Winton Higgins and I both believe that the value of the Buddha’s insights and teachings – the dharma – resides not in a set of truths about ultimate reality but in providing us with pragmatic and ethical guidelines for how we live in a very complicated and difficult world.
Winton and I also recognize that a secular approach to the dharma is not just about individual transformation but calls for a fundamental change in the way that our society is organized. To promote human flourishing for all, we need to restructure our culture, economy, and political system to address the systemic problems of inequality, exploitation, racism, and climate change. As part of this process, individual transformation and social change are inescapably connected to and mutually dependent on each other.
Although we have a shared vision of the value and role of secular Buddhism, Winton disagrees with my critical view of Stephen Batchelor’s notion of the relationship of ‘truths’ and ‘tasks”, which I expressed in my article, Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism. According to Winton, in my discussion of truths and tasks I missed the key issue. While I may have had made some valid epistemological points, he argues that I ‘fudged’ or ‘wish-washed’ a crucial dividing line between traditional versions of Buddhism and a secular approach. Winton says,
….A lot more than a conceptual dichotomy is in play here. ‘Truths’ and ‘tasks’ stand for divergent paths and responses to the human condition. It’s not an epistemological issue about the status of truth – it’s an existential one about how we should live and practise. I’m afraid dharma practitioners do have to choose: they can’t wish-wash over the truths/tasks distinction.
Winton faults me for focusing on a ‘conceptual dichotomy’ rather than dealing with a real-life choice for dharma practitioners.
In fact, in identifying what I believe to be a limitation in Stephen Batchelor’s perspective, my goal is to address concerns expressed about secular Buddhism in order to strengthen the case for practitioners to choose a secular dharmic path. I believe that my perspective on the meaning of truth, and the relationship of tasks and truths, provides a better framework for a secular approach to the dharma.
Understanding the meaning of truth
It’s very easy for discussions on the meaning of truth to get caught up in sterile, academic debates over precise terms and small distinctions that don’t matter in our lives. However, if we want to develop a secular approach to the dharma and encourage individuals to take this path, then we need to have a notion of truth which is both nuanced and rooted in common sense understandings.
As I discussed in the article, the correspondence theory of truth and the pragmatic theory of truth are two important ways of expressing different dimensions of the ‘truth-value’ of any statement or belief. On the one hand, when we think of the meaning of the word truth, we typically understand truth as a relationship between a statement and what ‘exists’ or ‘what the situation ‘is’. A statement is true when it lines up with, corresponds, reflects what exists or what the situation is. Conversely, a false statement lacks this characteristic. For many people, this is simply a common sense of understanding of truth.
Stephen and Winton both think that this notion of truth as correspondence is fundamentally wrong. In the context of traditional Buddhism, the core beliefs of practitioners, such as the Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence (dukkha, impermanence, and not-self), are seen as absolute truths because they correspond with what ‘is’, understood as a reality which exists on the deepest, most fundamental level. This is called ultimate reality and, it is argued, the absolute truths of Buddhism allow us to connect with this reality.
As Stephen and Winton point out, we have no way of definitively determining what ultimate reality is. In addition, this approach to the dharma takes us away from the pragmatic and ethical thrust of the Buddha’s teachings and toward a more dogmatic approach which has historically been associated with hierarchical, religious institutions.
I agree with Stephen and Winton on this, but I don’t think we can entirely jettison the notion of truth as correspondence. However, we do need to revise our notion of what ‘is’ or ‘exists’. If we understand what ‘exists’ not as some ultimate reality but as what exists according to our current level of knowledge and subjective experiences, then truth as correspondence in a modified version does make sense. As I said in the article,
The other notion of truth as correspondence involves statements about the world which correspond with or reflect our current understandings and experiences of the world. These understandings and experiences are not presumed to be universal, absolute, and permanent but are, like scientific hypotheses, provisional and subject to refutation or revision in the future. Truth claims based on this type of correspondence are small t ‘truths’.
So, the problem is not with truth as correspondence per se but what our statements and beliefs correspond with. Is this an ultimate reality that we can know based on metaphysical truths or, as I argued, what exists according to our current understandings (partly based in scientific knowledge) and experiences?
