By R.N. Carmona
It is standard procedure in philosophical practice to anticipate rebuttals. In my last post, I explored reincarnation within a naturalistic framework. Strangely enough, my argument leans much too heavily on the nature aspect of who we are. Yes, if consciousness existed in a vacuum, and if the subject were sufficient to account for consciousness, then my argument would be quite forceful. A possible rebuttal takes the nurture angle, arguing that the subject is not sufficient to account for consciousness because the object is just as, if not, of greater importance when attempting to explain consciousness.
If this is the case, then identity is not so elusive after all and Buddhists and people who deny identity are wrong. How then do any of us answer the question: who are you? If you reply with “Sam,” then you have given us nothing but your name. As it turns out, your name is quite common. If your name gave us a full account of who you are, then anyone named Sam is also you. Clearly, we both disagree with this conclusion so your name is not enough. Exercises like this have been done ad nauseam, so I will spare you the runaround and just give you my answer: I am a particular experiencer. As are you.
Now, that requires some explaining and this is where the object comes into focus. What makes me unique and other than you is that I have had an innumerable set of experiences that, when taken together, you have not had. Granted, it is very possible that we share at least one experience, even if we live a world apart. There are billions of people in China whom I have never met or interacted with and I can say with all the confidence in the world that they share experiences with me: being born, coming down with a cold, sweating, shivering, scrolling on a social media app, feeling a certain emotion like anger or sadness, and so on. I can also say that not one of them shares every single experience unique to me. If they are Chinese nationals, then they probably did not grow up in the Bronx. They do not identify as Puerto Rican or American. They do not check the Latino box when filling out a job application. These experiences, however, are overly simplistic.
Experiences are characterized by a given duration of time, an array of qualitative factors that produce in consciousness any number of qualia that go well beyond simply apprehending the color red or the smell of chocolate. It is also quite possible to have an experience too often and become numb to what makes it unique. One experience a lot of us have in common is that of going to a movie theater. There are certain sights, sounds, textures, and smells that are unique to the experience, but few of us can recall the buttery aroma of popcorn somehow mixing with the dull smell of a carpet that has been sullied and cleaned one too many times. There is the scent of leather seats (if you can count yourself fortunate enough to have the new reclining seats, that is) and other people. There is the texture of the seats, one’s footwear against the carpet, in addition to one’s eyes having to adjust in a very dim setting. So if any of my readers have ever pet a tiger in Thailand or jumped out of a plane to skydive, then they have a unique experience, that if described in full detail, does not align with anything I have ever experienced.
The thing is that I, as a particular experiencer, have had a plethora of experiences in my life that are different from yours. The combination of these experiences is a huge part of what makes me me. The combination of your experiences plays a pivotal role in what makes you you. So it is not enough to say that mental states are inherently finite. While it may be the case that experiences are also finite, I need only convince you that the exact combination of my experiences and my distinctive mental states will never be replicated again and that therefore, naturalistic reincarnation is extremely improbable and dare I say, impossible. The sheer improbability of something, however, does not make a thing impossible, so it is not enough to draw this conclusion and move on.
The improbability has to be crushingly discouraging to persuade you that it is simply more likely that naturalistic reincarnation is not the case. To show this, I am going to begin with a generous initial probability that someone else in the future will have any one of my experiences. I will list as many experiences as come to mind:
- Staying awake for 36 hours straight
- Sleeping for 18 hours straight without waking up
- Fasting for three days straight in a church in the Highbridge section of the Bronx
- Eating dole whip at Disneyland about seven meters from the Indiana Jones attraction
- Riding the Nitro at Six Flags in Jackson, NJ in the front row
- Petting farm animals at Kira’s World Exotics Mini Zoo in Hatillo, Puerto Rico
- Hearing the singing of coquis in Puerto Rico
- Getting jumped on a school bus in the E. 161st Tunnel in the Bronx
- Vomiting after too many drinks on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue
I can think of more experiences that are unique to me, but even when assigning a generous initial probability for any one of these events recurring, the likelihood of all of them recurring is extremely low. What’s more is that I have neglected a lot of variables. What was the weather like? What direction was the wind blowing and at how many miles per hour? How old was I when all of these things happened? I only specified the event and its location because it is already very unlikely that you also vomited on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue because you had one too many drinks. I did not mention that it was Cinco de Mayo in 2016 and after 8pm. The more and more specific I get, the less likely it is you will share this experience. If I were to include the people who were on the train and some of their reactions, which were surprisingly few given the amount of people on the train, the likelihood decreases even more.
