RESISTING THE ONTOLOGICAL LIMBO DANCE
Why I Am Not a Buddhist
by Evan Thompson
Why I Am Not a Buddhist by Evan Thompson (Yale University Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Anthony Morgan
Where, if anywhere, are we to locate the mind? Can it be pinned down like an X on a map? According to a number of highly influential accounts, we may not be able to locate the mind with the precision demanded by an X, but we can certainly locate it with a circle, as it’s to be found in the brain. To extend the logic of this position, salvation is also to be found in the brain, or at least the Buddhist idea of salvation or “enlightenment,” also known as nirvana. And, as any sensible person knows, this is the only kind of salvation worth having these days.
In Why I Am Not a Buddhist, Evan Thompson critically engages with both of these ideas. To start with brain-bound enlightenment or “neural Buddhism,” Thompson notes that those who endorse this position believe that enlightenment “is a brain state or has unique neural signatures, mindfulness practice consists in training the brain, and cognitive science has corroborated the Buddhist view that there is no self.” Moving on to what Thompson calls “Buddhist exceptionalism,” he understands this to consist in the belief that “Buddhism is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical, or that Buddhism isn’t really a religion but rather is a kind of ‘mind science,’ therapy, philosophy, or way of life based on meditation.” Both neural Buddhism and Buddhist exceptionalism operate within a broader movement that historians have termed “Buddhist modernism” that “downplays the metaphysical and ritual elements of Asian Buddhism,” foregrounds “personal meditative experience and scientific rationality,” while at the same time presenting itself “as if it were Buddhism’s original and essential core, when in fact it’s historically recent.”
Amongst contemporary philosophers, Thompson is as well positioned as any to offer reflections on the way that Buddhist modernism has unfolded. In the introduction, he gives an account of his evolution as a philosopher during which he was exposed to many highly respected Buddhist teachers from a young age in the commune in Southampton, New York, where he was brought up. He would later go on to study with such Buddhist luminaries as Robert Thurman and Francisco Varela (with the latter of whom Thompson would write The Embodied Mind, a pioneering text in bringing the cognitive sciences into conversation with Buddhism), as well as playing a central role in the hugely influential Mind and Life dialogues in which participants like the Dalai Lama would bring “Buddhist science” into conversation with modern Western science.
Despite all this, however, Thompson came to realize that he could not be a Buddhist himself, in part because he felt that Buddhist modernism had come to be the only game in town, and he found it highly unconvincing from a philosophical, cognitive science, and historical perspective. It was unclear to me whether Thompson feels that Buddhist modernism has this dominant status only in the West or at a global level. In his historical account of the rise of Buddhist modernism, he notes that Buddhist modernism originated in Asia in the nineteenth century, and many of the teachers he cites as examples of those who have repackaged Buddhism as a science of the mind are Asian (e.g. the hugely influential Burmese Indian teacher S.N. Goenka), but this could simply have been to ensure increased influence in the West where scientific narratives have a greater hold on the public imagination. Thompson is clear that the focus of his critique is primarily on Buddhist modernism as it has taken hold in Europe and North America, but doubtless many will argue that even within this narrower geographical area there is far more going on than he seems to suggest. Nonetheless, Buddhist modernism is clearly the most culturally dominant form of contemporary Buddhism in the West, so there is no sense that Thompson is attacking a straw man here.
Given that Why I Am Not a Buddhist is quite a short book and is also very readable, it packs a remarkable amount into its six chapters. The main themes covered in the chapters include: the idea that Buddhism is best understood as a science of the mind rather than a religion (chapters 1 and 2); the idea that science has proven the Buddhists to be correct in asserting that there is no self (chapter 3); the idea that mindfulness is best understood as “an essentially inward awareness of your own private mind” (chapter 4); the idea that enlightenment is “a rationally comprehensible psychological state” (chapter 5); and finally the idea that Buddhist modernism undermines the kind of cosmopolitanism that Thompson wishes to defend. Within these chapters, we also find extensive discussions of the nature of science, religion, faith, and spirituality, alongside detailed yet accessible overviews of many historical and philosophical debates within Buddhism. For the purpose of this review, however, I will mainly focus on the picture of cognition that underpins much of Thompson’s critique of contemporary Buddhism, before seeing how this intersects with some of the other themes he raises.
