Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Problem of Traditions


As someone who has practiced Buddhist meditation off and on for several years, and who has been interested in both Buddhist and Daoist philosophy (as well as the philosophy of other philosophical traditions, such as Neoplatonism), I have done a lot of thinking about whether to self-identify as a Buddhist or Daoist, or as a member of a particular Buddhist or Daoist sect or organization. Two of my friends who practice meditation or other spirital exercises, Phil Dickinson and John Gfoeller, have each identified with a particular tradition (Zen Buddhism, in the case of Phil, who is a regular at the Toledo Zen Center, and Orthodox Christianity, in the case of John), which has given me further cause for reflection.

There are several advantages to identifying with a spiritual tradition (or whatever one wishes to call it; the word "spiritual" is after all pretty vague and confusing). One advantage is access to a literary and intellectual tradition that can serve as a source of insight, inspiration, and guidance. Another set of advantages is access to the social, psychological, and material support that people affiliated with the tradition can provide.

Despite these (quite considerable) advantages, I think that there are three weighty disadvantages to identifying with a spiritual tradition. The first is that one is usually expected to adopt all of the beliefs of the tradition, and, in the case of every tradition I am familiar with, at least some of these beliefs are false. The Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation, for example, is a core doctrine of Buddhism--pace Stephen Batchelor and other Buddhists who claim that one can be agnostic or skeptical about reincarnation and still count as a Buddhist, the Pali Canon is quite adamant in its opposition to schools of philosophy which deny the doctrine of reincarnation (on the grounds that this makes mincemeat of the doctrine of karma and its fruit, and thus removes the justification for ethical conduct--a lousy argument, by the way, but not one that I can deal with here). The problem is that the doctrine of reincarnation is inconsistent with the worldview of scientific naturalism, and is therefore overwhelmingly likely to be false. Even Buddhist psychology, which a lot of scientific naturalists (such as Owen Flanagan) seem pretty comfortable with, contains views which conflict with the contemporary scientific understanding of the human mind, such as (according to Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama) an implicit mind-body dualism, and (in the Theravada Abhidhamma) an analysis of mental states into various combinations of psychological atoms. It seems pretty foolish to identify with a tradition that asserts even one false belief, let alone a whole slew of them.

The second problem with identifying with a spiritual tradition is methodological in character. Even if a spiritual tradition happened to assert only true doctrines, there is still a problem with the methodology that members of traditions are expected to employ in generating and maintaining their beliefs. As fas as I can tell, if one is a Buddhist, and insofar as one is a Buddhist, one is supposed to believe in the doctrines of Buddhism, or ar least the core doctrines of Buddhism, at least in part simply because they are a part of the tradition, and not based solely on the fact that they have been confirmed through subsequent careful and impartial investigation and analysis. Even though Buddhists pay a lot of lip service to the notion that one should test out all Buddhist doctrines for oneself to see if they are true, the expectation is that one will in fact confirm each and every one of those doctrines, and if one does not, then one has simply made some kind of mistake or missed something that one will discover later. A Buddhist who uses his own experience to reject the doctrine of reincarnation, or who is even willing to use his own experience to reject the doctrine of reincarnation, is no longer a Buddhist. Simply put, spiritual traditions do not encourage (and in many cases do not permit) their members to use scientific or other impartial and careful methods to put their traditions' doctrines to the test. Identifying with a tradition seems, at least in the vast majority of cases, to involve adopting an attitude of deference to the doctrines of the tradition, or at least its core doctrines, and to foresaking a commitment to subject the doctrines of the school to a critical and impartial testing and evaluation. And this just smacks of an abandonment of free thought and rational judgment, from my point of view--even if all of the doctrines of the tradition happened to be true.

A third problem with identifying with a spiritual tradition has to do with the nature of identification itself (rather than with the nature of spiritual traditions as such). When one identifies with something, one's ego becomes bound up with it, and it is difficult if not impossible to view the thing objectively. One becomes biased in favor of the spiritual tradition with which one has identified, such that even if one were trying to maintain a critical view towards the doctrines of the tradition (and thus even if one abandoned spiritual traditions' flawed methodology for generating and testing beliefs), in all likelihood one's judgment would still be skewed solely due to the fact that one had identified with the tradition in question, and regarded it as one's own. Just as people are biased towards sports teams and political parties with which they dientify, and just as they are biased towards their friends and family members in disputes with strangers, they are likely to be biased with respect to the doctrines and practices of the spiritual traditions which they call their own.

It is for these three reasons, and perhaps for others that I have overlooked, that I have decided not to identify with Buddhism, Daoism, or any other spiritual tradition. Such an act seems too dangerous from an epistemological point of view.

On the other hand, there are costs to not identifying with a tradition, such as the diminished access to the psychological, social, and material benefits that one could receive from fellow members of the tradition. For example, if one is a member of a church, one might receive psychological support from one's fellow members after the death of a loved one, one probably receives the opportunity to participate in shared projects such as fundraisers and charitable works (which fulfills one's need for social interaction, which is part of a flourishing human life), and one might receive financial assistance from the church in a time of hardship or a job offer from a fellow church member in a time of unemployment. These are considerable benefits, and it's a shame that they are so often bundled with the disadvantages of identification with a spiritual tradition that I described above.

This leads to the question of whether it is possible, at least in principle, to form groups or organizations that retain the benefits of affiliation with spiritual traditions while avoiding some of the drawbacks. This is a topic for a separate post, but such groups would combine solidarity with the principles of equality and liberty, such that individual members could use their own judgment to form beliefs, based on the best information and chains of reasoning they can find from others or develop themselves, while at the same time contributing to and benefiting from the shared psychological, social, and material resources of the group. Such groups would combine the virtues of intellectual autonomy with those of fellowship and shared commitment.

It is an open question whether it is psychologically possible for people in such an alternative organization to retain the same amount and quality of fellowship and commitment that are found in conventional organizations, while jettisoning the usual uncritical acceptance of core doctrines. And to the extent that committing oneself to a group involves identifying oneself with the group, then it may not be possible to avoid the third problem with identifying with spiritual traditions, even if one is able to avoid the first two problems. But forming alternative spiritually affiliated groups or organizations which do not compromise intellectual autonomy and critical thinking still seems like an attractive proposition.
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