Out of a living silence

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Archive for the ‘Philosophical basis’ Category

The will not to believe

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William James observed that people tend to hold on to the beliefs they had while young and to make only minor repairs along the way, unless an experience comes along that just cannot be accommodated within the old framework. That seems about right; at least, it corresponds well to my own experiences. For as long as I can recall, I have had the belief that beliefs are best kept to a minimum. It is sufficient to have a few beliefs that get one successfully through the day, such as the belief that when an elevator stops and opens its doors at a floor well above the ground floor, it is most probably safe to step out onto what looks like a solid floor. Even if one keeps one’s beliefs down to those that are helpful to make it from the ringing of the alarm clock in the morning back to the safety of the bedroom at night, the portfolio is bulging. Loading it with more produces an unwieldy encumbrance.

Carrying around beliefs, and especially about things that cannot possibly be proven to be either true or false, is not only cumbersome. It can be dangerous to health—one’s own as well as others’. Beliefs tend to lead people into temptation to have a degree of contempt or suspicion for those who do not share them. Some of my earliest memories come from the time of the McCarthy era in American politics, a time when holding unapproved beliefs could lead to prison or at least to the end of a career. While still much too young to comprehend what the stories really meant, I heard stories of friends of the family whose careers had been undermined because they had dared to express beliefs that were labelled by some as seditious and anti-American. Where there is a clash of beliefs of that kind, it is difficult to determine what is more dangerous—is it the putatively un-American belief, or is it the belief that some beliefs are un-American that is more disruptive, or is it both taken together?

The world that has evolved during my lifetime seems to have become paralyzed by conflicts in belief. Unfortunately, the paralysis is only partial; it only prevents the human race from moving forward in constructive ways toward peace and harmony. What is not paralyzed is the musculature that enables people to carry out destructive actions such as wars, gueriilla actions such as bombings, assassinations and massacres.

When people have conflicting beliefs about things that are too complex to enable the gathering of evidence that decides the matter definitively, what tends to happen is that the strong and powerful succeed in putting their beliefs into practice. The nations with the most economic and military might, for example, determine the agenda at the United Nations. The irony is that the most war-making nation, the United States, dominates an organization that was created to insure world peace. Within that most powerful of nations, the corporations with the most economic clout set the agenda for internal policies. The powerful have the ability to act on their beliefs, even when their beliefs are either highly questionable or, in extreme cases, even demonstrably false. They determine what it is possible to do, and what therefore is practically true. Those who do not share those beliefs face nothing but frustration and despair. One might well believe that there is an injustice in such an arrangment, but the belief will do little good, for it will turn out to be all but impossible to act on it.

William James, in his lectures on Pragmatism, explained that the pragmatic method of examining beliefs consists in asking oneself how one might act differently if one believed something to be true than if one believed it to be false or than if one believed something else to be true instead. If I believe there is a shop that sells peanuts one mile west of my house, and if I desire to buy some peanuts, I am very likely to set out in the westerly direction on foot. If I believe the nearest peanut vendor is five miles from my house, I am likely to decide to take a bicycle instead of walking, or I might very well conclude that my craving for peanuts can go unsatisfied. There is a practical difference in the belief that the store is one mile and the belief that it is five miles away. On the other hand, there is (for me at least) no practical difference between the belief that the peanut vendor was descended from Adam, who got thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the belief that the peanut vendor evolved from simpler life forms through random genetic mutations over the course of millions of years. That pair of beliefs does not make any difference whatseover in anything I might do or decide not to do. Nothing turns on which of those beliefs is the right one. Following the Jamesian principle that there can be no difference that does not make a difference can be an effective method of eliminating a good many unnecessary beliefs from my kitbag and lightening my load. Why carry a trunkload of beliefs when a briefcase load will do?

Yesterday I heard someone speaking who was very much opposed to the government being involved in any way in health care. He said “I don’t want some bureaucrat in Washington deciding whether I em entitled to the cost of a life-saving medical intervention.” Stated in just that way, his concern seemed legitimate enough. But what is the practical alternative? Having a clerk in a for-profit insurance company decide that his policy does not cover the life-saving intervention? Between the two scenarios there is no practical difference, for in either case needed health care is inaccessible to someone who lacks the funding to pay for it. And yet to the person expressing that fear, the worry about government interference is legitimate. He believes it in part because so many people can be heard expressing the same fear. And so many people are expressing the same fear, because there are people who are very well paid to come up with ways of saying things that will persuade people to believe that some products are necessary to happiness, that some policies will lead to disaster while others will lead to success, that one political party is more inclined to listen to “the people” as opposed to billionaires (who are also people, but people who have far more votes than the rest of us, because they can buy them in various legal and illegal ways). There are, in other words, people whose livelihood depends on making other people believe things that are at best questionable and at worst downright false.

