Buddhism, science, and the political mind

One of the complaints about science is that it does not offer any moral guidance. It can describe reality and causal relationships but it does not tell us how we should behave. One can accept such a situation as a fact of life but most people are drawn towards belief systems that do offer such moral guidance. What is interesting about Buddhism, or at least its more (modern) secular versions, is that it both seeks to understand reality and to offer moral and “spiritual” guidance as well. This of course presents a problem. Science also seeks to understand reality but the consensus is that if there is anything we are learning about reality it is that life has no objective meaning and the idea of objective, person-independent morality is an illusion.

One of the perplexing things about Buddhism is the assumption that gaining a correct understanding of Reality (typically written with a capital R) will trigger a corresponding change in our moral outlook. For example, when a person comes to realize that the “self” is an illusion, a lot of moral misconduct will disappear. Unfortunately, getting rid of such “illusions” about the self is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral progress. Great moral progress has been made in countries where people are firm believers in the existence of an unchanging self and many moral defects have been identified in countries where a belief in the illusion of the self is encouraged. In fact, the belief in a self is interesting because it has been both praised as a guard against nihilism and as an illusion that undermines morality.

Despite its appearance of being a secular open-minded belief system, Buddhism rests on a rather strong premise about the beneficial effects of seeing the “real” nature of reality. But contemporary science does not support such strong statements about reality. Like any other topic in science, our understanding of reality is subject to continuous revision. It might even be possible that we live in a computer simulation and “reality” outside of it is quite different from what Buddhists believe.

One of the most level-headed discussions of Buddhism and science is Donald S. Lopez’s Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is a detailed exposition of the history of discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science. The author recognizes that the position that Buddhism  is compatible with, or even supported by, science is as old as Buddhism itself and provides reasons why Buddhism more than any other “religion” is prone to such statements. In the end, however, Buddhism is recognized as a rather diverse and dynamic belief system and whether it is compatible with science depends on what is exactly meant by “science” and “Buddhism.” It is clear that a lot of historical expositions of Buddhism contain claims that are now known to be scientifically incorrect.  This raises the question how much of Buddhism can be rejected before it is no longer Buddhism.

One of the most uncomfortable claims in Buddhism concern the origin and nature of the universe. As Lopez writes, “all of the religions of the world asserted that the world is flat. This belief, in turn, was held so tenaciously that when it was first suggested that the world is not flat, those who made such a suggestion were executed.” Most secular Buddhists would not mind claiming that the Buddha was wrong about this and that these beliefs are not the essential doctrines of Buddhism, but as Lopez writes, “yet once the process of demythologizing begins, once the process of deciding between the essential and inessential is under way, it often difficult to know where to stop.” Which raises, once more, the question of why not to reject Buddhism completely and embrace a thorough scientific, empiricist perspective on life.

A counter argument is that Buddhism offers things that science cannot offer such as deeper metaphysical insights into the nature of reality and ethical truths. But the modern scientific mind is exactly distinguished by claiming that no objective truths should be expected here. In particular, there is no credible method, to deduce such ethical truths from metaphysical “facts.” There are not many rigorous analytic philosophical treatments of Buddhism but those that exist, such as Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, have identified several problems and challenges. If Buddhism (even in its most modern, secular, form) is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Kant it is not likely that it can survive in its current form. At best it will be just another philosophical “school.”

A very sympathetic account of Buddhism, and its relation to contemporary (neuro)science and philosophy is Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan goes out of his way to give the most charitable reading of modern secular Buddhism but in the end he confesses, “I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism.” Perhaps this is because there simply is no necessary, logical, connection between recognizing the nature of Reality and specific moral and lifestyle choices. While Buddhists usually do not like being accused of being negative and pessimistic it can hardly be denied that more cheerful, care-free, implications of the idea of impermanence can be imagined (and have been imagined).

