A Secular Evaluation of Rebirth

| May 29, 2013 | 179 Comments
Image courtesy of wandee007 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of wandee007 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rebirth: it’s one of those topics that defines the Secular Buddhist approach. Practitioners who accept the traditional Buddhist notions of rebirth and the kammic causation that accompanies it will be less interested in a naturalistic ‘secularization’ of the dhamma.

Discussions along the frontiers of belief tend not to be very fruitful: people find their beliefs and stick to them. That said, it can be useful simply for the purpose of openness to put forward some of the reasons for belief, the reasons for taking the approach one does. That way the reasons don’t remain hidden, appearing simply to be objects of faith or ill-consideration. To that end, I think some discussion of my reasons for rejecting rebirth are in order.

The Evidence for Rebirth

Insofar as we know anything about his dhamma, we know that the Buddha taught literal rebirth. We find this in myriad texts throughout the Canon, however for the purposes of this piece I will focus on one, from the Maha-Assapura Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 39.19). This is a section reflected in other suttas such as MN 4.27, or Dīgha Nikāya 2.93-94.

Here the Buddha outlines what is to be expected from a monk in higher training.

He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes and details. Just as if a man were to go from his home village to another village, and then from that village to yet another village, and then from that village back to his home village. The thought would occur to him, ‘I went from my home village to that village over there. There I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I went to that village over there, and there I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I came back home.’ In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives… in their modes and details.

Doubtless many believing practitioners take passages such as these as sufficient evidence on their own to establish the truth of rebirth. After all, the Buddha was an uncommonly bright and insightful man, one who would not construct fanciful stories for no reason. If he said it, one ought to take it as at least a reasonable hypothesis.

That said, the Buddha also told us not to take the dhamma simply on his word: we were to investigate it ourselves. To that end, a handful of contemporary Westerners have attempted to find evidence for rebirth. Most prominent among these is the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who claimed to discover evidence of past life memories in small children, as well as links between birthmarks and causes of death in previous lives. He gathered the stories into papers and books, which contemporary Buddhists such as Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi believe are compelling further evidence for Buddhist rebirth.

Problems with the Evidence I: Internal Issues

Before turning to more contemporary interpretations, there are problems with the evidence presented, even on its own terms. The Buddha claims in MN 39 that he retains memories of aeons of prior births. If we assume a life lasted on average twenty years, a hundred thousand births takes us to a time some two million years ago. Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated some ten thousand prior births ago, on this scale, so at that time the Buddha would have been remembering prehuman ancestors. That’s to say, over ten thousand births ago, the bodhisatta (as he would have been at the time) could not have been born into the human realm, since there were no humans. And although the origins of language are foggy, that is probably well before modern languages arose. Yet there is no mention in the suttas that his appearance, food, or clan lifestyle would have diverged radically from the settled towns of 5th c. BCE India.

If we take that time period back to the aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, the problems only ramify. Around 700,000 to a million lifetimes and we are into the pre-hominid.

At this point there is certainly no developed language, and the bodhisatta would have had no name. He could only have been one or another variety of animal, but even so, animals only go back about 600-700 million years.

Prior to that it’s not clear the bodhisatta could have been reborn on Earth, at least that would be the case if we assume that only animals have the consciousness available for kamma and rebirth.

Of course, the Buddha could have been reborn on other planes or planets, but once again there is no mention of vast divergences in body plan, language, culture, or surroundings that would indicate such a rebirth. Indeed, the evidence provided in MN 39 is consistent with a world in which humans always existed in a way much as in the Buddha’s own time. If this is evidence for rebirth, it is not very convincing. More convincing would have been some otherwise inexplicable stories about social, linguistic, and morphological change as the Buddha retreated into memories of the distant past.

Ian Stevenson’s work is similarly problematic, even on its own terms. Firstly, from within a traditional Buddhist context, the ability to see past lives is not something we should expect from young children. Instead, it’s supposed to be one of the three forms of “higher knowledge” available to a monk in advanced training. So why a traditional Buddhist should accept such stories at face value is something of a conundrum. There are also doctrinal problems surrounding whether rebirth is instantaneous or involves some extended time ‘between lives’. Stevenson’s stories support the latter conclusion, but as I understand it, some Buddhist schools reject that move.

As well, the most these stories could reasonably establish is that some people are reborn sometimes. Stevenson’s stories are not found everywhere; indeed, they are very unusual, and they do not establish more than a single rebirth for each life. Are we to assume that people who do not recall such stories are also reborn? Are we to assume that people who recall a single rebirth have been reborn countless times? If so, on what evidence?

Problems with the Evidence II: Trustworthiness of the Buddha’s Story

Contemporary studies have refuted the notion that memory is akin to a movie, retained in full fidelity if only we could get at it. Instead, memory has more in common with planning, in that it is a creative construction out of vague, encoded tracings. As psychologist Frederic Bartlett put it back in the 1930s,

… if we consider evidence rather than presupposition, remembering appears to be far more decisively an affair of construction rather than one of mere reproduction.

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (a past interviewee on The Secular Buddhist) has been at the forefront of such studies, particularly with so-called “false memories” and issues of confabulation. She and others have shown how comparatively easy it is to plant false memories by using leading questions, and further that imagining false events gave subjects more confidence in the reality of the false memories.

Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (XIII.24) suggests we are to find our first past life by tracing our memories back “in reverse order” until we arrive at our own conception, and then pushing back to before that first moment. As I understand it, this is the typical methodology applied today within traditional Buddhist practice. The problem with this method is that it assumes what contemporary psychology knows to be false: that memory is akin to a movie, which can be unproblematically ‘rewound’ in reverse order, retaining faithfulness.

In fact, long term memories don’t even appear until sometime around the first year of life. Hence any purported memory that comes from a time before one was around a year old is evidence of confabulation, not reality. Indeed, psychologist Nicholas Spanos showed that just such false infant memories could be implanted by suggestive questioning.

Spanos and his co-workers found that the vast majority of their subjects were susceptible to these memory-planting procedures. Both the hypnotic and guided participants reported infant memories. … [O]f those who reported memories of infancy, 49 percent felt that they were real memories, as opposed to 16 percent who claimed that they were merely fantasies.

Altered states of consciousness such as those one attains in deep jhāna, when accompanied by suggestions by teachers, colleagues, and texts that it is possible to regress memory through one’s first year of life into a past life, are just the kinds of situations one would expect to result in false memory confabulation.

As Loftus says,

It is highly unlikely that an adult can recall genuine episodic memories from the first year of life, in part because the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the creation of memories, has not matured enough to form and store long lasting memories that can be retrieved in adulthood.

The situation is exacerbated, of course, if we assume that such memories extend to the time of conception, before one had a functioning brain or nervous system. Further, if we are to assume that anyone trained according to the Buddha’s system had the capacity to recall uncounted numbers of past lives in their entirety, they must be able to access a store of information larger than any finite physical system. The brain only has limited storage capacity. All of these issues imply that if the claim of Buddhist rebirth is true, memories must be stored somewhere separate from the brain.

Problems with the Evidence III: Trustworthiness and Stevenson’s Story

While we can perhaps assume that Stevenson and his subjects were, like the Buddha, sincere about their claims, the question is what those claims amount to. In particular, with every given claim of an extraordinary event, there are always two options. As David Hume famously said in his Enquiry:

[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.

In other words, given new evidence, we always have to weigh two likelihoods. In this case, is it more likely that the stories of rebirth collected by Stevenson are true and accurate, or is it more likely that he has been less than thorough in his analyses of the evidence? Suffice to say that there is a great deal of room for honest skepticism about both Stevenson’s evidence and the methodology he used to collect that evidence.

In particular,

There is … the obvious problem of confirmation bias. The ideal, according to Stevenson, was to seek out PLE [past-life experience] stories and then try to confirm them. Failure to confirm, however, did not count against the reincarnation hypothesis. In fact, nothing could be discovered using Stevenson’s methods that could ever disconfirm the reincarnation hypothesis. Many scientists would consider this a fatal flaw in his methodology. Another problem is that there seem to be alternative, non-paranormal, explanations for all of his data.

There is no way, outside of confining people at birth and recording all evidence they have ever been exposed to, to know for sure whether or not stories that children recounted had reached them by some other means than past-life memories. Further, in any collection of large amounts of data, there will always be apparently miraculous coincidences by chance alone. Think here of the purportedly miraculous similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Snopes.com has a good rundown of the evidence in case you’re interested; the main problem here is one of the misuse of statistics. In order to know whether or not those coincidences really are miraculous, one needs to do thorough statistical analysis on the data, and this requires that the experiment be properly controlled. Stevenson’s methodology did not lend itself to such controls, and hence was worthless to establish anything much more than telling good stories.

Perhaps it’s for these sorts of reasons that the New York Times said of Stevenson on his passing,

Spurned by most academic scientists, Dr. Stevenson was to his supporters a misunderstood genius, bravely pushing the boundaries of science. To his detractors, he was earnest, dogged but ultimately misguided, led astray by gullibility, wishful thinking and a tendency to see science where others saw superstition.

Problems with the Evidence IV: Extraordinary Claims

If the Buddha’s notion of rebirth and past-life memory is true and accurate, it implies that our understanding of mind and brain is fatally flawed, and that in fact memory is not dependent upon the brain for storage or retrieval. It further implies that consciousness is not dependent upon the existence of a functioning brain or nervous system, in that a single-celled zygote must support consciousness. It is, perhaps, possible to reject such a claim from within the system, and say that the rebirth-linking consciousness or “gandhabba” (MN 38.26, MN 93.18, DN 15.21) enters the fetus when the nervous system can support some form of measurable activity. The problem with this claim is that ‘measurable neural activity’ is going to be a vague matter, not the sort of all-or-nothing claim that a ‘descent of consciousness into the womb’ (DN 15) would seem to imply.

This notion of rebirth further implies that our understanding of physical causation is flawed, in that the death of a person distant from conception in both time and space makes a real, physical difference to certain developing neural structures: at least those involved in recovering memories from wherever they reside and turning them into physical behavior. If that were to happen, we should be able to find evidence for it through violations of conservation of energy in the developing fetus. Nothing of the sort has ever been measured, of course. Alternately, sometimes traditional Buddhists explain these kinds of problems in terms of some form of “subtle matter” that carries consciousness. However unless “subtle matter” can be cashed out in terms of actual fundamental forces and particles, the explanation amounts to hand-waving.

The whole notion of a rebirth consciousness assumes either that memories are not stored in the brain’s neural network at all, or that if they are, that storage system can somehow be transmitted across time and space by nonphysical or undetectable means. This picture is only made more implausible when we recall just how much information is at issue: the Buddha claims we can recall literally aeons’ worth of lives.

This notion of rebirth also leaves unexplained how it is that the rebirth consciousness moves from life to life: how does it know where to go? If it is able to perceive things around it, such as eggs awaiting fertilization, just how does that perception take place? Does it detect photons? If so, in so doing it must itself disturb those photons and be detectable. If it processes information, it must do so by using energy of some kind, and hence once again be detectable. It perhaps needs repeating that there is no remotely compelling evidence for such ghostly apparitions.

If, on the other hand, the transmission is instantaneous, that would require temporal coincidence between death and conception that is not always guaranteed to be the case, particularly among small (e.g., proto-human) populations. And once again, the motion from life to life remains obscure: there is no cogent explanation of how the death-consciousness becomes aware of the coincident conception, nor how it moves itself over there to ‘descend into the womb’.

In sum, there is simply no plausible mechanism of action for any of this to happen, and no room in our best understanding of elementary physics that would allow for such mechanisms.

The contemporary, scientific understanding of mind, brain, memory, and mechanisms of physical change is based upon a vast amount of evidence, collected over many centuries. We have a pretty good idea of how the world works. We know that the mind is fundamentally integrated with physical processes in the brain and nervous system. We know this based on many separate but converging lines of evidence, from animal studies, to developmental studies, to brain imaging studies, to brain injury studies, to studies of healthy adults.

Given that as background, any claims of rebirth or veridical past-life memories are literally extraordinary, and following Carl Sagan’s Humean dictum we can say that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The evidence provided thus far, both textually from the Canon and from modern authors like Stevenson, does not rise to that level.

The Buddha and the World

The Buddha was not a scientist any more than was Aristotle or Confucius, and we should not expect him to have had any particular insight into the pitfalls of memory confabulation. Nevertheless such confabulation is the most likely explanation for Canonical stories of past life memories. We know confabulation occurs, we know it occurs when given certain suggestions, and we know that the process involved with eliciting past-life memories, at least in the commentarial tradition, involves eliciting memories that are otherwise impossible to produce veridically: those from when one was less than a year old, indeed even those from when one was a mere zygote.

Stevenson’s collected stories of past lives similarly fails to rise to the level of credibility required to call into question our knowledge of the relation between mind and brain, and our knowledge of physical causation. As psychologist Barry Beyerstein put it in a review of a book about karma and reincarnation,

A compelling reason to doubt that a packet of personality traits and abilities could leap from a dying person, into limbo, and thenceforth to a newly conceived embryo, is the evident linkage of all psychological attributes to highly specific structures and functions in individual brains.

None of this strictly proves that rebirth does not occur, nor does it prove that some people don’t have veridical memories of past lives. All that evidence and reason can do is to illuminate the more plausible alternatives. Those alternatives may, for all that, be incorrect. If they are incorrect, however, we should at least hope for additional evidence, better controlled experimentation, showing that it is possible to recover memories that are not encoded in neural tissue, that it is possible to sustain consciousness in organisms that lack nervous systems, that it is possible for mental causation to cross time and space and alter physical substrates.

Negative experiments along these lines are legion, though they rarely find their way to the front page of your local newspaper, since nobody has any reason to promote them. One can find mention of them in places like Skeptical Inquirer magazine, or outlined at websites like the Skeptic’s Dictionary or Quackwatch.

It is for reasons such as these that any contemporary, scientifically informed Buddhist practice should reject belief in rebirth and its associated kammic causation. The Path is rich enough without them. And while we can make good use of kamma and rebirth as metaphor for our moment-to-moment lived experience of change, or of skillful and unskillful action, we simply cannot make any more of it and expect to end up with a system which is compatible with our best understanding of the way the world works.

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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 (179)

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  1. I think this whole discussion misses the point. Traditional Buddhists don’t believe in rebirth because of the evidence for or against it: they do so because of a belief about its moral role. Personally I think it is a mistaken understanding of ethics that is the biggest problem with belief in karma as cosmic justice, and belief in rebirth merely follows from this belief in karma. As Bruce Reichenbach pointed out, karmic theory constructs a concept of ethics on the lines of law, projecting human law onto the cosmos as a whole. If you think in this way and all your values are piled onto it, you will filter out all factual criticisms about karma and rebirth. It is only if you understand ethics as an aspect of universal human experience rather than as a metaphysical deduction (or as a social norm) that you will be in a position to really challenge the moral thinking that lies behind karma and rebirth.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello Robert. Yes, I am aware that one classic argument in the Canon for rebirth involves its moral role: indeed, I wrote a blog post dealing with that argument. The point of this piece was to look at the actual evidence for rebirth.

      • I agree with your earlier post about the traditional account of the need for belief in rebirth involving a false dilemma. However, I think you implicitly impose a false dilemma yourself as well by not considering the possible moral role of eternalism, nihilism and the Middle Way interpreted outside the framework of karma and rebirth. The false dilemma here is that the Middle Way is either a position understood in terms of discredited supernatural beliefs or it must be reduced to a set of conventional social norms at best: there are other alternatives.

        I don’t think there’s any harm in considering the evidence for rebirth, but I don’t think such surveys tell us anything about the reasons Secular Buddhists reject rebirth any more than they tell us about the reasons traditionalists accept it. In both cases the ‘evidence’ is interpreted through an a priori filter. There’s a parallel here with Richard Dawkins’ arguments in ‘The God Delusion’: here he insists that God’s existence is an empirical matter subject to evidence, and that the weight of evidence is against it. However, neither theists nor Buddhists who believe in rebirth work consistently on the basis of a weight of evidence interpreted within a scientific framework – rather they will dart in an ad hoc fashion between empirical and a priori arguments. Nobody believes or disbelieves in either God or rebirth because of a consideration of the weight of evidence. They might sometimes turn to such evidence as a rhetorical or evangelistic strategy when it suits them, but otherwise the motivations are better summarised as a priori metaphysical assumptions.

        I think you will only make progress here, either in addressing traditionalist concerns or in clarifying things for secular Buddhists, if you start addressing moral motives, and explain why those motives cannot be fulfilled by claims about rebirth. Traditionalist Buddhists are concerned about ‘nihilism’, and tend to put that concern in the crude form of appeals to rebirth, but there’s much more to it than that, because nihilism can be interpreted in epistemological and moral terms rather than metaphysical ones. If you don’t take the Middle Way seriously, I don’t see how you can either address those motives or give Secular Buddhists clear reasons for rejecting them.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          The false dilemma here is that the Middle Way is either a position understood in terms of discredited supernatural beliefs or it must be reduced to a set of conventional social norms at best: there are other alternatives.

          I have not presented such a dilemma anywhere. Indeed, I do not agree with it.

          Nobody believes or disbelieves in either God or rebirth because of a consideration of the weight of evidence.

          Quite the claim! If that were so, it would only be because nobody believes or disbelieves anything because of a consideration of the weight of evidence. Then all attempts to consider evidence, including the theory you propound, are equally unworthy of our attention.

          • mufi says:

            I interpreted Robert (charitably, perhaps) to mean that most folks inherit such beliefs from childhood authority figures (e.g. parents/guardians and teachers) and from childhood peers – in which case, whatever “consideration of the weight of evidence” they gave to these “a priori metaphysical assumptions” most likely occurred later in life in the form of post-hoc rationalization or motivated reasoning.

            That certainly won’t be true of everyone – particularly adult converts – but as a rough generalization, it jibes with experience, no?

            PS: As you can tell from earlier comments, however, I disagree with Robert’s general thrust. As far as I can tell, you already addressed the moral argument(s) for (non-)belief in rebirth. While that essay was useful, so was this one. Talk about a false dilemma!

          • I’m glad you don’t agree with that dilemma. However, it seems implicit in your position.

            “If that were so, it would only be because nobody believes or disbelieves anything because of a consideration of the weight of evidence.” That doesn’t follow. My chief objection to metaphysical claims is that they are not open to consideration in terms of the weight of evidence. People believe all sorts of everyday things on the grounds of the weight of evidence, but not metaphysical claims like God or rebirth because they are irreducibly brittle – i.e. you either accept them or deny them on the basis of faith or the lack of it.

            This takes us back to debates about metaphysics that we have had before. I should know better to respond on here by now, because we always come back to the same intransigent points.

          • Thanks for the charity, Mufi. It’s always nice to receive some.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Yes, the charity is welcome, but please note that mufi has reworked your claim from a “nobody” believes or disbelieves to a “most folks” believe or disbelieve. That reworking is crucial. It changes the claim from false to true.

            Of course, most people believe religious claims based on their relation to particular social structures, or as mufi put it, based on their relation to particular “childhood authority figures”. But that does not establish that such beliefs are entirely resistant to evidence. If they were, by your lights you should not be attempting to dismiss them as “metaphysical” (not the correct description of them anyhow), since such a move could not hope to be effective.

          • My welcoming Mufi’s charity doesn’t mean that I agree with his interpretation of what I was saying. I do think that metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally or in response to evidence. No amount of evidence makes any difference to a claim that is infinite in scope and is believed on the basis of prior assumptions that may be associated with evidence rather than the evidence itself. That doesn’t mean that people never change their minds about metaphysical beliefs, but I think they can do this only on the basis of a loss of faith or a loss of identification with a group, perhaps precipitated by sceptical arguments that show the doubtfulness of metaphysical claims – not by incremental changes in evidence.

