My Response to DT Strain (Part 2)
Part 1: https://bodhidaoism.com/2017/10/15/my-response-to-dt-strain/
This is part 2 of my ongoing dialog with DT Strain concerning my article “Introduction to Bodhidaoism,” which was posted on the Spiritual Naturalist Society website. In this post, DT Strain responses to my comments in part 1 (which should be read first). I, in turn, comment on his responses. He has kindly given me permission to publish this.
Karma & Rebirth:
I agree with you that the Buddha can be wrong. But I also agree with the teaching attributed to Buddha which says not to accept anything based on authority or scripture, including what he himself said. Since naturalist enlightenment is a continuous process with no single point at which a person becomes ‘perfect’, the possession of total or perfect knowledge is not a component of enlightenment. Knowledge is like any other commodity (wealth, health, reputation, etc) and not within our control. But enlightenment/happiness/flourishing is completely and entirely within our control. Therefore, the Buddha can be both enlightened (on the ‘highly enlightened’ end of the spectrum) and wrong simultaneously.
It isn’t very important to ‘fit things in’ to traditional Buddhist understandings or ‘make them pass’ for something they aren’t just to call it some name or another. But the reality is that Buddhism isn’t, and has never been, one single unchanging thing. Like the ego, Buddhism is empty of such permanence or singular identity. Theravada Buddhism emerged 200 years after early Buddhism. We don’t know exactly what differences may have arisen, so I’ll jump to Mahayana, which emerged 250 years after Theravada. And it wasn’t for another 1,200 years that Vajrayana emerged. Is Vajrayana still Buddhism? Is Mahayana? These schools have differing interpretations and even additional whole texts. Buddhism has always taken on variations of interpretation, practice, teaching, and ritual as it has migrated into different regions, cultures, and times. It is true that the various forms of Western Buddhism emerging are not Mahayana, and are not Theravada, but they seem like Buddhism to me. When Julie and I go to our local Buddhist temple, these ‘feel’ like our people.
I believe communication and travel emerging this past Century have set us into a second Axial Age, which may become more obvious looking back on it several centuries from now. If so, then dictionary definitions and picking out specific wording in certain quoted passages may not be the best way to determine whether something is Buddhism. Instead, the core practices, general perspectives, and key concepts are going to be more essential than differences over interpretations of physical or metaphysical phenomena about the cosmos which the Buddha is said to have called unimportant to the real and immediate suffering being addressed.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what something is called, but I agree we must be honest about what we are doing. If all of the volumes of articles and texts we Western, secular, naturalist Buddhists have written to explain in detail what we believe and what we don’t (including the article I linked to of my own and the many other SNS and SBA articles and books) aren’t enough to ‘be honest’ about it, what more can we do?
Incidentally, I completely agree with the quote you provided: “to the doctrines of action and its corresponding ‘ripening’ or ‘fruition’, according to which virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind produce happiness in the future (in this life or subsequent lives), while nonvirtuous deeds lead instead to suffering.”
Yes, karma refers to cause and effect – namely that subset of cause and effect that deals with human activity and its effects on happiness and suffering. Perhaps the portion of the quote you question is “in this life or subsequent lives”. There are two important points on this:
1) Yes, our actions absolutely do effect happiness or suffering in subsequent lives. People today suffer because of the past of slavery, for example. Those are subsequent lives. The understanding of subsequent lives as being a ghost that moves from body to body is in error – even according to core Buddhist teaching. There is no permanent self, no atman, to do such a thing. But if we see deeply the truth of no-self, then we see that all of these seemingly isolated examples of conscious experience are interconnected. It’s not that rebirth is true because the ego jumps from place to place. It is that rebirth is true because all new consciousnesses are interconnected by cause and effect. This is the continuum of human suffering and actions by which we are all interconnected (as the Stoics say, citizens of the cosmos).
2) On another level, the statement is still true in a formal logical or mechanical sense – even given a superstitious interpretation of rebirth. For example, “Bicycling is the act of (a human or some intelligent humanoid alien) getting on this kind of two-wheeled self-propelled vehicle and traveling in it.” The statement is true, even if there are no other intelligent alien humanoids in the universe – provided that is the boundary of the definition for bicycling we’ve chosen. The operators: x = y, if p or q. The statement can be true even if p is all that ever happens in real life and q never does happen. If this seems to be too cunning, then consider that I really do not proclaim to know that the superstitious interpretation of rebirth is not also true (in addition to the naturalist interpretation I explained above). It could be for all I know, because I have no empirical evidence either way. Occam’s razor and practicality simply mean I leave it on the table and don’t use it in my practice. As the Buddha said, such esoteric matters are not important. This too, is consistent with Buddhism.
On last minor note. When I said karma is action, I was mainly trying to delineate it from people thinking of karma as the *result* that comes after. True, it really is more precise to say that karma is the intention that leads to our actions. But this is a perfect example of the problems with being too picky over detailed words: you have presented two quotes as descriptive of Buddhism-proper. Yet, in the first quote from the dictionary it says karma refers to, “the doctrines of action and its corresponding ‘ripening’” – there they use the word ‘action’ and make no mention of intention. Then you provide a second quote, from the Buddha “Intention, I tell you, is kamma”. You asked me whether he was right or me, so I ask you by the same standards, which of the two conflicting quotes you provided to present Buddhism are true? The first, which says action, or the second which says intention?
This is the problem with being too quick to see difference and conflict – especially given the tumultuous history by which all of these teachings came to us, through imperfect translations of already deep concepts difficult for language to grasp. It demands much more flexibility and easy-going with the flow – focusing on the big picture and deeper point of the concepts than on dictionary definitions and particular English-word comparisons. In the same manner, the operative point of the Taoism symbol seems to me, not that it has two dualistic parts (black and white). The operative point of the symbol to me is that both are mixed together into a whole circle, and each given a part of the other to emphasize One-ness, consistency, and wholeness are the ultimate reality, with duality being only an illusion or, at best, a secondary derivative aspect.
