Ask a Philosophical Counselor: Is Buddhism True?
Here is a slightly edited exchange between me and a philosophically engaged practitioner of Buddhist meditation who contacted me for what I think is an excellent example of philosophical counseling.
Dear Professor Repetti,
My name is Matteo Liberatore. I am a musician and former philosophy student living in NYC. I started studying Buddhist philosophy and having a daily meditation practice about a year ago, after having read several books on the subject. My deep appreciation for meditation and its effects are somewhat being challenged by my recent readings about free will and modern neuroscience (Sam Harris, Michael Gazzaniga, Robert Wright). While looking online for reading material I found your name as an expert on the subject. My question is in regard to the meditation practice: In Vipassana we simply "observe" the workings of our mind. At times we are able to "watch" everything that arises, other times we are carried away. When we realize we have been carried away by thoughts, we return to observe. Now, "who" is realizing that we've been thinking? It seems to me the process of being able to return to observe our mind at work rather than being caught in it is totally "random". I have no power to NOT get lost in my thoughts, nor the control to decide when to come back to just observe them. If I had that power, I wouldn't get lost in my thoughts in the first place, and that would also mean I would have some sort of free will.
Isn't the "observing, reflecting mind" that Buddhists talk about then just another illusion of being able to have some sort of agency toward our mind at work? We can't control our thoughts, but even the ability to "return to observe them" sounds like a paradox to me. That would imply that there is some part of the brain that "we" actually have control over? I read the work of Michael Gazzaniga regarding brain modules. I would imagine than in that context, the "reflective mind" is just another module at work and we have no conscious agency over it. In this context "enlightenment" doesn't seem to make sense to me. Or, in modern terms, is it just the dominance of a brain module over another (in the same way that a brain module somehow would make us start running and losing weight rather than keep watching TV). If Buddhist philosophy believes in the idea of no-self, "who" is observing the mind during meditation, if not the mind itself?
If you could direct me to readings that could somehow address these issues I would deeply appreciate. Thank you very much for your time!
Welcome to my nightmare, as (I think) Frank Zappa might put it. Your experience and genuine existential/philosophical curiosity are very close to my own. Your puzzling over these specific questions resonates with me. I don’t have definitive answers, but like you I have authentic and serious questions about this. Meditation provides something like an existential elixir for me, and of the various theoretical and philosophical lenses through which to try to make sense of what I get from meditation, Buddhist philosophy comes closest. Yet, like you, some elements of that narrative don’t fit with my experience, my thinking, or my gut level instincts and intuitions. I agree Sam Harris poses puzzling challenges to our sense of agency, as do cognitive scientists and others like Thomas Metzinger who offer models of consciousness that deflate our senses of ourselves, but I don’t buy it. To me, their arguments are all flawed, simplistic, and one sided. I’m writing a monograph right now on Buddhism and free will, but the final draft is due end of next month, so it won’t be published (with Routledge) till toward the latter part of 2018. Meanwhile, I’ve published several articles on this that are free online; check my CV on my website for them: www.rickrepetti.com, which also has a lot of other useful info, meditations, blog posts, etc. Great to connect with someone working within the same existential/philosophical headspace.
Thank you very much for your reply. (I apologize in advance for the long email…) I downloaded your CV, I’ll read the articles. i am really looking forward to reading your thoughts on this. Your website has really great content. I haven’t had a chance to read all the sections yet but I will. I just listened to a podcast of yours for The Secular Buddhist. Pretty amazing to hear about your out of body experiences. I’ll buy your “Agentless Agency?” book and refer back. At one point you mention Strawson and his argument that determinist thinkers do act like they have free will. I think it’s an important point. Even though I was exposed to these issues when a friend of mine wrote a thesis on Epiphenomenalism, it wasn’t until I started reflecting on my own experience and eventually meditating that this issue became important. I started meditating a year ago but I was exposed to Zen many years before while studying jazz music and improvisation.
To expand a bit on my issues and understanding: I don’t know if it’s because I am an improviser, but I do really “feel” the Buddhist idea of no self. When I am improvising, there are times where my brain achieves a samadhi like state of absorption and I really just “see” the music going through me. There’s no “me” involved. It really feels like witnessing something. Based on these experiences, when I started meditating I somehow had an immediate insight on what emptiness feels like. After a year of practice, I can confirm that I think I understand what Buddha was trying to say regarding the self. When I reach samadhi in music performance, I know that it’s not “myself" making the musical choices. When I have moments of real emptiness in my meditation, I FEEL what Buddha is talking about. As Buddhists would say, this no self concept is experiential, direct knowledge. Trying to wrap our heads around it to explain it to non-meditators seems arduous at best! I am sure you share this frustration with me.