At the same time, there is another dimension of the meaning of truth which is crucial to recognize, one captured by the pragmatic theory of truth. We are not disembodied entities who develop beliefs and make statements about the world in the abstract. We develop beliefs and make statements as part of our lived experience, in the context of our various needs, activities, and projects. The pragmatic theory of truth focuses on the crucial relationship between beliefs and their impact on our ability to interact with each other and the world. Put slightly differently, ‘Pragmatic theories of truth tend to view truth as a function of the practices people engage in, and the commitments people make, when they solve problems, make assertions, or conduct scientific inquiry’.
In the context of a secular approach to the dharma, the ‘truth-value’ of the Buddha’s insights and teachings is thus based on their ability to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. Buddhism is true to the extent that the understandings and practices of the dharmic path enable us to make the kind of fundamental changes in our own lives and in society that will further human (and the rest of nature’s) well-being in the deepest sense.
Both dimensions of the meaning of truth – correspondence and the pragmatic connection with our life – need to be recognized if we want to develop a viable approach to a secular dharma.
Creating a viable framework for secular Buddhism
Winton believes that the sharp distinction between metaphysical truths and pragmatic tasks found in Stephen’s approach is essential because it poses the choice between acceptance of traditional Buddhist orthodoxy and engaging with the pragmatic and ethical tasks laid out by the Buddha. He says that my perspective – which is based on integrating small ‘t’ truths with pragmatic tasks – obscures this choice. I disagree. I think that my approach is not only more coherent but is more likely to encourage practitioners to choose a dharmic path that is pragmatically and ethically focused.
In the first place, the rejection of any notion of truth as correspondence can create an unnecessary barrier for practitioners to engage in a secular dharmic path. Truth as correspondence is a commonsense notion; for many people, it defines what truth is. So, it’s not surprising that practitioners learning about secular Buddhism for the first time often express concern about the sharp distinction between truths (negative) and tasks (positive) in Stephen’s writings. They have wondered why they must choose between the two – truths or tasks. If secular Buddhism has important things to say about how we live and understand the world, how can secular Buddhism not involve truths?
We can avoid the problems connected with metaphysical truths and address these concerns about Stephen’s dichotomy if we recognize that a secular Buddhist perspective is based on statements that reflect, correspond with, what we understand to be what exists, what our reality is. The difference between the meaning of truth in traditional versions of Buddhism and secular Buddhism is that secular Buddhists see ‘true’ statements and beliefs as provisional and conditional, subject to the development of new understandings and experiences.
This points to another way in which the perspective I’m arguing for is helpful in developing a secular approach to the dharma. In rejecting metaphysical truths as the basis of Buddhist orthodoxy, Stephen Batchelor rightly emphasizes the role of doubt and uncertainty on the dharmic path. I think this is one of the most important and valuable elements of his approach. A modified version of truth as correspondence is entirely consistent with and supports this element. If truth is always provisional and conditional, then we need to keep an open mind, recognizing that there is no ‘final’ or ‘absolute’ truth. Like a scientist who is always aware that the latest discoveries and theories can be challenged and overturned by new research, the secular dharma practitioner is not attached to their current understandings and experiences. While deeply committed to the secular dharma project, she/he is aware that they may be revised based on new discoveries.
Finally, we need to recognize that the ‘tasks’ of the secular dharma, as laid out by Stephen in the fourfold task, are based on statements and beliefs about human beings and the world. If we want to develop a secular Buddhist approach, then we need to be clear what our beliefs are and interrogate their truth-value.
For example, secular Buddhists believe that human beings have the tendency to get attached (negatively or positively) to their experiences, but also the capacity to be mindful and compassionate. What does that exactly mean? Is this belief consistent with the findings of contemporary science? Which ‘aspect’ of human beings is more dominant and under what circumstances? All these questions and many more need to be part of an ongoing assessment of and reflection on a secular dharmic path. A recognition that secular Buddhism involves truth claims helps us to keep in mind the necessity of that process of examination and inquiry.
Stephen Batchelor’s emphasis on the pragmatic and ethical impact of the Buddha’s teachings and insights is the essential starting point and foundation for a secular approach to the dharma. But in rejecting metaphysical truths as the basis of Buddhism, we don’t need to reject entirely the notion of truth as correspondence. While the beliefs of secular Buddhists are assertions are about what exists, they are not metaphysical truths about an ultimate reality but provisional and conditional truths about our lived experience and the universe in which we are inextricably embedded.
 See the ‘The Pragmatic Theory of Truth’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-pragmatic/. There are many versions of the pragmatic theory of truth. I am just discussing this notion in a generic sense.