September 11, 2014

#SamHarris: Being dishonest about #Buddhism once again

I've already reviewed his new book, based on long excerpts he posted on his website, and found it wanting.

But, he doubles down on now-stereotypical Sam Harris traits in an interview with Gary Gutting, editor of "The Stone," an ongoing philosophy column at the New York Times.

Harris shows himself, IMO, to be his usual tendentious self, namely, where he claims to .... well, where he claims to know the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism much better than many other people who actually know a cardinal difference.
G.G.: But it seems to depend on who’s looking. Buddhist schools of philosophy say there is no self, and Buddhist meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. But Hindu schools of philosophy say there is a self, a subject of experience, disagreeing only about its exact nature; and Hindu meditators claim that their experiences confirm this. Why prefer the Buddhist experiences to the Hindu experiences? ... 
S.H.: Well, I would challenge your interpretation of the Indian literature. The difference between the claims of Hindu yogis and those of Buddhist meditators largely boil down to differences in terminology. Buddhists tend to emphasize what the mind isn’t — using words like selfless, unborn, unconditioned, empty, and so forth. Hindus tend to describe the experience of self-transcendence in positive terms — using terms such as bliss, wisdom, being, and even “capital-S” Self. However, in a tradition like Advaita Vedanta, they are definitely talking about cutting through the illusion of the self.
However ...

Wikipedia notes that Advaita has been strongly influenced by Buddhism.

And, beyond that, it's arguable that Harris is engaged in an overinterpretation of Advaita, and that, even to the degree he's right about it, it doesn't represent the majority of Hindu thought.

I think most Hindus and most Buddhists alike would agree on this differentiation on the issue of a personal self:
Now though Buddhism and Hinduism share the concept of rebirth, the Buddhist concept differs in details from the Hindu doctrine. The doctrine of rebirth as understood in Hinduism involves a permanent soul, a conscious entity which transmigrates from one body to another. The soul inhabits a given body and at death, the soul casts that body off and goes on to assume another body. The famous Hindu classic, the Bhagavad Gita, compares this to a man who might take off one suit of clothing and put on another. The man remains the same but the suits of clothing are different. In the same way the soul remains the same but the psycho-physical organism it takes up differs from life to life. 
The Buddhist term for rebirth in Pali is "punabbhava" which means "again existence". Buddhism sees rebirth not as the transmigration of a conscious entity but as the repeated occurrence of the process of existence. There is a continuity, a transmission of influence, a causal connection between one life and another. But there is no soul, no permanent entity which transmigrates from one life to another.
Well put.

Meanwhile, later on, Sammy admits that Buddhists hold metaphysical beliefs, and ones that can be wrong:
Buddhists also make claims about invisible entities, spiritual energies, other planes of existence and so forth. However, claims of this kind are generally suspect because they are based on experiences that are open to rival interpretations. 
Per my definition of "religion," these are metaphysical "matters of ultimate concern," about which practitioners engage in certain ritual and practice to align themselves better. Hence, once again, Buddhism is still a religion.

Meanwhile, per one of my overall philosophical heroes, David Hume, one can engage in speculations about the seeming intangibility of human nature without going down a "spiritual but not religious" road or any like it.

I want to add Hume’s famous comment from A Treatise on Human Nature here:
When I enter most intimately into what I call myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other….and never can observe anything but the perception.
A few issues relevant to this discussion come up.
1. Hume makes this statement without engaging in any metaphysics.

2. Per my comment elsewhere that “the only good Buddha is a dead Buddha,” note that we have “I” used three times and “myself” once. If one is an arhat, similarly, how does one talk about that without the use of first-person pronouns, thereby undercutting the idea of a no-self, and certainly, the idea that one is enlightened enough to have already achieved no-selfhood?

I’m now going to move to a different section of his comment:
If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time.
3. NOT directly related to this, but going back to classical Greece: On the word “when” in the first statement, and this …

How “thin” does one slice time for one sensation, perception or impression to succeed another? In other words, are we at an internalized, psychologized version of Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion?

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