Was the Buddha Enlightened? (part 2)

A previous post (part 1) raised the question of whether or not there is good reason to think that the Buddha was enlightened. In that post, I mainly focused on the doctrine of karmic rebirth, pointing out that at least in early Buddhism, liberation from karmic rebirth is one of the things that the Buddha is said to achieved at the moment of his enlightenment. But if there is no karmic rebirth, then the Buddha was not enlightened — at least not in the sense in which his enlightenment was presented in early Buddhism.

The question was raised, in the comments, whether karmic rebirth is really necessary to Buddhism. There are self-identified Buddhists who reject karmic rebirth, or hold an agnostic stance toward it, or otherwise attempt to minimize its importance. Books by Stephen Batchelor and Owen Flanagan, to pick two notable examples, try to make a case for a Buddhism that does not give a central place to karmic rebirth. But it seems to me that rejecting karmic rebirth raises its own set of problems for Buddhists.

Suppose we reject karmic rebirth. An examination of early Buddhist texts suggests that the Buddha taught that karmic rebirth was real. So the Buddha was wrong about karmic rebirth. But then why think he was right about anything else? If the Buddha’s affirmation of karmic rebirth was, in particular, an artifact of his cultural environment, then why think any other Buddhist claims are any different? Buddhist practice derives from the attempt to emulate the Buddha. But why emulate him if there are no good reasons to think that emulating him will result in what Buddhists claim is the intended result of such emulation?

Perhaps the Buddhist will accept the epistemic fallibility of the Buddha on some matters. The Buddha was, after all, only human, they will say. In fact, Buddhism depends on the possibility that everyone can attain all that the Buddha did. But then what is that? Not liberation from karmic rebirth, or epistemic omniscience. Why align one’s sympathies with Buddhism rather than any of the other religious perspectives that were around in the Buddha’s time? What reason is there to think the Buddha’s doctrines were better or more true than those other perspectives?

The Buddha is represented in early texts as exuding tranquility and imperturbability. Perhaps Buddhism should be judged not by its doctrines, but by the character of the Buddha, himself? Yet this is clearly problematic. All one has to do is to look at the current political climate in the US to see that when people affiliate themselves with some group, they overwhelmingly come to perceive the leaders that group as above average in ability, intelligence, and moral virtue, while the leaders of rival groups are perceived as below average in those respects. Since all the accounts we have of the Buddha’s character were written by members of the Buddhist community, we cannot know that they do not contain exaggerations of his good qualities or omissions of his bad qualities. We can’t rely on the Buddhist texts to deliver unbiased accounts of the Buddha’s character. In fact, the texts already describe the Buddha using honorific and exceptionally laudatory terms.

More to the point, it would be disappointing if the Buddha’s tranquility of mind was based on beliefs that turned out to be false. Truth ends up taking a backseat to comfort. So it seems that Buddhists should claim that Buddhism is based on at least some true claims about human experience and that these true claims were somehow verified by the Buddha in his enlightenment. Buddhists who reject karmic rebirth will accept that karmic rebirth is not among such true claims, but will propose other claims that they think are more important.

For any such claim, though, suppose we present the following argument schema:

1. If the Buddha was enlightened, then the Buddha knew infallibly that claim x is true.

2. The Buddha did not know infallibly that claim x is true.

3. Therefore, the Buddha was not enlightened.

Notice that it is not enough for whatever we substitute for claim x in the argument schema to turn out to be, in fact, true. As any philosopher will point out, truth may be a necessary condition for knowledge, but it is not sufficient. In order for a belief to count as knowledge, it must also be justified (most philosophers think still more is required than justification, as well, but that is peripheral to present concerns). And here is where I think we should have serious reservations about any knowledge claims the Buddha might have made. After all, what was the Buddha’s primary methodology? Meditation. Let’s just think about this for a minute. Meditation involves sitting, relaxing, directing one’s mental focus, and attending to one’s physical or cognitive states. If the Buddha claimed to know x on the basis of meditation, we should find it acceptable for someone to say, “I know that x is true, for the truth of x has been given to me in meditation.”

Consider the Buddhist claim that all things are impermanent, for example. Assuming that the scope of “all things” is genuinely universal, the Buddha could not have known, for instance, whether or not there are non-decaying subatomic particles. This just isn’t the sort of thing that could be known through meditation. It would be silly to imagine a scientific conference where a presenter claimed to have discovered evidence of a non-decaying subatomic particle, and a Buddhist stood up and objected, “I regret to inform you that your evidence is defective, since my meditative experience tells me that all is impermanent.”

The same can be said of the Buddhist claim that there is no true self (atman). This may be true, but once again it doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that one could come to know through meditation. The arguments of substance dualists may be flawed, and there is (I think) considerable empirical evidence that poses problems for substance dualism (the belief that there is a substantial self or soul), but substance dualists should not pack up and go home because someone says to them, “Gee, bad news – it has been revealed to me in meditation that there is no soul.”

A Buddhist might reply that all this misses the point. My argument schema implicitly assumes that the claims made by Buddhists are metaphysical claims – claims about the nature of reality, itself. The Buddhist may respond that this is not actually the intended scope of Buddhist philosophy. The scope of Buddhist philosophy is not reality, itself, but rather how humans react to reality. Buddhism (very much like Stoicism) is concerned primarily with self-regulation and ethical response. What really counts, the Buddhist may say, is that the path of Buddhism offers the best and surest cure for human suffering.

But this claim, too, is not something that could reasonably be learned through meditation. It also appears to be false when viewed in the context of a basic (Kantian style) thought experiment: What if everyone in society tried to live as the Buddha did? What if everyone took up a robe and a begging bowl and spent their days meditating, except for a small amount of time begging food from others? From whom would they beg if everyone else was also a beggar? This is clearly not a model for a sustainable society.

Then, too, there is the question of whether the best way to respond to the suffering and death of children, and the grief of their parents, is to observe that such suffering rests on the false belief that people have permanent selves, and that if they would only learn detachment, their suffering would be ended. Isn’t medical research really a better response? Yet the Buddhist view seems to suggest that solutions to human suffering should not be sought by trying to improve our understanding of empirical reality by studying how it works.

There are people who sometimes complain that scientists spend too much time studying things that have no practical benefit. Such complaints are sometimes tied to recommendations that government spending be reduced so as not to throw good money after such useless inquiries. But as has often been pointed out, much scientific research that seems to have no practical benefits does sometimes turn out to have very significant benefits, after all. The Buddha’s confidence that he was able to distinguish between the useless and the useful in respect of matters of inquiry seems unfounded.

I am, of course, creating a bit of a caricature of Buddhism here, but I hope that in doing so I am at least highlighting points that Buddhists really do need to address.