WHAT WE MAY CALL THE “ONTOLOGICAL LIMBO DANCE” IS THE TENDENCY TO TURN TO AN EVER LOWER LEVEL OF EXPLANATION IN ORDER TO LOCATE THE CORE ELEMENTS OF MIND AND COGNITION
At the heart of Buddhist modernism lie the interlocking beliefs that the mind is best understood as 1) internalist, 2) intellectualist, and 3) individualist. As Daniel D. Hutto sums up these three pillars of modern cognitive science, “cognition only goes on in the intellectual insides of individuals.” The idea that the mind is something to be located inside us, that it is a property of individuals, and that detached rational deliberation lies at the heart of human cognition, remains the default position within the cognitive sciences and neurosciences, with philosopher of AI Susan Schneider recently noting that “our best empirical theory of the brain holds that it is an information-processing system and that all mental functions are computations.” (It is, of course, far easier to pursue the dream of true Artificial Intelligence if these three pillars are in place.) A further extrapolation from this computational philosophy is the idea that the universe itself is some sort of virtual reality (a position made famous by Nick Bostrom and enthusiastically endorsed by influential characters like Elon Musk). However, as Justin E.H. Smith points out, this idea requires us to believe that “all of physical reality, for the past 13.7 billion years, is best understood as a variation on a technology that has only existed since the 1970s... If this were true, it would be, to say the least, a remarkable coincidence.”
What we may call the “ontological limbo dance” is the tendency to turn to an ever lower level of explanation in order to locate the core elements of mind and cognition, with the current move amongst many philosophers of mind, cognitive scientists, and psychologists to devolve their traditional responsibilities to neuroscientists being the latest prominent example. However, as Roger Scruton pointed out, when we reduce a whole person-level cognitive system to one of its parts while still not understanding the whole sufficiently well, the part will inevitably become a mystery. The result is that we not only fail to explain the person but we “make nonsense of the brain.”
But what is this elusive cognitive whole that we are so keen to reduce? Thompson is keen to establish the appropriate boundaries of, or the proper level of description for, the cognitive system. And he concludes that “rather than locating cognitive processes at the level of neural networks,” “[a] better unit of analysis is the coupled brain-body-world system.” Like Heidegger, whose seminal idea of Dasein (generally translated as “being-in-the-world”) is to be understood as a unitary phenomenon that does not prise the subject apart from the world, Thompson would question any hierarchical positioning of the brain as more fundamental to cognition than, say, the whole body or, better still, the whole body embedded in an environment.
Although most cognitive scientists would disavow any lingering adherence to Cartesian philosophy through having collapsed Descartes’ metaphysical dualism of mind and body, in fact contemporary cognitive science remains entrenched in a subtler dualism, specifically that between inner-outer or subject-object. The mind is still a Cartesian thinking thing (res cogitans), but it is no longer immaterial; rather it is located in the body, specifically the brain. The inner world of the mind is separated from the outer world beyond it, resulting in what has been termed an epistemological (as opposed to metaphysical) dualism, as explained by Patrick Bracken and Philip Thomas:
The subject is in contact with an outside world and has knowledge of it through sensation and through the representations it has of it... In this Cartesian view, the mind becomes something “self-contained.” It stands outside the world and has a relationship to it. Mind (or “subjectivity”) becomes conceivable apart from and separate from this relationship. It knows the world from the outside. Thus, there is an epistemological separation of mind from world.
Descartes famously imagined that he could be deceived about the existence of his body and the external world, but not his mind as a thinking thing. He was convinced that he could have no knowledge of the world beyond him aside from through the mediation of the inner states that he termed ideas. The accuracy of these ideas about his body and the world was in the end guaranteed by his belief in a God that would not fool him. Such a picture (minus God as underwriter of true knowledge) generates the kind of scepticism about bodies and external worlds that we see in modern thought experiments such as brains in vats (made famous by the movie The Matrix). Furthermore, as David Cooper puts it:
Descartes’ subsequent reintroduction of the material world, via a God who would not fool him about its reality, can do nothing to restore the intimacy between myself and my body and my world which his initial arguments have dissolved.
Phenomenologists like Thompson are keen to restore this intimacy (or wholeness) within the cognitive sciences through re-establishing the boundaries of the cognitive system.
At the heart of Thompson’s account is the relationship between science and other domains like philosophy and religion. Strident recent critiques have emerged of the cognitive sciences and neurosciences overstepping their legitimate boundaries, for example by Peter Hacker in The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Raymond Tallis in Aping Mankind, and Mary Midgley in Are You an Illusion? Thompson’s book is definitely an extension of this line of thought, although he is rather gentler and more generous in his treatment of his adversaries. This is not to say that the cumulative effect of the book is any less devastating, however.
To turn to a classic case of strident critique, I found that there were instructive parallels between Thompson’s book and Noam Chomsky’s 1971 review of B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity in the New York Times Review of Books. What, if anything, has changed in the past half century?