I agree that “the Buddha can be both enlightened… and wrong simultaneously.” And I think that he was wrong on karma and rebirth. But I don’t think he was completely wrong. I think that if we eliminate the metaphysical from his teachings and concentrate our attention on the psychological, we will find that the Buddha was the greatest psychologist of all time.
You said, “naturalist enlightenment is a continuous process with no single point at which a person becomes ‘perfect’, the possession of total or perfect knowledge is not a component of enlightenment.” The Pali Canon teaches that, “That Blessed One is such since he is arahant and Fully Enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct” (MN 41). So your idea of enlightenment is not Buddhist, but naturalistic. How many teachings of the Buddha can one reject and still be a Buddhist?
You said, “Knowledge is like any other commodity (wealth, health, reputation, etc) and not within our control.” But knowledge is under our control, at least to some degree. I can take classes or read a book and increase my knowledge.
I also agree that Buddhism can take many forms, and has, as demonstrated by Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. I am just arguing that if there is a fourth turning of the wheel (and there is), that it too have a designation, whether Western Buddhism or Secular Buddhism. A further point is that the Pali Canon, with all its faults, is our most reliable source for the teachings of the historical Buddha. And these teaching should be interpreted by standard rules of hermeneutics. The Mahayana and Vajrayana have their own Canons, but these are NOT the teachings of the historical Buddha. They are fictitious creations.
I will, however, disagree with you that “it doesn’t really matter what something is called.” It matters very much. Once we muddy our words, we muddy our thinking. This is the reason precise definitions are required in science and psychology, and philosophy is no different.
A good example of my issue with the way you write things is when you say, “Yes, our actions absolutely do effect happiness or suffering in subsequent lives.” You know full well that the quote is talking about “subsequent lives” of the person doing the actions. But you blur the context and substitute your own meaning. It is hard for most people to spot this. There is no question that our actions leave a lasting impact on others. But the Buddha of the Pali Canon did not mean this by the word karma.
Then take your statement, “The understanding of subsequent lives as being a ghost that moves from body to body is in error – even according to core Buddhist teaching.” Substitute the word “consciousness” for “ghost” and you have the correct Theravada interpretation. As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains, “The channel for the transmission of kammic influences from life to life across the sequence of rebirths is the individual stream of consciousness” (Dhamma Reflections 2015, 187). This contradicts your statement, “It is that rebirth is true because all new consciousnesses are interconnected by cause and effect.” Rebirth is the passing of “the individual stream of consciousness” from one incarnation to another.
Then you said concerning rebirth, “As the Buddha said, such esoteric matters are not important. This too, is consistent with Buddhism.” But Bhikkhu Bodhi contradicts this again, “The teaching of rebirth crops up almost everywhere in the Canon, and is so closely bound to a host of other doctrines that to remove it would virtually reduce the Dhamma to tatters” (Dhamma Reflections 2015, 183). To say that rebirth is “not important” to you is one thing, but I don’t think you can speak for the Buddha here. It seems very important to him.
You are confused when you say, “The statement is true, even if there are no other intelligent alien humanoids in the universe – provided that is the boundary of the definition for bicycling we’ve chosen. The operators: x = y, if p or q.” No, the statement is valid, not necessary true. Validity does not required that a valid argument have premises that are actually true. Validity speaks of the proper form of the argument, it says nothing about its soundness. If “there are no other intelligent alien humanoids,” then the premise is false, and therefore the argument is valid but untrue.
And on your “minor note”, yes most people mistakenly think karma is the “result” that comes after an act. You claim I am being “too picky” with words. Words are tools, and a sharp ax will do better than a dull one. An arrow that is only a sliver off when it is fired, will miss the target when it arrives. An imprecise word when written, will be misunderstood when read. Clear communication requires a clear understanding of words. Words mean something, they matter.
A proper definition of karma, from the Buddha’s perspective, is “intentional actions, whether in word, deed, or thought, which results in consequences in this life and/or in future lives.” When that consequence is manifested, it is called its “ripening.” So both action and intention are right, but both have to be included. And, as you later point out, “dictionaries, especially for complex philosophies which have been examined in vast detail, is that they rarely sum up a topic perfectly in such a short set of sentences.” You were writing an article, not a dictionary definition.
And I must push back on your comment that I am “too quick to see difference and conflict.” No, I tried the inclusive approach first, as anybody who listened to my 5 Minute Dharma podcast can attest. Rather, I was blind to the “difference and conflict” that was actually there all along. But I was just beginning to read the Pali Canon, instead of reading what others have said about it. It made all the difference in the world. Just like the Bible, many modern interpreters cherry pick quotes from the Pali Canon and give it their Western spin.
While you are advocating being “more flexibility and easy-going with the flow,” I am advocating a more objective and contextually accurate interpretation. While you want to focus on “the big picture,” I think we should first understand the finer details. After all, it is the finer details that make the big picture accurate. But maybe it is more that I am looking for the truth and you are looking for spiritual nourishment.
I’ve read Becker and disagree with him on some points, this included. When he says that the providence and rationality of God need to be updated for neoStoicism, this is true only for some certain takes of Stoicism by some of its teachers. Throughout the different heads of the Stoic school, there has been much variation on how Christian-like or Spinoza-like their interpretation was. Indeed, if you put all of the successive heads of the historic Stoa in a room together, they would probably debate much more strongly than you and I have anything to debate about. Marcus Aurelius himself said that it didn’t really matter whether God existed or not, taking a view similar to that the Buddha took about metaphysical questions in the Parable of the Poison Arrow.
