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Improving Buddhism

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Reincarnation and Science

July 4, 2017

In order to try and understand if the concept of reincarnation has any role in contemporary Buddhism, it is first necessary to see if it can be defined in a way which is both self-consistent and not in violation of any known scientific laws. If there is no self-consistent way to define it, then there is no use in bothering to see how it compares with what is known via science, as a concept which is inconsistent within itself cannot be valid. If there is such a self-consistent definition, then it can be compared with science. This is not to say that science is always valid. Instead, it is important to see what the disconnects are between science and the concept, and then examine the science to see how justified it is. There is a big difference between a science fact which has been verified a thousand times and forms an important part of a larger theory, and someone’s science theory which is still speculative. There is a wide gulf between these two and knowing just where the contradiction is will be helpful in deciding on the proper position of reincarnation in modern Buddhism.

 

First off, consider self-consistency. The concept of reincarnation is that there is a set of entities, which we will term essences, that are connected with humans and animals while they are alive and then migrate, after some period, to another one at or around a birth event. Just which types of animals are included can be left for a later discussion. It helps to label these entities, with a particular essence being E0, and the humans it connects to as H0 currently, H1 next, H2 after that, and H-1 the previous one, H-2 before that, and so on. The animal sequence is, assuming that E0 is not connected to H0, would be A1, A2, A3 in the future, and A-1, A-2, A-3, in the past.

 

Now the connection mechanism between E0 and H0 needs to be defined. E0 is assumed to be composed of some non-material substance not yet detected by science. The space it occupies may or may not be the normal three-dimensional space that physical objects occupy. If it does occupy this space, it has a location and an extent. If it doesn’t, there has to be a mechanism by which the two types of spaces interact. Call these the physical world hypothesis and the immaterial world hypothesis.

 

What is postulated about the interaction between E0 and H0? Is there supposed to be some high-data-rate connection between the two, so that E0 can influence the actions of H0? Or does E0 just exist as a parasite, not contributing anything to the activities of H0? Call these the interactive and non-interactive hypotheses.

 

There is much more to the concept of reincarnation in the early theories of Buddhism, involving the propagation of E0 through the sequence of Hi, and about the final stage, but not the initial stages of the situation of E0. These can actually be discussed separately, as the existence question might be answered consistently, but the dynamics of essence objects can be completely different from Buddhism. In other words, maybe Buddhism got this concept partially correct but partially incorrect.

 

Consider the non-interactive hypothesis. Here E0 simply exists, and somehow H0 is labeled as being the possessor of it. E0 does nothing but goes along for the ride. Since E0 has no effect on H0, there might as well be no E0, for all H0 can tell. What happens to E0 does not affect H0, so there is no reason why H0 would make any changes at all to affect what happens to E0, except for some weird interdimensional altruism. Thus, if the non-interactive hypothesis is valid, there might certainly be some essences, but their existence in inconsequential to everything in the physical world and can be ignored completely. Thus, the only hypothesis that can fit in with Buddhism is the interactive one. The interactive one needs to be detailed somewhat in order to see how it relates to the immaterial world hypothesis. How does E0 connect with H0?

 

What part of H0’s body does E0 affect? One choice might be the nervous system, but all the cat scans, fMRIs, EEG’s, PET scans, and other types of brain imaging and monitoring tools have seen no signs of any effect of any non-material essences. This is a science question, not a self-consistency one, but it relates to how to possibly define an essence so that it has some hope of not being ruled out scientifically. Could an essence turn itself off in the presence of any brain imaging or monitoring technology? That would mean it would have, in and of itself, some grand sentient power plus some way to view the entire world plus a means of interpreting it plus a way to modify its behavior as technology changes.

 

Is there some other part of the body of H0 that E0 could affect? Medicine hasn’t detected that, but what would the point of reincarnation be if there was only an interaction between E0 and H0’s liver, to use an absurd example. At this point, it is fairly clear that there is no way to self-consistently define an essence which interacts with human beings and remains undetected. Thus, no reincarnation.

 

Even if there was a self-consistent role for reincarnation and essences in this limited domain of the interaction of an essence and a human, there would still be problems connected with the rest of the antique belief structure which surrounded them. These problems relate to origin and destruction questions for essences, the contradiction of the necessary sentience of an essence with the final postulated role it plays with nirvana, and possibly some quantitiative ones. These do not need to be explored, but perhaps for the sake of interest, they might be later.

 

What would happen if reincarnation were expunged from contemporary Buddhism? What role does it play, if any? Modern Buddhist sects which appeal to educated audiences do not seem to make use of it, and instead concentrate on providing benefits that occur during the lives of the members participating in Buddhist practices. There has to be some motive for members to be involved with Buddhism. Formerly, it may have been the belief that there were essences with some properties that were important to living humans, and needed some behavioral rules, but with the passage of time and the growth of technology, the niche which such essences might occupy has disappeared. Currently, it is mostly involved with some practices, most often chanting or meditation and social interaction, which have some effect on the mental state of the participants.

 

There might be some use in discriminating between Buddhism as a religion, Buddhism as a philosophy, and Buddhism as a collection of practices. These may have been all muddled together in more ancient times, but in the spirit of trying to suggest improvements to Buddhism, they can be teased apart.

 

Buddhism as a religion means an organization which somehow imbues into children the need to belong to it and to grow into adults who teach their children the same need. The organization must have some procedures to follow, and inevitably some means by which those involved in the hierarchy of the organization to survive. Some members of the hierarchy might live in sustenance situations, perhaps agricultural, and this provides a living for them and possibly others if their productivity is high enough. Other members of the hierarchy might be involved with selling goods and services to their members, and yet others might be involved with soliciting charitable and voluntary donations. In return, the hierarchy provides, besides services, a psychological feeling arising from a concordance of the childhood indoctrination and the adult fulfillment of that indoctrination. The sociology of belonging has been explored, and might be followed up here if necessary.

A second part of Buddhism as a religion relates to the interaction of the members of different blocks of the religion. By isolating a certain group of humans as members of a particular subset of a religion, there might be very positive interpersonal support which is generated. This can be a positive influence on someone’s life, especially for people who have significant problems in their lives, which create overwhelming emotional difficulties. Much like other self-help groups for people with specific problems, a Buddhist religious group can provide the interpersonal support necessary for individuals to pass through difficulties and to improve their station in society.

 

Buddhism as a philosophy is meant to be one variant of philosophy, specifically that type of philosphy which deals with world-views and behavior, known respectively as metaphysics and ethics. Over the last two and a half millennia, Buddhism has accumulated a great deal of philosophical insight, and it has been packaged together well. For those members who seek to understand the questions of metaphysics, Buddhism definitely provides some inputs. For almost all members, Buddhist ethics provides a large package of behavioral rules which can be followed and which would apparently provide a certain type of society, if followed universally. That society might be pacifistic and altrusitic, as far as human nature can provide.

 

Buddhism as a set of practices might be analogized with yoga, in that certain procedures of meditation can produce some positive effects on certain humans who espouse it. The procedures have not yet quite been reduced by scientific examination so that the neurology of them is understood, and until that happens, Buddhism can serve as a repository of some different variants of these procedures.

 

In summary, talking about improving Buddhism seems to imply that “Buddhism” be defined, before any imagination is applied to improving it. Is it desired to improve Buddhist meditation practice, or to improve the interpersonal interactions that exist within a subset of a Buddhist organization, or perhaps incorporate some other philosphers’ ideas into Buddhist philosophy? Or is it all of the above?

 

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