Anthropology through Buddhist Lenses

Anthropology through Buddhist Lenses: Interplays among the Self, the Other, and Buddhism

 

Soraj Hongladarom, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

 

“Formerly, in effect, one believed in ‘the soul’ as one believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: one said, ‘I’ is the condition, ‘think’ is the predicate and is conditioned—to think is an activity for which one MUST suppose a subject as cause. The attempt was then made, with marvelous tenacity and subtlety, to see if one could not get out of this net,—to see if the opposite was not perhaps true: ‘think’ the condition, and ‘I the conditioned; ‘I,’ therefore, only a synthesis which has been MADE by thinking itself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter III, Section 54

 

Academic disciplines are similar to other things in that they are also subject to change; they are born, and then their lives may be long, or quite short lived. During the time of their lives they may prosper, attracting a lot of attention, research grants, graduate students, star professors, and so on, or their fortunes might not be as good, and they just linger on, living in a neglected corner of the university. Some disciplines even died; that is, they are abandoned by their practitioners who take up some new endeavors. Philology, for example, prospered for a while a century or so ago, but then hardly anybody is taking it up nowadays, and the discipline has almost entirely been replaced by modern linguistics. Most other disciplines, however, manage to adapt themselves and hang on. Philosophy is, or seems to be, a great survivor. It is recognized to be the oldest of all the disciplines. At first it contained many areas of study which would later branch off and form their own turf. Natural science, for example, was known as “natural philosophy” and thus was considered part of philosophy even in the time of Newton, and the general recognition that there was a separate discipline of natural science which was independent from philosophy did not take shape until early in the nineteenth century. Psychology branched off from philosophy some time around the turn of the twentieth century. Now moral philosophy or ethics threatens to do so, when some practitioners argue that the best method to study ethical behavior lies more in the social science rather than the traditional conceptual analysis method of philosophy. Nonetheless, philosophy hangs on, and seem even to prosper despite many pundits, including stellar names like Steven Hawking, who are announcing its demise.

However, this paper is rather about anthropology, or more accurately how anthropology and philosophy interact. Anthropology, as with most other disciplines, branched off from philosophy around the middle of the nineteenth century. The study of human beings had been a concern of philosophical reflection for as long as there was philosophy. Philosophers such as Kant wrote a book on the subject (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View – Kant, 2006), but anthropology in the modern sense took off with the use of the scientific method. So the birth of modern anthropology was quite parallel to that of psychology. In both cases the traditional philosophical endeavor (studying human beings and the mind) was infused with the new scientific method, and there arose a consciousness that a new discipline was needed. Thus while traditional philosophy remained a staunchly humanistic discipline emphasizing documentary research, reading and interpreting of texts, and writing, the new disciplines tried out new ways of investigation, consisting of laboratory study, field research, analysis of bones and skulls, and so on. In short, empirical means of study were directly and fully employed in psychology and anthropology. Instead of reading ancient books, commenting on them and producing even more texts, modern anthropologists go out into the field and see for themselves what things are like. Of course they just cannot report just the bare fact that they see. They have to analyze and interpret the data collected and observed, trying to fit the data with the theoretical framework that they already subscribe or even use the data as a foil to challenge the commonly accepted frameworks. In any case, they have to start with the “bare facts.” This is simply not available in the old philosophical method.

What I would like to do in this paper is to reflect on the method of anthropology, and I would like to argue that insights gained from Buddhism could play a significant role in how anthropology should be studied. Since I am not an anthropologist and am not thoroughly familiar with the theoretical works that are in vogue among scholars in the field today, I will stay with the literature I know and the problems that I am more familiar with. However, I believe that the literature and the problems here would shed much light into anthropology itself. In this case I consider myself not unlike an anthropologist himself, who, as an outsider, claim to have a better look at the culture and way of life of an alien tribe better than what the members of the tribe describe themselves. By allowing a philosopher to have a look at anthropology, perhaps anthropologists might get some useful insights than what can be obtained by themselves looking back at what they do alone.

More specifically, this chapter proposes a fresh look at anthropology as an academic discipline through the lens provided by Buddhist thought. What is unique in Buddhism is that it denies the objective existence of the self, arguing instead that what is commonly known as the self is a construction, in much the same way as a rainbow is a construction made by the mind out of light which is reflected by the water droplets. As there is in objective reality no such thing as a rainbow, so is the self, according to Buddhist thought. I propose this view of the self (and by extension the other) as a theoretical underpinning that could inform how we understand the basic way anthropology deals with the self and the other. Corollary to this is the distinction, often made by philosophers when they approach anything anthropological, between the descriptive and the normative. In a naïve sense, the descriptive is aligned with the other and the normative with the self. This can be seen when one, taking the cultural relativist stance, declines to judge the value systems of the other, taking instead a descriptive stance. On the contrary, one who studies the other tends to assume that one’s own point of view or theoretical framework is normatively correct. According to a key tenet in Buddhist philosophy, the Doctrine of Emptiness (sūnyatā), the boundary between the self and other is also a construct, implying that there is always self in the other and the other in the self. As a result the Doctrine seems to call all boundaries and reifications into deep conceptual confusion. But it is my contention that this is a beneficial confusion, one which stirs up old ways of thinking and potentially comes up with a new way of looking at how cultural phenomena should be studied. When the line between the self and the other becomes confused, then one does become the other while at the same time remaining oneself. This should be beneficial to anthropology.