Today’s Stoics need only favor those teachers of the latter type. As with Buddhism, there are many Stoicisms from which to learn, interpret, and apply. There is no one, singular, ‘official’ and highly detailed-in-only-one-way Stoicism, despite what dictionaries and various authors may propose. By such standards, it would be impossible for any large-scale movement to arise and maintain membership or cohesion.
And, here again, I think it the original intent of some of the ancient writers when they speak of ‘rational’ and ‘providence’ may not be what it seems. A lot of readers, even scholars, cannot help but look on these words through the Christianized lens we look back through on the other side of history. For example, Socrates discusses the nature of the soul in Phaedo, but if one understands what they meant by ‘soul’ it would be more obvious the book belongs in the continuum with the psychological sciences than the ghostly thing Christians talk about.
Here is how I would describe the Logos in sacred tongue…
The Logos is the rational ordering principle of the cosmos – the natural law by which the universe unfolds. The Logos is not random, indecipherable, or capricious; but logical, immanent, and revealed through reason.
The Logos is the primal foundation from which all things arise. It is providential in its determination of what follows, and its necessity for our very being. As such, we set it apart – sacred.
By grasping the nature of the Logos deeply we gain insight. Through practice, we bring our character into intuitive alignment with, and become One with the Logos. Thusly we walk in accord with Nature that we may flourish.
This seems to me as much appropriate to Stoicism as any of several particular teachers (though not all) who lead the Stoic school historically. The key aspects of Providence to me are “preparation of future eventualities for our well-being”. But even though Christians say God is providential, they do not suppose the answer to every prayer will be yes or that their desires will always correspond to God’s will. In a similar way, I can say the Logos does indeed ‘determine what happens next’ and is indeed necessary to our very being – the thing which no benefit can be received by us without. In a chaotic irrational world, the laws of physics could not provide the kind order and dynamic complexity necessary for life to exist.
Of equal importance to this, is the naturalist’s understanding of our own “will”. We naturalists realize that all of what appears to be our continuous ‘fully in charge’ will is the result of physics playing out. Yet, there is utility in speaking about our own choices, decisions, and will. If we apply this consistently to the Logos as a whole, then we have as much reason to refer to it in providential terms – even if not made into a “person” as we are (which is, important to this point, illusory in our case as well).
So you “disagree with [Lawrence C. Becker] on some points, this included.” I, on the other hand, agree with him, especially on this point. And since I think that he is much more rigorous in his attempt to make a modern Stoicism “thoroughly naturalistic,” his take on Stoicism better fits with Bodhidaoism.
It is interesting you say, “When he says that the providence and rationality of God need to be updated for neoStoicism, this is true only for some certain takes of Stoicism by some of its teachers.” Notice you concede my point, “this is true.” But Stoicism refers to all Stoics, not just the ones you favor. And then you add, “Today’s Stoics need only favor those teachers of the latter type.” Seneca is a latter Stoic and he claims in On Providence, “God concerns himself with us.” He also say in the same work, “God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose.” Epictetus, another latter Stoic, says, “The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe…” (Discourses 2.14.11). Province means, “the care or benevolent guidance of God or nature” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). Now I guess you can cherry pick the quotes and teachers that already fit your view.
As a Bodhidaoist, I intentionally cherry pick, but I don’t call it Stoicism, and I try to understand the teaching in the historical context in which it arose. Your take on Stoicism may be Stoicism, but that is a concern for those who call themselves Stoics. I prefer to opt of of that unfruitful discussion. You can call yourself a Stoic or Buddhist or Taoist or Humanist, or all four. I really don’t care. But for me, it would be injudicious. Furthermore, being a Bodhidaoist gives me the freedom to not be bound to any conceptual box, be it Buddhist, Stoic, Taoist, or Humanist.
Of course, there is “is no one, singular, ‘official’ and highly detailed-in-only-one-way Stoicism.” My interest is more historical and textual, since Stoicism “effectively ended in the late second or early third century of the Common Era” (Becker, A New Stoicism 2017, xiv). My goal in Bodhidaoism is to examine a tradition within its context, understand its essential teachings, and then borrow those that fit within a scientific and naturalistic worldview. Modern day interpretations are interesting because they have done a lot of the reinterpretation for me. But I also want to be honest about the historical reality.
I cannot pass by your definition of Logos, “The Logos is not random, indecipherable, or capricious; but logical, immanent, and revealed through reason.” Yet the universe is “random” and “capricious.” There is random quantum fluctuations and randomness occurs in numbers such as log and pi. In the quantum world, things tend to change abruptly and without apparent reason, plus there is quantum indeterminacy. To again quote Becker, “When we face the universe we confront its indifference to us and our own insignificance to it” (A New Stoicism 2017, 11). I see no signs of Providence.
However, to be fair, you may be using night language (figurative or “sacred tongue”) and I am using day language (literal). I prefer to speak literally when dealing with objective reality, and only use figurative language when dealing with subjective feeling states. And even here, I want to draw out the literal meaning in the most objective way I can. This is philosophy, not religion. Religion deals with metaphors, philosophy tries to understand what they mean.
This exchange has helped me understand that we are approaching these traditions with different agendas. You seem to be more pragmatic and taking what works for you. My project is different, I am trying to critically examine the theories of each tradition, within their proper context, and evaluate them on their merits. Then, and only then, do I move on to reinterpretation and appropriation of their teaching into Bodhidaoism. You are trying to live a spiritual and fulfilling life, I am trying to create a philosophy of life, which requires an attempt at discerning the truth of a teaching. This requires a certain skillset and disposition. It is not for everyone, for sure. So that may be why we tend to talk pass one another. We are aiming at different targets.
I agree that both ideals and real world examples are important, and that perfectionism can be problematic.
I admit Zeno considered Socrates to be a Sage, but as with the Buddha, Zeno can be wrong. Many of the early Stoics, though they considered the Sage label as a perfect example, nevertheless attributed sagehood to earlier figures. This is not unlike Buddhists who consider Buddha to have been perfect or all knowing or superhuman in some way. We can disagree with various Stoics on particular claims and yet still be soundly a part of the Stoic tradition.
