Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Eras of Thinking

One of the tenets of Improved Buddhism will be that everyone should be provided with the means to think for themselves. This is a very modern idea, as thinking was something typically reserved to those of importance in influence and power. Thinking does not mean being iconoclastic, and only holding opinions that are contrary to some more commonly accepted opinions. Thinking instead means having the mental ability to question any assertion and subject it to tests of logic, rationality, and scientific basis. After all, we are in an era of science, and why should the fruits of science not be shared with all members of the religion? 


The alternative to having the mental techniques of thinking clearly is to rely on others' opinions and concepts, plans and options. That has been the routine practiced by most of humanity over the last hundred thousand years or so. The advent of science, first slowly in the seventeenth century, and then then with increasing speed of advance, has made it possible to put that behind us, and to enter into a new era. It might be referred to as the Era of Thinking. 


With no capability for thinking independently, everything in someone's mind is decided by someone else. The information comes from those who are trusted to be correct and to be knowledgable and to act with the recipient's best interests as their motive, or at least neutrality in this regard. The recipient still has the task of picking who is trusted, but for most of history and in most locations, this was hardly open to question. The head of the local dominant religion was the trusted voice, except during the times of schisms. Other trusted voices were royalty and local aristocracy in the middle ages and before, and even further back, the only voice that the serfs had to listen to was the landowner. With the rise of the middle class, starting in the fourteenth century in Europe and later elsewhere, wealthy individuals from the sectors of trade and manufacturing slowly usurped these roles. 


The rise of mass media led to another shift in the set of those who were trusted. Book authors began to be candidates for being trusted. Newspapers arose and their editors and writers added their opinions to the list of possible trusted sources. When other media became widespread, first radio and then television and the internet, those who were heard or seen on these could adopt attitudes which led to trust being given to them. 


The difficulty with the use of the trusted individual is that the decision to trust or not is one that should be made after all the tools of thinking clearly have been employed to validate the person's trustworthiness, on several grounds, including lack of self-interest, ability to form correct judgements, and clarity of communication. The shift from independent thinking to trusting some other source, who might or might not be a capable thinker, is simply a shift of the topic of independent thinking. There can be no true trust without the ability to clearly think and validate the information source. This holds when absorbing opinions as a whole as well as during the process of thinking independently and utilizing external sources of information in addition to one's own observations.


There is no need to lament the ease with which powerful individuals served as the sole sources of information back in the days before science dawned, as these powerful individuals were no more able to ferret out truth than those who abdicated their own decision-making and turned it over to someone else. But as science grows stronger and more evident in our lives, there is certainly a need to lament the failure of so many to learn these techniques and apply them wherever practical and possible. Improved Buddhism must not only exhort its members to learn, learn, learn scientific and critical thinking, but must also make the road to these techniques as broad and flat as possible. Improved Buddhism does not have any reliance on trust, as all of its tenets should be derived from scientific bases to the extent possible, given science knowledge and its ever-expanding limits.


There is a huge amount of literature available now on how to make judgements, how to be wise, how to use data, how to organize anything at all, and more. The list of references grows and grows. As an expedient, simply sending members out to read whatever they find available would certainly be a large step in the right direction. Perhaps more can be done, to prioritize and develop a sequence of learning so that no prerequisites are missed.


In other words, how should these thinking techniques be best organized, for efficient learning and use? First should be the Thomson principle: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the state of science.” 


There are those who dispute the Thomson principle, and state there are many things which are important cannot be measured. Their arguments typically flow from the words of our language and the problem is not that things cannot be measured, but that they cannot even be defined. One typical counter to the principle is happiness. They might go on to say that what we really seek is happiness, not wealth or reputation or power. The difficulty is that they do not know what happiness is.  Instead it is simply a fuzzy word that different people use on different occasions for different purposes.  Is there such a thing as happiness?  Is it simply a proxy for a blend of different concepts, or a word used when the speaker wants to cause an effect in the listener?  People who say that X cannot be measured, but it is important, are contradicting themselves. If a concept is not definable, how can anyone assert with substance that it is important? Is this supposed to be some instinctual knowledge we have, and we must therefore agree with it? 


Let's pursue the example given, as it is commonly used and perhaps commonly misused. When we define something, we might explain it in terms of simpler words. Happiness isn't defined that way. It's defined in some dictionaries by synonyms. Some authors define it as a word for any of a collection of feelings. Other authors discussing happiness pick out a single one of the collection, such as contentment, which appears to be lack of stress, and elaborate on it. Sometimes a collection of examples is given in lieu of a definition. Without a clear definition, using it as a goal or a constraint on a goal will not provide any valuable information. When someone says that they just want to be happy, they are likely thinking of some state in the past that they hope to repeat and make long-lasting. Alternatively, some propose that happiness the result of some achievement, such as certain types of property, or some skills along with the employment of them. 


For someone who is learning to do clear thinking, this should be a red flag to indicate this word should never be used as part of their thinking processes, along with its synonyms. The essence of the Thomson principle is that language is full of terms which are not only not defined clearly when they are typically used, but which cannot be defined clearly. There is no reason to suspect that our language is perfect in some way, and each word that is in it actually has a usable definition. Language grew from our combined experiences, and was put together by people who were not accustomed to testing each word for definability.  So in Improved Buddhism, we should say that the first tenet is to use only words that can be clearly defined. If there is something missing, then it is necessary to figure out first how to define what we are trying to describe. If this is followed, it is inevitable that any term used will be in accordance with the Thomson principle. It follows that Improved Buddhism should also make it possible for the members to improve their quantitative skills, to take advantage of their capability to better define terms.


It also follows that once that members understand the Thomson principle and have good math skills, their ability will inevitably waterfall into a reassessment of how they absorb information. Looking for the data will become a preoccupation, defining new quantities and ways to measure them an avocation, and playing with data a new game. 


In order to usher in a new era, one of Thinking, is it really necessary to have more that this one principle and all that follows from it? Math skills, including logic, and scientific use of data, distinguishing causality from correlation, and verification instead of trust flow from this. There are a great number of subspecialties within the general concept of 'math skills', and these might be enumerated. Examples might be generated for the teaching of children as to how to detect vague and unuseful concepts, from everyday life and elsewhere, and how to replace them with useful, well-defined ones, and these will go far toward moving us all into the Era of Thinking.

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