Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reflections on Materialism, Karma, and Food (part 1)

"The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in."—Rupert Sheldrake (a famous scientist)
"What opposes the heart is not admitted by the head. All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false." —Arthur Schopenhauer (a German philosopher)
     Imagine what would happen if, one day, a cup on somebody's table (maybe yours) were suddenly to levitate into the air and remain floating there, slowly bobbing and rotating with no visible means of support. Well, perhaps after first ascertaining that the phenomenon was not some practical joke, with no string or other gimmick holding the thing up, the average person's most likely reaction would be alarm, possibly even terror, possibly accompanied by shouts, screams, or exclamations of "Jesus Christ!" Why would a person be terrified by a coffee cup suddenly floating into the air? The cup wouldn't be threatening anybody with immanent harm; it would just be quietly floating there. The main reason why a person might be terrified by this cup would be the fact that they could not explain what was happening, and that the situation had suddenly become unpredictable, and therefore perceived as potentially very threatening.
     Here is a somewhat similar situation that I encountered many years ago in a short story by Ambrose Bierce: A man looks out his window and sees a clump of trees, yet one of the trees seems somehow different from all the rest—not with regard to what kind of tree it is, but with regard to how it feels to perceive it. This unexpected strangeness inspires alarm and dread in the heart of the man, until he realizes that the strange tree is actually a small tree much closer to him than the rest, which through an optical illusion he perceived as a member of the group of trees farther away. This momentary inability to explain a perceived phenomenon was sufficient to inspire fear in the person looking out the window. I would guess that this really happened to Mr. Bierce at one time. Similar things have happened to me; for example a fear-inspiring violent hailstorm that I encountered in a tropical semi-desert during very hot weather several years ago. The scariest thing about it was that I didn't know why it was happening.
     People are like this. This is human nature. We have a profound emotional need to explain everything around us. The explanation doesn't even have to be particularly sensible, or even true; all it has to be is emotionally satisfying. 
     This is one of the main, original reasons for religion and philosophy. Even in the stone age people couldn't stand not being able to explain what caused thunder or diseases, or what the stars are, or what brings bad harvests, or good hunting. And if they couldn't explain such things themselves, it was generally enough to have the simple faith that the witch doctors or priests or philosophers could explain them. This is one reason why witch doctors, priests, and philosophers have received so much respect and support over the ages. They help to give their people a feeling of emotional security. 
     This profound need for explanations results in human beings becoming addicted to and passionately defensive of whatever paradigm they depend upon as a world view. We don't want to examine too closely the basic foundations of our paradigm, for fear that we may find something unbelievable, with nothing conveniently available to replace it. Such an event could inspire fear and chaos in an entire population.
     700 years ago, people just as intelligent as we are, although with different cultural conditioning, were absolutely sure that God Almighty created the entire Universe in six days, taking the seventh day off as a holiday. This was really a very powerful explanation for everything: The LORD, in His infinite wisdom, made it that way. And if a simple medieval peasant couldn't explain it any better than that, he had faith that the priests certainly could, The LORD willing. The medieval European world view was actually in some ways stronger than the modern scientific world view; it all fell back on "God made it that way." That was good enough and comprehensive enough to keep people from worrying. It explained literally everything. Nowadays there are many things that the new religion of Scientism can't explain, although the average person is ignorant of this, or else has a simple faith that the scientists will figure it all out very soon. At first many people vehemently resisted science as a new way of explaining Reality, or else simply ignored the situation; but science could not be argued away like a rival dogma of Christianity could, as it had practical results that not only were obvious, but often useful besides. Science had reproducible, obvious evidence supporting it, it fueled technology, and, furthermore, it made sense. Gradually, more and more as it developed, science became a stupendous super-system which, for the most part, was comprehensive and self-consistent. This kind of explanatory system is very emotionally satisfying. (At a much smaller scale, a paranoid psychotic's ability to fit everything into his perceptual system in a way that supports his perceptions of persecution, etc., makes his world view extremely convincing, at least to him personally. It all makes perfect sense, in a way.) This helps to explain why the Western world has been sucked into an intellectual monoculture as limiting, in its own ways, as the intellectual monoculture of medieval Christianity, and much more spiritually bankrupt.
     But although scientific realism, or Scientism, is accepted without question by most Westerners, even by most humans nowadays, what are the odds that it will be accepted as the most correct interpretation of Reality by people 700 years from now? It may even appear as naively unrealistic to people 170 or even 70 years from now as medieval Scholasticism appears to scientists today. We naturally assume that scientific materialism is the correct interpretation of Reality, and do not want to question that because it would inspire some fearful insecurity, but in all probability Scientism itself will eventually be outmoded and replaced by something even more satisfyingly explanatory. Most people nowadays do not realize that Scientism is a huge, elaborate guess, or system of guesses. They may say that science has proof, but even philosophers of science know that there is no real proof, and furthermore those medieval Christians had their own proof that Christian theology was the correct interpretation—miracles produced by saints, or even by the relics of saints, were pretty solid evidence to people in those days. The danger of being burned at the stake for doubting the system was just icing on the cake.