            There is lots of work on cognitive bias, for example in the work of Daniel Kahnemann, that supports this account. Psychologists provide empirical evidence for this type of bias, but the bias itself is not ‘rational’ – i.e. not amenable to such evidence. People give up cognitive biases only by realising the presence of the bias and engaging with tne evidence instead, not by altering the bias to a different one. That makes beliefs held on such grounds qualitatively distinct from ones held on the basis of a degree of evidence.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s work on cognitive biases are a fundamental part of our picture of how the mind works: it is not a rational calculator in every circumstance. (I dealt with this issue a little in my piece on Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism). But none of their arguments have anything to do with “metaphysics” or “metaphysical beliefs”. To take one key example, the “representativeness heuristic” involves our tendency to overgeneralize the likelihood of an event from our ability to easily recall it. So for example we tend to overestimate the likelihood of dying in an airplane accident, or from a nuclear meltdown, since airplane accidents and nuclear meltdowns tend to be large, dramatic events. On the other hand, auto accidents or deaths from the byproduct of coal burning power plants are less dramatic, even if statistically more deadly.

            Such biases are amenable to rational evaluation, since I have just given such an evaluation. This does not mean that one who accepts such an argument won’t, in knee-jerk fashion, tend towards such incorrect beliefs in the future, simply that one can be argued out of them if one is open minded about the evidence.

          • See http://www.moralobjectivity.net/cognitive_bias.html for an account of how a wide range of cognitive biases can be understood as requiring metaphysical beliefs.

            I agree that one can be argued out of a cognitive bias, if, as you say, one is open-minded about the evidence. It is the step of abandoning the bias and becoming thus open-minded that is discontinuous. In the case of something like rebirth, that very step of judging on the basis of evidence or experience rather than metaphysical assumptions is the point where belief in rebirth is lost.

  2. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    I’m with Doug on the point of his post. It wasn’t to investigate why traditionally inclined folks believe in a literal rebirth, but rather talk about why secularists *don’t*.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I’m not sure, if the post is about why secularists don’t believe in rebirth, there was theorizing about how the Buddha might have come to make the mistake he did. Could you or Doug clear that up for me?

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        Um, it’s because in Robert Carroll’s words, “… there seem to be alternative, non-paranormal, explanations for all of his data.” We can explain the Buddha’s claims without requiring him to have had any sort of veridical, paranormal experience.

        This is part of the argument for why the evidence for rebirth is not compelling.

      • Linda Linda says:

        Let me see if I understand by phrasing it differently: it’s because people might just want to believe the Buddha because he is who he is and he says rebirth is true, so we need explanations of how he could be mistaken?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          I wouldn’t quite put it that way, Linda. It’s not that we need explanations for why the Buddha could be mistaken, it’s that there are explanations for why the Buddha could be mistaken.

          Perhaps more to the point, as I understand it meditators in the Theravāda tradition have followed the procedure outlined in the Visuddhimagga up to the present day (I believe other traditions use similar methods), and so even people alive now may feel that doing such a form of ‘memory rewind’ may provide solid evidence for rebirth. I mean, usually it’s the case that remembering something is pretty good evidence that it happened.

          But the argument against the veracity of the Buddha’s past-life memories ramifies to anyone using that sort of technique: there is a good, well-established understanding of how just such techniques could promote confabulation, and even tend to strengthen confidence in false beliefs.

          The upshot is that none of this is good evidence — certainly not “extraordinary evidence” — for the truth of rebirth.

        • Linda Linda says:

          Thanks for the clarification, Doug, that helps.

          Are you saying that Theravada has methods that cause people to seek evidence of rebirth — would that be through meditation? I was aware of such practice in Tibetan lineages, but not in Theravada. (There is much in the world I am not aware of!)

          But the question I’m wanting to ask is, believe it or not, about blog etiquette, and how it would be put to use on this page in particular. I ask this because (1) I have run afoul of this issue on others’ blogs and am aware I’m not always good at picking up cues about what people consider Good Behavior and (2) I agree with pretty much everything you say about the Evidence for Rebirth so the only thing I can say about the Primary Point here is “Great post!” and (3) something you said about the way the Buddha made the mistake he did reminded me of another sutta and *that* I would like to comment on but (4) you said to Robert: “The point of this piece was to look at the actual evidence for rebirth…” and this seemed to me like a hint that talking about anything other than the Primary Point is Not The Done Thing. But I could be reading that wrong, so I’m asking. I do realize that what you consider Good Blogging Etiquette might be different from what I consider it (I welcome digressions if they have some relevance to the post and are interesting… but I digress) and may be different what anyone else thinks, but I’m here now, so I’m asking you.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Hi Linda,

            Yes, the Visuddhimagga method I outlined above is one that a contemporary Theravadin monk (of high ability) is supposed to use in order to recall past lives. It’s done through meditation, in particular, achievement of jhāna.

            Re. your questions about blog etiquette, of course, one can ask whatever one wants in the questions, so long as they don’t violate the site’s rules. (Though there is a limit to how much I will respond to). My point about “this piece” was in reference to Robert saying I had missed a crucial point of the Buddha’s approach to presenting rebirth: in particular, that the Buddha argued for it on moral rather than evidentiary grounds. What I was saying there is that I had dealt with the moral argument in a previous post.

  3. mufi says:

    Great job, Doug.

    I was tempted to reply in defense of this essay to a couple of the Facebook comments, but I prefer this venue.

    Above, you wrote: None of this strictly proves that rebirth does not occur, nor does it prove that some people don’t have veridical memories of past lives. All that evidence and reason can do is to illuminate the more plausible alternatives. Those alternatives may, for all that, be incorrect…. One commenter seemed pleased by the apparent weakness (or agnostic character) of this statement, whereas another seemed not to notice it and instead questioned the strength (or gnostic character) of the word “rejecting” in …my reasons for rejecting rebirth.

    That said, the difference between (A) “Rejecting Belief X” and (B) “Provisionally accepting Belief Y, which is incompatible (or at least does not sit well) with Belief X” may be a subtle one, but it does suggest potentially significant differences in attitude. For example, (A) may very well be a consequence of dogmatic clinging, whereas (B) suggests a more open attitude, based on the latest & greatest evidence and logic.

    In the case of belief in rebirth, I (even at my low level) understand how strongly Buddhist tradition favors it and why. I simply choose to associate with that tradition only insofar as it’s compatible with a (B)-style attitude. So far, they’ve turned out to be quite compatible with each other (i.e. relative to other religious/wisdom traditions) – albeit, at times perhaps in spite of what the Buddha taught and/or thought, given the vast differences between his cultural setting and ours.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Re. the two apparently opposed (agnostic/gnostic) quotes, just for clarity’s sake I’ll reiterate that there is no contradiction between them. I can reject something on the basis of evidence that may nonetheless be faulty. I can open the tool drawer for my pliers and overlook them in the heap of junk. That leads me to reject the assertion, “My pliers are in the tool drawer.” I may however later on in the day, after having ransacked the house, decide to question my initial rejection and come back to that same drawer and there find the pliers.

      My initial evidence said one thing, and I was justified in my initial conclusion given that evidence. But I can still nevertheless grant that I could be wrong. Similarly, the evidence is that traditional rebirth is false. But that evidence may nonetheless be faulty.

      As far as “rejecting” goes, it plays a central role in the dhamma. The Buddha consistently rejected claims of a permanent self, for instance. He rejected claims that one could pursue other paths than his own and reach the same goal. And nowadays scientists routinely reject false theories without thereby implying that they are in possession of all the facts: their rejections are always provisional on best evidence.

      “Rejecting” does not in and of itself imply clinging. It all depends on how one holds that rejection: does one identify oneself with it, or not?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Oh, and thanks for the post, mufi! 🙂

      • mufi says:

        You’re welcome…and I agree 100% with your clarification, btw. (I just thought I’d take an amateur’s stab at some hinted misinterpretations/equivocations that I was detecting in the Facebook comments.)

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Along with Linda and Robert, I confess I don’t get the point of this piece. One either agrees or disagrees with this statement:

    “A compelling reason to doubt that a packet of personality traits and abilities could leap from a dying person, into limbo, and thenceforth to a newly conceived embryo, is the evident linkage of all psychological attributes to highly specific structures and functions in individual brains.”

    We don’t need an analyis of why it might have been possible for the Buddha to believe otherwise. Rebirth was the standard cosmology of his time and place, the facts in the above paragraph hadn’t been established, and, regardless, much of the material in the Pali Nikayas is plainly mythological and there’s no reason to think the enlightenment accounts in the Noble Quest suttas aren’t also. (Leaving aside whether this legend was even invented by Gotama, as other myths, such as his bearing the Marks of a Great Man, clearly were not.)

    No educated, intellectually honest person can accept rebirth. The function of secular Buddhism is not to argue the point, or to provide an alternative doctrine of negation. It is to demonstrate that the core ideas attributed to Gotama — dependent arising, the Three Marks, and the program of mental and emotional development based on these concepts– are efficacious without recourse to the mythology of the Nikayas. The best way it can demonstrate that is by practicing them, and providing an environment where others can learn, discuss and practice without needing to continually defend and justify (or hide) their refusal to believe the unbelievable. Again, do you believe the statement quoted above, or not? If the answer is yes, further argument about it is a waste of time, and contributes to the widely-held misperception that all we want to do is argue about rebirth.

    • mufi says:

      Doug mentioned early on that “contemporary Buddhists such as Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi” cite Ian Stevenson’s stories as “compelling further evidence for Buddhist rebirth.” If so, then perhaps they’re only being defensive, but the argument itself deserves to be challenged with something better than an argumentum ad hominem (which is how I interpret “No educated, intellectually honest person can accept rebirth.”). Strictly speaking, one need not be interested in Buddhism in order to offer such a challenge, but then who else pays attention to what these men have to say?

      • Linda Linda says:

        mufi, I confess to not being very clear on the finer points of debate logic, so I may be missing here, but if Mark’s comment is an ad hominem argument, is Doug’s “Insofar as we know anything about his dhamma, we know that the Buddha taught literal rebirth…” the same? I cannot help but to suspect his comment is directed at me (implying, of course, that since I — for example — don’t “know” that he taught literal rebirth, I don’t know anything) and the comment from just below that “If the issue here has to do with the claim that rebirth was some kind of Theravādin conspiracy, and that hence I should not be referring to the Buddha in all this, then all I can do is to repeat that I do not find that claim remotely compelling, nor so far as I know do any scholars who study early Buddhism” adds to the effect (implying that I’m no scholar).

        BTW No one should worry that I’m actually taking these comments I’m quoting as a personal attack and going all flame-warrish. Doug and I seem to be developing what I think of as an increasingly friendly rivalry over this most basic of understandings of what the Buddha said and why, but my personal style tends to be to put things as plainly as I can, I guess because I lack Social Graces (though I do work at understanding the Graces; which is why I ask about ad hominems — a concept I get when it is blatant but have trouble recognizing the lines around when it comes to very subtle uses of language).

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Linda, I apologize if I seemed peevish to you with the “remotely compelling” point. Mark and I seem to be establishing something of a problematic relationship in the comments.

          Re. the Buddha dhamma, I do understand that some people don’t think we can recover anything of what the Buddha actually believed. In that case, they would be arguing that we don’t know anything about the actual Buddha dhamma, and in particular can’t know whether or not he believed in rebirth. I think there are a handful of scholars who hold this sort of view. But there are no scholars who hold that we can know what the Buddha believed, and that he didn’t believe in rebirth. And by “scholar” I mean a college or university level professor of Buddhist studies, someone with a degree in the field who studies it professionally. Neither you nor I are scholars in that sense.

          Rebirth is a part of all known strands of Buddha dhamma and dharma, including several that did not come through the Theravāda lineage, so at any rate it cannot have been a matter of the Theravāda making something up.

          All that aside, in general I think it serves us best as a nascent movement to stick to established scholarship.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Thanks for the answer. It’s interesting that the most popular definitions of “scholar” (for example at dictionary.com) don’t include having a degree.

            I found the “Insofar as we know anything about his dhamma, we know that the Buddha taught literal rebirth” far more limiting.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            New Oxford American gives the definition “a distinguished academic”, which I think captures how a scientific skeptic should consider scholarship. Though nota bene: what a single such academic says is irrelevant; what matters is scholarly consensus. Given any field of scholarship there are those with fringe opinions, most notoriously the several hundred doctoral level scientists and engineers who signed the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” statement by the creationist Discovery Institute. Their assertion was that since several hundred such scientists were willing to sign a pro-creationism statement, that showed there was real scientific controversy on the matter.

            In response, the National Center for Science Education ran Project Steve, which gained signatories to an opposing, pro-evolution statement only by scientists named Steve. The point being that although “several hundred” signatories sounds like a large number, statistically it is negligible. (0.01% of scientists in related fields, according to the data in Wiki). Hence there is no real controversy about evolution in the sciences.

            I submit the same is true re. rebirth and the Buddha, except that I don’t think you could find a single scholar by any comparable definition who would sign such a petition. (Leaving aside the handful who don’t believe we can say anything about the Buddha, of course). Thus my point.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Ah, the scientific method. It does work very well, and I am in full support of it. I will point out though that having all that consensus doesn’t make the majority opinion right, for example [insert your favorite outdated, disproved, once majority opinion here — there are an awful lot of them]. New understanding doesn’t happen if no one ever bucks the majority and stands up for seeing things a different way.

            Because I appreciate that conservatism has its place, I appreciate you and your stance, Doug, standing up for the traditional interpretation of what the Buddha taught.

        • mufi says:

          Linda: Looks like you already got a decent explanation from Doug, so I’ll just add that, as a general rule of thumb, I think it’s fair game to question folks’ credentials if/when they issue a claim about a particular topic. In the case of early/Pali Buddhism, something akin to the CV of Richard Gombrich, Alexander Wynne, or Johannes Bronkhorst (just to name a few relevant scholars off the top of my head) is more or less what I have in mind. Experts like these don’t always agree with one another, of course (see here for example), but their conclusions are the ones that I take most seriously with regards to this topic and they form the collective source for my working assumptions about what the Buddha did or did not (probably) say/teach/think.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Thanks, mufi.

            So it’s not ad hominem to judge work on someone’s credentials, rather than the content of their argument? I would have thought it would be. For example, Bronkhorst has so much faulty logic in the works of his that I’ve read that I wouldn’t find his credentials adding anything to the weight behind most of his arguments. I judge on content alone.

          • mufi says:

            Linda: You’re welcome to criticize my rule-of-thumb (a.k.a. guideline or heuristic) about having scholarly credentials, but please trust me when I tell you that I apply it universally (as opposed to only directing it at people whom I personally dislike or whom I just want to make short shrift of), so I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to describe my use of it as an “argumentum ad hominem.” To call it an “appeal to authority” might be closer to the mark, except that we’re talking about a kind of “authority” (i.e. expertise) that I assume that any one of us has the potential to attain, given enough time & effort, and in this situation I reckon that you have a big head start on me!

            Having said that, no heuristic is 100% reliable. It’s simply deemed a good bet in one or more situations. In this case, the heuristic is that someone who has the credentials that symbolize expertise in a particular field is a more reliable source of information from that field than someone who lacks them. And even that’s not reliable enough, which is why we have additional heuristics – like the one that Doug mentioned of looking for (something in the neighborhood of) a scholarly consensus in that field. Can even a scholarly consensus be wrong? Sure, but I deem it a much safer bet than the alternatives.

            I feel obliged to add that this is not a topic in which I have a big investment (emotionally or otherwise), so I’m speaking in terms of a general modus operandi that I also use in situations unrelated to Buddhism or to the particular historical interest in what the Buddha, in fact, taught or thought about rebirth.

          • mufi says:

            PS: Linda, it occurs to me in hindsight that I didn’t explicitly answer your question, “So it’s not ad hominem to judge work on someone’s credentials, rather than the content of their argument?” I’d have to trawl through the discussion forum to find examples, but as far as I recall, Doug has addressed the content of your argument – or at least that part which you presented here on this site – and I think it’s fair & accurate to say that you failed to persuade him, and that it would hardly qualify as an “argumentum ad hominem” if he were to reference that failure.

            Now, you may be tempted to counter that you’re misunderstood and that, if I were to indulge your work more fully, then I’d come around to your side. Perhaps, but that brings me back to those heuristics that I described.

            In other words, even if that were to actually happen, persuading a lay person like me, whose grasp of the primary sources and other relevant lines of evidence (e.g. non-Buddhist texts & artifacts from the period) is elementary at best, would be a much less impressive feat than persuading an actual expert (like Gombrich), let alone a majority of experts.

            That’s not to say that the latter can’t possibly happen (eventually), but I reckon that the odds currently favor the “reigning paradigm”, which suits my purposes – and presumably those of most secular Buddhist practitioners – just fine.

          • Linda Linda says:

            mufi, I’m not so much criticizing as trying to understand what you’re defining. Your comments above are quite helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time.

          • mufi says:

            Linda: I hope you still feel that way after reading my (more direct) postscript, which I submitted before seeing your response.

          • Linda Linda says:

            but mufi, when you said, “…but I reckon that the odds currently favor the ‘reigning paradigm’, which suits my practical purposes (and presumably those of most Secular Buddhists) just fine…” I have to object: it does, and it doesn’t. Conserving the monastic belief that the Buddha taught rebirth serves a secular understanding of *history* just fine, but when the history is seen that way, what’s in the Canon doesn’t serve *practice* just fine, which is why there’s this Buddhism 2.0 movement afoot to rewrite Buddhism, leaving out whatever doesn’t suit us pragmatists.

            There’s a vast amount of confusion generated by trying to sort out what the heck the Buddha meant, if it is useful or not, what to keep and what to throw out, that comes from believing (and it is a belief, not the fact Doug presents it as with his “if we know anything we know this” statement) that the Buddha was mistaken on so many fronts in what he taught. Rather than, as I’d have it, that his method of teaching has led to confusion because he was not aware of how easily and quickly it would be distorted, as the original context got lost and people did what they do when passing on information. *He* was not perfect (he didn’t foresee what would happen, and omnisciently know how to prevent it), but *what he was trying to point out* is, I believe, as near to perfectly useful as we’re likely to find in our lifetimes.

            The confusion generated by interpreting what he’s saying through a lens of “for a teacher who taught seeing through delusion, he sure was a deluded fellow!” does not suit practical purposes at all well — it just adds layers of confusion. Choose a different lens, one in which the Buddha actually did see through delusion, and taught it as best he could in his times, and it is we who are deluded into thinking we have a great understanding not only what he was saying (-“he was clearly being literal”-) but how he came to be so confused (“…confabulation is the most likely explanation for Canonical stories of past life memories.”), and what he taught actually makes sense, is visible in our lives, and needs no revision to work just fine, nor time spent justifying how the Undeluded One got so deluded by his belief in rebirth.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Oh I do still feel that way, mufi, but it doesn’t stop me from having more to say, as you can see!

          • mufi says:

            OK, seeing as how we’re not arguing the historical facts at this point so much as their implications for practice, I don’t think that any expertise in early/Pali Buddhism is required to continue this conversation…

            Remember the analogy that I made to Aristotle in a previous conversation? There I said that his theories of physics and cosmology have been superseded by developments in the modern sciences, while his theory of ethics remains relevant today and has actually undergone somewhat of a revival in recent decades (e.g. thanks to Alasdair MacIntyre, Deirdre McCloskey, Michael Sandel, and Massimo Pigliucci). Is it really so difficult to accept that a person – even a systematic thinker like Aristotle – can be wrong about one thing but right about another? Not for me, anyway. That’s no less true with regard to the Buddha as for Aristotle, except that the Buddha’s dharma warms my heart in a way that Aristotle’s works never have (and I reckon never will). Maybe that’s why the former became the basis for a durable world religion, whereas the latter is mostly an interest in academic circles nowadays (although I’ve observed that some prominent Roman Catholics – like politician Rick Santorum – still draw upon Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas – usually in ways that are out-dated and inappropriate).

