I don’t know very much about Eastern Philosophy in general or about Buddhism in particular, but I know many bright and thoughtful people who think that the great texts of Eastern Philosophy are as important (and may be as analytically rigorous) as the canonical texts of Western Philosophy. Recently, I began a correspondence with an old friend who tried to explain some basic principles of Buddhism and to give me some basic understanding of the way Buddhists approach the world. Because my understanding of Buddhism is so superficial, I won’t try to explain these principles in detail here. For my purposes, the relevant observation is that, for Buddhists, the ultimate goal is Enlightenment, where Enlightenment is a state of understanding that comes from practice, contemplation, and meditation. One key element of this understanding is that it is experiential, that is, I can’t just read or deduce some principles in a matter of days and become Enlightened. In other words, Enlightenment can’t be reduced to a set of propositional beliefs that the Enlightened person holds.
Though many Buddhists do not consider themselves religious, and Buddhism is compatible with atheism and agnosticism, I was troubled by the assertion that there is a Path to Enlightenment. My friend observed that the Buddhist assertion that certain steps (meditation, etc.) are steps on the path to Enlightenment is a kind of testable theory. Moreover, testing this proposition does not seem to require that we suspend our disbelief in uncomfortable ways. Without having any faith that Enlightenment is possible I could still follow Buddhists teachings and, presumably, discover for myself whether Enlightenment is attained. However, there is something about the recommendation that I “test” the promise of Enlightenment in this way that really troubles me. What follows is my response to my friend which is, among other things, a concise explanation of why Eastern philosophy doesn’t make me optimistic about about my prospects for knowing Truth.
I am inclined to agree that we should not reject a premise out of hand, especially when that premise can be empirically tested, however, I am highly skeptical of the “testing” procedure you propose. It seems similar in kind to the type of “testing” that others have proposed to me when they suggest that I pray for faith. The problem is not that the practice won’t lead to belief. It might very well be the case that I could come to believe something as a result of a routine practice (praying, meditation, fasting, etc.) and the experiences that accompany that practice. But of course, I don’t want faith in God if God isn’t real, and I don’t want the experience of “enlightenment” if it is simply an experience, not real Enlightenment. I am wary of trying to have faith because I am painfully aware of the fact that my desire for some proposition to be true may influence me to believe that proposition is true even when it is not. It seems to me as though many religious rituals (and, in this case, I would count meditation as such a ritual) dispose us to have emotional experiences that make belief formation more likely.
Now you might say, if you seek the path to Enlightenment, and go through the prescribed practices, and come out believing that you have reached Enlightenment, what does it matter? If what you seek is happiness, and you have empirically observed that those who practice meditation (or pray in church, or whatever) are, on average, happier than those who do not, then I can’t say Buddhism is an irrational means to your ends. But, if what you seek is Truth, then the fact that a particular practice may prime you, or influence your emotions, or bring about physiological changes that you interpret as spiritual influence is a liability. If what matters to me is knowing the Truth, not being happy or confident in my beliefs, then I need to be wary of any system that promises that I will come to know Truth if I practice a ritual over and over again. How will I know that I Know? From the outside it seems to me that lots of people believe they know things that, in point of fact, they do not know. If I don’t want to be in that position (and I don’t), then I need to have some way of distinguishing practices that merely dispose me to believe something from good reasons to believe something.
This is why I find the idea of non-conceptual, experiential “truth” (a key element of Enlightenment) so worrisome. I am not trying to suggest that a materialist view of the world is necessarily true, but when we move out of the realm of the physical world, and out of the language of empiricism, it seems very difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is not true. Why should I believe that I can reach Enlightenment after years and years of study and meditation but that I can’t reach Enlightenment by dropping acid? In both cases I may have a transcendent experience. Of course, after an acid trip I won’t have any good reason to say that what I saw or believed was real or had any bearing on the facts of the world. I might not even be able to explain the experience at all. It seems as though the same can be said about Buddhist Enlightenment, however. I’m not sure why the ritual of meditation or study is any more legitimate than other ways in which we can manipulate our perception of the world.
I think that there may be really good answers to the questions I have raised here, especially since some of my questions may just arise from my poor understanding of what Enlightenment is. So, it seems worthwhile to repost my questions here. Responses and comments are welcome.