Saturday, August 8, 2009

What Is "Hope" and Who Has It?

I was reading through the Q&A's on Reasonablefaith.com and came across one in which a reader took issue with William Lane Craig's claim that the atheistic worldview is one without hope. The reader believes that the atheist does have hope. Craig recognized the unique argument then went on to defend his statement. Please read the Q&A here (may require registration, I don't remember) for the complete context of this post.

It appears that the validity of Craig's statement stands on what the hope is in. All hope requires an object of that hope, otherwise it is an empty, meaningless word. If someone tells me that they offer me "hope", my first question is, "okay...hope for what?"

When we're talking about what comes after death, the "hope" that people refer to is the same hope that everyone has- to escape the pain and suffering of this life. Everyone has different forms of this hope, but it boils down to that. Let's look at some of the different "hopes" offered (these are greatly simplified for the purposes of this post, please don't flame me about it):

The atheist's hope is to go immediately into nonexistence after death. That would mean no experience of anything, including pain and suffering and even punishment or reward (more on this specifically in a future post "Atheism And The Escape From Responsibility"). Nothing good is experienced either, as a result of the nonexistence.

The hope offered by many eastern religions is that one will eventually (after many lives) be either absorbed into everything and not experience anything individually or be totally extinguished and not experience anything. Either way, the individual escapes the experience of pain and suffering, however neither is anything good experienced.

The three major theistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) offer hope of living without pain and suffering. The experiences of pain and suffering are gone while only the experiences of good remain. (See my post "Suffering Sucks...or Does It?" (specifically, the audio clip from Hugh Ross) for why pain and suffering are required to even recognize experiences of only good).

I would like to submit that the hope offered by the theistic religions is much more desirable than those of atheism or the eastern religions. Here's why. Life is full of many wonderful experiences and emotions. Life is also full of much painful suffering. I do not know a single person who would not want to leave all the painful stuff behind and only experience the good stuff. That is the hope offered by the theistic religions. But...

...What differentiates these is the method to obtain that hope. In Judaism and Islam the person must earn their hope by their behavior. If they are not more good than bad, they don't have the hope offered by their religion. In Christianity, it is recognized that the standard of "good" can not (can: the ability to; not: the negation of) be obtained by us humans. Jesus Christ offers himself in our place of having to meet the standard of "good"; He even takes it a step further and takes our place for everything bad that we did, so we don't have to endure the punishment. In Christianity, all we have to do is recognize that what Christ has offered to us is the only possible way to obtain the life promised (that does mean swallowing our pride and recognizing that we are not as independent as we would like to be) and accept that offer.

This post is starting to get a little on the longer side, so I want to make a couple quick statements and recognitions of what might be going through your mind.

To keep the flow of the post somewhat smooth, I did not mention explicitly anything about the realities of two competing hopes being able to coexist. I affirm that two realities described by two competing hopes can not coexist (the realities described by the eastern hope and theistic hope cannot both be true). As a theist (Christian specifically), I deny the "truth" offered by the eastern religions.

I recognize that "desirable" does not equal truth. Please read other posts in my blog for other reasons for my theism and how I reconcile different harsh realities of life.

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15 comments:

  1. "The hope offered by many eastern religions is that one will eventually (after many lives) be either absorbed into everything and not experience anything individually or be totally extinguished and not experience anything. Either way, the individual escapes the experience of pain and suffering, however neither is anything good experienced"

    Which Eastern religions are you referring to?
    I think you're making the mistake of assuming Buddhism is nihilistic -"be totally extinguished and not experience anything" which it is not.

    I'm not going to go into a lengthy tirade about concepts of liberation in Hinduism and Buddhism, but I'll copy and paste some wikipedia goodness and leave it at that.

    ***
    From wiki-p:
    Nirvana (Nibbana) - The Buddha described nirvana as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states (kilesas). The subject is at peace with the world, has compassion for all and gives up obsessions and fixations. This peace is achieved when the existing volitional formations are pacified, and the conditions for the production of new ones are eradicated. In Nibbana the root causes of craving and aversion have been extinguished such that one is no longer subject to human suffering (dukkha) or further states of rebirths in samsara.

    Moksha - "ccording to a branch of Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta, for liberation, the individual soul or Atman is to be realized as one with the divine ground of all being, Brahman – the source of all spiritual and phenomenal existence. That the self is not the body is emphasized. The "not this, not that" (Neti Neti) method of teaching is adopted. Moksha is seen as a final release from one's worldly conception of self, the loosening of the shackle of experiential duality and a realization of one's own fundamental nature which is true being, pure consciousness and bliss (satcitananda) an experience which is ineffable and beyond sensation.[9] Advaita holds that Atman, Brahman, and Paramatman are all one and the same - the formless, attribute less Nirguna Brahman which is beyond being and non-being, beyond any sense of tangibility and comprehension."

