The Buddha and Kesakambalī

| February 12, 2013 | 38 Comments

ssNMR_disordered_materialWorld’s First Materialist?

Secular Buddhism is often described as a kind of materialism, so it might be helpful to investigate what that meant during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha’s references to the ascetic Ajita Kesakambalī are the place to look. Kesakambalī was the first recorded materialist in India, and perhaps the first in history.

His view is expressed in several places in the suttas (E.g., Dīgha Nikāya 1.3.10-15, 2.23, Majjhima Nikāya 60.7, Saṃyutta Nikāya 24.5), but nowhere more deeply than in the Sandaka Sutta (MN 76, paras. 7-8)*:

… some teacher holds a doctrine and view as this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. A person consists of four great elements. When he dies, earth returns and goes back to the body of earth, water returns and goes back to the body of water, fire returns and goes back to the body of fire, air returns and goes back to the body of air; the faculties pass over to space. … Giving is a doctrine of fools. When anyone asserts the doctrine that there is [giving and the like], it is empty, false prattle. Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist.

About this a wise man considers thus: … ‘If this good teacher’s words are true, then both of us are exactly equal here, we stand on the same level: I who have not practiced here and he who has practiced. … t is superfluous for this good teacher to go about naked, to be shaven, to exert himself in the squatting posture, and to pull out his hair and beard, since I, who live in a house crowded with children, who use Benares sandalwood, who wear garlands, scents, and unguents, and accept gold and silver, shall reap exactly the same destination, the same future course, as this good teacher.’ … [W]hen he finds that this way negates the living of the holy life, he turns away from [Kesakambalī].

I’ve already dealt with one form of the Buddha’s argument against Kesakambalī, given in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta. However, the argument in the Sandaka Sutta is also subtle and deserves attention.

To begin with, the name “Kesakambalī” in Pali means “wearing a hair blanket” (“Kesa” = “hair of the head”, + “Kambala” = “woolen blanket”). Basically, he was a hair-shirted ascetic, and it’s not too much to assume he would have observed the other practices listed above: he would have been otherwise naked, shaven, and so on. Yet the argument against Kesakambalī is that his view “negates the living of the holy life”: if Kesakambalī is right, by his own lights he should not need to pursue any particular ascetic practices, since doing so could make no difference to his “future course”. On his view, both he and the non-practicing layman “reap exactly the same destination”, that is, “after death they do not exist”.

Contemporary Materialism and Kesakambalī’s Nihilism

Kesakambalī’s position is often described as “materialism”, yet the Buddha doesn’t use that term. He calls it either “annihilationism” (ucchedavāda, cf. DN 1), or “nihilism” (natthikavāda, cf. MN 60.9). The former description relates to the materialist claim that the self does not survive the death of the physical body, but the latter description is quite a bit stronger. It reads almost like a straw man: how is Kesakambalī a “nihilist” given that he asserts the existence of material stuff? To figure out why the Buddha might have used such a term, it might be helpful to consider modern versions of materialism.

“Materialism” is roughly the view that all that exists is matter, or the material world. For Kesakambalī, as we saw above: “A person consists of the four great elements.” That is, a simple materialist will say a person exists of those four elements and nothing more. Nowadays, of course, our picture of matter is somewhat more complex, but the general picture is the same. (Nowadays the description “physicalism” often substitutes for “materialism” given that our most basic science is physics).

There are two reasons to make this sort of philosophical move. The first reason is simplicity: we aim to explain a lot of phenomena by reference to a small set of causal principles. This is arguably why early philosophers like Kesakambalī, as well as the Greek atomists like Democritus and Epicurus, were drawn to one or another version of materialism.

The second reason for being a materialist is more recent: because of the clear predictive and explanatory success of the material sciences. This is not a reason that existed before Newton, and certainly not before Galileo; predictions and explanations of phenomena were too sketchy and unreliable to have been much reason for acceptance of materialism before the European Renaissance. But after that point, and particularly with the technological successes brought about through our understanding of phenomena at the atomic and even subatomic levels, materialism has become a position of some importance among the scientifically informed. It doesn’t hurt as well that predictions of psychic phenomena have proven utterly bootless.

To clarify: as a general strategy, we are best off believing those methods that provide best, most secure access to knowledge. As the Buddha said in suttas such as Cankī or the Kālāma, there are better and worse methods for coming to true beliefs. We cannot expect the Buddha to have considered statistical analysis, repeatability, and antagonistic peer review. That said, if one wishes to find a strategy most likely to provide knowledge that can be successfully “tested by the results it yields when put into practice; [that can] guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results” in Thanissaro’s words, the methods of science come out on top.

Recourse to science is a double-edged sword when it comes to strict versions of materialism. Established sciences do include physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biochemistry, and biology, which may all in some sense be understood materialistically. However, they also include social sciences such as psychology, sociology, economics, archaeology, and anthropology. One subject for philosophers of science nowadays has been to consider the relationship between these various branches of science. For they do not all use materialistic concepts. If there really aren’t any non-material things such as mental states, then what is the subject matter of psychology?

So one of the main contemporary supports for materialism — success of the sciences — seems also to support accepting at least some non-material states, such as states of mind, of societies, of economic systems.

Nowadays philosophers distinguish various, more sophisticated forms of so-called “reductive” or “supervenient” materialism. A “supervenience” materialist will say, for example, that mental states are real, but that for any given mental state, there is some physical state that underlies it, upon which it supervenes. Any difference in the mental state must entail a difference in the material state. This adequately expresses our current best understanding of the mind from neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

There are also other, stronger options open to the materialist, however. They could variously be termed “eliminativist materialism” or in philosopher Dan Dennett’s terms, “greedy reductionism“. These views have it that our ordinary concepts are so broken, so out of touch with what we know to be the case with physical reality, that they cannot be said to refer to anything real. Supporters of these views typically claim to eliminate mental states in particular, however since all our ordinary concepts of the world are in some sense operations of the mind, it is hard to see how the problem for eliminativist theories do not ramify.

With eliminativist materialism perhaps we get at some form of Kesakambalī’s “nihilism”. If he were to have claimed that our ordinary conceptions of things were completely broken, and that the picture of reality given by contemplation of the four elements alone (perhaps by meditative insight) was sufficient to understand the world, he might well have claimed that quite literally:

There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.

That is, our ordinary conceptions of “things” such as offerings, sacrifices, fruits, actions, worlds, parents, recluses, and so on, are completely empty of referents.

