Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Extremely well said

Very interesting to see the date on this piece. As he says (a couple of paragraphs from the end) Algebra was invented by the Muslims. Many things begin with one intent and de-volve over time into something quite different, as in my view Mr. Harris' efforts appear to be.

The question raised: Is language ever not a metaphor? Can we ever lose consciousness of that?

Killing the Buddha

By Sam Harris

“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

This is not to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer the world. One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. In a world that has long been terrorized by fratricidal Sky-God religions, the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. But this will not happen. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Buddhism can successfully compete with the relentless evangelizing of Christianity and Islam. Nor should it try to.

The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.

To talk about “Buddhism,” therefore, inevitably imparts a false sense of the Buddha’s teaching to others. So insofar as we maintain a discourse as “Buddhists,” we ensure that the wisdom of the Buddha will do little to inform the development of civilization in the twenty-first century.

Worse still, the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world. At this point in history, this is both morally and intellectually indefensible—especially among affluent, well-educated Westerners who bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas. It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that if you are reading this article, you are in a better position to influence the course of history than almost any person in history. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.

It is true that many exponents of Buddhism, most notably the Dalai Lama, have been remarkably willing to enrich (and even constrain) their view of the world through dialogue with modern science. But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or even the Dalai Lama’s own lineage, is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism. Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving discourse about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.

For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

The Problem of Religion

Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed. Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it has been at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims vs. Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. These are places where religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in recent decades.

Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us–them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics.

Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.
Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.

It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the occasions for interfaith dialogue. The end game for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. All parties to ecumenical religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide, and yet these very points remain perpetual sources of bewilderment and intolerance for their coreligionists. Political correctness simply does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

A Contemplative Science

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. We do not yet have anything like a final understanding of such processes, but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.

Killing The Buddha, Sam Harris, Shambhala Sun, March 2006.

To order this copy of the Shambhala Sun, click here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

things are probably going to get better soon (relatively speaking)

if i appeared to be making a case for eliminating belief then this would be another example of my poor ability to explain my own thoughts.

not believing the santa claus story does not imply an absence of belief. same with use of the Burqua.

these are nothing more than systems of control. so if you understand that (even if you are five years old) you have an edge on the rest of the world. and you can be thinking about ways to get out of your situation if that is what you need to do. then you can make a choice.

you know at least one person who does not believe just about everything around them. that is me.

for a long time i went right along with it but at some point it just stopped making sense and it is not always particularly pleasant living this way but it is a choice.

i think the true scientist is always hoping that his/her conclusion will be transcended as you say with a more complete belief. call it refined. yes, this is part of the question of understanding belief to begin with. that is where i like to tell myself that i am. sure i believe certain things about certain things and i am always willing to update those beliefs when new information comes along. infinite empiricism rules.

the popular argument against that is to portray it as a pointless existence centered on doubt and negativism. but this too is just another attempted system of fear based control. ultimately a lot more gets learned when a lot more is doubted. when it became obvious to me how much there was to know and how little i would ultimately know it was a very cathartic realization to say wow so i get to learn something new constantly. how cool is that.

i also understand that everyone has a unique perspective and that there are lots of different beliefs resulting from that but i am committed to not encouraging people to believe junk. so if i find someone who appears to be committed to junk ideas i just keep my distance. this is a sort of passive resistance to junk thinking. if i get pinged on something that i have given a good deal of thought to however then i generally have something to say. and sadly for me, it often comes out in a caustic sort of way. this is good old New York enculturation.

generally there is a giant shortage of empathy in the world. or at least the expression of it. the way it appears to me, getting along is not much more complicated than understanding that concept.

i believe that there already is a common morality. always has been, always will be. the generic term for it is empathy.

we all know it intuitively. it is pretty apparent in children pre language acquisition. you can see it in their frequent expressions of empathy.

i believe that our in-ability to practice it actively comes along post language acquisition. because language is always partial. always assumptions of assumptions and most people fail to give that any thought. most children are taught that not knowing an answer is bad so most stop asking questions at some point early in the game and just succumb to the systems of control. particularly the fear based ones. toe the line in their immediate vicinity and survive at some level. recognizing at some point how often they were lied to with impunity and not being able to do a whole lot about that, other than seethe with anger.

maybe this explains why so many people fly off the handle when their opinions are challenged in any way.? or why so many scheme to deceive others?

there have been a number of people who have come to understand this in the last two or three thousand years and when they attempted to explain what they came to see, it all gets muddled with language. eventually some creative manipulator puts together another system of fear based control using fragmented pieces of those observations. the cycle continues.