I also consider the Stoics to be continuing the Socratic tradition, as in the quote from Sellars. But all of the Socratic schools were continuing the Socratic tradition – simply with an emphasis on different parts of his teaching, with further development and interpretation of those in different ways. Stoicism and Epicureanism differ in some very crucial ways, yet both have equal claim to coming out of the Socratic tradition. Each have taken those teachings and made them far more specific, technical, and worked out in detail.
The Stoics may have (did) consider Socrates to be their model, and many of his outward ‘end result’ of behaviors and wisdom may have (did) match their values. But the fact is, philosophically, Socrates never gave as specific a structure as enumerating and defining the “preferred indifferents” or the detailed distinctions of what happens in the mind with ‘joy’ verses ‘delight’ for example. There are so many technical and structural philosophic details that are part of the power of reconfiguring how a person thinks, which Zeno and Chrissipus and other early Stoics developed. These are crucial to the deeper levels of Stoic thought and development. The Dialogues of Plato, where we see the arguments of Socrates are one of my most cherished readings, and give great insight, but they are only the beginning of Stoicism. Once has not yet opened up the hood and really begun tinkering with the engine parts in profoundly transformative ways until learning and digesting Stoic philosophy, which would be developed later. It would be as if Socrates provided the basic principles of relativity, and Zeno took that math to construct a warp drive.
Incidentally, Heraclitus was also a big influence on the Stoics, with his approach to interconnectedness, impermanence, the divine fire, the Logos, etc. But as a pre-socratic, I don’t think he is considered a Stoic either.
It is not impossible for a person to be a Buddhist and a Stoic simultaneously, but it would be very difficult to convince me that someone is both a Stoic and an Epicurean simultaneously, because each of these is far less diverse and variable than the myriad of traditions and variants called Buddhism over the centuries. There are some crucial conflicts in the source of value and happiness that are definitive of each, and incompatible. If one practices Epicureanism in specific detail, one will necessarily fail to practice Stoicism, and vice versa. Such is not the case for the most core and central concepts in Buddhism and Stoicism. It would be as if one were to suggest they are part of Buddhism but denied that suffering comes from attachment – one of the first foundational principles. That’s how distinct the two are. The lineage of influence demands I acknowledge that both Stoicism and Epicureanism are Socratic schools, but the impossibility of Socrates being both a Stoic and an Epicurean simultaneously demands that I consider the founder of Stoicism, Zeno, to be the first Stoic and the founder Epicurus to be the first Epicurean (in fact, in its earliest days, Stoicism was called Zenoism).
This, by the way, might be surprising for some to hear me say. But it underscores an important point: I do not suggest that any and all traditions and philosophies can be haphazardly meshed together by simply choosing to interpret them any old way. Some are definitely incompatible with each other in their core principles of practice, hierarchy of values, and source of choice or action; even if you allow for the most generous of interpretation. This is why the impressive compatibility of Stoicism and Buddhism is so amazing and rare.
Since you say, “I admit Zeno considered Socrates to be a Sage,” my point stands. Zeno is the founder of Stoicism, and since the founder of Stoicism considered Socrates to be a Sage, he is a Sage within Stoicism. Yes, “Zeno can be wrong,” but he cannot be wrong about what Stoicism is, since he founded it, and as you have said, “Stoicism was called Zenoism.” It would be like saying that Jay could be wrong about Jayism. I don’t think so.
And from a Bodhidaoist perspective, he is the foremost Sage of Stoicism. From my perspective, Socrates was the model philosopher and Stoicism was the best embodiment of his vision. Socrates may not have been a Stoic in name, but he was a Stoic in spirit.
In passing, I just want to again note that I am opting out of the discussion of who is or isn’t a Stoic. As a Bodhidaoist, it is none of my concern. I will let modern Stoics decide if “We can disagree with various Stoics on particular claims and yet still be soundly a part of the Stoic tradition.” I have no horse in this race.
And yes, Socrates didn’t teach all the things the Stoics did, but in him we find “the beginning of Stoicism.” So Stoicism, in its seed form, began with Socrates. That makes Socrates the spring from which Stoicism arose. This makes him foremost, that is, “first in place or time” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). But Socrates is also foremost in the sense of “first in rank or importance” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). Without Socrates it is doubtful that Stoicism would have arisen at all. After all, Socrates began ethics as a subject of philosophy.
Unlike you, I am not so sure that someone cannot be “both a Stoic and an Epicurean simultaneously.” I have seen a lot of meshing of traditions. In fact, Seneca quoted a lot from Epicurean sources in his letters, and I think there is a lot of wisdom in that tradition. I am not sure it would be any more difficult than it is to combine Buddhism (with the belief in an afterlife) and Humanism (in the denial of an afterlife). You just have to pick and choose which teachings suite you best, and reinterpret or ignore those that don’t. After all, to use your yin-yang analogy, it could be both-and. In fact, positive psychology itself has combined hedonism and eudaimonia. So it can be done, even if you think they are “incompatible.”
And for clarification, I don’t think that you believe “that any and all traditions and philosophies can be haphazardly meshed together by simply choosing to interpret them any old way.” Rather, I think that you decontextualize the material, and then pick and choose aspects that fit your worldview, downplaying or ignoring teachings or teachers that you don’t agree with. The locus of authority is yourself, not the texts themselves. It is a subtle shift, but it is one that we must make knowingly and with full acknowledgement to ourselves and our readers. At least that is my procedure in Bodhidaoism.