Given, however, that the four elements themselves are part of our ordinary conception of the world, it is hard to see how Kesakambalī’s theory, at least on this interpretation, does not collapse into self-refutation: by his lights, terms such as “earth” and “water” should be as empty as “fruit” or “father”. If so his theory would collapse into a form of literal nihilism: nothing could ever truly be said about anything. This is not a charitable interpretation, but at least it accounts for the Buddha’s description of his view in the Apaṇṇaka.

For the Buddha, the crucial problem for Kesakambalī’s theory comes in his elimination of ethics and ethical action. Some contemporary materialists make the same move, claiming that since ethical value cannot be explained solely in material terms, it must be empty of any reality. Ethics, such as it is, then becomes a species of mere opinion. In that case, of course, the Buddha’s objection as a teacher of right action is apt: the wise man will say that by Kesakambalī’s lights there is no difference between one who follows his teaching and one who does not, since there is no fact of the matter about what constitutes fruitful and unfruitful action.

The Buddha puts this as an issue of the wise person and the fool “reap[ing] the same destination, the same future course”, that is, kammic reward in future lives: Kesakambalī has no room in his theory for rebirth, so no room for guaranteed ethical desert. I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that one does not require guaranteed desert in order to have a robust notion of ethical action. Indeed, I’d argue that ethical action is best interpreted as not requiring knowledge of secure desert. (If it did, all ethics would become a species of egoistic prudence).

While the existence of objective ethical value is not consistent with all versions of materialism, there is room for a “good materialism”, in line with Dennett’s “good reductionism”, that says that materialism gives proper descriptions while ethics gives proper values, and that the two lines of inquiry need not conflict. Indeed, the Buddha’s investigations into proper (skillful and unskillful) forms of action point the way to their compatibility: knowing the descriptive, causal influences of our actions helps us decide which ones are of more or less value.

It’s true that on this picture the materialist will lack a complete justification for ethical claims. One can say that all alike pursue happiness and avoid dukkha, so we ought to behave in ways that reinforce such basic needs. But at some level this remains a species of brute fact. Of course, the same is true for the Buddhist, and indeed any ethical system will require certain such facts. Complete, foundational justification for all our beliefs will forever remain a mirage.

Good Materialism

Any contemporary materialistic reformation of the dhamma will have to come to terms with the Buddha’s arguments against Ajita Kesakambalī. Of course, there is no way we can know precisely what he believed and argued; all we have are scraps provided us in the suttas. However, we can at least attempt to reformulate his position through those scraps, and see if we can work our way around some of the Buddha’s counterarguments.

As we’ve seen, these counterarguments turn on a couple of main issues: first, that Kesakambalī may have been a literal nihilist of some sort, one who denied the existence of offerings, fruits, actions, parents, even worlds. While on a traditional interpretation his arguments are understood to be only ethically nihilistic (cf. “annihilationism” rather than literal “nihilism”; “worlds” meaning “worlds available for kammic rebirth”, for example), I think there is room to interpret Kesakambalī on more radical grounds. He may have been an eliminativist materialist, who believed that our ordinary words and concepts were empty of real referents. Thus he would have been, in the Buddha’s eyes, a literal nihilist.

He was certainly also an ethical nihilist, who saw no point to ethical action (“Giving is a doctrine of fools”) because he saw no guarantee of ethical desert in the next life. Yet he went about pursuing ascetic practices such as wearing a blanket made of human hair. Something doesn’t quite add up: one wonders whether we are getting the whole picture about Kesakambalī. At the very least, his rejection of ethical merit lead the Buddha to believe that his path “negates the living of the holy life” since there were no distinctions to be made on ethical grounds, and no real path to pursue towards ethical betterment.

We have also seen, however, that contemporary and more sophisticated forms of materialism do not need to collapse into one or another form of nihilism. We may say, for example, that while many ordinary conceptions of the mind are faulty, nevertheless they are recoverable in a suitably reworked scientific psychology. Eliminativism and “greedy reductionism” are not requirements of any sophisticated materialist theory.

Further, sophisticated materialism works perfectly well alongside a realist ethical system: materialism describes, ethics pre- and proscribes. A secularized Buddhist practice can work perfectly well given this background.

Would the Buddha have accepted such a reformed materialism? I have my doubts. But at the very least his arguments against Kesakambalī would not have had any particular force against it. For on our updated system there really are sacrifices, fruits, and results of actions. Though they may not be guaranteed to bring happy results, there are skillful and unskillful ways to believe, speak, and act. There really are parents and teachers who, while they may not have seen rebirth into supernatural realms, at least have provided guidance towards the elimination of dukkha and thereby “the living of the holy life”.

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* In the Sandaka Sutta it is actually Ānanda who gives the lesson, not the Buddha. However I take it in what follows that this could well have been stated by the Buddha himself, and is not in any way dhamma exclusive to Ānanda.

Category: Articles

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (38)

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  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Nice article, Doug, and I’m so glad you’ve addressed materialism, as it is important to Buddhism, and I suspect atheist, as well. I consider myself to be a materialist. I don’t view psychology, philosophy, etc as non material as some do but instead refer to those areas as conceptual I understand we can’t prove non-material things don’t exist, but I feel as human beings who exist in the physical the material needs to be our focus and I believe that is why the Buddha put so much emphasis there. Concepts are important as well, but we have to be careful of getting entangled in our own thicket of views as well as others.

    As for the contradictions, while its always good to point them out and note the, I always default to what I can or can not put to the test in practice. If it can’t serve my practice well, I disregard it.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks, Dana. Yes, I consider myself to be a kind of materialist as well; that is, I’m one who believes that mental states supervene upon physical states. (Mental states depend upon physical states, and would not exist without them). I prefer to call this “naturalism” since it’s slightly broader than “materialism” traditionally understood, though is arguably a species of materialism or even physicalism.

      The issue of the sciences is a more technical one, dealing with conceptual or linguistic relations between the terms in each theory. Strictly speaking, materialist concepts exclude those like “belief” or “feeling”, so if psychology is going to deal with them, in some sense there has to be a kind of translation between those concepts and material ones like “dendrite” or even “quark”. But this isn’t necessarily something we could hope to complete.

      You’re right to point out issues of practice as well. This piece is kind of at right angles to practice; it’s more about theoretical justification. I hope to have given some useful pointers about secular practice in some of my other pieces.