In any case, if I were to assign an initial probably of 40% to each experience, we get the following: .40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40 = .000262144 or .026%. I listed just nine events in my life in scant detail and the probability of you experiencing all nine events, even starting with a very generous initial probability for each event of 40%, is very low. Now imagine if I were to be as detailed as possible about as many events as I can remember in my life; I am certain that this number will begin to approach at least one thousand. I can, for example, talk about my earliest memory: waking up in my crib, an infant, hungry and so delirious (probably having a hypnogogic hallucination) that I saw a bottle floating just out of my reach as a pendulum does, left and then right, left and then right; I reached for it and my hand went through it and I started wailing. My dad then gave me an actual bottle. Or I can talk about being seven or so years old and seeing a black and white striped insect fly into my room. It landed on my black toy chest and started to crawl like anthropods do. If I did, in fact, see a flying centipede or millipede that day, I saw a yet to be discovered species, I might add; I have scoured the internet for this insect and have yet to come across anything like it. This was before smart phones, so I could not snap a picture before it fluttered its wings and flew right back out. Hypothetically though, if I did count a thousand experiences with an initial probability of 40%, we get .40 ^ 1,000 or about two thousand decimal places before you arrive at any non-zero integers. So you would get a percentage that is virtually zero.
Given how improbable it is that the combination of experiences one has had will be replicated to the tee in a person that, more or less, has the same exact mental life that one does, i.e., is a one-to-one match to oneself with respect to nature, it is therefore, extremely unlikely that another you or me will be born no matter how long the universe goes on for. The universe can continue to exist for quadrillions of years and I do not think it is very probable that someone will have the combination of our respective experiences. I am a unique experiencer because of the combination of experiences I have had, in addition to the admittedly finite mental states that occur in me. While those mental states very well do occur in other people, the probability that she and I have had the same exact set of experiences is extremely low and it is that that makes us different. It is said that experiences mold us into who we are. Given my argument here, that is likely to be the case. If you are convinced that the unique set of experiences you have had in your lifetime make you you, then I think you cannot be convinced of naturalistic reincarnation. What adds more force to this argument is that I have confined it to experiences I can remember despite the fact that experiences I currently do not recall factor into the person that I am. There are so many unconscious joys and traumas that explain a great deal about us. This starts to venture into psychology, which for our current purposes is unnecessary.
Ultimately, reincarnation is incompatible with naturalism, not because it is too mystical, but because even if we were to imagine a version of reincarnation that is consistent with naturalism, i.e., steel man the notion of reincarnation, one’s full set of experiences is very unlikely to recur in the life of another person. Even twins, though sharing a lot of the same childhood experiences, end up having different experiences that, in turn, ensure that they are different from one another. As I have shown, it is extremely improbable, despite a generous initial probability, for another person to have just nine of the experiences I have had, let alone a thousand or the actual and innumerable experiences I have had in my life. Moreover, the longer one lives, the less likely it becomes that someone else will have one’s experiences. It is even more improbable still that someone in the far future will have the same exact set of experiences and have the same mental life as a centenarian in Japan, e.g. 118-year-old Tanaka Kane, who lives in Fukuoka City. Already, you are at a disadvantage since it is impossible for you to be born in 1903, at the time she was born, and to the same parents. It is virtually guaranteed that your set of experiences will differ from hers. Therein lies identity: you are a particular experiencer with a unique set of experiences. As Dave Chapelle said when remembering his late friend Daphne Dorman: “I am someone having a human experience.” At bottom, this is who we all are, but as with most philosophical topics, the devil is in the details, specifically within the details of our distinct set of experiences.
