Thursday, April 29, 2004

Christ or Buddha?-2

Of course, the criticism of Christian ethics presupposes that Buddhism can furnish a superior alternative. According to the author, "good and bad actions are defined in terms of Nirvana, the attainment of which also constitutes the ‘summation’ of all ethical values" (4.12). But this point of reference is utterly inadequate:
i) Nirvana represents an impersonal Absolute. But obligations only obtain between persons, and ultimate obligations only obtain between an inferior (creature) and a superior (the Creator). I don’t owe any duty to inanimate objects like sticks and stones.
ii) Now it may be that the author would simply oppose his moral intuition to mine. To this I’d say to things: (a) by writing a critique of Christian theism, the author has assumed the burden of proof. (b) I think most people would find my intuition more compelling than his. But every reader will have to judge for himself.
iii) His scenario presupposes transmigration. But that is open to a separate set of objections:
iv) There is a preliminary issue regarding the burden of proof. If someone tells me that there’s an elephant in my bedroom, is the onus on me to prove him wrong? If I don’t see an elephant in my bedroom, I’m justified in disbelieving the proposition. I don have to produce any positive evidence against the proposition; the absence of evidence sinks the proposition.
v) So what evidence is offered in support of reincarnation? To my knowledge, it comes down to such things as deja-vu, past-life regression, the transmission of character traits, and xenoglossy. How are we to evaluate this evidence?
vi) Reincarnation is a global proposition. That is to say, it proposes a universal phenomenon. Yet the only kind of evidence cited in its support (excepting deja-vu) are isolated, anecdotal case-studies. But if it were possible for reincarnation to leave any evidence at all, we would expect its evidentiary trail to be extremely widespread rather than widely scattered. So the scarcity and uneven geographical distribution of the evidence tells heavily against the proposition.
vii) In the nature of the case, anecdotal evidence resists controlled experimentation or investigation. To be sure, there may be phenomena that slip through the net of the scientific method. Since, however, reincarnation does claim to have a law-like character (viz., karma), it ought to be a testable hypothesis. To my knowledge, it lacks scientific rigor.
viii) The problem that I have with the appeal to deja-vu is that I’ve had this same sensation in familiar surroundings.
ix) Memories "recovered" as a result of "past-life regression" therapy are subject to the usual caveats concerning hypnosis (wishful thinking, suggestibility).
x) The transmission of character traits could be accounted for on a hereditary basis. Indeed, reincarnation is in tension with heredity, for if reincarnation were true there would be no internal relation between the personality of parent and child. Yet it’s obvious that children often take after their parents.
xi) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that some of the evidence is impressive enough to implicate a paranormal source of information, this knowledge could be attributed to alternative mechanisms (e.g. possession; ESP). It may be objected that this explanation amounts to special-pleading. To that charge I would say the following:
a) It would be special-pleading to resort to a paranormal explanation if a normal explanation could account for the phenomenon. But since metempsychosis is a paranormal proposition to begin with, there can be no a priori objection to explaining the same evidence by recourse to an alternative paranormal mechanism. Jungian psychology might attribute the same phenomena to the collective unconsciousness. Neoplatonism might say that the subject is tapping into the anima mundi.
b) If demonic possession were an ad hoc device trumped up to explain this very phenomenon, it would be susceptible to the charge of special-pleading. But since it is a preexisting doctrine that dovetails with the phenomenon, I don’t see that its application to this case amounts to a makeshift or face-saving device.
c) Inasmuch as Buddhism and Hinduism have heavy investments in the occult (commerce with the dead; trafficking with evil spirits), they cultivate demonic possession.
xii) It would take a gigantic piece of metaphysical machinery to run reincarnation. Some transcendent agent or agency has to define dharma (law, duty, merit), keep track of its compliance or non-compliance, assign guilt or blame accordingly, and recycle the soul in keeping with his karma. I don’t see that either Buddhism or Hinduism supplies the requisite resources to maintain this immense apparatus. Hindu theology oscillates between an impersonal Absolute (pantheism) and finite theism (polytheism), while Buddhism is atheistic in temper. But only a personal Absolute could administer such a system.
xiii) Even if we were to grant the ethical assumptions of reincarnation, it fails to solve the problem it poses for itself. Since the subject doesn’t ordinarily recall his former life, he cannot learn from his mistakes. The problem is even worse for Buddhism because it denies personal identity. But in that event, reincarnation lacks an object, while moral properties (merit/demerit) lack a property-bearer.
xiv) Transmigration presupposes a fixed number of preexistent souls who are continuously recycled. Birth is rebirth, and not the birth of a new soul. Some souls break the cycle by attaining the state of Nirvana—which reduces the pool. Given these assumptions, the human population ought to be declining. But what we instead have is an exponential increase. This growth curve stands in direct contradiction to scenario predicted by reincarnation.
xv) Reincarnation is supposed to represent a moral order in which individuals have an opportunity to make amends for their past transgressions. Isn’t it odd that so many souls are reborn as Muslims or Chinese Communists? Why does the mechanism of metempsychosis reincarnate people who play a role in the persecution of Hindus and Buddhists? Militant Muslims invade India and attack Hindus while Chinese Communists invade Tibet and attack Buddhists. Why does reincarnation raise up enemies against the religious adherents of reincarnation? Why does it discriminate against its own faithful? That doesn’t seem to offer much of a chance to work off bad karma. Why doesn’t the machinery reincarnate everyone as a Hindu or Buddhist—which would at least put them on to the path of enlightenment?

