16 August 2013

A Moral Universe?

National Geographic
(the gun is a toy).
Recently I was describing to a friend a rather distressing, life disrupting experience I had. Part of his response was to say that he still believed in "a moral universe". I find the idea of a moral universe puzzling.

We would not speak of moral weather or of a moral ocean. Weather is easily explained in physical terms: a combination of the elements and molecules on the surface of the earth and it's atmosphere combined with heating from above and below, and rotation of the earth. There is no doubt that the resulting system is complex and difficult to predict on a small scale and/or at a long time interval. Nowadays we understand pretty well what factors are involved, and we no longer invoke unseen metaphysical entities or forces to explain it. Of course human behaviour does change weather and climate, but this is understood as being a disruption of physical elements rather than the weather as a locus of agency responding.

How then would the universe be moral? This question set off a series of reflections which I will try to trace here.

A Moral Universe?

Religious Buddhists have this idea that karma rewards and punishes everyone according to their deeds - not in a personal vindictive way, but in a purely impartial and impersonal way. Each act has built in consequences that manifest. The Pāli texts warn that trying to work out the precise mechanism will drive us mad. However, various pre-scientific metaphysical mechanisms are proposed by later Buddhists to try to explain it. As far as I know they all involve belief in an afterlife, and some kind of metaphysical continuity between lives. The afterlife in particular is a requirement of any idea of a fair universe because life is patently unfair. So often the wicked prosper and the good suffer. Since this lifetime is very obviously unfair it requires that rewards and punishments be meted out in an afterlife. This basic idea was present in Egyptian religion and was taken up by Zoroastrians in Iran ca 1000 BCE. From there various small and marginal tribes transmitted this Zoroastrian idea to the Central Ganges Valley where it transformed the Vedic and Non-Vedic cultures (See Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism). The idea of impartial and impersonal post-mortem judgement also seems to come from Zoroastrianism.

Since it is not personified the agency of judgement becomes diffuse and vague - it is "the universe" that is somehow moral. The "universe" keeps track of good and bad deeds and ensures that everyone gets their just deserts, even if not in this life. The problem with this is obvious. If that next life person is not me, then someone else is going to experience the consequences of my actions after I'm dead. There is only a slight moral imperative here. If the person in the afterlife is me then a metaphysical soul has been introduced that is explicitly against the metaphysics of Buddhism and thus a contradiction. The vague idea that the next life person arises in dependence on causes is metaphysically more sound, but it makes the connection between the actor and the consequences of their action rather abstract. So metaphysics are often set aside to emphasise that it is "I" who will suffer in the afterlife, particularly in less sophisticated milieus. 

The ocean is particularly resonant as a metaphor for me because I used to ride waves several times a week before moving to the UK. Surfing involves sitting out just beyond where the majority of waves are breaking, riding the swell and watching the horizon for the occasional one-off wave which is larger than the rest. Once a suitable wave is spotted one turns to face the beach and attempts to get up enough speed so that as the wave rolls along it lifts you and you end up surfing it it. Too slow and the swell just leaves you behind. Too fast and you risk it breaking on top of you. When you catch a wave the feeling is glorious, like flying. But if you miscalculate, the wave does not make any allowance. It just rolls in according to the laws of physics, oblivious to humans, fish, rocks or beaches.

Waves are the result of friction of the wind moving across the surface of the wind imparting energy to the water. The longer the pathway the bigger the wave can get. The waves I used to mainly surf had a potential path of about 2400 kms, but could get up to about 4 or 5 metres on a big day (and 2 metres was about my limit). There are much longer runs. The gigantic waves of up to 25 metres that break on the North Shore of Maui, travel almost 6000 kms across the Pacific from the Aleutian islands of Alaska. But never does a wave hesitate to break. Never does it arrive at a moment which favours any particular person based on their behaviour. Nothing we do or say can alter the brute facts of waves arriving at beaches, being forced up by the rising seabed or reef, and collapsing to create chaotic turbulent flows thus dissipating some of the energy, before exhausting itself on the shore. Why would we believe that it could? And is this not a microcosm of an impersonal universe?

The sea is not moral. So how is the universe moral? More fundamentally, how can the universe as a whole be moral when parts of it display no sign of being moral?