Chomsky opens his review by raising an outdated scientific theory, specifically nineteenth-century racist anthropology, and then suggesting that a modern rational person will ask of it, “What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve?” He notes that: “The question of the scientific status of nineteenth-century racist anthropology is no longer seriously at issue, and its social function is not difficult to perceive.” For Thompson, the scientific status of many prominent claims made by many prominent cognitive scientists is highly suspect. Take as a prime example the idea (discussed at length in the chapter “No Self? Not So Fast”) that neuroscience has proven that there is no self, thus corroborating the Buddhist belief that there is no self. One prominent recent formulation of this is by Thomas Metzinger who writes, “no such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever was or had a self.” For Thompson, Metzinger’s argument “rests on a tendentious concept of the self” as something like “a personal essence inhering in an individual substance.” Metzinger argues that it has been shown that such a thing does not exist, and it thus follows that selves do not exist. Thompson notes that “[s]ome philosophers have conceived of the self this way, but many others have not,” such that “[a] more measured conclusion would be that a certain kind of self doesn’t exist or that the self isn’t an independent thing.”
In line with the ontological limbo dance, Metzinger and others believe that the self is to be located in the brain; or more precisely that the self is an illusion generated by the brain. Thompson, on the other hand, offers a much richer and more multi-faceted view of the self, with numerous elements: 1) pre-reflective, 2) reflective, 3) bodily, and 4) social or inter-subjective, noting that “[n]one of these concepts of self or ways of using the word ‘self’ entails the concept of the self as a personal essence or an independent thing.” Thompson considers a self to be “an ongoing process” and compares it to dancing, noting that “dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing.” He concludes: “Just as it’s misguided to think that a dance is inside the muscles of a dancer, instead of being an expression of the whole body in dynamic interrelation with the world and other dancers, so it’s misguided to think that we could find a self inside the brain.”
One response to Thompson’s line of critique could be that there are indeed other ways of thinking about the self, but the kind of self that Metzinger takes to have been shown to be illusory is the very one that Buddhists have also shown to be an illusion, i.e. the self as some kind of CEO directing behaviour. Thompson addresses this kind of response by 1) offering a close reading of some of the key historical debates within the Buddhist literature regarding the nature of self in order to complicate the Buddhist view that there is no self. For example, he notes that “the Buddha does not explicitly say that there is no self,” and 2) bringing the Buddhist view into dialogue with the Brahmin Nyāya tradition which critiques the Buddhist no-self theory and raises key questions that continue to be debated within the cognitive sciences. Thompson concludes that both sides have strengths and weaknesses to their arguments, such that “to single out the Buddhists as more ‘scientific’ is partisan and simplistic.” This tactic of complicating the Buddhist modernist picture while placing Buddhism itself into dialogue with other global intellectual traditions to undermine its perceived exceptionalism, is one that Thompson utilizes fruitfully throughout the book. “Not so fast” is the motto of the book.
Although Thompson does not discuss free will in the book, there are close analogies between the idea that science has proven the self to be an illusion and current debates about whether science has also proven free will to be an illusion. To date, the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet (and modern variations on it taking place within an fMRI machine) have proven to the strongest empirical support for the belief that science has proven free will to be an illusion. The Libet experiment showed that the decision to move one’s wrist took place several milliseconds before the conscious decision to do so (now with more sophisticated imaging technology this gap between unconscious preparation for action and conscious intention to act can be over 5 seconds. Perhaps this will keep increasing...). However, one of the main objections to the Libet experiment relates to the idea that the question of free will can be resolved by considering the half second (or more) between the preparation of the brain to act and the conscious awareness of the intention to act. Shaun Gallagher suggests that “the question of free will is not about bodily movements, but about intentional actions,” such that “the temporal timeframe for the exercise of free will is, at a minimum, the temporal framework that allows for the process to be informed by a conscious reflection of a certain type.” In line with Gallagher’s position, Raymond Tallis considers the participant in the Libet experiment who engages in all kinds of conscious, intentional, and apparently free actions (e.g. agreeing to take part, setting the alarm to be up on time to go to the laboratory, and so on) before finally demonstrating his lack of free will by engaging in the abstract experimental task of flicking his wrist. As things stand, science is currently not in a position to obtain empirical evidence regarding the freedom of will involved in a temporally extended deliberative action engaged in by a person (as opposed to just a brain) in interaction with a meaningful physical-social-interpersonal environment; once this is possible, so it is argued, then it will finally have something important to say about the question of free will.