How would Buddhism look like if it really would be serious about making adjustments to its (core) beliefs based on science? For starters, it would treat each belief as an hypothesis that is calibrated when new evidence becomes available. But how many Buddhist publications are really serious about this? Such work is typically done by sympathetic outsiders but the result never produces a full endorsement of core Buddhist beliefs. Although Buddhism seems to be able to survive in a modern secular society it still has its share of ex-Buddhists who feel that it is still too dogmatic and unscientific. In his article “Why I ditched Buddhism” John Horgan writes:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

There is one element in Buddhist thinking, however, that can throw an interesting light on the “political mind.” Buddhism is not explicitly political although some followers have made attempts to politicize it, culminating in a rather artificial movement called “Engaged Buddhism.” Buddhism teaches that nothing in reality is permanent and emphasizes the continuous birth, transformation, and rebirth of things. What sets the political mind apart is that it looks at society as a whole and wants it to conform to an arbitrary idea about political justice or efficiency. While this aim can be even perceived as unrealistic and delusional for a small group, it borders on insanity for a world composed of billions of people. When political activists recognize that the world cannot be easily manipulated in such a fashion, or run into the unintended consequences of their policies, frustration, anger, and violence often ensue. This “thirst” for control of the external world has often been ridiculed by Zen Buddhist monks and this kind of “suffering” can be successfully eliminated if the ever-changing nature of reality is recognized.

There is a growing literature about the psychology and even neuroscience of political beliefs but much of this work does not examine the most basic questions. What exactly is a political belief (or ideology)? Why do some people choose political engagement and others seek to make less grandiose changes to their personal lives and environment? Can political ideals be satisfied or does the ever-changing nature of reality (and slight deviations from any ideal) suggest that politically engaged people chase an illusion and political happiness will be brief at best. To my knowledge, there have not been many publications in which Buddhist premises have been employed to argue against the idea of political ideology and “activism”, although it seems an interesting connection to make. Such a Buddhist argument would solely emphasize personal kindness instead of the (futile) desire to make the world conform to a specific idea (and the ensuing “suffering” if reality does not want to conform).


Experimental artist and writer Boyd Rice is often identified as a social darwinist or fascist. His recent collection, NO, with short entries on various subjects resists such simplistic feel-good accusations. If there is one common thread in this collection, it is his attempt to describe reality as it is, regardless of what people would like it to be. Like Jim Goad, he often takes aim at the self-congratulatory and delusional progressive underground culture and the empty rhetoric that masks the will to power:

If a despotic form of rule wanted to keep its populace in line, only the most foolish regime would tell its people: “Do as we say, or you’ll be punished.” No, the surest way is to inform them they’re free and equal. That they are all unique individuals.

On the idea that we have “rights”:

If rights are an inalienable bestowal upon us by the Creator, how could we be deprived of of them either by men or courts? Unless, of course, they are as much an abstraction as any of the other pillars of our contemporary consciousness, such as equality, individuality, or what have -have-you.

He has little patience for the “Dreadlocks sporting young “anarchist” who lives in his parent’s home in the suburbs”, “calls police fascists”, and thinks we are living in a “police state”:

Some fear the coming of a new police state. If so, current trends don’t portend such a situation. Quite the inverse, in fact. If things proceed along their current path, there may be exponentially more laws, none of which will ever be enforced to any meaningful extent.

As a matter of fact, the transformative nature of politics is greatly exaggerated by political junkies, left and right:

Those on either side of the fence are precisely similar in their almost childlike optimism about the political process, in their faith that it has the power to transfigure both our nation and our lives…Foolhardy men wish to change the world , as a precondition to changing their lives…Any attempt at exercising  control over the world is an exercise in futility. Exercising control over ones life is the simplest of matters. And the results it yields are both immediate and demonstrable.

Boyd Rice writes that “perhaps the rarest individual is one that is genuinely apolitical.”

NO is currently sold out but an expanded edition is forthcoming.