    ***
    Basically, "however neither is anything good experienced" is just not an honest statement regarding the final goal of eastern religions.

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  2. That doesn't seem to make much sense when one considers the doctrine of anatman (no soul or fundamental self) in Buddhism. Nothing that can be considered "you" survives death (not a single component, not a combination of components). If you want to say that "one" can experience nirvana, you must define who or what that "one" is. From everything that you have told me and that I read, the "one" cannot be defined because it does not exist.

    If you still want to maintain that only good is experienced when Nirvana is obtained, the "one" must be able to recognize the experiences as "good". There are only two ways this can happen: either the "one" must have a memory of what "bad" experiences are (from the cycle of samsara that it has now escaped) or "bad" experiences must be part of Nirvana. Both of those are vehemently denied by Buddhists, so I don't see how it makes any sense. It would make more sense to say that Nirvana is the cessation of all experiences- the same as my claim.

    As for Hinduism, notice that I qualified my statement by using the word "individually". That is a recognition that according to Hindu beliefs, everyone and everything is ultimately one (Brahman). So, nothing can be experienced individually. Do you have a problem with my use of the word "individually"?

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  3. You simply don't understand "No self."
    We've gone round this before and I don't really want to do it again.

    Before you point out the "weaknesses" in other faith systems - take the time to understand them.

    Listening to Christian apologists who primarily sell their work to other Christians is not going to be the best way to learn about other religions.

    Huston Smith is the best academic resource I can think of. He is well studied and universally reknowned. He is THE go to guy for comparative religion.

    As for not understanding Anatman....
    Take the identity problem expressed in the ship of Theseus. What is your take on it?
    Buddhism simply takes one perspective and runs with it.

    It doesn't matter whether you said individually or not.... my point was that, your claim that "nothing good is experienced" is just blatantly false.

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  4. Saying that my claim is false is different from showing that it is false. I showed why my claim is true. If you want to counter with why it is false, the floor is wide open.

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  5. I showed why your claim is false.
    I posted Buddhist and Hindu understandings of Nirvana and moksha.
    Neither of them could be described as "nothing good is experienced."
    It's really quite as simple as that.

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  6. I understand that Buddhists and Hindus believe that Nirvana and Moksha are good experiences. My issue is with whether or not the possibility of good experiences in Nirvana or Moksha follow from their other doctrines. As far as I have seen, Hinduism is closer to making sense in this particular case than Buddhism.

    As far as I understand, anatman definitely means "no soul" or "no unchanging essence". One of the implications of such an idea is that memories are not transfered from one incarnation (or birth) to another.
    Nirvana is not existence, but is also not nonexistence. As is popularly explained, it is like a flame being snuffed out. The two problems that I see are these:

    1. If no memories of "bad experiences" are transfered from one incarnation to another and Nirvana is only one type of experience, how can the experiences "in" Nirvana be classified as anything but neutral (nothing is known or experienced to compare them to)?

    2. If one does not exist, how can experience take place in the first place? (Clarification question)- would Nirvana be like (not exact to) an image not being completely opaque nor being gone, but being translucent? If that is the case, if one exists but not really, how can experiences take place?

    Hinduism dodges one of my objections by removing "no unchanging essence". It specifically states that an unchanging essence does exist (however, I think different sects do differ about whether or not memories are passed from incarnation to incarnation). It still suffers from Moksha only being one type of experience (can be reconciled if memories from previous incarnations transfer). Hindus believe that you definitely exist- just as one with everything else, including Brahma. I still see that experiences are experienced as a whole (Brahman is atman, atman is Brahman- no distinguishment exists) not individually. Each "atman" (or consciousness) will not have experiences- only the Brahman will experience. The Brahman may experience "good", but not the individuals because they no longer exist as individuals. And if memories of "bad" are not transferred, then even the Brahman has no comparison for the experiences to know that they are "good".

    Now, all of this could easily be avoided by saying that the experiences are good when compared to this life (and the others), but the perception by the individual "in" Nirvana or Moksha is neutral. However, I believe that both Buddhists and Hindus believe that the "good experiences" will be recognized as "good experiences" by those who experience them.

    Now, I need to get a couple things clarified about Hindu beliefs. I don't think it really has any bearing on this particular conversation (if it does, let me know), but I just want to know. Which of these statements more accurately reflect Hindu belief regarding Brahman and atman (if different sects don't hold different ones):

    1. Brahman is atman (united in past, present, and future)
    2. Brahman will be atman (not united in past or present, but will be in the future)
    3. Brahman will again be atman (united in the past, not united in the present, will be again united in the future)

    Please note that all recognize that Brahman and atman will be united in the future- the past and present are what I'm unclear about.

