In reading Siderits’s excellent Buddhism as Philosophy I have come to realize the following problem. If a religion has its base in philosophy, if its central tenets are supposed to follow from the use of reason and argument, then none of its conclusions can ever be firm enough to ground religious practice. There will always be difficult objections and questions that cannot be answered in a way sufficient to allow one to say, “I know this is true and I will base my life on it.” On the other hand, if religious practice is grounded in faith or pragmatic results independent of argument, then one has no reason to believe in the metaphysical claims made by the religion.
Consider the arguments. I take it that the arguments for God’s existence and a soul are familiar enough in their inconclusiveness. So I won’t go over them. But Buddhism is a different story. Central to Buddhism is the idea that there is no substantial self who is the subject of experience. Whatever you take the parts of a human to be, they do not form a whole that could be such a self. The self that we refer to by names and pronouns is a necessary fiction. On Siderits’s reading of Buddhism, the Buddhist view regarding ontology is mereological reductionism. Reality contains no wholes; it only contains indivisible “parts.” Siderits covers the arguments very well. But if you are at all knowledgeable about the debates concerning part-whole relations, then you will see objections right and left to the arguments and their premises. Yet, these are the considerations that are supposed to ground the Buddhist worldview and practice. Given how contentious these very abstract arguments are, how can they form the foundation for the way in which one interacts with the world? I’m claiming they cannot. Why? Because if you are properly intellectually honest, you will not be convinced by the arguments on either side. If you are convinced by the arguments on either side, then that is likely because of a bias for or against the sides in question. That is a strong claim, and one that invites resistance! It’s important to note, I think, that this latter contention doesn’t requires that all philosophical debate lead to aporia in the way it often seems to with Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues. That is, aporia would be sufficient but not necessary for not fully affirming a theory when doing philosophy.
Consider the pragmatic results of Buddhist practice and Christian doctrine. It is reasonable to conclude based on testimony that those who practice Buddhism experience less suffering. If you whole-heartedly believe there is no self in the Buddhist sense, then you will likely experience less existential suffering than you might if you had no firm beliefs about the self. And it is reasonable to conclude based on testimony that those who believe in a soul and heaven suffer less, in comparison with those who don’t have firm beliefs about the self or soul, when they lose a loved one or think of their own demise. Nevertheless, the easing of suffering in both cases does not point to the truth of the underlying metaphysical claims made by those religions. The easing of suffering does not give reason to believe that there really is no substantive self, in the case of Buddhism, or that there is a God, soul, and heaven, in the case of Christianity. I take it is fairly clear why having a belief in X and having that belief result in some good G, does not mean that G makes X any more likely to be true.
First, perhaps I have committed a kind of Cartesian error by assuming that we must have certainty if we can claim to know anything. I’ve essentially said: you can’t base the way you are to live your life on philosophical argument because such argument can never provide conclusive reasons. This is problematic for two reasons. First, knowledge claims need not rest on certainty. Second, there are counter examples from my own life. I stopped eating land animals back in 1998 after taking an ethics class. The arguments in favor of animal rights convinced me that I should fundamentally change my eating practices. And I have remained convinced by them. But if I’m being intellectually honest, shouldn’t I be unconvinced?
In response to the first reason, while I am sympathetic to that take on knowledge, it runs into problems regarding knowledge’s being closed under known entailment. I can’t get into that here; but see the SEP for the mess that is closure. In response to the second reason, the basis of my changed eating practices lies in my beliefs about the degree of suffering animals are capable of, my belief that factory food production methods cause great suffering, and that such food production causes harm to the environment and human health. It seems to me that the most philosophically contentious of those is the belief in the capacity of animals to suffer greatly. And this is based on my experience with animals. Does this mean that I’m being intellectually honest in a way that the Buddhist is not? I’m not sure. But it leads to another objection.
A possible second objection is that I have created a false dichotomy between reason and faith/pragmatism. That is, I have left out the all-important source of justification that is EXPERIENCE! Surely experience can help make the difference.
In response, it is doubtful that experience will save either reason or faith/pragmatism, since any given experience will be consistent with (in some sense) equally good, but inconsistent alternative metaphysical theories. For example, whether substance or property dualism is true will not be decided by appeals to experience. One will have to either argue or believe on the basis of faith/pragmatism.
Regarding reason, insofar as arguments may be inconclusive, experience cannot shore up the gap. This is because any experience that seems to shore up the gap and confirm the theory will put too much weight on the parts of the theory filled with uncertainty. And such weight results in reason to question whether the experience really does shore up the gap. And this is, again, because the experience in question is consistent with alternative theories.
Regarding faith and pragmatism, experiences that seem to confirm a theory underlying the faith and pragmatic results of a position won’t be able to do so because the experiences in question are consistent with alternative theories, even when the faith and pragmatic results are not.
In the end I have made two contentious claims. First, that philosophy cannot be used to support religious practice. But this may be seen to imply an even more troubling second claim, namely, that philosophy cannot be used to support ways of living more generally. I want to endorse the first but not the second claim. Is it possible to do so?