*

We begin by reflecting on the two terms that all anthropologists are familiar with, ‘emic’ and ‘etic.’ As is well known, Kenneth Pike (1967) coined the term, referring to point of view originating from within the culture that the anthropologist is studying, and the one that the anthropologist herself uses in order to describe the culture in question, respectively. According to Pike, who is a linguist, the term ‘emic’ comes from ‘phonemic,’ which refers to sounds of a language in so far as the sounds represent meaningful units within the language itself. On the contrary, ‘etic’ comes from ‘phonetic,’ and is a scientific and objective description of the sound itself without referring to the meaning within any language. Thus, in English the phonetic sounds [p] and [ph] are phonemically the same, meaning that both are parts of the same English phoneme. The [p] is unaspirated; in English one would normally hear that when a typical English speaker says words such as ‘Spanish’ or ‘spend’ or ‘sprite’. On the other hand, in words such as ‘perky’ or ‘Peter’ the typical English speaker would start the syllable with the aspirated [ph] sound. However, if one says ‘perky’ using the unaspirated [p] sound, the English speaker would still recognize the same word (with the same meaning), although she may think that the speaker may be a foreigner. This is totally different in another language such as Thai, where the [p] and the [ph] are phonemically distinguished. That is, they represent different units of meaningful sounds in the language. Thus the word [paa] in Thai means ‘to throw’, but the word [phaa] means ‘to lead’. The words give totally different meanings depending on whether [p] sound is aspirated or not. Thus what Pike is after in his characterization of the etic and the emic is that the former describes the outer aspects of an object or an event, while the latter describes the inner ones. In other words, the former deal with those aspects that are couched in the language that is used to describe, whereas the latter deals with those aspects that are couched in the language used by the natives themselves.

A logician is thus reminded of the distinction between the object language and the metalanguage when a logical system describes another system of language within the former system. A definition that is well known among logicians and philosophers of language is the definition of ‘truth’ proposed by Alfred Tarski (1983). According to him, a statement S in a language L is true if and only if the content of S obtains. For example, suppose S is the statement “The sun rises in the east.” Tarski’s definition would have it that the statement “The sun rises in the east” is true in English if and only if the sun rises in the east. So since it is indeed the case that the sun rises in the east, then the statement or the proposition (we don’t need to go into the details of how the two are similar or different in this paper. I am using the two words interchangeably) “The sun rises in the east.” is true. Do this for every statement in a language then you get a definition of ‘true.’ In other words, for any proposition, p, ‘p’ is true in L if and only if p. Here the metalanguage is the language we used to make the definition itself, in this case English, and the object language is the language that we would like to describe and find truth conditions for (which happens also to be English). In the same manner, we can also say that the statement “Die Sonne geht im Osten auf” is true in German if and only if the sun rises in the east. Here we find more clearly the different between the metalanguage (English) and the object language (German).

The parallel between the metalanguage/object language and the etic/emic distinctions is as follows. Pike would like the etic/emic distinction to do the work of distinguishing between points of view from outside and from inside. For example, when an anthropologist observes a behavior of a native tribe and ask for explanation from a member of the tribe; suppose further than she knows the language of the tribe, the description and explanation of the behavior offered by the member then belongs to the emic. But when the anthropologist translates the explanation back to her academic audience she uses the etic stance. The emic is the behavior seen from the inside, and the etic is the opposite. Thus the emic description belongs to the object language, and the etic one belongs to the metalanguage.

A problem with the emic and the etic is how to jump from the one to the other without loss. That is, when you have an emic description, or a set of statements in the native language, how can you translate that set into the language that someone from outside of the circle of the native speakers can understand it fully? The key word here is ‘fully.’ Is it possible to translate a sentence from a native language into another without any loss? This is only possible, according to the philosopher of language Donald Davidson (2001), if both languages share the same truth conditions such that whenever a statement in one language is true, a material and objective condition corresponding to that statement being true can be obtained and that condition becomes the condition that makes the statement in the other language true also, and the same goes for false statements. However, in cultural descriptions, or in a language of the natives, including ourselves, there are bound to be those statements that are imbued with meanings which are not transparent and do not refer directly to material conditions outside, but to certain beliefs and practices that are endemic to that culture. In that case Davidson’s truth condition as the basis of translatability does not seem to work. The situation is well known as the ‘hermeneutic circle’, where in order to translate a sentence from one language into another, one has to know all the words in the source language (since meanings are always interconnected), but in order to know all the words one has to know the meanings of each word in that language.

The problem, I believe, must be familiar to anthropologists. Faced with the practice and belief of an alien tribe, the task of the anthropologist is to describe those in a language that is understood by the global community, or at least the community of fellow anthropologists. But the problem of translatability and the hermeneutic circle always stand in a way. There must be a gap which is unbridgeable, so the task of the anthropologist is always, necessarily, an interpretive one, meaning that it is not a foregone conclusion that a description of one anthropologist must be identical with another description of the very same native belief and practice offered by another.

This interpretive nature appears to be in direct conflict with the scientific face of anthropology itself. After all, if a description is to be scientific, it should not matter who is doing the description. The description should or must be the same since it is the objective nature of the phenomenon that is being described, and the language used to describe is one and the same. So there is a fundamental tension within anthropology, and contributes not insignificantly to the contested nature of the discipline.

So how can Buddhist thought contribute to this? I believe the fundamental tension mentioned in the last paragraph is a symptom of a dichotomy between the inside and outside that is necessarily embedded in the very nature of anthropology itself. The distinctions between the emic and the etic, the object language and the metalanguage, and the source language and target language within the hermeneutic circle, all arise out of the more fundamental distinction between self and other. What we have in all these distinctions is the tension between the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and most fundamentally this reflects the basic distinction between the self and the other.

This is a very familiar picture that I believe are also well known to all anthropologists. According to Descartes, there is a fundamental distinction between the self, who perceives the world and is constituted by running conscious thoughts, and whatever is being cognized by the consciousness. Philosophers are deeply familiar with the distinction between the subject and the object, which is about the same thing as the self and the other. Descartes’ problem is how to jump from the realm of the subject, the cogito, to the realm of objective reality of rivers and trees. And he does this through an invocation of the benevolent God who by His nature cannot deceive him or anybody else for that matter. It is also well known that Descartes’s reliance on God is essentially an untenable one, and without God there is a big problem of how to bridge the subject and the object which continues until today.