  2. NJK says:

    1. First, I’ll point out in DN2 that the criticism of Kesakambali is that did not answer the question posed: as to fruit of the contemplative life in the here and now. After Gotama is like, that was a poor answer, but how can I disparage the guy? After the same passage in MN76 we get “a wise man considers thus: […]”. And in DN1 is a list of 7 views of annihilation, but it does not really go into what is wrong with them. So, perhaps we see this early stage, Gautama as someone more focused in here and now, and not as critical.
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.01.0.bodh.html
    2. I agree that the main criticism of Kesakambali is probably his ethical nihilism: “there is no fruit to good or bad action”. In “The Notion of Ditthi” Paul Fuller wrote, “The early Pali cannon seems to have understood the view of nihilism quite literally as the view that ‘there is not’. There is no path to purity. Actions do not have consequences”.
    3. Still, we are left with MN60, what I take as one of Thanissaro’s main reason to hold onto rebirth. In regard to the next world, one has to directly see and realize for themselves. And it is understandable how someone dedicated to being a monk and to the path the Buddha laid out might rather place the bet on texts, as fantastical as that might be, perhaps not even not having realized for himself.
    4. Last I’ll say a funny story I first heard from John Peacock. Nanda became a monk but his heart pinned for a woman. Story goes the Buddha takes Nanda though the heavens to see beautiful celestial nymphs. Buddha asks who is more beautiful, and Nanda replies that the woman looks like a scalded she-monkey compared to the nymphs. (ha) The Buddha says, Cheer up Nanda. I promise that you will join the company of those nymphs if you persist as I bid you and take pleasure in living the Holy Life. Nanda practices diligently, and attained Arhatship. Right speech is abstaining from lying correct? Yet we have the story of the Buddha here, so makes one wonder what other stuff he might have made up to get people to practice, haha.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanda_(Buddhist)
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.3.02.than.html

  3. I’m glad you’ve clarified your take on materialism here, Doug, but as you’d expect, I think you’ve thoroughly misunderstood the Buddha’s criticisms of materialism. This seems to be because you interpret the Buddha in terms of your prior acceptance of scientific naturalism, rather than the other way round.

    The key issue is the relationship between factual claims and material claims. Assuming the fact-value distinction, you fail to take into account that the Buddha did not make that distinction, and did not interpret the world in its terms. His criticism of materialism is thus simultaneously factual and ethical. Materialism is fruitless because it assumes that there are ultimate facts of the matter, and because of the psychological effects of thinking that there are facts of the matter that one could know. The cause of dukkha, in the Buddha’s teaching, is attachment, and theories that lie beyond all possible experience are objects of pure attachment without any pragmatic justification. The epistemological error of getting caught up in such attachments interferes both with scientific understanding and with ethical conduct, as it inhibits us from recognising conditions.

    You also conflate materialism as a metaphysical position with scientific methodology. The two reasons you give for accepting materialism (the explanatory success of science, and the simplicity of Occam’s Razor) have nothing to do with materialism, but are just reasons for accepting scientific method. There is no reason why anyone accepting either of these should need to be a materialist. All they need to do is accept provisional descriptions of the world, not make any claims about what it is ultimately like. The Buddha’s criticisms were focused on claims about what the world is ultimately like and the effects of accepting such claims. If your “sophisticated materialism” actualy eschewed ontological claims I would have no problems with it, and it would be much more clearly compatibe with the Buddha’s Middle Way, but it doesn’t look as though you’re prepared to do that.

    You acknowledge that the Buddha might not have accepted your materialism. But that’s not the crucial point for me. More importantly,the relevance of the Buddha’s central insights in today’s context is completely by-passed if you just impose modern naturalistic assumptions on what he has to say.

  4. Sorry, at the beginning of the second paragraph above, I meant “the relationship between factual claims and ethical claims”.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      As you suggest, accepting the explanatory success of science is accepting that materialism is the best provisional description of the world that we have. This is how we do metaphysics: we try to find the best provisional description of the world. It’s true, Descartes thought he could do better by providing a foundational epistemology, but virtually nobody claims to be Descartes nowadays. So Cartesian epistemology is a red herring.

      As for the Buddha, he actually made plenty of quite robust metaphysical and ontological claims. (And in certain ways claimed the epistemic certainty of Descartes).

      • You are misrepresenting me here. I did not suggest that materialism is any kind of provisional description of the world. I accept that scientific theory offers a provisional description of the world. You have not responded to my points about the ways that your supposed reasons for adopting materialism do not necessarily imply materialism at all.

        A provisional description is one that is capable of alteration. Scientific theory itself is capable of alteration, but the identification of that theory with a reality is not: you either accept the connection with reality on a dogmatic basis or you don’t. The whole idea of a provisional metaphysics is thus an oxymoron unless you in effect drop the claimed connection to reality. You can’t have it both ways, is your “metaphysics” making claims about reality or isn’t it?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Do you accept that science offers the best provisional description of the world? If not, what does? (I mean, of course one can say “philosophy does”, but then philosophy depends very, very heavily on science, right?)

          The identification of scientific theory with reality is dependent upon the success of scientific prediction and explanation. Had they not been effective, the identification would not serve. So that identification is provisional upon the continued success of science.

          Further, materialism (such as it is) is provisional upon the continued failure to discover such things as psychic phenomena or ghosts. Were we to discover robust psi phenomena that demonstrated the failure of causal closure of the physical and violated the conservation of mass/energy, materialism would be falsified.

          • I think we are talking about “reality” in different senses. You continue to identify reality with a provisional account. I would call that a representation or a theory. A representation or a theory can be more or less successful, agreed, but that does not make it “real” in a sense I would accept. By “reality” I am talking about an absolute. One test of the difference is that theory can always be incrementalised, whilst absolutes cannot. Materialism is not a theory because it can’t be incrementalised, only accepted or rejected as an absolute.

            My reason for treating “reality” in that way is rooted in the Buddha’s account and his rejection of metaphysical positions. His rejection of 4 specific polarities (in MN 63, for example) is indicative of a general epistemological and moral principle of avoiding claims about reality that lie beyond experience and are expressed in positive/negative pairs (or, in the Buddha’s context, logical quartets). He makes it quite clear here that the avoidance of one metaphysical claim (e.g. the eternal self) does not imply the acceptance of the opposite metaphysical claim, but rather an agnostic intermediate position.

            Whatever you want to call it, the Buddha’s rejection of what we might now call supernatural claims does not entail the acceptance of any opposing claims about a material reality. If we are to take the Buddha’s teachings about the Middle Way at all seriously we must make a distinction between the kinds of claim about reality that he wanted us to avoid and the provisional theories we might hold to enable us to invstigate experience.

