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Repackaging Buddhism for Darwinists… Or Darwinism for Buddhists?

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Bronze statue of Buddha at Kamakura, Japan
Bronze statue of Buddha at Kamakura, Japan/Vilam Skarolek

Atheistic naturalists sometimes try to co-opt Buddhism. An attempt to naturalize the non-materialist doctrine of reincarnation for a soul-free universe seems to be one result:

But taking reincarnation seriously doesn’t just mean thinking about the ecological or political potential of its doctrines. It also means thinking seriously about the failure of any doctrine to realise its mission. This is another reason why we shouldn’t excise reincarnation from the modern understanding of Buddhism. Consider, as an example, the work of the writer and scholar Robert Wright and his popular book Why Buddhism Is True (2017). According to Wright, Buddhism is true because it understands something very specific about the effect of natural selection on the human condition. Namely, that evolution is driven by fleeting pleasure. Humans seek satisfaction through eating and copulating, only to find that the pleasure from these activities is remarkably evanescent. And yet, nevertheless, we get up and try to find satisfaction through them every day. Wright says that this is a neat trick of natural selection, which is driven simply by the blind will of the species to continue. If we were completely sated by our meals or sexual encounters, we wouldn’t have the same urge to keep doing them. So evolution tricks us into thinking that we’ll achieve satisfaction, when we never will. The trouble is that this cycle of pleasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction is, well, rather unsatisfying. And this is what Buddhism understands and what mindfulness meditation can help cure. To perpetually pursue satisfaction is suffering. To become aware of this process and gain distance from it through mindfulness provides relief.

Early in his book, Wright makes a qualification about what he thinks is true in Buddhism. He writes: ‘I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation, for example.’ But if we look at the story that he’s told us about the truth of Buddhism, we will actually see reincarnation at work. First, in the sense that every human bears traces of historical processes that happened long before any of us were alive. Second, in that humans are driven by a fundamental process of the endless reincarnation of pleasure. Third, that when we think we’re moving past a problem, we’re often just creating a new version of it. Thus evolution, for example, solved the problem of how to keep the species going by creating other problems of survival for that very species – whether through epidemics of obesity or the greed for pleasure that leads people to pillage and destroy others.

Avram Alpert, “Reincarnation now” at Aeon

Trying to accommodate Buddhism with Darwinian natural selection is something a person would only do if the true commitment is to natural selection.

It shows that the faith persists, despite worldly obstacles.

See, for example, Attack on Darwinism at AAAS’s flagship mag “Science” re racism and sexism Let’s pass over the question of why Cool People never noticed that stuff about Charles Darwin for nearly a century and a half. Noticing now? Good. Then what does Agustín Fuentes suppose should replace Darwinism? A war on science? A war on math? A war on people who think getting right answers is a good thing? What’s supposed to be the next step?

4 Replies to “Repackaging Buddhism for Darwinists… Or Darwinism for Buddhists?

  1. 1
    EDTA says:

    >”So evolution tricks us into thinking that we’ll achieve satisfaction, when we never will.”

    That must be depressing for materialists…

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Natural selection is driven by fleeting pleasure?

    That’s news to the billions of organisms that were just doing what they do, without thinking about it, then got killed by invading predators or changing weather. Bacteria aren’t driven to eat and split by addictive dissatisfaction.

  3. 3
    doubter says:

    This Aeon article is total rubbish. It attempts to rescue Buddhism from being “excised” by materialism (i.e. Darwinism) by finding an apparent parallel in Buddhism’s teachings with the mechanism of natural selection. In the process the article throws under the bus and discards all the spiritual reality teachings (including the reality of the afterlife and reincarnation). Which are essential parts of the heart and soul of this religion.

    Of course Alpert would have to do this if he is a faithful Darwinist. And of course no mention of the boatload of strong empirical evidence for actual reincarnation amassed by many scientific investigators, such as Ian Stevenson and colleagues.

  4. 4
    Karen McMannus says:

    They can’t deal with (explain) consciousness. So they grasp at straws. Hope they feel good about it.

    Just my opinion.

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