12 August 2016

Buddhism and Naturalism

Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 
In the four previous essays I have been outlining a philosophical framework for thinking about the world. This is something I never thought I'd do as I don't really like the way philosophers beat around the bush. Of course just being educated and then reading widely as an adult one picks up bits and pieces of philosophy by osmosis. And everyone has a worldview that is shaped by upbringing, culture, and all that. But I've never studied philosophy systematically. Those who have studied philosophy will no doubt see this attempt as naive and superficial. It is intended as a first attempt at a synthesis of the kind of ideas that are required for a coherent philosophy. Of course the arguments about philosophy are literally endless and there is probably no way to resolved many of them. So in the end a philosophy that everyone agrees on is just a fantasy. So, this is my version of the fantasy.

My approach to studying Buddhisms in the last 10 years has been more along the lines of the history of ideas, especially with respect to the early phases of written texts. I've highlighted the intra-Buddhist clash of ideas over many centuries in Indian Buddhisms. I've also written a good deal about how some Buddhist ideas interact with some ideas in modernity. What I've been trying to do in the previous four essays is outline a philosophical framework for understanding and discussing life, the universe, and everything. The view falls roughly under the rubric of Naturalism. My quick definition of Naturalism is that the universe has to be understood without any reference to anything supernatural. I think for Buddhism to be relevant long term, it will have to come to terms with Naturalism in some form because it accurately describes the world we live in.

This last essay in the series is another long read of more than 5000 words (I'm thinking of changing the name of the blog to Too Long Didn't Read). It has four parts: firstly, a recapitulation of the main elements of the philosophy I've been exploring in the last four essays; then a section on the historical critique of traditional Buddhism; followed by a section on the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhism; and finally some comments on what a Naturalistic Buddhism might look like and some suggestions for future development (particularly in expanding the philosophy into the social sphere via ethics into economics and politics).

Note that this series of essays have been about processing new information in order to rewrite a chapter in my forthcoming book. I'm planning to go back to finishing the book and will probably not resume regular blogging till 2017. Once I get essays written on ethics, politics, and economics, I may put these essays on Naturalism out as a separate book.

~ Elements of A Naturalistic Philosophy ~


Generally speaking my approach to epistemology, to knowledge of the world, is Collective Empirical Realism. Individuals see a universe consistent with Kant's Transcendental Idealism: knowledge comes via experience, which incorporates a priori metaphysical overlays like space, time, and causality in order to help us make sense of experience; we cannot know the world "directly", without these overlays. However, by carefully comparing notes about experience with other people, we can isolate the purely subjective and metaphysical elements of experience, and infer what reality must be like. In other words we can reverse engineer the type of immanent reality required for us to have the kinds of experiences we do. I've since learned that Kant, from whom we get the idea of Transcendental Idealism, also proposed a form of empirical realism. However, I think Kant was working too early in the history of science to really appreciate the power of empiricism: he missed out on evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and DNA for example. Modern empiricism has allowed us to predict the existence of many kinds of entities before they were observed by any human being. 


If there is a genuinely transcendental reality beyond (under or above) this one, then we could not experience it. Even if we did experience it, the experience itself would be incomprehensible and we would not know we had experienced itWe can say nothing about such a reality. But it is not necessary for such a reality to exist and we are not required to believe in it to make sense of our experience. All we need is an immanent objective reality to complement our subjectivity, i.e. something to be conscious of. This immanent objective reality need not be ideal, noumenal, or supernatural (and isn't).

The ontology of this immanent reality can be described using a combination of substance reductionism and structure antireductionism. To the best of our current knowledge, the universe is fundamentally made of quantum fields; but these fields are made into objects with many layers of complexity that are real by virtue of their irreducible structure. These real, complex objects have emergent properties, that is to say, complex objects have properties that cannot be explained by aggregating the properties of their elements. The parts break down, ultimately into quantum fields, but complex wholes can be greater than the sum of their parts.

Lower level descriptions can only generalise about higher levels and lower level properties do no propagate upwards through the hierarchy. For example, while at some lower levels of description the universe is completely deterministic, this has no bearing on higher levels or lower levels. Higher level properties such as freewill, morality, aesthetics, and consciousness, are completely compatible with low level determinism. Nothing need be explained away, because structures are real and have emergent properties.