Another problem with dictionaries, especially for complex philosophies which have been examined in vast detail, is that they rarely sum up a topic perfectly in such a short set of sentences. Dictionaries a descriptive, not prescriptive – and only generally so. They are good for giving an initial idea of what a word means when one doesn’t really have any idea, but very poor for determining the answers to complex philosophic questions. Because they are subject to the whims of whoever wrote that edition of the dictionary – and even their attempts are specifically relegated to the ‘common usage’ which may be severely off from the technical definition. Therefore, the ability to find a dictionary with the precise wording one is looking for carries almost no weight or authority in philosophy.
The particular problem with the definition of naturalism you presented is that it is inherently circular and logically nonsensical. Making no suppositions about its truth or falsity, that definition doesn’t hold up to logical validity (you know this, but for any other readers – an argument can be simultaneously true, yet logically invalid). Here’s why…
A naturalist utilizes the tools and means of nature to deduce or at least induce suspected facts about the world. This, in fact, would be the only rational and causally-linked way of gathering such information. Therefore a true naturalist can only make (provisional) statements of fact based on physical evidence. By definition, the supernatural, as described by those making such claims, lies outside the causally interconnected network of matter, space, time, and physics. As such, no claims about it can be rationally made using naturalistic means. The claim to know x exists or does not exist outside of Nature must, inherently, be a statement of mere preference or feeling or some other unproved means of knowledge. So, it is impossible for a true naturalist to ever claim that the supernatural does not exist. If they are making such a claim, then they are either claiming some kind of causal link by which evidence can function (thus making it natural, not supernatural), or they are claiming some other source to knowledge (making them something other than a naturalist).
Now, a naturalist *can* say, “I simply have no reason to suspect or deal with such claims, so I will ignore them and focus on what I do know”. That is a practical (and very sensible) approach. If the writers of dictionaries were attempting to be philosophers, then I would say that writer was simply wrong. But since a dictionary writer’s only goal is to report the way many common people use the word, then he is not wrong in that sense, but his definition is only of limited relevance to a philosopher.
When you talk of probability this makes me think of deductive vs inductive logic. My book on formal logic, after describing inductive logic, says that some philosophers say that there is no such thing as valid inductive logical argument – that all induction is logically invalid. As a skeptic, I am one of them.
– the sun has come up every morning for the past 4.5 billion years
Therefore: the sun will come up tomorrow.
Conclusion does not follow from the premises. This argument is invalid. Can I go ahead and live my life as though it will? Yes, out of practicality, but I can’t fool myself into thinking I *really* know it – especially if we are not going to the grocery store but discussing philosophy.
So this argument is valid:
– the sun has come up every morning for the past 4.5 billion years
Therefore: the sun probably will come up tomorrow
But this simply leaves me with a guess – not knowledge. Take something far more mundane. Say, life under the ice sheets of Europa. This is something we think might be possible, but we’ve yet to send a probe there. Even with a completely natural claim like, “there is life on Europa” I would not claim to know either way. Yes, we can say it is likely or unlikely (something we have little basis to compute due to lack of sizeable samples). But if I were to apply your approach, I might be saying, “There is no life on Europa” and claim this is “based on evidence” because we have no evidence for life on Europa. Like with God/the supernatural, we have no evidence at all. This is not evidence of absence. It’s not like we have ‘looked and looked’ and found nothing. We have not even turned on the flashlight to look in any way – because even looking is, by definition, impossible by naturalistic empirical standards.
When talking about the supernatural, it’s even worse than Europa. If we are to be rigorous, “probability” is not a slang word we can use for “how much I reckon it or feel about it”. Probability is a mathematical concept. To compute probability, we take 4.5 billion x 365 days to find the number of days where the sun has come up and compare, etc,etc. But when dealing with a supernatural God, for example, we have only one Reality we know of, and we don’t know the truth value of whether God exists. We cannot even in principle calculate a probability from this datum. This is why the standards for probability are “raised to un-human levels” – because the claim is so un-humanly approachable.
Thus, I don’t deal in probabilities when assessing things like God, the afterlife, etc. We either have proof that they exist (like, for example, the proof we have that horses exist), or we do not. Because the claim is inherently extraordinary, the level of evidence needed is extraordinary. But, unfortunately, we do not even have the slightest shred of evidence – not one single speck. And, we do not (and cannot even in principle) have a single speck of evidence to the contrary either.
But, as with the sun coming up, we can say we are going to proceed as we always have for practicality’s sake. When talking philosophy, however, (as with the Sun coming up) I cannot pretend to knowledge of such things. “Proceeding as if” is merely a tool so we can proceed in some manner. It isn’t the same as making a knowledge-claim or drawing a conclusion. It’s like wandering forward into a new dark room to find the light switch. We can’t stand there forever so we proceed and hope for the best, without making the claim to *know* the floor doesn’t have spikes on it or that there is even a light switch to be found. I can’t even really claim to know for certain that the War of 1812 happened. I assume it did so that I can get on in the world. But with the supernatural, I can’t even point to photos or any evidence either way. As a small primate crawling about an insignificant speck of dust in the vast universe, how in the world could I imagine my ‘supposings’ about the probability of such things have any relevance or reliability to fact whatsoever? It is enough to simply proceed on what I do know and not waist time on other things unless or until I do have some evidence.
This is why I am a naturalist – because I know nature and believe in that. As to anything else, that’s not relevant to my beliefs or to the practice of relieving suffering, as the Buddha said.
Since you have repeatedly complained about your “problem with dictionaries,” I must object. You continually define your terms and act like dictionaries are not to be trusted, but your definitions are. I find that most people object to dictionary definitions only when their interpretation is in question. I think this is disingenuous.
I think you are confused when you say, the “definition doesn’t hold up to logical validity.” You do realize that it’s a definition, not an argument. Logic deals with arguments, not definitions. There is no definition that is logical valid. Definitions either accurately report the commonly accepted meaning of a word or they don’t.
You say that “Dictionaries a[re] descriptive, not prescriptive.” Yes, they describe the meaning of words as they are actually used. Dictionaries are not suppose to tell us what a word should mean (prescriptive), but what they do mean (descriptive). They are created, at least the good ones, by scholars who are experts in their fields.