            Your account does not make this distinction, but rather conflates the claims about reality that the Buddha clearly wants us to avoid with the provisional language of science. This also fails to recognise the role of the observer, and all the sceptical arguments that conclusively show that, however objective and well-justified scientific investigation may be, it can’t show us reality. I can’t see any use in doing this. Why can’t you just treat scientific theory as scientific theory, better or worse justified, and leave it at that? There are many scientists who are quite happy with that approach and don’t try to make metaphysical claims about their work.

            Materialism is making positive claims about reality, not just negative ones about a lack of justification for supernatural beliefs. If you interpret a failure to “discover” ghosts as supporting the truth of materialism you are relying on an argument from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance only ever justify agnosticism. I’ve no idea what “robust psi phenomena” would look like, but if there were such a thing it would show you that there were robust psi phenomena, not that materialism was wrong. Like all metaphysical theories, materialism could be used to explain any possible experiences, and given the unavoidable ambiguities of all possible evidence, like other metaphysical approaches it will always exploit that ambiguity to maintain its own unfalsifiable position and have ways of explaining away awkward evidence.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            By “reality” I am talking about an absolute.

            I have no idea what that means. Science and responsible philosophy only talk about reality. “Absolute reality”, taken as something different from ordinary reality, is a fiction constructed by the confused.

            Similarly, responsible metaphysics is about reality, not “absolute reality”.

            The opposites in MN 63 show that the Buddha declined to take positions on certain metaphysical issues. This stance makes no difference to the larger point, which is that he did not decline to take positions on other metaphysical issues.

            As to the argument from ignorance: you are misusing the concept. See, e.g., the wiki on the evidence of absence. The burden of proof lies with one who makes the positive claim, in this case that ghosts or psi phenomena exist. Lacking proof where we can safely assume proof would be forthcoming is good evidence for the nonexistence of those phenomena. Or to put it another way, it shows that the burden of proof has not been met, and that the claim can therefore be regarded as false.

            As I’ve said above, this procedure is always provisional upon best evidence, and although confidence can be rounded to 100% in certain circumstances, strictly speaking it never rises to complete certainty.

          • Doug, there are at least two questions I have asked which you have completely ignored, instead just insisting on your accustomed framework of discussion. We are not going to make any progress if you just dismiss or ignore my questions and instead co-opt words like “responsible” to presumably imply that I am being irresponsible.

            I gave one test one can use to distinguish absolute from non-absolute claims, i.e. incrementality. Does materialism pass this test? You have ignored this question.

            I also asked why you had to introduce materialism and could not just treat scientific theory as scientific theory. You have ignored this question.

            You have also ignored my earlier argument that you have simply assumed features of Western naturalism such as the fact-value distinction and imposed them on the Buddha’s message. Do you really think the Buddha’s insights support the fact-value distinction?

            Another question: why are you apparently not interested in the reasons why “the Buddha declined to take metaphysical positions on certain issues”? Doesn’t the fact of him doing this tell us something about his general approach? The metaphysical positions we are talking about are not just randomly selected either, but separated into opposed pairs or quartets. Why do you think they were arranged in that way, if not to avoid polarised metaphysical thinking?

            As for the claim that the Buddha did take metaphysical positions on other issues: that’s where there is an apparent contradiction in the material that the Buddhist tradition gives us. So we have to make a choice as to which Buddha we find more useful. Do we accept the Buddha who appears to be saying pretty much the same as all the other dogmatic religions and philosophies, or the one who is saying something quite new, distinctive, astonishing, and extraordinarily useful? There’s really no contest.

            Your claims about the burden of proof, following most analytic philosophy, simply appeal to convention. “A positive claim” in the sense you seem to be using it, just means one that is not conventionally accepted. Arguments about burden of proof at best help us to decide credibility issues, but tell us nothing about the justification for a position. There are also no circumstances in which “we can safely assume proof would be forthcoming” given our degree of ignorance of conditions in general.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I gave one test one can use to distinguish absolute from non-absolute claims, i.e. incrementality. Does materialism pass this test? You have ignored this question.

            I ignored it because it seemed ill-formed. Some things either exist or they do not; there is no “incremental” about it. If you use the term “absolute” to refer to issues of simple existence and nonexistence, so be it. But you then use it idiosyncratically, as we all are absolutists, since we all make existence claims every day of our lives.

            In the case of materialism, either the theories claim that there exist material things, or they do not. (Or they sort of do, of course; we can allow for vagueness. But in this case that is unnecessary, since the theories clearly do claim that material things exist).

            I also asked why you had to introduce materialism and could not just treat scientific theory as scientific theory. You have ignored this question.

            Again, I ignored the question because it seemed ill-formed. The theory makes existence claims: there exist quarks, electrons, spacetime curvature, stars, galaxies, mountains, chemical elements, …

            In that context I don’t know what it would mean to “just treat the scientific theory as a scientific theory.” We do so when we understand that it makes provisional claims.

            It’s true that there are a few contemporary philosophers of science who take scientific theories as solely instrumental. But then they have to distinguish the semantic role that language plays within a scientific context (where the scientist is playing a sort of game) from the semantic role that language plays in the rest of our lives. This strikes me as unjustifiable. It’s also not the way most scientists speak about their own work. And so far as I can see, it has nothing to do with the Buddha.

            Re. the fact/value distinction, I know this is something that you care about deeply. But I don’t see the justification, and I don’t see the relevance to Buddhism, either. Sure, for the Buddha the world involved kammic causation. But that’s part of the stuff we know doesn’t work.

            As for the claim that the Buddha did take metaphysical positions on other issues: that’s where there is an apparent contradiction in the material that the Buddhist tradition gives us. So we have to make a choice as to which Buddha we find more useful. Do we accept the Buddha who appears to be saying pretty much the same as all the other dogmatic religions and philosophies, or the one who is saying something quite new, distinctive, astonishing, and extraordinarily useful? There’s really no contest.

            I don’t see any contradiction in the dhamma. What I do see is a supremely rational person, a real person like any other with the problems and issues of his day, compounded by the normal problems we all have in coming to correct views. What we must do today, however, is to distinguish what we think the Buddha really said from what we wish him to have said. Sometimes he says good things that we can agree with, other times he says stuff that we know is false. I think a reasoned, charitable interpretation will try to make sense of all of this from within a single framework, as much as possible.

            Of course, as should be clear, I think as we move forward we will have to prune away the stuff that’s less useful to us today, as well as less in line with the way we know reality to be.

            Generally speaking: I will answer those parts of questions that I find particularly interesting, problematic, and in need of response, in the light of the reasonable time I have available to me. I cannot answer everything that everyone writes.