Descartes’ predicament stems from his belief that there is an ego, his own self, which governs all the running episodes of his conscious thoughts. Nietzsche sees this very clearly when he argues against Descartes’ cogito argument in Beyond Good and Evil in the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper that one cannot conclude the existence of an objectively enduring self from the fact that one is aware of all the running episodes of conscious thoughts that appear “before one’s eyes,” so to speak. The fact that I wrote “one is aware …” and “before one’s eyes” does not have to imply that there is actually a one who is an objectively enduring self in the sense required by Descartes. This is a very important insight from Buddhist philosophy. According to Buddhist philosophy, the self as is typically understood, an objectively enduring, metaphysically inherent entity, just does not exist on its own. This is known as the Doctrine of the Non-Self (sūnyatā). The self only appears to exist, just as a rainbow only appears to exist since it arises out of certain reflections created by sunlight and water droplets. So we can say that there are only sunlight and water droplets, but no rainbows. Certainly rainbows appear before our eyes, but then they are only appearances. In the same way, according to Buddhist philosophy, the self only appears to exist. At this level of analysis only our bodily and mental constitutions do exist, but not the self. The self only appears to exist when we become self conscious and refer to ourselves using the first-person pronoun. And when we refer to ourselves using the pronoun, what is being referred appears to exist only to the extent that enables the talk or the language use to go on. When I say to the nurse at a clinic, for example, that I weigh 86 kilograms, I refer to my physical body, but when I say “I am thinking of myself on top of a mountain,” I am perhaps referring to an event in my brain which is interpreted as having this particular meaning. According to Buddhist belief there is no enduring, objectively existing self. Just as the rainbow is not an enduring, objectively existing entity, so too is the self.

When the self itself is problematic, the distinction between the self and whatever is not the self is problematic too. Thus the whole edifice that gives rise to the conundrum in anthropology alluded to earlier becomes problematic. A positive outcome of all this is that, when the line between the self and the other cannot be clearly drawn, there is a sense in which everything become the self and for that matter everything also becomes the other. The line between the subject and the object, usually thought of as absolute, begins to crumble, with the result that the line between the emic and etic, and so on also crumbles. This crumbling down is positive because it frees us, both philosophers and anthropologists, from the binary mindset that locks us in the vision that there always has to be the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and so on. When the self can be anywhere and everywhere, the inner and the emic can also be anywhere and everywhere. A description of the belief and practice system of a group of people, then, does not have to depend on a conception of objectivity that characterizes the scientific worldview. The very concept of objectivity itself depends on this dichotomy between the subject and the object; when the dichotomy crumbles, so is the concept that is dependent on it.

However, what crumbles down is only the concept of objectivity as it is dependent on the subject/object distinction. This is an important point because if we are not careful, then we could slide down the slippery slope toward epistemological nihilism where no knowledge is possible. The outcome that we can find “objectivity” everywhere is positive simply because there is a sense in which we can find knowledge from everywhere, and not only when it crosses the subject and object divide. In describing the belief and practice of a native tribe, for example, we don’t need to get inside their minds and try to describe what we found in the scientific language found in academic journals. That is not fully possible anywhere as we have seen. Instead the inside of their minds is not exactly speaking on the inside; since there is absolutely speaking no inside nor outside, then what we used to believe to reside inside could be found also on the outside. Here we have to be always aware that language itself is deceiving us all the time. Even if we are now saying that there is no outside and inside, we still have to use words such as ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ (or ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ or other dichotomic words) in order even to make sense to one another. However, if we are always conscious of the fact that the self and the other are but our own constructions for convenience’s sake and do not exist in absolute reality (in the same way as the rainbow does not exist in absolute reality), then we could still use the words ‘self’ or the first person pronoun to do the things we use these words to do, while, as I argue, avoiding the problem of bridging the gap between the subject and the object.

Let us imagine what would happen to an anthropologist when she encounters an unfamiliar practice of a native tribe. She has to understand the meanings behind it and report on it to the academic community using her own anthropological jargons. But the meanings of the native behind their practice could well be a reflection of her own view and reaction as well as her own understanding of the phenomenon after having studied and lived with the tribe for a period of time. This can be as objective as it can be because when the absolute boundary between the inner and outer is done away with, there is no barrier against her delving into the minds of the natives through introspectively looking at her own minds. This may sound very strange, but an analogy is in Buddhist thinking of how one can achieve full empathy with another through a basic understanding that one’s own mind and the mind of the other are in fact essentially interconnected. It is the conception of the distinction between the self and the other that creates a wall separating the two from each other. Thus, without the barrier, the anthropologist both become one with the native and detached from them at the same time. In this case the anthropologist interprets what is there inside her own mind, her own native understanding of the practice and then, as an anthropologist, broadcasts that understanding in the scientific language. Full empathy is a way in which a mind achieves a union with the mind of the other. Achieving empathy and union in this way is very important for the Buddhist, and the most important practices in Buddhism, such as meditations on loving-kindness and compassion and the powerful practice of “Giving and Taking” (tonglen), where the practitioner imagines that he soaks up all the sufferings of others while at the same time sending out his own happiness to all others, are designed just to prepare the practitioner toward achieving this union of oneself and others. The goal of the Buddhist practice is nothing but achieving this union, which is an aspect of becoming a Buddha. One then realizes that one is there in all the others, and that all the others are within oneself. In more practical terms this means that one shares all the feelings of joy, sorrow and happiness in others as if they were one’s own, and that one sends out one’s own feelings to others as if others belong to the same self as oneself too.

Thus, when the anthropologist studies the beliefs and practices of a native tribe, the goal would then be for her to become one with the native, thinking and acting like them. In this way the anthropologist shares in the feelings of joy, sorrow and others felt by the natives as if they were her own. Here the eventual goal is for the self or the mind of the anthropologist to dissolve into the selves and minds of the native. This may sound far-fetched, but the real meaning is quite down to earth. It means that the anthropologist empathize with the native, trying to think and feel just like they do. And since there is no boundary between self and other, when the anthropologist reports back to her academic community, she can just report on her own experiences and feelings, as if she were a native herself reporting to the academic community in their name. In this sense there is, absolutely speaking, no etic or emic, no object language or metalanguage, no representational scheme and reality; all dichotomies break down and appear only to be maintained because our language itself still works only when they appear to be upheld.