The best antidote against questionable beliefs is the habit of asking questions. And the habit of asking questions depends on cultivating the will to question. Being willing to question depends on being willing not to believe. I have found that being willing not to believe works well for me. Indeed, I have found it serves well as the cornerstone of a spiritual practice. Whether willing oneself not to believe will also work for others is something that only others can decide by trying it.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 20:05

Religious pluralism

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In the first of his lectures on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1907, William James suggests that there are two kinds of philosophical temperament, which he calls the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tough-minded are those who have a tendency toward empiricism. They trust their senses. They are content with a variety of sensations and with a plurality of fields of inquiry, each with its own questions and theories. The tough-minded feel no strong urge to arrive at a single “theory of everything.” The tender-minded, in contrast, gravitate to the intellect rather than the senses, and they seek unifying theories and a single metaphysical principle that unites all the varieties of beings and sensations. The tender-minded are also inclined to dogmatism and to a sense of discomfort with what cannot easily be fit within their unifying frameworks.

In the final of the eight lectures on Pragmatism, James turns his attention to Pragmatism and religion. Again, he notes two prevaliing trends in religion: a tendency to absolutism in some contrasted with a tendnecy to religious and moral pluralism in others:

So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough. Many persons would refuse to call the pluralistic scheme religious at all. They would call it moralistic, and would apply the word religious to the monistic scheme alone.

It is not merely that the tender-minded prefer absolutism and dogmatic certainty, says James. The very idea of pluralism is repugnant to the tender-minded.

There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme. Pluralistic moralism simply makes their teeth chatter, it refrigerates the very heart within their breast.

Pluralism is closely associated with Pragmatism. The heart of Pragmatism is the notion that true differences in opinion must result in differences in action. If two people have a disagreement on some issue but would act the same way no matter how the dispute might be resolved, then the dispute is merely a logomachy—a war of words only. Rather than using the words “true” and “false,” Pragmatists prefer to speak of propositions as having or failing to have agreement with reality. What it means for a blief or proposition to be in agreement with reality is just that if the belief is acted upon, then it will have expected results. If I am thirsty and drink the contents of a cup and my thirst is slaked, then the belief that the contents would slake my thirst were in agreement with my sense of reality. Beliefs, propositions are instruments by which a person gets from one experience to another. Given that there are often several beliefs that have the capacity to serve as instruments for successfully getting to an expected experience, it would make no sense to say that there is only one belief in agreement with reality; it makes little sense, in other words, to say that there is only one truth.

When Pragmatism is applied to religious doctrines, it turns out that not only are there many paths to salvation, but there are also many goals that can be described as salvation. So while it may be the case that many religious traditions promise some kind of salvation, it does not at all follow that all religions are promising the same salvation. The beatific vision described as the salvation for which Roman Catholics strive may not at all appeal to the Buddhist striving for nrivāṇa, and one Buddhist’s nirvāṇa may not appeal at all to another Buddhist. The religious pluralist is not in the least bothered by this, for he has no expectation that all people should have the same ultimate goal.

I am both a religious and a moral pluralist. It is probably this fact that makes me quite comfortable with both Quakers and with Buddhists, and with several varieties of each of these. It is my pluralism that makes it possible to call myself both a Quaker and a Buddhist.I have no wish or need to convince others that this approach to life makes sense. Given one’s temperament, religious and moral plurlism either makes sense or it doesn’t. James was probably right in saying that for some the very idea refrigerates the hearts within their breast. Perhaps the most one can ask of such people is that they at least recognize that they are sharing a planet with people whose mentalities are constructed other than theirs and that there is no evidence that this fact is plunging the human race into disaster. If anything is proving unworkable and disastrous, it is the conflict that comes about when those whose dispositions incline them more toward absolutism and dogmatism attempt either to impose their wills on others or to rid the world of those who have other absolutes or those who have no absolutist tendencies at all.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 09:09

A liberal by any other name

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Like many other people today, I watched the funeral service for Senator Ted Kennedy. Like a good many other people, I was struck by the constant references to his faith, and to his drawing inspiration from the gospels and the Hebrew prophets. His long career as a public figure working for the poor, the mentally ill, the physically ill, immigrants seeking to improve their lives, the downtrodden was all inspired by Christian teachings. Similarly, his work for racial desegregation and for a full equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their race, their religion, their political convictions or their sexual orientation bore the unmistakable stamp of his Christian values in general and his Roman Catholic values in particular.

