It is a wonderful feeling to read and enjoy something that your former self would have passed over without a second thought. I take such experiences as a hopeful sign of learning and broadened horizons, or at the very least of boredom with the comfort of unchallenged opinions. In any case, last month I was pleasantly surprised to find myself reading a book about Buddhism and Darwinian philosophy. The book is The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World by philosopher Owen Flanagan.
In his honest and clear book, Flanagan tries to do for Buddhist conceptions of the self and flourishing what secular Westerners have long tried to do for Christian music and art; he tries to get past the bullshit to see the truly valuable insights of a long and proud tradition. Just as you don’t have to believe a word of the Bible to be moved by the countless beautiful artifacts funded and inspired by the cults that surround it, so too can you glean wisdom from the sophisticated Buddhist philosophical tradition without believing in reincarnation and other dogmas.
This point is one that took me a long time to wrestle with. My more youthful disgust with all things religious lead me to throw out the baby with the bathwater and, what’s worse, to question the seriousness of the self-proclaimed rationalists who did not do the same. It is thinking along those lines that threatens to make atheism a fundamentalism of its own. In my defense, and in the defense of people who may still think in similar strokes, religion does have a well-deserved reputation for something of an anti-Midas touch; historically speaking, almost everything it touches seemingly turns to shit. It takes time and patience to realise that while it is certainly fair to criticize almost every aspect of religious thought, few blanket judgments of complex social phenomena are ever accurate or justified.
So, given my past aversion to such thinking, when Flanagan delves into Buddhist philosophy at the crossroads of modern science, I was taken by surprise on more than a few occasions. Flanagan has a personal correspondence with the Dalai Lama, who apparently consults with numerous leading brain scientists, philosophers and psychologists on a regular basis. As it turns out, the Dalai Lama is concerned with finding a coherent interpretation of Buddhist well-being that meshes with the Darwinian paradigm. With this aim in mind he reaches out to researchers across relevant fields and has made a basic Western-style scientific education a requirement of monks’ training. On the latter point the Dalai Lama deserves credit, Flanagan argues, given the opposition he faced from some powerful factions within the faith. It turns out that even in a religion as relatively un-dogmatic as Buddhism, there remains some friction between the sciences and beliefs.
However, this need not be the case. Buddhism arguably meshes better with evolution than most other religions. Since it does not posit any deities and indeed celebrates the inter-relatedness of all beings, Buddhism is, if anything, bolstered by evolutionary accounts of life’s origin and diversity. On the other hand, Flanagan is forced by his natural worldview to judiciously trim supernatural nonsense from his account of Buddhist wisdom.
We in the West are only superficially exposed to what we refer to as Eastern religions. Flanagan’s book is a welcome introduction to the sophisticated and profound wisdom accumulated over two millennia, parsed into a coherent contribution to our most advanced Western ideas of the self, the mind and the brain (along with healthy dose of Aristotle for good measure!)
Flanagan’s book takes bold steps from a modern factual understanding of the human animal towards an idea of what it actually means to be alive. This is the kind of book that rumbles around in your mind well after you’re done reading, whether you want it to or not. I don’t think there is much higher praise for philosophy.