The tyranny of guilt and the politics of dissolution

Pascal Brucker’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is a passionate indictment of the guilt-ridden and self-loathing culture that dominates contemporary Western Europe, and his own country, France, in particular. In the chapter Listen to My Suffering, Bruckner identifies and challenges the widespread climate of victimization:

As soon as we acquire the status of legal claimants, we immediately acquire that of injured parties as well. Each of us is given at birth a portfolio of grievances to exploit. History as a whole owes us a debt which we demand be immediately repaid. Today, we combine romanticism with suffering; we form a new elite caste, with an absolute allergy to pain, the ideal being to acquire the title of pariah without having actually endured anything. The slightest adversity we encounter is a scandal that has to be indemnified. To set oneself up as a victim is to give oneself twofold power to accuse and demand, to cast opprobrium on others and to beg. And since each of us has in our family tree at least a person who was hanged, one proletarian, one victim of persecution, we will go back as far as the Middle Ages if that is what it takes to demand justice. Classical  political combat trained warlike men and women who were proud of their conquests, whereas contemporary legal combat produces chronic malcontents. It is not clear that this presents progress (page 147-148).

Brucker can hardly be called an exponent of the secular Hard Right and his writings can be best understood as an attempt to rescue the original progressive Enlightenment ideals from the ravages of identity politics and multiculturalism. The author embraces the egalitarian democratic ideal and claims that modern intellectuals have abandoned universalism in pursuit of a new species of identity politics in which moral superiority is expressed as cultivated self-hatred. What remains unclear is whether these faux progressives are basically well-intentioned  intellectuals gone astray or whether all this rhetoric is just another rationalization of the will to political power.

In Brucker’s universe, democracy is a neutral decision mechanism in which conflicting conceptions of the good and interests fight for dominance. Culture is shaped by “ideas” (biology is largely absent in his book) and we should make an effort to ensure the ideals of the Enlightenment prevail. What is questionable about this perspective is whether democracy should be treated in such a neutral fashion. In a very general sense, identity politics is an inescapable feature of modern democracy because majority rule requires a moral or cultural rationale for the preferential treatment of one group over another. A politics that would aspire to completely abstain from non-unanimous decision making would bring about the end of the State. Because a straightforward appeal to superior force is both unappealing and vulnerable,  practical politics is always in search for legitimacy as it benefits one group at the expense of another. The modern therapeutic state offers no shortage of excuses to intervene – albeit of a transient nature.

Brucker offers a defense of national borders that, at some points, could double as a defense of private property and free trade: “To draw a boundary is to put an end to battle: the former enemy becomes and ally, the foreigner a neighbor. The border area calms down, dangers are domesticated.”

What distinguishes today’s progressives from the aristocratic rulers of old is that they do not accept any borders – neither nation nor property. With such beliefs, there can be little doubt that this culture and its people will ultimately be displaced. Political power based on self-loathing and empowerment of political rivals is even more vulnerable to dissolution than political power that solely grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Jim Goad and the Passover Syndrome

Over at Taki’s Magazine, Jim Goad writes about ethnomasochism and the conformist mindset of today’s progressives:

A common delusion among Passover Syndrome sufferers is that they represent the cusp of some bold revolutionary cultural vanguard rather than modern mainstream society itself. They seduce themselves into thinking they are rebels against an oppressively racist society, yet there is nothing dangerous or career-threatening in anything they say. In truth, to disagree with what they say is to court ostracism, assault, and possible legal action. So rather than being mavericks in the Nat Turner mold, their personalities more fit that of the obsequious and conformist House Negro who toes the party line with a wide, bucktoothed grin. They seem cognitively incapable of grasping the fact that their personalities are indeed so fundamentally conformist, they may have participated in lynch mobs a century ago.

Similarly, in an engaging piece about the lack of ideological diversity in American theater Harry Stein makes the following  observation:

Like liberals everywhere, its creators imagine they’re speaking truth to power—when, in fact, they are the power, and guard it as jealously as any of the right-wing, American-allied dictators of yore they grew up protesting against.

One of the most fascinating questions about contemporary political culture is how long progressives  can keep claiming that they are fighting the status quo before recognizing that they are the status quo. During the 20th century the United States has seen an almost uninterrupted  victory of those who want to use the power of the state to alter the unequal and “prejudiced” outcomes of individual choice and free markets. This ideology has become so widely accepted among those who seek power that even Republican candidates like Sarah Palin feel they need to play the “sexism” card to win a debate.