            Besides, I mostly credit Stephen Batchelor for kickstarting my practice, notwithstanding all of his early warnings about the ancient Indian cosmology and soteriology that I’d encounter in (what he more recently calls) “Buddhism 1.0.” Would my practice be any better today if I looked at the dharma through a different lens? I guess that the answer to that loaded question depends on how you define “better” (i.e. based on what criteria?). All I can say is that I’m satisfied with the lens that I’m using now. What’s more, the image that I behold through that lens is in harmony with the one that the “reigning paradigm” of scholarship provides. If anything, that harmony contributes to the satisfaction, or at the very least does not detract from it.

          • Linda Linda says:

            “Is it really so difficult to accept that a person – even a systematic thinker like Aristotle – can be wrong about one thing but right about another?”

            Not at all. But neither is it necessary to believe that because someone *can* be wrong, that they necessarily are. The first person to whom it occurred that the world might not be flat, being human, could be wrong. I grant that all humans can be wrong. But that doesn’t mean they *are* on any given point.

            The Buddha made mistakes; I see him as entirely human. But because he could and did make mistakes, that doesn’t equate to having to be wrong in the way he understood the world. The only reason he *has* to be wrong in the way he understood the world is to make him, historically, fit with the belief that he taught rebirth when we have no evidence that there is rebirth. Our belief that that’s what he taught requires that he was wrong. You see that, right?

            So just because he can be wrong does not mean he is. In fact, the evidence we have is strongly against him being deluded, since he taught the practices we use today to see what we see — for example that there is no good evidence for rebirth — and he used those same practices himself, spending far more time on it than most of us do.

            And huge amounts of the canon fly directly in the face of him actually believing in it. He talks about the evilness of views. He not only trounces speculative views (views for which there is no evidence) but even views based on too-limited examples — from which one can easily draw the wrong conclusion (see MN 136). He recognized that even “direct experience” could be misleading. And yet we posit that, on awakening, he had a direct experience of his past lives, and was convinced by that. Clearly contradictory.

            For all that I recognize that it seems to most the world that I argue these points endlessly out of ego, I argue these points not for myself but because the confusion caused by being stuck in the view that the Buddha was deluded and wrong on so many points hurts people’s practice: it makes it difficult to understand what was being said (said, as you point out, in a way that warms people). The simplicity of his message just disappears in a whirlwind of dust and debris.

            Now, trying to get folks to see the framework for what’s being said — *that* is complex. The whole set of INTERPRETATIONS that have been handed down to us feel like *unquestionable truths* — they are so familiar they feel right, and anything else just has to be wrong. (The irony! This is just the thing that the Buddha is trying to get us to recognize as a failure in the way we think!) 2,000 years of working out the explanations, and slanting the definitions of words to support those explanations makes it seem so obviously right.

            But is it so difficult to accept that the Buddha could have been speaking in a way that was normal in his time — guru-speak, I would call it, in which pronouncements are made that seem either blatantly obvious or so wrong-headed you can’t believe a smart person would say such things, with the expectation that we, the students, will understand that we have to look for the deeper meaning? (Actually, Theravada has long accepted that this is the case, they talk about speaking “conventional truth” and “absolute truths” which is close but not quite what’s going on — anyone who reads the suttas will soon recognize that the talk is on two levels; how to interpret it is the trick). But because it’s easier to fit the obvious to an already-existing worldview (rebirth) and especially when the man used the language of rebirth *as* his “obvious” to point to his “not obvious” — taking “the obvious” interpretation is the easiest way to go. It doesn’t challenge the status-quo of the times too much (and therefore has survival value as a meme) and it doesn’t require too darned much thinking, either.

            And people don’t want to think their guru-heros could be speaking anything other than Absolute Truths all the time, and certainly our wise and serious masters of those Absolute Truths can’t be being *wry* God forbid.

            The prevailing worldview easily overwhelmed the point actual. (And the Buddha complained in the suttas, quite often, that people just weren’t getting his point. I don’t wonder why not, when the world is chock-full of literalists.)

            It especially puzzles me that, here among secularists, skeptical types, there is so much certainty that the religious texts handed down to us have been handed down accurately — it’s not questioned! “if we know anything, we know he was being literal” because religious texts never get changed or slanted as they get passed on, right?

            But anyway, mufi, your point that I haven’t proven my point is well-founded. There is so much evidence in the suttas for seeing it through this newer lens that it is a monumental task putting it together. I haven’t actually gotten much evidence out there — only the paper on Dependent Arising — and the rest I’m just arguing the logic of the history and practice.

            But not only is there plenty of evidence in the suttas to support what’s said as not being about literal rebirth, the way the pieces fit together in terms of the larger history, and a philosophy that is, as the Buddha says it is, visible here-and-now in this very lifetime — *all* of it is visible, nothing to be taken on faith or speculative — is evidence that the Buddha not only had a coherent message that doesn’t need pruning and bending to fit, he actually practiced what he preached (i.e. “was not deluded”).

            So back to the research and writing for me. (I will listen to anything you have to say in response, though — my conversations with you and Doug and, well, everyone here, are always helpful.)

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            It especially puzzles me that, here among secularists, skeptical types, there is so much certainty that the religious texts handed down to us have been handed down accurately — it’s not questioned!

            Just one correction on a point of fact here, Linda: I do and have questioned the accuracy of certain of the Canonical texts. E.g. in my piece on Buddhas Human and Divine I questioned the accuracy of the Acchariya-abbhūta and Lakkhaṇa suttas. In that case I did so based on independent evidence that showed the sections in question may have been later additions. (Of course, in both cases an assumption of naturalism will lead us to believe someone made them up at some point).

            The fact that this evidence came through two Theravādin monks (Bhikkhu Anālayo and Bhante Sujato) should be noted, as well.

          • mufi says:

            Linda: The Buddha was not necessarily wrong about anything. The only reasons that I have to believe that he was wrong is based on a comparison between (A) a modern science-based/naturalistic worldview and (B) the Buddha’s worldview, as nearly all Buddhist scholars – be they religious or secular – explain it.

            You’re welcome to challenge (B), but that’s not the kind of “practice” that interests me, as I’m quite content with the idea that the Buddha took for granted the basic cosmological & soteriological themes of his day and that he reworked them into his own unique brand of karma/samsara/nirvana (KSN).

            Whether he literally believed in his own KSN formula (as the scholarly consensus contends) or not (as you apparently contend) has little or no impact on the kind of “practice” that most interests me – namely, one that aims at cultivating good/wholesome/skillful (“kusula”) traits, while uprooting bad/unwholesome/unskillful (“akusula”) traits.

            For me, that’s what secular Buddhism is mainly about.

          • mufi says:

            PS: Linda, to put a finer point on what I said yesterday, I would even hesitate to characterize modern-day believers in rebirth (or “rebirthers” for short) as “deluded”, let alone someone like Gotama, who lived over 2,500 years ago in a very different cultural setting. (Yes, I’m aware of the ancient Cārvāka school and its doctrinal similarities to modern-day naturalism, but what little I know about that school suggests to me that the similarities are mostly superficial, and that its surviving material is no match for the Canon in the domains of, say, ethics and phenomenology.) Granted, the same analytic & scientific tools that Doug used in his evaluation above are available to Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi (just to recite the couple of contemporary rebirthers already mentioned), should they decide to avail themselves of them. I would encourage them to do so – as I believe that their understanding of how the world really works would be significantly improved if they would – but nobody’s perfect, and I can only hope to acquire within my remaining lifetime a tiny fraction of their dharma knowledge & wisdom.

          • Linda Linda says:

            “Whether he literally believed in his own KSN formula or not has little or no impact on the kind of “practice” that most interests me – namely, one that aims at cultivating good/wholesome/skillful traits, while uprooting bad/unwholesome/unskillful traits.”

            This is well and good, and as far as my own practice goes, I have no need to argue these points either. I will repeat that the reason I continue is out of the knowledge that seeing the Buddha as deluded leads to seeing the suttas as mistaken on many points and therefore they become confusing, which leads to haring off down wrong understandings of what the practice is about (see final paragraph below).

            “…to put a finer point on what I said yesterday, I would even hesitate to characterize modern-day believers in rebirth as “deluded”, let alone someone like Gotama, who lived over 2,500 years ago in a very different cultural setting.”

            I am also not particularly worried about people who are deluded (confining this to the Buddhist definition) — we all are to some degree (unless we reach full awakening, and I’ve never met anyone that I know is fully awakened) — what worries me is the practices (among them the ones Doug mentioned in the article) of looking for evidence to fit the worldview that Buddhism-as-about-rebirth requires. Being taught practices that take a “view” and working to convince oneself it is real, and “this is evidence”, is the *precise opposite* of what the Buddha was teaching us. The path, as I understand it, is teaching us how to distinguish between “convincing ourselves of the reality of what we want to believe or are told to believe” and (as close to) reality (as we can get). It shows us the mechanisms we use, in our ignorance of them, to convince ourselves; it shows us how we can break the cycle. Having the Buddha teach us the opposite? I don’t see in the suttas that that is what he had in mind.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Doug, you said: “Just one correction on a point of fact here, Linda: I do and have questioned the accuracy of certain of the Canonical texts.”

            I perhaps should have been clearer that I was confining my criticism to the subject-at-hand: whether the Buddha believed in rebirth (was deluded) or whether he used the language of rebirth to make his point (was not deluded). The article you cite was quite good, and you and I both agree that there are later additions to the suttas — in that sutta, stature being added to the Buddha’s legend — but I don’t find that there is much weight being given in practice in our culture (to which the reach of my voice is limited at this time) to the Buddha’s godliness, or god-likeness, so it is not something I spend much time on. If I saw it as a strong force pulling people away from the heart of practice, it would worry me.

            I do find the Buddha himself doing almost the same thing though — giving himself a legendary status — but when he does this, he (being the intelligent and skillful teacher he was) does it for a reason, not just for glorification.

          • mufi says:

            Linda: …seeing the Buddha as deluded leads to seeing the suttas as mistaken on many points…

            But I don’t tend to think of the Buddha as “deluded” – at least not in relation to his peers, which in my opinion is the best way to understand his teachings (for example, why they as qualify as a “middle way”: in the middle of what?).

            The path, as I understand it, is teaching us how to distinguish between “convincing ourselves of the reality of what we want to believe or are told to believe” and (as close to) reality (as we can get).

            I would agree that we can find lofty “gnostic” claims like these in the suttas (as well as in other wisdom traditions), but I would urge you to take them with a grain of salt. Even more strongly, I would urge you not to allow that misleading assumption to influence your interpretation of the texts (which, again, make the most sense in the historical context of ancient Indian cosmology & soteriology, and much less so in the context of a modern cosmopolitan worldview).

            As Doug concluded earlier, I predict that we’ll just have to agree to disagree beyond this point. It’s been fun!

          • “why they as qualify as a “middle way”: in the middle of what?”

            In the middle of eternalism and nihilism, as I’m sure you know very well, Mufi.

          • mufi says:

            Robert: In the middle of eternalism and nihilism, as I’m sure you know very well, Mufi.

            Indeed (as it relates to rebirth & conditioned arising), thus the rhetorical nature of the question.

          • My response was also rhetorical, and was intended to express incredulity at this sidelining of a major element of Buddhist thought, both in the Canon and elsewhere. Are you actually interested in possible answers to the rhetorical question you posed?

          • mufi says:

            Sounds like another plug for your book, Robert. 🙂

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      mufi has it right. If you are going to suggest that any contemporary, educated believer in rebirth is “intellectually dishonest” then at the very least you owe them some explanation somewhere as to why that is the case. And given the strength of that condemnation, the explanation had better be pretty compelling. (As a matter of fact, I would not go nearly so far as to make that sort of condemnation).

      I have made a single post on a secular Buddhist evaluation of rebirth. I may in the fulness of time make further posts on this same topic, but they will not constitute a body of work such as to suggest that “all we want to do is argue about rebirth”. I believe you yourself spent three posts taking issue with Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on this very issue, which is more than I have done.

      If the issue here has to do with the claim that rebirth was some kind of Theravādin conspiracy, and that hence I should not be referring to the Buddha in all this, then all I can do is to repeat that I do not find that claim remotely compelling, nor so far as I know do any scholars who study early Buddhism.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        What I took on TB about was the centrality of belief in rebirth to dharma practice (a topic on which the Nikayas conflict with each other). As I stated in my comment here, providing a woo-free dharma practice zone is what we should be about, and part of that is making it clear that the many voices like TB’s who insist that one can’t practice the dharma without believing the unbelievable (because “that’s what the Buddha taught”) are not definitive.

        And I stand by my statement. We know, as well as we know, say, the germ theory of disease, that nothing that can contain human personality, perception or personal memory persists once the human organism is dead. If you were paying attention in high school biology, you know that. Now if you never took high school biology or its equivalent, you might be forgiven for thinking rebirth was possible (and by rebirth I mean its only intelligible and relevant manifestation, reincarnation). But if you do have such education, only by taking comfort in religous faith, intellectual obfuscations, logical fallacies and circumstantial evidence — or by simply neglecting to think about it — can you persist in believing the impossible to be possible. And because you prefer intellectual dishonesty to losing your belief in the impossible, all the rational argument in the world will fail to convince you.

        Finally, one doesn’t need to posit a “Theravadin conspiracy.” One only needs to consider the possibility that Buddhist doctrine continued to evolve for perhaps as long as two centuries after Gotama’s death. During that time it was in the hands mostly of Brahmins and in competition with other sects who had their own supernatural cosmologies. In such circumstances it would be incredible that Buddhism would not have become Brahminized into the supernatural religion that Theravada was at the time the Nikayas were written down. To refer to the Pali texts as if they are a more or less journalistic account of what a historical Gotama taught is to overlook the evidence in the texts themselves that many of them cannot be such. It is to overlook the fact that many of them plainly contradict each other, and to ignore the dramatic and apparently linear stylistic changes in composition (from simple and lyric to complex and discursive). In other words, these texts look like they were composed by multiple authors with conflicting doctrines over some considerable expanse of time. This being the case, making positive statements about “what the Buddha taught” is something we should do with the utmost circumspection.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Mark, I appreciate that some scholars put forward the extreme skeptical claim that one cannot know what the Buddha actually said or taught. If one wishes to hold to such a view, so be it. But then one is limited to being basically silent on the matter. What one cannot do is to claim that the Buddha rejected rebirth based on such a claim, since there is no scholarly evidence that rebirth-claims in the Canon are particularly problematic. Indeed, I would argue they are some of the least problematic in the Canon, as regards authenticity: even the claim that the Buddha didn’t believe in a permanent self is more problematic than rebirth, in that there were significant early schools of Buddhism who thought the Buddha taught a permanent self.

          But more’s the point, I don’t see any reason to be particularly skeptical of “making positive statements about what the Buddha taught”, any more than I should be skeptical of making positive statements about what any person said a couple of thousand years ago (Confucius, Jesus, Alexander the Great, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc., etc.) Sure, there are editings and interpolations, but it’s not like we don’t know anything about how to distinguish those. And I don’t see why a Secular Buddhist should be particularly eager to become an extreme skeptic about this early material, either. If one doesn’t know anything about what the Buddha really taught, why call oneself a Buddhist at all?

          If, OTOH, what you mean to argue is that we should be careful with the scholarship to distinguish what the Buddha really taught from what he did not teach, then I would argue the best and only way for a relative amateur to do that work is to follow the broad outlines provided in the scholarly consensus. This is, indeed, precisely the same process you recommend with respect to biology and the germ theory of disease. Were someone to claim skepticism of either of those based on some fringe notions of creationism or unbalancing of the life force, you would call them intellectually dishonest.

          Finally, one can of course leave all this scholarship behind and just stick to contemporary practice. But then again, that doesn’t give one any cause to believe one thing or another about what the Buddha may or may not have taught about rebirth. It certainly doesn’t need to touch scholarship at all.

          • mufi says:

            one can of course leave all this scholarship behind and just stick to contemporary practice

            It’s tempting! But then I’ll probably find myself mired in debates over that, too. 🙂

          • I’m coming in very late to this thread (about 10 days, give or take), but I would add a couple points:

            1. Doug is right regarding ‘what we can know’… There is an analogous issue in ancient Western philosophy and yet scholars are still quite confident and capable of dealing with the material without resorting to a ‘we just can’t know’ sort of skepticism/defeatism. Gombrich, I believe, covers this quite well in his book, “What the Buddha Thought.”

            2. Mark’s assertion that “No educated, intellectually honest person can accept rebirth” is not an ad hominem, as some have suggested, but rather seems to approach the “no true Scotsman” fallacy; i.e. that people like Bhikkhu Bodhi or Robert Thurman are not “truly” intellectually honest people because they accept rebirth.

            I used to have this argument with Christians regarding God, but it became clear enough that many of my interlocutors were both educated and intellectually honest (and believed in God), so I dropped such claims. Obviously people of great education and honesty can believe some things we do not.

            In any case, I appreciate the discussion. Debates like this are not likely to be resolved any time soon, but the thoughtfulness and vigor with which they are undertaken suggests a vitality in the religion (or non-religion, if you swing that way) that might not be found elsewhere.

          • mufi says:

            Justin: Mark’s assertion that “No educated, intellectually honest person can accept rebirth” is not an ad hominem, as some have suggested, but rather seems to approach the “no true Scotsman” fallacy…

            I see your point, but as far as “no true Scotman” fallacies go, the claim still strikes me as awfully personal (i.e. “ad hominem”).

            Perhaps there’s room for overlap here, in which case we ought to be mindful of another logical fallacy – namely, the false dilemma. 🙂

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Yeah, I’m with mufi and Doug on this one, Mark. This issue comes up frequently enough, especially by those who do accept a literal rebirth, that it’s very handy for me at least to now have a page we can refer folks to that explains it all, with references.

  5. Linda Linda says:

    So Doug, I mentioned that your citation of a sutta in this post reminded me of another sutta. It’s where you mentioned MN 39 and the way that the description of past lives — I take your point as being “all being so similar” — aren’t convincing as evidence for rebirth, because it doesn’t include “social, linguistic, and morphological change as the Buddha retreated into memories of the distant past”.

    One assumes that when a person is confabulating memories of past lives, that person is limited by what they know of the world, and how they perceive it. Thus, anyone who doesn’t see that there is short-term change on a social, linguistic, and morphological level during their own lifetime isn’t going to be able to extend that to even greater changes over the longer course of the past. This might suggest that the Buddha wasn’t aware of the impermanent nature of all things — he didn’t notice that things changed so his confabulating mechanisms couldn’t extend that effect into those past lives when they constructed memories that he was seeking because he believed in rebirth (as so many did in his day) — or (since we know he did understand impermanence) maybe it’s just that he lacked the imagination it would have taken for the confabulator to provide interesting and changing details, or even to find creative ways to hint at them, rather than be specific. It certainly does seem uncreative and unimaginative to suggest that everything stayed the same back across aeons, especially for someone who did recognize that everything changes.

    The theory that he lacked imagination would seem to be supported, on the surface of it, by DN 14 in which he describes his lineage (which in those days was usually given as actual persons handing on teachings mouth-to-ear over generations back to perhaps some god or certainly some great master, rather than as given here, his lineage being past Bodhisattas turned Buddhas). All of the stories are clones of each other, with each Bodhisatta being born to either royalty or brahmins, of an esteemed clan, each one finding the answer while sitting under a tree (the types of trees changes), each one gaining a large retinue (numbers lessen over time, as do lifespans, as the ages decay into the modern age), each one having a matched set of foremost disciples (Sariputta and Mogallana in Gotama’s age, but names changed for the past Buddhas), each one having one named attendant, and so on, in many other ways their lives directly paralleling his.

