Tuesday December 18, 2007

really hard problem

Owen Flanagan’s new book is an impressively wide-ranging exploration of the possibilities of meaning within a world conceived naturalistically, which is to say, materialistically.

I have written about materialism on thinkBuddha before, several times, and I still find materialism a far less troubling proposition than many of my Buddhist and Buddhish friends. When I say that I find materialism a considerably up-beat idea, often I wonder if people imagine me wandering glassy-eyed in the shopping malls for hours on end, or else reclining on soft couches being fed grapes by languid concubines. But, no. I do not have much of a predilection for shopping (except for books, and here I confess a weakness!), nor do I have the kind of couch that invites such sybaritic lounging – although Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, does his best. My materialism is an much more ontological kind, and is rooted in the fact that I find it impossible to imagine what it might mean to say that any entity whatsover is ontologically distinct from the material nexus of which we are all a part. To which the retort will possibly be that I am guilty of a failure of the imagination. To which my response can only be: oh well.

Materialism is none too popular in the Buddhist world. Way back in 1954, in an editorial in The Maha Bodhi, the then Buddhist monk Sangharakshita wrote that “Those who are seeking to combat, by means of Buddhism, materialism in all its forms, are no doubt doing humanity in general and the Buddhist world in particular a great service”. Buddhism as the bulwark against materialism in all its forms. And much more recently, B. Alan Wallace has claimed that:

scientific materialism […] is widely accepted by many scientists and nonscientists, and it is this dogma in general that presents formidable obstacles to any meaningful collaboration between Buddhism and science.

I must admit to finding Wallace’s position perplexing. There has, to my knowledge, already been a fair amount of meaningful collaboration between Buddhism and science, and scientific materialism does not seem to have presented much of an obstacle so far. Indeed, I think it has made this meaningful collaboration possible. Flanagan cites his own research into meditation and indicators of happiness, referring to the “remarkably frisky” left pre-frontal cortex of the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. But at the same time, he refuses, rightly I think, to see scientific materialism as a bar to this meaningful collaboration (or, as I would prefer to think of it research). Flanagan writes

While it is true… that there is serious and much welcomed ongoing collaboration between Buddhists and neuroscientists on the way certain Buddhist practices take advantage of brain plasticity, it is false that this vindicates the philosophical idea that immaterial mental events can or do cause the changes in the subjects. The view that immaterial stuff or properties can cause anything to happen is an idea, which despite numerous noble efforts no one has ever been able to make sense of. The idea that it is possible is inconsistent with all known scientific law. “From something immaterial nihil fit.”

Whilst this may sound to some ears like a cold and chilly kind of reductionism (although – as attentive readers of this blog will know – I am not averse to a spot of reductionism), Flanagan recognises that we are also creatures who spin webs of meaning in the world. We cannot fail to do so. We live not just through falsifiable concepts, but through art and poetry and hope and so on. The world is meaningful in many ways, not because there is anything non-natural going on, but because we are the kind of material beings that we are, wired up in the way we are, with the kind of histories that we have – both individually and collectively – and the kind of minds that we have. Yet all of this, once again, can be understood naturalistically, which is to say materialistically.

Once Bertrand Russell said that scientific materialism left us with nothing to build the human soul upon but “unyielding despair”. Flanagan’s book, I think, does a considerable service in persuading us that Russell was guilty of an error, and a melodramatic one at that. Here we are, material beings in a material world. But far from being a cause of emptiness, gloom and unyielding despair, Flanagan points out that within this material conception of things, things nevertheless matter. They really matter.

# · Loden Jinpa

Hi Will,

My copy of Owen’s book is in the mail.

Did you see this on my blog…

I’d be interested to hear your reaction of this podcast.

# · Michael

Well said.

While I don’t see any conflict between Buddhism ideals and a scientific worldview I do see significant conflict between the sort of syncretic Buddhism and the scientific worldview. This is the sort of Buddhism that has inherited the local spiritual culture and raises a ‘spiritual’ realm for the Buddhism ideals to live within.

For me, I am finding myself adopting a more materialist philosophy day by day but this hasn’t lessened the significance of my practice and experience, it’s only shifted my perspective on it.

# · Pali Gap

If I remove one naughty word from your core statement, I find it very appealing:

“I find it impossible to imagine what it might mean to say that any entity whatsoever is ontologically distinct from the nexus of which we are all a part”.

The bad word is of course “material” – the material nexus.