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  7. " One of the implications of such an idea is that memories are not transfered from one incarnation (or birth) to another."
    Why would that be an implication at all given Buddhist metaphysics? Karma = causal continuity. Yogacara posits a store consciousness, but I believe that is unique to Mahayana. Either way, memories from previous lives are believed to be accessible, although transferred is not the word I would use.

    I've tried to condense 16 weeks of intro to buddhism, 16 weeks of comparative religion, and 16 weeks of philosophy of religion into a tiny synopsis of Buddhism. It's simply not a thorough job.
    The best place to start may be where most all religions start in teaching, not with abstract doctrine but with the myths and stories. You're familiar with the life of Siddharta Guatama, yes? If that base isn't even covered, it's a much better place to start. Trying to talk about Christian doctrine without the conceptual framework of the myths (The Creation, the Fall, The Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection) would be extremely difficult, no? Would it not make sense first to digest the stories, then consider their doctrinal meaning?

    "If one does not exist, how can experience take place in the first place? (Clarification question)- would Nirvana be like (not exact to) an image not being completely opaque nor being gone, but being translucent? If that is the case, if one exists but not really, how can experiences take place?"

    Nirvana is the cessation of conditioned existence. Nirvana is unconditioned existence. If the terms "conditioned" and "unconditioned" have no meaning, then discussion of nirvana will be empty - so if that is the case, then after covering the myths/stories, I will try to make a blog post going into detail about it. Conditioned - dependently originated, unconditioned - free from dependent origination. In terms of Christianity, all things would be considered "Conditionally existent" except for God, who is "unconditionally existent." The things in Christianity are conditionally existent because their existence is owed to God, while God himself is capable of existing with nothing else. In the Buddhist conception, all things are conditionally existence in Samsara because of dependent origination, however in attaining Nirvana there is an ontological transformation that occurs freeing one from dependent origination because they are freed from Samsara. If that sounds like jibberish, start with the story of Siddharta Gautama and we'll worry about the technical stuff later.

    It's kind of like discussing whether the eucharist is symbolic, (evangelical), transubstantation (Roman Catholic), consubstantiation (Lutheran), or transformation without mechanistic identification (Eastern Orthodox) - before anyone has even read the story of the last supper or understands it in the context of the whole gospel story. To use Hume's philosophy of mind, without the simple concepts as building blocks (the Jesus story) the advanced, abstract concepts (eucharist) will be empty.

    " I still see that experiences are experienced as a whole (Brahman is atman, atman is Brahman- no distinguishment exists) not individually. Each "atman" (or consciousness) will not have experiences- only the Brahman will experience. The Brahman may experience "good", but not the individuals because they no longer exist as individuals."

    But if Atman is realized with Brahman, then the experiences of Brahman are also the experiences of Atman.

    "Now, I need to get a couple things clarified about Hindu beliefs."

    Ask a well educated hindu. Google "hindu and blogspot", I was able to find somebody with at least seemingly decent credentials. You could also check out the temple in OKC - which I realize may be way outside of your comfort zone - but is probably going to be the absolutely best resource for actually finding out about Hinduism.

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  8. I thought that Buddhism held that there is no unchanging individual self. If the memories are at least accessible (they don't have to be transferred), then are the memories unchanging? If they do change, then how can the one who accesses them trust that the memory he is accessing is a trustworthy representation of the past? Why are memories not considered the "unchanging self"?

    I've been thinking a little too much about this, but if this question does not have an answer, then my other questions become irrelevant to the discussion.

    Buddhism states that all beings exist conditionally (they are interdependent on one another's existence). This raises the problem of the first conditioned being, however that can be reconciled if we posit that time is circular. Samsara is the working out of bad karma from the previous "lives". Even if I were to grant that time is circular, this question still exists: If a being has been building up bad karma in the infinite, circular past, would he not have to build good karma into the infinite, circular future to equal out the karmic cycle, thus never escaping samsara to be able to experience what is claimed to be Nirvana?

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  9. "I thought that Buddhism held that there is no unchanging individual self. If the memories are at least accessible (they don't have to be transferred), then are the memories unchanging? If they do change, then how can the one who accesses them trust that the memory he is accessing is a trustworthy representation of the past? Why are memories not considered the "unchanging self"?"

    I wrote a lengthy reply but will try to keep it brief instead.

    Buddhism still holds that there is no unchanging self. A self is not memories. Our memories, in the physical brain sense of it, change and are quite malleable. Memories may be a part of what you identify as the self, but they are changing and if you get dementia they will fall off completely. So you can see it's a mistake to simply say, "memories are the unchanging self." Any social scientists knows that our memories change quite often.