    Talk about lack of imagination! He couldn’t come up with something better than that?!?

    Well, of course he could.

    But, to quote you, Doug, “After all, the Buddha was an uncommonly bright and insightful man, one who would not construct fanciful stories for no reason.”

    Perhaps he constructed these stories to be so boringly similar to each other for a reason. Think about it. (Edit: Could it be that he described these lives as pretty much identical to his own because he was actually describing his own? Might it be that they are so unconvincing because he was trying to make them unconvincing enough that we’d ask why?)

    (DN 14: http://tipitaka.wikia.com/wiki/Maha-padana_Sutta )

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I’m sorry Linda, but I cannot agree with your interpretive technique. If you want I can go into it, but since I doubt that I will convince you, and I am quite sure you will not convince me, it may be better to save time by agreeing to disagree. You have described me as a “conservative” and a “traditionalist”; if that helps you to put my approach somewhere that works for you, so be it.

      • Linda Linda says:

        I don’t describe you as either a conservative or a traditionalist, Doug.

        I am quite aware that your practice of Buddhism doesn’t fit traditional models, and “a conservative” has connotations in politics and I know nothing of your politics.

        There is a difference, though, between what you practice and what you believe about the history of Buddhism — you are clearly wanting to practice something substantially different from the Buddhism that history has brought us (edit: as do I).

        But it is true that you defend — and thereby conserve — the traditional understanding of what the Buddha meant by the things he said. I am just attempting to make it clear that that is what you are doing.

        My “interpretive technique”? And Theravadins — and you — don’t interpret?

  6. Tom Alan says:

    The script from this episode of Carl Sagan’s Encyclopedia Galactica has the “evidence” quotation. The Wikiquote article mentions no other context.

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

    Encyclopedia Galactica [Episode 12][edit]

    In the vastness of the Cosmos there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours.
    0 min 45 sec
    What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    1 min 10 sec
    For all I know we may be visited by a different extraterrestrial civilization every second Tuesday, but there’s no support for this appealing idea. The extraordinary claims are not supported by extraordinary evidence.
    7 min 25 sec
    Back reference to UFO abduction claims

    Doug seems to think that phenomena don’t exist unless they can be explained. I’m sure that Dr. Sagan was aware of phenomena for which there were no explanations.

    It’s possible for an explanation to dispell a “basic law of physics.” There was no explanation for the planet Mercury’s apparent change of speed until the theory of relativity was published.

  7. Mark Knickelbine says:

    No, what Doug seems to think is that phenomena can’t be accepted as existing unless they can be demonstrated to exist. That we are unable to explain certain phenomena is not evidence that any old thing you want to believe may be true. For instance (before someone goes there) the fact that subatomic particles appear to behave in paradoxical ways doesn’t make every statement that contradicts observable fact true.

  8. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Doug seems to think that phenomena don’t exist unless they can be explained. I’m sure that Dr. Sagan was aware of phenomena for which there were no explanations.

    It’s possible for an explanation to dispell a “basic law of physics.” There was no explanation for the planet Mercury’s apparent change of speed until the theory of relativity was published.

    This is not correct. The first sentence confuses metaphysics (what does and doesn’t exist) with epistemology (what we have reason to believe exists and does not exist). What I think is that we have no reason to posit the existence of phenomena without good reason. One good reason can be that it is part of a coherent, well justified explanation, and another good reason can be that it is part of rigorously verified experimental evidence. There was no explanation of Mercury’s procession before Einstein, but it’s procession was rigorously verified by visual evidence.

    Claims that require wholesale revision of well justified explanations or rigorously verified experimental evidence are ‘extraordinary’, and so themselves cannot be accepted without very, very strong evidence.

    Sagan’s stated position is, as far as I know, entirely consistent with this view.

  9. Tom Alan says:

    The Secular Buddhist Association advocates pragmatism. We might ask how pragmatists regard unproven hypotheses.

    Suppose a drug company finds that tests with its new drug show a low positive correlation of treatment with the drug and recovery, leaving considerable doubt as to whether or not the drug did any good for participants in the studies. Would the company be justified in selling the drug? If this drug were the only known treatment for terminally ill patients with a particular illness, if the drug had no known side effects, and if it could be produced at a reasonable price, then we could anticipate FDA approval.

    I find it hard to believe that there are benefits from assumming that our planet is visted by space aliens. If anyone mentions this to me, my attitude is “So what?” I consider the flying saucer hypothesis very weak.

    Extraordinary evidence has been published with regard to the question of out-of-body experience.

    “You have no measurable neuronal activity whatsoever … At that stage of the operation, nobody can observe, hear in that state, and I find it inconceivable that your normal senses — let alone the fact that she had clicking nodules in each ear — that there was any way for her to hear those [words] through normal auditory pathways.”
    — Dr. Robert Spetzler, the neurosurgeon who performed a brain surgery in which patient Pam Reynolds was clinically dead for approximately one hour

    “We do not know why so few cardiac patients report NDE after CPR, although age plays a part. With a purely physiological explanation such as cerebral anoxia for the experience, most patients who have been clinically dead should report one.”
    — “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands” by
    Pim van Lommel, Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers, Ingrid Elfferich, 2001

    “Significantly more patients who had an NDE, especially a deep experience, died within 30 days of CPR (p<0·0001)"
    — ibid

    If you will, consider out-of-body experience hypothetical, but pragmatists do not dismiss ideas simply because they remain unproven.

    • Great post, Tom. I agree with you that the SBA Party Line doesn’t seem to be pragmatic – at least in the more open tradition of John Dewey. Instead they are naturalistic. There is an unresolved tension here between genuine pragmatism and naturalism.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Tom, re. “out of body experiences” — the ones you mention are near death experiences — see much of psychologist Sue Blackmore’s work in this field, explaining them in neurological terms. Sue was actually interviewed on the SBA podcast, if you are interested.

      Re. the whole slew of such claims, including the supposed evidence of Pam Reynolds, read the Skepdic article on NDEs, including the copious links at the bottom.

      The short answer is that if you think that a handful of anecdotes constitute “extraordinary evidence” for such things, then you simply do not understand what “extraoridnary evidence” means. There are a handful of anecdotes for every claim ever made, including UFOs, Bigfoot, spoon bending, reincarnation, divine miracles, and so on.

      Re. Secular Buddhism, ‘pragmatism’ is a particular, 20th Century Americna philosophical school, which generally rejected unscientific claims such as these as assiduously as any contemporary naturalist. If the point of SB is to see beyond bootless claims of rebirth and karmic causation, this is only because there is no evidence for them. That is, there is no evidence for them that rises to the level of extraoridnary evidence, any more than do the supposed phenomena you mention. I think anyone who wants to accept these phenomena as demonstrated has no reason to call themselves ‘secular’ Buddhists, since a they swallow Buddhist supernatural claims whole hog. They would be no different from ‘secular’ Christians who accepted claims that Christ rose from the dead on the third day, and claims of saintly miracles.

      • Tom Alan says:

        I invite readers to study the full text of van Lommel’s hospital study, which was published in the Lancet (2001), and decide whether or not it is an “anecdote” or a “handful of anecdotes.”

        “In a prospective study, we included 344 consecutive cardiac patients who were successfully resuscitated after cardiac arrest in ten Dutch hospitals. We compared demographic, medical, pharmacological, and psychological data between patients who reported NDE and patients who did not (controls) after resuscitation. In a longitudinal study of life changes after NDE, we compared the groups 2 and 8 years later.”
        — van Lommel et al, 2001

        http://profezie3m.altervista.org/archivio/TheLancet_NDE.htm

        Readers may also be interested in the Pam Reynolds case study. The difference between case studies and anecdotes should be fairly obvious.

        With respect to that American philosophical school, I refer you to William James on Psychical Research, published by Harvard, which documents the philosopher’s investigations with the Society for Psychical Research. In the course of these investigations, he stated that he was inclined to believe in the supernatural ability of a professed spirit medium.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          The existence of near death experiences is not in doubt. The only question is as to their interpretation, for which I once again refer you to psychologists like Sue Blackmore.

          James’s lafe 19th-early 20th c. gullibility re. spirit mediums was notorious, but I do not believe it was widely shared among pragmatic philosophers, particularly those familiar with later, extensive failed scientific research into psychic phenomena, and throrough debunking of spirit-medium film-flam by professional magicians like Harry Houdini.

      • Your emphasis, Doug, seems to be entirely on rejecting beliefs for which there is no ‘extraordinary evidence’, on the grounds that a single normative material explanation of science is enough. But there is all sorts of evidence that casts doubt on such a model. Such evidence does not and need not prove the converse, and it is not grounds for belief in the ‘supernatural’, but it is just the opening ground for an acceptance of uncertainty and mystery. Tom has given us a good example, and Sheldrake provides more. Why the relentless emphasis on dismissal? Why can’t you just admit that your monolithic view of ‘reality’ just *might* be wrong?

        The great thing about the ‘classical’ American pragmatists of the early twentieth century was that they were not in dismissal mode, but rather making a genuine attempt to reconcile scientific and religious views in a larger philosophical framework, rather than just imposing scientific naturalist views on religion in order to dismiss anything that did not fit into it. For William James this even included the idea that ‘truth’ was pragmatic and could be applied pragmatically to accounts of religious experience that did not fit the materialist framework. Personally, I do not use ‘truth’ in the Jamesian way, but it is the inclusive spirit of his investigations that can provide a very different model for what ‘pragmatic’ might mean from the one that dominates in SBA debates. Here is a sample of James at work:
        “To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. The essential thing is the process of being guided. Any idea that helps us to *deal*, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that *fits*, in fact, and adapts our lives to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will hold true of that reality.” (William James, Pragmatism, Hackett 1981 p.97)

        The idea of “holding true” (as opposed to “being true”) may point to the kind of provisionality that is required to deal with issues like NDEs. This is not an epistemological sponge that soaks up everything that comes its way – merely a willingness to entertain alternative provisional hypotheses sufficiently to explore them and provide a critical perspective on the materialist monolith.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Robert, with all due consideration, we’ve been over this and over this. As you know, all evidence from the sciences which I attest to is always provisional, just as provisional as my claim that right now it is not raining, or that it seems I am sitting in a library. After all, I could just be dreaming.

          That said, I don’t see that “acceptance of uncertainty and mystery” gets us anywhere, either in the dharma or in daily life, especially when we have ample evidence as to the facts. Obscurantism is never the answer. Neither is relying on cranks like Sheldrake, or Uri Geller for that matter.

          As to my supposed emphasis on rejecting beliefs that lack evidence, firstly although that was the subject of this particular blog post, I have plenty of others with a different focus. Secondly, the alternative is to accept beliefs without evidence, or to reject beliefs even though they are well supported evidentially. Neither of those is an adequate epistemological procedure.

          • So the alternatives as you list them are:
            1. To reject beliefs that lack evidence
            2. To accept beliefs without evidence
            3. To reject beliefs that are well supported

            There are a great many other alternatives:
            4. To provisionally accept beliefs that are well supported, but not to reject those that are not, but rather hold them in agnostic suspension.
            5. To provisionally accept beliefs that are well supported on epistemological grounds, but also to accept other kinds of beliefs as meaningful and continue to search positively for ways they contribute to human welfare.
            6. To accept the justification for a belief as a matter of degree, rather than as a toggle switch triggering acceptance or rejection

            I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list of the possible alternatives.

            The acceptance of uncertainty and mystery is also not equivalent to obscurantism, which I would understand as a deliberate attempt to mislead through obscurity. You seem to regard the acceptance of mystery as a sort of threat (also seen in the common pejorative use of ‘mysticism’ on this website), whereas I see it as a liberation. Mystery is just that, mystery: not some kind of underhand attempt to slip ‘supernatural’ beliefs under the radar.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Of course there are in between epistemic viewpoints. Following Hume, what one should do is to apportion one’s belief to the evidence. There is overwhelming evidence for the position supported by consensus science on these matters, and virtually none supporting the other side.

            As regards mystery, taking it as liberation is about as big a mistake as one can make, and doing so has nothing to do with the Buddhism I know from the Canon. To see clearly with wisdom is to dispel mysteries.

  10. Tom Alan says:

    A 13-year study with 344 participants, published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal (Lancet), is not a “handful of anecdotes.” Neither is a well-documented case study an anecdote.

    I advocate pluralism. I understand that there are different opinions about this research and about mystery. That’s fine with me. I hope that people will try to see things from the other person’s point of view.

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
    — Albert Einstein

    Re Susan Blackmore, I participated in that thread and cited an interview in which she admitted that she had stopped reading NDE papers long ago.

    That is not to say that no serious objections to the studies have been raised. Dr. Spetzler’s assertion that his patient’s brain had no functions has been challenged on the ground that the device measuring brain activity, the EEG, would not be so accurate that it would support Spetzler’s claim. All I can say is that Spetzler is a neurologist and has presented an expert opinion.

    Some will say that, if a mundane explanation is conceivably correct, it should be accepted as fact. That is to say that unexplained changes in the planet Mercury’s speed should have been attributed to errors or lies of astronomers.

    The phrase “beliefs that lack evidence” refers to a wide range of ideas. Astrology has no evidence. Flying saucers have flimsy evidence. The out-of-body experience has the support of expert opinion, e.g., that of Dr. Spetzler on a question of neurology.

    • Hi Tom,
      I’d like to invite you to expand your ideas on this topic over on Secular Buddhism UK (www.secularbuddhism.co.uk), where you’ll find folks generally more open-minded, and you won’t be continually battling with a dominating scientific naturalist interpretation of secular Buddhism that dismisses everything else in its path like an Australian road train. The topic of NDE’s is well worth exploring more fully.

  11. mufi says:

    Tom, here’s a positive suggestion: Why not get back to us when there’s something approaching a consensus – or at least a majority opinion – among relevant experts (e.g. cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind) regarding your favored interpretation of NDE’s?

    That you can find a maverick-y expert here and there, who favors such-and-such a minority (if not fringe) view, is hardly surprising. That’s always been the case in science, but that’s only because science is a social endeavor that works over the long haul, separating the theoretical wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

    As of today, I basically share Doug’s skeptical take on the matter, but I’m enough of a pragmatist to have fashioned a personal practice that does not hinge on the outcome of such inquiries. That’s not to suggest that I see these inquiries as a waste of time – they’re just not worth getting all clingy over, IMO.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      This is correct. As regards my practice as well these issues don’t make much difference. I’ve had extensive discussions and classes on dharma without them even coming up. But if one does go beyond the beginning stage, there are at least some canonical claims of supernatural abilities one can develop. Knowing in advance that these are a dead end may eventually prove a help in not getting sidetracked by them.

      • mufi says:

        True enough. I guess that when I say that my practice “does not hinge on the outcome of such inquiries”, that’s because I already take the skeptical stance on these issues very seriously.

        • Mufi, I do not accept your naturalistic appropriation of the term “skeptical/sceptical”. To be sceptical is to be continually mindful of the gaps in knowledge and the limitations of human assertion, not to criticise those who doubt a social consensus. To insist on a social consensus when alternative hypotheses are possible is the very *opposite* of the spirit of scepticism as practised by Pyrrho and his school. To be sceptical in the Pyrrhonian sense, above all, is to understand the distinction between agnostic doubt and negative assertion – a distinction that seems to be entirely lost on you and Doug. See http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/what-is-a-sceptic/.

          Far from taking the sceptical stance on these issues very seriously, you don’t take it nearly seriously enough.

          • mufi says:

            Robert: I use the term “skeptical” more or less as it’s used in this context. Sorry if that usage irks you, but now that I’ve clarified it, I see no reason to labor over semantics.

            My problem with your version of skepticism is that it seems to treat all theories as equally worthy of consideration – even ones that are (a) amenable to scientific testing (be it experimental or observational) and (b) fail the test, according to those who are most qualified to judge – e.g. specialists in the relevant fields (which I take to include both scientists and philosophers “of”).

            I realize that there’s a strong aesthetic judgment in what I say, when I describe your version disapprovingly as inelegant and lacking in parsimony, but then I’m also enough of a pragmatist to admit that I’m comfortable using those kinds of judgments as proxies for truth evaluations.

          • Hi Mufi,
            It’s good to have some specifics. I’d say that “scientific scepticism” is about the polar opposite of the philosophical starting point of scepticism. This is nothing new, though – Erasmus tried to appropriate scepticism for the Catholic Church back in the sixteenth century. If you take a particular realist viewpoint for granted, then sceptical questions are likely to seem as though they support your position by showing the weaknesses in opposing positions. However, they can only do this by selectivity – ignoring the ways that sceptical questions also undermine one’s own position.

            Your assumptions about my position are entirely wrong. I do not treat all theories as equally worthy of consideration. I accept that, practically speaking, credibility criteria have to be applied in deciding which theories to take seriously. A theory amenable to scientific testing that was then falsified by that testing would become much less credible as a result, but it would not thereby be completely ruled out, rather thrust into the background.

            However, I don’t care a fig for either elegance or parsimony in theories. There is no reason why a theory is more or less likely to be correct because it fits our preconceptions better, and the judgements made about what makes a theory “simpler” or makes it require “fewer assumptions” all depend on what assumptions you start with and thus how “complicated” you feel it is to adopt new ones. I do appreciate that scientists will, for practical reasons, sometimes select theories as a basis of research that are easier rather than harder to test, but that’s a separate consideration from Occam’s Razor. So I’m quite happy to be considered inelegant and unparsimonious.

          • mufi says:

            Robert: As I alluded earlier, I’m not interested in debating the semantics of “skepticism” in its historical vs. modern-scientific contexts. So long as you understand how I intended it, I’m satisfied.

            For that matter, I’m also not terribly interested in hair-splitting distinctions between scientific theories that are “completely ruled out” and those that are merely “less credible.” For all I know, the ultimate truth is more akin to the premise of The Matrix trilogy or to a Judeo-Christian version thereof, in which we are all mere figments in the imagination of God, who (rather deviously) leads us to believe that our universe is billions of years old, that life evolved on Earth in a Darwinian fashion, and that our personal histories have some factual basis to them. Sure, I judge these theories to be so incredible as to be practically ruled out, but strictly speaking, I plead agnostic on the matter.

            And my references to parsimony and elegance seek to explain why I deem those theories to be incredible. My layman’s understanding is that many experts (both in science and philosophy) use the same or similar criteria (perhaps more so than some are happy to admit), but I am not one of them, and so I should probably refrain from speaking on their behalf.

  12. mufi says:

    Perhaps I should add that I too interpret “Secular Buddhism” as an approach to the dharma that is compatible with a modern science-based/naturalistic worldview. And, while it’s generally fair game to challenge that worldview, what distinguishes Secular Buddhism from other approaches, to my mind, is that it simply takes it for granted, so that those of us who have already made peace with it can turn our attention to more practical challenges of taking refuge in this time & place.

    But I can tell from threads like these that that is a naive view – that one of the outcomes of adopting this approach (which may indeed be more of a North American or USA-based phenomenon) is that it invites challenges from those who disagree with it, for whatever reason, whether it’s based in Buddhist tradition or a more new-fangled (e.g. “postmodern”) worldview.

    Of course, when we post criticisms of traditional doctrine, that invitation is all the more provocative and explicit, but that in itself is a likely response to previous challenges to Secular Buddhism, which is thereby warranted.

  13. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    It is not dogmatic to provisionally accept the overwhelming evidence provided by the scientific consensus. Much the reverse: it is dogmatic to reject that evidence based on personal preference, cherry picking a handful of fringe opinions that fit your preconceptions.