A typical scientific spirit, on the one hand, would emphasize that the observer has to detach herself from the object of her study. But this detachment only accentuates the gap between the self and the other that I have been trying to criticize. A Buddhism-inspired anthropology would, on the other hand, view the gap as only an illusion created by a faulty belief in the metaphysical reality of the self/other dichotomy. The scientist might object to my proposal here saying that it would destroy the objectivity of the report. After all, if the anthropologist imagines herself to be the native telling the latter’s story to the outside world, then what is the use of field research and all the points in research methodology courses that form a foundation of an anthropological education? However, dismantling the self/other dichotomy (and, of course, with it all the other dichotomies all of which depend on it) does not mean that there can be no standard of excellence in research. In Buddhism there is a clear standard of excellence for the practitioner, so that one can tell clearly how advanced one’s practice has been at any moment. One knows this by measuring how close or how far one’s condition at the moment is compared to the Goal, which of course is Liberation or nirvana. Thus in the text we find a difference between the Stream Enterers, or those who have just achieved the first step toward Realization, and the Arahats, who have destroyed all defilements and achieve the state of total extinguishing, meaning the Arahat will not return to samsara in any form, which is known as nirvana. The Goal, then, is nirvana; the Arahat has achieved it, but the Stream Enterer has not. In the text there are clear indications as to why the Stream Enterer is at the stage they are at; on the one hand, they are distinguished from the mere layperson in that they understand some important tenets in Buddhism and they have a correct understanding of the reason for practice, but on the other they still retain a number of defilements, including greed, anger and lack of more advanced understanding. The Buddhist path then could be laid out as a textbook where the more simple material are at the beginning for those who have just started, and then the material become more advanced and difficult as the student or the practitioner move on. Hence there is a clear indication of excellence. In anthropology there could be something along the same line. If the anthropologist reports to her academic peer without having sufficiently immersed herself in the native’s culture and only pretend to speak for them, or if she lacks the skills deemed necessary for an effective anthropologist, then she deserves to be censured. But if she does the reverse then obviously she deserves to be praised. Whether she is praised or censured by her academic peer does not have anything to do with the idea that the self/other dichotomy is taken to be merely an illusion.

Moreover, the view I propose here does not qualify as a species of relativism. The issue of relativism is perhaps the most contentious one between philosophers and anthropologists. In Available Light, Clifford Geertz argues for what he calls “anti anti-relativism” (Geertz, 2001, pp. 42-67). That is, what he is against is not the philosophical viewpoint that sets itself up as the opposite to relativism (which some may call universalism), but the stance of some who rail against relativism, proclaiming that the latter will inevitably lead to nihilism or the loss of everything we have held dear. Basically what Geertz is after is those who make a strawman out of those who favor cultural relativism. Those who espouse relativism does not have to be nihilists or anti-establishment, nor do they entertain that child eating is an acceptable behavior, and so on. I will not enter into the details of Geertz’s argument in this essay, but would like merely to point out that Geertz himself appears to be sympathetic, through a reading of his argument against anti-relativism here, to the view that I am proposing. What he is particularly arguing against is the tendency by those who criticizes relativism of relying on concepts such as the “Human Nature” or the “Human Mind,” which while they may sound appealing nonetheless are very difficult to pin down. When one is hooked on the Human Nature, Geertz argues, one tends to view anything with which one is unfamiliar as a “deviancy.” An implication is of course that what is included in human nature is too varied to be put under one umbrella of “Human Nature” as if there is only one. Here Geertz does not talk about human biological functions, such as breathing and eating; those are not so interesting from the anthropologist’s point of view. Instead what is much more interesting is human culture, those beliefs and practices that are imbued with meaning, which makes it almost impossible to get any handle on scientifically. The strawman argument offered by those who criticize relativism, then, belongs to the same type as those who rely on a strict dichotomy between the self and the other, or the inner and outer. A strict scientific worldview where the observer detaches herself completely from what she studies cannot result in a finding that would be satisfactory as a piece of anthropological knowledge, if that knowledge focuses on asking questions about cultures and tries to understand those beliefs and practices that together comprise a culture. Philosophers usually would argue that my proposal here would result in relativism, as if relativism is always something bad that has to be avoided at all cost. But then the charge of being relativistic itself presupposes the kind of dichotomizing which I have argued to be ultimately untenable. If the Buddhist viewpoint is to be taken seriously, then the distinction between relativism and universalism also goes the same way as that between the etic and emic discussed above. Ultimately the relativism/universalism dichotomy also depends on the self/other dichotomy: What is agreeable to me is labelled ‘universal’ and those who emphasize the other too much are then labelled ‘relativist.’

 

Conclusion

The distinction between self and other, then, is fundamental to the distinctions that create a gap that look at first sight to be unbridgeable. However, when the self itself is deconstructed in the Buddhist sense, then the whole dichotomy breaks down. A consequence is that there is no longer an objectively existing gap that creates the problem any longer. The anthropologist is then free to pronounce the weightiness of her research findings without having to worry about the gap. The gap, furthermore, underpins the oft mentioned philosophical distinction between relativism and universalism. Without the distinction being seen as a serious one, there is then no need for the kind of “anti anti-relativism” that Geerts talks about in his paper. The dissolution of the self, then, appears to be a rather significant contribution of Buddhism in the methodology of anthropology.

 

References

Davidson, D. (2001). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, C. (2001). Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kant, I. (2006). Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. R. B. Louden and M. Kuehn, transl. Cambridge University Press.

Pike, K. L., ed. (1967). Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd Ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

Tarski, A. (1983 (1956)). Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics: Papers from 1923 to 1938. Tarski, A., Corcoran, J. Eds. Hackett. (1st edition edited and translated by J. H. Woodger). Oxford University Press.

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การอุ้มบุญ: กฎหมาย ศาสนา จริยธรรม

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-Soraj

ABR Essay Prize 2013

Asian Bioethics Review (ABR) announces its 2013 essay prize contest.   Established in 2008, the purpose of ABR is to publish and encourage scholarship and research in all areas of bioethics, healthcare, medical ethics, medical law and healthcare policy.  Please note: Environmental ethics is not included within ABR’s scope of expertise at present.

We now extend a call for articles, researched, within these topic areas.  The primary purpose is to enhance the knowledge of and enlighten the reader on some aspect of these areas.

Eligibility:  The prize is open to anyone studying (post-secondary school) or working within the field of bioethics.  Priority will be given to papers from within Asia (from Iran to Japan, from Mongolia to New Zealand and includes the Commonwealth of Former Communist Countries).  As one aim of the prize is to give early recognition to outstanding researchers who are beginning a career in healthcare ethics, special consideration will be given to new researchers. Only one paper submission is permitted per person for consideration of the award, but a single paper may have more than one author.