Ted Kennedy called himself a liberal. What he called his liberal values were so intimately tied to his Christian values that it is difficult to imagine anyone being a Christian without also being a liberal. But one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, for liberal values are also at the heart of being  Jewish, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Buddhist, and Sikh, and Jain. It is difficult to imagine anyone being truly serious about any of the world’s religions without being deeply committed to the traditional liberal values of protecting the poor against the wealthy, the weak against the powerful, the feeble-minded against the clever, the humble against the mighty, the peaceful against the warlike, the few against the many. It is impossible for me to imagine being a sincere practitioner of any religious tradition without being committed to what Catholics during the Second Vatican Council called the preferential option for the poor. That is, whenever there is a struggle between the rich protecting their vested interests and the poor struggling for a basic livelihood, and  fundamental human rights, and dignity, and equality of opportunity, one should always side with the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. That is the message the prophets of Israel brought. It is what Jesus of Nazareth taught. It is the message of the Qur’ān and the prophet Muhammad. It is a central theme in the teachings of the Buddha. It is what Confucius and his followers repeatedly sought to implement. It is also what humanism is all about. These are the basic values not only of the religious but also of many agnostics and atheists.

A word that many people don’t like to use because they find it too nebulous in meaning is spiritual. Some people use the word to refer to espousing the core values of the world’s religions without necessarily buying in to the rituals and the dogmas of any those traditions. That is one way of using the word, but it is not entirely accurate, for that usage suggests there is a dichotomy between being religious and being spiritual. That is, however, a false dichotomy. While it’s true that people who prefer never to go inside a church or temple or synagogue or mosque can be spiritual, it’s also true that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can all be spiritual. Just as one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, one need not avoid organized religion to be spiritual. Just as liberalism embraces all the religions, and many ways of thinking that are not at all religious, so does spirituality.

It would not be going to far, I think, to suggest that spiritual and liberal overlap in meaning a great deal. They are not synonymous. But they are close enough in connotation that people who are allergic to one word can use the other without being too badly misunderstood.

I am among those who will miss Ted Kennedy’s tireless crusades for the poor and the powerless. And I am among those who know that the word crusade comes into English from the Spanish and from the Latin word for cross. A crusader carries the cross into his battles. Ted Kennedy did that brilliantly and unfailingly. One need not be a Christian to feel grateful to him for doing that. One need only be spiritual. And in being spiritual, one cannot help also being a liberal.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 21:01

Taking precautions against certainty

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A conception of the world arises in you somehow, no matter how. Is it true or not? you ask.
It might_ be true somewhere, you say, for it is not self-contradictory.
It may be true, you continue, even here and now.
It is fit to be true, it would be well if it were true, it ought to be true, you presently feel.
It must be true, something persuasive in you whispers next; and then—as a final result—
It shall be held for true, you decide; it shall be as if true, for you.
And your acting thus may in certain special cases be a means of making it securely true in the end.

The steps outlined above by William James in his collection of lectures entitled A Pluralistic Universe suggest, as he goes on to explain, that we human beings arrive at convictions through a series of steps that are not at all logical. Rather than arriving at our convictions through a series of logical steps, he says, we all tend to climb what he calls the “faith ladder” to a psychological sense of certainty. We become sure that what make makes sense to us, given our own private experiences and the ways we have been indoctrinated, must be true.

The next step after that is often to raise the alarm that those to whom different conclusions make more sense must be in the wrong, and therefore are in need of being corrected. In the most drastic cases, those who prove themselves to be incorrigible and who persist in their erroneous thinking may come to be deemed dangerous and in need of being eliminated. It takes little familiarity with human history to see how much physical injury and death have been inflicted by some people on others out of a conviction that the victims of the violence were holding dangerous views. The irony of the act of inflicting violence on people who are seen as dangerous rarely manifests itself to those who are themselves victims of their own sense of certainty.

What precautions can one take against becoming certain that one is right? There are a few that come to mind. Perhaps you can think of more.

