Filed in History, Science

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?

An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.Linda Heuman

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If we are to push on the “transplant and adapt” metaphor for the transmission of the dharma to the West, we ought to be ever on the alert for another very real possibility it entails. We know from evolutionary biology that sometimes a species adapts to a point where it is no longer recognizable as itself, as happened 400 million years ago when the first animals made their way from ocean to land. Swimmers morphed into crawlers, and thus new species emerged. As we reflect on the nature of the transmission to date, we should be asking ourselves some very difficult questions. If we think of the dharma as a form of spiritual life, has the nature of its adaptation to a secular modernity changed it unrecognizably? Is modern dharma a new species? If so, in what sense can we then consider our dialogue with tradition authentic or our transmission successful?

If you operate within a closed dharma sensibility, the question might seem puzzling. It might seem like I’ve just asked something nonsensical—like, now that we know the world is round, have I lost the opportunity of jumping from its edge? Or maybe you’re thinking this closed form of Buddhism is a new species. And that’s a good thing! We’ve shrugged off all that superstition about reincarnation and karma, ghosts and demons, visions and relics—got the bugs out of the belief system. We’ve updated to Dharma 2.0.

Certainly it is true that throughout history Buddhism has always changed and adapted as it has moved from one culture to another. And we too, of course, have to make the dharma suit our culture—adapt it in a way that is authentic and relevant to our lives. We’ve worked hard to equalize institutional hierarchies and address women’s rights, for example. But Western converts have also used this justification to “update versions”: to omit or reinterpret doctrines that seem supernatural—like rebirth or karma, liberation or enlightenment; to downplay modes of knowing outside the bounds of instrumental reason— such as symbols and myths; and to discard practices that seem adventitious—like rituals. Here is why it is important to appreciate that there is more to Buddhism than a set of beliefs or tenets and to understand that beliefs are rooted within a context of implicit background assumptions that gives them sense, meaning, and force. If we fail to recognize the existence and importance of background context, we will consequently fail to see what is unprecedented about the transmission of Buddhism to the West. While Buddhism is indeed crossing between cultures, it is not doing only that: In entering secular modernity, it is also jumping historical epochs, and that makes for a much wider chasm. Buddhism is being pulled into the background contexts not just of Western culture but also of secular modernity— and in terms of the survival of a religion, the latter is a new and especially problematic threshold.

Updating the dharma to fit with our secular mindset isn’t simply change on the order of dress and manners. We’re not talking different taste or customs here. It is an attempt to fix the dharma, to make it right, which is to say, scientific. From the perspective of scientific naturalism, it makes sense to do this, because when one operates within that perspective, it seems that only believers are making leaps of faith. Secular humanists assume themselves to be commitment-free rationalists. But that is a profound misunderstanding. To assume “this is all there is” is also to make a leap of faith.

What is so difficult for us all to see is that we too have a worldview. We simply assume that the world we call “natural” is the only world, that the way we experience and think about things is the way things exist from their own side. Coupled with that assumption is another one: now we’ve got it right. Secular modernity has sloughed off the false beliefs and superstitions of our ancestors and uncovered the real truth, which is hard scientific fact. Taylor calls this progress myth a “subtraction story.” These are powerful biases, hard to shake, not because they are true but because they feel so self-evident.

Reflect on the earlier discussion of the porous/buffered self and the enchanted/disenchanted world. Consider that the self, its environment, the possible relationship between the self and its environment, and the type of knowledge available to a particular kind of self in a particular kind of environment are all culturally construed and historically contingent. They cannot, therefore, be “objective” facts.

When we assume that our secular worldview is de facto true, we are confusing conditions for reality with features of it. This is a little like setting our online newsfeed parameters so that we just get local news, and then coming to the conclusion that all news is local. In exactly the same way, immanence is a precondition for what can count as real in secular modernity. Western convert Buddhists often tend to mistake this background assumption for a feature of reality, and then as a consequence have a hard time making sense of transcendence, which was, by definition, just ruled out.