          • I’ve let this discussion go for a few days to cool off, but this would be an unsatisfactory place to leave it entirely. I will try to be brief and get to the essential points.

            You are insisting on an ontological perspective. If you’re concerned with how things ultimately are, then it’s theoretically correct that they either are as materialism describes them or not. I say “theoretically”, because I actually I don’t think language is even capable of accurate representation in this way. I (and I think the Buddha) are not interested in the kind of ontology you are taking for granted here. We need to start with our viewpoint and its limitations, because that is the practical starting point. Epistemologically and morally, our understanding of the world can only be correct to a matter of degree.

            It’s a shame that you can’t “see the relevance” of the fact/value distinction issue. What that seems to imply is that you don’t see the relevance of justifying ethics without merely appealing to dogma or convention.

            Again, I think you’re just caught up in the assumptions of a certain cultural background. I would suggest a bit of epoche – trying to explore a different approach on a provisional basis, accepting its assumptions briefly just to see where it takes you. I have done this myself at some length with analytic philosophy, have frequently been obliged to address its perspective, and found it led me nowhere; so I think our position is uneven, because you are not prepared to explore the possibility of alternative approaches in any detail, whereas I have already done so.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Epistemologically and morally, our understanding of the world can only be correct to a matter of degree.

            This view encapsulates the view of modern science, and my own view as well. It doesn’t capture the Buddha’s view, however. The Buddha claimed through meditative insight to have completely correct knowledge of at least a crucial part of the causal functioning of the world, and did not so far as I know ever claim that his insight into kamma and its fruits was open to imperfection.

            you don’t see the relevance of justifying ethics without merely appealing to dogma or convention.

            OK, so produce your justification for ethics that doesn’t appeal to “dogma or convention”. (Though your use of the word “dogma” seems to be nothing more than a free floating term of abuse for a philosophical position you don’t like). Don’t tell me to go read something, just give it here in a nutshell so we can investigate it and see if it does what you say it does.

            Again, I think you’re just caught up in the assumptions of a certain cultural background.

            What’s clear to me from what I’ve said above is that it’s your approach that gets the Buddha wrong. So perhaps your own cultural background is the problem: you are trying to find a sort of radical empiricist Buddha of the 19th or 20th c., so as to be able to discount those parts of the Canon you don’t agree with, and which you feel contradict the parts you like.

          • I wouldn’t claim to be representing what the Buddha really thought, whatever that might be. As I’ve already said, I think what he’s represented as teaching is inconsistent. So I make no apologies for being inspired by some aspects of what the tradition tells us about and not others. The tests need to be pragmatic ones. Since you and most other secular Buddhists also pick out some sources rather than others, it seems a bit odd for you to criticise me for doing so. In fact even textual fundamentalists pick out some texts rather than others, because the texts say different things – it’s the unavoidable condition of any use of complex and extensive texts. The problem of cultural projection is not one based on the comparison of a ‘pure’ historical Buddha with a culturised interpretation, as all interpretations are cultural – rather it’s the obscuring of the distinctive practical message the Buddha has to offer by the uncritical projection of cultural assumptions.

            “OK, so produce your justification for ethics that doesn’t appeal to “dogma or convention”. (Though your use of the word “dogma” seems to be nothing more than a free floating term of abuse for a philosophical position you don’t like). Don’t tell me to go read something, just give it here in a nutshell so we can investigate it and see if it does what you say it does.”

            I think this is a completely unfair demand that I have no intention of trying to meet. I have written in detail about the justification of ethics without appeal to dogma or convention, and I could give you references – but you obviously don’t want them. I’ve also written about it in a more introductory way on my blog and on the SBUK site. If I give you an explanation “in a nutshell” you will probably then immediately tell me it’s “ill-formed” or something equally dismissive. I’ve met that particular analytic philosopher’s Catch-22 often enough before not to fall into it. If you are actually interested in my work, please do me the courtesy of reading about it properly, because it is complex and involves inter-related assumptions. If you haven’t read about it properly, don’t dismiss it out of hand without investigation.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Since you and most other secular Buddhists also pick out some sources rather than others, it seems a bit odd for you to criticise me for doing so.

            “Pick out some sources rather than others” glosses over the key difference between us, I think. I pick out some sources as being better able to inform contemporary practice. I do not pick out some sources as being authentic and others as not. Or at least if I do so, I do it based on independent scholarship rather than what I’d prefer the Buddha to have said.

            If you do not in fact “claim to be representing what the Buddha really thought”, you could have fooled me. You have criticized me and others for misinterpreting the Buddha, and made all kinds of very substantive claims about “what the Buddha really thought”. It’s pointless for me to copy and paste them. So I think it now seems you need to get clear with yourself what it is you are really trying to do: give an accurate picture of what the Buddha really thought (in which case it’s OK to criticize others for getting an incorrect picture), or just doing a contemporary riff on what you take to be some vaguely Buddhistic principles (in which case criticizing others for getting the Buddha wrong seems in poor form, as Mark would say).

            Re. your claimed ‘non dogmatic’ justification of values: if it is completely unfair of me to ask to see the justification, then it’s completely useless for you to refer to it in public discussions. Independent justification, it remains, as you might say, simply a dogmatic claim, and not a particularly compelling one, at that.

            At any rate, if you aren’t interested in what the Buddha really thought and aren’t interested in validating your claims publicly, then I don’t really think there remains much to discuss.

          • “I pick out some sources as being better able to inform contemporary practice. I do not pick out some sources as being authentic and others as not. Or at least if I do so, I do it based on independent scholarship rather than what I’d prefer the Buddha to have said.”

            I also pick out sources as being able to inform contemporary practice. We seem to agree about this, at least. It’s not a question just of what I’d prefer the Buddha to have said, but what he is depicted as saying that makes most sense and is most useful.

            “If you do not in fact “claim to be representing what the Buddha really thought”, you could have fooled me. You have criticized me and others for misinterpreting the Buddha, and made all kinds of very substantive claims about “what the Buddha really thought”. It’s pointless for me to copy and paste them.”

            I have criticised you and others for misrepresenting the Buddha’s most helpful message. If you think that was about the Buddha himself, then you have misinterpreted me. By all means copy and paste them, and I’ll explain what I meant. In each case it will be what the Buddha most usefully meant.

            “So I think it now seems you need to get clear with yourself what it is you are really trying to do: give an accurate picture of what the Buddha really thought (in which case it’s OK to criticize others for getting an incorrect picture), or just doing a contemporary riff on what you take to be some vaguely Buddhistic principles (in which case criticizing others for getting the Buddha wrong seems in poor form, as Mark would say).”