My issue, the one that is somehow questioning my ”faith” in Buddhism, is the idea of what they call the “reflective mind", the mind that observes. (As I wrote in the previous email, the feeling of meditating and the idea of “noticing the thoughts” isn’t something I feel like I have any control over. Snapping back from getting lost in my thoughts really feels like something that happens by itself). If according to Gazzaniga and modern neuroscience our brain is a dog-eat-dog world where different modules compete for different goals and the winner eventually appears in our consciousness, then the “reflective mind” is just another state of mind that happens to appear in our consciousness as a result of brain activity. Hence, just like any other object of the mind, it arises, ceases, and it’s not self. If we accept this, then the whole Buddhist scaffolding crumbles. At that point it becomes like any other faith: something you have to believe in in order to have positive effects on you.
Besides that, I am also questioning the wonderful idea that through meditation you learn to see a “truer” world, a deeper world. Since I started meditating, I have had many moments of perceiving reality differently, more “real”. Moments of clarity that gave me immense joy. Seeing a tree on the street and feeling like you are actually SEEING it for real. It’s a sensation, a perceptive understanding that made me believe that the clearer the mind is the more I’ll experience life in that way, and that is exhilarating (Robert Wright talks at length about this in his new book “Why Buddhism Is True", and I relate to his words on this topic). My disillusion comes from the fact that if reflective consciousness is just another state of mind, than that “altered” reality I experienced several times isn’t a higher, truer form of reality, but just another state of mind I have no control over and it appears in my consciousness whenever it wants to without me having any control over it. Plus, since it's still perceived by my brain, I can't say that it’s a more REAL state, a state closer to the “view from nowhere”, to use Thomas Nagel words. I admit it’s a mental state that feels incredible and I will keep practicing meditation to hopefully be able to live more in that mind state. But who are we to say that it’s a truer state of mind, or closer to what the world actually is?
The other strange thing to me is, how is it possible that both Sam Harris and Robert Wright, amazing thinkers, talk about Buddhism enthusiastically without seeing the deep problems that it raises against their own deterministic view of the brain? I am not a professional philosopher so I’m sure my writing has many flaws (I am also not a native speaker), but I hope you get where my doubts are coming from.
I would love to buy you a coffee some day!
Here's one article I published about Buddhism, meditation, and free will, in 2010, attached. It sets forth many of my main intuitions on the subject, but my views have evolved since, and continue to. The free will issue has always been a pet philosophical curiosity of mine, given certain precognitive experiences I've had (when I began serious meditation practice) that were too complex to be explained away as a function of mere coincidence, but involved several seemingly disjointed individuals making several completely independent choices that would make it seem impossible for anyone to know about the pre-cognized events that were a function of all those and countless other choices and contingent phenomena, which led me to wonder if we really have free will, if time is an illusion, if there is a dimension outside time, if information from the future can travel backwards in time, etc.
My meditation experiences have been similar to yours in terms of what some describe as spontaneity, or doing without doing (wu wei wu, the Taoists call it), and many creative folks insist they create best when they are absent from the process. (See the book on this, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.) However, I also experience my own agency, mental autonomy, will, effort, bringing things about in a way that I experience as entirely up to me, such that I could genuinely either do or not do X, etc., however infrequently. The more I practice meditation, however, the more my agency seems to increase, while paradoxically my attachment to my identity and my motivations seems to lighten or loosen up. I've written about this, what I think is the increasing tendency along the Buddhist meditative path toward the limit case of nirvana, what I have described as agentless agency.
Of course, we could be wrong about this, and folks like Harris and Gazzaniga think we are, but I think their conclusions are weakly supported, at best, by the sorts of evidence and reasoning they appeal to. For me, there are no sacred cows, so I'm more interested in what makes the most sense in light of the best evidence, which includes my own experience and understanding, than I am in maintaining some system of beliefs and doctrines, like Buddhism, despite how much existential comfort one can often find by framing all their existential indigestion in terms of such a system. I agree with you that there are elements of Buddhism that make it difficult to wholeheartedly embrace it even if we wanted to, such as the puzzles you point out: if Harris, Wright, and others are right, there are simple ways in which that completely undermines their positions. Here's just one: if they are right, then all the stuff they say is just evolutionary noise that has nothing to do with anything other than whatever opaque purposes nature has provided for the processes behind their utterances, and that sort of perspective is equally applicable to their listeners, and to everything else that seems to have meaning.
