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I’ve been reading Owen Flanagan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, and I’ve come across a passage that I am afraid might be hopelessly confused. Flanagan’s overall project is to articulate a version of Buddhism that is naturalistic (i.e., consistent with what science tells us about the world), hence the subtitle. The passage in question concerns the reduction of the mental to the physical and the possibility (defended by some Buddhists) that there might be special states of consciousness that do not correlate with (and thus are not reducible to) states of the brain. Flanagan articulates two different theories about mental states that guide brain research. The first is the identity theory according to which, in Flanagan’s words, “all mental states are in fact brain states.” It is in describing the second, a view that he calls the neural correlate view (NCV), that things get a little fishy:

The second view . . . can be understood as quietistic or agnostic as far as commitment to metaphysical physicalism goes (the view that what there is, and all that there is, is “physical,” that is, matter and energy transfers). Although NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates, it need neither endorse nor condemn the view that the subjective properties of every experience are reducible to or exhausted by the neural underpinnings of that experience. Perhaps subjectively experienced mental states have sui generis properties that are nonphysical.

Although proponents of the neural correlate view usually assume, as do proponents of the identity theory, that there will be neural property correlates for all the features of mental states as detected first-personally, the view doesn’t actually entail this. Since identity is not claimed, it is possible that mental states might be caused by or correlated with brain states, but that the neural correlates do not contain specific matches (correlates) for each and every property revealed at the mental level. (52, emphasis added)

The idea seems to be that proponents of NCV want to admit the possibility that there are at least some non-physical mental properties.  The claim that there are mental properties (or properties of mental states) that are not reducible to neural properties sounds an awful lot like property dualism. Property dualism, at least as I understand it, is the view that the mental realm (or at least part of it) is characterized by properties that are not the same as nor reducible to any physical properties. Property dualism is a rejection of the identity theory. While a property dualist will agree that all mental states are correlated with a physical state of the brain, they insist that mental states have properties that are not reducible (or identical with) physical states of the brain.

One way to describe NCV might be as follows: NCV is metaphysically open while the identity theory is metaphysically closed. The identity theory says that the world is composed only of physical states and so it does not allow into its worldview any state or property that is not physical. NCV says that it is possible that there are non-physical mental properties; it is open to the existence of such properties but not committed to it. Another way of saying this is that NCV is the view that property dualism might be true. I’m not certain that this is how Flanagan understands NCV but, in any event, this understanding gets rather problematic given the sentence immediately following the above passage: “It is even possible on NCV that there are no neural correlates for some rare and special mental states.” (52)

Flanagan here appears to allow that NCV admits the possibility of free-floating mental states that have no brain state correlates. There are a few problems with this. First, it belies the name, neural correlate view. Second, it admits the possibility of a kind of dualism more akin to substance dualism. Property dualism insists that every mental state is correlated with a brain state, but that mental states are characterized by properties that are not physical. If there are mental states without neural correlates, this suggests that the mental is a different kind of substance. And this would imply that NCV is even more metaphysically open than indicated above: it is open to the existence not just of non-physical properties, but non-physical substance. This is something that I doubt a naturalist and materialist such as Flanagan would be happy to accept as consistent with materialism.  Finally, it directly contradicts what Flanagan says about NCV is the passage above: “NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates.”

So there are two potential renderings of NCV: (1) There are possibly non-physical mental properties. (2) There are possibly mental states that have no brain state correlates (which implies, does it not, that there are possibly non-physical mental states?).

This might be written off as just a bit of sloppy editing were it not for the fact that Flanagan goes on to employ the mental states reading of NVC in a brief discussion of the Dalai Lama’s claim that some states of consciousness induced by Buddhist meditation are unlikely to have neural correlates. Now Flanagan does not say whether he regards NCV as a materialist theory, but he does express disdain for those that would use the metaphysical openness of NCV to promote dualism: “NCV can be used in this way to reintroduce various mental will-o’-the-wisps that will please those with dualist hopes, aspirations, or tendencies.” (52)

