Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Buddhism and Naturalism

I am beginning to explore the parallels and contrasts between Buddhism and Naturalism. This video series on Naturalism is presented by Sean Carroll on ‘Moving Naturalism Forward”, from a workshop held in 2012. Sean Carroll is a physicist who has become a public scholar in the realm of scientific atheism, which he prefers to call ‘Naturalism’, that the universe and human experience (consciousness, etc) can be better explained in terms of science than religion. ‘Naturalism’ is proposed as the opposite of ‘supernaturalism’.


Be sure to watch the Introductions of all the participants. You’ll get a good sense of their expertise and what they bring to the discussion.

This video series is a ‘retreat’ with some of western world’s foremost scientist-philosophers who are tackling all the issues presented by Buddhism, and yet go far beyond anything that Buddhism ever contemplated. They’ve edited down the workshop to videos that are 5 to 20 minutes long arranged by topic:
• Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
• Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
• Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
• Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
• Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
• Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
• Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
• Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
• Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

I’m not saying that Naturalism is ‘the truth’ or that these people have all the answers—they freely admit they don’t have all the answers. But they do have really critical questions and powerful provisional answers, and they are using a cognitive toolkit that is far beyond anything proposed by Buddhism.

What’s really beneficial about Naturalism is it’s openness to science, to continued confrontation with empirical reality, openness to new ideas, discoveries and positions. This is what Buddhism lacks because it’s a religion that is stuck on concepts that were developed 2500 years ago, and just repeats the same concepts and answers over and over again, never really developing anything new. We have come so much further in 2500 years, especially in the last 100 years of science.

So my direction now is this: set Buddhist dharma aside and focus on Naturalism, or let dharma be an intuitive voice within the discussion of Naturalism as a philosophy that offers some interesting questions and perspectives. Naturalism is not ‘the truth” but it has the cognitive horsepower to take discussion on all the issues that Buddhism is concerned with to levels it has never been able to go.

I started watching these videos beginning with the series on ‘Morality’, because I knew it would be the most difficult issue for scientists to deal with; and indeed it was. Several panelists quoted David Hume, that you ‘cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ Almost all of them, except the economist, said that they could not foresee, at the population level, a rational or computational way to determine how people ‘ought’ to behave. The economist (also a physicist) offered ‘game theory’ as a quantifiable method to determine ‘ought’ from ‘is.’

This is where Buddhism could enter the discussion and offer more rigorous insights into  human psychology and behavior (having more social scientists in the room would also help). Buddhism could offer insights into ethical behavior, empathy and compassion, relief of suffering and prevention of harm. Buddhism offers this at both the most basic level—the five precepts—and the most sophisticated level–Mahayana and Vajrayana ethics (with caveats).

I like where the Naturalist discussion is going because it is going somewhere, and incorporates all the conundrums and complexities of the human predicament; whereas I find Buddhism is stuck in its own thinking and hasn’t changed much since the beginning of Buddhist Modernism in the 19th century.

So I’m about ready to stake my flag and set up my tent in the Buddhist Naturalism camp. “One who knows dependent origination knows the dharma”. I believe that dharma opens up the whole universe of empirical analysis and experience to the dharma practitioner. I see Naturalism as the furthest extension of dependent origination, encompassing everything the Buddha taught, but going far beyond the traditional teachings. I combine that dharma-knowledge with what I take to be the excellent ethical teachings of Buddhism and the practice of meditation, which I find personally beneficial.

I know that Naturalism, or Naturalist Buddhism, is only a provisional answer, and that ultimately, there are no final answers, only questions. ‘Answers’ are always provisional and subject to change under new circumstances, and that there are always better questions to ask.



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This entry was posted on 2018/05/20 by .


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