An Atheist in a Buddhist Sandbox
Ontological questions: What is my world and what is it made of? What is consciousness? What is it made of?
First and foremost, I am an atheist, which simply means that I deny that a god or gods exist. Secondly, I am a metaphysical naturalist. I believe that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences—those required to understand our physical environment by mathematical modeling. Thirdly, I am an existentialist. I believe existence precedes essence. This of course is a materialist position—a position consistent with my metaphysical naturalist and atheist identities. To existentialists, human beings—through their consciousness—create their own values and determine a meaning for their life because, in the beginning, a human being does not possess any inherent identity or value. Therefore karma, as defined by Buddhists, is not real. In other words, we are not born with a preexisting set of past actions, or energy, etc. We are born baggage free. Our essence begins at conception then continues to be shaped throughout our lives by our genes, environments, and experiences. And when we die, our essence dies. Every part of our being, including our consciousness—which is, after all, only an emergent property of a brain—is extinguished for good. Nothing continues on and we are never reborn into another body. There is no mind-body distinction. Thus, reincarnation is not possible and there is no such thing as rebirth.
As a materialist/existentialist, I believe that consciousness is awareness, particularly self-awareness, the uniquely human ability to "introspect" onto what is going on in our own mind. Also, consciousness entails having a sense of personal identity, a self-concept, which includes our thoughts, feelings, and memories.
If we are in a persistent vegetative state, we are no longer conscious. Our brains may continue to fire, but we have lost access to our thoughts, feelings, and memories. We are just material without self-awareness. We are merely sentient beings—organisms capable of sensing. Thus, life has lost meaning. If we were to die, our body would dissolve and decay, but our consciousness would have already been long gone. We get one chance and that's it. And although reincarnation maybe appear to offer a wonderful solution to the problem of mortality, it simply isn't real—it's wishful thinking.
But karma—or the idea of cause and effect—is something I don't wholly reject, if allowed to interpret it a bit differently from Buddhism's definition. I may not believe that my actions will affect me in a future life, but I do believe that my present actions have a direct bearing on my future in this lifetime. If I do something that I feel ashamed about, I will implant a negative seed in my mind. This will affect how I act and relate to others. My negative past action, thus, causes me to have a negative experience in my future. And my actions in this lifetime will continue to have an effect after my physical death. Think about the shooter in Colorado. His actions will cause pain, fear, and anguish etc. for decades to come—possibly forever—in the collective conscious. Also, one's actions can create a meme that will shape culture in the future. For example, Einstein’s actions—his scientific discoveries—have changed the course of history—literally—for all humanity. His actions have influenced science, religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology, art etc. Each of us leaves footprints. So in a unique sense, we are immortal.
Does karma necessitate belief in reincarnation?
I don't think you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater i.e. reject karma along with reincarnation—at least not my version of karma. Because, my version operates within one life cycle—multiple lifetimes are not necessary. Our actions can and do affect one another. And they affect our own future—even if it is just a short, one time presence here on earth. And our actions can and do have an effect upon all the future lifetimes of all others who are yet to be born. This is a wonderful notion—that we do in fact count. Our life has meaning and continues to have meaning even after we die. It is an awareness of this connectedness that makes one realize that our lives matter. And that there is great value to be found in our relationships with one another. Life is not futile and meaningless just because it is short and ends. Existentialism isn’t nihilistic after all. We don't need to believe in reincarnation to have a meaningful life. And, knowing that we are all connected gives us a great reason to act ethically and to have a moral set of principles to follow. Morality can and does exist outside religion.
Of course, others beg to differ.
Monistic idealism holds that consciousness, not matter, is the ground of all being. It is monist because it holds that there is only one type of thing in the universe and idealist because it holds that one thing to be consciousness. Matter does not exist. And, if only mind exists, then consciousness is independent of the physical/material human body. And thus, karma and reincarnation are possible as explained by Buddhism's doctrine of dependent arising.
Epistemological questions: How do I know what reality is? How do I know if consciousness is material or other?
Some scientists and philosophers are rejecting our current methods for studying consciousness because they claim that they do not allow for the possibility to prove that experience does not derive from a material basis.
Michel Bitbol, a researcher focusing on the philosophy of mind and consciousness, argues for a new science—a new way of knowing—a new epistemological model for answering ontological questions. He rejects the current methodology employed by mainstream neuroscientists and physicists.
Bitbol's position is strongly antireductionist, "...objectivity is no longer the ultimate standard of method. In the alternative stance, the standard of being is underpinned by a standard of self-evidence, and the methodological standard of objectivity is expanded into a more general standard of intersubjectivity."
One day, Bitbol may get his wish, and we may have a better model for doing scientific research and answering questions about the natural world. But for now, subjective experiences and philosophical arguments are not going to qualify as "evidence/proof." And, utilizing our current methods of research, it doesn't seem probable that we will discover that consciousness is independent of the brain. Will a new methodology open the door to this possibility? Is methodology acting like a gatekeeper? Some philosophers and scientists, including Bitbol, believe it is.
As it stands, we don't know if consciousness survives death or precedes life. We may one day have the scientific tools to answer these questions. Until then, Buddhism’s karma is an article of faith. That is why it is a belief within a religious context and not a scientific law. I am a skeptic, so I doubt that karma exists because there is no proof/evidence to suggest that it does. But if one day evidence were to surface, then I'd get on board. Until then, I'm putting my faith in traditional science to frame reality—to answer ontological questions using current scientific methods.
Jim Holt Discussion With Charlie Rose: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
What is a naturalistic worldview? Nobody explains it more eloquently and simply than Richard Dawkins. His book The Magic of Reality sits at the top of my list of favorite books that I have read so far this year. Although it was written for children, it is by no means void of insightful and detailed descriptions and explanations about the natural world and how we know what reality is. I learned a great deal from this book. So it is appropriate for an adult reader as well. Listen to the first chapter of the book here. For the best experience, download or open the file and listen with VLC media player.
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