Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What Do Philosophers Believe?

my emphasis in blue, my comments in red (except where obviously mine)
Sean Carroll says:-
'Academics of all stripes enjoy conducting informal polls of their peers to gauge the popularity of different stances on controversial issues. But the philosophers — and in particular, David Bourget & David Chalmers — have decided to be more systematic about it [primary research article]. (Maybe they have more controversial issues to discuss?)They targeted 1,972 philosophy faculty members at 99 different institutions, and received results from 931 of them. Since only universities in English-speaking countries were included, the survey has an acknowledged bias toward analytic/Anglocentric philosophy. They asked for simple forced-response answers (no essay questions!) concerning 30 different topics, from belief in God to normative ethics to the nature of time. The answers are pretty intriguing.
Results below the fold. Note that atheism easily trumps theism, and compatibilism is the leading approach to free will (although not by a huge amount). Only about half of the recipients identify as naturalists, which is smaller than I would have thought (and smaller than the percentage of “physicalists” when it comes to the mind, which is surprising to me). When they dig into details, there is a strong correlation between theism and whether a person specializes in philosophy of religion, predictably enough. Among philosophers who don’t specifically specialize in religion, the percentage of atheists is pretty overwhelming.
[I have linked some terms to Wikipedia] 
1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.
2. Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.
3. Aesthetic value: objective 41.0%; subjective 34.5%; other 24.5%.
4. Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes 64.9%; no 27.1%; other 8.1%.
5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.
6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.
7. Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
9. Knowledge claims: contextualism 40.1%; invariantism 31.1%; relativism 2.9%; other 25.9%.
10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.
11. Laws of nature: non-Humean 57.1%; Humean 24.7%; other 18.2%.
12. Logic: classical 51.6%; non-classical 15.4%; other 33.1%.
13. Mental content: externalism 51.1%; internalism 20.0%; other 28.9%.
14. Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
17. Moral judgment: cognitivism 65.7%; non-cognitivism 17.0%; other 17.3%.
18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.
19. Newcomb’s problem: two boxes 31.4%; one box 21.3%; other 47.4%.
20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
21. Perceptual experience: representationalism 31.5%; qualia theory 12.2%; disjunctivism 11.0%; sense-datum theory 3.1%; other 42.2%.
22. Personal identity: psychological view 33.6%; biological view 16.9%; further-fact view 12.2%; other 37.3%.
23. Politics: egalitarianism 34.8%; communitarianism 14.3%; libertarianism 9.9%; other 41.0%.
24. Proper names: Millian 34.5%; Fregean 28.7%; other 36.8%.
25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.
26. Teletransporter: survival 36.2%; death 31.1%; other 32.7%.
27. Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
28. Trolley problem: switch 68.2%; don’t switch 7.6%; other 24.2%.
29. Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.
30. Zombies: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 35.6%; metaphysically possible 23.3%; inconceivable 16.0%; other 25.1%.
'Yes, some of the descriptions might not mean that much at first glance. Google is your friend!'

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tim Crane critiques the BHA doctrine of Humanism/ New Atheism - we should tolerate religion

H/T Matthew Coussell. highlights comments

The Humanism Crane talks about the current BHA Humanist doctrine or worldview - the specific approach to religion and morals.  He claims BHA Core Beliefs are the same as the '17 million /36% of UK population are 'humanists'' Mori poll conducted after Linda Smith died viz:

1) Science provides fundamental explanations for things in the world
2) Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong

    3) What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world
    In other words the source of all values lies in humanity  and what is right and wrong action should be judged in terms of their consequences. (Mori question 4)

    I wonder why was Question 3 not included in the definition of BHA Worldview or Doctrine 'This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence' 41% of the UK population chose this as the best match, against 45% who said 'when we die we go on and still exist in another way'. My guess is that Whilst those agreeing with Q1,2 and 4 is 36% my guess (I don't have the full survey in front of me) but those agreeing with Q1-4 is << 36% (possibly 14.7% but probably more than this, approaching 20-30%?)

    "there are many aspects of the humanist approach which are inadequate" (1m43s)
    Crane distinguishes between BHA 'pressure group' activity and the BHA Doctrine / Worldview.