So, according to Chomsky’s first question regarding the scientific status of the claims being made, we are forced to conclude that the evidence is in fact extremely weak. Furthermore, the rather thin or impoverished definitions of the phenomena at hand, e.g. the self or free will, seem tailor-made to be operationalized within highly artificial laboratory environments and using highly limited technologies, while having little resemblance to the ways we use these concepts in day-to-day life. In this context, we find another parallel with Chomsky’s critique of Skinner: “Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’ in several odd and idiosyncratic senses.” The technologies and methodologies thus become primary, while the definitions are secondary. Yet if the technologies and methodologies are inappropriate for the phenomena to be studied and the nature of the phenomena is distorted accordingly, the scientific value of the investigation will be worthless. Again, we find parallels with Chomsky who notes that “we discover that Skinner’s a priori limitations on ‘scientific’ inquiry make it impossible for him even to formulate the relevant concepts, let alone investigate them.”
Chomsky’s second question regarding the social or ideological needs that these scientific theories serve brings us to another fascinating theme running throughout Thompson’s book. One of the main areas in which this is discussed is in the chapter called “Mindfulness Mania.” To return to the limbo dance, Thompson notes that “[m]indfulness is conceptualized as inside the individual mind, while the mind is taken to be fundamentally the brain. As a result, we come to think of ourselves, especially our mental lives, through the confused construct of the ‘mindful brain.’” Picking up on a prominent theme in Peter Hacker’s book, Thompson wishes to clarify a conceptual confusion by noting that “[p]eople are mindful, not brains.”
Patricia Churchland: Sensible, not a language purist
While acknowledging that the “mindful brain” could simply be a case of substituting “an attribute for the whole of the thing meant” he considers it more likely to be a “category mistake” through ascribing “aproperty to the brain that properly belongs only to people.” In a recent interview, neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland rejects this kind of criticism, noting that “I try to be sensible but I’m not a language purist,” i.e. of course she does not commit the folly of thinking that it is the brain alone that thinks, feels, and so on. However, Chomsky notes something very similar to Thompson in his critique of Skinner: “When [Skinner’s] formulations are interpreted literally, they are clearly false, and when these assertions are interpreted in his characteristic vague and metaphorical way, they are merely a poor substitute for ordinary usage.” Many feel that Mary Midgley went a bit over-the-top in her attacks on Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene,” but metaphors of mind can have extremely potent consequences in the real world. Furthermore, in the context of selfish genes, the propensity of evolutionary psychologists to turn to game theory to seek answers to moral conundrums suggests that such metaphors can take on a reality of their own.
In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein famously wrote: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Commenting on this, Charles Taylor suggests that these powerful pictures or metaphors are “anchored in our whole way of thinking, our way of objectifying the world, and thus our way of life, and therefore also our language.” The inner-outer structure mentioned above, which gives rise to the images of a “brain-bound” mind, is a case in point, for it is from this commonsensical and apparently unchallengeable picture that the decision to deposit cognition in the head appears so intuitively plausible. Wittgenstein wrote:
This simile of “inside” or “outside” the mind is pernicious. It is derived from “in the head” when we think of ourselves as looking out from our heads and of thinking as something going on “in the head.” But we then forget the picture and go on using the language derived from it.
Consequently, as Lee Braver puts it, “we end up talking about thinking in terms and concepts borrowed from spatial locations without realizing that a substitution has taken place.”
Irrespective of whether the “mindful brain” is a mere slip of the tongue, Thompson argues that it has become a defining global model of mindfulness and that this has pernicious real world consequences:
It reinforces selfish individualism – all you really need to deal with is your own mind, not the larger social setting. You can practice mindfulness in the privacy of your own office cubicle. The idea that mindfulness is a private practice reinforces consumerism by making mindfulness into a commodity that an individual can try to acquire.
We can see similar critiques that have emerged in the context of positive psychology (also a source of modern “mania”). For example, John Christopher, Frank Richardson, and Brent Slife write:
[P]ositive psychology fails to take into account fully its own cultural context. It tends to argue for and recommend ethical values and mental health ideals that reflect the one-sided individualism of American society with its stress on personal autonomy and individually-defined fulfilment. Even when it incorporates values and virtues from other moral or spiritual outlooks, it tends to present them as valuable mainly because they serve as means to such individual ends, an instrumental rationale that itself reflects the biases...of our culture. Positive psychology overly hastily and somewhat naively universalizes its particular cultural preferences and ideals as good for or applicable to all human communities.
