Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Real Buddhism scholar to "neural Buddhists": The Buddha does not infinitely morph and would never drop two g's for "meditation gear"

Columnist David Brooks, like Faith Popcorn and Douglas Coupland, has a knack for seizing and defining the cultural moment - think, for example, of his BoBos in Paradise. Sensing that materialism is a spent force (with the pop science media the very last to catch on, as we often chuckled in The Spiritual Brain), Broooks suggests "neural Buddhism" instead:

It goes somethng like this: Okay, okay, we admit that the mind isn't just the brain. We now know beyond all reasonable doubt that materialist explanations for mental phenomena are ridiculous. But how can we minimize the adjustment to our worldview?

Hmmm. That's somewhat like asking whether we can have an American Revolution and still mnimize the adjustment of our views of government.

But Brooks's first attempt to define our moment has started a very interesting discussion, which is being continued at The Immanent Frame, described as a blog on "secularism, religion, and the public sphere", produced by the Social Science Research Council.

Editorial assistant over at Immanent, Nathan Schneider draws my attention in particular to eminent Buddhism scholar Donald S. Lopez, Jr.'s critique, "The Buddha According to Brooks":

"This neural Buddhism may indeed lead to big cultural effects," writes Lopez. "But if it does, it will be important to remember how we got there, and what might have gotten lost along the way."

Lopez points out that what "neural Buddhists" mean by Buddhism is largely Western and modernist, comparable to the "historical Jesus" of post-Christian academics.

What would come to be called “original Buddhism” or “primitive Buddhism,” became the domain of European and, later, American and then Japanese scholars. They would create a Buddha and a Buddhism unknown in Asia, one that may never have existed there before the late nineteenth century. Just as there was a quest for the historical Jesus, there was a quest for the historical Buddha, and European Orientalists felt they found him. Like Jesus, the Buddha wrote nothing and, unlike Jesus, nothing that he said was written down until four centuries (rather than four decades) after his death. This Buddhism then became a model against which the various contemporary Buddhisms of Asia were measured, and were generally found to be lacking, not only by Europeans, but eventually by Buddhist elites in Asia as well.
The Buddha was transformed from a stone idol into a man of flesh and blood, a man very much of modern times.

And just think, a man who has precisely the current opinions, too. Anyway, Lopez explains further,

This is the Buddhism of Brooks and the Buddhism of the burgeoning business of Buddhism and neuroscience. Here, researchers who often identify themselves as Buddhists measure the effects of meditation techniques that are not unique to Buddhism. Their Buddhism bears the mystique of the infinitely morphable, the ever modern, the perfect alternative; we can be confident that whatever these neuroscientists discover will somehow be “Buddhist.”

I bet. After all, it's hardly well defined enough to be definitely not Buddhist.

Actually, I wish the neural Buddhists well. I am glad that they now realize that their minds are not electrified jellies.

However, I am also glad Dr. Lopez is setting the record straight about the thought traditions of Buddhism as it has really been known to countless millions of people for thousands of years.

See also:

"Materialists start to come to grips with global failure but materialism dies hard" (May 14, 2008)

"Neural Buddhists, Christians, and the Mud that failed" (May 23, 3008)

"Neural Buddhism: Do neurons get reincarnated?" (May 25, 2008) (No, actually, they get recycled.)
Note: the image is from "In the footsteps of the Buddha", Buddha Path


The Spiritual Brain gets Award of Merit at Write! Canada, plus Mario gets tenure

At Write! Canada's 2008 Gala, June 11, The Spiritual Brain received an Award of Merit in the Leadership/Theoretical category of the Canadian Christian Writing Awards.

It had been shortlisted in three categories, a fact that offended some persons. I said at the time that it was a darn tough field and the offendees should be just as steamed about the other entries.

I also received an Award of Merit for “Anti-God books: The God they don’t believe in is certainly not great”, which appeared in the St. Michael's (University of Toronto) Alumni Magazine, and is posted here. The whole awards list is here.

The big news: Lead author Mario Beauregard got tenure! For any young academic, that is a worry, but he says "The tenure battle is behind me now: I will be able to finish my neuroscience career at the University of Montreal (I am very glad)." And so should they be, in my view.

Also, while Bradford McCall's review of The Spiritual Brain in the American Scientific Affiliation's journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, won't be out for a while, here's an excerpt that especially pleases me,
Beauregard concludes with the contention that though studying what occurs within people’s brains cannot directly prove or disprove spiritual experiences (or, for that matter, the realities that said experiences point to), they nonetheless can give credence to such extrapolations. I heartily advocate the purchase of this book.
Yes, of course the review pleases me because, in it, he is encouraging people to buy our book. For one thing, I want to write another book, and selling this one is a key step. But also, McColl grasps our key point: We are not saying that we can prove that people who have spiritual experiences contact a reality outside their physical selves. We say that there is good evidence for that, so it is reasonable to believe it.

As for proof, well, it is actually very difficult to prove anything at all outside of mathematics. Someone will always raise an objection, perhaps one that sounds reasonable from his point of view but unreasonable from yours. (For example, "Maybe the whole universe is just a dream I am having.")

So the only available approach to most questions of fact is to assemble the evidence on both sides and see which model fits best.

(Note: Dr. McCall is with the Divinity Department of Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.)

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