This happens to me a lot, in my now-churchless frame of mind. I'll buy a book that seems to be in my sweet spot: scientific, yet also philosophical, with just enough of a spiritual-but-not-religious tone.
Like Goldilocks, not too much, not too little. Just right.
I don't mean to sound like a crotchety literary perfectionist. I realize that the reason I like to read books is because they're written by people who aren't me.
I enjoy reading stuff I don't agree with. So long as I can understand the author's reasons for saying what he or she does.
With "Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science," I was rocking and rolling along with David Barash's explanations of how pared-down Buddhist teachings, stripped of their supernatural elements, are right in line with modern biology.
(My previous posts about the book are here, here, and here.)
But then I came to the final chapter, Meaning (Existential Bio-Buddhism?). Here Barash says that he will present his personal perspective "rather than attempting to describe objectively the interface between Buddhism and biology."
That's where my enjoyment of the book went downhill. Not all the way to the bottom, not even close. I still enjoyed "Buddhist Biology" a lot and can heartily recommend it.
I just wish that Barash hadn't interjected his personal belief in free will into the book, because free will is very much at odds with both Buddhism and modern science.
In a footnote early on in the last chapter, Barash writes:
Personal note: my literary agent suggested that I refrain from introducing existentialism into this book, worrying that it is not only passé but also too highbrow. Although he is very intelligent and wise in the ways of Western publishing, my hope is that you, dear readers, will prove him wrong, at least in this regard.
Well, this reader thinks the agent was exactly right. Not for the reason Barash states; I enjoy existentialism; in my college days I embraced Sartre, Camus, and other existentialist thinkers.
What irked me about the final chapter was how it contradicted so much of what Barash had argued persuasively in favor of before. Here's how I summarized this in one of my blog posts about the book:
The core of Barash's book, which I've almost finished, is that three principles underly Buddhism in all of its varied forms. However, lots is added on to these principles that can't be defended scientifically.
But this much can. Definitions are from the book's glossary.
(1) Anatman -- not-self; denial that things, animals, or people have an independent, substantial nature. In particular, neither humans nor anything else have an eternal non-material soul. Neuroscience supports this.
(2) Anitya -- impermanence; a state of constantly becoming. Change happens. Everywhere. All the time. No exceptions. Except maybe the laws of nature that proclaim "change happens." Evolution is one example.
(3) Pratitya-Samutpada -- connectedness; the dependent co-arising of all phenomena; dependent origination; interdependence of all things. Fundamental premise of ecology, biology, systems thinking.
So we humans don't have an independent nature, or self. We are constantly changing, as is everything else. We are part of an interconnected, interdependent universe where no entity is an island, complete unto itself.
Where in this view of the cosmos is there room for free will? Logically, nowhere. But I guess Barash's fondness for existentialism overrode both his scientific and Buddhist sensibilities, because his last chapter included passages that made me pen in large question marks in the book's margins.
The concept of choice turns out to be especially important here, because in the view of the existentialists, we are free; indeed, in Sartre's paradoxical words, we are "condemned to be free."
...Thus, Buddhist thought diverges from materialist biological science in asserting that genuine intentionality exists even though strict cause-and-effect thinking (supported by biology) insists that free will is an illusion.
...But that does not mean that we are stuck with an atomized, un-Buddhist mind-set, since to a large extent, minds are among those things that we are free to make up for ourselves...admittedly with a gentle shove from that array of genetically inspired tendencies that we designate "biology."
...In any event, "going with the flow" of our biologically generated inclinations is very close to existential "bad faith," wherein people pretend -- to themselves and others -- that they are not free, whereas they in fact are.
...We are free, terrifyingly free, to make these decisions, to keep the ball in the air.
Look: I'm not bothered by a belief in free will. To me, it is like a belief in God. Almost everybody in the world considers that they have free will, and also that God exists.
Heck, I feel as if I have free will also.
I also feel that the sun rises and sets. But science tells me that the Earth rotates as it orbits the sun. Science also tells me a lot about the nature of the human brain. To me, believing in free will is as scientifically indefensible as believing that the Earth stands still while the sun moves around it.
Tellingly, Barash presents zero scientific evidence in support of his contention that "we are free, terrifyingly free." He says that "in fact," we are free. But doesn't offer up any facts in defense of that statement.
I found this deeply irritating.
Again, not so much as to detract markedly from my enjoyment of his entire book. I just mentally erased Barash's last chapter from the substance of what he said, viewing his personal belief in free will as one of those paradoxes that make people so entertainingly interesting.
I used to work with a statistician who was fond of quoting Emerson:
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
We are all multitudes, full of messy seeming contradictions, paradoxes, inconsistencies. Yet, I'd argue (because science supports me in this) that the human brain/mind is a entity founded on and formed by causes and effects, not the free will of an independent self.
Which is what Barash also argued up until his last chapter, where he flipped over into his existentialist mode.
I might have been able to accept an existentialism that was consistent with Buddhism, though not with biology, even though this would have gone against the theme of Barash's book: that the core of Buddhism is compatible with modern biology.
However, it sure seems that free will is at odds with Buddhism also. I offer up the Great God Wikipedia's article on "Free Will." Here's what the Buddhism section says. Pretty involved; I don't claim to understand it completely.
This Zen Buddhist perspective on free will (and the lack thereof) is easier to comprehend.
Free will is “the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.” We don’t talk much about divine intervention in Buddhism, but we definitely talk about prior causes.
So, if we go with that definition, it doesn’t look like there is free will in the view of Buddha-Dharma because everything that happens, including “choice” is determined by conditions. Volition is a mental factor that arises dependent upon conditions, which is precisely what makes it not an independent self.
If there were an independent self, then it could have free will, and in fact that’s what we feel to be true as humans. We believe that “I” as a free agent can, within the limits of conditions imposed by the world, decide what to do now. Don’t we think so?
Free will may sound like a really great thing to have, but it seems to me that it would be kind of a burden to have free will. A question you can contemplate is: If it feels like “you” have to decide anything, do you feel a little bit of unease with that “freedom” of so-called free will?
If you open to the possibility that the boundless totality of conditions is determining your every move, that your “self ” is receiving its function from myriad conditions, do you feel some ease with that sense of “being controlled”?
It sure seems like Buddhism doesn't share Barash's view that "we are free, terrifyingly free." Nor, obviously, does science, including biology.
So Barash's contention that humans have free will isn't founded either in Buddhism or in biology, the twin subjects of his book. Rather, it is founded in his own feeling that he has free will -- a feeling, like I said before, that is shared by most other people.
Fine. I just would contend that Barash's belief in free will, along with my non-belief in free will, are both the result of causes and effects occurring in a marvelously complex interconnected cosmos.
Not the result of free will. (I just had to say that.)