Definitions, whether given by you or are found in a dictionary, are by their very nature, “very poor for determining the answers to complex philosophical questions.” They define words, not answer complex philosophical questions. And my use of them is in defining words. And it is morally wrong to say that the Webster’s New World College Dictionary is “subject to the whims of whoever wrote that edition of the dictionary.” You ought not to denigrate the motives and scholarship of one of the most respected dictionaries in the English language.
And from a scholarly perspective, you are just plain wrong when you say that “the ability to find a dictionary with the precise wording one is looking for carries almost no weight or authority in philosophy.” Then it is equally true that anybody’s definition “carries almost no weight or authority in philosophy.” If that is true, then words have no meaning and talking about anything is impossible. We have to have agreed upon definitions to have any meaningful conversation.
You claim that the definition I gave is “circular and logically nonsensical.” Here is that definition: naturalism is “the belief that the natural world, as explained by scientific laws, is all that exists and that there is no supernatural or spiritual creation, control, or significance” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). My own definition is, “Naturalism is the conclusion, based on the evidence, that the natural world is a closed system and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.” You will notice I don’t explicitly say there is no supernatural, but that follows from “the natural world is a closed system.” In fact, I think the one thing all naturalists can agree on is that naturalism negates the supernatural. The opposite of naturalism is supernaturalism, and to accept naturalism is to reject supernaturalism.
So let’s see how the definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary compares with the definition that naturalists give. Mario Bunge states, “Naturalism is the view that the universe and nature are the same, so that there is nothing supernatural” (The Future of Naturalism 2009, 43). John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz states, ontological naturalism asserts “that only the world of nature is real and that supernatural entities do not exist…” (The Future of Naturalism 2009, 8). Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro states, “Naturalism – very roughly – may be defined as the philosophy that everything that exists is part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature” (Naturalism 2008, 6). Thomas W. Clark states, “naturalism… holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us” (Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses 2007, 1). Now are all these definitions “inherently circular and logically nonsensical”?
Furthermore, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality…. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit.” It appears that my position is the majority position. But maybe you are confusing methodological naturalism used by science (which merely brackets metaphysical claims), with philosophical naturalism used by philosophers (which holds that “reality is exhausted by nature”).
To say that the definition is nonsensical, that is, “silly or that it doesn’t make sense,” is wrong (YourDictionary.com). It makes perfect sense and it is not, as you claim, circular, unless you claim that the supernatural has never and can never have an impact on the natural world. All theistic religions claim that the supernatural has and does manifest in the natural world, whether in miracles, answered prayer, or divine interventions. Such interventions should, then, be observable and hence detectable. But the way you treat the word supernatural as a realm that never touches this world, a view not held by any supernaturalists I have ever met, is a red herring.
And your claim that, “naturalist can only make (provisional) statements of fact based on physical evidence,” is beside the point. All claims are provision by the vary fact that we are not omniscient. You keep confusing certainty with probability. Certainty for us humans is impossible. If I say something is true, it should go without saying that I mean that it is probably true. We are only human, that means all our “knowledge” could be wrong. But we have to live in the real world, and that means we must make claims based on the best available evidence.
And I disagree that, “By definition, the supernatural, as described by those making such claims, lies outside the causally interconnected network of matter, space, time, and physics.” Again, every supernaturalist I know claims that God caused the world to be, that God causes miracles, that God causes answers to prayers, and God caused Jesus to be resurrected from the dead. Those are causal claims, and hence, scientific claims. They can be tested. So your definition of supernatural does not correspond to any real belief system. It is a straw man.
And your claim that, “it is impossible for a true naturalist to ever claim that the supernatural does not exist.” I claim that “the supernatural does not exist,” a conclusion based on the evidence. Now according to you, I am not “a true naturalist.” This is a double standard. You go out of your way to make a big umbrella for people to be Buddhists and Stoics, but deny me, and the authors I have quoted, to be considered “a true naturalist.” And clearly you are wrong that it is “impossible for a true naturalist to ever claim that the supernatural does not exist,” because I just did. But maybe you are not “a true naturalist.” But again, it is not my business to make pronouncements over someone’s self-designation.
Now I must ask, who give you the authority or right to determine what a naturalist can “say” or cannot “claim”? You deny this right to those who restrict Buddhism to traditional forms, but then pontificate when it comes to naturalism. Now you can simply “ignore” the claims of supernaturalists, but I cannot and will not. They make claims that effect millions of people and lead to untold harm, such as religious persecution and suicide bombings. I care about the suffering caused by supernaturalists.
And to turn to your claim, “some philosophers say that there is no such thing as valid inductive logical argument.” I am sorry to say, but you need to take a course on logic. “And we now know that an inductive argument cannot be valid or invalid, but only more or less strong” (Wanda Teays, Second Thoughts: Critical Thinking for a Diverse Society 2003, 239). Validity in logic refers to the form of a deductive argument. So inductive arguments cannot be valid or invalid, because they are not deductive arguments. Instead, they are weak or strong, better or worse.
Most readers will not understand that the use of the word “valid” in logic is different than in common use. Validity points to the form of an deductive argument, not the truthfulness of it. Inductive arguments by their very nature do not give certain knowledge, but they are not designed to. And deductive arguments, by their very nature, tell us nothing about the real world. That is why science uses induction, not deduction. There are two branches of logic, formal logic (which includes deduction) and informal logic (which includes induction). Induction is a proper form of informal logic, but it is an improper form of formal logic.
