(I ended up taking 19 philosophy classes on my way to getting a second bachelor's degree. The last was a survey of non-Western philosophies, which for time constraints was limited to the three major Eastern philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. At the end of the course we had the option of taking a final exam or writing a paper. I chose to write the following paper.)

Reflections on studying Eastern philosophy

December 2012

This course was an appropriate capstone to my postbaccalaureate college career, which I began six years ago shortly after my 61st birthday. My formal studies have effected significant changes in much of my philosophical thinking, and this introduction to non-Western philosophy has provided an exercise in applying some of the lessons I learned in many of my other classes. I am a writer, and I write philosophy, and I'll be doing a better job of it because of this class. It is not all I do or all I want to do, but there has always been something central about philosophy in my life—even if, for most of that life, I did not know it.

I was in my late 50s when I realized I had always been doing philosophy. Until then, I had regarded philosophy, when I gave it any thought, as a waste of time. I was aware that science had once been a branch of philosophy, but I thought that when science went its own way as an intellectual discipline, whatever work remained for philosophers to continue doing was fruitless.

I had no clear idea, though, what that other work was. I had managed to earn a college degree without taking any philosophy classes. This was not by design. I wanted as broad an education as I could get, and I assumed that this ought to include a formal introduction, at least, to philosophy. As chance had it, though, no philosophy classes were required of non-majors at any of the schools I attended, and none was ever available at a convenient time when I was choosing my electives.

I began my postbaccalaureate studies after a lifetime of intellectual odysseys that had engendered a conviction that Western scientific rationalism1 was the only defensible worldview.

Scientific rationalism is a kind of rationalism in that it regards logic as inviolable, which is merely to say that contradictory or contrary propositions can never be simultaneously true. It is scientific in that it thinks reason independent of observation is at best vacuous. It thus holds that rationalism and empiricism are both necessary and jointly sufficient for producing meaningful answers to meaningful questions. Reason can do nothing without facts to which it can be applied, and our only source of facts about the real world is observation.

I was convinced, too, that this attitude was not due to any chauvinism of a sort that I was prepared to admit. It seemed obvious that it was only because of various accidents of history (and perhaps, as Jared Diamond hypothesized in Guns, Germs, and Steel, accidents of geography and other contingencies over which people had no control) that scientific rationalism had evolved in the particular part of the world into which I had been born. The best epistemology had to be discovered somewhere by someone, and if the discovery happened in the West, then it was because Westerners were fortunate, not because they were superior. To whatever extent this best way of thinking (i.e., best in my own judgment) was slow to catch on outside the West, I thought this was due to the universal conservatism of humanity, not to any fault that was unusually rare among Westerners. Indeed, it was apparent to me that Westerners themselves were, in general, no more receptive to it than anyone else.

I have occasionally seen this worldview denigrated as “scientism.” If the label is taken to indicate a belief that science alone is sufficient to answer all questions of philosophical interest, then I agree that scientism is not a good worldview. But I know of no one who holds it. If instead it is taken to indicate a belief that the scientific method, broadly enough construed, is of universal applicability in the quest for answers to questions of universal importance, then I accept the label even if it is intended as an insult.

It was in the context of this odyssey that I picked up what few impressions I had of non-Western, specifically Eastern, philosophy. I formed a generally negative opinion of it. I was occasionally told, when defending my worldview, that it had been refuted in books such as The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukov—both of which, I was given to understand, based their arguments on certain discoveries in quantum physics. I tried to read the first, but found the first several pages too unengaging to seem worth pursuing further. In due course I found commentaries on both books by writers whose opinions I respected, and they dismissed both as presenting a distorted view of modern science.

With hindsight I see that I was in no position at this point to infer anything about Eastern philosophy. In my ignorance, though, I reasoned thus: Two authors, presumably well acquainted with Eastern philosophy, argued that it is validated by modern science; other authors, obviously well acquainted with modern science, say it does no such thing; therefore, Eastern philosophy is not validated by modern science; and therefore, as a believer in modern science, I am justified in ignoring Eastern philosophy.

At this temporal distance, I have no clear memory of what I thought Eastern philosophy was saying in specific contradiction to scientific rationalism. The only clear message I remember getting from my interlocutors was that I was wrong to trust science as I did, that Eastern philosophy said as much, and there was something about quantum physics that also proved as much.

As already noted, I was scarcely less ignorant in those days of Western philosophy. What little I knew of Plato and Aristotle was their influences in the evolution of Western science and mathematics. I knew about Descartes as a mathematician; what I knew of him as a philosopher was Cogito ergo sum. Asked who Frege and Russell were, I would have replied, “They were mathematicians,” perhaps appending, “and Russell was also a philosopher.” I had heard all the household names—Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and the like—but they were barely more than just names.

Two essays present an idea that best encapsulates what I have learned, and that best establishes the connection between this course and the rest of my studies. The essays are “The Rationality of Science and the Rationality of Faith,” by Everett (The Journal of Philosophy 98 [2001], pp. 19–42), and Chapter 7 of Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge (Oxford University Press [2006], 95–110). The Boghossian book was an assigned text in an epistemology class. Sometime before I took the class, I discovered Everett’s article during a literature search unrelated to any classwork. Boghossian defends a concept of blind entitlement—I call it default entitlement—according to which any person has a default or prima facie epistemological right to whatever worldview he or she has at a given moment. Everett defends a similar notion when applied to the particular case of deference to the epistemological authorities of one’s community, except that he regards it as an obligation rather than an entitlement. I would argue that one is entitled to do whatever one is obliged to do, and furthermore that, at least usually, whatever circumstances would negate the entitlement would also remove the obligation. In any case, this is not the occasion on which to defend my position, but only to state it.

