Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

I must make it clear that I have no problem with atheism per se. Atheists in general don’t see the need or value of religion for themselves and this is a perfectly rational position. The problem comes when some atheists feel the need to demonstrate that it is an established, objective fact the shortcomings of religious people and philosophies, and of course by implication the exclusive rationality, righteousness and truth of their own philosophies. Nothing else can explain why these people make no effort to grasp even the basics of the area they are pontificating on.

I should also make it clear that it forms no part of my intention to discourage non-Buddhists from taking an interest in or writing on Buddhist philosophy. Nor am I demanding unrealistic standards. Blog articles are ephemeral and provide good mechanisms for correcting misunderstandings. My objection here is that there seems to be no attempt to arrive at a mature understanding of religion in certain atheist writing, and the mode of presentation leaves no room for doubt or even a challenge to religious people to explain themselves. We are presented with authoritative, categorical conclusions.

Supposing I were to advance and argument that institutional science is mostly bunk, that it’s principal success comes when it stumbles on something that engineers and industrialists can exploit. This reality-based cookbook science is what we in the modern industrial world are very good at, but when science strays away from this core competence onto more tricky philosophical matters it goes horribly wrong and becomes entirely unreliable. Supposing further I was to base my arguments on the mess it has made of the global warming ‘controversy’ and start citing the considerable stash of articles at Uncommon Descent. Folks quite happy to rely on Sharon Stone and Glen Hoddle as authorities on Buddhism would lather themselves up into paroxysm of righteous indignation about the soiling of the sciences with the ignorant rants of the unqualified.

And I agree—I personally would not use Uncommon Descent as a source of information on climatology. Before making critiques about a field of knowledge (whatever your opinions about its coherence) the thinking of recognised authorities in the field must be understood. Indeed you can point to the kinds of mistakes that lay people are making (but nobody allows science, or any other area, to be invalidated by the lamentable levels of understanding of lay-people) and you can make use of contrarian critiques, but you really must demonstrate an understanding of the art as understood by recognised authorities (e.g., Archbishop Rowan Williams, Pope Benedict, The Dalai Lama, who happen to combine a huge commitment to scholarship and formidable intellects as well as being heads of their traditions—there really is no excuse here). And yet highly intelligent people who normally take care to master other areas before commenting on them refuse to make any effort to address religious philosophy as it is understood by widely-recognised authorities, satisfying themselves with crude, ill-informed stereotypes and knocking over endless strawmen.

Baggini refers in his article to Glen Hoddle’s notorious and equally clumsy comments made some years ago.

Hoddle is reputed to have said that the disabled have been born with their disabilities to compensate for the bad things they have done in a previous life. This is the ugly side of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma, so often thought of as a comforting, harmonious view of life and nature. But there are similarly unpleasant consequences for anyone who believes that life has a purpose.

This betrays several misunderstandings. Firstly you simply can’t seize on an idea from an unfamiliar philosophy and expand on it without understanding how it fits into the whole. Karma is simply not related to justice in Buddhism—that is a theistic idea, and divine justice would have to be addressed within the context of whatever theistic framework you are working with (e.g., Christian, Islamic, etc.).

Here we are talking about Buddhism, where the only disposition that has any valid grounds in logic or reality is one of compassion. If you are using a Buddhist doctrine to justify a lack of compassion you have gone wrong, in a very big way. The mistake that Baggini seems to be making consistently is the belief that meaning can exist apart from the point of view of a given person: whether life is meaningful or not; whether we take a compassionate attitude towards unfortunate people or not; or whether we choose to attack and try and undermine other people’s belief systems are all choices that we each make, and only the outcome of those choices will determine whether there is meaning or not. (See my previous article on The Meaning of Life, and my notes on the Dalai Lama’s recent teachings to get a sense of how compassion and non-violence pervades all Buddhist thinking.)

It is as if I had seized on the fact that the dramatic predictions of the climatologists can’t be verified except by waiting to find out, yet we are expected to proceed with drastic policy decisions on the basis of scientific knowledge that hasn’t been verified. From this I conclude that scientific knowledge is fundamentally a social construction and only in a highly selective sense is it objective and empirically based.

Of course that is nonsense. Anyone with a scientific training knows that the empirical principle is foundational to all scientific thinking and practice (just as a compassionate attitude is foundational to Buddhism, as is incidentally, the empirical principle) and therefore that something has gone wrong in this chain of thinking, but that requires a breadth and depth of understanding that can only be acquired by firstly treating the scientific field of knowledge with respect and taking the time to patiently master it. Once this has been done, and only then, can critiques be offered that have any philosophical validity.