Yes, there is a puzzle here, in fact, several puzzles. While we try to resolve them, I will maintain my practice, but I will also be mindful of the possibility that the narrative, explanatory frames that Buddhism supplies for interpreting, shaping, and understanding meditative experience, agency, personhood, and reality were themselves significantly shaped by contingent anthropological, socioeconomic, cultural, and related factors that need to be chewed on, tasted, and tested before swallowing and digesting whole, and I also imagine that much of the package is in error, like any other cultural download, e.g., our (shared, Italian) ethnic culture and its cosmic Divina Comedia framework, as informed by the Romans, the Popes, the Medici, Dante, Aquinas, etc.
Western science and technology is self-validating, but much of the culture that led to it is contingent and not automatically validated by the validity of technology. So, too, for meditative science, which, contrary to the faithful, is not really a science. Neuroscience is not really a science yet, either, insofar as the bulk of it more resembles pseudoscience, when you consider the biggest output of neuroscience in the past decade has been infected by the reverse inference fallacy: brain region x is active when test subjects do y, so we conclude that x is the cause of y. Gazzaniga and Harris are what Thomas Metzinger might consider 'philosophical entrepreneurs' in that they are running with arguments that have popular sales appeal at this time, but are not really deeply exploring consciousness from the inside, despite Harris's earlier years of having apparently done that. To me, his arguments are all one-sided, flawed, and flashy. Gazzaniga is just a theorist.
We do not know enough to have the sort of confidence these individuals portray, nor to have the sort of confidence that so-called 'Dharma teachers' display. Tibetan lamas are as steeped in their faith as Roman Catholic cardinals are, so their confidence may be seen as a function of their being deeply vested in a hierarchical system of beliefs and attainments that is pre-modern, their meditative wisdom notwithstanding. Almost all religions point the finger at the ego, self, as the culprit, and offer technologies for reducing, taming, or eliminating it, but when viewed through the theoretical lens of asking what sociological function such narratives serve, one has reason to suspect that it is in the interests of the priestly class to convince the populace that the one thing that gives them their power, their own autonomy, is the problem, one the priestly class will guide them in removing. From that perspective, I think it is wise to consider whether the no-self doctrine is really a way to enable individuals to realize a deeper metaphysical truth about the ephemeral nature of the subject of experience or to bring about its disassembly. What would the best kind of cult member's nature be? A follower of the teacher who has no sense of self. Cui bono? (as our ancestors wisely asked).
I'm not saying this is a Buddhist conspiracy. But memes are like genes, and the ones that propagate well typically spread beyond their authors' original intentions, taking on a life of their own, and inadvertently supporting those situated to benefit from them, as well as what may be called meme entrepreneurs, not unlike investors in the stock market, who see an opportunity and run with it. Our culture rewards confidence and punishes honest uncertainty. You, like me, seem to prize honest uncertainty. It's your moral and philosophical compass. Trust that. As Descartes might say, trust your doubts. To me, questions and doubts are much more important and trustworthy than confident answers and the social systems that arise around them.
I'm sure we'll meet some day for that espresso...
Thank you for your response. It makes a whole lot of sense. The only thing that I know for sure is that these readings are undermining my meditation practice quite a bit. I wonder if it's a good idea to go down the analytical-scholar path and at the same time meditate. You seem to be able to do it quite well!
