Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism: a dialogue

Stephen Batchelor’s reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths as a fourfold task to facilitate human flourishing is undoubtedly the most well-known aspect of his effort to develop a secular approach to the dharma and to make Buddhism relevant for our contemporary world.

While strongly supportive of Stephen’s approach, Mike Slott’s Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism raised concerns about Stephen’s view of the relationship of truths and tasks.

Winton Higgins responded to Mike’s article, which was then followed by Mike’s rejoinder to Winton.

Responding to both Mike and Winton, Stephen Batchelor explains why it is crucial to highlight the radical shift from truth-based religion to a task-based ethics in the Buddha’s teachings.

Reviewing the dialogue, Jonathan Golden uses Kuhn’s notion of the ‘paradigm shift’ to support Mike’s argument.

Below are brief summaries of the articles, with links to the full articles.


Mike Slott – Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism

While Stephen Batchelor’s emphasis on the pragmatic and ethical meaning of the Buddha’s teachings has been crucial in the development of a secular approach to the dharma, Mike Slott argues that Stephen has not adequately addressed a legitimate concern about the role and meaning of truth in his approach.

Read more.

Winton Higgins – Response to Mike Slott’s ‘Reexamining “truths” and “tasks” in secular Buddhism’

Winton Higgins responds that the issue is not the epistemological status of truth but about how we should live and practise. Dharma practitioners do have to choose: they can’t wish-wash over the truths/tasks distinction.

Read more.

Mike Slott – Rejoinder to Winton Higgins on ‘Reexamining “truths” and “tasks” in secular Buddhism

In his rejoinder to Winton, Mike contends that in rejecting metaphysical truths as the basis of Buddhism, we don’t need to reject entirely the notion of truth as correspondence. To develop a viable secular dharma, we need to have a notion of truth which is both nuanced and rooted in common sense understandings.

Read more.

Stephen Batchelor – Dharma in the shadow of Buddhism: a response to Mike Slott and Winton Higgins

Stephen Batchelor continues the dialogue by framing the discussion from a broader, historical perspective. Stephen argues that the Buddha’s radical move was to depart from the truth-based perspective of Brahmanic, Indian culture to teach a fully committed ethical life that is not underwritten by any ultimate truth.

Read more.

Jonathan Golden – Secular Buddhism as a ‘paradigm shift’

Jonathan Golden uses Kuhn’s notion of a ‘paradigm shift’ to discuss the issue of ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism. He argues that Kuhn’s perspective is consistent with Mike Slott’s view of truths and tasks; while there are no absolute truths, our beliefs (provisional truth claims) are a necessary precondition for our practice, and practitioners should not be required to make a binary choice between truths and tasks.

Read more.


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5 Replies to “Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism: a dialogue”

Anne-Laure Brousseau

I participate in SBN’s excellent online discussion groups which meet on the 3rd Thursday of each month on Zoom. I wonder if others who also meet in the subgroup “Key Concepts of Secular Buddhism” would like to discuss in the course of our next meetings the dialogue among Mike, Winton, and Stephen?

Reading these texts, I became aware of having picked up over the years quite a hodgepodge of orthodox and unorthodox ideas about the dharma that don’t cohere. I wonder if others have had a similar lived experience? Perhaps we can augment our critical-thinking skillsets by exploring how varieties of pragmatic and correspondence-based theories of truth may inform—or not—our practices.

At the close of our November discussion of “Key Concepts of Secular Buddhism,” we spoke briefly about pragmatic ethics, and touched on an interesting metaphorical image likening pragmatic ethics to “the reconstruction of a ship at sea by its sailors.” [1] This rings true for me about the situation and process of developing the secular practice of the dharma, and I think this remarkable dialogue is at work on such a systemic kind of reconstruction.

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Pragmatic ethics,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pragmatic_ethics&oldid=1046237442 (accessed December 7, 2021). See reference to the philosopher Martin Benjamin’s (2008) reconfiguration of ‘Neurath’s boat’ “as an analogy for pragmatic ethics, likening the gradual change of ethical norms to the reconstruction of a ship at sea by its sailors.”