One possibility is that somewhere between something we perceive as local to us, and something so large it can only be an abstraction there is a transition. Most of us don't see weather in terms of agency any more, even when, as here in England, people take the weather quite personally. However, some people do see the earth as a whole as having agency. Specifically some people have understood that there is agency involved in James Lovelock's idea, the Gaia Theory, that the biosphere of our planet is self-regulating system that maintains optimal conditions for life. Despite Lovelock's objections some have personified Gaia and attributed both agency and sentience to the system that he saw and described in physical terms. So perhaps there is a scale effect?

Morality is a peculiarly human quality. As yet there is no purely physical description of morality. Morality requires that we invoke aspects of human psychology and culture that are still to some extent vague and partially understood. Ideas about what morality is and what it does are still contested across various disciplines.

I can certainly believe that people are moral, and that this affects the way they live and are treated by other people. To be moral is generally speaking to be trustworthy within a particular moral framework. To be moral is to voluntarily follow stated behavioural norms that make one reliable and predictable. To my mind it is this predictability which is advantageous in groups of humans. as well as in groups of other social animals. The stability of groups relies on members pulling together most of the time. And for much of our history this equated with survival as individuals and groups. Predictability is much less stressful. When all around is unpredictable, we benefit from reduced stress when we know we can rely on group members to behave within certain limits under given conditions. And if people don't follow the rules we can be very harsh in inflicting pain upon them.

When we say "the universe is moral" we are projecting the same kind of reliability onto the universe. Certainly the universe behaves in an ordered way to some extent. On the human scale, the behaviour of matter and energy is almost entirely predictable (it's only at the extremes of measurement both large and small that order is less obvious). But is this morality? I would argue that it is not because there is another dimension to morality, which is goodness. The moral person tries to be good, as defined by a system of morality. The norms they follow are not entirely arbitrary, but are some cultural formulation of how a good group member behaves. We know a person is good not just from their following the rules of goodness society has laid down, but also by their response to breaking the rules. A good person expresses remorse for bad behaviour.

But the universe, like the sea, simply follows arbitrary rules that are indifferent to human group survival. Sometimes that behaviour is beneficial to us, sometimes it is not. And yet it is utterly remorseless. Like waves crashing on a rock, or rain pouring down to flood and sweep all before it as a torrent, the universe follows it's own inhuman logic. It's a frightening thought and I understand why people shy away from it, but I see no sound evidence that the universe is moral. And I think this is why we humans are constantly inventing anthropomorphic intermediaries for aspects of the world over which there is no control and no expectation of trustworthiness: weather gods, especially storm and rain gods; fertility and harvest gods; water gods; etc. We've long understood that the universe is indifferent to our struggles and have sought ways to bring it to our will. Without, it must be said, very much success to date.

The Problem of Evil

However, for the sake of argument let us stipulate a moral universe because this begs the same question that is required by the belief in a moral god. Sometimes called the problem of evil or theodicy (from the Greek and meaning 'God's justice'). In Buddhist jargon we would ask: Why do we suffer? I've asked this question before. In this context we might ask: why does the universe even allow for evil if it is moral? If the universe lacks agency then in what sense is it moral? If it has agency and does not act against evil, then is it immoral? I think here my friend might have meant that the universe is moral in the sense that good and evil are rewarded and punished respectively (and eventually). And that this system of reward and punishment is universal, impersonal, and impartial.

The problem is less extreme than the problem facing those who belief in an omnipotent Creator God. They face a God who could have designed the universe without evil at all but did not, and who could now eliminate evil but chooses not to. Evil must be part of God's plan, and therefore God must be capable of evil. Indeed some would argue that creating a universe which contains evil is itself an evil act - it certainly leads to a great deal of suffering. 

Suffering in Buddhism is a result of not being awakened. All the Buddhist theology I have come across portrays bodhi as the natural state of the human being, and suffering as unnatural. Not explicitly in these terms, of course, but this is the gist. So there is a further question: why are we not awakened? The answer is that we are unmindful and indulge in the pleasures of the senses; that we indulge in desire and aversion. But if this is not in our interests then why do we do it? Why are we so ill-adapted to life that most of us go through life causing ourselves and others to suffer through our appalling ignorance?

Buddhists avoid this question by citing the timelessness of saṃsāra, which has no beginning and no end. One of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas describes a cyclic world with near perfect beings gradually descending into vulgarity and error over time until they become like us. Then after a while the world is destroyed and remade as perfect to begin the cycle again. However this is not a Buddhist cosmology, so much as a satire of a Vedic cosmology. It was intended to undermine the idea of a cyclic universe, though it did not entirely succeed. 