The universe evolves according to patterns that can be discerned and described. Lower level patterns are amenable to being expressed mathematically, while higher level patterns have to be expressed in narratives. One of the great patterns that we observe in biological systems is evolution by natural selection. The current mainstream view of Evolution is NeoDarwian, it combined Darwin's natural selection with gene theory to create a synthesis. However NeoDarwinism is also a politically motivated theory (though the motivation was probably unconscious). It also combines, for example, metaphysical reductionism, with some remnants of Victorian Imperialism and Neoliberal ideology, so that evolution is portrayed as a kind of fight to the death, winner takes all, kind of situation in which "selfish genes" compete for expression in phenotypes (actual organisms). Competition is seen to drive evolution at all levels, just as it does in free market economics. NeoDarwinism is basically late-Victorian laissez-faire economics applied to biology. Selfishness is the defining characteristic of humans in this model, and the greatest virtue is pursuing self-interest. In fact synthesis, symbiosis, hybridisation, mutually beneficial communities, and cooperation are essential to evolution, but these qualities are typically excluded from NeoDarwinian accounts of evolution on ideological grounds. Far from being selfish, genes are in fact always cooperative and could not work at all except as cogs in the wheel of a genomic machine. Even the genome cannot be said to be a unit on its own, because without the cooperative machinery of the cell to copy genes and build proteins, the gene could not exist. In all likelihood metabolism preceded genetics in the evolution of life. Genes are part of a complex web of interconnected processes within which they cooperate with other genes to help perpetuate life. In the final analysis, the basic unit of life is irreducibly life itself. Which is essentially what James Lovelock was getting at with his Gaia Hypothesis: life as a whole regulates conditions on the earth to create conducive conditions for life. In fact this idea of everything interacting with everything else seems to be a fundamental principle of the universe.

The primary metaphor of the NeoDarwinian consensus on evolution is the linear, binary branching tree. Such a metaphor utterly fails to convey the importance of symbiosis, hybridisation, and interspecies cooperation. A better metaphor is the braided stream - which allows for tributaries and recombination as well as other dynamic processes. Our very cells are tightly bound symbiotic units in which several kinds of bacteria have lived in permanent association for billions of years. Our bodies are large-scale bound communities of cells. We also have a loosely bound community of symbionts in our gut and on our skin. Human beings are a fundamentally social species. The unit of humanity is not the individual human being, but the village or its modern equivalent.


A major stumbling block for work on consciousness is the (ironically) unconscious Cartesian dualism implicit in Scientific Materialism and its ideology of metaphysical reductionism. In dualism proper, one divides the world in the matter and spirit, or mind and body, and posits that both are real. In physicalism, one divides the world in two, accepts the matter/body side of the equation as real, but denies the spirit/mind side. Additionally metaphysical reductionists believe that all properties can, in principle, be reduced to properties of quantum fields. Idealism accepts the mental side as real but not the body side. Nihilism does not accept either as real, but may still involve the fundamental split. 

When we reject Cartesian Dualism, then the idea of an ontological distinction between matter and spirit, or mind and body, becomes meaningless. Mind and body are not ontologically different (here I diverge from Searle who uses the word ontology more broadly than I do). However, we might still find epistemic differences: we might find perceptual differences, for example. We might feel we can distinguish them for the purposes of discussion. However, the legacy of philosophy is that it is very difficult to discuss the epistemic differences without inadvertently making, or at least implying, an ontic distinction.

Just as Einstein unified space and time so that we now talk about spacetime as a single unified entity with four dimensions (three spatial and one temporal), so we can talk about the mindbody as a single entity with two dimensions, one mental and subjective and one physical and objective. Under a truly monistic ontology there is, and can be, no mind-body problem. The mindbody has a real, subjective, first-person aspect and a real, objective, third-person aspect. Because the generation of consciousness is localised in the brain, it is not available to other observers.

