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Some Thoughts on Buddhism and “Deisms”

This is a comment I just wrote for a post on Steven Novella’s blog, and while it’s specific to that post, I think it’s of enough general interest — or at least it appears intelligable enough to me standing alone — to be worth posting here as well. The (slightly edited) comment follows below the fold.

Capital lettering: Daedelus2, it’s not necessary — and better Buddhism — to not capitalize “he” when referring either to the Buddha or to our friend Mr Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. They’re not deities.

Buddhism and science: Fifi, I think you’re exactly right that Buddhism would and should give way to science, and you don’t need the Dalai Lama to say so — even Buddha said we should only accept those parts of Buddhism that agree with reason and common sense. The notion that Tibetan Buddhism has “gods and goddesses” is a bit mistaken, though — like any religion, Buddhism has a bunch of syncretisms, like Tara in Tibet, kuanyin/Kwannon in China and Japan. These are interpreted as bodhisattvas, though — advanced beings who refrain from entering Nirvana in order to help the rest of us. They’re not essentially different from us, just more skillful.

Fat buddha statues: the “fat buddha” we often see is budai (布袋, Japanese “Hotei”). The usual interpretation of the symbolism is that the “seat of the ‘soul’” — xin 心 — is the stomach [should have said "abdomen" here I think] (the character is a picture of heart, lungs, and liver) and so the big stomach is symbolically a big soul. The notion that Buddhists are necessarily skinny is still mistaken — Gautama specifically gave up asceticism and advises against it as “not helpful to enlightenment.”

Unknowable propositions are worse than wrong – they are unnecessary. If you’re saying this as a matter of personal preferences, Steven, I can’t argue with you, but if you mean it more prescriptively, I think you’re clearly wrong. I’m a mathematician/logician/computer scientist in the day job, and we make extensive use of the knowledge that certain propositions aren’t knowable.

I think you’re exactly right on the notion that the existence of a deity not being scientifically knowable, though; Stephen Brams makes that argument in his Superior Beings, and it’s pretty clear intuitively that what we would consider a “deity” could not be experimentally verified. That is, neither “a deity exists” and “no deity exists” are falsifiable. Cantor, Gödel, Turing, ahd Chaitin seem to make a generally good case for the notion that exploring the bounds of a system is useful, and that we can’t neglect the potential of new things that can be learned from looking at things outside the bounds of one system. So making the next step — that questions like “where did it all come from and how did it get here” aren’t good and valid questions — seems a bit of a leap.

Brooks, in specific. I think there’s a lot of interpretation going on here of things Brooks is supposed to have implied, instead of what he said. “Mysterious” needn’t imply “mystical”, and as Brooks is a fairly careful writer, I don’t think it makes sense to assume it does. Brooks dos seem to be saying that this sense of the transcendent convinces a lot of people of the existence of a deity in some sense, but until you can propose a falsification by experiment, I don’t think it’s “reasonable” to say that he’s misled for thinking so.

Brooks’s notion that neuroscience and Buddhism are reaching similar conclusions, though, is a good one. “[T]he self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships,” is good Buddhism, from the start to current understanding: it’s called “the doctrine of anatman”, which is to say “the doctrine of the non-existence of a permanent and immutable soul.” The whole notion of a sense of self is “illusion” (Sunyata) and “consciousness” is specifically an epiphenomenon that arises as a result of perception, interpretation, and recall. (See, for example, my translation and gloss of the prajñaparamita hridaya sutra.)

Notice, also, that even in the presence of reincarnation — something the Buddha was a lot cagier about than most western people realize — the “soul” is “illusion”. It is transitory, and disappears when correct understanding of the real nature of things is realized, even if it has proceeded through many reincarnations.

Atheism vs. agnosticism. I think I’m with you, Steven: given that we have to conclude that the question of the existence of deity is not knowable from the scientific epistemic position, we can’t claim anything stronger scientifically than a-gnosis: “we don’t know”. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, though, seem to be making the stronger proposition that a belief in a deity, and all religion, is actively bad, and that seems to fall into the same trap as Ben Stein’s assertion that science without religion is actively bad.

What I do know is that many years of studying science, and mathematics, and even Buddhism, have convinced me the universe is really really cool and worthy of awe and admiration. Wherever it came from.

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