Some people suggest we are actually eternally pure and perfect already but covered with "adventitious defilements". But how, if we were once perfect and behaved in ways which were perfect, could we possibly fall into the kinds of errors that cause suffering? Such a narrative appears to buy into the very narrative that is mocked in the Dīgha Nikāya. It is incoherent. 

The alternative is hardly less satisfying since it says that we start off flawed and are tasked with dragging ourselves with great difficulty towards perfection over uncountable lifetimes. If the universe is moral, then according to this it is only marginally so. The question of why we are flawed at all remains unanswered and is probably unanswerable. All we can do is take stock of where we are, and continue the hard slog towards perfection with little hope of reward in this lifetime. 

Sangharakshita has offered a kind of evolutionary account of this process. The lower, or biological, evolution has brought us so far, to the point of self-consciousness and now it's up to us to pursue the higher or 'spiritual' evolution. Leaving aside the problematic element of teleology in Sangharakshita's theory of evolution why would we evolve a consciousness of self that lead us into such gross errors? Most evolutionary narratives are about the accumulation of traits which make us better suited to our environment, better suited to survive and pass on our genes. How do we evolve a consciousness that is so fundamentally flawed that we all act in ways that cause harm to ourselves and each other? This is not a question addressed by Sangharakshita. And I suspect he might say that his evolutionary account was a metaphor that ought not to be taken literally.

Evolutionary Religion

In my previous discussion of why we suffer I argued that we did evolve to suit our environment, but that once we began to employ culture, we changed our environment much more quickly than evolution could keep up. The idea is that about 10,000 years ago our lifestyles began to change as we domesticated animals and plants: for example, we lived in much larger groups and began to produce regular food surpluses. And these along with other changes lead to a skewing of our relationship to the drives which motivate us: we have many more opportunities to indulge in the pleasures of the senses. Where once those pleasurable sensations were essential to our survival, they now allow us to pursue pleasure as an end in itself. I suspect that the idea of eating purely for pleasure would not have occurred to any human before about 10,000 years ago. The better off we are, the more we tend to pursue pleasure for it's own sake. Our flaws are thus the downside of civilisation. As we raised ourselves up we simultaneously fell. This is theme in myth around the world: knowledge comes at a price. The results are not so gross as to make civilisation undesirable for the mass of people. On the whole we live longer, our children survive more often, education is widely available, we enjoy leisure to pursue pleasurable activities like the arts and sports. More enlightened societies protect the weak and vulnerable, embrace difference and are tolerant of minorities, ensure basic human rights, follow explicit laws, etc. Civilisation is definitely a step forward, though individual civilisations have a definite lifespan and all tend to follow the same story arc. And that story ends with decadence, hedonism and a general confusion of morality, followed by collapse and/or overthrow by external forces. Some argue that Europe and America show all the signs of end-stage civilisations.
"Our global civilization now exhibits many of the symptoms of earlier civilizations in their death throes. While we are far better equipped than our ancestors to prevent the collapse of our civilization, this will require a major reconfiguration of our political and economic institutions." - Renegade Economist
There's no doubt that our standards of living are, generally speaking, higher as a result of civilisation. But it comes at a cost and many of us are all too aware of the cost and find it too much, or almost too much. We feel uncomfortable in luxury and complaisance. We want to ask "is this all there is?" And we intuit that the answer is "no", without fully understanding the nuances or consequences of that answer.

And here's the catch. Religious dogmas such as 'the universe is moral' or 'god is good' are designed to reassure us that everything is and will be OK. If we are only a little dissatisfied with civilised life but feel trapped within it, then such dogmas will allow us to keep going. We will commit some of our time to religious activities, take on the internal (mental) and external (physical) trappings of religion, and it will help us with the conflict we experience. In particularly corrupt societies religious groups will hive off into enclaves and emphasise their religious affiliations with external signs. The Amish of the USA have limited their connections to the wider world for almost 300 years and by all accounts are much happier than the average American.

If we are thoroughly dissatisfied with civilised life we have a much greater problem, because it leads us to question the platitudes of organised religions as well. A really deep look at society reveals that it not only requires "a major reconfiguration of our political and economic institutions" but that our minds need reconfiguring at a fundamental level to take account of the slowness of evolution and the speed of cultural change. Holding out like the Amish is apparently not enough, because even they will eventually be overrun by modernity.