Historian of psychology Kurt Danziger has noted that “[p]sychological categories have a political dimension because they are not purely descriptive but also normative.” This is the point that Thompson wishes to make with regard to mindfulness, as he argues that the view that mindfulness is conceptualized as inside the individual mind, while the mind is then given a solid biological substrate in the brain, results in a new mode of understanding ourselves according to a highly individualistic model. As Ian Hacking has argued, humans are impacted on by the categories into which we are classified, and these categories become the frameworks within which we come to think of ourselves and other people. As such, any act of classification or conceptualisation is inherently normative or political. That the “mindful brain” model has grown to prominence in highly individualistic western cultures is no coincidence, as dominant models in the human sciences have always tended to reinforce the political status quo. As Danziger puts it, “Both in its inception and in its effects [psychology] has been profoundly conservative. Except on a very superficial level, it has shared the prevailing preconceptions of its culture and arranged its investigations in such a way that no knowledge with revolutionary implications could possibly emerge from them.”
Thompson’s model for mindfulness, as for every phenomenon he analyzes in the book, is irreducibly social. He notes that there is “more to mindfulness than just adopting a brain state or training a brain pattern. Mindfulness is not an internal cognitive process that maps neatly onto the brain; it’s a complex orchestration of cognitive skills embodied in a particular social context.” He then goes on to compare mindfulness to being a good parent, noting that:
Although it’s conceivable that unique patterns of brain activity correlate with being a good parent in a given context, appealing to their presence wouldn’t explain what it is to be a good parent. Parenting doesn’t exist in the brain; it exists in the social world of human life. Furthermore, what counts as good parenting depends on the social context and the culture. So, parenting simply isn’t visible at the level of the brain.
For Thompson, we cannot leave culture, history, or social context outside of the cognitive picture. We cannot argue that they are merely causally rather than constitutively related to cognition, as if the real work of cognition happens in the head once the relevant external data have been inputted. Similarly Shaun Gallagher encourages us to look “more widely” to 1) “embodied action in the physical environment,” 2) “inter-subjective processes in the social world, and 3) “the massive hermeneutical [i.e. interpretative] background of cultural knowledge and practical know-how” that are not only the product of cognitive processes but the very scaffolding that allows them to happen in the first place. We can see how such an approach is far better able to capture the dynamic and symbiotic nature of the cognitive system than one that posits cognition as something more narrowly located in an individual’s head.
WHAT THOMPSON RELENTLESSLY CRITIQUES IS THE IDEA THAT SCIENCE CAN CLAIM TO OFFER CONCLUSIVE SOLUTIONS TO ETHICAL, RELIGIOUS, PHILOSOPHICAL OR SOTERIOLOGICAL PROBLEMS
But the rise of Buddhist modernism runs much deeper than simply offering a naturalistic gloss on a highly individualistic culture. For example, as Thompson highlights in his history of the rise of the concept of enlightenment, the Buddhist modernist narrative dovetails perfectly with the sensibilities of the Age of Enlightenment: “The Buddha was said to strike out on his own, reject Vedic ritual, rely on his own understanding, and discover for himself the truth of liberation.” The evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright (whose book Why Buddhism is True is extensively discussed by Thompson) draws a similar parallel: “You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has something in common with enlightenment in the Western scientific sense: it involves becoming more aware of what causes what.”
Well, Thompson may reply, you could say this but what are you overlooking in doing so? Disquiet with the implicit triumphalism of Buddhist modernism lies at the heart of Why I Am Not a Buddhist. To take Robert Wright as a prime example, his vision of Buddhism is strictly naturalistic. It is shorn of any of the “weird” or “esoteric” stuff related to rebirth, karma, and so on. As Thompson sums it up, “‘Why Buddhism is true’ thus turns out to mean ‘Why some core ideas and takeaways of modern, American, naturalistic Buddhist thought can be made consistent with evolutionary psychology.’” Thompson notes that in his discussion of the truth of Buddhism, Wright oscillates between two senses of truth: 1) corresponding to how things are (i.e. a descriptive claim), and 2) what’s good to believe because it makes our lives go better (i.e. a normative or soteriological claim). Wright is humble enough to acknowledge the slipperiness of the concept of truth, so I won’t expand on Thompson’s critique of this. What is worth noting, however, is that Wright’s second conception of truth is, as Thompson points out, very much indebted to William James’ pragmatist notion of truth. A clear example of what this entails is given by John Kaag in his discussion of James’ belief in free will (despite the alleged scientific refutation of it): “[B]elieving in free will might not logically be warranted, but it had a profound practical worth, and this worth was not separable from the truth-value of the proposition that he came to hold dear: ‘I am free.’”
Robert Wright: Reformed grump
With his pragmatist hat on, Wright could easily respond to Thompson’s critique of Buddhist modernism by saying: “OK, I know that there are all these very rich traditions in Buddhism going back millennia, and I know that I am simply cherry-picking certain elements that work for me practically speaking, and, given our cultural conditioning, will probably work well for many other Americans who are finding their lives imbued with an excessive amount of suffering. Look, certain conceptions of Buddhism are just not ‘live options’ for me – to use William James’ phrase – they make no electric connection with my nature; they don’t scintillate with any credibility at all. But this is just the way the world is these days – people can’t make sense of deva realms and hungry ghosts, and the notion of reincarnation totally fails to do it for me due to its empirical implausibility. What you call Buddhist modernism works for me because it is the only live option as things stand. And it’s true because it works for me.”