Before it arrived in Western secular modernity, Buddhism never had to reckon with transcendence being problematic in this way. No previous Buddhist culture construed objectivity and subjectivity as we do, so neither did our predecessors banish values, purpose, and meaning to inner space—nor could they have conceived of spiritual or moral life as just a matter of personal choice or subjective judgment. To be unaware that reality has moral and spiritual dimensions has always meant, as our texts tell us, that one is out of touch with how things are. To ignore reality’s moral and spiritual imperatives has a consequence— continued suffering. Buddhist practice, in its traditional context, is to align oneself more and more deeply with the cosmic order. Transcendence occurs when that coming into alignment is complete. In this paradigm, transcendence isn’t ruled out by the definition of the real. It is the definition of the real.

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Edel Maex's picture

“Given the depth of suffering in samsara and the possibility of a solution to it; given that the very texts we study outline a path to that solution; given that we have a realized master right here who is, we believe, capable of leading us on that path to that solution—why would we devote our precious human lives to exploring whether meditation can lower blood pressure?”

Given the fact that high blood pressure is a major cause of cardiovascular sufferig and death, this statement sounds outrageously selfish.

mattbard's picture

enjoyable read... i suspect we already know this stuff, putting a voice to it was nice..... when i get confused, i don't automatically think i am wrong, but take a moment to look at alternatives. of course, cultural shifts , are by nature out of the box... i just take a little bit longer to sort the menu.......now i got more view, and thanks for good piece..... .m

Cato's picture

I've never thought of Buddhism at all connected with God or religion. The Buddha asked us to test principles he set out. I think Mr. Gomez needs to go beyond Christianity, which permeates the West....this is his problem not humanism or science. Elizabeth

celticpassage's picture

There's nothing beyond Christianity

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Elizabeth. Christianity does not teach the interconnectedness of all phenomena, the eternal cycle of life and death, nor the law of cause and effect. The sutras do.

celticpassage's picture

I would agree that Christianity doesn't teach the cycle of life-death (reincarnation) but I'm not so sure about the other two.

For example, Christianity certainly does teach the law of cause and effect. I don't think you could find a useful teaching that does not. So, Buddhism is not unique in teaching that.

Also, in Christianity, God created all things and everything including humans exist in God and are not separate.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhist teachings are universal in many respects. As for everything existing in "God", Buddhism posits a universal principle or law rather than an almighty anthropomorphic Creator.

celticpassage's picture

Well, I don't think that thinking Christians conceive of God as being anthropomorphic; the old man in the sky is a caricature.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What is your definition of "God"?

celticpassage's picture

Like enlightenment God cannot be defined.

Dominic Gomez's picture

God defined: the supreme or ultimate reality: a: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe, b: (in Christian Science) the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit
So is enlightenment and God the same thing, being that neither can be defined according to you?

celticpassage's picture

Correct. God cannot be defined.
But I don't think enlightenment and God are the same thing.
I would think that to a Christian, enlightenment would just be a form of culturally inculcated self-delusion.
I only included enlightenment because it would presumably be a more familiar concept.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Conceptually familiar yet understood differently per each school. As well, enlightenment is attained via as many different forms of practice. At least (the concept of ) "God" is understood commonly enough among the many and varied Abrahamic schools and sects.

celticpassage's picture

I would disagree.
Enlightenment is achieved through probably thousands of hours of effectively trying to live in the moment. Regardless of the specific approach or people's understanding of it, enlighenment is reached in only one way.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"enlightenment is reached in only one way": But you say it cannot be defined. How can you tell you've reached it?

celticpassage's picture

A man looks at his watch and realizes it's lunch time.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A broken clock is right but twice a day.

janettaylor11's picture

From my perspective, there are different levels of the Dharma to be taught. I lead a Buddhist community within a liberal church here in the midwest, and I have many people who arrive at my doorstep as unbelievers of any religion and skeptical of spirituality at best, but still willing to explore the possibility that meditation and mindfulness might help. I have found by taking the more secular approach at first, gives more people a doorway that they can enter easily. Then, once they gain their footing, they become more willing to explore the more transcendent aspects of the Dharma. Individuals practicing the Dharma have always experienced different depths of awareness, so what we're seeing happening now should not be surprising or so dualistic.