The Article: The article (research paper) shall be original and unpublished, written in English and of no more than 5,000 words, excluding footnotes or endnotes. Papers previously submitted for class assignments or works in progress (such as papers to be delivered at conferences, etc) are encouraged. The article must be typed using a standard font (Times New Roman, Arial, etc) and double-spaced. Do not place the author’s name on the pages of text. Include a cover page that lists the name, mailing address and e-mail address of the author, their college or university, and current status, i.e., researcher, fellow, student (add year), Assistant Professor, etc.

Submission Instructions:  All articles must be received by 1st AUGUST 2013.  No articles will be accepted after this time.

All articles should be sent to:  Sally Campbell at:   sally_barbara_campbell AT nuhs.edu.sg.   This is the preferred format for receiving articles, but they may also be sent by post to Mrs. Sally Campbell, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Clinical Research Centre, #02-01, 10 Medical Drive, Singapore, 117597

For questions, please contact Professor Leo de Castro at:  leonardo_de_castro AT nuhs.edu.sg

Professor de Castro is a member of the judging committee.

The award-winning article will be evaluated by a panel of judges from the International Advisory Committee of ABR, all of whom serve as reviewers for ABR. The panel’s decision will be announced after September 1, 2013.

Judging Criteria:  Primary consideration will be given to the article’s originality and its contribution to new knowledge and insights. Other considerations will be the author’s demonstration of the relevance of the subject to the region, the presentation and the coherence of the argument, the adequacy of the referencing. In the case of a tie, two awards may be given at the discretion of the judges. If no submission is judged to be either appropriate or sufficiently meritorious, ABR reserves the right to make no award.

The Award. The winner will receive a prize of S$500. The winner will be invited to submit the article for publication in the ABR.  The runner up will be awarded a prize of 250SGD.

The Place of Religion in the Technoscientific World

Introduction

 

At first glance religion on the one hand and science and technology on the other do not seem to have anything in common. Religion, according to some viewpoints, is a holdover from a bygone era, an era which was full of superstitions and irrational beliefs. Science, on the contrary, is a product of reason and truth. The only way for religion to show that what it offers is worthy of belief is that it is the word of God, that its pronouncement comes from Ultimate Reality in one way or another. Followers have to take these claims on faith, since there is no other independent way of proving whether God or Ultimate Reality really exists or not. Science, according to this common viewpoint, challenges everybody to prove its content. Those who do not believe, for example, that the Moon’s gravity is responsible for the tides are invited to offer their own alternative explanation as to why the tides behave the way they do without referring to these familiar concepts. Science does not rely on faith; everything can be proved and shown to be true or false objectively. As for technology, the challenge for religion is to come up with any solutions that could even remotely rival technology in effectiveness. Medical technology, for example, has progressed very rapidly, resulting in many people living longer than before. We can also think of the results of other types of technology. On the contrary, religion does not seem to offer any similarly concrete solutions. The promise of religion lies mainly in the afterlife, but without relying on faith it is impossible to prove that the afterlife exists. Thus for many in the world today the promise of afterlife offered by religion is nothing more than a false hope designed for the deluded, unenlightened mass. Technology offers solutions for the here and now, for today’s world, not for the world beyond death, which no one actually knows exists or not.

That is certainly a familiar picture. It does not matter which specific religion is there on the side of religion in the dichotomy. Many have claimed that Buddhism fares better on the whole than theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are many elements in Buddhism which do not go along with the modern scientific mindset either. For example, the belief in life before birth and after death is central to Buddhism. It does not seem to be possible to have a coherent teaching on moral responsibility without the belief in these things. If everything in one’s life is totally annihilated after one’s death, then what is the point of trying to be a morally better person? Buddhism also has its fair share of superstitions; the Buddha performs many miracles as told in the canonical text; the worlds are arranged according to the moral quality of the inhabitants. It is very difficult to reconcile these to the modern scientific worldview. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has recently developed an interest in Buddhism, is clear in saying that the kind of Buddhism he would like to have is the kind that is totally cleansed of all that to him are “superstitions” (Flanagan 2011). To him superstitious elements in Buddhism are those that cannot be explained by science, such as the story that the Buddha travels to one of the heavens to meet his mother who died when he was only seven days old, or the belief in reincarnation. But the problem of stripping these elements from Buddhism is that what is left is only a set of abstract teachings, precisely the kind of thing that is amenable to modern science. As the belief in the afterlife is central to Buddhism’s stance on morality and responsibility, it cannot be eradicated without thereby affecting the whole fabric of Buddhist philosophy all together. What this means is that these so-called “superstitious” beliefs play an important role in Buddhism. Thus the belief found among many scholars that Buddhism is somehow different in this regard from other, theistic religions may be unfounded. Here Buddhism and the theistic religions are in the same boat.

The estrangement between religion and science appears be indicate that religion has become alienated to the modern world. This is because the modern world is so deeply influenced by science and technology that it is very difficult to imagine what the modern world would be like without the two. Thus the main problem facing all religions today is how religion can maintain its relevance in today’s world, a world which is founded upon science and technology. How can religion find its place in the social world when this world is being shaped more and more by science and technology? If science and technology do not need religion and if science and technology are also what is needed in today’s world, then religion appears to be superfluous. Would the belief in God or in Nirvana, which has founded the religious faith for millennia, be replaced by a new religion, that of science and rationality, and the belief that technology can fix every problem that is facing us? These questions have become all the more important when the role of religion in modern society is being usurped by science. Religion used to play the role of providing meaning and consolation to the people, but now that many are turning to drugs and medical help instead of religion, then what is left for religion to do?

It is my contention that the problem of relevance facing religion today is based on the belief that religion and science inhabit totally different world where there is no coming and going between the two. This belief is misguided. Religion still has quite a lot to share with science, something that science cannot find on their own. This is because there is bound to be something that is missed out by science because its own methodology prevents it from the beginning. Furthermore, religion also has quite a lot to learn from science too. It is only by opening the two up so that each can learn from the other than the place for religion in the technoscientific world can be assured. Moreover, it is more important perhaps that science learn from religion. In this way science can then find the kind of meaning that cannot be found otherwise, especially if science insists on proceeding with its own methodology alone.

In fact there are three domains in which religion and science can fruitfully interact, namely ethics, new possibilities for science, and new understanding of religion. Let’s discuss each of these topics in turn.