By R.N. Carmona
When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.
Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.
Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.
Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.
This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.
Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:
In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.
My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.
There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.
This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.
By R.N. Carmona
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print
This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.
The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.
Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.
In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:
The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena.Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.
As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.
When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.
Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.
Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:
Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.
It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.
On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.
Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.
By R.N. Carmona
In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.
Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.
Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:
As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print
The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.
What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:
Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not — hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).
The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”
Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.
Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.
By R.N. Carmona
The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.
What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.
Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering
In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
- Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
- Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
- Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:
- Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
- Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
- Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
- Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
- Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
- Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
- Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
- Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible
Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:
When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print
Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.
Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.Ibid., 16
Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:
Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).
Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:
It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.
The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.
Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:
The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.
Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.
It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.
What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).
Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.
By R.N. Carmona
You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006. 56. Print
Philosophy of religion needs an overhaul. Put another way, the discipline does not need a soft reboot. It is in dire need of a more diverse, inclusive hard reboot; let us blow up the entire universe and start over. The Christian setting and background that has informed the discipline hitherto, along with its White, predominantly male heroes, all but guarantee that the field is destined to go stale. I can go into specifics, showing how Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ Argument Against Naturalism, despite the former being more robust given that it uses the language of modern analytic philosophy. I can point out that Joshua Rasmussen’s Argument From Arbitrary Limits is nothing more than a rehash of the dead horse that is the Argument From Contingency, which has many iterations, none more cogent or persuasive than the other. There is also the issue that the argument makes use of Plantinga’s idea of a maximal being, which makes the argument more vulnerable than its predecessors. I will revisit Rasmussen’s argument in a separate post that is not tied to this current series.
The questions in the reader’s mind are, what’s the point? What would motivate anyone to seek a revamping of the philosophy of religion? The answer is bipartite and the first part of my answer is crucial to understanding the second half of it, which inheres why I am calling for a reformation of the entire field. In recent discussions about philosophy of religion and apologetics, even Christians were hard pressed to demarcate one from the other, with some biting the bullet and settling on the fact that they are virtually the same project. That is my initial problem. I will now reproduce a section from my recent book The Definitive Case Against Christianity: Life After The Death Of God, in hopes that this becomes a lot clearer.
Philosophy, long considered the handmaiden of theology, continues to confront the following problems:
- The philosophy of religion is Christian-centric, as is made painfully obvious by the myriad discussions about the elements of Christianity: the attributes of God; arguments for God, e.g., the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument, etc.; the Problem of Evil.
- Related to the first issue, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy, generally speaking, and apologetics. Moreover, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy of religion and apologetics.
- The works of atheists mostly play according to the apologist’s rules in that Mackie, Martin, Nielsen, Ayer, and so many others have written refutations of popular apologetic arguments. Many atheist philosophers have largely overlooked the first two issues. I will therefore endeavor to right the ship.
In order to solve the first problem, the second problem needs to be solved first. Draper already identifies a glaring issue, what he dubs the paradox of apologetics. What Draper strongly implies is that the enterprise of apologetics is inherently circular. Draper also describes the philosophy of religion as “too partisan…,too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical,” while adding that “the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish” (Draper, Paul, and Ryan Nichols. “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion.” The Monist, vol. 96, no. 3, 2013, pp. 420–446. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42751260. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.). Furthermore, he notes that philosophers of religion are dismissive of pantheism, deism, and ietsism. Wildman notes that young philosophers of religion hoping to land a job wonder if they should “stop talking about philosophy of religion in order to avoid being misunderstood as covert theological apologists on behalf of a particular religious tradition” (Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. xiii. Print.) For the Christian apologist, Christianity must be true, God must exist, and Jesus must have died and resurrected three days later. These biases are impossible for an apologist to disavow because doing so would result in losing his status and identity as a Christian. Keith Reich also identifies the circular reasoning of religious apologists:
Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing. Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point. Apologetics starts with the conclusion. The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be “defended” through research.Reich, Keith. “Scholarship vs. Apologetics”. Know Thyself Blogs. 4 Nov 2015. Web.