The Dalai Lama, apparently, is such a person. Flanagan continues, “the Dalai Lama expressed doubt that, at least in the case of states of “luminous consciousness” (on some interpretations identical to achieving nirvana in this life), any neural correlates will be found for this extraspecial type of conscious mental state.” (53) But Flanagan has no sympathy for this view and, after briefly recounting the Dalai Lama’s argument, declares the position to be inconsistent with naturalism: “This sort of expansive use of NCV is driven purely by antecedent commitment to a view that is antimaterialist, not by any features of the evidence; as such it is nonnaturalist.” (53)

Notice also that it is not NCV itself that is allegedly nonnaturalist, but the Dalai Lama’s use of it. If a view is consistent with naturalism, then how is that a particular use of the view can be nonnaturalist? It appears that what is worrisome to Flanagan is not that the Dalai Lama is committed to a view with peculiar metaphysical commitments, but that the Dalai Lama only accepts that view because it allows him to articulate and defend his own position which he has a prior commitment to. So, the Dalai Lama’s error, it seems, is that his commitment to his metaphysical view of the mind is driven not by the evidence, but by his religion. That’s a legitimate criticism, but it does not make the Dalai Lama’s view nonaturalist. It may be contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry, as believing, despite a lack of evidence, that there was an ancient alien civilization on Mars is contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry. But that a theory is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it nonnaturalist.

But is the Dalai Lama’s position inconsistent with naturalism? I think that would be a difficult case to make. I’m reminded of Galen Strawson’s version of physicalism as defended in his “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” But let’s put that argument aside. A great deal might depend on whether the Dalai Lama understands his position as a version of substance dualism or property dualism. If he is a substance dualist, then the case that he is a nonnaturalist could potentially be stronger (but see Strawson). But if he is a property dualist, then the case will be weaker. Usually property dualists (I’m thinking of John Searle and Thomas Nagel in particular) will describe their views as non-physicalist or non-materialist; but they are also very insistent that they are completely naturalistic. Property dualists typically conceive of mental properties as distinct from physical properties and yet through and through natural.

The main problem, as far as Flanagan’s position goes, is that he does not say whether NCV is consistent with naturalism (at least not at this point of the book). He articulates two different versions of it (the first, that all mental states have neural correlates; the second, the some mental states might not have neural correlates), but he does not say whether either or both is inconsistent with naturalism. My point about the Dalai Lama’s argument is that there is no reason to ascribe nonnaturalism to him if his views are consistent with a naturalist position, even if he adopts his beliefs for non-scientific reasons.

I just started reading, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. Literally just started, I’ve read just a few pages, and already I’ve found quite a lot that is problematic, as might be expected. One thing that might not strike many as terribly problematic concerns the following sentence:

I (Frank) enrolled in that class [a university course on the Old Testament] because I was in the midst of a spiritual search. I didn’t want any religious party line. I just wanted to know if there was a God or not.

Well, the search for the answer to the question “Is there a God?” is one kind of spiritual search but it is hardly the only kind. In our culture, dominated as it is by monotheistic religious conceptions, it is naturally to assume that a spiritual search entails searching for God. (Some might even assume that these are the same quest.) You can find some such presupposition in the common view that to be an atheist is to be non-religious or non-spiritual. But these assumptions are misguided as any study of non-monotheistic religions will reveal.

In fact, if we read early buddhist texts, such as the Cala-Malunkya Sutta or the Tevijja Sutta, we find the Buddha claiming that excessive concern with speculative metaphysical issues (of which the question of the existence of a transcendent god is most certainly an example) is a hindrance to progress on any spiritual journey. For Buddhism, the spiritual quest is the search for a path to relieve the sense of dissatisfaction with life. Relieving this dissatisfaction, for a Buddhist, will have nothing to do with finding out whether God exists.

One of the problems with recent discourse about religion and atheism is that atheists have often been presented (and often present both themselves and atheists more broadly) as hostile to religion and spirituality more generally. This is wrong. Atheism is just the belief that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator. There have been many atheists, e.g., Camus, Sartre (and other existentialists), Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and others who are very much interested in something that, while obviously very different than most mainstream religious thought, is still recognizably connected to what is called religion and/or spirituality.