  • Be careful of the company you keep. We all have the tendency to keep company with people who agree with us on most matters that we take think are important. This no doubt leads to pleasant social interactions, but it is not the best way to guard oneself against a false sense of security in one’s convictions. Better is to seek the company of a variety of people with different backgrounds and to listen carefully to their accounts of what they have experienced and how they have interpreted their experiences.
  • Read widely and actively seek out a diversity of perspectives from the news and opinion media. If you find yourself agreeing with most of what you see on Fox News, try watching Bill Moyers or Now on PBS, or listen to Amy Goodman on NPR. Conversely, if you watch mostly PBS and listen to NPR, broaden your horizons by taking in something like Glenn Beck on Fox News. Read both The National Review and The New Republic. Rather than taking sides on the conflict in the Middle East, seek out both al-Jazeerah and Haaretz.
  • Actively seek religious diversity. If your inclination is to stay away from organized religion, try going to a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a Buddhist or a Hindu temple. Talk to people. Find out what is important to them. Ask questions. If your habit is to go to religious services regularly, try going to the services of a religious organization that promotes views different from your own. Or talk to someone whom you know or suspect to be an atheist or an agnostic. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices and your fearful ignorance.
  • Take some courses at a local adult education program or a community college or a university. Learn something new. Look into something you never even knew existed before.
  • Try reading some William James. He wrote so many books and essays that it may be difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, it does not really matter. Everything he wrote is full of intelligence and insight, and he was an excellent stylist. If you get nothing else out of it, you are likely to get some joy out of reading beautifully written English (often liberally sprinkled with German, French, Latin and Greek words and expressions, because he respects your intelligence and knows you occasionally like to read something besides Surfing the Web for Dummies.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, August 14, 2009 at 13:03

Kaliyuga

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Everyone who has studied the religious philosophies of India is likely to be familiar with the concept of the kaliyuga (the age of strife), described in vivid detail the epic literature as a time when general public morality has broken down to such an extent that violence and corruption is the norm. Buddhist literature also describes a time when morality will be so rare that not only will people not aspire to be good, but the very idea of goodness will be forgotten.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the twenty-first century could be described in the same terms as the kaliyuga delineated in the Hindu epics or the age of degeneration described by the Buddhists. The eras described in the Indian literature is much worse than anything we are experiencing today. On the other hand, it does feel as though societies around the world are slowly drifting in the direction of the sort of moral breakdown described in such graphic terms in ancient Indian literature. Greed, hatred and delusion seem to be waxing rather than waning. Perhaps it always seems that way, no matter when one lives.

Perhaps the descriptions of degenerate times in ancient literature are descriptions of what is fairly constant in human condition. Perhaps, as such religious teachers of various traditions have taught, there will never be liberation from the effects of greed, hatred and delusion this side of the grave.

What, aside from wringing one’s hands, can one do? These days I find myself thinking about those religious philosophies that promote the idea that the world we experience is mostly a product of our own thinking. Those who see the world mostly in terms of sin and its punishment or of a struggle between cosmic forces of Good and Evil do seem to live in a cramped and uncomfortable world that threatens them. Those who see the world mostly in terms of opportunities to grow and heal seem to live in a more spacious and congenial world that nourishes them.

If those appearances are at all accurate, they raise the question: to what extent are any of us able to choose the way we see the world? Can one simply decide not to see the world in terms of sin and its punishment and opt instead for a less disturbing way of seeing the world? The answer, I think, is a carefully qualified Yes.

The doctrine of karma has always made sense to me; at least, one of the many ways of looking at karma has made sense to me ever since I first read about it. The view that appeals to me is one that says our every deliberate action reinforces a tendency to act in a similar way again. In other words, every action reinforces a habit. The collection of all of our habits is known as character. And the kind of character one has exerts a strong influence on how comfortable one is in the world. Habit can be broken, but the longer one acts in a particular habitual pattern, the more difficult it is to break the pattern. If one has the habit of passing negative judgment on others, and if one makes no efforts to break the habit, one is much more likely to perceive oneself as belonging in a dangerous and evil world than if one made successful efforts to cultivate alternative habits of thinking. One the other hand, if one consciously cultivates the habit of being kind and friendly, the likelihood of acting cruelly or passing negative judgments on others is reduced. That is how many Buddhists discuss karma. It makes sense to me. I have developed the habit of thinking of human experience in those terms.

The Buddhist view of karma described above does not leave much room for grace. It does not leave much room for the view that human beings are vitiated by negative tendencies that they are powerless to overcome through their own efforts and that they must therefore hope for an undeserved gift of grace from a higher power. On the other hand, it does seem as though some people do acquire such destructive and counterproductive ways of thinking that they lose the capacity to reverse the direction of their habits. The idea of the kaliyuga is that the human race could collectively fall into such negative and counterproductive habits that hardly any individuals would have the wherewithal to turn those habits around. It is a sobering reminder of the momentum of habit and character.

When offered a sobering reminder, it is not a bad idea to reflect on it soberly.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, July 24, 2009 at 10:50