And your example, “the sun has come up every morning for the past 4.5 billion years. Therefore: the sun will come up tomorrow.” This problem of lack of certainty was originally brought up by David Hume, and “Philosophers have responded to the problem of induction in many ways” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 1999, 746). For practical purposes, almost all arguments are based on induction, including all of yours. All of science is based on induction, and therefore, according to you, science is “invalid”. You seem to confuse the word “invalid” as used in logic (which means not the correct form) for the common use of “invalid” which means not well-grounded on principles or evidence. And this is false.
And that brings us to your statement, “But this simply leaves me with a guess – not knowledge.” First, define knowledge before you say what is and isn’t knowledge. And, as you know, that brings up a whole mess of philosophical issues, like the Gettier cases. But induction is not a “guess”, otherwise all science is nothing more than a guess. No, induction is “reasoning from particular facts or individual cases to a general conclusion” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). Between ‘certain knowledge’ and ‘mere guess’ is where we actually live. You seem to not allow a middle ground, and create and either-or situation, either we have certain knowledge, or we have nothing more than a “guess”. The middle ground is truth claims that we can be pretty sure about, not because we feel good about them, but because we have good reasons to believe them.
And your example of life on Europa is another straw man. First, you must define the word “life.” We know that microbes can exist in space, do they count as life? Second, there is a lot we don’t know about Europa. In our lack of knowledge, we ought to suspend judgment until the evidence is sufficient to come to a reasoned judgment. But our lack of knowledge is because we have little or no personal or experimental knowledge of Europa. Once we fully explore Europa, we will be able to answer that question.
But comparing life on Europa to supernatural claims is a false equivalency. The God/supernatural is claimed to cause real events in this natural world that we experience everyday. And your claim that, “It’s not like we have ‘looked and looked’,” is false. There have been empirical studies of the effect of prayer on medical patients, and theists are still looking hard. Furthermore, almost all scientists were theistic before the modern area, and they most definitely were looking for the hand of God. The problem was that the knowledge gap where God used to be has gotten smaller and smaller, filled with natural laws and natural explanations. Scientist began to realize that they had not need for the God hypothesis.
And the absence of evidence IS evidence of absence, WHEN sometime is suppose to be present. If I walk into a room and I don’t find my wife there, it is pretty good bet that she’s not in the room. Likewise, if we look at all the natural and moral evil in the world, it is pretty good bet that there is no all-loving and all-power God in it. But eliminate God and all of this talk about the supernatural becomes meaningless. People only believe in the supernatural because they believe in God, and they placed God in a supernatural realm because there is no room for God in the real natural world. There was no supernatural until humanity discovered that God was not in the natural world. In order to save God, they created the supernatural. Eliminate God, Angels, Demons, and other such entities, and all this talk of the supernatural will vanish. People defend the existence of the supernatural only to protect their God concept.
Now let’s turn to probability. “Accordingly,” writes Richard C. Carrier, “when we say something is ‘probable,’ we mean it has an epistemic probability much greater than 50%, and if we say it’s ‘improbable,’ we usually mean it has an epistemic probability much less than 50%” (Proving History: Bayes’ Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus 2012, 24). Epistemic probability is based on verifiable evidence. Since, as you admit, there is “no evidence at all” of the supernatural, we can conclude that the existence of the supernatural is “improbable.” And since almost all our statements about the world are statements of probability, I can safely say that, for all practical purposes, “there is no supernatural.” Now in normal conversation we make probability statements all the time. My wife will be home at 6 pm. The sun will rise at 5:45 tomorrow morning. But, according to you, these are invalid statements. But if you insist on being technical, then I will says, “there is a high degree of probability that there is no supernatural, at least one that has ever interacted with the natural world.” But for practical and realistic reasons I dispense with such formalities. After all, all knowledge of objective reality is probabilistic, and all common use of the word supernatural includes the idea that it has and does effect the natural world.
What puzzles me about your take on the supernatural is that you admit that, “we do not even have the slightest shred of evidence – not one single speck.” And I know that you live your life as if there is no supernatural. So why are you arguing like a theist? Why does the evidence, or lack of evidence, not lead you to the logical conclusion that the supernatural does not exist? Clearly you have come to that conclusion, as evidenced by your life. But why can’t you own the conclusion you have already made in practice? Induction is reasoning from particular facts or individual cases to a general conclusion. No, we don’t have certainty, but we do have probability. In fact, that is all we can have.
And your statement, “we do not (and cannot even in principle) have a single speck of evidence to the contrary either.” confuses the burden of proof. The one making the affirmative claim has the burden to prove it. If you claim that pink elephants exist, you are obligated to prove it. It is not my responsibility to support your claim. In fact, it is impossible for me to disprove it. I would need to be omniscient to do so – for I would need to know that a pink elephant has never existed on any world at any time. Some philosophers stir up a bunch of dust and then complain they can’t see. And anyway, I think we do have contrary evidence in the form of the problem of evil, which seems to rule out an all-loving and all-powerful God.
You said, “When talking philosophy, however, (as with the Sun coming up) I cannot pretend to knowledge of such things.” Again, what is knowledge? Here you seem to equate knowledge with certainty. As I have said, certainty is impossible in almost every single area of life. Your use of knowledge here is not how we use knowledge in real life. Who in their right mind would have a problem with me saying, “I know the sun will come up tomorrow”? It seems that you have been beguiled by ivory tower intellectuals who make knowledge impossible for mere mortals. Many modern philosophers are not lovers of wisdom, but lovers of intellectual games. Of course, if you substitute “certainty” for “knowledge”, you statement makes sense, “I cannot pretend to [certainty] of such things.” But knowledge is not certainty, and your wrong definition and understanding of knowledge corrupts your thinking. Knowledge, in the real world, is a justified belief with a high degree of probability of being true. So am I not certain that the supernatural does not exists, because certainty is an unrealistic standard. But I am pretty sure the supernatural does not exist. I know that in the same way I know my wife loves me – I have evidence. If knowledge only applies to things that are certain, then we know almost nothing. Besides your own existence, what do you actually know for certain? Think brain in the vat for the Matrix.
