Skepticism and Spirituality, East and West

Skepticism and Spirituality, East and West

In a recent New York Times op-ed, journalist and scholar Robert Wright makes the case that Buddhism is fully commensurate with Western science and philosophy. He writes:

"Not only have Buddhist thinkers for millenniums been making very much the kinds of claims that Western philosophers and psychologists make — many of these claims are looking good in light of modern Western thought. In fact, in some cases Buddhist thought anticipated Western thought, grasping things about the human mind, and its habitual misperception of reality, that modern psychology is only now coming to appreciate."

By attempting to square Buddhism with Western science, Wright expresses a sentiment that falls in line with a larger trend in Western thought toward an appreciation for Buddhist spirituality. Wright’s recent book, Why Buddhism is True, Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Dan Harris’s (no relation to Sam) 10% Happier, and Stephen Bachelor’s Secular Buddhism are all participants in this intellectual trend which make variations on the same basic claim: Buddhist spiritual practices are uniquely able to provide Westerners with fulfilled, meaningful lives without making dubious metaphysical claims that are inconsistent with modern science.

The apparent prevalence of this intellectual trend—in addition to the increasing number of Americans who download apps to assist them in mindful meditation, frequent yoga studios, and treat the words of the Dalai Lama as sacrosanct—should strike us as rather perplexing. It causes one to wonder why Westerners should feel the need to search outside of the Western canon for spiritual depth. After all, are there not Western forms of philosophy that are also spiritually satisfying?

Many would answer this question in the negative. Of the thinkers I mentioned above, Sam Harris is the most vocal in his condemnation of the Western spiritual tradition. On the comparison between Western Abrahamic religion and Buddhism, he writes,

"One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics. To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible—and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam."

The prevailing impression then, is that the Western tradition has nothing useful to offer to the spiritual lives of modern, scientifically minded people who are skeptical of dubious metaphysical propositions. This is, in my estimation, a mistaken line of thinking; if one looks in the right places, the Western tradition offers a robust guide to living a good, happy, meaningful life. This guide is to be found, I think, in the classical virtue tradition, propagated by Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, including Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and Seneca, among others.

Not only does the classical virtue tradition allow us to thrive in all dimensions of life, but it also allows us to endure the inevitable bouts of suffering that befall us.

While these philosophers disagreed on several peripheral issues, they shared a profound consensus which transcended their disputes. This consensus runs something like this: the classical virtue theorists would all agree that the good life consists in developing states of character (virtues) that are conducive to human flourishing. By practicing virtue, we form our character such that we are able to achieve moral excellence, a higher mode of being in which one is accompanied by a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction, irrespective of the challenges life presents. This is where the classical virtue tradition becomes wonderfully pragmatic. In the writings of these philosophers, one finds practical guides to controlling one’s temper (see Seneca’s Of Anger), forming and maintaining meaningful friendships (see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics books VIII and IX), fulfilling civic obligations and deepening ties to one’s political community (see Cicero’s De Officiis), and generally flourishing in all areas of human life.

Not only does the classical virtue tradition allow us to thrive in all dimensions of life, but it also allows us to endure the inevitable bouts of suffering that befall us. Suffering is inescapable. No matter how comfortable the circumstances of one’s life might be, injustice, pain, failure, and a whole host of other evils are constant realities. By striving for moral excellence, it is possible to develop one’s character such that these evils can be accepted with equanimity.

The lives of many ancient philosophers are testaments to the practicality of this teaching. Socrates endured his unjust trial and execution with serenity; Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and philosopher, spent the majority of his emperorship on the outskirts of the Roman state fending off seemingly invincible hordes of Germanic invaders, but never allowed himself to despair; Seneca labored under the burdensome rule of the famously maniacal and sadistic Roman emperor Nero, who eventually had him killed on a whim, all the while maintaining unflappable emotional poise. This is the power of virtue. To live the good life is to empower oneself beyond measure, to develop one’s character such that even the most intense suffering can be endured with serenity. These teachings are not relics of the past, either; Secretary of Defense General James Mattis was known to carry a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius during his deployments to Iraq. Similarly, naval aviator James Stockdale employed the philosophy of the aforementioned Greek philosopher Epictetus to endure years of torture in a Vietnamese POW camp (Stockdale’s experiences are chronicled in his book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, which I highly recommend). Though most of us will never face the kind of profound challenges that confronted Mattis or Stockdale, we would nonetheless do well to apply their method to the more mundane challenges we face. Clearly, to develop one’s character in the way proposed by the classical virtue tradition would be of use in pursuing a meaningful and fulfilled life.

A sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, ancient Roman philosopher and emperor. (Source:  The Circe Institute )

A sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, ancient Roman philosopher and emperor. (Source: The Circe Institute)

If the Western philosophical tradition is able to provide people with fulfilled, meaningful lives as I have argued it can, why do so many people seem to disagree? Since the Enlightenment, Westerners have adopted what we might call “the skeptical outlook.” Beginning with Descartes, philosophers began to regard the claims made by the traditional religious, social, and political institutions with distrust; they accepted nothing without evidence. Christianity was supplanted by deism and other forms of unorthodox religious belief; traditional monarchies were liberalized to protect the rights of the individual; Aristotelian metaphysics was replaced by modern science. The fruits of the skeptical outlook—including the scientific method, political liberalism, and modern medicine, to name a few—are in many cases useful, but one unfortunate consequence of its rise has been the abandonment of classical virtue ethics.

Philosophers have proposed a number of ethical models to replace the classical virtue model, which may be grouped into two categories: deontological and utilitarian. Deontological theories construe ethical behavior as being in accord with moral laws, while utilitarian theories construe ethical behavior in terms of the degree to which they contribute to or detract from general social happiness. I will refrain from commenting on the philosophical coherence of these theories; this is a matter for another day. For now, suffice it to say that neither one is spiritually satisfying in the same way the classical approaches to ethics are. That is, they are not capable of promoting human flourishing or sustaining one through suffering the same way that classical virtue theory does. The deontological approach to life encourages one to act in accord with moral laws irrespective of their effect on one’s happiness, which can have the effect of reducing life to a cold, unemotive chore. The utilitarian approach to life encourages one to pursue pleasure and avoid pain the way animals do, but we all intuitively sense that human beings have deeper, more noble impulses than the animalistic instinct to maximize pleasurable experiences and minimize painful ones. The post-Enlightenment ethical theories, though they differ in their technical content, have the same effect on the spiritual dimension of human life: they hollow it out, or deny it altogether. The skeptical outlook has rejected the classical virtue tradition, and the replacements it has offered have failed to address the human desire for flourishing.

And yet, the desire to flourish persists as always. Without the traditional philosophical and spiritual methods by which to satisfy spiritual craving, where are Westerners to turn if not to other philosophical traditions?

This line of thinking is reflected in Sam Harris’ aforementioned book, Waking Up, in which he makes the case that one may accept Buddhist spirituality without abandoning the skeptical mindset. He writes:

Buddhism in particular possesses a literature on the nature of the mind that has no peer in Western religion or Western science. Some of these teachings are cluttered with metaphysical assumptions that should provoke our doubts, but many aren’t. And when engaged as a set of hypotheses by which to investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life, Buddhism can be an entirely rational enterprise.

Harris puts his finger on the rationale that motivates the switch from Western forms of spirituality to Eastern: Buddhism seems to provide a spiritual framework that is (after some modification to excise certain problematic metaphysical beliefs, such as belief in karma, rebirth, various heavens and hells, etc.) consistent with the skeptical outlook.

The problem is that, though Harris is probably not wrong that Buddhism can be thought of as a rational exploration of the human mind when stripped of certain unscientific metaphysical doctrines, one need not leave the Western tradition to find a rational approach to spirituality, as his above statement implies. Despite the Enlightenment philosophers’ qualms about ancient philosophy, the classical virtue tradition is not inconsistent with the skeptical outlook. One need not accept any dubious metaphysical propositions to believe that striving for moral excellence produces a higher state of being. Though I cannot know this for certain, I suspect that the classical virtue tradition did not even occur to Harris (or the other Western adopters of Eastern spirituality) as a viable set of spiritual practices. This is not so much indicative of an intellectual shortcoming on Harris’ part as it is of a widespread, tacit consensus in the Western world that ancient philosophy has nothing to offer us in the modern day. That is a gravely mistaken proposition.

Buddhist monks meditating in Indonesia. (Source:  Dimas Ardian/Getty Images )

Buddhist monks meditating in Indonesia. (Source: Dimas Ardian/Getty Images)

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that it is a bad thing for a Western person to explore Eastern spirituality. The Eastern philosophical tradition is a deep and wise one, and I would be remiss not to pay it its due reverence. However, I do lament that many Western people seem to feel compelled to resort to the Eastern tradition for spiritual depth when it is already there to be found in the Western canon. It is a deficient society that fails to provide its constituent members with fulfilled, meaningful lives, and unfortunately our society seems to fit that description. What worries me is not so much the few adventurous Westerners with the time and inclination to dabble in Buddhist meditation, but rather the vastly larger number who, largely as a result of forces beyond their control, are doomed to drift through lives of persistent spiritual shallowness. I think we are capable of extracting the best from both worlds, so to speak—the scientific and technological advances of the post-Enlightenment West, and the tried and true practical wisdom of the classical philosophers. I do not pretend that this will be an easy task; there is a rather delicate synthesis to be achieved between the two. However, despite its difficulty, this reconciliation is an infinitely worthwhile task. Should we choose not to undertake it, we inevitably consign an untold number of people to live lives of relative material prosperity in exchange for spiritual poverty. This is an undesirable trade; our basic material needs may be met, but we cannot flourish unless we nourish our souls. Let us resolve together to remain cognizant of our philosophical heritage and endeavor to carry it forward into the future.

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