my ideas about belief come from Krishnamurti. yes, there appears to be a contradiction in the absolute certainty of non absoluteness and i do not particularly mind being here because the belief that i hold in this only comes from having systematically ruled out all of the other popular possibilities that i have looked at. including what i understand Denett, Harris etc to be saying along with the way that they are saying it.

it is something akin to the truth in the statement that the only thing that does not change is that things are changing all of the time.

while these statements may appear to be recursively contradictory on the surface, they are probably just very clear examples of the poor quality of language as a medium for the expression of truthful phenomenon.

if you think about it, in terms of the length of time that most things that are around have been around, it is still early days for language, not to mention belief systems. so things are probably going to get better in the next few million years. i believe that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

infinite empiricism vs one assumption

Andre, if someone comes to you for a hair cut, you put them in the chair, say close your eyes, make noise with your scissors but never cut a strand of hair and then say: look beautiful YES! most elegant haircut you have ever had. then you are an alchemist. (successful if they pay and come back for more!).

if you cut hair people will like the result or not. sure you should advertise. you have every right to do so.

is there a universal law for good haircuts though?

don't think so. beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

this is my point. i can not tell you what is beautiful to you. that is your belief. i can though encourage you to understand your process of believing itself and potentially from your greater understanding of the process you might change your beliefs.

maybe not though. because belief is ultimately an intangible and ultimately self recursive right back to the moment that you first began to believe what the word 'me' or 'I' or 'it' means.....this is how complicated that process actually is. everything in our head (stored in language) is an assumption at some level.

everything needs to be questioned. and questioning does not mean rejecting full stop. questioning means shifting perspective to see from another angle. just as you do when you walk around a head of hair and what you see directly is never what your client sees in the mirror. and how often do they agree with you on some assessment of two different things?

there is a reason that someone came up with the very idea of Burqua to begin with this is what needs to be questioned to produce real change. i.e. the reason for the very idea. i.e. something at a much deeper level. not the Burqua itself or the system to put it to use.

Once the Burqua is eliminated (if so) something else will take its place if the process of belief is not more closely understood.

This is where Harris says he wants to make a difference but not where his efforts are directing attention.

when Bruce says that he is questioning whether science is more than empiricism. i would say that this is what science is: infinite empiricism questioning every answer and every assumption that led to any answer.

and the practice that replaces infinite empiricism with an end no matter where that end/assumption lies in the explanation is called religion/dogmatism.

from the Burqua to the cell phone?

perhaps my ultimate point is questioning the validity of his method as you mentioned in your second sentence.

isn't that exactly what all of the things that they (the righteous four) classify as 'bad' do already? i.e. challenge your existing beliefs? attempt to replace one set of incomplete/inaccurate/partial assumptions with yet another?

i need to get a tattoo because the people who do not have them are "------" fill in the blank and people who do have them are '_______' fill in the blank.

a fat man in a red outfit lands on my roof in the middle of winter and comes down my chimney with presents for me only if i eat my peas...

solving the dilemma of ridiculous beliefs has to start with understanding belief itself. not with claiming that certain beliefs are ridiculous and then saying something like 'how can you be so dumb as to not have seen that already like me!'

that, i believe, was the point that some of those guys were making in the recent piece. harris is drawing his own personally believed conclusions (Burqua use is BAD!!!!!) and insisting that there is empirical evidence to prove that it is so (i.e.UNIVERSALLY BAD!!!!!) therefore should not be done. PERIOD.

their point being that Burqua use (forced or voluntary) is a behavior that results from a belief. the content of the belief is random. for some it works. for others it does not. there is no universal for content (i.e. the belief). there is potentially universal law for understanding/explaining the context i.e. belief itself.

Harris claims universal BADNESS for all. immediately citing some (or many) extreme cases where the behavior generated by the belief has been really really bad for some (or many)

is he wrong about the extreme cases? no of course not but that does not extrapolate to: he is right about all.

this is not science. this is dogmatism. and his method is alchemy because he appears to be intelligent enough to understand exactly what he is doing. i.e. creating controversy (always talking about the extreme really bad things) for personal profit.

as you pointed out, he is supposedly a scientist not a novelist. so he should be writing research papers for peer review.

or maybe he could change his subject to the use of cell phones while operating a motor vehicle? there have been instances of people who believed that they could simultaneously safely drive a motor vehicle while not paying attention to the machine or their surroundings.

people have been killed or maimed in really horrific ways because of that ridiculous belief.

should we eliminate the motor vehicle? the cell phone?
or tell everyone that does the same thing that they are idiots and need to change their belief?

or is there another possibility such as a concerted effort to get children from the age of 5 for instance to start to look at belief (not beliefs) and understand what it is as a process and what it does in terms of generating behavior?