In other words I share your taste for monism, but I think the materialism that hitches a ride on the back of this otherwise sound instinct is an imposter!

What is that concept of materialism adding (or, better, denying)? After all, is not reasonable to ask ourselves whether science is any longer materialist? Post-Newtonian physics describes a world that has little in common with the simple, passive, lifeless and conscious-less “stuff” that the concept of “matter” denotes. For example, we have “action at a distance” (quantum entanglement); the idea of a “nothing” that can indeed produce a “something”; and a central role for the “observer” (Schrodinger’s cat). Perhaps it would be better to say that the reductionism of modern science is flowing backwards, from the material to the immaterial?

# · Will

Naughty? What’s so naughty about matter? I don’t think that the sciences are no longer materialist, only that matter is much more interesting than we once thought that it was, and thus materialism is a much more interesting prospect.


# · Pali Gap

But surely the “interest” of materialism as a doctrine is inversely proportional to how “interesting” we make our concept of matter? By which I mean this. Let’s suppose some scientist had claimed “The moon is made of green cheese”. Then we send a rocket to the moon which returns with
some dust. If on being shown this our scientist were to say some such as “well that only goes to show what interesting properties green cheese
has”, we would realise that further discussion would probably be futile!

The appeal of materialism has always been to explain the complex and mysterious by the straightforward and unproblematic (such as simple,
non-self-aware atoms bumping into each other in various ways). If you invest those atoms with fantastical powers, the explanatory force is
lost surely?

Materialism has some shady characters for bedfellows in my opinion. I would think it is related to Determinism (but does not imply it I suppose). But it is necessarily Reductionist and Nominalist I would imagine. I would say that modern physics is definitely problematic for the reductionist project. It is not so much that we are uncovering a simpler, easy-to-understand reality that explains the complex and puzzling everyday world. It’s more like those Russian dolls: The realities revealed to us behind appearances are at least as rich, puzzling, and baffling as the world we started off from.

Interestingly (at least I think it’s interesting!) the way that scientific materialism has been left behind by physics over the last 100 years or so has its parallel in the failure of mathematical reductionism in the same period. Frege and Russell discovered that the mystery of mathematical truth cannot be explained away by a reduction to mathematical “atoms” (viz the self-evident truths of logic). Furthermore the world opened to our eyes by modern mathematics seems to share that same flavour of immaterial sorcery and witchcraft as the world of quantum mechanics (eg. Cantor’s universe of infinities and Godel’s incompleteness theorem).

Being nominalists (I think!), the nature of mathematical truth is in any case a real difficulty for materialists. As is scientific “truth” i.e. the nature of the reality of the “laws” that govern the behavior of the posited “matter”. Indeed two great philosophers of science, Charles S. Peirce & Karl Popper, both believed in an ontological trinity of a material world, a subjective world and a Platonic third world so as to accommodate the nature of scientific laws.

Finally, try as I might, I can’t get the hang of the concept of “Buddhist materialism”. What is Buddhism without the idea of a journey from
ignorance to self-knowledge? (Or have I got that wrong?). And how can we think of matter “knowing itself”, unless this “matter” concept has semantic properties in common with the green cheese I mentioned earlier?

# · Will

OK, we’re probably not going to agree on this one, although when you write that “The realities revealed to us behind appearances are at least as rich, puzzling, and baffling as the world we started off from”, I would have to say that I’m with you all the way.

The difference is, I think, that I just don’t see how these are non-material realities, or – if they are – what kind of realities they are.

I fail to see the charm or the usefulness of your rather minimal definition of matter. If you see materiality as a matter of dull clods of stuff incapable of doing anything interesting, then to be sure quantum weirdness will seem to have what you nicely term the “flavour of immaterial sorcery”. But this is, perhaps, only a matter of seeming. If, however, we allow our sense of what matter is to be broadened by the astonishing results of empirical research that we have seen over the last century or so, then we start to approach a richer and stranger conception of what matter is.

As for Buddhist materialism, there may of course be no such thing. I don’t know. As I have said before on this blog, I’m far more Buddhish than I am Buddhist. And Buddhish materialism seems a much more straightforward prospect, particularly if you do not consign matter to the realm of the cloddish. Here’s Buddhish writer Stephen Batchelor on the subject:

The emerging understanding of reality disclosed by the natural sciences evokes in me feelings or awe incomparably greater than anything religious or mystical writings of any tradition can inspire. Far from being just dumb, inert stuff, matter is wondrously, abundantly, profusely alive.

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