In this view of Naturalism consciousness is a high level property of animal bodyminds. Human consciousness is produced primarily in the brain with support from the whole body. We still don't exactly how this happens, but other possibilities have been ruled out. Consciousness is qualitative, subjective, and has a unified field. Searle says it has a first-person mode of existence, that is, it only exists as someone's consciousness. We cannot explain consciousness without reference to consciousness. Consciousness exists and is irreducibly first-person.

There is no reason that we cannot have epistemically objective knowledge of an ontologically subjective domain. This distinction is explored in Searle's The Construction of Social Reality. For example a object might be made of plastic and metal: this is an ontologically objective fact. But that it is a screwdriver is true only relative to an observer who can conceive of such a tool. The conception is ontologically subjective. However, we know that it is a screwdriver and this is epistemically objective, despite the ontologically subjective nature of the conception of a screwdriver. This applies to any and all objects whose definitions are only true relative to an observer, which includes many social institutions like government or money. Money is almost completely abstract in developed economies: we use real tokens for it, but money only exists relative to our belief in what has value. In other words, money is ontologically subjective, but we clearly have epistemically objective knowledge about money. No one argues that it is impossible to know the value of a £20 note, even though that value is not ontologically objective.

Recent research on how the mind works shows us that we have traditionally misunderstood the function and role of reason. Inner experience has two registers: one is largely a product of the central nervous system, while the other involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems along with the endocrine system. Roughly speaking the first corresponds to what we perceive as mental experience; while the second corresponds to emotional experience. We think thoughts, but we feel emotions and moods. The distinction is both epistemic in the sense that the different kinds of experience are qualitatively different and produce different kinds of knowledge; but also ontologically in the sense that they are instantiated in different parts of the bodymind.

One of the interesting facts that emerges from this is that decision making combines the two systems. The accuracy of a given fact is something we evaluate mentally, but the salience of the fact for decision making is evaluated emotionally. What we call reasoning, in fact involves both of these processes and is thus not the purely abstract mental activity our ancestors took it to be. Howe we feel about information is as important as what we think about it. Those skilled in the art of persuasion make use of precisely this distinction and focus on creating or destroying salience to achieve their aims while minimising the role of accurate facts. This is why a good deal of advertising is short on facts and long on making you feel good about the product.

But in addition to this, a vital component of understanding human beings is our social nature. Reasoning, for example, seems to have evolved to enable small groups to optimise decision making. In this view confirmation bias when presenting a case for one course of action is a feature not a bug. Various protagonists present all the information they can muster for a course of action, and the group looks for weakness or flaws and compares the cases and comes to a decision. This explains the odd fact that individually, human beings score routinely very poorly in tests of reasoning.


A counterintuitive conclusion from science is that there is no causality. For Kant cause & effect was an a priori judgement that we overlay onto experience to make sense of it. In Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism, the universe simply evolves according to patterns without any causes or effects. However, because we are volitional beings (we have consciousness, wills and desires) and because of the way we interact with the world, it makes sense to describe the universe evolving in patterns in terms of causes and effects. As a higher level approximation of the world, it works well because many of the patterns we observe are consistent with cause & effect on some level (just as motion in a weak gravitation field is consistent with Newtonian physics). In human social relations there are certainly actions & consequences, but to characterise the complexity of this domain as simple cause & effect is misleading.

The lack of cause & effect is problematic for modern philosophy, primarily because causality is central definitions of reality. So Searle, for example, defines consciousness as "wholly caused by neurophysiology", but also says that consciousness functions causally and is thus real. Ironically physicalists try to avoid the latter conclusion because they fear being accused of Cartesianism, whereas in asserting the physical and attempting to eliminate the mental, they confirm that they are crypto-dualists. Searle describes his view is structure antireductive, but causally reductive, though this kind of subtle distinction seems to be lost on his detractors who tend to see him either as a dualist or a physicalist. However, if causality is an a priori judgement, per Kant, or a generalisation from early experience of exerting our will, as I have suggested, then it cannot be involved in our definitions of what is real because it is not intrinsic to reality.