  14. Tom Alan says:

    Is my view of NDE “minority” or “fringe”? What evidence supports that? Not the opinion polls of Pew Research or Gallup. What journals say that?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I think it’s fair to call any position ‘fringe’ for which there is no or virtually no ongoing research effort, particularly when there used to be several university level efforts which closed down without significant result. Indeed, to demonstrate that the mind is more than just something that the brain does is at this point the kind of discovery that is in Nobel Prize territory.

      To repeat once again: there is no doubt that NDEs are a real phenomenon. They have been explained however in completely neurological terms.

      If you want to know more about what scientists believe about all this, you will need to focus on ongoing research, and journals like Skeptical Inquirer which have always had very high level scientific input, though their network of fellows and staff. Very few practicing scientists will touch this sort of stuff, since it cannot make one’s career. All it attracts is the fringe.

      Of course, this may change one day. New evidence may come down the pike, and we may all have to change our opinions. But that is just speculation. For now, the evidence before us is clear.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Of course there has been ongoing research, the most noteworthy being – not a “handful of anecdotes” – but a 13-year study with 344 participants, published in a peer-reviewed journal, one of the world’s most highly-respected medical journals.

        I refer you to opinion polls showing a high percentage of scientists and physicians expressing their belief in afterlife.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          There has been, as I said, virtually no ongoing research into these things. A single study raising a few questions about NDEs is irrelevant to demonstrating anything except the ordinary gaps in all scientific understanding.

          As regards the personal beliefs of scientists, no doubt most of them come from the cultures of which they are inevitably a part. All polling of which I am aware shows that professional scientists are significantly less likely to believe in supernatural explanations (God, miracles, the afterlife) than are non scientists. This is, I think, all we can expect from any particular profession.

  15. Tom Alan says:

    Assertions that are not supported by facts continue.

    I have presented evidence. If anyone else wishes to, by all means do so.

    Here’s another Carl Sagan quote, not as well-known. Slightly edited, it’s from the same program.

    “What counts is not what sounds plausible … but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined.”

    • mufi says:

      Tom,

      If by “evidence” you mean something along the lines of “anecdotal evidence”, then I’m happy to end this conversation on an agreement.

      Unfortunately, I gather that you either refuse to admit the anecdotal nature of the evidence, or else you still don’t understand why it fails to impress us.

      In any case, best to move on, I suppose…

      • Tom Alan says:

        The confidence level calculated p<0.0001 is not an anecdote. It is part of the analysis of data in van Lommel 2001. It means that the probability of something being attributed to random chance — in this case, prediction of a patient's mortality within 30 days based solely on occurence of NDE report — is less than one in 10,000.

        I gather that you are moving on without responding to my “minority … fringe” question …

        • mufi says:

          Tom: As Doug already alluded (more than once by now), no one doubts that such phenomena occur under certain circumstances. For that matter, it’s well known that scientists can induce certain “paranormal” phenomena using drugs and machinery (e.g. see Michael Shermer’s report on this technique, which triggers “out-of-body” experiences). Attaching a mathematical probability to this correlation of events hardly changes the situation, let alone resolves it in favor of some spooky, disembodied interpretation.

  16. Tom Alan says:

    Mufi, I don’t know what your remark about the 30-day mortality finding means and I don’t care. If you want to believe that statistical analysis is the same as a handful of anecdotes, believe that.

    • mufi says:

      Tom: OK, I see what you’re getting at. Yes, that is a statistical analysis – one that still leads us back to other objections that Doug and I raised (e.g. about the perils of relying on fringe science), but I’ll grant you this much.

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        Dr. Steven Novella had a good piece awhile back that is relevant here: A Study Showed …

        “[N]o single study can reliably confirm any phenomenon. The more complex the phenomenon, then the more this is true. There are many reasons for this. …

        “The more extraordinary a claim then the greater the need for multiple studies before that claim should be taken seriously. There are many “one-off” studies that purport to show that water has memory, that prayer can heal, or that acupuncture points are real. This allows proponents of these notions to cherry pick these individual studies as if they are sufficient to conclude the phenomenon is real. In each case, however, if you look at the totality of research we see a pattern of results consistent with none of these phenomena being real.

        “In fact, some researchers have concluded from looking at published studies that most published studies are actually wrong in their conclusions. This is partly because most published studies are exploratory or preliminary, rather than rigorous or confirmatory. Preliminary studies tend to be biased toward false positive, and there is also a publication bias towards positive studies. Eventually, however, the research sorts itself out and a consensus of more rigorous studies will emerge. Since most new ideas or hypotheses are not likely to pan out, it makes sense that the bias toward positive preliminary studies will often not be confirmed by later better studies.

        “The lesson to all of this is that when asking what the scientific research says about any particular question, we should not look to individual studies to answer the question, but to the overall pattern of results in the literature. Any individual study must be put into the context of this overall research.”

        • Tom Alan says:

          We can discuss research pertaining to afterlife starting with William James and the Society for Psychical Research in the early 20th century, but that’s beside the point.

          My point is that out-of-body experience is a viable hypothesis. I’m not saying that this research proves anything. I thought I made that clear with my drug for a terminal illness analogy, which illustrates the philosophy William James advocated, pragmatism.

        • mufi says:

          Great quote, Doug.

          These are common refrains in Novella’s Neurologica blog, to which I subscribe and recommend strongly to others.

  17. Tom Alan says:

    Novella points out that prayer studies are equivocal. Are NDE studies equivocal? Are there studies that support natural explanations? I don’t mean criticisms raised by skeptics. I mean studies.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      What NDE studies that are repeated and have controls on them are there, Tom?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Dunno Tom, but Dr. Mark Crislip has an update article HERE, that cites THIS article. Here is an except from the abstract:

      “Higher concentrations of CO2 proved significant, and higher serum levels of K might be important in the provoking of NDEs. Since these associations have not been reported before, our study adds novel information to the field of NDEs phenomena.”

      It also cites THIS article:

      “We speculate that this level of BIS/SEDline activity is related to the cellular loss of membrane polarization due to hypoxemia. We further speculate that since this increase in electrical activity occurred when there was no discernable blood pressure, patients who suffer “near death” experiences may be recalling the aggregate memory of the synaptic activity associated with this terminal but potentially reversible hypoxemia.”

      And THIS article about the role of ketamines in NDEs: “we suggest that recreational ketamine intake may be associated with occurrence of near-death related states.”

      And THIS article on the role of carbon dioxide and low pH in similar circumstances.

      Since NDEs are arguably under-studied, due to their association with fringe science, there will likely be a number of discoveries made in the future as to how and why they occur, due to which biochemical cascades.

  18. Tom Alan says:

    Doug, you just answered my question. NDE research is equivocal. By linking us to the study, you also answered Ted’s question about duplication, because this study tests the findings of van Lommel, going the extra step of considering blood gases, although the number of participants is considerably smaller. The author admits that further study is needed to confirm the CO2 effect.

    In keeping with Steven Novella’s warning against “cherry-picking,” I hope that people will read various opinions on this, such as this quotation from neurologist Peter Fenwick:

    “The one difficulty in arguing that CO2 is the cause is that in cardiac arrests, everybody has high CO2 but only 10 percent have NDEs.”

    Fenwick has also said,

    “There is no coherent cerebral activity which could support consciousness, let alone an experience with the clarity of an NDE.”

    National Geographic News
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/100408-near-death-experiences-blood-carbon-dioxide/

    Controls are used in the study of treatments. I don’t see how a control would be used in an NDE study.

    What Novella says about confirming a phenomenon is true, generally speaking, but consider what William James said.

    “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      We don’t yet have a full picture of how the brain produces consciousness in daily life, so understanding NDEs will no doubt take time. But the quote you cite from Fenwick is a red herring. These are, after all, memories; nothing need be conscious at the time. Memory is notoriously constructed.

      And so long as we are quote-mining the NatGeo piece, psychologist Christopher French says at the end that these results “argue strongly against such a hypothesis” (of there being consciousness separate from the brain).

      As regards white and black crows, using such an example once again fails to appreciate the critical difference between ordinary and extraoridnary claims.

      • Tom Alan says:

        “Red herring” means irrelevant information used as a distraction. By this you mean, I take it, that this neurologist, Peter Fenwick, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

        Are you referring to this quotation from Dr. Fenwick?

        “The one difficulty in arguing that CO2 is the cause is that in cardiac arrests, everybody has high CO2 but only 10 percent have NDEs.”

        or this quotation?

        “There is no coherent cerebral activity which could support consciousness, let alone an experience with the clarity of an NDE.”

        Please explain how either of these statements is irrelevant.

        Doug, you’re not a neurologist. You provide no source for this memory thing that supposedly shoots down Fenwick.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          It is the second quote you cite which is the red herring: this should be clear from the sentence that follows: the NDE need not itself be conscious. It need only appear as a later memory constructed out of whatever neural events are going on at the time near death.

          Your focus on the minutiae of CO2 levels is, I might add, a distraction in the present context. I take it that none of us are neuroscientists with the background requisite to know how properly to interpret such information. All we know is that some seem to think it important, while most seem not to. (Christopher’ French did not, and as I say this is not a particularly active area of research).

          It is a common ploy, e.g. of creationists or global warming denialists to pick apart some narrow area of contested research, where there is a gap in present understanding, and to hammer at it over and over again as though it really mattered. If it did matter for overturning present scientific understanding, eventually its mattering would be shown extensively in the literature. The same is true in your case: if CO2 levels are the key in showing a ghost in the machine, we will eventually find that out in someone winning a Nobel Prize for the work. Until then, the appropriate epistemic position we should have with respect to it is to ignore it. Need I add that there are scientists active today with published papers in the literature who disagree that the speed of light is a constant? Virtually every area of scientific investigation is contested to some degree.

  19. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Tom, pick a side and argue it. You can’t at one moment be challenging Doug to produce solid data to prove his assertions (which are, after all, only the consensus of scientific knowledge on the subject) and then expect us to take a handful of anecdotes as demonstrating something that, if it is true, puts the lie to decades of neuroscience. Suggest a mechanism whereby human perception and cognition can exist outside a functioning central nervous system, and then there will be a point to continuing this conversation. The fact that someone with an impaired nervous system had vivid hallucinations means nothing (especially since, as Doug has shown you, the very same hallucinations can be produced reliably in a variety of ways). A near death experience is not a postmortem experience, and so does nothing to challenge the observation that there is no experience of any kind without a functioning (if impaired) nervous system.

  20. Tom Alan says:

    Doug, I have yet to see support for your memory theory. Why should we regard Dr. Fenwick’s comment about CO2 as “minutiae” and “a distraction”?

    Mark, I have cited a case study and a 13-year study with 344 participants and statistical analysis of data. Please explain how these constitute “a handful of anecdotes.”

    As Doug has pointed out, we are not neuroscientists. There is, at this time, a disagreement among the experts in that field. I am not taking sides.

    The CO2 study is, so far as I can tell, informed opinion and as such genuine skepticism, which I respect. For laymen to ridicule Dr. Fenwick because he criticizes the study is absurd.

    “These observations may indicate that those patients who had improved quality of resuscitation and had their hearts restarted after it had stopped had better brain recovery and hence better recall and less amnesic effects of brain injury which seems to be what limits people’s ability to recall their near death experiences. It does not mean that the CO2 itself caused the experiences.”
    — Sam Parnia, M.D., critical care physician and director of resuscitation research at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine

    I have mentioned an apparent change in the speed of Mercury that astronomers could not explain until Einstein did. They reported the finding without “suggesting a mechanism.”

    Materialism is not an established fact or even a scientific theory. Since the days of the Neanderthals, it has been nothing more than a commonsense assumption.

    “We might just as well assume that the activity of neurons is caused by thought.”
    — Peter Fenwick

    • mufi says:

      “Materialism is not an established fact or even a scientific theory.”

      Yes, but you might want to check out some of the recent comments on the “Buddhism, consciousness, and anti-materialism” thread here – in particular, my last few comments re: what Dana described as “the general consensus” forming among neuroscientists, affirmed by my quote from philosopher of mind Owen Flanagan.

      In short, it’s not that “materialism”, at least in any pre-modern sense, is necessarily validated by what Flanagan calls “mind science”, so much as that the “overwhelming evidence” supports the idea that “all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems.”

      The “ultimate” or “transcendent” truth of the matter might be quite different than what one would infer from the sciences (and by that I mean the consensus or dominant views of each field, as opposed to cherry-picked studies by lay folks like ourselves), but one has to go beyond the sciences to get there – in other words, speculate wildly and/or adopt a faith position.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Mufi, the quotation from neurologist Peter Fenwick suggests that research such as brain-mapping may be irrelevant to the question. Does brain activity cause thought, he asks, or vice versa? If you unplug a monitor while it’s showing a video, that doesn’t mean the video has ceased to exist, regardless of whether or not all the pixels of the screen have been thoroughly mapped. This is the idea Plato expressed with his Cave Analogy.

        For years, I’ve been telling religious people that the whole idea of “scientific materialism” is wrong. Astronomy journals don’t have titles like “The First Ten Milliseconds of the Big Bang, Which God Had Nothing To Do With.” Paleontology journals don’t have “Evolution in the Late Cretaceous Period, Which Was Strictly By Natural Selection and No Intelligent Design.” Science is one thing and metaphysics another. Van Lommel didn’t say that his patients came back from heaven. He just said that he couldn’t explain what he saw.

        I am very skeptical of the suggestion that neuroscientists have abandoned this tradition and are endorsing a metaphysical postulate. If that is true, please document it here. If you want to present personal opinions of neuroscientists, as opposed to journal articles, that’s fine, but I will not admit that there is a “consensus” without evidence of that, e.g., an opinion poll.

        • mufi says:

          No thanks. I’m satisfied with Flanagan’s interpretation of the research, in large part because it jibes with most everything else that I’ve read on the topic (admittedly, on a casual basis, as a lay person).

          In other words, it rings true for me as the operational assumption of the field – even among those professional caregivers (e.g. neurologists and psychologists) who, in their personal lives, may entertain supernatural or paranormal beliefs. But if you wish to mine for Flanagan’s sources, then of course you can start with the book that I already referenced in that thread.

          I’ll just add that, on a practical/existential level, it’s nice to know that there’s an approach to the dharma that is comfortable with the conclusion that “all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems”, and does not rely upon fringe science, denialism, and/or conspiracy theories to explain why that view has achieved a mainstream status among scientists and philosophers.

          Thanks, SBA!

          • Tom Alan says:

            I’m asking that you back your extraordinary claim with extraordinary evidence. (Does that ring a bell?)

            I want evidence — either that or no more of your “consensus” and “mainstream” stuff.

            BTW, watch the guilt-by-association arguments. Nobody’s proposing a conspiracy theory here.

          • mufi says:

            Sorry, Tom, but those of us who’ve spent time in the frays surrounding biological evolution and climate science have been down this road before and already know that it’s an endless one. So, if you wish to interpret my decline to play that game as some sort of victory, then you’re welcome to do.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Science is one thing and metaphysics another. Van Lommel didn’t say that his patients came back from heaven. He just said that he couldn’t explain what he saw.

            I am very skeptical of the suggestion that neuroscientists have abandoned this tradition and are endorsing a metaphysical postulate.

            Scientific theories essentially involve metaphysical claims, since they all involve assertions of the existence of particular objects and kinds of objects, as well as modal claims of possibility and impossibility. In the case of neuroscience, there is the assertion of the existence of neurons, their construction out of biological, biochemical, chemical, and eventually physical structures. There is no neuroscience of ghosts or disembodied minds, nor is there any significant research project into discovering such spooks, a handful of gaps in our understanding notwithstanding.

            The notion that science is somehow divorced from metaphysics comes, far as I can tell, from a blinkered notion of metaphysics held only by a handful of logical positivists back in the middle of the last century. They constructed a logical language such that it was not possible to make existence claims in the base language; one had to do so in the meta-language. Nobody I know in the sciences seriously believes in or pursues such an approach.

      • ‘In short, it’s not that “materialism”, at least in any pre-modern sense, is necessarily validated by what Flanagan calls “mind science”, so much as that the “overwhelming evidence” supports the idea that “all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems.”’

        For once, I agree with Flanagan here (much as I dislike his general imposition of analytic philosophical assumptions on Buddhism). However, I may be able to agree with him because “embodied” means something entirely different to me from “material”. To say that our experience takes place in an embodied way can be the departure point for a complete re-examination of our epistemology – on the lines suggested by thinkers like Iain McGilchrist, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The recognition of embodiment opens up further recognition of the differing processes associate with the two spheres of the brain, the role of gestalts and of right-brain processes in meaning, and of the importance of metaphors (in turn linked to embodied gestalts) as the vehicle of all abstract thinking.

        Materialism, physicalism, determinism, and associated reductive positions, however, do not involve the recognition of embodiment at all. They assume only one, stable, intellectual conceptual scheme of the kind associated with dominant left brain processes, one which actually abstracts completely from the embodied process of meaning and cognition in order to construct its model of a predictable “material” universe. Analytic philosophy and associated naturalistic positions in science are largely still working with a model of the human mind as a disembodied brain on a stick that forms abstract representations of the world around it. If Flanagan claims to recognise the embodiment of cognition, he certainly seems to be blind to the massive implications of doing so, because (in ‘The Bodhisattva’s Brain’) he brushes aside or completely ignores all those aspects of Buddhism that offer epistemological or moral standpoints that can be linked to such embodiment.

        • mufi says:

          Robert: FWIW, Lakoff & Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh is one of my favorite books. That Flanagan’s Bodhisattva’s Brain is also one of my favorites suggests to me, however, that perhaps you and I derived different conclusions from the former.

          In any case, I’m happy to end this conversation on at least a partial agreement.

          • I was disappointed by ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’ because of its failure to follow through many of the implications of ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things’. However, Johnson’s ‘Moral Imagination’ does so much more fully.

            I’m working on a book about meaning that will explain my interpretation of Lakoff properly, as well as its links with the Buddha’s Middle Way and McGilchrist’s work on brain hemispheres.

          • mufi says:

            Fair enough.

            But, just to put a finer point on what I said earlier, I interpreted L&J’s “embodied realism” (ER) as an example of a naturalistic approach to philosophy.

            Sure, ER rejects the view that “we can have absolutely correct, objective knowledge” of the world, but it also accepts the assumption that “the material world exists”, along with “an account of how we can function successfully in it”, and rejects “any mind-body gap” (pg. 96).

            IOW, as this side topic pertains to this thread, the assumption that “disembodied experience” is a real occurrence is precisely what ER rules out (or, if you prefer, provisionally assumes to be false).

          • I don’t think an embodied approach to meaning offers any grounds for philosophical realism (or idealism, or dualism, for that matter). If you are talking about experience as such, whether embodied or disembodied, there is no need to get into any talk about existence because it adds nothing to talk about experience: if one has an experience that’s an experience, and it’s only the supposed objects of that experience whose status is debatable. To describe an experience as embodied is to tell us about that experience – to describe it more fully without abstracting prematurely. It is phenomenological, not ontological. So I don’t think recognition of the embodied nature of experience either requires or justifies any such conclusions about the ‘reality’ of disembodied experience.

            If anything, I’d say that it is philosophical representationalists (amongst whom one must number nearly all analytic philosophers) who assume the reality of disembodied experience, by assuming representation as the sole basis of meaning, and that representations can be true or false. Representations are disembodied if anything ever was, and the ‘reality’ of representations must assume the reality of such disembodiment. To draw conclusions about the ‘unreality’ of disembodied experience from a standpoint that implicitly assumes it in the first place is, to put it mildly, inconsistent.

          • mufi says:

            Robert: To describe an experience as embodied is to tell us about that experience – to describe it more fully without abstracting prematurely. It is phenomenological, not ontological.

            Except that’s not what L&J assume. As my reference explicitly demonstrates, they assume that “the material world exists.” You’re welcome to disagree with them, but my point is that embodied realism does, in fact, rest on an ontological assumption.