Dominic Gomez's picture

How do they react to the teachings of the interconnection of all phenomena, the eternity of life, cause and effect, et al?

Jonathan.s's picture

I too think this is an excellent article, having just noticed and read it. I have been through many decades of both Buddhist Studies, having just completed a Master's degree in the subject, and also philosophy and comparative religion. And I honestly feel my spiritual home is not in the secular west any more. I understand and respect the scientific outlook, but the attitude of scientific materialism is another matter altogether. In fact one of the things I am learning is that some traditional (as distinct from modern) forms of Western philosophy, are also quite consonant with the vision of Dharma. I refer in particular to Christian Platonism, which has many things in common with Mahayana Buddhism (albeit with some cardinal differences too.) But this has helped me to re-interpret my own Western heritage in such a way that I can now see the spiritual side of Western thought. (I think I was first alerted to this possibility by W Y Evans-Wentz' extensive notes on Plotinus in his ground-breaking edition of the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.)

Anyway I just wanted to add my thoughts to this, it is an excellent article and a subject that we all need to be aware of especially in response to the growing influence of secular forms of Buddhism which eschew anything truly spiritual.

Kevin K.'s picture

This is one of the most beautifully-written and timely articles I've ever read in Tricycle - which is saying something considering the high caliber of the magazine overall. I particularly appreciate its thoughtfulness in the context of the two very weak Stephen Batchelor pieces in the same issue, which are intent (as usual with Batchelor) on excising anything transcendent from the Buddha's teachings. One of the greatest concerns expressed by many Dharma teachers who know Western ways well (I'm thinking in particular of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Thanissaro Bhikku and, earlier, Ajahn Chah) is that students and teachers alike will be tempted to settle for secular and therapeutic approaches to the teachings. Thanks for addressing these complex issues with such clarity and balance.

heartjewel's picture

"I think many Buddhist throughout history have taken the truth of Buddhism to be one of radical immanence, not one of the transcendence of samsara by some kind of pure consciousness. The dharma remains the same, but the conceptual stumbling blocks to achieving it are very different."

well said

Jan Newman MD's picture

I think the author's points are well taken. Unfortunately much of the "Westernization" and "Science " of Buddhism is neither good Buddhism nor good science. Many studies have neither been duplicated nor revalidated. Practitioners are both subjects and advisers on projects very intimately attached to the results which is both nonscientific and non-Buddhist.Traditional Buddhist definitions have been ignored such as the difference between lovingkindness and compassion.
Some of the previous discussions are all head and no heart and quite honestly both miss the point and cause one to get lost in their own specious reasoning.To say that the Dalai Lama is "all compassion" means that the writer has not attended the Dalai Lama's teachings nor read his works which are extensive. The Dalai Lama is both wisdom and compassion and embodies the teachings. He is probably one of the finest if not the finest Buddhist scholar alive today.
All that aside, the reason that meditating for health benefits is specious is because at the beginning meditation usually is relaxing, helpful, but that stage passes rapidly and then one has to deal with their own demons, delusions and emotions which is equally as difficult as living in samsara. Buddhism in its many forms and paths gives us ways to deal with those demons.Whether one is dealing with jnanas or levels of satori or Bodhisattva bhumis, what we can say is that we are not yet at the first level in any of these traditions in Western practice and science is at its infancy. We need to keep these things in perspective.If we look at the very beginnings of Buddha's teachings, the way to enlightenment is the 8 fold path. If we abide by that path we will both be happier and healthier and eventually reach enlightenment.No matter the form of Buddhism, both wisdom and compassion are required.

heartjewel's picture

". . . at the beginning meditation usually is relaxing, helpful, but that stage passes rapidly and then one has to deal with their own demons"

and unfortunately this experience is often left unaddressed or worse, swept under the rug, as if the point of practice is to avoid such a confrontation. Thanks for pointing this out. It is far too easy to remain at the fringe of our own complacency rather than, as the author suggests, hold our assumptions (realizations?) up for examination.

celticpassage's picture

Confrontation, examination, addressing, etc., is way over-rated.

Much better to be financially rich and as happy as anyone else and happier than many.