     There have always been people who, for whatever reasons, have interpreted Reality in a way that rejects not only scientific materialism, but any materialism. Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta are two of the most advanced and profound spiritual/philosophical systems devised by the human mind, and both deny the ultimate existence of physical matter. Further west, Christian Science and the Idealist philosophies (predominantly German, and mostly of the 19th century, before the monoculture took over) have advocated the idea that the world is an Idea. Immanuel Kant considered it a great scandal that no philosopher had ever been able to demonstrate the real existence (or nonexistence) of physical matter; and philosophers a hundred years ago and more, very intelligent people by the way, often dismissed materialism with condescending disdain. In fact if one looks at logical demonstrations, one finds that the Idealists have more in their favor than do their materialistic rivals. But the practical results of Scientism, and the faith-inspiring, satisfying integratedness and self-consistency of the system, have drowned out logical demonstrations.
     Before getting back to Buddhist philosophy I will point out the strange paradox of scientific "certainty": Science begins by assuming what is uncertain, namely a physical world which goes on with its business unaffected whether or not a conscious mind is perceiving it—which cannot possibly be proved—and traditionally rejects, or at least tries to ignore, what is certain, i.e. the subjective existence of consciousness itself. During the 20th century there were even psychologists who denied the validity, or even the existence, of consciousness in their attempts at scientific objectivity. And to this day Scientism has no real explanation for how a physical brain could possibly generate consciousness. Modern technological peasants, in their simple faith in the priests of Scientism, either ignore all this or else assume that the scientists must have it figured out, or will figure it out soon. And if they can't figure it out, then it must not be important. Non-scientific modern philosophers have frequently adopted the obviously sensible strategy of starting with relative certainty, i.e. the existence of consciousness itself, and working from this in their attempts to understand reality, yet, ironically, science has adopted practically the opposite approach.  
     Many years ago in a used bookstore in Mandalay I latched onto an old college textbook on Indian Philosophy, written by two Hindu professors with long, unrememberable names like Dr. Sri Ramanujandas Krishnakumaraswami. Their discussion of Buddhism followed the method of medieval Hindu texts on comparative Indian Philosophy by dividing Buddhism into four categories, based largely on their respective epistemological doctrines. The first category was Madhyamaka, which, according to the Hindus at least, asserts that neither mind nor matter is ultimately real, and thus that neither can really be known. The second category, also Mahayanist, is Yogacara, which asserts that mind or consciousness is ultimately real, and can and is known directly, although matter, being ultimately illusory, cannot be really known at all. Thus the two main Mahayana schools are both non-materialist. (H. H. the Dalai Lama, considered to be a great sage in Western Dharma circles, is a leading member of the Madhyamaka or "Voidness" school.) The next group discussed is the Sautrantika school, a reform movement of "Hinayana" which rejected the authority of all Abhidharma texts. According to them, mind is ultimately real and can be known directly, while matter, also ultimately real, can be inferred with logical certainty, and thus can be known, with certainty, indirectly. The last on the list is called Vaibhashika, which in all likelihood is the same as Sarvastivada, an old school closely related to Theravada. This ancient school claimed that not only are both mind and matter ultimately real, but that they both can be known directly, and thus with absolute certainty. Apparently this last school was not taken very seriously by medieval Hindu philosophers, who hardly bothered to take the trouble to argue against it. This sort of reasoning had come to be considered naively unsophisticated by that time. It does, however, come closest to the Theravadin view—the Theravadins themselves having been mostly driven into southern India and elsewhere by early medieval times, no longer being a significant enough philosophical force in northern India to be mentioned in the comparative philosophy texts of the day. 
     One major difficulty that all the materialist/pluralist schools had, as represented on the Hindu list by Sautrantika and Vaibhashika, was in their explanations of how mind, which was considered to be ultimately, qualitatively different from matter, could affect or even generate (ultimately real) physical matter. Karma is a central and fundamental teaching of Buddhist philosophy; and karma is declared to be predominantly a mental state; yet karma somehow profoundly influences the seemingly physical system of our samsaric world. The Sarvastivadins converted karma into a quasi-material substance, much like the Jains did, although this didn't really solve the problem. In the Theravadin Abhidhamma philosophy there is mention of kammaja rūpa and cittaja rūpa—karma-born matter and mind-born matter—although, as far as I know, no serious attempt was ever made to explain how mind or mental states could create or even influence ultimately distinct physical matter. The whole situation was an early forerunner to the "mind/brain problem" in modern science. I doubt that anyone has ever really figured it out within a context that acknowledges materialism.
     But from a Buddhist point of view at least, an obvious, simple, effective solution to the problem is to allow physical matter to drop out of the equation. The existence of matter is not logically necessary anyway, and just leads to apparently insoluble problems, at least in Buddhist and Vedantist philosophy. After all, the word "Buddha" can be interpreted to mean Awakened; the implication being that Samsara is a kind of illusory dream state from which we awaken. Thus the more sophisticated systems dismissed matter, much as the successors of Kant in Europe dismissed it. It was seen as more of a logical embarrassment than an intellectually satisfying, actual explanation of the phenomenal world.  
     But of course, the assertions or even certainty of Mahayana Buddhists and other Idealists are no guarantee of truth, any more than are the assertions and certainty of modern scientific materialists who lean in the opposite direction. Or of medieval European Christians, for that matter, who were pretty damn sure of themselves too. Certainty appears to be no guarantee of anything, not even if it is the certainty of entire civilizations, regardless of what they consider to be obvious "proof." It is the nature of civilizations, including our own civilization, to be deludedly unenlightened. The primary purpose of a civilization, and also the primary purpose of a religious system, a social movement, or an individual being, is to perpetuate itself, not to understand Ultimate Reality. The understanding of Ultimate Reality may even be detrimental to self-perpetuation.

Just rub some of this goop in your hair
and a beautiful woman will want to mate with you.
A real bargain, too, at just two bob and sixpence per bottle.

No comments:

Post a Comment