There are those on the Hard Left (labor unions, for example) who never had problems  recognizing that egalitarianism requires massive coercion. But this identification with power is not comfortable for those whose political ideals where shaped in the 1960s. The history of how the libertarian socialists and radicals of the protest generation gradually degenerated into advocating the worst kinds of censorship, elitism, and authoritarianism still remains to be written.

Andy Nowicki’s Considering Suicide

Andy Nowicki’s book ‘Considering Suicide’ belongs to, what I would call, the cultural alienation genre. Nowicki’s alienation is not of the Marxist variety that rails against division of labor and harbors the juvenile desire that all work should be play. No, Nowicki is fundamentally not at home in this world and believes that everything that makes life worth living has been lost to a meaningless, shallow and vulgar culture. People with Nowicki’s beliefs and temperament have a real problem. They have nowhere to go. To Nowicki, this culture is of such a universal and invading nature that the only choice is to endure it or live outside modern civilization itself. In this predicament, it is not surprising that the author considers the question of suicide.

As a self-identified “Catholic reactionary” there is an obvious problem about committing suicide. The author discusses a number of arguments in favor of suicide and  ultimately dismisses them. If suicide is to make a statement, there is the real possibility that after the heroic act is executed no one cares, and those who do, only briefly.  Nevertheless, Nowicki writes that “what I want is for them to know is that I haven’t settled for the lie that life is worth living in a choose-your-own-meaning culture.” But I doubt this makes a strong case for suicide. The rest of the world still doesn’t care and, for respectable Epicurean reasons, the author will not experience this gratification himself.  Most people will not even understand what the author would be trying to convey. Many people are not obsessed with the decay of today’s culture, suffering or death. In a moment of real clarity the author asks, “is the luckiest person the one who dies in such a profound state of ignorance?” At least since Erasmus wrote ‘The Praise of Folly’, the answer is “yes.” The only credible reason to commit suicide that survives scrutiny is the straightforward determination that the the pain of life outweighs its pleasures. But even in this case, most people still have a hardwired instinct to survive.

Let me entertain two arguments that could provide counterweight to the author’s deep desperation and pessimism. The first is a logical argument about meaning. It does not make sense to apply the word “meaning” to existence as such. Just like it does not make sense to search for categorical imperatives. The existence of God does not end the quest for ultimate meaning.  The most coherent Christian theology (orthodox Calvinism) arrives at the conclusion that we exist for God’s self glorification. And then what? Does this satisfy our thirst for “meaning?”

I doubt Mr. Nowicki is a Marxist. If he were, he could argue that all the unfair and ugly things in the world are interrelated and reinforcing and reality is exhausted by them. But we are fortunate that reality defies such determinism. A decadent political system can co-exist with the most beautiful expressions of art. Great technical progress can co-exist with dumb ideas about economics and public policy. An impoverished and crude  mainstream culture does not exclude longer and healthier lifespans. It is tempting and easy to think that all imaginable bad things in life come bundled, but there is little evidence that this is the case.

If these arguments do not persuade, I think there are two real possibilities: (1) the suffering of the person is not dependent on his environment but reflects an unfavorable physiological state of the brain, which may be mitigated by pharmacological treatment; or (2) the person’s suffering is of an abstract existential nature. Here the problem is not contemporary life but the fabric of the universe, and our awareness of it, as such. At that point we enter the nihilistic and Godless universe of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Liggotti. Since the writer is a self-identified “Catholic Reactionary” I do not think we should go there but I sometimes have the impression that Nowicki wants to have his nihilist cake and eat the bread of Christ too.  For example, in chapter 7 the author ponders the question of God’s sovereignty and it is not clear to me whether he is converting to Calvinism (or Augustinianism) in this chapter or expressing serious doubts about his own religion.