            I’m entirely clear on this point. I’m not interested in what the Buddha actually said (which would be entirely inconsistent with my attitude to metaphysics, if you think about it). I’m not criticising others for an “incorrect” picture, only an unhelpful picture. Nor am I criticising others for “getting the Buddha wrong” in a historical sense, only a philosophical and practical sense. But the Buddhistic principles I’m talking about are in not “vaguely” Buddhistic. They are precisely developed, using the Middle Way as the central principle.

            “Re. your claimed ‘non dogmatic’ justification of values: if it is completely unfair of me to ask to see the justification, then it’s completely useless for you to refer to it in public discussions. Independent justification, it remains, as you might say, simply a dogmatic claim, and not a particularly compelling one, at that.”

            It wouldn’t be completely unfair of you for ask for justification, but it is unfair to ask for justification “in a nutshell” which you would then automatically shoot down for not being detailed enough. I am referring to it in public discussion in the hope that you and others will see fit to see and think about it further. You will not do this effectively if you don’t think about it in more detail than the “in a nutshell” demand requires. Would you ask Einstein to explain the theory of relativity “in a nutshell”? No, it’s a complex theory. It’s unfair to ask for such a summary in this manner, and then to equate that to an absence of justification, when justification is in fact freely offered.

            My claims are not dogmatic, because they are concerned with establishing the conditions for experiential justification. Unlike yours, they do not unnecessarily yoke metaphysical beliefs to that experiential justification.

            “At any rate, if you aren’t interested in what the Buddha really thought and aren’t interested in validating your claims publicly, then I don’t really think there remains much to discuss.”

            I’m interested in what is useful about what the Buddha thought, and I’m very interested in validating my claims publicly. It’s precisely because I’m interested in validating my claims publicly that I have entered into this discussion, and also refused to attempt a summary of mt approach to ethics “in a nutshell”, which would not validate them but rather set them up for a shallow put-down.

            Despite your lack of interest in references, and your refusal to examine the details of my case, I’m going to put some up here for the benefit of others.
            General:
            http://www.moralobjectivity.net
            http://www.middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com

            On ethics specifically:
            http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com/ethics/
            http://www.moralobjectivity.net/New_Buddhist_Ethics.html

            Here I rest my case.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            It’s not a question just of what I’d prefer the Buddha to have said, but what he is depicted as saying that makes most sense and is most useful. …

            I have criticised you and others for misrepresenting the Buddha’s most helpful message. …

            I’m not criticising others for an “incorrect” picture, only an unhelpful picture. Nor am I criticising others for “getting the Buddha wrong” in a historical sense, only a philosophical and practical sense.

            Ok, then you and I have different aims. I am interested at least partly in scholarship: to understand as best as possible from the texts what the Buddha (at least, the Buddha of the Canon) actuallly argued and believed. You are interested in a species of apologetics, along the line of contemporary Christian apologists who, for example, reject much of the Old and New Testaments or reinterpret them in non-scholarly ways.

            Or to put it another way, if one is only interested in interpreting the Buddha as useful or helpful (or in interpreting his message as helpful), one is guaranteed to miss or misinterpret any part of his message that is not useful or helpful, as one sees usefulness and helpfulness. And of course, what is useful and helpful to you may well not be for me.

            At any rate, I can only see confusion coming out of mixing scholarship with apologetics, so I really cannot see the point of trying to do them together.

            But the Buddhistic principles I’m talking about are in not “vaguely” Buddhistic. They are precisely developed, using the Middle Way as the central principle.

            Precisely developed, perhaps. Precisely Buddhist? That can only be revealed by the sort of scholarship you disavow. Of course, the system I propose isn’t precisely Buddhist either: but at least I’m trying to get clear on how.

  5. mufi says:

    Two points I’d like to toss in (if only to stir up the pot :-)):

    1) Naturalism appears to be bigger than materialism – e.g. I’m aware that there are philosophers, scientists, and philosopher-scientists (like Massimo Pigliucci) who claim to be naturalists, but who claim to be sympathetic to some version of mathematical platonism – i.e. the metaphysical view that mathematical objects & functions – rather than physical objects, like atoms or electrons – are fundamentally real.

    2) At least when pressed on the matter, I suspect that many (if not most) Secular Buddhists would admit to being agnostic about the metaphysics of “Ultimate Reality”, whether we agree to describe that in terms of “matter” or some other concept. I would guess that a metaphysician might label this view “anti-realist”, but I prefer to call it “pragmatic.”

    Simply put: it’s safer to assume that some things are real (e.g. a lion in the bushes or an oncoming vehicle) than it is not to, whereas others (e.g. literal karma & rebirth) can be safely ignored.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yeah, I didn’t want to get into the bigger issue of what constitutes “naturalism”, or Platonism. Too thorny, and to a large degree off-topic.

      Re. “Ultimate Reality”, I have the same reaction to that concept that I do about “absolute reality”. What we should care about is plain old, everyday reality. That’s what we see around us, that’s what science studies. It does find out some crazy things, but they’re all things about plain old reality.

      • mufi says:

        Yeah, I didn’t want to get into the bigger issue of what constitutes “naturalism”, or Platonism. Too thorny, and to a large degree off-topic.

        Except that Robert’s criticisms seem to hinge largely on semantics, so a little clarification of terms might go a long way towards resolving differences.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          OK, thanks. I don’t quite see the problem, but if you think clarifying terms would be helpful, go for it.

          (FWIW I consider myself a “naturalist”, though I don’t know that I do so in Massimo’s sense. I do accept the existence of abstracta, but the claim that mathematical objects and functions exist instead of physical ones strikes me as a questionable and quite controversial position, though I have seen Massimo support such a view. But again, this is basically OT when it comes to Buddhist notions of materialism, I think).

          • mufi says:

            I don’t quite see the problem, but if you think clarifying terms would be helpful, go for it.

            The problem, as I see it, is that Robert uses “scientific naturalism” to (negatively) describe some kind of metaphysical doctrine (i.e. one that the Buddha supposedly would reject, were he actually aware of it).

            Yet “scientific naturalism” implies to me a set of epistemic assumptions (akin to empiricism and methodological naturalism), which is compatible with multiple metaphysical interpretations (though by no means all, assuming one cares about evidence and parsimony) – including mathematical platonism, which is different than materialism (a.k.a. physicalism), and presumably some others that I haven’t thought of.

            Of course, whether the Buddha would have accepted scientific naturalism or not is a highly speculative question. In any case, if the goal is to get away from dogmatism, then not even the Buddha’s assertions are above criticism.