This worldview incorporates a number of principles: the ontology involves a monistic naturalism, a single, natural world, which encompasses substance reductionism, and structure antireductionism (a hierarchical, layered reality with a fundamental substance and real emergent properties); while the epistemology combines transcendental idealism and collective empirical realism (experiential reality has various psychological overlays to help us make sense of experience; but by comparing notes we can eliminate the purely subjective elements of experience and infer what the immanent reality must be like in order for us to have the experiences we do). The combination allows both an objective world and subjective consciousness. Nothing is explained away, but not everything is explained (yet). It may be that some things remain inexplicable (think of the halting problem in computing - some things are not computable by a Turing machine, so some problems may be insoluble by a human brain). A transcendental reality, anything like the Vedic Brahman or Plato's Ideal, may well be possible, but knowledge of it, directly or indirectly is not. So the possibility remains open, but there is nothing more we can say about it and such an thing is not required to explain any experiences we have. Aesthetics, morality, intentionality, and consciousness are integral high level components of this worldview: neither explained away, nor mystified. This worldview is disenchanted, there is no magic, no breaking the laws of physics. But it is also one in which there is scope for awe and wonder. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. 

Importantly, I believe it leaves open the possibility of radical transformation that Buddhisms speak about. It is a high level, structural change. However, I would add this caveat. The subjective/objective distinction has an epistemic and an ontic sense. Just because we change how we perceive this distinction, even if we can no longer perceive the distinction at all, does not mean that the distinction does not exist.

Over the last few years I have been developing two parallel critiques of traditional Buddhist doctrines. The first is based in history, the second in Naturalism.

~ The Historical Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

I've tried to show that the present flavours of Buddhism are based on partial accounts of Buddhisms that gloss over important historical disputes and disagreements. This is important because, historically, Buddhists never managed to come up with a coherent and internally consistent ontology, let alone an epistemology which might support it. There never was a Buddhist consensus. Instead a variety of quorums existed, which settled on views about important issues that were frequently mutually incompatible. It's apparent even in the early Buddhist texts that a plurality of approaches existed.

Despite this, the idea of a unified and coherent past dominates all present day presentations of Buddhisms, even if only when part of the myth of "original Buddhism". Virtually all accounts of the history of Buddhisms trace back to a founder (sometimes Gautama, sometimes the Dharmakāya Buddha) who presented a single, coherent account of the Dharma which then evolved into a wide variety of distinct lineages. However, as David Drewes has observed, the Buddha is an historical figure for whom we have absolutely no reliable historical information. This contradiction goes to the heart of problems with contemporary studies of Buddhisms, if only because leading scholars of Buddhism still do not acknowledged the fact. 

The evolution of Buddhisms on several fronts into distinct lineages is itself a black swan for those who claim origins in a singularity (i.e. a man named Gotama). If Buddhist original myths were accurate, the Buddhisms could not evolve into mutually exclusive branches of tradition because all lineages spring from the singular source of one man's mind and are informed by the unifying perspective of bodhi. But an examination of history shows that either bodhi must come in different, mutually incompatible flavours to account for the variety of lineages; or there was no single founder of Buddhism. Or both. Probably both. Buddhisms are, prosaically, the products of the human mind, rather than some transcendental reality.

In this critical vein, I have discovered and outlined a number of doctrinal problems that seem important:
  • Thinking of pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything;
  • The disconnect between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, which I call the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance
  • Problems with the solutions to ATD, particularly the Doctrine of Momentariness (The Logic of Karma, The Citta Bottleneck);
  • Textual and interpretational problems with the Heart Sutra and the Prajñāpāramitā literature generally. 
To the best of my knowledge, these critiques have no real parallel in the literature of Buddhist Studies. A few articles in philosophy journals take a critical approach, but these are usually so heavily laden with jargon that they are inaccessible to a general audience (and usually to me also). Buddhist studies takes a history of ideas approach which is critical only of modern exegetical methodologies. Buddhist Studies tacitly accepts Buddhism on its own terms and is not critical of Buddhism. Tellingly, Buddhist Studies scholars are critical of Therapeutic Mindful precisely because it diverges from the tradition in some way (not least of which is that practitioners charge for it). Some Christian scholars are critical of Buddhism, but the argument that Buddhism is wrong because it denies God, is of no interest. 