One point of the concept of default entitlement is that there is no non-question-begging way to defend an entire worldview. But competing worldviews are rarely if ever entirely disjoint, and their intersection can provide a basis on which to compare inconsistent tenets. Thus can we avoid pure epistemological relativism. Understanding this, I can defend my worldview against others with a justified belief in its objective superiority, yet avoid the temptation to attribute any cognitive dysfunctions to my adversaries. It leaves few ideas about which reasonable people cannot disagree, because they will be the ideas about which there is, as a matter of fact, no significant disagreement. Whether, in any particular debate, either antagonist actually is being reasonable if of course a separate issue, which must be evaluated case by case. My studies over two courses in the philosophy of religion, for instance, convinced me that Christianity is more defensible than I used to think it is. At the same time, I have become more convinced than ever that Christianity overall is not merely mistaken but, all things considered, positively toxic to the modern world.

By comparison, the Eastern philosophies we have studied seem benign enough, and anyway an actual critique must await another occasion. The most useful lesson I’m taking away is that their founding thinkers, whoever they were, intuited what I regard as good answers to some of the same major questions that Western philosophers have always dealt with. The answers seem good to me because I think they are defensible within a scientifically rational epistemology. And, I say they were intuited by those founders because the surviving historical record (a) gives no account of the reasoning by which the conclusions were reached and (b) gives no indication that the founders were concerned with logically rigorous defenses of their teachings.

This reinforces one of my major convictions, which is the indispensability of intuition in any intellectual enterprise. I think it is a mistake, common though it be, to appeal to intuition as a proof of any concept, but we have to get our ideas somewhere before we can subject them to any kind of rational scrutiny, and our intuition provides plenty of ideas for us to scrutinize. When we have only inductive arguments with which to defend an idea, a consilience of intuitions that is both multicultural and ancient ought to count for something.

The social problems addressed by these Eastern philosophers are among the apparently most intractable of those studied by philosophers everywhere and always. But then, to understate the obvious, the intractability of most, if not all, philosophical problems has often been remarked. In any real-world debate, one can often terminate discussion of a particular issue by observing, "Well, that's a philosophical problem," which will be taken to mean that no resolution is even possible. Even some philosophers seem to agree (e.g. Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” Essays in Philosophy 12 [2011], pp. 329–344). We humans have been thinking for as long as we have existed, which has been perhaps 200,000 years. There probably have been philosophers for just as long, but as with science, significant progress, if any was to be made, had to await the invention of writing. Also in both cases, another necessary condition was a cultural environment friendly to, or at least tolerant of, innovative thinking to a greater degree than usually obtains in preliterate societies.

The beginnings of Western philosophy are conventionally dated to the neighborhood of 500-600 BCE—contemporary, to a vague approximation, with the earliest Confucian and Taoist writings and with the presumed origins of Buddhist oral traditions. In at least one sense, then, philosophers began working on their problems maybe 2,500 years ago. It would be some 2,000 years before science as we know it began to flourish, and except for giving birth to that science, philosophers don’t seem to have accomplished much of anything else. One possible explanation is that natural philosophy—science's predecessor discipline—had all the easy problems, and no one should be surprised if it’s going to take longer to find solutions to the hard ones. It would be good to keep in mind the apocryphal anecdote about Edison’s claim to success in identifying 700 solutions that wouldn't work. Another, not necessarily distinct, explanation is that some correct solutions have been found, and in some instances were found a very long time ago, but are not yet generally recognized as correct. The fact that most people won’t accept an answer to some question doesn’t mean it isn’t a right answer, but the minority who do accept it will accomplish nothing by simply disparaging the intelligence or virtue of the majority.

I have found, in all the assigned readings of this course, several ideas very like conclusions that I had earlier reached in my own intellectual odyssey, which has for the most part encountered writings produced during my own lifetime. That odyssey has, at the same time, enhanced my understanding of the reasons why the ideas are difficult to propagate. They are contrary to some cognitive tendencies hard-wired into our brains by natural selection and difficult to resist, and it is not at all obvious to most people that they would benefit from resisting them. The apparent futility of the philosophical enterprise when compared with the scientific enterprise probably has something to do with this. Science has empowered us to change our environment, the social and well as the physical. Some of the writings we have studied this quarter warn us against eagerness to make such changes, and recent history does suggest that we should have paid them more attention. The changes we have wrought have indeed been a mix of the malignant and the benign. But the benign is there, too, and the writings also tell us that we cannot have one without the other.

My odyssey has made me increasingly skeptical of all things religious, even quasi-religious, particularly when conveyed in mystical terminology. But I have also come to appreciate the importance of eternal vigilance against the genetic fallacy. My increasing receptivity to ideas from nonscientific sources, occurring in tandem with an increasing conviction in the epistemological efficacy of scientific rationalism, could be regarded as paradoxical. Just such a paradox, though, would surely not surprise any Eastern philosopher.

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1In contexts where I have seen the term scientific rationalism used, it seems to refer to a philosophy similar to my own. My efforts to find an explicit definition have so far been fruitless, but the implicit principles appear similar to those of logical positivism.

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