Sunday, October 20, 2013

Confessions of a Skyhooks Buddhist

A Skyhooks Buddhist insists that there is something pulling us upward. It is not all just that we (and all life) are pushed up from the soil. The Buddha famously instructed that we not waylay our practice by engaging in vain speculations about matters metaphysical, which can endlessly, pointlessly spin the wheels in our heads.

Picture is of a 56-foot-high statue in Trafford Park, in the metropolis of Greater Manchester, England.
But people are a curious lot, who nose into everything. And a lot of progress has been made in the two-dozen-plus centuries since Buddha walked the rocky soil. We have absolute understanding, today, about things Buddha, if it had been his inclination, could not have guessed about. Matters abstruse have a way of yielding under the microscope of an eons’-long gaze. Data accumulates. Facts fall into our laps like ripe apples loosed from trees. We chip away at the mountain of things hither-to-now unknown and add precious stone to the pile of that which we have become certain.

Still, our very existence, and matters surrounding it, remain a peculiar and near-absolute mystery. Why are we here and how is life even possible? Why shouldn't there be an absolute nothingness?

The reductionists think that life, including humans, is just some sort of mechanism. Our mind is only our brain.
The reductionists and the physicalists are now having their day. We are getting ever-better at understanding molecules and their behaviors, the keys to chemical reactions and what manifests from many phrases in our DNA. It’s as if the puzzle pieces are beginning to fit to explain life as a wholly physical process. We are all just these soft, squishy replicating robots that sprang up from the ground. From a bounty of mistakes and seeming flaws we became ever better at sustaining ourselves and replicating ourselves until we, pretty much, have taken over the earth. And here we now are: Billions of buttheads, the winners of a grand interspecies game of King of the Hill.

But I abstain from accepting that ready conclusion. There is something else; I don’t know what.

Perhaps it is somewhere in altruism at fullest bloom – when some of us act discordantly with the rush of self interest that supposedly propels our species – where something other, better, higher can be found. An RSA viddie from a couple years ago has Oren Harman talking about Radical Altruism in other species and in us.




There is also the mystery of consciousness. The physicalists think that the brain is the mind; that that hunk of cheese in our skull is of such amazing capability that it creates our world for us – or the connection with the world outside.

But for me, and for the Dalai Lama, there is the puzzle of color to contend with and other matters of what we experience that must be "something else." We know – we think we know, anyway – that color is just wavelength that we interpret as a field of hues. But if color isn't color outside of us, where does it come from? How does the hunk of cheese, our brain, stir red – or any other color – into being?

Philosopher Frank Jackson made an argument that is famous in the 'philosophy of mind.' He supposed there was this woman, Mary, who had never experienced the color red. She's fully brilliant; experiences everything else, but is "locked out" of knowing "red." Indeed, she becomes a pre-eminent neurologist and comes to know everything knowable about the physical side of what there is in the world. Suddenly, the doors of perception are flung open and red is made available to Mary. Doesn't this show that red is outside of the physical world and is pure perception, or qualia as it's called – something of a different order of existence/experience/being.

Indeed, I would say that Jackson is right. I "buy" this demonstration/proof of dualism. Hooray, Frank Jackson – only, Jackson, the creator of "What Mary Knew" has come to disagree with his proof and has, now, fallen in with the damn materialists/physicalists/reductionist bastards!!

You can hear Jackson, interviewed by the boys of Philosophy Bites, in a fifteen-minute audio podcast, explaining "What Mary Knew" and why he has abandoned dear dualism: "Philosophy Bites: Frank Jackson on What Mary Knew."

Despite the frustrations, I know – I just KNOW – there is something UP there. Something vaster and meaningful. We are greatness, that added extra to our hunk of cheese.

A version of this post first appeared in the Progressive Buddhism blog.

3 Comments:

Blogger Tom Carr said...

I don't know if there is something up there, or if we evolved from matter. I think either way the truths of Buddhism hold. I think that being attached to either view could be a problem.

Were you just joking when you said "the damn materialists/physicalists/reductionist bastards!! "? If you were not joking, I suggest you look at your attachment and aversion to particular point of view.

July 26, 2014 at 8:29 AM  
Blogger Tom Carr said...

I don't know if there is something up there, or if we evolved from matter. I think either way the truths of Buddhism hold. I think that being attached to either view could be a problem.

Were you just joking when you said "the damn materialists/physicalists/reductionist bastards!! "? If you were not joking, I suggest you look at your attachment and aversion to particular point of view.

July 26, 2014 at 8:30 AM  
Blogger Thomas Armstrong said...

Tom, I lapsed into joking. I was firing a cannon at my physicalist/materialist friends. But I do think that if the physicalist theory proves to be correct, it creates problems regarding any meaning to being alive. Also, as I tried to show, there must be other things going on about what we are that go beyond or go outside an all-physical explanation.

Whether Buddhism survives the Ultimate Ontological Understanding of who we are, I would hope so, but can't say.

July 26, 2014 at 9:04 AM  

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