            That said, I would agree (based on my recollection of other sections from the book) that L&J refrain from making assertions about what “the material world” ultimately is. That is, they do not assert that “the essence of being is matter” or anything as boldly gnostic as that.

            But then I also trust that L&J would agree with Doug’s earlier statement that: “In the case of neuroscience, there is the assertion of the existence of neurons, their construction out of biological, biochemical, chemical, and eventually physical structures. There is no neuroscience of ghosts or disembodied minds, nor is there any significant research project into discovering such spooks, a handful of gaps in our understanding notwithstanding.”

          • I do think that Lakoff and Johnson are giving themselves unnecessary metaphysical hostages to fortune in the passages you quoted, yes. Their other work does not require these. So I don’t know whether or not they would agree that their work requires ontological assumptions. All I can tell you is that it seems clear to me that it doesn’t.

          • mufi says:

            I do think that Lakoff and Johnson are giving themselves unnecessary metaphysical hostages to fortune in the passages you quoted, yes. Their other work does not require these.

            I’m more familiar with Lakoff than Johnson (e.g. having also consumed the former’s work on mathematics and politics), which as far as I recall was no less metaphysically captive than this work. But then, as I alluded, I don’t interpret this work as all that metaphysically captive to begin with.

            After all, it’s one thing to claim that “we can have an account of how we can function successfully in” the world (which, again, L&J assume), and quite another to claim that we can have “absolutely correct, objective knowledge” of that world (which, again, L&J reject). IOW, the former view is more pragmatic and agnostic than the latter, but it’s still “gnostic” enough to claim that we can gain enough knowledge to allow us to survive and flourish in it.

            And knowledge of what, if not some metaphysical reality, however embodied our concepts regarding it necessarily are?

          • Hi Mufi,
            You don’t seem to have got my earlier points about representationalism, if you think that “knowledge of what?” is a relevant question in terms of the view of meaning that Lakoff and Johnson offer. We don’t know what, and what’s more our whole way of understanding, based on gestalts and metaphors, undermines that representationalist question. Our cognitive models may assemble representational ideas, but it can no longer be assumed that those cognitive models represent a “what” either positively or negatively. You can’t just impose a whole cognitive system on their work that the very basis of that work has already undermined.

            Nor can you make what you refer to as the ‘gnostic’ a matter of degree. If you have a representation of a supposed reality and it differs at all from that reality, then it is false, in the nature of the inflexible model you are using. Only embodied, agnostic ways of cognising can be incrementally objective.

          • mufi says:

            Nor can you make what you refer to as the ‘gnostic’ a matter of degree. If you have a representation of a supposed reality and it differs at all from that reality, then it is false, in the nature of the inflexible model you are using. Only embodied, agnostic ways of cognising can be incrementally objective.

            Of course you can. I just did, and so did L&J.

            And by what degrees do L&J attempt to measure such “gnosis” (or “stable scientific knowledge”, as they put it)? By degrees of success or failure to make predictions, of course, but also with respect to how well those predictions bear on our prospects for survival and flourishing, in whatever worldly environment we happen to find ourselves.

            This is all quite clear to me from my recollection and quick review of L&J’s book. But more to the point, I found L&J’s “embodied realism” to be a lot more convincing than the radical “mysterian” view (to borrow a term from Flanagan) that you seem to be driving at here.

  21. Tom Alan says:

    Mufi, you have failed to back up an extraordinary claim with extraordinary evidence. Surely you must see the irony of this, in a discussion of the paranormal.

    I have said nothing about conspiracies here, nothing about evolution, or climate change. I haven’t even said that I’m sure about NDEs.

    Your rhetorical skill is amazing. You refer to neurologists as “professional caregivers.” It makes them sound like those house servants in Gone With The Wind.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Just what claim of Mufi’s is “extraordinary”? Recall that by “extraordinary” we mean that its being true would require a thorough revision of modern, scientific understanding, the sort of thing that would lead to a Nobel Prize or the equivalent.

  22. “I haven’t even said that I’m sure about NDEs.”

    I think that’s the underlying problem in this debate. As far as I can see, Tom and I have been offering an agnostic position, merely daring to cast doubt on the naturalist approach, but Doug and Mark, and to a lesser extent Mufi, have continued to respond as though we were “one of them”, whoever “they” are supposed to be.

    Every position that recognises doubt about your position is not to be automatically identified with a position that asserts the opposite of what you believe. There seems to be an underlying culture on this website that seems to make that response inevitable whatever one says, and that seems to make genuine probing of the implications of the Buddha’s insights impossible. Instead, there is a jostling for the middle ground with thin claims to ‘provisionality’ that are not backed up either by a theory of what provisionality consists in, nor by its practice. Instead, you just assume that anyone else who is trying to be provisional must be being disingenuous.

    Whatever the Buddha was saying that is relevant today, you can bet it wasn’t intended as another contribution to entrenched American culture wars.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I can’t speak for mufi and Mark, but for myself I intend a charitable interpretation to be one that makes it out that my opponent actually has something substantive to say. Insofar as your only claim (or Tom’s) is that:

      (1) it’s theoretically possible that NDEs demonstrate that minds are separate from brains

      Then this is a position I’ve publicly agreed with many, many times with you, including several months back. Indeed, this position strictly has nothing whatever to do with NDEs in particular. Since all of the implications (metaphysical and otherwise) of the sciences are provisional,

      (2) it’s theoretically possible that minds are separate from brains

      is true no matter what the scientific evidence says.

      So if this is the extent of your claims, we have been continually arguing past one another, since (2) is a claim I have always agreed with. However (2) is also consistent with:

      (3) our best evidence is that minds are not separate from brains.

      Given that the best epistemic position we can hope to take is to follow best evidence, our best epistemic position should be to believe that minds are not separate from brains. We should believe this even though as always, we could be wrong.

      • Hi Doug,
        I think what we’re arguing about is the extent of the implications of the claims you summarise as (1) and (2). If it’s theoretically possible that minds are separate from brains (or that other sets of relationships between minds and brains apply that we haven’t even thought of yet), then this means that your claim no. 3 needs to be asserted with a great deal more practical provisionality than you seem to be in the habit of giving it.

        Scepticism (in the proper philosophical and Pyrrhonian sense) is not just “theoretical” in a way that justifies its sidelining in this fashion. Scientific investigation has only brushed the surface of a very small proportion of the likely universe, so every statement of the results of scientific investigation needs to leave us cognisant of this fact. Scepticism alerts us to the *practically* huge chance of the current understanding being wrong.

        Your thin acknowledgement of statements (1) and (2) also seems incompatible with what you wrote above:
        “Scientific theories essentially involve metaphysical claims, since they all involve assertions of the existence of particular objects and kinds of objects, as well as modal claims of possibility and impossibility.”

        One cannot make an assertion of the existence or non-existence of anything which at the same time allows adequate recognition of contrary theoretical possibilities. One can make assertions about patterns of experience which are summarised in shorthand as existences, but since we never experience existences or non-existences, any assertion of such existences or non-existences in a formal philosophical statement can only be dogmatic. Such unavoidably dogmatic statements, beyond the scope of experience, are what *I* mean by metaphysics, and, mixed up with their own dogmas, it may have been part of what the logical positivists were confusedly trying to get at. But it is not only the logical positivists who talked about metaphysics in this way – there was Popper, and then there are the strains of Buddhist thought centred around the Middle Way which your writings do their best to ignore or sideline. Metaphysics talked of in this way needs to be distinguished in terms of its psychological function.

        If science really is metaphysical, then it can’t be provisional, because no claims about unobservables can possibly be provisional. If, on the other hand, you stick with it being provisional, then it cannot be interpreted as making claims about existence or non-existence, and completely different ways of understanding mysterious issues like NDE’s remain not just “theoretical” but open practical possibilities.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          One cannot make an assertion of the existence or non-existence of anything which at the same time allows adequate recognition of contrary theoretical possibilities.

          Sure you can, since I just did. To claim that metaphysics can’t be provisional is just confusing metaphysics with epistemology again. Of course metaphysics can be provisional. Good metaphysics always is provisional on best evidence, and best argument.

          • Hi Doug,
            I’m not “confusing” metaphysics with epistemology, but recognising their inter-relationship.

            You have ignored the reason I gave for my assertion, which is that existence and non-existence are unobservable. You can’t make a provisional claim about something that is not observable, because it is not open to correction. Therefore your supposed provisional claim cannot, psychologically speaking, have been provisional.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I don’t know what you’re talking about here, Robert. When you suggest that no metaphysical claim can be provisional, you are assuming that metaphysics is essentially epistemological: that anything which exists must be such that our knowledge of it is certain. So far as I can see, this is an entirely unsupported claim, and one which appears false on its face.

            Re. your next point, I observe that chairs exist. When I look in m closet, I fail to see a leprechaun, so I am provisionally justified in claiming the non existence of a leprechaun in my closet. This is making a claim about something nonexistent, which is open to correction. If I later see a leprechaun in my closet, I will revise my opinion.

            Scientific theories and laws claim to encompass all of reality: e.g., nothing can travel faster than light, all closed systems (which includes the universe itself) tend to increase in entropy, etc. They generalize from necessarily limited experiential evidence to all of reality. This is the same way that the Buddha did when he claimed that all of reality is anicca, dukkha, anatta. Although at times he said that this was open to correction, it’s pretty clear that this was only a rhetorical move on his part. He would not have accepted the evidence of a Brahmin who claimed first person experience of an atman by meditative insight. This is all metaphysical.

          • “you are assuming that metaphysics is essentially epistemological: that anything which exists must be such that our knowledge of it is certain.” I would agree with the first bit, with the rider that the kind of metaphysics I do on epistemological grounds is only critical metaphysics – i.e. argument as to how metaphysics cannot be justified. I make no apologies for not attempting to argue about metaphysics on metaphysical grounds, as that would be both dogmatic and circular. If one starts with epistemology, there is always a justificatory relationship to experience. As regards the second part, I make no claims at all about the properties of what exists. This is very far from “an entirely unsupported claim” – I have just given you some basic reasoning for it.

            Your observations of chairs and leprechauns might justify you in concluding that you do or do not have consistent experiences of these things, for which we often use the shorthand “exists” in ordinary language. Your observations do not justify you in asserting that these things exist or do not exist in any thorough-going critical sense. I take sceptical arguments seriously here.

            “Although at times [the Buddha] said that this was open to correction, it’s pretty clear that this was only a rhetorical move on his part. He would not have accepted the evidence of a Brahmin who claimed first person experience of an atman by meditative insight. This is all metaphysical.” – This is a good example of your approach of dismissing and marginalising anything to do with the Middle Way. The Middle Way appears at the very beginning of the First Sermon, as well as lots of other places in the Canon. Claiming that the bits of the Canon that don’t happen to fit your assumptions are all “a rhetorical move” is cherry-picking at its worst – a decidedly rhetorical move! Then the example of a Brahmin appealing to meditative insight supports the very opposite of the point you appear to want it to support, as the Buddha would probably not accept such claims precisely because they are not provisional and not open to the experience of others. The problem with the Brahmin’s claim would be its metaphysical appeal to authority.

            The Buddha has been interpreted by tradition as making metaphysical claims, but he also offers a strongly anti-metaphysical method. This method can only even make sense if you allow some sort of distinction between metaphysical claims and provisional non-metaphysical claims. Otherwise you will just be stuck in dismissal-mode defending the cultural assumptions of analytic philosophy.

  23. Tom Alan says:

    The metaphysical postulate that dead people remain altogether dead is not supported by any scientific evidence. It is a commonsense assumption that has been with us since the days of the Neanderthals. Scientists have traditionally recognized the difference between the physical and the metaphysical and avoided discussion of metaphysics in their studies and journal articles, as I illustrated in my remarks about astronomy and paleontology.

    One cannot rely on journals or opinion polls to support the claim that only a fringe element among scientists have supernatural beliefs. These are findings of a poll of scientists conducted by the Pew Research Center.

    Scientists
    who believe in God 33%
    who believe in a universal spirit or higher power 18%
    who don’t believe in either 41%
    don’t know/refused 7%

    http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Scientists-and-Belief.aspx

    This is not to belittle common sense. Far from it. I am only pointing out that common sense is not completely reliable. There are Pacific islands on which the commonsense assumption is that the voices coming from radios are those of tiny people inside the radios, the suggestion that the voices originate beyond the ocean being too far-fetched for them. As Mark might say, they know of no mechanism.

    When an expert witness, neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler, casts doubt on the commonsense assumption, this is not anecdotal. It is part of a well-documented case history.

    In medical science, case histories are not relied on for proof, but they may be seen as significant. A case history may prompt more elaborate study of a question, for example, by showing a given treatment to be promising.

    I return to my analogy of a drug considered to be worth prescribing although its calculated effect strength is low. We can imagine a conversation between a doctor and a terminally ill patient.

    Pt: What are the odds of a life after death? Be honest.
    Dr: They say a third of the scientists believe in God. Maybe 33 percent?
    Pt: Better than zero.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Scientists have traditionally recognized the difference between the physical and the metaphysical and avoided discussion of metaphysics in their studies and journal articles, as I illustrated in my remarks about astronomy and paleontology.

      Your two examples:

      Astronomy journals don’t have titles like “The First Ten Milliseconds of the Big Bang, Which God Had Nothing To Do With.” Paleontology journals don’t have “Evolution in the Late Cretaceous Period, Which Was Strictly By Natural Selection and No Intelligent Design.” Science is one thing and metaphysics another.

      These are tendentious. Firstly, to claim that scientists avoid certain metaphysical claims (e.g., about whether God was or was not responsible for the Big Bang) is irrelevant to establishing the claim that scientists avoid metaphysical claims tout court. Indeed, the positing of the Big Bang itself is a metaphysical claim, in that cosmology is one central part of traditional metaphysics, and the Big Bang is a cosmological claim par excellence. Further, to claim that biologists leave open the question as to intelligent design is … Let us just say that it is so plainly false as not to deserve response. If the claim you are making is simply that they do not openly attack intelligent design by name in journal articles, then it is simply banal. Biologists don’t typically bother attacking pseudoscience in journal articles.

      Laplace is reported to have said “I have no need for that hypothesis” when asked by Napoleon why he left mention of God out of his discussions of planetary motion. This is precisely the point: in the context of scientific theories and laws, supernatural metaphysical objects like souls, spells, and God are simply unnecessary. There are plenty of other metaphysical objects that do appear in such theories, like electrons, the electroweak force, quantum probability states, and at higher levels of abstraction cells, neurons, species, etc. These are, in the logical sense “quantified over” in the appropriate theories: there are existence claims made with respect to them. Existence claims are necessarily metaphysical, since they indicate what kinds of things are said to exist. Objects not quantified over do not, in a theoretical sense, exist. If there is no quantification over God or souls in our best scientific theories (and there is not), then from the point of view of those sciences, those things do not exist.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Another irony: Doug explains the paucity of materialist opinions in journal articles, apparently, by reading the minds of scientists.

        Doug: “If the claim you are making is simply that they do not openly attack intelligent design by name in journal articles, then it is simply banal. Biologists don’t typically bother attacking pseudoscience in journal articles.”

        I am not competent to discuss the question of “intelligent
        design.” A Gallup poll found that 40 percent of scientists assented to the statement that “Man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms of life, but God guided the process, including the creation of Man.”

        http://ncse.com/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god

        If you say that the scientists identified in these polls as having supernatural beliefs are inferior, that is speculation. More to the point, it is irrelevant to what I am saying — that these scientists are not a “fringe” element.

        Doug: “Objects not quantified over do not, in a theoretical sense, exist.”

        Scientists have long speculated about the existence of life on other planets. Many say that this is likely, although we are not certain.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Talk about irony: above Robert bends over backwards to say that you and he are not “one of them”, and here you are defending the position that intelligent design is not a fringe science position.

          I suggest taking a look at Wiki HERE: “… the scientific community considers intelligent design, a neo-creationist offshoot, to be unscientific, pseudoscience, or junk science. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has stated that intelligent design “and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life” are not science because they cannot be tested by experiment, do not generate any predictions, and propose no new hypotheses of their own. In September 2005, 38 Nobel laureates issued a statement saying “Intelligent design is fundamentally unscientific; it cannot be tested as scientific theory because its central conclusion is based on belief in the intervention of a supernatural agent.” In October 2005, a coalition representing more than 70,000 Australian scientists and science teachers issued a statement saying “intelligent design is not science” and calling on “all schools not to teach Intelligent Design (ID) as science, because it fails to qualify on every count as a scientific theory”.”

          And BTW, the fact that God or other supernatural features may not be experimentally testable (at least on certain — not all — of their interpretations!) does not mean they are “metaphysical”, only that they are unscientific. As I have already argued, there are plenty of testable metaphysical claims, such as those involving elementary particles and forces.

          Re. your last point about intelligent life on other planets, I take it that most scientists consider that an experimentally testable claim that has not yet been verified. Therefore it remains an open question, unlike, e.g., issues about God or ghosts. (Which, to repeat, strictly speaking also remain open but in a much more limited sense).

          • “Talk about irony: above Robert bends over backwards to say that you and he are not “one of them”, and here you are defending the position that intelligent design is not a fringe science position.”

            I was commenting only on the basis of what Tom seemed to be saying up to that point. That doesn’t mean that I would support what Tom is saying about Intelligent Design.

  24. Tom Alan says:

    I have not said anything about intelligent design, In fact, I have said that I am not competent to discuss it.

    Let’s consider the different sources in the Wiki article, “Support for Evolution.” Authorities are quoted. They say that the idea of supernatural invervention in the origin of life is not a scientific theory. No, it’s not. At best, it’s the opinions of people with expertise in certain fields. Opinion is not scientific theory. If one person says, “I think I heard somebody calling us” and another person says, “I heard a noise but I don’t think it was a voice,” those are two opinions, not two theories.

    I did not cite theory polls. I cited opinion polls.

    As I said, according to a Gallup poll, 40% go along with the idea of supernatural intervention in evolution. I don’t call 40% a fringe.

    The other source is an anonymous Wiki author who writes,

    “The scientific community considers intelligent design, a neo-creationist offshoot, to be unscientific,[31] pseudoscience,[32][33] or junk science.”

    The key term here is “neo-creationist offshoot.” The article talks about the Discovery Institute, which was founded by Fundamentalists whose purpose, it seems, is to turn the ID movement into a 6-day creationism movement. Thus, the expression “intelligent design” has altogether different connotations, and the vitriol in the sentence I’ve just quoted is understandable.

    One should not categorize different views as either scientific, and therefore meaningful, or unscientific, and therefore meaningless. There is certainly an advantage to demonstrating an effect with ample statistics. That’s not to say that a pilot study or even a case study is insignificant. To say that the results of a case study don’t prove anything misses the point. The expression “quasi-scientific” is sometimes used for a carefully-designed study with results that are interesting though not statistically significant. There are even occasions where anecdotal evidence is significant. A letter from a physician that describes a patient’s adverse reaction to a drug can result in a change in the drug’s list of side effect warnings. A letter from one scientist to another could prompt a research project. When someone makes that dramatic assertion, “That doesn’t prove anything!” in a scientific discussion, as if that point settled the matter once and for all, it’s a sign that the person is a novice.

    At this point, I am repeating myself.

    The discussion is not bereft of salient counter-argument to the OOB hypothesis. Support for the CO2 study is noted.

  25. jonckher says:

    The last time I looked around these pages, probably a year or so ago now, there was a bit of discussion around the rebirth thing. I recall being a little disappointed that there wasn’t as strong a direction regarding it as I, as an atheist / naturalist, wished within the secular buddhist community*.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see the discussion has progressed a fair bit more. I also appreciate the significant effort, clarity of argument and thinking plus tact** in this post.

    Kudos!

