In the recent exchanges between Mike Slott, Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor on this website, each re-examines ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism from a different direction: Mike seeks to rescue truths from Truths without disavowing the importance of the four tasks; Winton instead urges us not to disappear down a rabbit hole in search of truths, and admonishes us to abandon this search as he sees truths as an obstacle to the practice of these tasks; and finally, Stephen looks to re-enforce the historical case for saying that early Buddhists were never interested in truths or Truths to begin with, and these are not and never have been required in order to follow the Buddha’s teaching and the tasks he set.
The problem with three people moving in different directions is that may never meet, and in my view neither Winton nor Stephen has met the challenge which Mike set for them, namely truths rather than Truths are a necessary precondition for our practice, and practitioners should not be required to make a binary choice between truths and tasks.
I agree with Mike that there is no dichotomy between our practice of the tasks and the truths he describes, and there is strong support for this from modern philosophy, particularly the philosophy of science, which is not interested in absolute truths, but only whether theories are useful or not. The philosophy of science while recognising that truths may be transitory, does not deny their importance.
Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm
This argument was developed by Thomas Kuhn and others with the notion of a paradigm. Briefly put, we engage in scientific activity using a model of the world with established theories and observed facts, and we maintain that model of the world or paradigm for as long as the science it produces is productive. When the paradigm no longer produces the results we want, we eventually abandon it in favour of an alternative model. For example, at a certain point, Newton’s Laws (which was the established or ordinary science) could not answer the problems which physicists observed. Those laws then had to be abandoned in favour of another set of theories (revolutionary science) such as Einstein’s quantum mechanics. However, revolutionary science also settles down and quickly becomes ordinary science within a new paradigm or model of the world, and the transformation from one paradigm to another is described as a paradigm shift. Our evolution of thought and science can be therefore described as a series of paradigm shifts.
It would be easy to suggest that because observed facts and theories are subject to change, then there is nothing we could usefully call a truth within each paradigm, but Kuhn points out that it is impossible to function in science without accepting the truth of certain theories and facts. We would not have got very far in the field of mechanical engineering if gravity, friction, and equal and opposite forces were not accepted facts. As Wittgenstein put it in his book On Certainty, he would not be able to exist in a world in which he doubted that his name was really Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Paradigms and the debate over ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism
The argument which Mike puts forward fits well with this philosophical approach: we need truths and certainty to function and support our practice, and there is nothing wrong with accepting truths which correspond with the world we experience.
Neither of the responses from Stephen and Winton challenge this argument but I believe their positions are challenged in two ways by the approach of Mike and the likes of Kuhn:
- Stephen and Winton seem to say that all rigid truths (even provisional truths within a paradigm) are dangerous and take us away from a task-based path. That may be right, but their position does not require a denial of those truths, just an acknowledgement that in terms of a Buddhist path, there can be false gods of truth and metaphysics which distract us from more important practices.
- Traditional Buddhists are allowed to say that they have observed the world with the benefit of the Buddha’s teaching and recognise the Truths (with a big T) to be their truths as well – i.e., that they are the truths of their personal experience and fit with their paradigm.
Secular Buddhism as a paradigm shift
It is also easy to argue that Stephen makes truth claims of his own, some of which may have big Ts. He believes that ELSA is the true interpretation of Buddha’s teachings, that the Four Noble Truths are a corruption of this and that this can be established through historical analysis. Perhaps his biggest truth is that ELSA is in fact the right formula for life, and that within the Buddhist canon can be found many other correct interpretations of our psychological and spiritual worlds. Are these truths which Stephen advocates so different to the Truths that other Buddhist traditions cling to?
I believe Stephen is conscious of this and that in presenting a different approach to the Dharma (revolutionary science), he is creating a paradigm shift in which his approach may be accepted as the correct theory (ordinary science). History tells us that followers of ordinary science almost always become set in their ways and protective of their truths. Secular Buddhism and its paradigm cannot escape this and, if successful, it is likely to become an established Church which the revolutionaries of the future will have to abandon.
We already see this happening today in the debate between Traditional Buddhism and Secular Buddhism in which Truths are a red herring. What is happening is that each side advocates that their paradigm (rather than truths) is better than the other side’s. This is fertile soil for the inflexibility and hostility which is often most ardent when people are arguing about near differences. The pragmatic answer to this is that we choose to inhabit the paradigm we are most comfortable with; the one which reflects our own observation and experience of the world.
The choice of a paradigm
Many years ago, I went on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and that also seemed to be his view. He was at pains to say that each person should test the teachings he presented and only adopt those with which we could agree. He then went on to urge those of us from other religious backgrounds not to put on the clothing of Buddhism, but instead asked us to try and find from within our own backgrounds and faiths the teachings which resonated with us. He seemed less concerned with whether what he was saying amounted to a Truth but was instead interested in whether we could adopt it as one of our own truths.
This final point also answers the naysayers who accuse Stephen of cherry picking the Dharma for his own purposes, and in doing so distorting the Buddha’s teachings. Stephen, as a very skilled and experienced practitioner, is allowed to interpret and use teachings in the Dharma which he finds useful and accord with his model of the world. The fact that his views, along with those of other luminaries in the Secular Buddhist network, speak to likeminded people means that a new Buddhist paradigm is being created. In my view, Secular Buddhism is entitled to its Buddhist moniker because by analogy, Newton and Einstein, despite having very different approaches to the problems of science, each produced theories which worked in different situations and remain relevant today, and no one suggests that they are not both physicists.
 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition, 1970, University of Chicago Press.