However, James himself would perhaps have his own kind of response to Wright: “I appreciate what you are saying, but one must never cease to recall the reservoir of possibilities alien to our habitual experience which the cosmos may contain, and which, for any warrant we have to the contrary, may turn it inside-out tomorrow. The Buddhist idea of rebirth may be unfathomable to you, but it performs the useful function of rebuking a certain stagnancy and smugness in the manner in which the ordinary philistine feels his security. Considered as anything else than as a reaction against an opposite excess, I accept that such a philosophy of uncertainty cannot be acceptable; the general mind will fail to come to rest in its presence, and will seek for solutions of a more reassuring kind. A prime factor in the philosophic craving is of
course the desire to have expectancy of stability defined, so I accept that no philosophy will triumph which in an emphatic manner denies the possibility of gratifying this need. However, this state of affairs does not make you any less of an ordinary philistine.”
No doubt there are serious problems that the modern mind must address in trying to make sense of something like the idea of rebirth. As Charles Goodman puts it:
Is the signal that carries the information from the dying person to the one who is born a physical signal, or a non-physical signal? If it’s a physical signal, how come we haven’t detected it yet? What enables the mechanism in the brain that sends the signal to know what direction to send it in, so that it will be picked up by an appropriate embryo recipient?
But Thompson is not out to try and resolve these kinds of questions; rather, his goal is to remind the naturalist that the dialogue between naturalism and Buddhism is a dialogue, i.e. if the naturalist wishes to challenge Buddhist ideas of karma and rebirth, they must be “willing to consider the force of Buddhist philosophical critiques of scientific naturalism and how these critiques call into question the kind of scientific naturalism that they’re presupposing.” To give two examples of ideas that Thompson feels are still very much “live options” despite being incompatible with the core tenets of Buddhist modernism:
1) Non-duality: “[T]he dualities we experience – mind versus world, subject versus object – are illusory,” as a consequence of which “the mind is not findable under analysis.” Naturalistic Buddhists “proceed as if the mind can be grasped, as if it can be pinned down and identified as essentially the ‘biological reality’ of the brain.” However, this is to “reify the mind and to confuse it with one of its conditions.”
2) Critique of objectivism: “If all the phenomena that science uncovers lack intrinsic natures because any nature we can possibly point to is concept-dependent, then it doesn’t make sense to think that science reveals how reality is apart from us. Rather, science reveals how reality is in relation to our conceptual systems and methods of investigation.” We can see here parallels with modern critiques put forward by thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.
In the final chapter, Thompson defends a cosmopolitan worldview, underwritten by a commitment to genuine dialogue and conversation. As he put it in an interview, what became increasingly important for him as a philosopher was “the recognition of the diversity of intellectual philosophical traditions and the importance of their interaction, without shutting down a conversation by affirming allegiance to one.” Reading this, I was reminded of the words of Peter Adamson (a cosmopolitan philosopher if ever there was one) in a recent issue of this journal when discussing his view that philosophy is the history of philosophy:
[In philosophical debates] there are a lot of arguments on both sides and they’re very complicated, and I think that you understand the...debate if you really understand and appreciate all the intuitions, arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter-arguments, and so on that appear on both sides of that issue. And then, at the end of the day, you may find one side more convincing than the other, but I don’t think the part where you “vote,” as it were, is the philosophical part; rather, philosophy is the process of understanding the debates. And the debates, in all their complexity, are constituted (so far) by the history of people thinking about philosophical questions and coming up with various rationales for taking various stances on all of these questions. What contemporary philosophers do is just to expand the complete human achievement in that project; their work is nothing more, and nothing less, than the latest stage in the history of philosophy.
Similarly, what Thompson relentlessly critiques throughout the book is the idea that science can muscle in on, and even claim to offer conclusive solutions to ethical, religious, philosophical or soteriological problems. As he puts it:
[T]he success of modern experimental science doesn’t provide a reason by itself for thinking that our understanding of values is better than other people’s understanding of values. Not only can we learn about values from other societies, but this kind of learning can affect how we think about the ethics of science and its technological applications.
IT'S NOT JUST THAT THE BUDDHIST MODERNISTS HAVE GOT IT WRONG, BUT ALSO THAT THE PICTURE THEY OFFER IS RATHER BLAND.