          • If “scientific naturalism” is compatible with any metaphysical assumptions then it is itself metaphysical. As I said above, the test would be whether it is incrementalisable. Scientific theory itself can be accepted to a greater or lesser extent, but naturalism (i.e. the linking of such theory to “nature”) cannot be. Since all experiential theory is incremental, naturalism is not experiential.

            If the goal is indeed to get away from dogmatism , then, we should start by avoiding naturalism. Naturalism is no less dogmatic than materialism, physicalism etc.

          • mufi says:

            If “scientific naturalism” is compatible with any metaphysical assumptions then it is itself metaphysical.

            I prefer to put it this way: If you wish to tame your sense of the metaphysical possibilities by what’s amenable to scientific testing, then naturalism is the way to go.

            I don’t think of that as a particularly “Buddhist” practice (so let’s give that straw man a rest), but then I also don’t look to Buddhism as my sole fount of wisdom and knowledge. That, if anything, would be dogmatic.

  6. Candol says:

    Robert, FWIW

    Your assertion above that the buddha’s take on the soul as provisional sounds completely wrong. There are things that the buddha is uncertain about and he tends to be quite clear about what those things are. But there are things he seems to be quite certain about and one of them is anatta. He claims to have experienced that there is no soul and when he suggests that other people don’t take his word for it but to come and see, he’s not expecting anyone else to turn up and find anything that might contradict him. He’s expecting them to discover exactly the same thing he discovered. He is as certain about anatta as he is about dukkha and anicca. I”m not too confident in talking about absolutes but if i’m inclined to say that i think the buddha does assert these characteristics as absolutes. Certainly if there’s a skerric of doubt or possibility for any other position in the buddha’s worldview, i haven’t noticed it.

    The whole idea of provisionality seems to be a modern idea. Saying what we don’t/can’t know is different from saying “we know this until we know better.” The buddha said, in effect, “we can’t know about X (how the world began etc) but this is what we know about Y (the nature of human experience which includes the nature of Mind (soul/self) and that mind does not exist outside the body ) and this is the way that Y is, end of discussion!”

    If you think he’s coming at it in a provisional way what is it he says that suggests he thinks any other option is remotely possible. I mean have you got a quote from a sutta or two? As i’ve indicated above, suggesting that people don’t take his word for it is not very convincing of a point of provisionality. He does say that doubt is a problem and one should endeavour to get over it.

  7. Candol,
    Have a look at MN 63: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html
    “These positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One — ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'”…
    “And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.”
    Materialism is clearly listed here: “The soul and the body are the same” and opposed to “The soul is one thing and the body another”.

    If we do not accept these positions, the only alternative is agnosticism on metaphysical issues of this kind. That this implies provisionality is also supported by the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65):
    “It is right for you to doubt; doubt has arisen in you about dubious matters. Come, Kalamas, do not rely on oral tradition, or on the lineage of teachers, or on holy scriptures, or on abstract logic. Do not place blind trust in impressive personalities or in venerated gurus, but examine the issue for yourselves. When you know for yourselves that something is unwholesome and harmful, then you should reject it. And when you know for yourselves that something is wholesome and beneficial, then you should accept it and put it into practice.”

    Provisionality and agnosticism are a matter of balancing, of being content with a degree of uncertainty and not prematurely claiming certainty. There are lots of places where the Buddha talks about this kind of balance, from the Middle Way itself (introduced in the First Sermon) to analogies like this one in the Sona Sutta (AN 6.55):

    “Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”

    “Yes, lord.”

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “No, lord.”

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “No, lord.”

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned[1] to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “Yes, lord.”

    “In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune[2]the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”

    The Buddha’s approach to philosophy is totally practical, and there is no difference between the way he advises us to balance our mental states, say in meditation, and the way we need to balance our approach to what we believe in relation to experience. The Middle Way is an entirely practical way that begins with practice and keeps theoretical dogma at bay using the Middle Way, with provisionality as part of the balancing. To keep the lute tuned you have to keep re-tuning it.

    • Candol says:

      “If we do not accept these positions, the only alternative is agnosticism on metaphysical issues of this kind. ” yes on the one hand it sounds like agnosticism. On the other it says, I don’t know and I am not going there at all. It does not suggest anything provisional though. It just says we cannot know those answer to those questions. He’s not saying that until we know better we know this and should focus on this. He’s seems to be saying “we can’t know” so let’s just forget about it completely.

      But alas, no one can forget about those things. As history shows.

      About the kalama sutta. I’ve always thought it sounded quite ambiguous. He’s saying its right to doubt all these teachings. AT certain points but not in the kalama sutta i think, he even says you can doubt me if you like. But then we have the hindrances where we are told to overcome doubt in order to make the discoveries that he has made. And also i think there are numerous occasions through the suttas where he says don’t doubt me, just doubt everything else. If i recall correctly. Certainly its strange how in the theravada tradition, they reject doubt altogether and have as mcuh faith in the buddha as anyone else does in jesus or god. i mean any christian believer. There’s nothing to tell between them. And it seems to me for intents and purposes you have to let go doubt in order to reach those higher insights. He only wants to people to doubt him to provoke them into trying out what he tells them. But these are not truths or discoveries one can discover in six days. so one is asked to put doubt aside for a veyr long time, in effect forever.

      • Hi Candol,
        There are two important and helpful sets of distinctions that I think you’re not taking into account here. One is between two types of agnosticism and the other is between two types of doubt.

        Your account of what the Buddha is saying, “we can’t know so let’s forget about it completely”, is precisely what I would define as agnosticism. More precisely, though, this is hard agnosticism rather than soft agnosticism. Hard agnosticism involves a definite decision to avoid taking a position because no evidence could ever possibly be available. It might also be because, as in this case, it would be unhelpful or even counter-preductive to take a position. Soft agnosticism is the position where you suspend judgement whilst awaiting further evidence. Soft agnosticism fails to address the issue because it doesn’t challenge the dualistic paradigm.

        As you say, “no-one can forget those things. As history shows.” So hard agnosticism is the next best think to forgetting the dualistic paradigm completely: instead it refuses to take a metaphysical position and adopts a confident position of even-handedness between the contending parties. I think it’s only by doing this that we can maintain the conditions for provisionality and avoid being overwhelmed by metaphysically-based group thinking from one side or the other.