Draper adds that religious people, as well as Christian philosophers of religion, have an attachment to God the Father and a deeply rooted conviction that he exists and loves them. Being confronted by arguments concluding that their father figure does not exist prompts negative emotions and inhibits their capacity to weigh the counter-evidence in an impartial manner. This also results in unchecked confirmation bias, which readily explains the issue of circular reasoning among Christian philosophers.
Philosophers, on the other hand, do not proceed from immutable biases of this sort. While it is true that philosophy, like science, is concerned with truth and even with investigating the nature of so-called ultimate reality, philosophy does so using entirely different methodology and fulfills tasks that support science by clarifying the definition of theory or identifying what qualifies as speciation in the animal kingdom, to state a couple of examples. Philosophy is also tasked with securing basic assumptions scientists no longer pay mind to like whether or not the scientist himself exists and whether truth can be apprehended. Philosophy also has a number of aims that once identified make it easier to distinguish between it and apologetics. The overarching purpose is acquisition of truth, but what distinguishes philosophy from anthropology, history, and science is that is has an inherent self-awareness in that it has also attempted to accurately describe what truth is. Likewise, philosophers try to get to the bottom of what constitutes knowledge. Philosophy also investigates a number of propositions, in addition to clarifying distinctions between propositions and the mental activity involved in grasping them (Sokolowski, Robert. “The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 51, no. 3, 1998, pp. 515–532. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20130246. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Aside from informing science, philosophy informs other disciplines; for instance, an anthropologist examining the differences between a religion and a cult will offer a series of propositions delineating one from the other, i.e., the anthropologist will philosophize to arrive at the differences between a religion and a cult.
Philosophy also aims to discover the underlying foundations that are irreducible, necessary, and sufficient. It accomplishes this via a formal calculus or logic (“On Method.” Thoughts and Ways of Thinking: Source Theory and Its Applications, by Benjamin Brown, Ubiquity Press, London, 2017, pp. 1–4. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3s8tn7.4. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Logic, therefore, is one of the hallmark methods in philosophy. Wildman also observes that analysis is entitled in the process of inquiry and it guides “the elaboration, testing, and refinement of hypothetic explanatory models toward optimal clarity and consistency” (Ibid., 7). Similarly, Penelope Maddy observes “that a large part, if not all, of the philosopher’s job is the careful analysis of the content of concepts like ‘cause’, ‘freedom’, and…’knowledge’. Conceptual analysis led to the advent of analytic philosophy (Maddy, Penelope. What Do Philosophers Do? Skepticism and the Practice of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 60, 62-63. Print.). As Reich observed, apologists also use the language of logic, but if they are doing so in a circular manner, then they are misusing the method. Draper’s solution to differentiate between philosophy of religion and apologetics is to require philosophers of religion to use argument construction to test their positions as opposed to using logical arguments to make a case for their positions. Given the issue of confirmation bias, he sees no other alternative (Ibid.).
To see the apologist’s misuse of logic, one need only consider their favorite mode of reasoning, namely deduction. Since apologists proceed from predilections that they confuse for axioms, a lot of them ignore that validity and soundness are not the same thing. That is because propositions do not emerge in a vacuum; nor do they stand alone. In fact, the apologist’s baseless foundationalism would fall victim to an infinite regress of epistemic justification. Take for instance, the observation that all men are mortal. We can now propose that since all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then he is mortal. If propositions stood alone, it would be impossible to refute the negation of this deductive argument. In other words, one would be able to argue that all men are not mortal and since Socrates is a man, it follows that he is not mortal. Both arguments are valid, but only one of them is sound. The manner in which one decides between the two arguments is through the realization that propositions, generally speaking, have a correspondence to reality.