I’ll skip over the next two chapters because they aren’t very representative of orthodox theology. If his objections are cogent, they tell against heresy, not orthodoxy.
In chapter seven, the author tries to show that the Christian concept of God is incoherent. He begins with a schoolboy misstatement of the cosmological argument: If everything has a cause, then God has a cause (7.4). But that misrepresents the principle. What the cosmological argument claims is that every "event" has a cause, not every "thing." Put another way, every thing that comes into being or endures over time or passes out of being must have a cause. But since God is a timeless being, the principle is inapplicable to the divine mode of existence.
He then says that in order to define God as a necessary being, one has to show how he "becomes" a necessary being (7.5). That completely misses the point. He further insists that you can’t prove the existence of a necessary being without a knowledge of the infinite past and future. But since a necessary being is timeless, the question of duration—infinite or otherwise, backwards or forwards—is a non-sequitur.
However, the author goes on to attack the idea of timeless eternality. He dismisses the analogy with mathematical necessity because this is "analytical" (7.6). Several paragraphs later he returns to this theme and denies the extramental status of numbers (7.23).
In the first place, this calls for a lot more argumentation than he puts forward. Even on its own terms his position is incoherent. In ¶7.5 he defines mathematical necessity according to logical positivism: truth by convention or definition. But in ¶7.23 he shifts to conceptualism.
Neither is the least bit plausible. The positivist position reduces numbers of useful fictions. But even at a practical level it ought to be plain this that won’t cut it. No doubt it would greatly simplify life if a committee could redefine mathematical equations, but would you fly a plane or cross a bridge built by an engineer who cut corners by the application of a little creative mathematics? To be sure, this illustration is taken from the realm of applied mathematics, but the concrete instances are no better than their abstract exemplars (i.e. pure mathematics).
Again, the author even mentions an "infinity of prime numbers" (7.24) in the same breath as he promotes conceptualism. And how many of us are consciously aware of an infinitude of prime numbers?—not to mention all of the other infinite and transfinite numerical sets? Does our author really carry around the whole continuum in his cranium?
In the next paragraph he tries to show that mathematical necessity is not all that necessary. He starts out by stating that we say 1+1=2 "is true because when we add one pebble to another it makes two." But unless we already had an innate grasp of numerical relations, we wouldn’t make that connection. All you "see" are discrete pebbles. You see one pebble and another pebbles. You see particulars, not relations. You don’t "see" two-ness. "Two-ness" is an invisible relation. It is something inferred by insight rather than something presented to our sight.
He then says "when we add one drop of water to another, it makes only one drop of water, not two." Consequently, 1+1=1 is equally valid. But this confuses numbers with numbered objects. Numbers are not identical with the objects they number. That is why you don’t run out of the number 2. Life would be pretty tedious if we had to wait in line for a particular number to become available. "Sorry, you can’t have #2 today. It’s already in use." The same number is indefinitely exemplifiable. It can number different concrete objects. Two concrete objects may merge into one without two numbers merging into one.
The author also contends that predicating timelessness of God is incompatible with the Scriptural representation of his relation to the world (7.6). This raises some interesting points. One of these is theological method. Is narrative theology the prior point of departure in formulating our doctrine of God? One might argue that Romans or Ephesians should take precedence insofar as this genre represents a second-order reflection on redemptive history.
But there is also a measure of internal stratification in historical narrative. Sometimes the narrator glosses the action with an editorial aside. In John 12, for instance, the Evangelist goes beneath the descriptive level to attribute outward unbelief to a hidden decree. This sort of thing also happens in Chronicles (e.g. 2 Chron 10:12-15; 25:17-20). The hardening motif in Exodus is introduced by a programmatic statement in which God declares his ulterior intent (4:21-22; 7:2-3). It is simplistic, therefore, to deduce God’s motives from his moves on the global chessboard.
Again, the Incarnation does not entail a "conversion" of a divine mode of existence into a human mode of existence. Likewise, God doesn’t have to enter into real time to communicate with his creatures—any more than a computer programmer must be contemporaneous with a user in order to design an interactive program.
The author objects that the notion of an infinite person is incoherent (7.7). But this all depends on the definition:
i) God’s essence, existence, and action are unconditioned by anything outside himself.
ii) God is not limited by time and space because he exists outside of time and space.
iii) God’s power is infinite.
iv) God’s knowledge is infinite.