If any problems come up, buy some companionship and good times.
If there is any residue left then just sweep it under the rug and move on.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As metaphors, the liberative possibilities spoken of in the Buddhist sutras point to very real experiences by human beings. The life-condition of enlightenment (Budhhahood) is just one example. The life conditions of hell, hunger and animality are also quite real as the thoughts, words, behavior and posts of people whose lives are trapped in those lower "metaphoric" worlds.

lifestyle_obsession's picture

This is a fascinating article. Thank you very much for writing it. :-)

A thought about some of the assertions here:

"Reason demands one-to-one correspondence: either water is H20 or it isn’t. In contrast, symbols work with multifaceted meaning; the water offered on a Tibetan altar is at once flowers, incense, and light. Symbols govern intricate patterns of meaning. They condense many meanings into one. They expand one meaning into many. And they can even hold together discordant or contradictory meanings."

I believe you underestimate, or misunderstand, "science" and "reason" here. Quite rationally and factually, light is both particle AND wave. Schrödinger's imaginary cat (shades of Nansen?) can be both alive AND dead. Actually "things" can exist as fields, or waves, of probability.

Honest eyes can look at the world, and honestly perceive & record--as you see on your Tibetan altar--the "many meanings" there, including ones that might be considered "discordant or contradictory..."

I believe the distance to be bridged here, if any, perhaps isn't nearly as wide as you suggest. Reality--ultimate as well as conditioned--is reality, no matter what eyes we observe it with.

Perhaps we simply need to look...without the cages of judgment, duality, or conceptual categories? Including "science" versus "religion"? :-)

Just a thought.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One of the benefits of practicing Buddhism is the freedom to see life as if you were flying 20,000 feet above the landscape. Of course you may focus on the little tiny cars on the highway but the bigger picture always presents itself.

wtompepper's picture

Light is not "factually" both a particle and a wave; metaphorically, we can use different models to predict what will happen to light, but they are always metaphors, not "facts." Schrodinger's point was that the cat could NOT be both alive and dead, that the quantum probability does not apply at the macro level, that probability is just a measure of our level of ignorance. Things don't "actually" exist as fields, or waves--those are metaphors we use to predict the behavior of the world. We always look at the world with judgment, and if we didn't we could never get anything done. What we have to do is avoid mistaking our metaphors for what is "factually" there. When we do that, science becomes a religion instead of a useful human practice.

ianjbarton's picture

Evidence is accumulating that quantum effects do apply at the macroscopic level. As an instance I refer you to: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2010/mar/18/quantum-effect-spot...

heartjewel's picture

the universe is a metaphor

thom's picture

Mathematically, light exhibits the attributes of both a particle and wave depending on how and when we measure it. I would be very cautious about the using the word "metaphor" as light quite empirically behaves as such.

wtompepper's picture

I don't think you understand what "metaphor" means. A model which predicts behavior mathematically is a metaphor. We do not "empirically" observe light as a particle or a wave--empirical means with the senses, and we do not have perceptions of little balls of light or of "waves" of light, these are only metaphors we use to comprehend what we cannot possibly observe physically.

thom's picture

A model which predicts behavior mathematically is an isomorphism to the behavior of the given system. A metaphor is literary device used to illustrate similarities between given representations.

Additionally we can physically observe these differences using something as simple as Young's double slit experiment. Any university physics lab has the tools to do so.
Any name we give to the phenomena is just a language game being employed to simplify cognition. Whether we call them "balls" or "shy little bear cubs" is irrelevant to the correlation between understanding and physical description.

wtompepper's picture

Exactly! Any name we give is just a language game to simplify cognition: that is what a metaphor IS!! When one does the double slit experiment, one does not "see" a "wave" or a "particle," right? Those terms are metaphors used to simplify cognition. Your definition of metaphor is simply incomprehensible--any "representation" of something is always already a metaphor, so to say one can only use the word metaphor when one is dealing with comparison of two metaphors is the kind of useless nonsense you get from online dictionaries, and is not what the word means.

Not that this is all that important, since what you just said is exactly my point. Light is not "factually" or "empirically" sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave (although most high-school physics teachers will tell you that it is); instead, those are simply metaphors to simplify our understanding of mathematical models (another kind of metaphor) so that we can predict what will empirically happen.