 

Ethics

The usual methodology of science does not leave a room for ethics. But this is where religion can make its strongest contribution. Science and technology have become so dependent on each other than it makes more sense to put them under the same word, “technoscience.” Technoscience is a unique development of the modern world; in fact the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century owed very much to the development of technology in that period. Galileo would not have been able to put forward his new scientific knowledge of the heaven had he not able to use the telescope which was an invention in that period. Technoscience certainly carries with it ethical implications. This is the case not only in today’s world where technoscience has become so pervasive in every aspect of our lives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when modern science was at its formative stage, it was clear that technoscience was destined to be the instrument that Europeans used to conquer the rest of the world. To conquer the world, however, is not the stated objective of science, but this was inevitable when science became coupled with technology to produce immense power to those who knew how to harness it. The ethical implication is clear: To use the power of technoscience to conquer the world, as the Europeans certainly did in their colonization of the rest of the world, carries with it strong ethical values. And today when technoscience has become much more powerful, its ethical implications and values are as strong as ever.

It is quite ironic that though technoscience contains within itself strong ethical values, its own methodology does not permit of treating those values as constitutive of its practice in itself. That is, ethical considerations always come from outside of the technoscientific practice. When the scientists in Nazi Germany performed a series of experiments on their prisoners to see how tolerant the bodies of human beings were to extreme cold, they did a meticulous job which was perfect according to the scientific methodology. However, what they did was a blatant violation of ethical standard, for actually what they did was to put these prisoners under various degrees of extreme cold and measured how long they lasted until they finally died. It did not come into the minds of these scientists that these prisoners were human beings and that being put under such a condition would be extremely painful. In the minds of the scientists being in pain could actually be part of the experiment. If they had a way of measuring the pain suffered by these prisoners objectively, then this would have been a part of the experiment because that would contribute to their goals of measuring the threshold of endurance to extreme cold. However, what did not occur to their minds was that these prisoners were human beings, and human beings do suffer when put to the cold. The scientists did not know, or did not care to know, that they themselves could have been put under the same condition, and if they did not want to be in that situation (no one would) then the prisoners did not want so either. That is the crucial aspect of ethical consideration of their experiment, but their scientific methodology told them that this was extraneous to the science, and such feelings needed to be avoided.

If the scientists who were to perform these experiments were the least religious, they would certainly have not performed them. They would realize that both they themselves and the prisoners were not only human beings, but were creatures of God, created in His image, and thus deserve some respect. This realization would prevent the scientists from performing such horrific experiments because they would judge that the suffering of those who are put under these conditions is not compatible with the respect that any human being deserves. Here we see how religion contributes to ethical considerations in science. Nowadays we have strong regulations in using human subjects in research, regulations that stem directly from the horrors performed by Nazi scientists. Even though the regulations look secular, there is no denial that religious consideration could well be the foundation on which these regulations depend.

In other areas of scientific research and experiment, ethical considerations are also needed. Perhaps the hottest topic in technoscientific research and development today is in robotics. The US has developed drone airplanes that can fly far into hostile territory and seek out and destroy targets. In the works are robots that could one day replace human soldiers, with far more lethal consequences. The ethical problem for the drone airplane is: Is it ethical to send such airplanes to hostile territory and bomb targets? If the war is unjust, then the question is closed because in an unjust war every action by the one who starts the war cannot be ethically justified. But if the war is a just one, then should drone airplanes be considered to be an unacceptable means of engaging in warfare, in the same way as the use of chemical or biological weapons are so considered nowadays? What seems to be wrong about drone airplanes is that warfare is supposed to be a conflict between humans, but when drones travel thousands of kilometers into the enemy’s territory and destroy targets there, the human element on the attacker’s side is missing. Warfare then becomes utterly dependent on technology in a way that has not been seen before. It is true that warfare has always depended on technology, but what separates drones from all previous uses of technology is that with the drones fighting can be done remotely. The person who controls the drone can sit in a comfortable room half the world away from the site of the conflict. He or she then is not involved in the conflict in any manner, because for him or her engaging in the war is nothing different from engaging in a simulation game on the computer, something every child today is very good at. This conflation of a real war where real people are killed and a computer simulation game in which everything is happening as blips on the screen, exemplified by the drone aircraft, points to an urgent need for further ethical consideration of the whole thing.

In addition to the remotely controlled aircraft, military researchers today are working on a version of robot soldiers who in their vision would one day take the place of human soldiers in combat situation. What is scary about this development is that the robots are envisioned to function autonomously. This is where ethical considerations come in very poignantly. To function autonomously means the robot does not have to be remotely controlled; instead they can function independently by themselves. For example, a robot that is armed and programmed to destroy targets would be able to travel on their own and seek out the targets by themselves. What makes this particularly scary is that the robot will have to make its own decision as to which exactly is the target and which is not. But what would happen if it fails to make the distinction? What would happen if the information fed into the robot before entering the combat zone is a wrong one so that the robot is misled from the beginning? How could the robot distinguish between civilians and combatants? In real life combatants do not always wear a sign telling the world that they are indeed combatants; they would like to blend with the civilians for obvious reasons. How can then the autonomous robot know which one is actually the combatant? This is still an unsolved problem in military robotics.

Religion can be of great help in instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in robotics. It is right now not possible to engineer a robot who is as fully conscious as a human being. That scenario is still the stuff of science fiction. What is available, however, is a robot which has in it a set of algorithmic commands which allow them to function more or less autonomously. Thus the crux of the matter is not with the robot itself, but with the designers and the whole complex of operations surrounding the robot, the whole human and social context in which the robot develops. It is these systems that are in great need of religious sensibilities. It may be far-fetched to talk about the role of religion in military technology, but the core idea is that in any kind of technology, the military hardware discussed here being only an example, there is a need of religious perspectives and sensibilities, because it is these sensibilities that instill a sense of ethics in the design and implementation of a technology, no matter how crude or sophisticated. In the case of the autonomous military robot, it has to follow the rule of warfare. It must be able to distinguish civilians from combatants in a sophisticated manner, and it has to be virtuous in that it won’t shoot any combatant who has already surrendered. A key ingredient in the religious sensibilities is the realization that all human beings are sacred and deserve respect. Even if a human being is one’s enemy in war, the enemy still deserves respect and when the combat has ceased the enemy is to be treated like the human being that he is. This is a realization that stems ultimately from religion, and it shows how important religion is to such a sophisticated and advanced technology such as military robotics.

