Evaluating Wisdom Traditions

Evaluating Wisdom Traditions

By wisdom tradition, I am including both religious and philosophical belief systems and practices. It should be obvious that not all wisdom traditions are true. The simple fact that they contradict each other is evidence enough of that. But the harder question is, how do you know what to accept and what to reject within a wisdom tradition. I want to answer that question now.

The simple answer is that it requires reason and skepticism. Reason helps to to think clearly and logically. But reason can be hijacked by blind acceptance of authority and tradition. That is why we need a healthy dose of skepticism. A questioning attitude is required to keep reason on the right track. We are aiming for truth, not the support of dogma.

Now in order to evaluate the beliefs and practices of a wisdom tradition, we need a criterion, a rule or test by which to judge them. Since our aim to to know the truth to the best of our ability, we must base our criterion on the available evidence.

Naturalism

Every belief and practice is seen through the filter of one’s particular worldview. It is impossible to not see things from a point of view. To think, we must think with a worldview. The worldview of Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism. The bottom line of naturalism is that only the natural world exists, either as a single universe or a multiverse. This conclusion is based on substantial evidence that we will not discuss here.

Since Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism, that means that we believe that only the natural world exists. Because this is our guiding principle, that means that, when evaluating another wisdom tradition, our first question should be, “Is the belief or practice naturalistic?”

I specifically picked Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and Humanism as the four main traditions because they are more naturalistic than other wisdom traditions. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are among the least naturalistic, and therefore were not chosen. But Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism are not completely naturalistic. Therefore their beliefs and practices need to be carefully evaluated.

Take Buddhism for example. Buddhism talks a lot about gods and ghosts, rebirth, multi-life karma, after death Nirvana, and the six realms. All of this is supernatural, not naturalistic. Philosophical Taoism also drifts into supernaturalism sometimes when dealing with the Tao. And Religious Taoism jumps right into the supernatural, making Laozi a god, and adding many other gods and demons. Even Stoicism gets off track with some of their beliefs about God and Providence. None of this is really in harmony with philosophical naturalism. So we reject all of this.

Evidence

Bodhidaoism is based on philosophical naturalism because the evidence for the supernatural is non-existent. By evidence I mean empirical evidence, and inferences based on it. By empirical I mean that the evidence is based on experiment and observation, that is, science. Science tells us what exists. There is no better or reliable method of objective knowledge. Any belief or practice that contradicts science is wrong.

But science does not tell us about the subjective experience of the mind. This is the realm of introspection and reason. This is where the wisdom traditions come in. They help us form a spirituality, but which I mean the expanding and deepening of awareness of our union with reality. It is this subjective world that is the hardest to navigate. We begin with the scientific study of the brain and behavior, and move to introspection and intersubjectivity, which means evaluating experiences among many people. To these we add the tests of logical consistency, explanatory power, practical usefulness, and beneficial results.

So in evaluating a belief or practice we begin with science as the best evidence, then move to psychology and neuroscience, then to philosophy, and finally to spirituality (religion). Notice we move from the most objective evidence to the most subjective. Every belief or practice should go through this evaluation. Then we can assess the strength of the evidence for the belief or practice. Some beliefs or practices can be accepted, others rejected, and some we need to suspend judgment on until the evidence is sufficient.

Naturalized

As I have already indicated, Buddhism’s doctrine of rebirth, as it stands, cannot be accepted. We have no evidence that people are reincarnated. In fact, the evidence is against it. The mind is what the brain does, once the brain stops, the mind disappears. But does that mean that there are no insights in the rebirth teaching?

If a belief or practice is not naturalistic, the question becomes do we reject the belief or practice, or can we naturalize it? That is, can the belief or practice be reinterpreted to be naturalistic? We should try to naturalize a belief or practice for the sole reason that it may reveal a hidden truth.

Again, let’s look at rebirth. Is there any way that a part of us continues on after we die? The answer is yes, we continue in our DNA. The Buddha knew nothing of DNA, so maybe the fact that traits are passed down led him to believe that karma was true, and hence, rebirth. But this is not a very helpful interpretation for us.

Another reinterpretation is that our lives leave a lasting impact on the people and things we touch. We influence many lives, for good and ill, and this influence lives on after we die. We call this our legacy. Here is a more helpful reinterpretation of rebirth.

One last reinterpretation, which is actually taught by meditation teachers, is that each day we are reborn. Everyday is the beginning of a new life. We are free to make today what we want. This is another helpful reinterpretation of rebirth.

So if a belief or practice is not naturalistic, try to reinterpret the belief or practice into a naturalistic belief or practice. If you cannot naturalize it, or a naturalized version is not helpful, abandon it. There are plenty of beliefs and practices that are aligned with Bodhidaoism.

Coherence

Coherence, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is “the quality of being logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible.” Not all the beliefs and practices of other wisdom traditions will be coherent within Bodhidaoism. A belief or practice should only be accepted if it cohere with Bodhidaoism. If a belief or practice does not fit in the Bodhidaoism system of beliefs, then it should not be forced to fit.

All the beliefs and practices of Bodhidaoism are suppose to be logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible. If they are not, then we have a problem. That problem needs to be solved, whether by modifying the belief or practice, or by rejecting it.

Likes and Dislikes

One of the criterion that is not included is our own personal likes and dislikes. Just because you like an idea doesn’t make it true. Likewise, just because you don’t like an idea doesn’t make it false. We are aiming at a worldview that matches reality, not creating a fantasy land.

This is the problem with the New Age movement. People shop the spiritual market place looking for little trinkets to add to their spiritual shelf. This is why they run from one guru to another, from one spiritual practice to another. They are looking for comfort, not truth. They want the next spiritual high, not the hard and painful road to self-transformation. They want better lives, not to become better people.

Awakening to Reality as it truly is, is not necessarily a pleasant experience. But what do we want, the truth or fantasy? Bodhidaoism is not the path for those interested in illusions and feel-good highs. It is for philosophers, lovers of wisdom, people who want to know the truth as best we humans can. That means that we follow the evidence, not whims and wants.

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Published by Jay N. Forrest

Jay N. Forrest (D.Min.) is a Philosopher, Author, and the Founder of Bodhidaoism.