The author denies that God-talk is informative, for all God-talk is analogical and metaphorical (7.8). Unless we can reduce metaphorical discourse to literal discourse, it remains a cipher. But I have a couple of objections to this characterization:
i) It is a category confusion to equate analogy with metaphor. All metaphhors are analogies, but not all analogies are metaphors. Metaphors are figurative, but many analogies are literal.
Omnipresence is a metaphor. But knowledge and omniscience are analogical, as are power and omnipotence are analogical; yet neither term of either pairing is metaphorical. So one doesn’t have to reduce these predicates to a literal level inasmuch as they are already literal.
ii) Is a metaphor only meaningful insofar as it is reducible to a non-metaphorical description? The function of a metaphor is to trigger a richer field of associations than are simultaneously statable.
Again, communication takes different media. A metaphor is a word-picture. There are some truths you can capture with words, but not with pictures, and vice versa. That's why we have different art forms.

The author claims that Christian theism is unfalsifiable. However, there are different senses in which a proposition can be falsifiable or unfalsifiable:
i) Logically falsifiable. A proposition makes an affirmation that disaffirms contrary or contradictory propositions.
ii) Psychologically falsifiable. A belief that is defeasible.
iii) Factually falsifiable. A claim that can be falsified.
iv) Counterfactually falsifiable. A contrary-to-fact proposition that would
obtain if the antecedent were affirmed.

Of these four definitions, only (i) is a necessary condition of veracity. And Christianity is falsifiable in the sense of (i). That doesn't mean it could be false. Rather, that's the only way it could be true. It stands for something.
Even here I would to distinguish between local and global falsification. Christianity is falsifiable at a local level in the narrow sense of (i). But it is unfalsifiable in the global sense inasmuch as the existence of God is a necessary precondition of logic. Divine beliefs and mental relations are the source and standard of all truths, necessary and contingent.
Because the Bible contains some counterfactual propositions, the Christian faith is also falsifiable in the hypothetical sense of (iv). Of course, the Bible treats these as contrary-to-fact conditionals. Again, this is not a necessary condition of veracity. But as a contingent matter, the Bible has committed itself on this score.
The satisfaction of (ii) is irrelevant to the objective veracity of a belief-system. For example, many true beliefs are psychologically defeasible. Someone might begin with a true belief, and then be talked out of it by a plausible, but specious argument. So that obviously cannot be made a condition of veracity.
According to Reformed theology, the elect cannot lose their faith, but nominal believers can lose theirs. So (ii) is true of the reprobate, but false of the elect.
Christian faith is poised on the principle of divine revelation, which renders its articles infallible, contrary to (iii). Of course, that claim would call for a supporting argument, but for now we’re just dealing with definitions. And the onus of proof remains on the author, not the reader or reviewer.
I should add that it would be self-defeating to universalize (iii) since falsehood is relative to truth. You couldn’t falsify anything unless truth (=true propositions) supplies the frame of reference. So every proposition can’t be falsifiable.
The author rejects a priori theistic proofs on the grounds that "words like ‘love’ and ‘omniscience’ are not a priori concepts. They are necessarily a posteriori terms" (7.19). By "a priori" he means analytical in the sense of true by definition or convention. There are a number of things wrong with this characterization:
i) Words are not concepts. Different words can express very the same concept, so words are concrete whereas concepts are abstract.
ii) The way we learn a concept is logically independent of the way we defend a concept. The slave boy in the Meno may discover the ratio of a square’s area to its sides by drawing lines in the sand, but that is not how a geometer would demonstrate the axiom.
Our author confounds a psychological process of learning with a logical process of demonstration. Moreover, some people have to learn a concept whereas other people have an innate grasp of the same concept.
iii) It commits an equivocation of terms inasmuch as Anselm would never define a priori in the sense of truth by definition or convention. This maps the anti-metaphysical program of logical positivism back onto the work of metaphysician who operates with an Augustinian ontology and epistemology.
iv) Even if the import of certain divine attributes were inseparable from experience, it doesn’t follow that that carries across the board.
v) I'm unaware of any a priori argument for the love of God. Is there some amatory version of the ontological argument I'm unacquainted with? What, exactly, does the author have in mind?