~ The Naturalist Critique of Traditional Buddhisms ~

My other critical approach to traditional Buddhisms has been based in Naturalism and in the natural correlate of this, the rejection of the Supernaturalism. To some extent the critique here is obvious: if we eliminate the supernatural then a lot of what constitutes core Buddhist belief or doctrine is vitiated. What I've tried to do is explain one one hand why Naturalism is the most plausible explanation of the world and why it trumps traditional narratives; and on the other how how it can be used in specific critiques of beliefs that are still considered broadly plausible by a majority of Buddhists. Additionally elements of Naturalist philosophy help to explain the dynamics of belief itself and why irrational or non-scientific believes persist in spite of evidence to the contrary.

As should be clear by now I do not equate Naturalism with scientific materialism. All naturalism is scientific, but not all science is naturalistic. I was always uncomfortable with, and now completely reject, metaphysical reductionism and cryto-Cartesian materialism. But in doing so I do not capitulate to dualism or Romanticism. Given that I do not believe in spirits, I find no place in my lexicon of naturalism for "spiritual" or any of its cognates, except in describing the mistaken views of religieux.

This approach seeks to identify and critique elements of traditional Buddhism that are or require elements over and above the natural: i.e. the supernatural. At the same time I have explored the evolutionary approach to the psychology of belief to show how belief in the supernatural is itself to some extent a natural product of how our minds work. The psychology of belief gives us insights into why supernatural beliefs seem intuitive and natural to some, perhaps most, people. This makes a compassionate approach to criticising beliefs possible. There is no call to mock people for their beliefs, even when we think that people are plain wrong. Investigations into the working of reasoning and the dynamics of persuasion also show that changing minds, for the evangelist, is not a simple matter of being in possession of some facts.

In this approach I have identified elements of Buddhist belief and placed them in a wider context. The doctrine of karma, for example, is a Buddhist variant on the more or less universal myth of a just world combined with the metaphor that morality is a form of accounting, and an afterlife: a positive balance in the karma ledger at death, means going to a good rebirth. Rebirth is the Buddhist afterlife. The Buddha is the mythical hero. These myths exists in a complex of other myths or a system of mythology (cf Witzel). We can tie these myths to outcomes of the psychology of belief and the brute facts of human lives. A good starting point is that we can say that all living things resist death. For human beings there is a conscious and urgent desire to go on living. But it is combined with the certain knowledge that our lives will end. The cognitive dissonance involved in this conflict provides the basis for a lot of religious thought and practice.

At the same time, certain types of relatively common experience, e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE) make the prior credibility of mind/body dualism high for most people. Particularly as the experience, and other's like it, are incredibly vivid and seemingly real. As Thomas Metzinger has observed, the naive observer, having had an OBE almost cannot help but become a Cartesian. It is likely that the idea of a detachable soul can be located in these kinds of experiences amongst the first anatomically modern humans, if not before. These kinds of beliefs formed directly from experience are what Justin Barrett calls non-reflective. We simply find that we believe these things without being aware of the process of coming to the conclusion. We may not even be aware that we have such a belief.

If we are faced with a dilemma involving certain death, then a detachable non-physical entity in which are sense of identity is invested is a very useful concept. It allows us to speculate that this element of our being does not die when the body dies, but is free to continue on existing. Thus we get a dynamic like this:
  • The fact of universal death creates cognitive dissonance. 
  • According to testimony, certain experiences appear to demonstrate that identity is not tied to the body, but can exist independently.
  • So the idea that something might survive the death of the body and continue to “live” seems plausible.
  • Emotional weighting of facts (salience) makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable.
  • Since the finality of death causes intense cognitive dissonance, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from probable/preferable to actually true; and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance created by the fact of death and been consistent with our other beliefs.
And it so happens that having a mind that can be detached from our bodies is very useful for solving another dilemma. Another fundamental myth in most religions, and certainly in Buddhism, is that the universe is fair. Philosophers call this a just-world belief, which as I say in Buddhism is called karma. I have speculated that the distinctive nature of Buddhist karma resulted from an interaction of a range of views including some from Zoroastrianism. The big problem for religious people with a just-world myth is that the world is obvious full of injustice. Everywhere we look the unjust prosper and the just do not. How can we sustain our belief in a just-world when all the evidence points the other way? The undying spiritual part of us comes to rescue. It opens up the possibility of an afterlife. And it is in the afterlife that the accounting for justice can play out. In the most iconic afterlife story, from ancient Egypt, the soul of the deceased is literally weighed in a balance with "the law" on the other side. A lawful life results in a light soul, which is then ushered into the presence of the gods for an eternity; an unlawful life results in a heavy soul, which is promptly fed to a hybrid monster and thus destroyed. Buddhists chose an impersonal accounting method (which may be an influence from Zoroastrianism), but the essence of the Buddhist afterlife myth is the same: the afterlife is a reckoning, a reconciliation of one's moral account. How one lives, determines one's fate after death.