My concern with Theism is not so much that it is false. It is false, but so is the belief in Bigfoot. The problem with Theism is that it distorts our perception of reality, it blinds us to deeply important aspects of our world and ourselves.

In this post I’ll explore an example of what I am getting at. And while it is true that not all theists fall victim to the distortion that I will describe, the example is illustrative nonetheless.

The example concerns theistic ethics, in particular the epistemological problem with the divine command theory. Briefly, the problem is that if the divine command theory is true, then given some plausible assumptions, we can never (or very rarely) have knowledge of what is right and wrong. If what is right is constituted by what God commands, then we cannot know what we ought to do unless we know what God has commanded. But how can we know this? We don’t hear a voice from the heavens saying, “don’t hurt one another” and even if we did, how would we know that it is God’s voice? Perhaps the guidelines written in some religious text are indicative of God’s commands. But it is equally (actually more) likely that these texts are culturally conditioned. Whether or not we believe that it is reasonable to believe that God inspired the Bible, it is at least as reasonable to doubt that He did. And if we can’t be sure, then we can’t be sure what God expects of us.

So this is the first distorting effect: Instead of proceeding rationally into an inquiry concerning morality, the divine command theory says that we need to consult an unseen supernatural deity. Now, without the divine commander, how can we proceed? Without God we can only rely on our own intuition, our reason, and the insights and arguments of thoughtful and insightful people from across the ages. But this actually gets us pretty far. Whatever you may think of his account of morality, Kant’s investigation into the concept of absolute duty is extremely insightful. An appreciation of the works of people from such diverse philosophical perspective as Buddhism, Utilitarianism, Judaism, Kantianism, (too name just a few) agree that morality is specifically concerned with how we treat others. The Buddha, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Mill, Confucius, and many more all agreed that morality requires that we treat the interests of others as in some sense equal to our own.

So we can gain important insight into the requirements of morality without worrying about God. Or so it would be if the divine command theory is false. Because the divine command theory tells us that we cannot know anything about what is morally required until we know what God has commanded. It is this idea that involves the distortion of reality I am talking about.

The truth is that we don’t need to know what God commands to know, for example, that hurting others just for fun is wrong. Indeed, out natural moral commitments are so strong that if any one of us (even a divine command theorist) found himself in the position of believing that God has commanded him to kill someone who does not deserve it, the only reasonable response would be to doubt that God had really issued this command.

Abraham, for example, should have told God (or, rather, the being who claimed to be God) that since God is a just being and since it is wrong to kill a young boy who does not deserve it, the fact that He has commanded him to kill Isaac is actually evidence that He is not God.

Philip Quinn disagrees with this conclusion. In a paper called “God and Morality,” Quinn argues that

It is therefore within God’s power to give Abraham a sign that would make him certain that he has been commanded to kill his son. Suppose, for example, that one night, in the twinkling of an eye, the stars in the sky are rearranged to spell out the sentence “ABRAHAM, SACRIFICE ISAAC!” Abraham observes this transformation of the heavens. Observers all over the world, some of whom do not even know English, testify that they now see this patter in the night sky, and Abraham learns of this testimony and uses it to rule out the possibility that he is hallucinating. . . In such circumstances, it seems to me, Abraham would be crazy not to believe that he had been divinely commanded to kill his son.

This argument suffers what I have previously called a stunning failure of imagination. Surely Quinn must admit the possibility that other very powerful beings exist that might want to get us to commit horrible acts. It would be reasonable for Abraham to believe that someone (someone very powerful) wants him to kill his son, but there is no way for Abraham to know that God has so commanded him. Consider the following four explanations for Abraham’s experience:

Explanation (G): God wants me to kill Isaac so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son. –From God”

Explanation (S): Satan wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (E): Some other sadistic supernatural and very powerful entity wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (A): An omnipotent evil deity (who I have previously called Asura) wants me to kill my son and so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son.—From God.”

