Thursday, March 11, 2010

J.L. Mackie & the Buddhist Idea of Evil As An Illusion

(I took this picture of the famous, and massive, "Reclining Buddha" in Bangkok. The look of tranquility on the face symbolizes entrance into nirvana.)

J.L. Mackie, in his famous essay "Evil and Omnipotence," argues that the notion of "God" is logically incoherent. Two often-used examples of logical incoherence are "square circle" and "married bachelor." You do not need to waste any time searching for either of these, not because they are hard to find, but because they could not exist.

Consider these two statements, both of which cannot be true:

1) John is a bachelor.
2) John's wife is named Linda.

Mackie gives us three statements that, in his mind, cannot all be true:

3) God is all-loving.
4) God is all-powerful.
5) Evil exists.

He then adds two quasi-logical principles to explain the logical incoherence involved in affirming 3, 4, and 5 simultaneously. They are:

6) An all-loving being would want to eliminate evil as far as it could (unless the evil was needed to allow for a greater good or prevent a greater evil).
7) An all-powerful being could (would have the ability to) eliminate evil (unless the evil was needed to allow for a greater good or prevent a greater evil).

Since evil exists, the God of Christian theism cannot exist because of logical incoherence.

Mackie says one possible solution would be to deny one of the premises. If, for example, God is not all-loving, then there is no "problem of evil" even if God is all-powerful, since a less-than-all-loving being would not want to prevent all evil. If one denies 4, then God could be all-loving but unable to prevent evil. Finally, if one denies 5, viz., that evil exists, then there's no problem of evil. Mackie of course does not believe there's even a finite, less-than-omni God. And he thinks evil exists. But some think evil is an "illusion." Who could possibly believe such a thing? How could such a thing be believed?

One answer is: Buddhism believes evil is an illusion. How so? For the sake of my philosophy of religion students, here is how I want you to answer this.

First, state The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. They are:

1. All of life is suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is craving (or desiring, or grasping).
3. The end of suffering is getting rid of craving (or desiring and grasping).
4. The method to use in overcoming suffering is the Eightfold Path.

Second, explain the nature of craving or desiring as rooted in the subject-object dualism of, especially, Western culture.

From Plato through Descartes (his "cogito, ergo sum," where he defined personhood as essentially a "self" that is a "thinking thing") and to the present, subject-object dualism has reigned, philosophically. I am a "self," and there are objects outside of my self (a world). In this framework, "desire" makes sense. "Desire" and "craving" only make sense if there is a self that wants to grasp some object that is outside of one's self. For example, how foolish it would be were I to say "I desire to have a receding hairline," because I already possess this.

Third, Buddhism says that there is neither a "self" nor is there a "world outside" to be grasped. If this astonishing claim were true, then it would be true that evil is indeed an illusion, since on Buddhism evil ("suffering") is rooted in the idea of "desire," which requires a self that does the desiring and objects outside of the self to be grasped.
If there is no permanent self to experience anything, what are we? The Buddhist idea is that we are an "aggregate" of five basic groups, or skandhas (aggregates), of experience that generate the appearance of a “self.”

In this way Buddhism is distinct from Hinduism, which claims there is an eternal self that continues on through a series of bodies. Buddhism disagrees with this. Consciousness is not the “self.” “A person is an aggregation of psychological activities, all temporary. In death, the aggregation comes apart. These five skandhas make up what we refer to as a person. Those who seek permanence of the self suffer, for no self exists.” So, on Buddhism, there is no ego, no soul, only a temporary gathering of skandhas.

Fourth - the word "buddha" means "enlightenment." One gets enlightened to the truth that one has no "self," and the phenomenal (as in phenomenology) experience of a world is nothing to be grasped. What does it mean to say that the world is nothing to be grasped? Here is one Buddhist perspective on this, the one of Mahayana Buddhism. “Mahayanists emphasized that the world of experience is only appearances; the real world is one revealed in the enlightenment experience.” (All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, from Warren Matthews, World Religions, 6th Edition)

In Buddhism the word for "suffering" is "dukkha." The search for permanence in any experience leads to dukkha. This is because “there is no permanence either in the world or in the one who experiences it.”

Therefore, since objects, persons, and processes are impermanent, trying to keep them produces suffering. Knowledge, or “enlightenment,” brings an end to suffering. “Seeing clearly the nature of a person – that there is no permanent self – helps bring an end to craving. Realizing that everything is only part of impermanent psychological processes makes grasping foolish. There is nothing to have and nothing to be had… Letting go is the end of suffering.”

In the Yagacara School of Buddhism "even the individual mind and mental constructs of the phenomenal world are not real… Those who would identify with ultimate reality must abandon phenomena and ideas and become released into the Void.”

Fifth - "Nirvana" means "release." It is also translated as "to extinguish," or to "puff out." What gets extinguished, as one is enlightened, is the illusion of some permanent "self" that exists through time and beyond, and of some "world" of permanence.

“In Buddhism, the state of being free from egocentrism and the suffering that it causes. Positively, it is joy and peace.”

The Eightfold Path (Not required on the oral exam)

1. Right view. The disciple gains proper knowledge about illness – how he or she becomes ill, endures illness, and is released from illness.

2. Right aim. The disciple must be prepared to renounce attachment to the world and give benevolence and kindness.

3. Right speech. The disciple must not lie, slander, or use abusive or idle talk.

4. Right action. The disciple must abstain from taking life, from taking what is not given, and from carnal indulgence.

5. Right living. The disciple must put away wrong livelihood, acts that are condemned in the fourth step, and seek to support him – or herself by right livelihood.

6. Right effort. The disciple applies the force of his or her mind to preventing potential evil from arising in him – or herself, to getting rid of evil that has arisen in him – or herself, and to awakening and sustaining good potentials within him- or herself.

7. Right mindfulness. The disciple looks on the body so as to remain ardent, self-possessed, and mindful. The disciple has overcome the craving and dejection common in the world. The disciple also looks on each idea, avoiding craving and dejection common in the world.

8. Right concentration. Aloof from sensuous appetites and evil desires, the disciple enters the first jhana (meditative state), where there is cognition and deliberation born of solitude, joy, and ease. The disciple moves a step toward the fourth jhana – purity of mind and equanimity where neither ease nor ill is felt. (From Matthews, World Religions)