Other more or less universal myths contribute to the overall flavour of Buddhism. They include: the myth of paradise; the myth of the golden age; the myth of the immortal founder; and the myth of eternal truths.

Naturalism unravels the skein of myth by insisting that we interpret experience in ways that are consistent with how we know the world to work. The out-of-body experience does not, in fact, involve a disembodied mind existing outside the body. The likely explanation is that the brain's integration of the streams of information that go to make up our sense of self are temporarily disrupted. The OBE is an altered state of consciousness, not the physical separation of mind from body. It happens in the brain and can be artificially induced in the laboratory. Under close scrutiny an OBE does not support dualism after all.

With respect to life after death I have essayed Sean Carroll's compelling argument that no such thing is possible. There is simply no way to pass on the information that constitutes "us" from our living body to another. This applies as much to the Buddhist afterlife (in its various mutually incompatible forms) as to any other. I've also shown that the basic logic of the mainstream Buddhist versions of karma is flawed and that the account of karma is incoherent.

Using George Lakoff's theory of metaphors, I looked at how the matter/spirit duality played out in the language of spirituality. This idea is echoed in Searle's critique of subliminal dualism in scientific materialism.

A common misperception is that science confirms traditional Buddhist beliefs, particularly quantum physics. I have tackled claims about Buddhism and quantum mechanics, and tried to show that the any apparent similarity between the two is due to naive misreadings of the implications of quantum mechanics. In the thought experiment created by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen Interpretation, two mistakes are common. The first is to reify the metaphor of the cat; the second is to misinterpret the "observer" as requiring a conscious being when it really refers to an interaction with another particle. This is part of a larger theme in which science threatens the beliefs of religieux and the response is to co-opt science as a new source of authority. Because science is now the accepted authority in many areas of life, non-scientists are often engaged in making their discipline "scientific". So I studied "Library Management" at university, but many such courses are now called "Library Science". Buddhists are partly able to get on this bandwagon because, from early on, Westerners have been systematically substituting Modernist ideas for Buddhist ideas and presenting them as tradition. Currently one can seek to add credibility to a crackpot idea by prefixing it with neuro- and or discussing it in terms of (usually bogus) neuroscience.

I wrote a series of essays exploring the idea of Vitalism. This theory of life which posits a "life force" as making the difference between living and non-living matter has long been discredited amongst scientists, but it remains viable amongst people who believe in an afterlife and/or other supernatural phenomena. This kind of disparity crops up again and again. Scientists and/or philosophers will abandon an idea as unworkable, implausible, or plainly false, and yet the idea survives in the general population. 

By the way, I have read Owen Flanagan's book on Buddhism and Naturalism, but frankly I found very little of interest in it, so these essays owe nothing to him, but strike out in a different direction. I've subsequently learned that Flanagan has a rather unfortunate and dismissive view of Buddhism.

So this is an outline of Naturalism, the historical critique of traditional Buddhisms, and the Naturalist critique of traditional Buddhisms. Where does this leave us? 

~ Boundary Conditions for a Naturalistic Buddhism ~

This form of Naturalism places a number of boundary conditions on any theory about the world or part of the world, and thus on how modern Buddhists might explain the world. In particular we can make a Heart Sutra-like list of excluded possibilities. The natural world that we live in has and can have:
  • No supernatural
  • No vitalism
  • No panpsychism
  • No teleology
  • No cause and effect
  • No afterlife
  • No just-world hypothesis
  • No moral absolutes
  • No direct access to reality
  • No metaphysical certainty
A lot of people will wonder if Buddhisms can survive under these conditions, because the vast majority of Buddhist ideas come under one of other of the excluded headings.