To Nowicki, death “comes to everyone” and is a source of despair. He writes that  “the Carpe Diem” attitude quickly makes one miserable, for the very reason that one can only seize the day for so long.” The view that everything is futile when life is ultimately futile has a strong following. On the other hand,  the view that is it exactly death that gives meaning to life (see humanist death apologetics) has a strong following as well. The, otherwise not very enlightening, neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse rejects this alleviation of death from a contingent natural feature of life to something that gives or takes away meaning:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

Aging or death is not a biological necessity and cryopreservation of the brain after legal death may even allow people who are given up by contemporary medicine to benefit from a second opinion from a future medical professional. Our habit of burning or burying a person that is “dead” by contemporary medical criteria gives the question of what it means to be “pro-life” a whole new meaning.

Nowicki has also written a book about the psychology of liberalism, and if his his observations in ‘Considering Suicide’ about contemporary politics are an indication, this should be well worth reading. He holds a special animosity for modern liberals and contemporary intellectuals who practice ethnomasochism to signal their own moral superiority and use the threat of “hate” to pursue their own power-hungry and hateful agenda:

“No one hates the way hate-haters hate ; no one is more dishonest about his intentions or in his overall self-representation than one who loudly proclaims that his goal is to rid the world of “hate.” Those who profess to hate “hate,” who cannot tolerate “intolerance,” seem capable of anything. More on point, they are capable of justifying anything.   If they are harsh, shrill, and mean, if they make unfair accusations or commit outrageous slanders, if they ruin or destroy lives, they feel no shame or guilt. After all, even if they go too far sometimes or make mistakes, they can fall back on the noble crutch. Their hearts are in the right place. “We only want to stamp out hate!” they scream.

Not surprisingly, Nowicki feels little affinity for contemporary “conservatives” who seem more eager to  export America’s civilization-in-decline to other countries than to roll back modern liberalism,  abortion (to which he devotes a powerful chapter), the welfare  state, and other manifestations of secular modernity. He attributes a lot of the ills of contemporary society and politics to the view that there are no objective standards for right and wrong anymore.

When he writes, “If God does not exist, then all claims to legitimacy are a ruse. Politics is gang warfare writ large, and all high minded talk of “justice” mere cant and hypocrisy,” there is little reason to disagree. Politics, per definition, concerns, non-unanimous, collective decision making that is an imposition on spontaneously evolved conventions that foster peace and trade. In modern times, the locus of power has shifted from God (his “representatives”) to the State but the power and obedience relationship remains identical. There is a serious debate between those who think objective values exist and can be discovered through reason and those who question this whole project. According to the moralists, these objective values put limits on what politicians  and public officials may do. Those with more empirical and skeptical views disagree, and argue that the existence of politics rests exactly on such metaphysical illusions. To them, contemporary politics feeds off the residual metaphysical thinking of religion and the quest for power and money is hidden by appeals to “rights” and “social justice.” The need for politicians to cultivate such illusionary concepts is obvious because the legitimacy of the state would greatly suffer if politics is simply seen as “gang warfare writ large.” Nowicky is clearly on the right track about the pathologies of modern political culture, but he seeks the solution in less modernism instead of a more analytic / scientific worldview. For a stimulating contrast, consult L.A. Rollins’s ‘The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays’ (review here), by the same publisher. Nowicki’s book ends with some reflections on existence and non-existence that set the stage for another uplifting Nine Banded Books publication, Jim Crawford’s ‘Confessions of an Antinatalist.’

Despite the main subject of the book (suicide), I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Considering Suicide.’ The cover artwork and the use of lower-case fonts for the title are appealing. A lot of the author’s cultural and political observations are dead-on and, I think, can be sustained with solely secular arguments as well. His relationship with death, meaning, and God seems more tortured to me and reminiscent of his indecisiveness about suicide. The author may be a Catholic but the tone of the book is decidedly nihilist, including his reflections on religion. In ending, I was surprised to detect the occasional use of strong language and open discussion of sexual matters in this book. If we can no longer rely on a Catholic Reactionary in such matters, all hope must be lost indeed!