Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Talk & Talk

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- Isn't Beverly Hills great? Walking here the man working at the newsstand turned a friendly face to me so I stopped to say hello. He asked me a lot of questions about myself, evaded answering my questions about him. He did tell me he came here from Sweden many decades ago. I asked him why he came.
- I like the way of life.
- Which is?
- No, no, I don't do that.
- Do what?
- Talk. Talk, and talk.
- Really? I love to talk. I'm interested in talking to you about why you and me here now can't have a conversation.
- What are we doing then?
- Why we can't have a philosophic conversation.
- What is that?
- A conversation about what you and me and all human being have in common. Human nature. I'm reading a book now about what there is in common human nature that makes people happy, and whether or not Buddhism makes people happy.
- Stop! Stop!
The newsstand man threw himself down to his knees on the sidewalk and bent forward repeatedly to kiss the ground.
- What are you doing?
- Thanking god for you being so enlightened and sharing your enlightenment with me.
- You don't think people should talk as I do?
- You're babbling. People should think for themselves and not impose their ideas on others.


Here's a page from the book I was reading, Owen Flanagan's Bodhisattva's Brain:
"A philosophical psychology is to scientific psychology as theoretical physics is to experimental physics. Its job is to keep the eye on the whole, on how all the experimental data fit together into a comprehensive view of what a person, a human person, is, and what a mind is and does. A philosophical psychology ought to answer questions such as these: 
What, if anything, are humans like deep down inside beneath the clothes of culture? 
What, if any, features of mind-world interaction, and thus of the human predicament, are universal? 
Is there any end state or goal(s) that all humans seek because they are wired to seek it (or them), or what is different, ought to seek because it is—or, they are—worthy? 
If there is a common natural orientation toward some end state(s), for example, pleasure, friendship, community, truth, beauty, goodness, intellectual contemplation, are these ends mutually consistent? If not, must one choose a single dominant end? Does our nature not only provide the end(s), but also a way of ordering and prioritizing them, as well as a preferred ratio among them that produces some sort of equilibrium? 
How conducive is following our nature to actually producing what we naturally seek, or what is different, sensibly ought to seek? Could it be that not everything we seek—not even pleasant experiences or truth—is good for us? 
What is the relation between our first nature, our given human nature, and our second nature, our cultured nature? 
Does first nature continue in contemporary worlds, in new ecologies, to achieve its original ends? If so, is first nature also well suited to achieving new, culturally discovered, or what is different, created ends? 
Is second nature constructed precisely for the achievement of variable, culturally discovered or created ends that first nature is ill-equipped to achieve? 
Do different societies construct/develop second nature in order to enhance first nature and/or to moderate and modify, possibly to eliminate, certain seeds in our first nature that can work against that very (first) nature and/or against our second nature and our cultured ends, which our second nature is intended to help us achieve?"
- Excellent.
- It is, isn't it? A professor of philosophy attempting to answer the question, If morality is a skill to make our lives happier, innate or developed or both, does it develop in response to environment, develop in the sense of granting new capacities of making us happier?
- And what is his answer to that question?
- Not so excellent. Generosity and selfishness make their appearance in societies all over the world. Studies of infants and children show we are born with both selfish and generous tendencies. Encouraging the generous, he argues, makes us individually happier and our societies better. Buddhism is one such system of encouragement. By teaching us to see that things are illusions, it leads us out of our selfishness. The professor observes that the 'no things' view is in line with the most up-to-date 'process' philosophy, but, he confesses, he does not understand why the 'no things' belief should lead anyone towards generosity rather than selfishness. Buddhists seem, in his view, to be lacking in a sense of political justice, and also lacking in the art of making individual lives which we selfish Americans have, in his view, rather more of. This leads him to what has been called moral cosmopolitanism, where alternate moral choices are available to be combined together and are chosen in response to different social circumstances.
- So we teach each other to be more generous because that makes us happier, but we maintain our allegiance to our societies, Buddhist or American, as each supports lives of roughly equal happiness made up of different combinations of selfishness and compassion. But am I crazy, or is that a really bad argument? If we change our habits, why not change our societies to make them more compassionate?
- Because there are costs. Political and social change that doesn't come easy may not anyway make us very much more compassionate: the professor says he doesn't really believe in the human possibility of total compassion and elimination of selfishness. That's one reason. Another is he doesn't distinguish between action and thought, the key to understanding how Buddhism's 'no things' philosophy leads to compassionate action.
- I don't understand either. How does it?
- The professor thinks the 'no things' of Buddhism is incompatible with the god-thing world soul and god-thing self soul in Hinduism, in contrast to which it is his claim the 'no things' of Buddhism developed. I believe he is wrong. The 'no things' understanding leads us into experiencing world and self together. The professor sees happiness in action, in having the best character for action. For him, compassion is a way of acting that grants happiness, but individualism, another way of acting, has its joys too. Compassion however is not something we do. It is something we are, a self that is the world and a world that is the self. It is an end, a return, a goal. It is what we practice our arts, hone our character for the sake of getting to. How we live with others gets its beauty, is happiness, because it is our connection to, our way back to "soul". Meditation can take us there, but so can creativity in the choices and practice living our personal and social lives. A society can make generous, beautiful behavior difficult, but difficulty has always been present in our first and second nature battles of selfish and generous impulse. The lack can be remedied. The private and social lives failure of Buddhism is a failure of art, a contingent, not a necessary failure, a failure second nature can take care of. But no addition of compassionate acts, no cosmopolitan combining, can save American individualistic public and private competitiveness from being what it fundamentally is, bad art, an obstacle to not a provider of happiness.
- To sum this up: compassionate is best. But the professor doubts the possibility of going very far with it. In any case, he argues, it seems to come with deficiency in personal and social arts, justice seeking and individual life-making. You argue that is wrong. The progress in favoring our better nature can continue into re-making society. Buddhism's moral claim is not fantasy, you for one can explain the connection between 'no things' and compassion. For the progressive increase in societies of compassion nothing more is required but further education of the kind the professor himself is doing: gathering information from around the world about moral conduct and happiness, and reasoning about it of the sort we're doing here. Right?
- Right.