Here the scope of Thompson’s moral and political objections to Buddhist modernism, and its capacity to limit the diversity of human thought and culture, becomes clear. But his critique goes further: it’s not just that the Buddhist modernists have got it wrong or that their unwarranted dominance threatens to stamp out diversity of thought, but also that the picture they offer is rather bland. He picks up on a danger inherent to any attempt to re-brand a religion in a modern light, namely, that far from ensuring the continuation of the religious tradition for the present and the future, it can in fact totally eviscerate it. He refers to the way that Buddhist modernism “sanitizes” religion, he frequently comments on how “simplistic” or “oversimplified” the formulations are, on how it is characterized by a “watering down” of the phenomena under investigation. He concludes his critique of Robert Wright’s book by noting that Wright “strips Buddhism of its most radical and arresting ideas, the ones that challenge our narcissism, cultural complacency, and scientific triumphalism” and that “the easy idea of liberation as a psychological state seems flat” (my emphasis) before going on to ask:
Do we really need Buddhism for the idea that craving is maladaptive? Isn’t it common knowledge that to be psychologically well adjusted is to be aware of emotions and not to be unduly influenced by them? Practicing mindfulness may be good for psychological well-being, but this hardly seems like a “radical undertaking.” Rather, it seems like just another method for individual self-improvement.
Thompson distinguishes between the experience of liberation as 1) existential and 2) psychological, with the former entailing “a total configuration of our existence as governed by the norms of authenticity,” while the latter simply requires “a change to our mental states and traits as psychology conceives of them.” He sees Wright’s account of liberation as an example of the latter. If Thompson is making the conceptual point that liberation cannot be understood as a psychological phenomenon because it is governed by norms like authenticity which are inherently social and normative, this would fit in with many of the similar critiques he makes in the book. But in this case he does not appear to be making a conceptual distinction; rather, he sees the idea of psychological liberation as conceptually coherent but dismisses it as rather flat and uninspiring.
I don’t think that I got to grips with the distinction Thompson is making here. I can understand Thompson’s point that within the philosophical tradition of existentialism “human existence cannot be fully understood in terms of the descriptive concepts of empirical psychology,” but if we experience a radical transformation in our existence, it doesn’t really make much of a difference whether we wish to explain this within the framework of existentialism or empirical psychology. For someone like Wright, a self-confessed grump-cum-misanthrope fed on the rather thin ethical gruel offered by evolutionary psychology and naturalistic philosophy, Buddhist meditation seems to have been experienced as a radical transformation, a true metanoia (Wright opens his book by referencing the red pill and blue pill scene in the movie The Matrix, one of the classic go-to scenes for anyone wishing to describe what is involved in a total transformation of one’s reality). It may be that Wright is incorrect in believing that his experience of liberation can be explained using the tools of empirical science, but surely this does nothing to negate the existential transformation itself.
To take a related example, in his recent book How to Change Your Mind Michael Pollan discusses a number of people who reported profound and ongoing “existential” transformations through the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms, for example some patients with a terminal illness described a radical re-envisioning of their experience of selfhood and their relationship to death, with many of them interpreting the experience as profoundly mystical or religious. To think of this as both an existential and psychological transformation seems unproblematic to me. The experience may be one of an existential transformation in the sense of choosing how to live one’s life in the face of one’s inevitable death, while the explanation for the experience may be rooted in the impact of ingesting a psychoactive substance on the body’s nervous system. If Thompson wishes to make the more specific claim that liberation as described by someone like Robert Wright sounds rather flat compared with, say, the traditional Buddhist understanding of nirvana as the “deathless” or the “unconditioned,” that is fine as far as it goes, but I am not sure he needs the more general distinction between existential and psychological liberation to make this point, not least as Wright frequently uses something like the language of existentialism to make sense of his experiences.
More generally, I found questions arising as to which of the failings of Buddhist modernism were most problematic to Thompson. It is notable that he does not mention The Bodhisattva’s Brain by the philosopher Owen Flanagan, even though it is another prominent and influential recent example of Buddhist modernism. Perhaps this is because Flanagan is keen, like Thompson, to distance himself from what he refers to as the “jaw-dropping” hyperbole of the “neuroenthusiasta.” Through offering a non-brain-bound account of Buddhism, his philosophical credentials seem far sounder than Wright’s, and yet his vision of “a suitably deflated secular Buddhism” seems to be just another Wright-style riff on the core tenets of Buddhist modernism. As he puts it:
Is it possible to take an ancient comprehensive philosophy like Buddhism, subtract what is now by our own epistemic lights unwarranted, and have a worthwhile philosophy for twenty-first century scientifically informed secular thinkers? I think so.