I have already explained why Stone’s comments and much of the subsequent commentary that flowed from it, was ill-conceived from the metaphysical/epistemological perspective. Briefly, as many have been saying, Stone’s speculation about the causal connection between the ethical actions of the government of the PRC and the recent earthquake is rather silly as we have no reason to believe that such a causal connection exists. I think some have gone too far and stated that there could be no connection according to Buddhist teachings: unfortunately this, according to my understanding, is over-simplifying the situation (see Faith and Reason).

My main concern here is with the ethical implications. In general Buddhism teaches that things don’t happen randomly but arise as a result of causes and conditions—the interdependent nature of reality. It is my understanding—but this is a subtle point and please treat this as my provisional opinion—that any suffering episode I encounter must have some causes in my earlier actions, quite likely in any one of my unbounded series of past lives. Buddhism teaches that our current situation is a product of our past actions and present actions will determine our future conditions. This philosophy encourages people to take responsibility for their current position and more importantly for their future. If you chose this path, and it works for you, you can create a meaningful life. Of course if you chose a path that asserts that life is basically meaningless then this will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. (But it is not the case that any old philosophy will result in a meaningful life; to be effective it must be valid and compatible with your needs.)

Baggini appears to make a similar mistake about the meaning of suffering.

So we return to the question: why suffering? One solution is that suffering serves the greater long-term good.

The question of whether suffering has or hasn’t meaning independent of any given context is itself a meaningless idea. I have a choice as to whether I want to invest suffering with meaning. Things can only have meaning with respect to a given person, being irreducibly subjective. Suffering is clearly, by definition, undesirable but it is a reality and the issue is how to deal with that reality. Buddhism, and every other authentic religion and wisdom tradition teaches people how to invest suffering with meaning and turn suffering into an opportunity to reduce present and future suffering. How can people that pour derision on these efforts avoid accusations of extreme quietism?

Baggini finishes with the following paragraph.

So what’s the alternative? It is to accept that there is no guiding force, that bad things just happen. If you’re born disabled, its not your fault and it’s not for your own good: it’s just bad luck. Nature deals the cards without thought or care. There’s no point in blaming the dealer. All we can do is make the best of the hands we’ve been dealt. Therein lies a genuine irony. Traditionally, it is the view that life has no purpose which is seen as the bitter pill to swallow. But, as Glenn Hoddle found out to his cost, squaring the view that there is a point to it after all with the ills of the world turns out to be the most offensive, sourest brews of all.

There are many thoughts that I agree with here. The observations ate observed reality and the Buddhist teachings on karma (which are of course based on observed reality). Given everything I have been saying, whether your life is meaningful depends upon whether you make it meaningful or not. An authentic religion, one based on logic and reality (and this I believe to be true of the best of the great religious traditions, maybe even Humean atheism), and one compatible with your disposition, may succeed (for you) in reconciling objective reality with the subjective need for a meaningful life.

That said, everything else makes sense. Even a Buddhist practitioner who has concluded that the Buddhist teachings on karma offer the best explanation of reality still can’t know what has brought about any given circumstances and most of those causes will in fact have originated in a past life. If the scope you are considering is restricted to this life only then the unfortunate circumstances will indeed have originated from elsewhere and it will be simply a case of good or bad luck manifesting, and we can only deal with the hand we have been dealt. This is the critical point of view in considering other people’s bad luck, and certainly if you have any temptation to view the causal model as any pretext for withholding compassion. (But actually a proper understanding of the thoroughly causal, interdependent nature of reality should increase your compassion for the plight of those undergoing great hardship [and those undergoing good fortune, especially if they are failing to make use of their good fortune to reduce the causes of future suffering]; until this is the case your understanding remains incomplete [but we should expect our understanding to be incomplete].)

I can’t resist finishing with a return to Elinor’s doctrine, the philosophy at the heart of Sense and Sensibility.

“No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?” (17.39)

Everyone is entitled to our respect, regardless of whether we agree with their ethics, and everyone is entitled to our compassion regardless of our views on the causes of their predicament. Respect and compassion must not be predicated on approval. This mistake reflects the extraordinary sentimentality of modernity, that we feel the need to justify someone (‘to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters’) in order to create the sentimental context that will allow us to empathise with them. This is a false dichotomy, the tension between judgement and empathy, as empathy need only be predicated on suffering (see also Judgement on Serious Matters).


One response to “Earthquake Follies

  1. Pingback: More Earthquake Follies « Peace & Wisdom

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