    He does not understand how the 17M figure was arrived at, choosing not to believe it (NB. MORI poll was representative of UK population). 4m00s
    "to what extent should we tolerate religious beliefs if we atheists? (4.26s)
    "I'm an atheist but I don't asubcribe to humanist view of the world"
    BHA Worldview
    1) stress importance of cosmology - religion is fundamentally a cosmological view
    2) religion is the source of many of the problems of the world eg dawkins, dennett, sam harriss
    3) religious is false (ie not true) AND irrational (reasoning badly)
    Debate is intractible; both talk to the converted on each side; cf very bad marriage of 2000 years ago. 9m48s

    What is core of views? New atheists/humanists have not got to heart of religion. Central doctrine of christianity is existence of god and resurrection of christ = cosmology - this is NOT central to christianity 14m18s.
    Dawkins demolishes Cosmological arguements. Religion does not provide the same sort of explanation  that science does (this TC says is true) but Christianity is not interested in this. Doctrine of trinity - literally identical - not logical - but Christians say this is a mystery and struggle to understand it. 17m40s.

    Theoretical Attitude to Religion
    Cosmology is not so important - not protoscientific explanations
    Identification with group is important for religions - which guy said something, not what he said
    Practise - what they do (fast, pray) only 1 is doctrinal (allah is god). Rather than fully formed conception of the world.
    Practical Attitude to Religion:
    John Gray - must accept that religion will not go away. 24m12s
    We should tolerate religion. Not all equally good view. We can only tolerate things we disapprove of. eg neighbour has a noisy dog, I don't like it but I tolerate it. 26m38s. If its not against the law I tolerate things but I don't approve of them. What is point of Toleration of religion? Our aim is not truth or to change attitudes, are aim is to tolerate religion so that we can live in peace within the rule of law (see John Gray Black Mass).

    Tim Crane seems to be the great appeaser philosopher. Simply tolerate religion, provide religion keeps within the law. Don't try to change religionists attitudes, don't even worry that what they
     say is not true. The primary aim is to tolerate the religious so that we can all live peacefully in the world. Back in 2011 I blogged a debate between Crane and AC Grayling. Listen to their debate here. ACG effectively demolishes TC the arguments he uses here, but TC has not learnt and he repeats his mistaken arguments here.

    We should instead be challenging religious faith, whenever possible. But, bottom line I, like TC want to live peacefully with everyone.

    Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    Lawrence Krauss - 450+ publications


    A Universe from Nothing? Review by Sean Carroll


    Summary to follow.

    For now I reproduce the article below with my highlights in blue, but sorry, that doesn't add much value, I know. My wikipedia links in orange.

    A Universe from Nothing?

