vastness we would be the only ones to be able to enjoy it.  To me, if anything is going to be covered by the notions of "holy" or "sacred", it's this contemplation of reality and all that it entails, and even using that religious language seems insufficient due to the petty and parochial concerns of so much of religion.  In the face of all of that, there's an epiphany about how very cosmically insignificant we really are, and I find that incredibly liberating.

Don't get me wrong.  Some people might get all morose about this kind of thing, but that kind of nihilistic despair just doesn't bother me at all.  There doesn't seem to be anything out there that is disapproving of our ethical decisions, or what kinds of fashion we wear, or people we associate with.  Even if there were something like a god, what are the odds it would even bother to notice us or single us out as more deserving of punishment or reward than anything else?  All of the pressures that religion likes to try to put on us are irrelevant.  We don't need to worry about the external forces, even the natural ones, because they're going to do what they do.  What really matters, when one has a full realization of our actual place in the cosmos, is how we treat ourselves and each other here on this pale blue dot.

And this brings me to my recent exploration of Buddhism.

In Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt, A History, she talks about various systems that are kind of between a religion and a philosophical school as commonly understood. She calls these "graceful life philosophies."  What a GLP is focused on is a philosophical approach to how one should live one's life.  They may or may not include propositional beliefs about the world or universe, but they do seem to share the fact that whether they have them or not, they are much more focused on the process of living one's life, not accepting the propositional belief.  Hecht uses the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans as some of the western examples, and the earliest forms of Buddhism as an eastern one, along with Confucianism and Taoism, Taoism to a somewhat lesser extent.  Over time, the western ones have pretty much died off, and the eastern ones have all pretty much transitioned to full religions, with all the superstition, unfalsifiable beliefs, and authoritarian structures that that implies.

I have no use for religion.  But I like the idea of the graceful life philosophy (GLP).  I think when I went from my initial stage of atheism at an early age to paganism and occultism, what I was really looking for was a GLP.  I have some sympathies with Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism and have for a while. I'm much more Epicurean lately in comparison to my past flirtations with Cynicism and Stoicism, especially when I account for Epicureanism's history as a synonym for atheism.  Its long association with Democritus' atomism and its opposition of supernaturalism and focus on ending suffering and its conception of pleasure as the greatest good also helps.  Epicureanism is often slandered as hedonism in the materialistic sense, but the early Epicureans focused on moderation in all things, seeking to increase pleasure by increasing their understanding of the natural world and the self, and realized that by limiting the degree to which they allowed their desires to control them, they could maximize the pleasure of existence.  Which is a perfect transition to Buddhism.

How does one get back to Buddhism the graceful life philosophy, rather than what it is in so many places today, Buddhism the religion?  Owen Flanagan, author of The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, has this to say in the introduction of that book:

"Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.  This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep. Buddhism naturalized, if there is or can be such a thing, is compatible with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution and with a committment to scientific materialism. Such a total philosophy, again if there is or could be such a thing that could be credibly called "Buddhist" after subtracting what is psychologically and sociologically understandable, but that is epistemically speaking incredible superstition and magical thinking, would be what I call "Buddhism naturalized," or something in its vicinity. Such a theory might shed light on the human predicament, on how finite material beings such as human animals fit into the larger scheme of material being. Because such a theory would speak honestly, without the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism, but possibly not so much early Theravada Buddhism, Buddhism naturalized, if there is or can be such a thing, delivers what Buddhism possibly uniquely among the world's live spiritual traditions, promised to offer: no false promises, no postive illusions, no delusions. False self-serving belief, moha, is a sin for Buddhists."

There's several different types of Buddhism in the world today. Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan (Tantric), as well as multiple variations within those categories, like Zen.  Zen certainly does have less of the mythological accretions that the rest of Mahayana does, though Zen itself is a subset of Mahayana. Zen still does retain a smattering of notions like rebirth and karma, it just doesn't accentuate them nearly as much. 

In addition to Flanagan's book, which I am still in the beginning of, I've been listening to a lot of talks by Stephen Batchelor, and reading some of his books.  I just finished his Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and have listened to the audiobook version of his Buddhism Without Beliefs, the longer book version of which is next in my reading queue after Flanagan.

Stephen Batchelor's approach is that he takes all of the stuff that pre-existed Buddhism like the supernatural elements and strips them out, keeping only the stuff that Gotama himself taught. Gotama did mention stuff like reincarnation, but it was part of the historical culture that Gotama existed in, and it's not actually necessary to believe in that kind of stuff for the tenets of Buddhist philosophy and practice to make sense or be useful. Basically, it, along with karma and various other things that do exist in the early Buddhist materials are analogous to the few propositional beliefs that Cynicism and Stoicism contain, they're there, but they're not the focus.  The difference between Flanagan and Batchelor is that Batchelor is a former monk of the Tibetan and Zen traditions, whereas Flanagan is a neuroscientist and philosopher.  Both, however, along with various others, seem to be calling for a form of Buddhism that more fits Hecht's terminology of the GLP, and that's what interests me in particular. The result ends up being very much a form of secular humanism with more emphasis on contemplative practice, and that's right up my alley.

This has been long enough, so I'm going to post it now.  I will followup shortly with my understanding of the philosophical tenets of Buddhism.

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