And some metaphors are better than others. "Shy little bear cubs" would not be helpful to our conceptualizing a model of the behavior of light, unless you have a very odd idea of how bear cubs might behave!

thom's picture

Hmmm… I'm sorry, but you didn't understand what I tried to say
Your claim is that things don't exist as "fields" or "waves". Naming does not invalidate phenomena it merely places said phenomena into categories. It doesn't matter what categories we choose as long as each category references a model of predictable behaviors that map onto the phenomena in question. Are you saying that placing something into a category invalidates predictability?
Light is observably a wave or a particle depending on how we measure it. Walk over to the physics department and have them show you. You could argue from the decoherence standpoint that this behavior is the result of another phenomena, and I think that is reasonable, but calling these behaviors "metaphors" that have no existential properties is not correct.

If you are saying that "wave" and "particle" are just names for some experiential phenomena that exists outside of language, then that's fine, but it doesn't change the fact these phenomena still exist.

Regardless, mathematics is absolutely not a metaphor. I have to ask, but how far did you get in your studies of math? Have you had any graduate level Group Theory?

wtompepper's picture

No, I am saying that placing things into categories is exactly how predictability is possible.

No, we really don't see a "particle" of light, ever. That doesn't happen. The model of light as a particle predicts is behavior in some situations, but it is a model, we are not "seeing" a "particle" of light. Nobody has ever "seen" a photon, or a "wave" of light.

Of course, light actually exists, but we always predicts its behavior with models, and a model is the very definition of what a metaphor is. If you start to think that you are actually "seeing" fields or waves or subatomic particles, then you are reifying you model, and not likely to make any further advance in understanding.

And yes, mathematics is always a metaphor. Math is a symbolic system for describing reality. That's why it is useful. Really, take a look at any calculus textbook, they generally explain this--math is very often used as a way of producing a simplified model of a complex reality. This is what metaphor means. I have to ask, how far did you get in your study of the philosophy of language and semiotics? Have you had any graduate level semiotic theory?

But seriously, why are you so terrified of the word "metaphor"?

thom's picture

Gonna have to argue with your science there, yes, we have images of individual photon and electron impacts as well as the interference patterns generated by them.
We have observed single atoms and stored and retrieved data from a single photon. We have indeed observed the direct effects of these things and in some cases viewed them directly.
Again, mathematics represents an isomorphic relationship between testable reality and cognition, it is not a metaphor.
As for my studies: my undergraduate work was in Mathematical Philosophy, with a focus on language and aesthetics. I had a single graduate semiotics class during that course work, no others were offered unfortunately. My graduate work is in pure mathematics.
Also, I just completed a seminar lecture on cognitive nominalism and the relationship between language and mathematics in the brain, though it has not been delivered yet.

None of the five Calculus textbooks on my shelf say that mathematics is a simplified view of reality.

wtompepper's picture

Really, you literally have a picture of a photon? You must have very good eyes! They're awfully small. Of course you have images of "interference patterns generated," but again, that is the observable effect that the photon model is meant to predict. Of course there are measurable effects of these things, but no, you really can't "see" a neutron or a quark or even a photon--just the macro-level effects which the model predicts.

I can't make this any clearer; it is an unfortunate really that some second-rate scientists forget their models are only models, and become very attached to the idea that they are sort of "blown up" images of what is really not visible. Such reification can get in the way of scientific progress.

And, again, a (more or less) isomorphic relationship between reality and cognition is what a metaphor is. Why are you terrified of this simple word? Are you just afraid that the very word would shake your ability to reify your models?

I only have two calculus books on my shelf, and they both do say that the purpose of calculus is to produce a simplified model of reality in order to make predictions. You have five that say no such thing, though, so I guess you win!

thom's picture

I meant Images of photon impacts, sorry about that, it did not read well. Would have made more sense to write "images of photon impacts and electron impacts." My bad.
The eye can detect single photons, it is easily within the capability of the retina, however the brain only responds to small bundles of them in order to reduce "noise". Of course, no, you aren't going to see it traveling orthogonal to your gaze, but the rods in your retina can detect it if it hits the retina.
Also, this article makes several points that contradict your position: “Towards Quantum Experiments with Human Eyes as Detectors Based on Cloning via Stimulated Emission.” Physical Review Letters 103, 113601 (2009).
As for the others, no, you cannot see a sub-atomic particle, but you can experimentally detect its presence, behavior and effects.