    By Sean Carroll | April 28, 2012 2:55 pm
    Some of you may have been following a tiny brouhaha (“kerfuffle” is so overused, don’t you think?) that has sprung up around the question of why the universe exists. You can’t say we think small around here.
    First Lawrence Krauss came out with a new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (based in part on a popular YouTube lecture), which addresses this question from the point of view of a modern cosmologist. Then David Albert, speaking as a modern philosopher of science, came out withquite a negative review of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in the comments), a long interview with Krauss in the Atlantic, comments byMassimo Pigliucci, and another response by Krauss on the Scientific American site.
    I’ve been meaning to chime in, for personal as well as scientific reasons. I do work on the origin of the universe, after all, and both Lawrence and David are friends of the blog (and of me): Lawrence was our first guest-blogger, and David and I did Bloggingheads dialogues here and here.
    Executive summary
    This is going to be kind of long, so here’s the upshot. Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.
    How the universe works
    Let’s talk about the actual way physics works, as we understand it. Ever since Newton, the paradigm for fundamental physics has been the same, and includes three pieces. First, there is the “space of states”: basically, a list of all the possible configurations the universe could conceivably be in. Second, there is some particular state representing the universe at some time, typically taken to be the present. Third, there is some rule for saying how the universe evolves with time. You give me the universe now, the laws of physics say what it will become in the future. This way of thinking is just as true for quantum mechanics or general relativity or quantum field theory as it was for Newtonian mechanics or Maxwell’s electrodynamics.
    Quantum mechanics, in particular, is a specific yet very versatile implementation of this scheme. (And quantum field theory [wikipedia] is just a particular example of quantum mechanics, not an entirely new way of thinking.) The states are “wave functions,” wikipedia and the collection of every possible wave function for some given system is “Hilbert space.” wikipedia The nice thing about Hilbert space is that it’s a very restrictive set of possibilities (because it’s a vector space, for you experts); once you tell me how big it is (how many dimensions), you’ve specified your Hilbert space completely. This is in stark contrast with classical mechanics, where the space of states can get extraordinarily complicated. And then there is a little machine “the Hamiltonian” wikipedia— that tells you how to evolve from one state to another as time passes. Again, there aren’t really that many kinds of Hamiltonians you can have; once you write down a certain list of numbers (the energy eigenvalues, for you pesky experts) you are completely done.
    We should be open-minded about what form the ultimate laws of physics will take, but almost all modern attempts to get at them take quantum mechanics for granted. That’s true for string theory and other approaches to quantum gravity — they might take very different views of what constitutes “spacetime” or “matter,” but very rarely do they muck about with the essentials of quantum mechanics. It’s certainly the case for all of the scenarios Lawrence considers in his book. Within this framework, specifying “the laws of physics” is just a matter of picking a Hilbert space (which is just a matter of specifying how big it is) and picking a Hamiltonian. One of the great things about quantum mechanics is how extremely restrictive it is; we don’t have a lot of room for creativity in choosing what kinds of laws of physics might exist. It seems like there’s a lot of creativity, because Hilbert space can be extremely big and the underlying simplicity of the Hamiltonian can be obscured by our (as subsets of the universe) complicated interactions with the rest of the world, but it’s always the same basic recipe.
    So within that framework, what does it mean to talk about “a universe from nothing”? We still have to distinguish between two possibilities, but at least this two-element list exhausts all of them.
    Possibility one: time is fundamental
    The first possibility is that the quantum state of the universe really does evolve in time — i.e. that the Hamiltonian is not zero, it truly does push the state forward in time. This seems like the generic case (there are more ways to be not-zero than to be zero), and it’s certainly the one that we spend time considering in introductory courses when we foist quantum mechanics on fearful undergraduates for the first time. A wonderful and under-appreciated consequence of quantum mechanics is that, if this possibility is right (the universe truly evolves), time cannot truly begin or end — it goes on forever. Very unlike classical mechanics, where the universe’s trajectory through the space of states can bring it smack up against a singularity, at which point time presumably ceases. In QM, every state is just as good as every other state, and the evolution will go happily marching along.
    So what does this have to do with something vs. nothing? Well, as the quantum state of the universe evolves, it can pass through phases where it looks an awful lot like “nothing,” conventionally understood — i.e. it could look like completely empty space, or like some peculiar non-geometric phase where we wouldn’t recognize it as “space” at all. And later, through the relentless influence of the Hamiltonian, it could evolve into something that looks very much like “something,” even very much like the universe we see around us today. So if your definition of “nothing” is “emptiness” or “lack of space itself,” the laws of quantum mechanics provide a nice way to understand how that nothing can evolve into the marvelous something we find ourselves inside. This is interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses.
    Possibility two: time is emergent/approximate
    The other possibility is that the universe doesn’t evolve at all — the Hamiltonian is zero, and there is some space of possible states, but we just sit there, without a fundamental “passage of time.” Now, you might suspect that this is a logical possibility but not a plausible one; after all, don’t we see things change around us all the time? But in fact this possibility is the one you immediately bump into if you simply take classical general relativity and try to “quantize” it (i.e., invent the quantum theory that would reduce to GR in the classical limit). We don’t know that this is the right thing to do — Tom Banks, for example, would argue that it’s not — but it’s a possibility that is on the table, so we should think about what it would mean if it turns out to be true.
    We certainly think that we perceive time passing, but maybe time is just emergent rather than fundamental. (I don’t like using “illusory” in this context, but others are not so circumspect.) That is, perhaps there is an alternative description of that single, unmoving point in Hilbert space wikipediaa description that looks approximately like “a universe evolving through time,” at least for some period of duration. Think of a block of metal sitting on a hot surface, not evolving with time but with a temperature gradient from top to bottom. It might be possible to conceptually divide the block into slices of equal temperature, and then write down an equation for how the state of the block changes from slice to slice, and find that the resulting mathematical formalism looks just like “evolution through time.” In this case, unlike the previous one, time could end (or begin), because time was only a useful approximation to begin with, valid in a certain regime.