Tangentially, it can be granted that a weak pluralism should be allowed if only because foundationalist axioms can apply to logical and mathematical theorems. There are pure or abstract logical and mathematical theorems that have no correspondence to reality and as such, correspondence theory of truth has limits. For example, when doing mathematical proofs, there are multiples sets N (the set of natural numbers), Z ( the set of integers), Q (the set of rational numbers), and R (the set of real numbers); there are also D (the set of decimals) and C (the set of complex numbers), which are less common in proofs. One may come across a statement that reads “n ∈ Z,” which states that n is an element within the set of integers. More specifically, one might be asked to prove the statement “∀n ∈ Z . n(n + 1) is even.” This can be done by assuming that some natural number n is either odd or even. Upon making n = 2m, one will find that 2(m(n+1) and 2(nm) are both even, which proves the statement. This mathematical proof does not rely on tangible reality in the way someone may point to a polar bear on television to prove that the proposition “polar bears are white” is true. There are also properties in mathematics that are true by definition, i.e., a priori, e.g., zero product property, associative property. In logic, the laws of logic are also generally considered to be axiomatic.
While foundationalism may have a place at the table of epistemic justification, the Christian apologist’s misuse of it is not tantamount to how it is employed in mathematics and logic. Consider, for example, the first premise of Craig’s Moral Argument: “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” There is simply something suspicious about this statement when compared to “If it is not raining, I will not take my umbrella.” A satisfactory deductive premise entails generally accepted facts. These facts are not controversial in any way. Any reasonable person would agree that if it is raining, they will take an umbrella or find other means to protect themselves from the elements. However, denying Craig’s first premise is not unreasonable and it is a premise that, in fact, has been and continues to be denied. Craig and other apologists may assert that the premises in their deductive arguments are true, but that does not make them true. The arguments for God continue to be batted around precisely because they start out with controversial premises that stem from an equally contentious foundational assumption.
The fact of the matter is that foundationalism has been largely abandoned. Foundationalists’ obsession with certainty, an infatuation that descends from Descartes, ultimately is not apt for mathematics, despite its limited application to the field. It is also unsuitable for science. Peirce, Dewey, Quine, and other pragmatists introduced a non-foundationalist paradigm know as fallibilism. This is implicit in Popper’s notion of falsification. This new approach assists philosophers in navigating philosophical inquiry for purposes of correcting hypotheses as opposed to instilling in them the confidence that the available resources are already enough prior to engaging in inquiry.
Draper’s solution, although noble, is unlikely to be implemented. Similarly, asking Christian philosophers of religion and apologists to adhere to Maddy and Wildman’s philosophical methods is futile. Nielsen’s solution, despite being more radical, is the only one that makes sense for anyone concerned with Draper’s reservations about the philosophy of religion. Nielsen suggests the following:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds — or at least no such grounds — for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.
So Nielsen’s radical solution is to end all discussions about arguments for God or other theological arguments concerning immortality. These matters continue to be discussed because most philosophers of religion and virtually all Christian apologists prioritize their propositions and underlying beliefs over the facts and evidence. Refusing to discuss these arguments further ends the stalemate between Christian theists and atheists that concerns Draper — a concern echoed in the third issue above — and will allow for philosophers of religion to consider the concepts of non-Christian, non-monotheistic religions.
Now, to state my solution less provocatively and controversially, I think that intellectual reparations are in order. Christians need to let other philosophers who practice other faiths have a long turn at the mic. Christianity, for instance, has a meandering history with the problem of evil and virtually anyone can take note of the considerable difficulty Christians have had. All of their theodicies are problematic and there is no reconciliation to be had between a perfectly benevolent deity and the evil and suffering in the world, or with the notion that this is somehow the best possible world God could have created. As Dennett suggests, perhaps another religion can square this problem away. Perhaps Buddhism or Zoroastrianism have better theodicies to offer or some way of explaining evil and suffering that coheres with modern science and offers ways to solve this problem. This series will explore some of these issues. I have no pretenses of exhausting all possibilities with respect to what philosophy of religion can become.