The role played by religion in appeasing the worries of the dissatisfied waxes and wanes. Societies go through periods of more or less homogeneous belief and periods of heterogeneity. We think the time of the Buddha was a time of diverse religious opinions and probably a time of moral relativity. An influx of Iranian tribes and Brahmins into the Central Ganges Valley where they met earlier Indo-Iranian immigrants along with peoples of Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic stock, created a melting pot. The resulting confusion is to some extent documented in early Buddhist texts. The result was a series of cultural syntheses that resulted in new orthodoxies: Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. Some of these broke away from their tribal origins and became so-called 'universal religions'. All were aimed at easing the tensions caused by civilisation. Later in another period of turmoil in India after the Huns destroyed the Gupta Empire, we saw the creation of a great over-arching religious synthesis in the form of the Tantra.

Especially in India the relationship with pleasure became suspect and distrusted. Perhaps more than in any other cultural milieu the religieux of India pursued asceticism to see if it would free them from desire - and we know that on the whole it did not. Mainstream Indian culture eventual embraced aestheticism in the form of the Kāmasūtra and theories of raga. And while Buddhist monks themselves often settle into lives of comfort, the Buddha's central message was not lost. We need to free ourselves of intoxication with the pleasures of the senses, not through pain, but through developing indifference to both pleasure and pain, and thus arriving at equanimity. But it also incorporated mystical experiences such as oceanic boundary loss - the feeling of being at one with everything, and in love with everything. Though these two seem contradictory, the latter experience tends to make people dissatisfied with ordinary pleasures and ordinary life.

Buddhism and Belief

My point here is to argue that the central goals of Buddhism, though historically linked to the idea of karma and rebirth, of an afterlife and a moral universe, do not absolutely require them. One can readjust ones relationship towards pleasure towards a more healthy lifestyle without adopting a system of metaphysics which has almost no bearing on it. Recently more and more people are stepping forward to say that they are liberated in various ways. Liberation after a long hiatus once again seems like a real possibility for Buddhists.

I know the argument against this proposition about abandoning traditional Buddhist metaphysics by rote because any time I mention it some bore pops up to say "if you don't believe in karma and rebirth, you aren't a Buddhist". But this is just as much a partial reading of Buddhism as what I am proposing. Indeed all forms of Buddhism are partial, emphasising some things and denying or suppressing others. I'm not proposing anything which is extra to the Buddhist tradition except the notion of evolution.

My response to the charge that what I propose is not Buddhism is that I do not define a Buddhist be what they believe, but by what they do and with whom they do it. I've engaged in a wide range of Buddhist practices. The Triratna Order is an eclectic synthetic school of Buddhism (i.e. a Buddhism that draws on multiple existing schools of thought, but moulds them into a new whole). And despite my hardcore scepticism I know that these practices, whatever the metaphysics, do help with the Buddhist project. Devotion to the Buddha or a Bodhisattva does help. Puja and chanting do help. Study helps. Being a member of a Sangha helps (even when it involves all of human frailty) Meditation is only the most obvious practice, but it helps too.

A Buddhist in my view is someone who does these kinds of practices, with the goal of liberation in mind, with other Buddhists. What they believe about what they are doing is entirely secondary in my view.

Metaphysics and doctrines are far less important than most people make out. If the universe is moral or not such an important question. My friend and I can disagree about this without ending our friendship. Even the definition of liberation is not particularly important. It is certainly something to constantly question and perhaps even contest, but that questioning should not get in the way of practising. But questions of doctrine are never settled. A glance at Buddhist history ought to make this clear as it is usually presented in terms of doctrinal developments based on disagreements about things people believe. Histories of practice are relatively rare and have started appearing only recently.

Buddhism, in my definition, is practice, not belief. In my experience it is through practice that understanding emerges. My most valuable insights have come in periods of retreat and intensive practice, and through intensive study and reflection. Puja is for me an easy route to bliss and a sense of interconnectedness. While awake I am most likely to lose my sense of self while engaged in an activity like writing or singing.

One of the things that becomes clear in this world of extended communication networks is that no two Buddhists have the same beliefs in any case. The present is a time of extreme relativity of belief. It is a time of great doctrinal confusion, partly because there is really too much Buddhist doctrine to ever make sense of it all, partly because previous attempts at synthesis have introduced new problems, and partly because the boundaries of Buddhism have never been more porous and open to heterodox ideas. No doubt in a century or two a new synthesis will emerge that will inspire the great majority of Western Buddhists, and perhaps Eastern and Indian Buddhists as well. Until then we will stumble along in confusion doing our practice and almost but not quite understanding other practical approaches.

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