29 November 2005

Intelligent Design? I doubt it.

Intelligent design has been in the news quite a bit lately. While it is less stupid than the idea that God created the world @ 6am, 4004BC all in six days. But I don't find the counter arguments by so-called scientists very convincing either. They don't take on the fundamental issue it seems to me. There are two parts to this: intelligent and design.

Design implies that God actually sat down and decided how things would be put together - in which case I want to know why the fuck he made hair grow out of my ears! The basic idea is that things are so complex and interlocking that it could never have evolved by chance. But anyone who has been at all alert in the last few years should have heard of how complex things can evolve from simple ones. I mucked around with the Mandlebrot Set a few years back and made some images. Incredible really just how complex things can get with very basic starting conditions and some simple rules. Of course the "intelligent design" bods go "Ah ha!" at this point because it must have been God who set up the starting conditions! The arguments start to get messy at this point because the conjectures on either side are not provable - a point to which I will return shortly. Stephen Hawking gets to this point in A Brief History of Time, and concludes (I recall) that God would not have had complete freedom to chose. In order to make a Universe like this one he would have been constrained, would have had to more or less choose exactly the parameters such as the mass and charge of the electron that we have else the universe wouldn't be able to exist. This is the anthropic principle: the universe is the way it is because otherwise we wouldn't be here. But if God had limits then his existence isn't that significant. By definition God cannot be omnipotent, he can only be semi-potent. And it becomes apparent that God could not have done much more than set up the starting conditions and then wouldn't have been able to do much. Why? Because the whole mess is so unbelievably complex that you could never accurately predict the consequences of any action - it's the old butterfly effect. God himself may be exempt, but nothing actually in creation is. If God mucked about with things they would almost certainly break down. So much for design.

It's when we get onto the 'intelligent' part that things really start to unravel however. Design I could just about imagine, but intelligent? This suggests that things were done for a purpose. Such a purpose is, and always has been, apparently impossible to discern. God moves in mysterious ways, yeah, and no one can understand what's going on! The intelligence is so alien to our own that we cannot comprehend it. Now I did a quantum physics course in my misspent youth and so I can see how this might be possible - Eigen functions are incomprehensible to the average person. But what about something like SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. What is intelligent about that? Is that the kind of thing that you or I would 'design' into life? Something so heartbreaking and miserable. Well I can tell you that I would not. It's cruel. If God designed the world then he designed it with cruelty built in. It's "The Problem of Evil", and I'm afraid that intelligent design completely fails to account for it. Mind you so does every other system of thought that I've ever come across. If there is any design it is patently pretty stupid really - we live lives of pain and suffering, we grow old, are subject to hideous diseases of mind and body, and then die. It only gets worse if you believe in rebirth because it happens repeatedly! Christians believe it's a one shot deal - get it right the first time or you're fucked for eternity. Is that intelligent? It sounds really incredibly stupid to me!

So what would a Buddhist position on this question be? Well the Buddha didn't bother with such questions. He said "you can't know the answer, and there are more important things to get on with, so don't worry about it". Or words to that effect. Now that's not an answer that would go down with Christians or scientists. But it's true isn't it. Neither of them can know the answer to question of the origin of the universe, they both take a faith approach, one based on a book, the others by a series of conjectures based on second hand observations of events which they conjecture are similar to the beginning of the universe. The basic approach is set out in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta. The Buddha reminds Malukya that he doesn't teach anything the origins or fate of the cosmos, he only teaches about suffering, and the way to end it. He's seriously offering a way to stop suffering. Even if we knew the answer would that help make the world a better place? If I knew how the cosmos started would that make me kinder? More Generous? Doubt it. So the argument is completely irrelevant. What we need to teach our kids is that actions have consequences.

Importantly, the Buddha said that his teaching was ehipassiko: literally come see. Sangharakshita describes it as "of the nature of a personal invitation". We can try it out and see if it works as advertised. I have. It does. But you have to try it yourself. Anyone who asks you to believe simply because they do (especially a Christian or a scientist) is asking you to have blind faith in them. I suggest that this is not very intelligent.

26 November 2005

Don't mention the 'H' word!

There is no such thing as Hinayana. It is a slander made up by so called Great Wayists who were busy assimilating Hinduism in order to suck up to their high caste patrons whose money they couldn't do without, and who are ultimately responsible for the disappearance of Buddhism from India. Where do they get off being so arrogant?! The Brahmins had a far more sophisticated approach to religion, and a much better understanding of what religion does for people, and you'll notice that successive waves of Muslim iconoclasts, not to mention Muslim rulers did not wipe them out! The Mahayana sold itself out, and we would know nothing at all about it if the Chinese and Tibetans hadn't kept careful records.

One thing that has been becoming abundantly clear about Buddhists is that we are deluded as to the origins of our traditions. Apart from the idea of dependent-origination which is incredibly important, everything else was taken bodily from existing models of practice. They mainly drew on the Shramana tradition which had turned away from the Vedic tradition only a few hundred years before Gotama did his thing under the Bodhi tree, although you could argue that they had simply re-emphasized some of the original aspects of it - the quest for inspiration and insight was fundamental to early Vedic religion! What the Mahayana did which was interesting was to go back to the source and start incorporating Vedic ideas directly, assimilating Vedic and tribal gods where earlier Buddhists had tried to head off that kind of syncretism. Buddhist practice is essentially Vedic in origin,although the best of it is interpreted in terms of dependent-origination, I wonder at times whether this idea were not incipient in the Vedic world view in any case. It wouldn't surprise me. So all this talk of Hinayana/Mahayana is kind of meaningless. Mind you I've had some very unproductive arguments about this question with some Gelugpas!

The word hina is not a very nice one in Sanskrit. It was very frequently used to describe outcasts and people of low status. A contemporary translation might be "Nigger's Way" - I think it would have been that shocking to the people of ancient India. The assumption, as far as I can tell from the kinds of terms it's used in, is that the hina-people were not lesser in the ordinary sense (for which one might use the Pali word cula - there are frequently cula and maha versions of Pali suttas. ) but actually the untouchables and other people beneath contempt. It goes back to late Brahminical ideas of ritual pollution- the touch of these people is polluting! These are the hina-people. I suspect that it resulted from a Brahmin infiltration of the Buddhist monasteries. During India's golden age, the Gupta period,the rulers were all followers of the Brahminical religion! At the same time they started incorporating Vedic style mantras into their texts, but completely out of context. They also included worship of deities like Saraswati and Sri (see the Golden Light Sutra) in their texts without much if any conversion.

See also my update on this essay: Hīnayāna Reprise. 05 March 2010.