The other, more pressing, issue is that I am not sure whether modern philosophers of religion are competent enough or equipped to start fielding non-Christian perspectives. The problem is akin to having me review some student’s econometrics homework. I have no idea what any of that is about and I am therefore, unfit to review his work. Likewise, if people write about esoteric topics in Near or Far East religions, how can I expect a predominantly Christian group of peers to review their journal submissions? This is perhaps one reason the so-called International Journal For Philosophy of Religion is rife with Christian articles right through this month’s issue. Here is a list of the articles in February’s issue:
- Kant’s religious ethics: the ineluctable link between morality and theism
- The ineffability of God
- God’s place in the world
- Whiteness and religious experience
- Progressive atheism: how moral evolution changes the god debate
- Truth is subjectivity: kierkegaard and political theology.
What are these reviewers to do with a viable submission concerning indigenous African or South American religions? I can go through this same exercise in one philosophy journal after the next; Christian Theism has an iron grip on the entire enterprise, a virtual monopoly. While there has been moderate effort to rectify this, the solution has been to segregate non-Christian perspectives. Someone might be content with the fact that Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion and Journal of Buddhist Ethics exist, but this is still exclusionary and not integrated enough. Never mind that college-level curricula also prioritize the Christian perspective.
Ultimately, to divorce philosophy of religion from Christianity and from Christian apologetics, a thorough demarcation is necessary. Apologetics is to philosophy what creationism is to science. Apologetics is not philosophy, plain and simple. It is an inversion of the philosophical process, a bastardization of its methods, and ultimately, devoid of sound argumentation and caters to cognitive biases like confirmation bias and fallacious reasoning like circular reasoning, special pleading, ad hoc rationalization, and non sequitur. It is pseudo-philosophy and must be recognized as such and eliminated as an academic field of inquiry. Any Christian who is concerned with this suggestion perhaps recognizes that much of Christian philosophy of religion is indistinguishable from apologetics. Proselytism simply has no place in an academic setting where religious freedom and more importantly, human autonomy is valued. I would not go as far as saying that all of Christian philosophy of religion falls to the wayside if apologetics is ousted in the same way Intelligent Design was. Perhaps there is a baby in the bath water, but it is not my duty to decide that.
Philosophy of religion needs to move forward and the best way forward is in discussing non-Christian perspectives and topics, and giving them ample time to gain traction in the field. I do not see these perspectives coexisting alongside yet another lengthy dialogue about the Kalam Cosmological Argument or yet another reiteration of a long-defeated argument like the Argument From Contingency. Nor can we allow the field to be dictated by Christians because they have controlled the narrative in the philosophy of religion since its inception. Foundationalism became evidentialism, and now both have given way to existentialist fideism on one side and an attempt to undermine scientific explanation with metaphysical explanation, specifically via neo-Aristotelianism, on the other. In truth, exercises of this sort are either not philosophical or if those involved can prove otherwise, these projects ought to be relegated to other specialized journals in philosophy, for sake of satisfying anyone interested in the niche topics discussed in those areas. So long as Christian perspectives monopolize the field, there is no real incentive for philosophers of religion to broaden their horizons and acquire competence with respect to these perspectives. It seems philosophers of religion are in a haste to perpetually rake the dead coals of the theism-atheism debate. There are other perspectives to consider and what better time than now in the 21st century, a period that will be defined by equality, inclusion, and diversity. Philosophy is no longer the handmaiden of theology, and that includes the philosophy of religion. This series will pave a way and show us how we can move on and move forward. The next entry in this series will focus on Buddhism and The Problem of Evil.