Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In high school I was presented with two allegedly opposite viewpoints. One side, championed by Hobbes, asserted that people were naturally wicked, and needed to be made virtuous by society (by which was meant the state). The other, championed by Rousseau, held that people were naturally good, but were corrupted by society (and in this case society really means society, that is the more or less voluntary mutual associations people enter into). Although I felt there was something wrong with "both" at the time, it didn't occur to me until much later that, far from being opposites, they were fundamentally saying the same thing. That is, that although they both claimed to describe human nature, essentially they were saying that there is no such thing, that whether people behave well or badly depends almost entirely on social structures, and that clever people like themselves should be placed in charge of structuring society so as to maximize human virtue and happiness. Of course, for people with strong preferences one way or the other the distinction between those favoring a "back to nature" vs a "fool for the city" approach, but to many of us the question of whether choices are made voluntarily by individuals or mandated by some central authority is much more important than what that authority will decide if given the power to do so. Particularly since the policy is likely to change, even completely reverse itself, when the central decision makers see that things are not going as planned.

One is frequently confronted with this kind of false dichotomy, especially in politics, but also in science and philosophy. The trouble is not just that the list of choices presented fails to consider all possible options, but that the way the problem is framed distorts the way it is thought about.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Buddha and the Physicist

There's a Buddhist parable that I read as an undergraduate which I call "Buddha and the Physicist". I don't remember its original title. In it a man, an aspiring physicist (although he isn't called that) is considering becoming a disciple of the Buddha, but he wants to know the answers to several questions, both to satisfy his own curiosity and as proof of the Buddha's authenticity. He wants to know whether the universe has been around forever, or if it had a beginning, and whether it will be around forever or it will have some end, and whether it is spatially finite or infinite, and whether or not there is some part of a human being that lasts forever. There may have been others, those are the ones I remember. The Buddha replies that although he does know the answers to these questions, he will not give them, because the answers will do the questioner no good, and he will have no way of knowing whether the answers are correct anyway.

One thing I prefer about Buddhist parables vs. Christians parables is that (at least in the versions I read) they just end with Buddha having said what he has to say, whereas the Chistian ones add that the people are astonished by Jesus' brilliance, or the Pharisees are infuriated, or both.

Personally, I find Buddha's answer unsatisfying. It seems to me that it is perfectly sensible to seek "useless" knowledge purely for its own sake, and that if Buddha actually knows the answers he should be able to explain how he knows, and the physicist would then be able to verify that the answers are correct. I think a Buddhist would assert that the enlightened are capable of obtaining knowledge through pure intuition; knowledge beyond that which can be obtained via the senses, and which cannot be verified by the senses. Perhaps this is so, but is there any reason why those of us who lack this intuitive ability should believe anyone who claims to have it? Is there any reason to believe one person who makes this claim over another? These aren't just rhetorical questions. I suspect the answer is "no", but I could be wrong.

The ancients believed all sorts of myths that strike moderns as being absurd. They weren't necessarily more credulous than the people of today. Perhaps it ws the wisdom of Buddha. If one were to doubt, for example, the story of Chronus swallowing his children, and later them being vomited up to become the gods, how could one begin going about to refute the tale? And what earthly good would it do if one could? It seems likely that many people didn't so much "believe" these stories as view them as convenient placeholders, as good and accurate an answer to questions as they would be able to get.

Those of us that insist on genuine, verifiable answers are atypical, and probably with good reason. In terms of personal success, the advantages of learning the truth are often small compared to the social disadvantages incurred by upsetting the consensus. I think society as a whole benefits from us, but whether that's true or not I wouldn't change if I could, and couldn't if I wanted to.