    This kind of scenario is exactly what quantum cosmologists like James Hartle, Stephen Hawking, Alex Vilenkin, Andrei Linde and others have in mind when they are talking about the “creation of the universe from nothing.” In this kind of picture, there is literally a moment in the history of the universe prior to which there weren’t any other moments. There is a boundary of time (presumably at the Big Bang), prior to which there was … nothing. No stuff, not even a quantum wave function; there was no prior thing, because there is no sensible notion of “prior.” This is also interesting, and important, and worth writing a book about, and it’s another one of the possibilities Lawrence discusses.
    Why is there a universe at all?
    So modern physics has given us these two ideas, both of which are interesting, and both of which resonate with our informal notion of “coming into existence out of nothing” — one of which is time evolution from empty space (or not-even-space) into a universe bursting with stuff, and the other of which posits time as an approximate notion that comes to an end at some boundary in an abstract space of possibilities.
    What, then, do we have to complain about? Well, a bit of contemplation should reveal that this kind of reasoning might, if we grant you a certain definition of “nothing,” explain how the universe could arise from nothing. But it doesn’t, and doesn’t even really try to, explain why there is something rather than nothing — why this particular evolution of the wave function, or why even the apparatus of “wave functions” and “Hamiltonians” is the right way to think about the universe at all. And maybe you don’t care about those questions, and nobody would question your right not to care; but if the subtitle of your book is “Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing,” you pretty much forfeit the right to claim you don’t care.
    Do advances in modern physics and cosmology help us address these underlying questions, of why there is something called the universe at all, and why there are things called “the laws of physics,” and why those laws seem to take the form of quantum mechanics, and why some particular wave function and Hamiltonian? In a word: no. I don’t see how they could.
    Sometimes physicists pretend that they are addressing these questions, which is too bad, because they are just being lazy and not thinking carefully about the problem. You might hear, for example, claims to the effect that our laws of physics could turn out to be the only conceivable laws, or the simplest possible laws. But that seems manifestly false. Just within the framework of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of possible Hilbert spaces, and an infinite number of possible Hamiltonians, each of which defines a perfectly legitimate set of physical laws. And only one of them can be right, so it’s absurd to claim that our laws might be the only possible ones.
    Invocations of “simplicity” are likewise of no help here. The universe could be just a single point, not evolving in time. Or it could be a single oscillator, rocking back and forth in perpetuity. Those would be very simple. There might turn out to be some definition of “simplicity” under which our laws are the simplest, but there will always be others in which they are not. And in any case, we would then have the question of why the laws are supposed to be simple? Likewise, appeals of the form “maybe all possible laws are real somewhere” fail to address the question. Why are all possible laws real?
    And sometimes, on the other hand, modern cosmologists talk about different laws of physics in the context of a multiverse, and suggest that we see one set of laws rather than some other set for fundamentally anthropic reasons. But again, that’s just being sloppy. We’re talking here about the low-energy manifestation of the underlying laws, but those underlying laws are exactly the same everywhere throughout the multiverse. We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.
    The end of explanations
    All of these are interesting questions to ask, and none of them is addressed by modern physics or cosmology. Or at least, they are interesting questions to “raise,” but my own view is that the best answer is to promptly un-ask them. (Note that by now we’ve reached a purely philosophical issue, not a scientific one.)
    “Why” questions don’t exist in a vacuum; they only make sense within some explanatory context. If we ask “why did the chicken cross the road?”, we understand that there are things called roads with certain properties, and things called chickens with various goals and motivations, and things that might be on the other side of the road, or other beneficial aspects of crossing it. It’s only within that context that a sensible answer to a “why” question can be offered. But the universe, and the laws of physics, aren’t embedded in some bigger context. They are the biggest context that there is, as far as we know. It’s okay to admit that a chain of explanations might end somewhere, and that somewhere might be with the universe and the laws it obeys, and the only further explanation might be “that’s just the way it is.”
    Or not, of course. We should be good empiricists and be open to the possibility that what we think of as the universe really does exist within some larger context. But then we could presumably re-define that as the universe, and be stuck with the same questions. As long as you admit that there is more than one conceivable way for the universe to be (and I don’t see how one could not), there will always be some end of the line for explanations. I could be wrong about that, but an insistence that “the universe must explain itself” or some such thing seems like a completely unsupportable a priori assumption. (Not that anyone in this particular brouhaha seems to be taking such a stance.)
    Sounds and furies
    That’s all I have to say about the (fun, interesting) substantive questions, but I am not strong enough to resist a couple of remarks on the (tedious but strangely irresistible) procedural questions.
    First, I think that Lawrence’s book makes a lot more sense when viewed as part of the ongoing atheism vs. theism popular debate, rather than as a careful philosophical investigation into a longstanding problem. Note that the afterword was written by Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence had originally asked Christopher Hitchens, before he became too ill — both of whom, while very smart people, are neither cosmologists nor philosophers. If your real goal is to refute claims that a Creator is a necessary (or even useful) part of a complete cosmological scheme, then the above points about “creation from nothing” are really quite on point. And that point is that the physical universe can perfectly well be self-contained; it doesn’t need anything or anyone from outside to get it started, even if it had a “beginning.” That doesn’t come close to addressing Leibniz’s classic question, but there’s little doubt that it’s a remarkable feature of modern physics with interesting implications for fundamental cosmology.
    Second, after David’s review came out, Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