 

New Possibilities for Science

Apart from ethics, science itself benefits from religion because religion can provide science with new possibilities and insights which cannot be obtained through scientific methodology alone. For example, the works of such scientists as Francesco Varela, Richard Davidson and others have shown that ancient wisdom from Buddhism could shed light that offers new possibilities for scientific research. Buddhism has offered detailed first-person descriptions of what is going on in the mind. It has cataloged a large variety of emotive and other mental states which have proven to be useful when scientists use the new technique of imaging the workings of the brain and try to interpret what they actually mean. This incorporation of first-person report based on Buddhist terminology is known as “first-person science,” an idea which has started to receive more serious attention from behavioral and cognitive scientists.

Traditional scientific methodology believes that one should prevent elements from the “first person” to come in to play in the process of finding and building up scientific knowledge, because such first-person elements will distort the truth and the validity of the results. For example, scientists are taught to avoid the “secondary qualities” of objects and focus instead of their “primary qualities.” Secondary qualities are those properties of objects that depend on the perception of individuals for their existence. For example, the feelings of warmth or coldness that the hands have when they are immersed in warm or cold water are clear examples of the secondary qualities. The problem, according to traditional methodology, is that feelings felt by the hands are too inexact to be admissible as scientific evidence. Some persons may tolerate heat better than another, so the former may report the same water as being less warm than the other, who is more sensitive to heat. For the report to be scientific, the thermometer is used instead. Instead of relying on the sheer tactile feeling of warmth or coldness, the thermometer reports how much or how little the heat in the water causes the mercury inside the tube to rise up. The thermometer does not report the feeling of heat or coldness in any way. Heat as shown by the rising of the mercury inside the thermometer is an example of the water’s primary quality; whereas the feelings of heat or warmth or coldness felt by the hands are secondary qualities. The key here is that since primary qualities do not depend on the subjective feelings of the observer, they become the foundation for constructing scientific knowledge. This has become the dominant methodology in science for centuries.

However, what Varela is proposing is that, instead of relying exclusively on what is objectively verifiable in the primary qualities, scientific knowledge could advance more if one also brings in the first-person, subjective dimension. Buddhism does not distinguish between the objective and the subjective; instead it assumes that the two are both aspects of the same reality. In other words, when Buddhism describes reality, it does not divide the reality into the subjective, inner realm of private thoughts and sensations of an individual, and the objective, outer realm of publicly verifiable qualities. The so-called “inner” qualities are also publicly verifiable because anyone who follows the same procedure will experience those “inner” qualities in the same way as others. The Buddhist text states, for example, that when one attains the first level of meditative absorption (jñana) one will experience a sensation known as “vitaka,” which is a necessary factor in attaining the first-level absorption. The text describes vitaka as “hitting the bell.” This refers to the act of meditation where the meditator recalls and repeats what she is focusing her attention on. The recalling and the refocusing are known as “vitaka.” The text says that this is a vital ingredient without which no meditative absorption can take place. One knows that one has vitaka by comparing what the text says. It is like hitting a bell. When one is focusing one’s attention on something in the process of meditation, one has to keep repeating and bringing oneself back to the object of one’s meditation. This bringing oneself back is then compared to the action of hitting the bell over and over. What is happening inside is taken to be on a par as an element of reality as what is outside. In fact it is an implication of Buddhist and its main contribution that the inner and the outer eventually break down.

Another example that shows how the inner and the outer is broken down and merged together is that Buddhism has a very elaborate theory of the self and self-formation. This can be a resource for scientists who are studying consciousness and how the idea of the self is formed in a person, or whether there can be located a locus (or several loci) of the self in the brain of the person himself or herself. Buddhism teaches that what is commonly known as the self, i.e., the one who is the initiator of action of an individual, who makes the decision for the individual, who feels and thinks as that individual, ultimately does not exist as an objectively existing entity. Instead what is taken to be the self is a result of various factors, chief among which is upadana, or grasping. What is taken to be the self is a result of various forms and instances of grasping, resulting in various elements being brought together under the illusion that those elements belong to one and the same objectively existing entity known as the self. But the Buddhists ask us to examine this process in order to help us realize that the self does not objectively exist; instead it is only formed out of many elements which would not be related to one another if not for the action of grasping.

What the analysis of the self in Buddhism can offer modern science is that Buddhism has already a very detailed and systematic description of the self and the various processes by which the self come to be formed. This becomes a reference point against which modern neuroscience can conduct their experiments. Modern science has operated on the belief that first-person report should be filtered out, but as the analysis of the self shows, the inner and the outer are in fact aspects of one and the same reality. And if this is really the case, then to take the inner out believing that it is not part of the scientific process would mean that scientific knowledge would miss an important aspect which could have brought much in terms of our understanding of the world. According to Francisco Varela, one of the most prominent pioneers in bringing Buddhism and scientific research together, “… we foresee in the future that the mind sciences will evolve into a form of experiential neuroscience, bridging the gap between external and internal descriptions. Such a unification of our understanding of the world, a new frame for a mind science, is one of the major contributions Buddhism is capable of offering” (Varela 2012).

 

New Understanding of Religion

 

The relation between science and religion does not limit itself only to creating new possibilities in science. The relation goes the other way too. Science and technology can contribute to the many ways that religion can be transformed in order better to respond to challenges of the contemporary world. For example, the Internet and social media can promote religious teachings and create groups of faithfuls and practitioners who can always get in touch with one another through the social media. They can share the teachings and set up real world events where they can meet; they can also engage in discussion on the social media site and so on. A welcome development in how the practice of religion has been transformed by technology is in what is known as “Islamic computing.” An example of this is a software program, which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, that tells the exact time that Muslims have to pray to God. Another application facilitates online banking according to the Islamic system. These are just some of the current applications of modern technology to religious practice. In Thailand, many also use the social media to propagate teachings and to coordinate real world activities such as merit making ceremonies.