I'm leaving this discussion, I see where this is going and, for me, it is an utter waste of time. There is no point in attempting to unite nominalism and your positivist stance. Have a nice night Tom.

wtompepper's picture

Thanks for that reference--it looks interesting.

Yes, this isn't going anywhere--I am obviously not able to make my point clearly here; I am absolutely an opponent of positivism, and my position is realist, not nominalist. If I seem to be attempting to unite nominalism with positivism, I'm just not being clear enough about what I am saying. '

I do take it to be an important point in the modernization of Buddhism, though. There is a long tradition in the West of trying to find "proof" of Buddhism in Western science, in order, it seems, to make that science function as a kind of religion. The different "scientific truths" that are purportedly asserted in Buddhism and proven by science range from mesmerism to the positive effects of "bare attention" on blood pressure.

My suggestion would be to instead use Buddhist thought as a caution against reifying our conceptual models. Nagarjuna argued almost 2000 years ago that we must always keep in mind that we think in conventional metaphors or models, but that reality might always be different from the conventions in which we think it. When we reify our metaphors, we wind up in delusion. If we think we really "see" light as particles or waves, that those metaphors are literally what light "is", then we lose the ability to think that instead of sometimes "being" a particle and sometimes "being" a wave, we could think of light in a different metaphor, which covers and predicts all the different behaviors we want to predict. We can't even think of a new metaphorical model so long as we are stuck on reifying the old ones.

Instead of "modernizing" Buddhism by using science to cut our all those teachings we don't like, we might be better served by using Buddhism to help us think about the philosophy of science in better ways.

Dominic Gomez's picture

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin at some point does seem irrelevant to life's more immediate issues.

Danny's picture

Those interested in understanding the points Tom is making should read his excellent article "Nargarjuna, Hume, and the God Particle" over at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site.

wtompepper's picture

If I seem to be talking about dancing angels, I'm really not making my point clearly, so it's time to give up. Maybe someday, I'll find a better way to explain this point--for now, I'll just have to keep in mind that many, many people have already done so, perhaps more clearly than I can--and none of them were foolish enough to try to do it in online comments!

celticpassage's picture

Maybe this is a bit simplistic, but perhaps you are trying to say that light is invisible. We do not Actually see light but know of it's presence by it's effect: light striking the retina.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your point is quite clear, Tom. As far as Buddhism is concerned it is but one perspective of the totality of life. The middle way addresses such tendencies of mind.

donsalmon7's picture

Hey Tom - I like what you're saying very much (if I appeared to be overly contentious in my February, 2012 comments on your Wallace book review - my apologies).

I've found that Owen Barfield's book, "Saving the Appearances", has been very helpful in getting across your point that (if i've got it correctly) much of what contemporary scientists consider to be "empirical" are actually metaphorical judgments. (I love his phrase, "residue of unresolved positivism" which he employs frequently in the book).

Christine Skarda (who has a number of excellent neuroscience articles on Linda Heuman's website) has very good essay on perception which, I think, speaks to your concern about positivist science. I've found James Corrigan's "introduction to Awareness" to be an outstanding critique of positivism and physicalism.

Also, I've mentioned before in these comments, but I'll say again, Michel Bitbol's online article, "Is Consciousness Primary" is another excellent resource.

I'll also not so modestly mention my "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor", which I posted at integralworld.net in summer, 2011. I've since realized a number of conceptual problems with it (I was attempting to speak from "within" the materialist/physicalist perspective while simultaneously questioning it; not an easy task), but I still think you might find some of it congenial.

I do wonder - this is just wondering out loud; if you don't want to get into this online, I understand - if one sets aside virtually all "Buddhist" references in Wallace's book about Buddhist skeptics, and just considers his critique of positivism, if there might not be more in the book that is in line with your own way of seeing.