Lance Hilt

Anne-Laure,

I am in the Future of SBN subgroup and would very much like to participate in that discussion if it has not already occurred. Pragmatic ethics looks to have similarities with the negotiation model of morality- Marcus Arvan- “The Dark Side of Morality(https://philarchive.org/archive/ARVTDS)
He contrasts this model with the discovery model, which claims to discover moral truths as opposed to arriving at social agreements about moral dictums, and he provides some empirical evidence (rare for a philosophy paper!) of the discovery model leading to polarization. This model has commonalities to Habermas’ discourse ethics and his criteria for morally valid claims. Also Richard Rorty makes the point that truth has an exclusionary function that justification criteria lacks, and he believes the latter fulfills the wished for attributes philosophers seek for in truth without that exclusionary downside.

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Lance,
Yes, I will definitely keep you informed about future discussions in the Key Concepts subgroup re: the dialogue (‘Re-examining truths and tasks’) which now includes Jonathan Golden’s interesting contribution. I think that the discussion will probably take place sometime in the next few months in the newly forming reading group; I’ve asked for the dialogue to be put on the initial reading list.

I have a vague plan to research and read up on pragmatic theories of truth-as-correspondence—Mike noted that there are several—and to prepare a brief presentation to the reading group. I say this in all humility—I have very limited experience as a reader of philosophy—but I think it’s important in our secular practice to explore these ideas and become comfortable discussing them.

Thank you so much for the link to the article by Marcus Arvan on the Discovery and Negotiation models. I’ve only had time so far to skim it, but I can see the pertinence of Arvan’s views and of the Negotiation Model of morality to understanding pragmatic ethics. I’m very interested in learning about the “commonalities [of the Negotiation Model] to Habermas’ discourse ethics and his criteria for morally valid claims.” It was back in the 1980s that I read some writing by Habermas, so I have to study up on this, but a Habermasian public sphere is what comes to mind for me whenever a “culture of awakening” is evoked

Robert M Ellis

There’s a lot that could be said about this discussion, and the way it reruns disputes in Western philosophy. However, instead of going too much into that, can I just throw in a suggestion for an approach that to my mind resolves the difficulty? The difficulty, that is, of us wanting to use the concept of truth without falling into ‘correspondence’ or representationalism (the belief that meaning is based on the relationship between symbols and reality) and thus feeling that we have to accept some sort of indirect or weakened kind of claim about ‘truth’.

I don’t think we do. Instead, we can treat truth as an archetype: that means that we regard the concept of truth (and the symbols associated with it) as so meaningful and inspirational that we couldn’t possibly claim to possess it. Meaning (which is more basic than belief) is just not like that, if we read and use the work on embodied meaning developed in recent decades. Meaning is not based on the correspondence of propositions to reality, even hypothetically, but on the associations developed through our active bodily experience. I can never have ‘truth’ because I’m a fallible being with a body, but, far better than that, I can feel the inspiration of truth as a symbol influencing my investigations of the world. Both embodied meaning and archetypal meaning can add hugely to our ability to resolve old philosophical chestnuts like this one in accordance with the Middle Way.

This article might be helpful for more detail on this approach (which will also be explored in my forthcoming book ‘Archetypes in Religion and Beyond’) https://www.middlewaysociety.org/symbolising-truth/

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Robert,
Thank you for bringing your wisdom and creativity to this discussion. I like reading that “Meaning is not based on the correspondence of propositions to reality, even hypothetically, but on the associations developed through our active bodily experience. I can never have ‘truth’ because I’m a fallible being with a body, but, far better than that, I can feel the inspiration of truth as a symbol influencing my investigations of the world.” I’ll follow up on learning about embodied meaning and “Symbolizing Truth” in preparing for our reading group, and I look forward to reading your new book. The image from the Ashmolean and your discussion of it are wonderful. I like her face.

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