Again, to illustrate my point of your confusion of knowledge and certainty, “I can’t even really claim to know for certain that the War of 1812 happened.” I know the War of 1812 happened, and I am pretty sure of that. But just because something is not absolutely certain does mean it’s not true. Your insistence in living in a world of intellectual idealism is not helpful. We live in the real world where knowledge is pretty much never certain and probability is the best we have. We must make the best decisions we can based on the best evidence available. I insist that what is highly probable is knowledge. That is how we use the word in real world conversations.
And “Proceeding as if” the supernatural does not exist, is living a conclusion, even if you don’t articulate it verbally. As you say, “It’s like wandering forward into a new dark room to find the light switch. We can’t stand there forever so we proceed and hope for the best, without making the claim to *know* the floor doesn’t have spikes on it or that there is even a light switch to be found.” The fact that you step on the floor means that you believe that “the floor doesn’t have spikes,” otherwise you wouldn’t proceed. But again, you use the word “knowledge” to mean certainty. A belief that you act on, that you take to be true and justified, is knowledge. But we are not wandering forward into a new dark room, we have “science as a candle in the dark,” to use Carl Sagan’s phrase.
You said, “I know nature and believe in that.” How can you “know nature” when you don’t even “know” that the sun will rise tomorrow, You can’t be certain that “nature” is not just an illusion. All you have is a guess that maybe your senses might correspond to something outside of your mind, but you can’t be certain. In fact, if you want to be consistent, you should go through all your writings and cross out “know” and substitute the word “guess” or “preference.” And since you can’t “know” nature, you should stop believing in it, because that means that you accept it as true. But, by your reasoning, it is not true. We can only come to conclusions about what we are certain about. Either stop using “know” or come to your senses, and see that there is a middle ground between certainty and mere “guess” or “preference”. You simply cannot live your position, which should clue you into the fact that something is wrong.
If you are going to be helping one another along, interacting, sharing ideas, etc then this is not what I meant by loner and I see now it is not how you meant it. What you have described allows for the kind of interaction I thought was helpful, so I think we may not be that different in thought here.
I am glad that clarified things.
You wrote, “More factually, they should be called Secular Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, and Neo-Stoicism.”
I think Christian Naturalism, for example, takes a lot more work to ‘re-envision’ from its core beliefs. But I don’t think it is nearly as hard for those you mentioned. I think, when best understood, the most important or central teachings and practices of Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism are already easily compatible with naturalism. It is true there are many variants that aren’t as they are practiced in the East, but the differences between them are in many ways wider than the differences between a naturalistic Buddhism and the others. As such, I think we can claim as much right to the terms, with no qualifiers needed. Being honest is important, but by the same standard a Mahayana Buddhist, for example. Such a person should have no problem simply calling themselves a Buddhist, but then be willing to clarify Mahayana if asked or if the matter goes further. I think western/secular/naturalistic Buddhists have as much justification for the same.
But, having said that, there is nothing wrong with anyone using or not using whatever term they like for themselves, their practice, or their work, of course. I respect and value your approach and your sharing of it!
In my view and for me personally, I think it is “more factually, they should be called Secular Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, and Neo-Stoicism.” But I am not requiring others to follow my example. As I have already said, people can call themselves whatever they want. It is none of my concern. But I have just as much a right to make that distinction, because I believe it is clearer and more accurate. I am not going to correct other people’s self-designation.
Here again is my problem with modernist interpretations of Buddhism, “I think, when best understood, the most important or central teachings and practices of Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism are already easily compatible with naturalism.” I must ask, “best understood” by who? By you? And who decides what is “the most important” parts? Again, you? All three branches of Buddhism, the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana hold that literal rebirth is an important and central teaching of the Buddha. Any honest reading of the Pali Canon will reach the same conclusion. And just for readers who may not know, Theravada Buddhism is the only branch of Buddhism that goes back to the historical Buddha, and the Pali Canon and the Agama are only texts that go back to the historical Buddha. But again, since I am not a Buddhist or Taoist or Stoic, I don’t really care who has the “right” to claim “terms,” teachings, or titles. I will let the Buddhists and Taoists and Stoics worry about such things, after all, it is their religion, not mine.
But here is an example for your double standard, “But, having said that, there is nothing wrong with anyone using or not using whatever term they like for themselves, their practice, or their work, of course.” Remember your claim, “it is impossible for a true naturalist to ever claim that the supernatural does not exist.” So you exclude a person from being a “true naturalist” because of a “claim,” but a person who rejects rebirth can still be a true Buddhist? Can a person really use “whatever term they like for themselves”? Your inconsistency is evident and regrettable.
Thank you for mentioning this! I am in total agreement and apologize that I was not mindful of the timing of our exchange. Let it be known that you are a very dear and valued friend to me, and none of this is related to your stepping down from your staff position. To the reader, I have heard what all Jay is planning and it makes total sense that he needs the time. I think, perhaps it is because I see this dialogue as a healthy, welcome, friendly, and productive exchange – par for the course for our community – that I hadn’t considered any relevance to your stepping down. We have many people in our community and I assume we all have our own takes on things, which is what makes exchanges like this so interesting and enlightening. As far as I’m concerned, you will always be welcome back on staff, should decide your schedule or wishes shift again in the future.
Despite any of these points we’ve discussed, I very much look forward to seeing your future projects in this and any other areas. As I mentioned, we at the Society will be happy to help spread the word to our members and readers who will be interested as you have announcements!
With love and thanks,
Thank you for clarifying for everyone. I appreciate and look forward to the great work of the society. You are a dear and valued friend to me as well. We agree a lot more than this dialog lets on. These happen to be the few things we disagree on.
I also thank you DT for this dialog, I have learned a lot. But since this has been very time consuming, I regret that we will have to end our dialog here. I must turn my full attention to the project at hand.
With love and thanks,