Tuesday December 18, 2007
Owen Flanagan’s new book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World 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.
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