However I see no reason that Buddhism cannot adapt. On one hand we can clarify when narratives are intended as parables, allegories, and metaphors and stop taking them literally. On the other hand the practical tasks for Buddhists: practising generosity, behavioural restraint, and meditation will remain unchanged. Many will benefit from the positive social environment that Buddhisms can foster (though no guarantees on this front!). And some will continue have significant epistemic breakthroughs into a world without a clear subjective/objective distinction or strong sense of selfhood. Perhaps the number will increase as more people who have this experience come forward to teach systematic approaches to achieving the goal. Buddhism defined in terms of what Buddhists do, will hardly change at all.

Buddhisms are a high level approach to life. Buddhisms say nothing about physics, chemistry, or biology and can say nothing about these lower levels. They are related to other high level, subjective, and epistemic features of human life such as aesthetics, morality, intentionality, perception, and consciousness. While the effects of Buddhist practices may have third-person consequences (in the sense of positive communities, longer life, happier individuals and other external criteria), largely the effects are in the first-person arena. Indeed ultimately the goal of a modern naturalist Buddhism is to transform the first-person perspective so that it is no longer ego-centred. The only caveat is it is a first-person perspective. The dissolving of the epistemic subjective/objective distinction is a private experience that occurs in one persons brain, does not result in the dissolving of the ontic distinction in the sense of public reality. They may well lose a sense of self, but do not gain access to the thoughts of others (except in fairy tales), or break down the epistemic boundary in anyone else. Awakening is always centred in a single person's brain and only changes how that individual interprets their experience. It gets confusing because people who undergo the change claim it is an ontological change (they see the real world as it really is) and deny their own selfhood, but I believe they are mistaken about this. Nothing about Buddhist practice, which largely concerns exploring the nature of experience, points to the possibility of gaining insights into the nature of reality. It may seem to them that they uncover an immanent reality which is obscured, but this is also a poor explanation for the change.

In becoming awakened one does not become the ultimate expert on reality. Indeed, one of the most experienced meditators I know has said that one continues to have breakthroughs and believe that this time one has seen the ultimate truth, only to discover some time later that it was just another perspective on experience. It's not until one has experienced many such breakthroughs that one stops getting sucked into this naive interpretation each time. And in fact reality, in the sense of the immanent reality that we experience, is best described in terms of the hot big bang theory of cosmology, the atomic theory of matter, and the evolutionary theory of biology.

The next step in a systematic approach to recasting Buddhism for the modern world is to look to an ethical system. I had though of bypassing this and writing about politics and economics, but I realised that one cannot have a coherent political view or economic program without a solid ground in morality. We need a general theory of social interactions before we can look at sub-domains within the domain. My inclination here is to start with Robin Dunbar's observations on the key factors that enabled humans to evolve such large social groups. At the moment I am finding John Searle's approach to what he calls "social reality" interesting, and hope to get on to following up David Chapman's account of Robert Kegan's stages of development. Lakoff's account of the moral basis of political views is also interesting and helpful for understanding the modern dynamic of Western politics, especially the progressive/conservative dichotomy. The idea is to describe a social philosophy that gives us principles for creating and sustaining healthy societies that are conducive to well being, that don't have to be imposed by force. To date I think some of us have tackled ethics to some extent, but no one seems to go beyond that.

To date Buddhist doctrines have been largely focussed on individuals or on "all beings" in an abstract way. Without any theory whatever on how we form societies, how we operate them and govern them, we take on that aspect of life in an intellectual vacuum. This may be why so many nominally Buddhist nations produce extremely authoritarian and oppressive forms of government. It is surprising and alarming, for example, just how many Buddhist countries are now or have recently been military dictatorships. Different large Buddhist organisations in the West handle their internal organisation and governance differently, with few common features. To the best of my knowledge none have any kind of doctrine regarding political or economic matters. There is no systematic Buddhist theory of how to run a society. 

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