Very astute, the concern about these philosophical issues undermining faith in the practice. When I was an undergrad at Brooklyn College, I recall one of my favorite philosophy professors, Stanley Malanovich, in our Ethical Theory class, asking us if we thought philosophy tends to undermine faith. Most of the students in the class thought so, I recall, but I didn’t then. It was my faith in my own mystical experiences that had fueled my philosophical curiosity. However, over the decades of being exposed to the various methods of logic, reasoning, epistemological analyses, metaphysical analyses, meta-philosophical considerations and meta-principles, things like Ockham’s razor, error theories, evidentialism, evidence-transcending hypotheses, and so on, and all the many different ways in which language and thought can mislead, I have cultivated such a discriminating, discerning, critical mind, which is actually sharper from my decades of meditation practice, that overall I now see how much more difficult it is for me to accept anything on faith, or insufficient evidence, or that which is just that (insufficient grounds) but not transparently so because it is cloaked in opacity, vagueness, abstract complexity, etc. I have what one of my favorite CUNY Graduate School mentors, the (late) Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics, Jerry Katz, described as “a good nose” (for sensing philosophical flaws in reasoning). It’s ironically inevitable (ironic, because I argue against inevitablism) that this skeptical nose would sniff out problems with the original experiences that led to my faith in the practice, as well as with all the sorts of problems that led you to contact me connected with philosophical theorizing about consciousness, agency, what meditation really amounts to, and the like.
My only consolation is the sobriety of intellectual honesty, together with the nonconceptual balm of touching what the Taoists call the roots, the nondual ground of being, in my meditations, and the sense that comes with thinking (even if it is unknowing or just imagining) that such experiences somehow bring me into some sort of more meaningful, trans-conceptual contact with reality. But all my philosophical training, perhaps combined with my meditative practices, has nonetheless tended to make me more comfortable with general agnosticism about things that are not clearly known, including what's really going on with philosophical analysis, agency, and meditation. One meditation master's advice might be apt here. I forget where I read this story, but from what I recall, a meditation student on retreat is coming to experience a similar sort of existential uncertainty, although I forget how he described it, but when he gets his next interview with the Master, he complains that his meditation practice has tended to undermine all his beliefs, nothing seems clearly true or obvious, it is as if he has lost his footing, his grounding, and he feels like he's falling, existentially. The Master's reply went something like this: "Falling is ok. It's actually good. Landing is the problem!"
That is in keeping with the Buddhist teaching on impermanence: nothing in the world of ordinary experience or 'conditioned phenomena' lasts long enough to stand on, to rest on, to land on, to settle on, and so forth. Accepting that is something that tends to happen more the more you practice meditation. But whether or not it is wise for you to continue reading things and examining things that are tending to undermine your faith is a tricky question. On the one hand, everyone ought to examine their beliefs to test their validity, and in your case, you've already slipped into the rabbit hole of philosophy of mind, after which it is difficult to adopt what would amount to an ostrich-like psychology of ignoring issues and imagining that they have gone away. On the other hand, the wisdom traditions associated with meditation suggest that during the early stages of practice on the meditative path, it is wise to protect one's practice by staying away from people, places, and things (to borrow a triple idea from 12-step addiction recovery programs) that threaten the stability of one's practice. I'm not sure if it was Ramana Maharshi or Ramakrishna, both Hindu saints of the early 1900s, but one of them used an analogy: when a tree is just a sapling, the farmer builds a fence around it, to protect it from animals and other possible causes of damage to it, but when it is big and strong enough, it can handle almost anything on its own. Some in the same tradition have suggested that practitioners, especially beginners, should keep their practices and their experiences in them to themselves, so as to avoid the potential criticisms of non-practitioners who will likely challenge the beginner's faith. As a critical thinker, I am suspicious of this sort of advice, however, for it would be too convenient for guru types and cult leaders to manipulate the gullible.
I personally prefer your approach, so far, of thinking critically even about the things that seem to be bringing you comfort. But I cannot direct you to prefer what might be uncomfortable truths over comfortable fantasies. This is not to suggest that faith in meditation is a comfortable fantasy; I wish it was that comforting, to merit the description of fantasy. But that's because I'm not easily fooled even by my best experiences. At the same time, however, there is a time and place for everything. You might want to learn how to ride your bike really well before trying to cultivate a philosophy of vehicular motion, to make an analogy with cultivating a stable meditation practice before trying to cultivate a philosophy of mind that accounts for meditation. You need to be the one to decide the extent to which, and when, your investigations should be philosophical as opposed to contemplative. I don't think, based on my take on you so far, that you can eliminate either entirely. It's more about timing, in your case, and execution. Regarding the execution of the philosophical investigation, it's also about casting your net wide enough so as to avoid being overly influenced by folks like Sam Harris, who never seem to present the other side to their views, or if they do, they give them short shrift. The best evidence and reasoning available does not support their views, as far as I can tell, so if you must continue with the philosophical investigation, my advice is to do a more comprehensive investigation.