Furthermore, I wonder what kind of cosmopolitanism is made possible by Flanagan’s account. Although Flanagan is willing to engage closely with Buddhist philosophy, he notes that “the conversation I am trying to promote...will not be advanced by engaging classical Buddhist mereology and classical Buddhist metaphysics of causation.” Elsewhere, he describes debates in Buddhist scholasticism as “philosophical black holes, that is, good examples of where language reaches its limits, concepts lose their grip, and debate becomes interminable.” He concludes that “the main epistemology I bring to bear to examine Buddhist thought is what is broadly known as the scientific method, and the substantive theories of person and their minds that contemporary evolutionary biology, the human sciences, and naturalistic philosophy of mind offer.” Flanagan appears to give a nod towards Buddhist philosophy and the spirit of cross-cultural dialogue before dismissing it and returning to the safety of his intellectual roots. Of course, Thompson’s vision of cosmopolitanism does not imply that one has to agree with someone who comes from a very different intellectual tradition, but nonetheless I found it difficult to envisage what sort of genuine dialogue, of the sort that Thompson seems to advocate, Flanagan’s approach could yield. Or, at least, it is unclear how it may differ much from the kind of dialogue that would be possible with a staunch advocate of, say, neural Buddhism.
This raises the question of how we are to create what Thompson refers to as “viable cosmopolitanisms that aren’t Eurocentric or Americentric” when even those Europeans and Americans most sympathetic to Buddhism seem so tightly wedded to their intellectual histories and conceptual frameworks. With Flanagan, for example, we seem to have reached a stage of dialogue that Paul Ricoeur refers to as “the tolerance of justice”:
I retain the conviction that it is I who am in possession of the truth, but I recognize, in kindness, your right to profess what I hold to be false; and I do it in the name of the principle of justice. Namely, I recognize that you have a right equal to mine to profess what you believe, although I hold it to be false.
This is clearly an improvement upon the “new atheist” approach of tolerating another’s belief only because one lacks the power to prevent it (Ricoeur’s “tolerance of the intolerant”), but it falls short of an engagement with another’s belief that acknowledges that it could in some important respects be true (Ricoeur’s “tolerance of perspectivism”). It is notable that Ricoeur also has a fourth level of tolerance (“the tolerance of radical uncertainty”), and feels that it is only at this level that harmful conflict between belief systems can finally be overcome. This is a framework for cosmopolitanism that far exceeds anything presented by Flanagan, and yet, as Ricoeur himself puts it, when we hold ourselves in this space of radical uncertainty, we risk collapsing into scepticism: “[A]ren’t all beliefs worthless? That is to say, do the differences not become indifferent?” For strictly pragmatic reasons, then, it may be that Flanagan’s justice-based model of cross-cultural dialogue is the best we can hope for. I would certainly be interested to find out more about what kind of tolerance between conflicting intellectual traditions Thompson would feel is sufficient for a viable cosmopolitanism.
THERE WILL NEVER BE A SHORTAGE OF THOSE WILLING TO STEP UP AND DELIVER TECHNO-SCIENTIFIC FANTASIES TO A PUBLIC THAT DEMANDS NOTHING LESS
To conclude, let’s return to Chomsky who writes: “In view of the prestige of science and the tendencies toward centralized authoritarian control which can easily be detected in modern industrial society, it is important to investigate seriously the claim that the science of behaviour and a related technology provide the rationale and the means for control of behaviour. What, in fact, has been demonstrated, or even plausibly suggested in this regard?” As we have seen, the answer is “not much.” While Skinner was obsessed with control, and with the political implications arising from his behaviourist framework, many contemporary scientists of the mind are obsessed with well-being, and with the spiritual or soteriological implications arising from their brain-bound framework. They have inveigled themselves into the deepest structures of our self-governance. Things have not changed much in the half century between Skinner and, say, Sam Harris (arguably the most likely candidate for a latter-day Skinner), and this is unsurprising. There will never be a shortage of those willing to step up and deliver techno-scientific fantasies to a public that demands nothing less.
It is against this encroachment of a particular highly influential worldview that Thompson directs the main force of his critique in Why I Am Not a Buddhist. We must resist the ontological limbo dance that severs life from mind, and heed Thompson’s call to see life and mind as inextricably bound, as inter-constitutive. In this way, we will move beyond our captivation by the Cartesian picture and come to understand the cognitive system as involving the whole person embedded in a world of meaning and relevance, while also resisting the temptation to make nonsense of the brain.
Anthony Morgan is based in Newcastle upon Tyne where he edits The Philosopher. Thank you to Michael Bavidge, Joanna Ciafone, Nigel Collins, and Amanda McBride for helpful feedback on an earlier draft.