There is no means to adjudicate between explanations G, S, E, or A. Given the evidence, all four are equally likely. So it is just false that if Abraham saw the stars rearrange and spell out, “Abraham, kill your son.—God” that he would be foolish not to conclude that God wants him to kill Isaac. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that Satan or some very powerful deity is trying to fool him. So how is Abraham to decide? He can just decide to believe, on faith that none of S, E, A or any other alternative to G is true, and that he has been commanded by God to kill his son. But this will be a leap over his natural moral inclinations. Alternatively, he could decide the issue in just the way that a non-theist would: he could conclude that he is so committed to the notion that it would be wrong to kill Isaac that the being who is commanding him to do so is not worth worshipping or obeying. But this would be to acknowledge the failure of the divine command theory to guide our actions.

And this is the key point: A non-theist can rest on his/her own experience of reality (including moral reality) and insist that it could not possible be morally acceptable to kill a young boy who does not deserve it. But a theist who accepts the divine command theory cannot give this kind of priority to his/her own experience. Such a person must be willing to subvert her own deeply held moral commitments to the will of God (in whatever way the will of that being reveals itself).

I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism).  This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me.  In any event:

The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God.  Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist.  I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs.  The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.

Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day.  This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me.  So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.

In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain.  This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.

This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs.  And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils.  Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway).  Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself.  In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own.  Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.

So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives.  My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective.  If I were to feel  the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive?  Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living.  But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.

How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God?  To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.

I doubt that I can offer a very good answer to the question that I posed in my last post.  Instead I will try to make the question as compelling as I can.  Last time I asked why experiencing awe would generate feelings of moral compulsion.  I want to expand this question a bit by adding the observation that religious belief seems to presuppose that an experience of ultimate reality will be profoundly joyful and will change one’s life for the better.  Why should this be?  Knowledge of ultimate reality, whether conceived as a personal God, impersonal Brahman, Buddha-nature, indifferent matter, etc., etc.,  is, at first blush, simply that: knowledge.   Knowledge is not always pleasant.  Why should knowledge of whatever kind bring with it, of necessity, any change in the understanding of one’s duty, values, or emotions?  Why shouldn’t one’s reaction to a genuine experience of the divine be indifference, ambivalence, or even revulsion leading to outright opposition?

For example: The Buddhist path to liberation  insists that an accurate perception and understanding of ultimate reality leads not only to an end to dukkha (suffering) but to compassion for all sentient beings.  The question is why would my comprehending ultimate truths yield a concern for others?

Why should a fundamental and deep understanding of impermanence or sunyata (emptiness) automatically result in the cessation of grasping?  Why shouldn’t the reaction to impermanence be one of noble, if sisyphean, opposition based on a fundamental aversion to the reality that nothing is permanent.  In other words, why shouldn’t the arhat, upon realizing the truth of impermanence say, “Yes, nothing lasts, everything is impermanent, and that sucks!”  If one is truly attached to the idea of a permanent self, wouldn’t the realization that there is no such thing bring utter despair; a realization not of the beauty and goodness of ultimate reality but that reality is ultimately inimical to human nature (or at least my nature).

To put the question in a monotheistic context: Why shouldn’t Moses, upon learning of the jealous and wrathful nature of God, break the Tablets not in anger at his fellow countrymen but in passionate fury at God?

The notion of righteous rage at the ultimate power receives its best articulation in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.  Oceanus’ counsel may be wise but hardly consistent with personal integrity: “we are ruled by one whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account.  Acknowledge this, and cease to kick against the goad.”  For Prometheus, that ultimate truth is not to be embraced; and he endured brutal torture rather than acknowledge Zeus’ authority.

The great religions of the world insist that Prometheus’ reaction is inconceivable; When one comes face to face with the Ultimate, say these faiths, one cannot help but  recognize a fundamental harmony between one’s innermost self and that Ultimate Reality and consequently experience bliss, ultimate satisfaction, and a deep love and respect for all.  But why should this be?  Every spiritual path entails sacrifice, perhaps most crucially one must abandon one’s own self interests in the pursuit of  (allegedly) higher goals.  But why think that the values that are revealed during a genuine experience of the divine will be consistent with my own.  Again, supposing that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is true, why should it be that a full realization of this truth puts an end to self-centered desire and leads to peace and ultimate bliss?  Why shouldn’t one rail against the absurdity that that which we most desire, i.e. immortality (the indefinite persistence of oneself), is fundamentally impossible?

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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