        The other distinction is between two sorts of doubt, and this is found in the Buddhist tradition itself. The term used for ‘doubt’ as a practical hindrance is Buddhism is vicikiccha. It means a failure to adopt a confident and provisional perspective because of an obsessive attachment to ideas that interfere with practice – e.g. the idea that I can’t really meditate, or that meditation is not realy effective. We encounter that kind of doubt routinely in meditation and other kinds of practice, but it should be distinguished from the type of doubt mentioned in the Kalama Sutta, which is the basis of critical examination. We need critical examination in order to establish confidence as the basis of practice, but vicikiccha undermines that confidence.

        There’s a crucial point here which relates to the ways I think scientific naturalists misunderstand the Buddha’s perspective. I take the Buddha’s perspective as basically sceptical, because it involves untrammelled critical examination as a basis of confidence. This involves balanced scepticism in the sense of Pyrrho’s in ancient Greece, but scientific naturalists have unfortunately hijacked the term scepticism to refer only to one-sided critical examination of supernatural claims but not natural ones (see http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/what-is-a-sceptic/). Analytic philosophy is also dismissive of scepticism and dismisses it as “meaningless” or “ill-formed” (to echo Doug’s classic put-downs above): but only on the basis of highly questionable assumptions about meaning. I think through-going global scepticism – serious critical doubt – provides essential groundwork to clear our views of attachment to any kind of “reality” or its negation, so that we can then develop a genuinely provisional account of conditions based only on experience, and theories that can be checked through experience. “Doubt” as practised by Pyrrhonian scepticism is essential to this process of clearing the ground, but vicikiccha-type practical doubt would stop us having the confidence to clear the ground in this way in the first place.

  8. Mark Knickelbine says:

    The point to the Undeclared is not we shouldnt “accept” either dichotomy, but that speculation on metaphysical issues is not conducive to the pragmatic, phemomenological approach to human thriving Gotama taught. Doug keeps pointing out, rightly I think, that scientific materialism offers a very useful, provisional view of the world. It does not present absolute facts, but verifiable observations and reliable predictions, with the understanding that our explanation for those observations may change as new information becomes available. There is no real dichotomy between materialism and idealism; one either accepts that knowledge works the way scientific materialism suggests it does, or one dismisses verifiable observation as the basis of knowledge. As I have said often enough, one is free to do that, but it’s very poor form to do so on the Internet, the existence of which is a major refutation of the “nothing is knowable” argument that Robert is trying to brand as “the Middle Way.”

    • Hi Mark,
      I find your remarks rather baffling as well as deeply dogmatic. “There is no real dichotomy between materialism and idealism” is totally baffling, and your straw man account of my position and accusations of “poor form” are also bordering on the offensive. At the basis of your certainty seems to be a glaring false dichotomy: “One either accepts that knowledge works the way scientific materialism suggests it does, or one dismisses verifiable observation as the basis of knowledge”. These are very far from being the only two alternatives. I’m rather reminded of George Bush’s “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists”, which it resembles in assuming that either your view of the world must be correct in every particular or anyone who challenges it be entirely opposed to the positive values in it. I’m with you on the need to use observation as the basis of belief, but that doesn’t mean that I have to accept your account of scientific materialism. To claim that this dogmatic imposition of a dichotomy is “provisional” is just a travesty of the term “provisional”.

      Just what do you think provisionality is? How do we go about creating it? Not, I’d suggest, just by claiming that we have it, or appealing to the provisionality of a scientific investigation which is not actually being reproduced in your philosophical assertions in this discussion. Being part of a group on a website that gangs up inhospitably on anyone who dares to question your position is also not exactly a demonstration of provisionality. Provisionality is demonstrated by finding out about others’ positions, asking questions until you are clear about them, and avoiding dismissal of someone’s position until you understand it: not an approach that seems to be typical of your contributions to this website in my experience. Provisionality is a psychological state that needs to be cultivated – it does not just arise by magic from the mere invocation of scientific methodology.

      • Candol says:

        You are playing the victim again Robert. Marks not ganging up on you if he agrees with Doug.

        • “Ganging up” seems to me quite a fair description of the impression made when someone intervenes just to repeat the same point that has already been asserted by someone else, especially when this position is also known to be the House line. But I accept that this is mainly a description of just how it feels to me.

          • Candol says:

            But this is normal behaviour not just on the internet but in any sort of debate. One side says its part, the other side says its part and others chime in to back up one side or the other, maybe putting a different inflection on things, not so much or not necessarily to help firm up the others view but to assert their disagreement. And there’s nothing wrong with that. People , particularly in this sort of context, are entitled to put their view forward. If it happens to coincide with one side or the other, does not make it an attack or a ganging up or bullying of any stripe. It just sounds like you can’t stomach opposition.

            Normally multiple disagreement with one person does tend to shut down the debate eventually. But no one starts asserting their point of view with that agenda.

          • Hi Candol,
            I agree with you that probably no “ganging up” was intended here. My point to Mark was about provisionality. I do expect opposition, but nevertheless when different members of the same group reinforce each other in repeating the same point, it doesn’t help to create an atmosphere of open discussion.

  9. mufi says:

    Robert said to Doug: The problem of cultural projection is not one based on the comparison of a ‘pure’ historical Buddha with a culturised interpretation, as all interpretations are cultural – rather it’s the obscuring of the distinctive practical message the Buddha has to offer by the uncritical projection of cultural assumptions.

    Just because someone doesn’t share your opinion of what constitutes the Buddha’s “distinctive practical message” doesn’t mean that his/her opinion is any less critical or more culturally biased than yours.

    What’s more, I suspect that, were we to take the Buddha and Buddhism entirely out of the picture, we’d find that you and Doug (never mind the rest of us) are still no less at odds with each other. If so, then Buddhism has become just another battlefield for a 21st-Century war of words between competing philosophical schools (e.g. analytic vs. continental, modern vs. postmodern, or naturalist vs. supernaturalist).

  10. mufi says:

    Doug said: I pick out some sources as being better able to inform contemporary practice. I do not pick out some sources as being authentic and others as not. Or at least if I do so, I do it based on independent scholarship rather than what I’d prefer the Buddha to have said.

    FWIW, I’ll vouch for that claim.

    It’s refreshing to observe a practitioner who freely admits when and where the Buddha’s view most likely (e.g. based on modern historical-critical scholarship) differed from yours, and who presents rational, evidence-based arguments that explain that difference.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re always right (i.e. I don’t want to inflate your sense of self too much :-)). More like: I think you’ve got the right approach – one that’s about as clear and straightforward in distinguishing one’s own “cultural assumptions” from the Buddha’s (and/or those of his canonical record-keepers) as one can reasonably expect.

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