    * outright rejection of what is obviously faith-based wishful-thinking superstitious twaddle and poppycock

    ** which i lack (see *)

    • Tom Alan says:

      I said in my summary that the discussion is not bereft of salient counter-argument to the OOB hypothesis. Your post is.

      In science, tactless is not nearly as bad as factless.

  26. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    I fear in posting here that what I say will lead to controversy that I do not intend. But I’d still like to post, and I hope that I won’t be attacked in anyway.

    Preface: I do not believe in rebirth (at least as it is traditionally envisioned).

    This said, in “Problems with the Evidence I: Internal Issues”
    I think that some of the arguments can be weakened.

    For example, “Yet there is no mention in the suttas that his appearance, food, or clan lifestyle would have diverged radically from the settled towns of 5th c. BCE India.” I don’t see why there would have to be. I have not read many suttas, but isn’t it often the case that the Buddha does not hammer out lots of explicit details? It could have been quite different and he just doesn’t go into it, or he could have focused on how analogous it all was (all living things have an appearance, food, lifestyle, etc) rather than focusing on particular differences.(I hope that makes sense)

    Also this is a key point: “He could only have been one or another variety of animal, but even so, animals only go back about 600-700 million years. Prior to that it’s not clear the bodhisatta could have been reborn on Earth, at least that would be the case if we assume that only animals have the consciousness available for kamma and rebirth.” I’d argue that “lower life forms” could have something analogous “perception” that science is just beginning to explore (for example plants have ways of communicating with each other, of expressing distress, etc)

    Also under “Problems with the Evidence IV: Extraordinary Claims,” I wonder how the idea of entanglement could interact with these ideas. Modern physics upholds the idea of “spooky action at a distance” (basically that what happens to one electron in one place [or its state] can determine what happens to another on the other end of the universe if they are entangled). I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know if I can explain this idea well or if it could hold up, but couldn’t consciousness be “entangled” such that upon the death of one, it causally leads to a consciousness arising in another brain?

    (^All points presented to stimulate positive discussion.)

    Anyways, I want to thank you so much for writing this piece. I really enjoyed reading it and it was very thought provoking. I look forward to any new evidence that may arise one way or the other on this topic (just as you, the author, notes), but at the same time, I think rebirth may be something that is ultimately untestable, and thus lies outside of the realm of science entirely. This would make it a matter of pure faith entirely and beyond any such discussions of this kind.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello Jennifer, and thanks for your reply. I will try to take your concerns one-by-one.

      I have not read many suttas, but isn’t it often the case that the Buddha does not hammer out lots of explicit details? It could have been quite different and he just doesn’t go into it, or he could have focused on how analogous it all was (all living things have an appearance, food, lifestyle, etc) rather than focusing on particular differences.(I hope that makes sense)

      Sure, though what would we expect in such a situation? Wouldn’t we expect the Buddha to point out the most interesting and salient points of his recollections, such that there were relatively few with actual humans? That he used to look different, behave differently, and that he spoke different languages?

      Further, we have independent evidence of my claim that these recollections seem much like confabulations constructed around the 5th c. BCE. Take for example Maha Moggallana’s story in the Māratajjanīya Sutta (MN 50) of having been Māra in a previous lifetime, at the very least tens of thousands of years in the past, and probably we are meant to understand aeons in the past. (By all accounts, Māras live a very long time). Yet in the period that Moggallana recalls having been Māra, there were still people with Sanskritized names: the Buddha Kakusandha and his chief disciples, Vidhura and Sañjiva (50.9).

      Even if we grant that the present Māra isn’t very old, and hence that his birth into office occurred while there were humans on earth, still it stretches credulity to believe that those humans would have had Sanskritized names, thousands of years before Sanskrit was even a language.

      This may seem a fanciful example but it makes my point: rebirth stories resemble contemporary confabulations more than accurate memories.

      I’d argue that “lower life forms” could have something analogous “perception” that science is just beginning to explore (for example plants have ways of communicating with each other, of expressing distress, etc)

      Life forms only existed on earth for a few billion years, that only takes us back so far, and not nearly far enough since rebirths are supposed to extend for countless aeons. The point of Buddhist past-life regression is often to recall specifically human-like lifetimes, that is lives with Buddhas, where the dhamma was taught, etc. That cannot occur (even on Buddhist terms) where there are only animals and plants.

      As for plants, they do send chemical messages to one another and so on, but they lack central nervous systems and so lack brains, minds, and consciousness. Parenthetically they also are not considered living beings under traditional Buddhist doctrine. One cannot be reborn as a plant in Buddhism, since plants are not considered conscious beings. One also does not risk kammic punishment for killing plants, for the same reason. So there could be no consciousness and no rebirth on a planet only with plants.

      I wonder how the idea of entanglement could interact with these ideas. Modern physics upholds the idea of “spooky action at a distance” (basically that what happens to one electron in one place [or its state] can determine what happens to another on the other end of the universe if they are entangled). I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know if I can explain this idea well or if it could hold up, but couldn’t consciousness be “entangled” such that upon the death of one, it causally leads to a consciousness arising in another brain?

      Entanglement is a feature of physical particles, not consciousness, so I don’t see how it could be relevant. Further entanglement cannot be used to transmit information, such as would be contained in (e.g.) memories and kammic histories, as would be required for rebirth.

      In general I would avoid any discussion of quantum mechanics that implies it has something to do with consciousness. Brain processes occur in neural tissue, which is orders of magnitude too large.

      Quantum woo is a topic in its own right, one much too large for me to deal with here, and beyond the scope of this site. For a responsible approach I would recommend for example Prof. Phil Moriarty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DGgvE6hLAU

      My sense from reading your comment is that you’re basically asking whether even given my blog post there might still remain some possibility for rebirth. To a certain extent this becomes an exercise in apologetics: trying to get the data to fit the preconception. If we begin by assuming that the Buddha did in fact recall his own past lives, or that rebirth is possible in some sense, then it follows that the Buddha might (for example) have omitted key details in the retelling.

      I would prefer to begin not by assuming that the Buddha recalled past lives, but instead begin with our understanding of the way the world works through scientific investigation, and see then how the Buddha’s story might or might not fit that.

      As I said in the concluding paragraphs to my piece, it remains possible that rebirth does happen. This is true of any logical possibility. It is also possible that the Christian God exists, or that Zeus exists, or that we are all sub-programs in some vast computer mockup of a world. Since there are an infinite number of possibilities, the question isn’t what is possible, but what we have reason to believe is actually true. What I have been arguing is that we have reason to believe that rebirth does not actually happen.

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading my piece, and hope these replies are helpful to you.

  27. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    Thank you for taking time to respond, Doug (I wasn’t expecting the writer to respond personally).

    I’m just going to go in order like you did (lol):

    I get the feeling from your response that you might think that I am disputing that memories of past lives most likely are confabulations. I don’t. They probably are. I just don’t think that one line of reasoning about how the Buddha should have described things like specifically being non-human (etc) is a strong one. For example take “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya”

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html

    At one point he says (and this is a translation, obviously, but it’s something like): “”Prince, there is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that.”

    It’s a sort of thought provoking ‘non-answer.’ He doesn’t sit there and explain every point of his response using scaffolding techniques. He says something truthful, yes, but that requires the listener to think and piece it out largely for himself. In this vein, I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be too weird for him to say, “I remember living in the past,” and even if he remembered being an alien or something – to not go into detail about it. Even really interesting ones. That’s just – kind of his style as far as what has been passed down as his words.

    I’m not sure I”m expressing this well, but what I meant to convey was that, I generally agree with what you are saying – just that one point about “where are the details” doesn’t seem to be that strong of a point to me. I’m not expert enough to suggest an alternative one, but having read the section, I just got left with this desire to see a different, stronger point made in the place of that one. It was sort of a feedback / style suggestion, if that makes any sense. (I hope it does and I’m not coming off as mean-sounding. I’m not trying to deride your writing or anything. I’m just awkward socially, lol)

    “Parenthetically they also are not considered living beings under traditional Buddhist doctrine. One cannot be reborn as a plant in Buddhism, since plants are not considered conscious beings. One also does not risk kammic punishment for killing plants, for the same reason. So there could be no consciousness and no rebirth on a planet only with plants.”

    This part I am curious about. I know that some traditions have this view, but is it the view of all traditions? Could you link me more resources about this part? (That’d be cool to read up on.)

    “Further entanglement cannot be used to transmit information, such as would be contained in (e.g.) memories and kammic histories, as would be required for rebirth.” This is what I meant (entanglement to transmit memories, etc), but couldn’t articulate well (thanks). This said, I thought the ability to use entanglement to transmit information (in some capacity) was the backbone of research into quantum computing. What am I missing here?

    “My sense from reading your comment is that you’re basically asking whether even given my blog post there might still remain some possibility for rebirth. To a certain extent this becomes an exercise in apologetics: trying to get the data to fit the preconception.”

    I’m sorry, but that impression is, at least partially, incorrect. Your post is your post and it addresses many key points very well. As I stated, I don’t believe in rebirth (although I think conservation of matter/energy and the causal consequences of an individual’s actions during life beyond their death – in the form of memes, etc can be an interesting “re-framing” of the idea of rebirth). I just wanted to bring up some of the responses I had while reading this piece. I liked it overall.

    Thanks! ~Jen

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello again, Jen.

      Re. the Abhayarajakumara Sutta (MN 58), there the Buddha’s claim that “there is no one-sided answer” is specific to the question being asked. In this case, whether he would or would not say something disagreeable to someone. The Buddha’s answer is basically, “It depends on the case”. If it were helpful and timely, then the Buddha would say something disagreeable. More’s the point, in that case saying something disagreeable would be “right speech”. But if it were not helpful or not timely, then it would not be, and then he would not say it.

      This lack of a “one-sided answer” is not a general feature of the Buddha’s response to questions. In many, even most, cases there are “one-sided answers”. So one would have to make an argument to the effect that rebirth was not the sort of thing that had a “one-sided answer”, and I don’t see how that argument could be made. Admittedly, mine is only a circumstantial argument, based on likelihoods and preponderance of evidence. I don’t claim that this specific argument (that the Buddha should have recalled differently) is itself a knock-down argument. But in the context of the other claims, in particular the claim that rebirth is not scientifically plausible, it helps establish that there is no other evidence from within the Canon that would help rebut the scientific likelihoods.

      Let me put it this way: if the Buddha’s reports had been the way I claimed they should have been, if for example he (and Moggallana, etc.) had recalled non-Sanskrit speakers in prior ages, had recalled a world without humans, etc., that would provide some slight evidence that real, surprising information was presented in the suttas that was itself scientifically amenable. But such evidence is not forthcoming. So we are left with the scientific likelihoods.

      Re. plants, on the standard Buddhist notion of samsaric rebirth, there are various planes where sentient beings can be reborn. The “lower planes” include the hell realms, the animal realm, and the human realm. Then there are various heavenly realms as well. There is no “plant realm”, hence it is impossible to be reborn as a plant.

      On my understanding this is universal to Buddhist teaching, but not widely discussed. There are various places in the Pāli suttas where it is said that monks in training are not to harm plants or seeds, e.g., the Brahmajāla sutta (DN 1.10). The reasoning behind this is not made clear, but I think we can assume it’s because plants and seeds are living beings, even though they are not sentient. Hence damaging them without cause would be at least mentally unskillful. My understanding is that this was to dissuade monks from careless damage such as plucking flowers or pulling up grass. Do recall as well that monks were not supposed to make their own meals, and I believe this included picking fruit from trees, or even off the ground.

      I expect there must be somewhere, probably a commentary or sub-commentary, where this is spelled out to some degree. But if so I don’t know where it would be found. Perhaps someone here knows.

      Re. quantum computing: it is possible to transmit entangled information at the speed of light, but not instantaneously, that was my point. Entanglement does not overcome Einstein’s dictum that no information travels faster than light. Quantum computing itself, to my knowledge, does not make use of this, but quantum cryptography might. At any rate the brain states that underly conscious thought are much too large and complex to make this work from one life to another.

      Re. your final point, sorry about my misunderstanding. You’re right that we might “frame” rebirth in a different way. That’s the kind of thing I wonder even if Derek Parfit might agree to. (I have another post here on his work). But if we go that route I think we have to be very clear that we are going to use the terms in a different way, or we are liable to be misconstrued.

  28. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    @Doug

    Thank you for your response! I’m not sure what else to say besides … it was very clear and I feel like I’ve learned something here. Also, no need to apologize. We exist in illusion and make mistakes through our confusions each and every one of us. =)

    Anyways, there’s definitely more for me to read about here… lol

  29. Jayarava says:

    Hi Doug,

    I’m just doing some follow up reading on the subject of karma and stumbled on this old blog post of yours. I think you’ve done a good job of outlining why karma cannot be the case from a modern point of view (Stevenson et al are just a red-herring anyway, as they seek to prove a Hindu style reincarnation!). I’ve taken a similar approach on my own blog.

    There’s an old article which attempts to judge the validity of karma by Paul J Griffiths.

    Griffiths, Paul J. (1982) ‘Notes Towards a Critique of Buddhist Karma Theory.’ Religious Studies. 18: 277-291.

    Griffiths concludes that all traditional formulations of karma *must* be false. Although he does not discount the possibility of reformulating karma in a way that is true, he’s vague about how one would do this. The article generated little in the way of response, and failed to start a critical engagement with Buddhist philosophy which is a shame. Buddhist studies is still broadly speaking either descriptive or apologetic. But then so is most Indology generally.

    I think Thomas Metzinger’s statement about out-of-body experiences is telling. He says that having had one, it’s almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist. He’s argued that this was a likely source of the idea of a soul. That is, that a soul and more or less all afterlife theories, were, at least in part, over-generalisations from experiences that people had that tended to confirm the sense of mind as separate from body and thus able to survive death. Since such experiences are especially common amongst ascetics and meditators these people are more likely to be certain about the afterlife and how it works than others. This goes towards answering Linda’s problem of how the Buddha could have got it wrong (as she puts it). The Buddhists resisted identifying this soul with aspects of experience, but did not eliminate a dualistic ontological thread from their worldview. Leaving the door open to centuries of metaphysical speculation about just what was intended by the neologism “anātman”.

    I don’t really have a problem with seeing karma as false, but it does have major consequences. If for example we say “no one is reborn” then we adopt the ucchedavāda which is classical defined as non-Buddhist. Plenty of traditional Buddhists have taken my own view as being non-Buddhist.

    I mainly wanted to draw your attention to the Griffiths article if you had not already seen it.

    Cheers
    Jayarava

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello Jayarava and thanks for your comment. I was actually on a daylong retreat yesterday.

      I am unfamiliar with Griffiths’s article, but would be interested in taking a look at it if you had a copy to share.

      As you probably know, there is plenty of work in psychology regarding out-of-body experiences; they are a variety of lucid dream or confabulation. The main problem is in the belief that meditative (or other altered) experience is necessarily veridical. This is a point that bears some elaboration, although this is not the place to do so.

      It is interesting to me that you put the issue as one of “karma/kamma’ rather than rebirth. I understand the point you are trying to make: if rebirth is false then so too are the kammic rewards and punishments claimed to occur in future lives. However one must be careful not to allow this to become a slippery slope to the claim that there is no right and wrong, no ethical value.

      There is, after all, a very good sense in which kamma exists and is effective: if you do good, people will notice it and you will be treated better. If you do bad, people will treat you worse. A world in which people do good to one another is more conducive to happiness than one in which people do ill. So in denying rebirth I want to be careful not to deny the existence of this sort of kamma, which is at least one of its classical understandings. Kamma is as real as ethics.

      One could, of course, make the same sort of claim about rebirth: the above system allows for moment to moment rebirth within a lifetime, even if it does not allow for rebirth between lifetimes. In this case however the usage of the term “rebirth” is metaphorical. No actual rebirth happens between moments. My use of the term kamma is not metaphorical, although of course whatever effect kamma has it has through purely natural means.

      As you say, the position I suggest is similar to that branded “nihilism” (natthikavāda) or “annihilationism” (ucchedavāda) in early Buddhism. This is why I have taken some pains to point out how (depending on how it is understood) either my position is different from Buddhist nihilism/annihilationism, or the Buddha’s attacks on nihilism/annihilationism were not entirely successful even by his own lights.

      These arguments I outlined in On a Belief that Sends You to Hell and The Buddha and Kesakambalī.

      As a side note, I know Buddhist teachers, even relatively traditional ones, who either do not believe in rebirth or do not make it a particular emphasis of their teaching. I’m sure you do too. I mentioned Ajahn Brahmali in a couple of blog posts, who takes belief in rebirth to be essential to being a Buddhist. I also wrote about Donald Lopez’s claims that Buddhism was essentially nonscientific.

      Basically it comes down to a debate about labels. I think it’s childish to make Buddhism into such a creedal religion, however I do understand the desire to say that Buddhism must stand for something. Whether or not what I or you or Brahmali practices is called “Buddhism” is finally less important than that it is true and effective. That said, I think as a matter of historical fact belief systems such as Buddhism, Aristotelianism, or even Christianity always prove more mutable than their more orthodox adherents would prefer. And I say that as someone interested in early Buddhist orthodoxy.

      • Linda Linda says:

        “As you say, the position I suggest is similar to that branded “nihilism” (natthikavāda) or “annihilationism” (ucchedavāda) in early Buddhism. This is why I have taken some pains to point out how (depending on how it is understood) either my position is different from Buddhist nihilism/annihilationism, or the Buddha’s attacks on nihilism/annihilationism were not entirely successful even by his own lights.”

        The word ucchedavāda is defined by its meaning of the destruction of something, isn’t it? A soul (atman) destroyed at the breakup of the body? And natthikavāda by its meaning that there is nothing there to begin with?

        My understanding of these two terms as they appear in the suttas is that they aren’t the same thing but opposites in their way — one that there is an atman, but it does not go on after death but is destroyed, the other that there is nothing at all that is perceived as an atman, and that the Buddha’s view is (as always) in the middle between the two.

        First, there is no atman that can be perceived of as they perceived it in those days — eternal, changeless, separate, having mastery — that gets uccheda’d (destroyed) at death; therefore ucchedavāda’s “annihilationism” is Wrong View.

        Second, that there isn’t exactly “nothing at all that is perceived as an atman” either. Most folks have a perception of a self that gets mistaken for (some combination of qualities:) an eternal, changeless, separate, masterful, *thing* — it’s just that that perception is based on misunderstanding of what it is that’s perceived; there *is* something there that gets labeled as atman; therefore natthikavāda’s “nihilism” (or “materialist view”) is Wrong View.

        I hear the Buddha saying that there is something there that gets labeled “atman” — all the things that go into our sense that we have a lasting self — and that this construction of ours matters enough that we need to take note that it’s not that it’s “not there at all” — it is (it is that which suffers and causes suffering, so of course it matters). But if it is something that is not eternal, is changeable, and not separate, and it does not have mastery over our lives, this means that we have the power to affect it (because it is not masterful, and is changeable), and because it is not separate, it affects others as well as ourselves, and so we *should* affect it. Which is where morality comes in.

        Is the view you have, that you say is “similar to that branded ‘nihilism’ (natthikavāda) or ‘annihilationism’ (ucchedavāda) in early Buddhism” something like that which I have just described? That there is something that most of us have, at one time or another in our lives, labeled as “self” and “lasting” but that that something is not eternal, separate, changeless, masterful?

        • David S says:

          Linda, I know I am not who you are asking here, but your comment was interesting to me. In terms of how you speak of the differences between annihilationism/ucchedavāda and nihilism/natthikavāda as an atheist in which there is not a belief in a permanent self the distinction you are making leads me to conclude that atheism has more in common with buddhism, than buddhist annihilationism has to do with atheism.