Thanks, it's been nice to read you from a different perspective. (if you'd like to write, you can reach me at donsalmon7[at]gmail; i'd love to read more of your critique of positivism)

wtompepper's picture

donsalmon: regarding Wallace's critique of positivism, I did mention in the review you're referring to that I do agree with Wallace that reductive-materialism will never find the mind in the brain; I still would disagree with his assumption that in order to escape this positivist reductionism we need to accept the existence of what he calls a "substrate consciousness" which transcends this world and will ultimately reside in pure bliss once it escapes its phenomenal existence. This is James's strategy as well--since reductive positivism cannot explain the mind, the only alternative is there must be a god and our "souls" are the seat of consciousness. My concern to critique the reification of scientific models above is an interest is avoiding this false dilemma.

And there's no need to apologize for being contentious. The rejection of vigorous argument, and therefore of real commitment to any position, is one of the greatest sources of delusion in our postmodern culture. As I have often had occasion to say on the SNB blog, if you won't argue for your position, then shut up, nobody needs to hear more assertions of indefensible nonsense. Be contentious, for the good of the human race!

donsalmon7's picture

Thanks for the clarification, Tom. Do you have any articles online (or anywhere else) in which you make a more indepth critique of reductive materialism?

donsalmon7's picture

regarding Ted Meissner, pragmatic buddhists, x-buddhists and batchelorites - I am consistently baffled by the self-characterization of materialist/physicalists as being free of assumptions. There is this strange idea that matter or "physical" are concepts that are empirical, rather than being matters of pure faith, extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof (far more than anything in the parapsychological or NDE realm), something far more outlandish, dogmatic and unbelievable than the "God" that led Tertullian to say, "I believe because it is impossible."

At least the "God" that some speak of is potentially something that is within what the phenomenologists call our individual "lived experience" (which, given current limitations that science places on epistemology, is all we can know directly - which of course is absurd, psychotic and autistic, but then, that's the nature of faith-based dogmatic belief systems like materialism). But "matter" - well, by definition, as soon as you have some instrument detecting its presence, or you come into contact with "it", that "matter" is now simply an objective correlate of subjective perception, which is not a duality but simply the two inseparable poles of lived experience.

But the materialist, motivated in part by fear and also by perhaps a legitimate fear of a revival of superstition, insists on creating a strange unwieldy dualistic doctrine (which, - Axis II anybody? - he insists - to the point of being outraged, or at least smugly superior - when anybody points out he is still putting forth a dualistic faith) which is, in Karl Popper's phrasing, unfalsifiable, therefore outside the realm of empirical science. This "matter" (or, physical something, now that we know that 19th century matter never existed) is intangible, inaudible, invisible, unfindable, in a way far beyond the claims of mystics and contemplatives who at least have some experience of what they're claiming.

And so smug, so superior are these materialists, when asked for even one iota of proof, one shred of evidence, they dismiss the request, saying like Todd Akin it's just so, this is the way it is and if you don't see it my way you're just hopelesly ignorant.

And finally, to top it off, they see themselves as rational, empirical, without burdensome assumptions, and those trying to develop a truly empirical science are then the targets of endless faith based debunking efforts.

Fundamaterialism - a dualist faith based belief system which is the root of all religious fundamentalism!

Fortunately, we have a mid 20th century writer, Ayn Rand, back in the news, who demonstrates what happens when one truly attempts to apply fundamaterialism to the affairs of the world. Her objectivism inspired Alan Greenspan, and despite his protestations, Paul Ryan.

PS (aug 25) I just reread Jack's August 23 submission: such a beautiful, open-minded approach to science! Thank you. (also, I hope my impassioned sardonic description of the materialist religion was not taken simply as being "mean spirited". I actually think the various priests and bishops of the fundamaterialist church (those like Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Alcock, Blakemore, etc) are sincere, in a way. I think they really do feel they are protecting science from superstition. And actually, it's unfortunate the parapsychological researchers like Dean Radin, whom I admire greatly, don't give more attention to the dangers of psi, which Buddhism and other traditions have warned about for thousands of years)