The use of technology is not limited to facilitating religious practice, however. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that if the findings of science happen to contradict some of the content by past masters, then he would be willing to forego the masters’ teachings and embrace the scientific findings instead. He says: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview” (Tenzin Gyatso 2005). For example, Buddhism has an elaborate cosmology which claims that there is a central mountain that acts as the core at the center of the world and that the core is ringed by seven smaller mountains. The pillar also supports many layers of heavens and hells. According to the Dalai Lama, this belief has to change in light of the findings of science that show the geographical nature of the world as well as the place of the planet earth in the solar system. This shows that the idea of the world being supported by a central mountain is untenable. One can still be a good Buddhist without believing in the central mountain. Thus the teachings of Buddhism can then be enriched by these findings from science. Instead of believing that the earth is supported by a perfectly straight central pillar, something which cannot be supported by empirical evidence, Buddhists can believe instead that the earth is not supported by anything but float in space and orbit the sun as the third planet of the Solar System.

 

Conclusion

 

Such a belief, I would like to add, does not interfere with the main message of Buddhism, and in the case of other religions, this appears to be true also. A true believer and practitioner of a religion does not have to shut himself or herself off from the advancement in science and technology. Instead he or she finds a congruence, a harmony between science and religion such that the main message of the religion remains intact while becoming part of the scientific world. Becoming a part of the scientific world does not mean that one becomes “scientistic,” i.e., one who blindly follows everything in science and totally believes that science is superior to all other intellectual or spiritual endeavors. Such a person is indeed entirely ignorant. Integrating science and technology into our lives does not have to mean that we become scientistic in this sense. On the contrary, as our discussion on the ethics of science and technology shows, we stand in a real need for religious insights which would help us see the potentially disastrous consequences of technoscience. By doing that we do not become religious fanatics either. In fact religious fanatics, those who blindly believe in the content of religious teachings without reason, and those who are scientistic are but two sides of one and the same coin—they blindly believe in what they want to believe without proper investigation and examination through reason. Today’s world does not need those mindsets, but we need a way in which religion and technoscience to engage in meaningful dialogs so that we human beings can really flourish in both material and spiritual senses.

 

References

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (2005). Our faith in science. New York Times. November 12, 2005. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=1 [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Varela, Francisco J. (2012). Buddhism and modern science: the importance of the encounter with Buddhism for modern science. Available at http://www.mindandlife.org/about/hhdl-mli/buddhism-and-modern-science/ [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Flanagan, Owen. (2011). Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

 

 

 

 

Spinoza

Last Tuesday I taught a course on Spinoza for the first time. It is part of the course on Modern Philosophy, starting with Descartes and supposedly ending with Kant. Spinoza figures prominently in this story, and his thought is the most interesting of all the philosophers in the modern period, or in any period for that matter.

We read Spinoza’s Ethics together in the class, trying to understand what is meant in Spinoza’s terse, geometrical language. As one who has only a little familiarity with Spinoza’s thought and writing knows. Spinoza presents his masterpiece “in geometrical order” meaning that he emulates the style of Euclid when he presents his philosophy. This is perhaps the only piece in the history of Western philosophy which is presented as axioms, definitions, propositions, and proofs. And the subject matter is not about points, lines, triangles, or squares, but God, substance, attributes, modes, human emotions, in short everything dealt with in any other substantial philosophy.

Spinoza’s most startling insight is his idea that God is everything. He does not say this as a metaphor; there is no place for metaphors in the Ethics. He means this literally. A standard theistic understanding of God is that he is the creator of the world, so he cannot be everything because that would mean that he is one and the same as his creation, but that is exactly Spinoza’s point. God is a “cause of itself” — he creates himself, and he is the only one entity in the whole universe who does this. In fact it is the universe itself that is God himself, or it is God himself who is the universe. Being a cause of himself God in fact has no beginning because that would mean that there has to be something that exists before God which acts as his cause, but that would contradict the statement that God is the cause of himself. Since God has no beginning, he does not have an end either.

I told my students that if God is indeed everything, then we ourselves are God. Not merely parts of God, but God himself. So I am God, you are God, and so on. This is so because God has infinite attributes, and Spinoza says that an attribute expresses an essence of God. Since there are an infinite number of attributes, that must mean that I myself am an attribute of God also, so are you, and so is everybody else. An attribute expresses God’s essence, so in a sense I am God’s essence, or in other words I am God. (How else can one count the infinite number of the attributes without sooner or later coming across myself or each of my students in the Modern Phil class? You can list the standard properties commonly attributed to God such as benevolence, omnipotence and so on, but after a while you will run out of these and have to start counting properties such as “being Soraj Hongladarom” and others.)

Heady stuff, huh? Western interpreters tend not to interpret Spinoza so as to make him appear a mystic, but in the context of Thailand and other Asian cultures Spinoza makes for a very interesting, if very difficult, read. People naturally tend to compare his thoughts with the major philosophies both in India and in China. We talked about Brahman and the Tao as something comparable to Spinoza’s God. In Buddhism we can certainly compare him with Emptiness. Emptiness is everything too. Well, it is both everything and nothing at the same time, but Spinoza’s God is like that too.

We also talked about Spinoza and the pre-socratic philosophers, most notably Parmenides, with whom Spinoza shares a lot of things in common. God is certainly one, and for Parmenides the substance of everything is, well, “The One.” Scientifically minded western philosophers tend to make fun of Parmenides, saying things like “Oh, Parmenides taught that everything is one, and that I am not it.” We can certainly say the same thing about Spinoza’s God. Someone might say, “Spinoza says that all is one, that is God, but I am not He.” But as I said before Spinoza has an answer to this in his view about the infinity of God’s attributes.

But you might wonder how can God be one if I am God and you are God and that I and you are not one? But in Spinoza’s vision you and I are one. You and I only appear separate from the point of the view of the finite intellect, but from the infinite point of view you and I are certainly one. This is the Buddhist perspective too. Each of us expresses God’s attribute in a different way, but deep down we are both a part of the infinite whole that constitutes God, or nature. As the infinite whole has no real parts, there is absolutely nothing that separates you from me, or me from you.

Spinoza uses his vision of God here as a basis for his thinking on ethics, especially on how we humans could achieve “blessedness” in our lives. But that will take us too long. So let’s wait until I talk with my students again next Tuesday.