The author alleges that divine necessity would contradict divine omnipotence, for if God is Almighty he cannot be subject to any logical necessities (7.26). This objection commits another schoolboy error regarding the definition of omnipotence:
i) Omnipotence doesn’t take God for its own object. This faculty is not self-referential. Rather, it means that God has the power to instantiate any compossible state of affairs. God doesn’t have creative power over himself. That commits a category mistake.
ii) As I’ve said in relation to the Euthyphro dilemma, God’s attributes are correlative. Each characterizes the others.
iii) Aseity or necessity means that God is not conditioned by anything outside himself. So his necessary existence is not a form of external constraint, as if we had reified necessity—turning it into an autonomous hypostasis over and above (or even against) God.
iv) Again, to say that God is a necessary being implicates his mode of existence, but not his field of action. It doesn’t mean that there is no freedom with God. Although God is not free to be or not to be, he is free to do or not to do.
The author also attacks the ontological argument on the grounds that to be conceivable is not to exist in the objective sense of the word (7.27). That is true, but completely misses the point of Anselm’s argument. Anselm was not talking about just any conceivable being, but the greatest conceivable being— whose non-existence is inconceivable. My point is not to evaluate the ontological argument, but just to show that our author is attacking a straw man argument.
In the same paragraph, he takes square-circles as an example of a conceivable non-entity. But this fails to distinguish between what is unintelligible and what is incoherent. A square-circle is intelligible, for the notions of square and circle are coherent, taken by themselves; but their relation is incoherent inasmuch as one cannot predicate contrary properties of the same object without contradiction.
But how is that analogous to the ontological argument? The author would have to show that Anselm’s concept of God is incoherent. Up to a point, he’s tried to do that, but without success.
In chapter 8, the author raises the odd objection that divine revelation is in tension with divine invisibility (8.17-18). His point seems to be that you can’t be a "seer" if God is not an object of sight. But this is a terribly jejune objection:
i) Not all revelation in Scripture consists of visions. It may consist of auditions.
ii) Even in visionary revelation, God can disclose his message via intermediaries (e.g. angels; dreams).
iii) And although, moreover, God is essentially invisible, he can simulate a symbolic manifestation of his presence (e.g. theophanies).
iv) For that matter, inspiration can operate without any sensible manifestation, either objective or imaginary.

The author says that Christianity is just one of many millenarian cults with Messianic leaders (8.29; cf. 9.16). This simply ignores the preparation for the Messiah in OT type and oracle, or the evidence for Resurrection of Christ. It further disregards the explanatory power of the Christian worldview—which I hope is on display in the course of this very review.
In chapter nine the author pits reason against revelation. As he defines it, an appeal to revelation is an appeal to blind authority and Occidental ethnocentrism. This he sets over against the emancipated outlook of Buddhism.
This chapter tries to illustrate the superstitious mindset of Christian faith by comparing it with witchcraft. But in what respect is disbelief in witchcraft a distinctively Buddhist attitude? Isn’t his scepticism the product of his Western education? On the other hand, the author informs us that Buddhism subscribes to telepathy (1.24). Yet telepathy is just as paranormal as witchcraft. Why does he think that sorcery is superstitious, but parapsychology is plausible?
Moreover, he simply takes for granted the superstitious character of witchcraft, and then presses the alleged parallel to the disadvantage of the Christian faith. But since the Christian worldview affirms an occult dimension to reality, such parallels—even if genuine—would not disprove Christianity unless the author had already disproved witchcraft. So the whole exercise, which goes on for pages, is tendentious.
Even at the personal level, his antithesis between faith and reason doesn’t evince much capacity for self-criticism. The author comes out of a Buddhist background. He was raised in an atheistic religious tradition. And he was trained in an atheistic philosophical tradition. Guess what? The author is an atheistic Buddhist! What a surprise! How does this serve to illustrate the way in which Buddhism cultivates independent reflection? Did it ever occur to him that perhaps he himself is the intellectual product of his cultural conditioning? In attacking blind faith he seems utterly blind to his own socialization.
Another example of this blinkered perspective is the way the author will quote Buddha to establish a point. This happens throughout the book. Yet it ignores two glaring problems:
i) I would add in passing that we have not the slightest idea what Buddha thought or taught, but just a lot of late-dated legends—in conspicuous contrast to the canonical Gospels.
ii) And even if we did had reliable record, Buddha was just another uninspired mortal, having no special insight, foresight, or hindsight into the nature and purpose of the world or man's place therein.