          However, if as you say “The word ucchedavāda is defined by its meaning of the destruction of something, isn’t it? A soul (atman) destroyed at the breakup of the body?”, then wouldn’t even under this notion an annihilationist likewise understand atman to be natthikavāda? There would be no distinction between the two. The annihilationist would understand the self to exist and as well to be not permanent.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Well, yes. 🙂 It’s because the terms we have in the suttas are picked up from the culture of the times, and many of them have been “put through the spin cycle”. Just as in many of the suttas we hear that the Buddha was described as being [whatever term was under issue — for example:] an annihilationist because he seemed to be suggesting we bring about the cessation of a self, those who are called ucchedavādans can only be properly seen as talking about the annihilation of something eternal by those who believe there is something eternal! not by the ucchedavādans themselves. So you are right, those who believed there was an atman that got destroyed at death would not have been defining atman as “eternal”. But they will have believed there was *something there* to be defined as an atman. Whereas (theoretically at least) your nihilists said there was nothing at all.

          • Linda Linda says:

            On the other hand re: your comment that “atheism has more in common with buddhism, than buddhist annihilationism has to do with atheism.” I think that most modern atheists think there is a lasting self, just that it is not eternal. So they would be more like the ucchedavādans than like the natthikavāda, who believe there is no atman/self at all. The natthikavādans seem very similar to me to Zen Buddhists who translate anatta as “no self” instead of as “not self”.

        • Jayarava says:

          Linda asked “The word ucchedavāda is defined by its meaning of the destruction of something, isn’t it? A soul (atman) destroyed at the breakup of the body?”

          Nope. It comes from a verb √ched ‘to cut’. Uccheda means ‘cutting up’ or ‘cutting uff’. It refers to an interruption in the viññānasota or stream of cognition; or to the series of rebirths. The verb samsarati, from which we get our word saṃsāra, means “to move about continuously” or “to come again and again”.

          There is no need to suggest it involves a soul. No “thing” is destroyed, but rather in the ecchedavāda, a process is interrupted. So annihilationism is not an accurate translations. It really means non-rebirth-ism.

  30. mufi says:

    What a pleasure to read two of my favorite writers on Buddhism – Doug and Jayarava – in a dialogue!

    Still, as a weak swimmer who never seems to learn to avoid the deep end (so to speak), I would like to quibble with some of Doug’s words (though not necessarily with his intent):

    “There is, after all, a very good sense in which kamma exists and is effective: if you do good, people will notice it and you will be treated better.” and “My use of the term kamma is not metaphorical, although of course whatever effect kamma has it has through purely natural means.”

    The “kamma” that I’m familiar with promises more than just a good reputation. It also promises wealth, confidence, a peaceful death, and a heavenly rebirth. (I say this partly from memory and partly from having recently read Damien Keown, who quotes Buddhaghosa’s list, but I can hunt down his Nikaya source(s), if necessary.) Of course, if by “very good sense” one is only talking about a preference as to what “kamma” should mean in a modern secular/naturalistic context, then that’s one thing. But then, if we do that, and then also claim that this interpretation is “not metaphorical”, then ought we not stipulate that this interpretation of “kamma” is incomplete vis a vis Buddhist tradition?

    In any case, the complete traditional version of kamma suggests to me a lawfully moral universe, which transcends human social convention, to which rebirth is an essential ingredient, lest this law (to paraphrase Richard Gombrich) be violated “by every cot death.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello mufi, and yes, I had the feeling while writing those words that they might cause trouble. Nevertheless I think (“not necessarily his intent”) that you know what I am saying.

      For the record, I am willing to countenance moral realism. (Though it is not something I would claim to be sure about). Naturalism gives us the facts, but there may also be real ethical values. This is one sense of kamma that is part of the Buddha’s usage, and in particular which would distinguish the Buddha’s system from that of the “nihilists” and “annihilationists”.

      If there are real moral values, they of course have no causal force qua moral values. It is simply that there are some ways of acting which are right/good/skillful, and others which are wrong/bad/unskillful. Those are the ways which are conducive to happiness, and the ways which are conducive to suffering, in turn.

      But the happiness and suffering themselves do have causal force. While they do not guarantee wealth, confidence, or a peaceful death, they make them more likely in various ways, and ways that I do not think were alien to the Buddha’s own thinking on kamma.

      You say we ought to stipulate that a secular/naturalistic take on kamma is “incomplete” vis a vis the Buddhist tradition’s, and I think that’s a good way to put it. It keeps the everyday understanding of what the general effectiveness of ethical action, eliminating the supernaturalist superstructure that claims to provide guarantees of just reward and retribution.

      • mufi says:

        Doug, this is not an ideal location to argue moral philosophy, and a lay person like myself is not an ideal debating partner. So, suffice it to say, I found Mark Johnson’s critique of moral realism in Morality for Humans to be very persuasive – enough so that, insofar as Buddhist ethics is a member of that family, I must admit that I am no Buddhist.

        Still, I would not take kindly to the accusation of “nihilism”, if by that one means to suggest that I reject any and all ethical norms. I simply reject extremes of absolutism (or fundamentalism) and relativism and instead seek a realistic “middle way” (if you will) that acknowledges both the human universals (or nearly so) to which you allude and the contingencies and variations that relativists and moral skeptics so relish pointing out.

        Also, pragmatically speaking, it’s just not so important to me that all this hang together in an elegant systematic way. The real world, as I understand it, is not like that, or as the late Stephen Jay Gould put it: “It’s a mess out there.”

        • mufi says:

          PS: Given your view of morality as a kind of skill set and Johnson’s view of it as a kind of problem solving, there may be more agreement here than the professional jargon (e.g. “realism” and “skepticism”) would suggest. But, for Johnson (and I suppose, by extension, myself), there just are no absolutely right or wrong solutions to the kinds of problems that morality confronts – just better or worse ones, relative to some biological, cultural, and psychological backdrop. What’s more, morality requires imagination in a way that is naturally continuous with other human endeavors, most notably the arts.

  31. Jayarava says:

    Hi Doug

    I’ll go the library and download a copy of the article, and a couple of follow ups, let me know where to send them.

    Regarding the veracity of karma. Of course it is possible to pare away all the bits of karma that are demonstrably false. However I am not convinced by your attempt at this. You say:

    “There is, after all, a very good sense in which kamma exists and is effective. if you do good, people will notice it and you will be treated better. If you do bad, people will treat you worse.”

    But this is wishful thinking. Isn’t it? The whole problem of evil can be phrased as the conundrum of bad things happening to good people and vice versa; or even, why people do bad things to good people etc. In your account of karma, it is evidently *ineffective* a good deal of the time. The proposed formulation has little descriptive or explanatory value as far as I can see. Indeed I rather suspect that your view of karma is falsified by injustice if it exists at all, and it is in plentiful supply.

    The problem goes much deeper than superficial labels. As you suggest, it is about the rationale for ethics. If karma is not the rationale for ethics, and it seems clear enough that karma is at best a false rationale (even as you formulate it), then what is? Why be good if the outcome of being good is continued, widespread injustice?

    If we reduce karma to “what goes around, comes around”, or to cite the original, “for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6.7) then that isn’t really karma; it’s just Christian ethics rebranded. Which is an issue of labels in the sense that this form of ethics is not specifically Buddhist (or secular for that matter). However, the issue of a universe in which individual actions are meaningful – i.e. good or bad – is not a trivial one.

    I’m sure you know all this, and have thought about it, but I’m interested to see what you think is retrievable after such a thorough demolition job on karma. So far I don’t think anything recognizably Buddhist survives. Since my own thinking goes along these lines, I have the same dilemma.

    BTW I see at least three distinct “ethics” in Buddhism, all with different terminology, methods, and desired outcomes. The ethics we mainly seem to be discussing I describe as “being good” (getting on with people). The ethics of meditation (samādhi) and the ethics of seeking good rebirth (sugati) are different in every respect. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/ethical-modes-in-early-buddhism.html

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello again Jayarava.

      Ethical action does not guarantee a good result. Neither does practicing the violin guarantee a position in the orchestra. What they do is to increase the odds, which is all we can ever expect from a complex, causal process.

      As to the rationale for ethics: it is its own rationale. One is to do good because it is the right thing to do; that is what it means for it to be good. One can give some rationale in terms of consequences, as I have done and the Buddha does all the time, but in the final analysis I don’t believe an egoistic, prudential interpretation of ethics is completely convincing. Nevertheless it’s one thing to say what I believe and quite another to say what I think the Buddha believed. The Buddha thought that acting a certain way aided rebirth (something we discard), and also that it made it possible for one to live a happier, more pain-free life, eventually terminating in nibbāna. But nothing was ever guaranteed, certainly not within a single lifetime.

      Regarding the article(s), thank you! You can email me through my webpage and I can send you my address, or if there’s some way you can get me your email address I can contact you directly. I don’t want to put an address here publicly.

      • Jayarava says:

        Hi Doug

        In my view it’s always a red herring to invoke the idea of what the Buddha believed. We simply do not know (we do not even reliably know his name, let alone what he believed!). We do know in some detail what the authors of the early suttas believed, since they composed texts that recorded their beliefs. It’s their views that interest me primarily, and secondarily what subsequent adherents made of their views.

        I’m explicitly invoking Buddhist ethics, because by default the context here is Buddhism, or at worst so-called secular Buddhism – the article ends by making comments on “Buddhist practice”. I agree that traditional Buddhist ideas cannot be used to construct a rational ethics – for example Buddhist accounts of ethics routinely *guarantee* a good result from good actions (in the next life if not in this one). And as we both agree this is not rational. So is “Buddhist ethics” in fact an oxymoron? Or is it that ethics are more generally non-rational?

        You invoke nirvāṇa. Again, is this a meaningful concept for a rationalist? For example the definition of nirvāṇa is completely bound up in the non-rational ideas of karma and rebirth. Nirvāṇa stripped of all it’s reference points becomes a floating signifier (for whatever it is that one believes). I would argue that a practice without karma and rebirth is not a Buddhist practice at all. Or do you disagree? I’m well aware that I’m implying that one cannot both we a rationalist and a Buddhist – it’s a tension I’m holding for the moment.

        I suppose I’m wondering about the implications of a critique like yours. It’s persuasive, but in such a way as to leave no room for Buddhism if one takes it all on board. A reference point might be Goenka who no longer calls what he does Buddhism; or a secular mindfulness therapist who just helps people cope with pain, but has no agenda beyond effective pain management. “Buddhism” as a brand of self-help therapy, which helps people adjust to the maddening crowd seems like both a denial and a misrepresentation.

        Regards
        Jayarava

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Hello Jayarava,

          The heart of Buddhist belief and practice is the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I believe a secular approach retains what is central to those concepts. I have argued this in several of my blog posts.

          A few other notes: when I say “what the Buddha believed” I mean roughly the Buddha of the Pāli Canon, the Āgamas, etc. (As per Gombrich and others). I believe we can find a person behind these teachings. That said, this person is The-Buddha-of-the-Canon, since the Canon (and related documents in other languages) contains the only information we have about him. It’s the same as finding the person of Jesus in the Gospels, or the person of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, or indeed any ancient personage.

          I am not interested in debates about this, however. If we cannot find a person there, then what we are discussing are the texts, and how most coherently to interpret them.

          Nibbāna means the extinction of greed, hatred, and ignorance re. the Four Noble Truths. It is not a floating signifier. There are problems with nibbāna that any contemporary secular practitioner will have to deal with, which I outlined in one of my prior blog posts, but these are far from insurmountable. It may be that nibbāna is a goal which is de facto unreachable, but even so it would be a worthy goal to have, and to which we may be able to get almost arbitrarily close.

          Finally, descriptions like “Buddhism”, “Theravāda”, “Secular”, etc., are finally just labels that promote ease of understanding. In the variety of practical approaches to life, mine is very close to that of Siddhattha Gotama, just as some contemporary ethicists have approaches very close to Aristotle, or to the Stoics. If your view of Buddhism essentializes active kamma and rebirth, then of course what I describe will not be “Buddhism” to you. But no matter, it is the same practical approach to life whatever it is called.

          That said, as I argued before, I know many contemporary Buddhists who agree with me, or who at least are willing to countenance my usage of the term. Sabbe sankhara anicca, after all: let’s help Gotama join the modern world.

  32. As a previous contributor to this thread, I was still receiving the notifications and have been following this revival of it with interest (and it’s good to be able to read your contributions, Jayarava!). I know that I have had disagreements in approach with both of you in the past, but what I’m interested in here is exploring possibly common ground.

    I very much agree with both of you on the irrelevance of karma to ethics, unless one has weakened it to a mere recognition of the consequences of willed action, in which case the term ‘karma’ is best not used. What has engaged me is the raising of what I’d see as a central question about what one does instead with the ethical insights of Buddhism, and the question of whether rationality is consistent with ethics.

    The answers seem to depend on the definitions assumed of all three terms – Buddhism, rationality and ethics. In each case one could dispute the language, but at least accept that there is a continuation of influence or concept involved. Here are my suggestions for ways forward in how we see each in a way that allows resolution:

    Buddhism: that we see Buddhism is terms of the insights attributed to the Buddha, and are prepared to be selective between these on pragmatic grounds (as in fact everyone is).

    Rationality: that we see this not in positivistic but in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘subtractive’ terms, i.e. that justifiable approaches are ones that avoid identifiable sources of error.

    Ethics: that we understand ethics in what Sangharakshita calls ‘a broad sense’, i.e. as a way of talking about the normativity of spiritual practice as a whole. In this sense normative ethics can be seen as ethics that as a whole are justified in all contexts by the avoidance of delusion, though in specific circumstances right judgement varies depending on the particular delusions we’re prone to.

    Hopefully I’ve coaxed you into reading thus far by not mentioning the Middle Way until my final paragraph :-). It is the Middle Way that I would suggest brings these three elements together: it’s in traditional Buddhism and the early Pali texts, where it clearly involves the avoidance of different types of error extreme. This avoidance of error fits the modern psychology of cognitive bias and the recognition that our judgements are often impaired by delusional tendencies. Justifiable ethics drawing on at least this strand of insight in Buddhism can then be seen as creating and acting on conditions of unimpaired judgement.

    As we are engaged in enterprises with a great deal of overlap and common concern, whether in Secular Buddhism, Triratna, or the Middle Way Society, I hope that we can keep the channels of communication open and, as Doug puts it, help Gotama join the modern world.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes, thank you Robert. What you write sounds agreeable.

      I am certain we all agree on much more than we disagree. This is one of the pitfalls of online discussions like these: they tend to emphasize disagreement. And I believe the Buddha was right to discourage a certain sort of nit-picky bickering, since it heightens various sorts of attachment, and is useless to the goal. This realization has kept me somewhat of two minds about intellectual discussions on these matters.

      • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

        Doug, your comment about online discussions resonates with me. Are you familiar with Dialogue as taught by David Bohm? Interestingly enough, it looks like mindfulness, in a sense, without ever using that word. For those unfamiliar with it, there are certain requirements or guidelines that a disparate group of people follow to reach a place where new thinking can take form. Let’s say, for example, the goal is to “help Gotama join the modern world”.

        In his book “Dialogue and the art of thinking together”, William Isaacs says “Dialogue, as I define it here, is about a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together. It is not something you do TO another person. It is something you do WITH people. Indeed, a large part of learning this has to do with learning to shift your attitudes about relationships with others so that we gradually give up the effort to make them understand us and come to a greater understanding of ourselves and each other”.

        Briefly, there are four basic components: Listening, Respecting, Suspending, and Voicing.

        Personally, I’d love to engage in this kind of Dialogue at SBA and I believe it could be accomplished using Adobe Connect. It would require a facilitator who understands the process and pitfalls which are fully described in the book. Of course, there will be bumps along the way and that’s simply part of the whole process of Dialogue.

        Perhaps someone could do a featured Post to see how many would be interested in joining a group of this nature. Doug, I volunteer to write the Post if Ted agrees to proceed using Adobe Connect.

        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          Hi, Ron. Totally agree that dialogue, a shared and collaborative exploration may be more beneficial. And, frankly, more fun.

          We’ve been using these kinds of dialogues based on Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue steps of Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply, and Speak the Truth for awhile now, and that’s been very helpful. Our constraint around a new group isn’t one of willingness, however, it’s one of time — we have one account for Adobe, my presence is required, and I simply don’t have time to add another commitment to my calendar. If I did have time, we’d probably first serve our friends overseas by creating a second Practice Circle time to better meet their schedule.

      • Hi Doug, Do you mean only emotionally agreeable, or that you agree to any extent? If the latter, is it my using the term ‘error extreme’ rather than the button-pressing term ‘metaphysics’ that allows any measure of agreement? I’d be interested in proceeding step by step to understand at what point we start to disagree.

        I also agree with Ron that a more exploratory approach to dialogue about these issues would be far more fruitful. However, the approach he suggests seems to be applied to real time discussion rather than written comments. As regards approaches to online (written) discussion, you might be interested in the approach we have arrived at in the Middle way Society: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/about-mws/rules-for-internet-communication/

        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          Robert, you’re doing better, you had at least one post without re-directing people to your own site!

          • Not an appreciated poke, Ted, just when we were being nice to each other. What else am I supposed to do if I have something complex to communicate? Do you think I just do it out of vanity? It’s Catch 22: if you give links people complain, and if you don’t people don’t understand you or complain that you haven’t explained yourself sufficiently.

            • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

              Hi, Robert. Simply pointing out that you *do* have a tendency to send people to your own site. This wasn’t a criticism of the need to provide more information, just a friendly ribbing — my apologies if I’ve caused offense.

        • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

          Robert, the guidelines are quite specific and would lead to a more fruitful way of participating in a discussion. Ted, perhaps SBA discussion guidelines could incorporate this approach.

  33. David S says:

    As someone who isn’t interested in the specifics of Buddhist ethics my comment here comes outside this thread’s exchange.

    In general ethics seems to me like an add-on to living one’s life. Ethics seems to try to use logic and language to make some case for a specific line of thinking. But where does ethics come from? For me it comes out of our primal urge to survive and the social requirement to engage with others to do so. There is a need to cooperate with others and at other times to protect ourselves from others, which is why there are no hard edges towards right and wrong. Moreover, the world does not appear to contain right and wrong. This is our invention used for conventional discussion and wholly represents human interests and not universal truths.

    I find most discussions of ethics to fall upon itself because of its base assumption in promoting firm thinking onto what is not firm at all. Part of the fluidity can be seen in the inherent discord between the individual’s survival and that of the group which may come into conflict. Ethical rules of thought quickly break down in such cases into more relative ones depending on which side one finds oneself.

    As far as ‘in this life’ karma goes, this appears to me to have to do with our ability to empathize and project understanding towards others. Karma is like a biochemical game of odds. If we treat others kindly then we are likely to get a boost of good feeling in ourselves, and the same when we are treated kindly. It becomes a biochemical reciprocity built upon our nature to cohere with others. It is not assured though and this is part of it being more a quality of odds than casual prediction. Others may not treat us kindly in return. We can try our best and still come up short on maintaining our stance, or in gaining the good results. But the odds are in favor if we give kindly that at least the other will benefit in some small way (even if it goes so far as to give them the opportunity to overpower us!).

    Odds are at work too when considering coincidences in life especially those which we desired. Do we then attribute the meaning of coincidences back upon our desire and give it validation as a casual force to be used again? Does this prove to work or fail? Is a mind primed towards thinking in such manner going to notice at all what is not coming to fruition? As humans we are built to seek out patterns in life and we tend towards over-emphasis of our own casual power.

    I also see in the thread’s comments that there is a question of authenticity rearing itself once again over what is to be considered authentic Buddhism. Rebirth interpretations aside, this only becomes an issue individually speaking because there will be much disagreement as to what describes Buddhist thought and only individually can that be determined. This is why I steer clear of calling myself a Buddhist.

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