    Tuesday, April 09, 2013

    Sam Harris on Buddhism

    Crabsallover highlights in blue, comments in red

    A fleeting conversation with my sister Wendy in March 2013, inspired me to pay attention to Sam Harris' tweet on Buddhism. Wendy asked me "Is Buddhism a religion". I remarked about the re-incarnation beliefs of Buddhism which have, IMO, no evidence.

    In Sam Harris Response to Controversy:-
    My views on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, etc. (get link)
    My views on “mystical” or “spiritual” experience are extensively described in The End of Faith, in several articles available on this website, and will soon be spelled out in a book entitled Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality. Nothing I believe in this area is based on faith. There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a result of engaging in disciplines like meditation, and these experiences obviously shed some light on the nature of the human mind. (Any experience does, for that matter). The metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the basis of these experiences, however, are highly questionable. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support the metaphysical claims of others.
    Several neuroscience labs are now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. I am not personally engaged in this research, but I know many of the scientists who are. This is a fertile area of inquiry that is deepening our understanding of human well-being.
    While I consider Buddhism to be almost unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. My criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published, to the consternation of many Buddhists. It is available here:
    Killing the Buddha...  Article by Sam Harris in, follows 

    again Crabsallover highlights in blue, comments in red:-

    Killing the Buddha By Sam Harris

    “Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion

    The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.
    This is not to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer the world. One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. In a world that has long been terrorized by fratricidal Sky-God religions, the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. But this will not happen. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Buddhism can successfully compete with the relentless evangelizing of Christianity and Islam. Nor should it try to.
    The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.

    To talk about “Buddhism,” therefore, inevitably imparts a false sense of the Buddha’s teaching to others. So insofar as we maintain a discourse as “Buddhists,” we ensure that the wisdom of the Buddha will do little to inform the development of civilization in the twenty-first century.
    Worse still, the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world. At this point in history, this is both morally and intellectually indefensible—especially among affluent, well-educated Westerners who bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas. It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that if you are reading this article, you are in a better position to influence the course of history than almost any person in history. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.
    It is true that many exponents of Buddhism, most notably the Dalai Lama, have been remarkably willing to enrich (and even constrain) their view of the world through dialogue with modern science. But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or even the Dalai Lama’s own lineage, is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism. Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving discourse about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche [wikipedia] was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.

    For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism [wikipedia] animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

    The Problem of Religion

    Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed. Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it has been at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims vs. Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. These are places where religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in recent decades.
    Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavour in which us–them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics. 
    Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing. 

    Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas. 

    It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the occasions for interfaith dialogue. The end game for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. All parties to ecumenical religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide, and yet these very points remain perpetual sources of bewilderment and intolerance for their coreligionists. Political correctness simply does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

    A Contemplative Science

    What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”
    If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.
    There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind. 

    It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. We do not yet have anything like a final understanding of such processes, but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.
    There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.

    Killing The Buddha, Sam Harris, Shambhala Sun, March 2006.

    Sam Harris thinks that Buddhism, specifically meditation, stripped of its religious encumbrances, can offer insights to the way the world work, that science itself cannot provide. But will neuroscience and other sciences, in future, provide these insights? Why then bother with Buddhism at all?