There is nothing irrational or demeaning about reliance on the voice of authority for information otherwise unobtainable by unaided reason. As long as the authority in question knows what he’s about, and we have compelling reasons to trust his judgment, trusting in his word is not only reasonable, but indispensable.
In the same chapter he also draws a number of dire consequences of the Christian worldview. But this line of attack suffers from three very broad deficiencies:
i) As a rule, it is fallacious to deny a premise just because you don’t like the conclusion. A consequentialist objection is only compelling if either (a) the conclusion negates something we already know to be true, or (b) if they negate a truth-condition. But chapter nine fails to establish either consequence.
ii) The chapter simply takes Buddhist ethics as the standard of comparison, and then draws invidious comparisons with Christian conduct. But that is not any kind of positive argument either for Buddhism or against Christianity. Given the superiority of Buddhism, then, of course, one can proceed with this odious comparison, but that begs the central question.
iii) In chapter 4, I argued that the Buddhist value-system couldn’t ground moral norms.

The author consistently characterizes Christianity as a tribal religion (9.3,16,19). Aside from the fact that Buddhism is very vulnerable to the same charge, this allegation disregards the self-portrait of the Judeo-Christian faith. One can cite several basic counterexamples:
i) The Abrahamic covenant justified the election of Israel as instrumental to a multi-ethnic benediction. This outreach is also highlighted in the Prophets.
ii) If OT faith were the expression of ethnocentric chauvinism, it would hardly depict Israel in such an unflattering light.
iii) It is axiomatic to say that Christianity is a missionary faith with a global agenda (Mt 20:19; Acts 1:8).

The author applies a psychogenic explanation to the Christian faith (9.9,25). But this analysis fails on four different fronts:
i) The objection is on loan from Western philosophy and infidelity (Feuerbach; Freud; Marx, Engels). How does that add up to a Buddhist critique of the Christian faith?
ii) Psychogenic reductionism ignores the objective evidence and argumentation for the faith.
iii) Psychogenic analysis operates with a counterintuitive rule of evidence: if something works, then it can’t be true. If Christian faith fulfills our deepest yearnings and dispels our darkest fears, then it must be false. This is a very peculiar objection, and demands a separate argument.
iv) Psychogenic deconstruction can be redeployed and applied with equal ease to unbelief. There is, for example, another way of reading this chapter. And that is to conclude that the author’s attack on Christianity is not high-principled and philosophical, but a petty expression of his anti-Western resentment. It reflects a Third-world envy and inferiority-complex in relation to the wealth and cultural dominance of Europe.

The author asserts that Christian anthropology is the source of environmental exploitation (9.3-4,6,9). This characterization labors under several liabilities:
i) Even if this were an accurate description, a description is not a disproof.
ii) OT law promoted environmental conservation (Lev 25:4-5). In OT theology and anthropology, man is the steward of God’s earth, and not the master of the globe.
iii) Speaking for my own tradition, no one has more to be humble about than a Calvinist. Isn’t Buddhist humanism a more likely culprit of an "inflated ego"?
iii) It is a public fact that so-called Christian nations don’t have a monopoly on biodegradation. To take one example, the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc, which operated under a militantly atheistic ideology, had an atrocious record of pollution. Asian industrialism is also a major source of global pollution.
iv) The author’s whole diatribe against technology presents a Janus-faced aspect. Why did the author pursue post-graduate study in the West if he is so disparaging of the West? And how did he get to England from Sri Lanka? Did he walk? Did he swim? Or did he resort to technological modes of conveyance? How did he write and publish his book? Did he use an electric typewriter or computer? Was the paper machine-produced in a modern factory? Does the author have hot-and-cold running water in his house? A W.C.? Electric lighting? A telephone? Radio? What’s the big difference between the First-world and the Third-world except that the Third-world wants what the First-world has? Are Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Taiwan any less materialistic than the wicked West?

The author says that Western theism has no religious epistemology (9.18). Of course it does. It’s call revelation. He also berates our value-theory as "human-centered" (9.18). Apparently he’s never read the first answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
Moreover, Buddhist ethics is patently humanistic. Oh, he may wax eloquent about ecology, but cows and horses don’t write manuals on Buddhist ethics. The last time I checked, a Buddhist was a human being, and he’s the one who is laying down the law.
In sum, "A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God" is a not very Buddhist critique of a not very Christian concept. And on those occasions where it is true to its title, it is just plain fallacious.

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