Get Happy in a Godless Universe! – An Interesting Article

Does a spiritual life provide us with “happiness” in any meaningful sense of the word? It’s probably evident from what I write in this blog that my view of the world is shaped more by philosophy than a set of spiritual beliefs. However, there is overlap between the two. Much of what is involved in living a life of Agathos has real spiritual meaning. But will it make you happy? If we define happiness as seeking a never-ending state of blissed out general giddiness then it doesn’t have much relevance to a good and meaningful life (or reality for that matter). That kind of happiness is pretty transitory. I’m more inclined to think in terms of Eudaimonia. But much of current philosophy and science is quick to discount the spiritual dimension of life and whatever meaning, satisfaction or “happiness” it may bring. Most of what we do and and desire is seen as mere byproduct of chemicals and conditioning processes which we now understand better courtesy of empirical study. As knowledge advances will the spiritual life and its consolations be doomed to the proverbial dustbin of history?

I was very interested to run across this article by Owen Flanagan, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience At Duke University. His work lies in “philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy”. His article seems to be an encapsulation of his recent book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. I haven’t yet read the book but am looking forward to doing so after I manage to get through the small pile currently on the nightstand.

Flanagan explores Buddhism and what it offers for human well being and happiness regardless of religious context. If we assume that we are material creatures in a purely material universe can Buddhism be “naturalized” and be of use in a material life? Naturalism is a funny term as it can have different shades of meaning. In this case it refers to the secular humanist idea in philosophy that nothing exists outside of observable nature and so no supernatural explanations are valid. So can Buddhist practice (its meditation practices, its metaphysics, its guidelines for living) still provide a blueprint for human flourishing without the religious parts?

The real takeaway paragraph that grabbed my attention:

“I believe that “Buddhism naturalized” is a serious contender, along with Confucianism and Aristotelianism, for a great wisdom tradition that offers a viable philosophy for 21st century secularists. It might seem odd to recommend these ancient theories as good for us now, but I do really think all three are worth a second look. The reason is that all three of these philosophies, from over 2 millenia ago, are less theistic, and thus more rational, in their core philosophy that the three Abrahamic traditions.”

I found this passage of interest for a couple of reasons. First, I can’t help but be pleased whenever I see an academic philosopher seriously addressing how a philosophy might actually help one live. There are a few writers in recent times like Pierre Hadot and Alisdair MacIntyre who address such concerns. But a great deal of current philosophy seems more interested in promoting politicized agendas or maintaining an intellectual elite insulated by indecipherable jargon. I’m always heartened when I see writings that directly apply to how one might conduct one’s life.

However, secondly, I have to wonder why its valuable to “naturalize” Buddhism at all? If you remove the religious elements of Buddhism (reincarnation, etc.) is it still Buddhism or does it become something else? Is it then just a Buddhist flavored intellectual tradition? My concern would be that something will get lost in translation. I’ve studied for years at a Kung Fu school where there is a shrine to tutelary deities. I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to such things but I have no difficulty accepting bowing, lighting of incense and making offerings. I’m inclined to view these tutelary figures as Jungian archetypes of a sort and leave it at that. Its a matter of respect. There is a complete experience of the tradition that would be altered by their absence even if the martial skills that are the focus of study remain unaltered. To insist upon their removal to avoid “hocus-pocus” (Flanagan’s unfortunate and rather patronizing choice of words) seems oddly puritanical in a way.  I will be interested to see if Flanagan addresses this in his book and can give a good reason other than “religion is dumb”.

I think perhaps he should have stayed with extolling the virtues of Confucian and Aristotelian philosophy and left Buddhism alone. One of the reasons I was drawn back to the Greek tradition is that it doesn’t require a particular religion. Greek philosophy was a primary intellectual and, yes, spiritual source of Western life before the medieval church caused all sorts of interesting problems. That appeals to me as I am, for better or worse, an inveterate Westerner despite long interest in Eastern traditions. Your results may vary. I think anyone not religiously inclined could do far worse than to take Classical philosophy or Confucianism or Philosophical Taoism as a guideline for living.

Will any of them make you “happy”? Probably not but they may provide some satisfaction and contentment. I’ll take that any day.

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