    With that said, there is still causal continuity (Karma). If I put my keys somewhere and forget where I put them, the action still remains that I put my keys somewhere. If I concentrate hard enough I can remember where I put them. If I do not have that good of memory or concentration, I will not be able to remember. This is one of the important aspects of meditation, to increase awareness and concentration. At some point, according to the tradition, advanced practicioners can remember past lives.

    The actions they took in their past lives are the subject of their memories, just as the actions and experiences we have are the subject of our normal memories. But none of these points to an unchanging individual self.

    "This raises the problem of the first conditioned being, however that can be reconciled if we posit that time is circular. Samsara is the working out of bad karma from the previous "lives". Even if I were to grant that time is circular, this question still exists: If a being has been building up bad karma in the infinite, circular past, would he not have to build good karma into the infinite, circular future to equal out the karmic cycle, thus never escaping samsara to be able to experience what is claimed to be Nirvana?"

    Samsara is not "the working out of bad karma." Samsara is the cycle of life, death, and rebirth - or to put it more simply, existence.

    Your question isn't answerable because it does't make sense. Nirvana isn't a matter of getting enough good karma to cancel out your bad karma.

    I also don't understand the problem of the first conditioned being that you raise.

    The best way to answer your question would be to read up on Buddhist cosmology, but that would definitely exceed a small post. Gethin might be a decent starting place, or with careful search online a good source might be found. I will try to find one. I haven't got to Smith's chapter on Buddhism yet, but it may have material as well. Hindu cosmology is quite similar, and Smith does a decent job of giving an overview of that.

    Lastly, my question to you, and one that I've been really interested in for a long time is your take on the "Ship of Theseus" problem.

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  10. Don't worry about the "first conditioned being" problem. Like I said, its resolved if it is granted that time is circular. I'm granting that for the sake of our discussion.

    Am I misunderstanding when I say that in order for Nirvana to be obtained, all Karma must be balanced (no extra negative karma, no extra positive karma)? Is it possible to obtain Nirvana while still possessing negative karma? I realize that obtaining Nirvana requires much more than just dealing with karma. I just want to know if it is possible to obtain Nirvana if you have every requirement, but still have negative karma.

    We'll get to Theseus' Ship later; let's get this hammered out first.

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  11. The reason I am so adamant about Theseus's ship is that is is directly related to our discussion about Buddhism. It wouldn't be appropriate for this post, but it's a much better way for us to start hammering issues in the Philosophy of Identity - which comes to the doctrine of "no self."

    I think the best thing at this point is to get back to basics, the way your questions are framed don't even really make sense in the context of Buddhism. E.g. "I just want to know if it is possible to obtain Nirvana if you have every requirement, but still have negative karma." The way the question is framed makes it seem as if the Buddhist path is about getting your checklist completed and balancing your karma.... it's a little too simplistic for one, and I don't think it is the appropriate approach to take for Buddhism. It's a legalistic-ish approach, which isn't applicable in the same way that a legal approach to soteriology can be appropriate for Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

    We'll get back to this, but rather than discussing doctrine at this point, I think familiarity with the common myths and discussion about the myths will be more beneficial. E.g. The life of Siddharta Gautama and the meaning of the 4 sights; his search for solace; and his experience under the Bodhi tree. It is often difficult to understand a religion's doctrines in terms of itself without the knowledge of the myths behind them - for example, the idea of propitiation (Christ making absolution in our place) is a meaningless concept without knowledge of the Mosaic tradition in the O.T. and the gospel. To simplify that statement, if one hasn't read the O.T. or the gospels, the letters of Paul simply don't make sense. If one doesn't know about the temple sacrifices and the Mosaic law, then the story of Christ is meaningless (has no context for meaning).

    If I had to simplify that, before we talk about Nirvana and Karma.... we should talk about the life of Siddharta Gautama. In the same way that before we talk about propitiation and absolution, we should talk about Moses and Jesus.

    Another point I might make to dispute: "In Judaism and Islam the person must earn their hope by their behavior." While ethical behavior is a part of Jewish soteriology, I don't think Jews would reduce it in the manner you said. It's not an accurate representation of what Jews believe about their own religion. It's how Christians tend to characterize Judaism - but it's not honest to the religion itself. Ditto for Islam.

    I realize there are some Jewish/Moslem converts to Christianity who characterize their former religion that way; but they aren't de facto representatives of Judaism or Islam. If they were rabbis or imams that might be different - and even then there are other factors that should be looked at: Sunni or Shiite, Wahhabi or Sufi? Obviously, each of those sub-traditions is not authoritative over other sub-traditions. For Judaism, an Orthodox scholar probably holds a weightier opinion than a Reform convert.... and above all, when looking at converts describing their old religions, one must ask whether they even properly understood their own faith.

    To tie together this bunny trail and answer simply, I have to ask you about the meaning of your question, and in so doing might make the answer apparent:
    1. What are the requirements for Nirvana?
    2. If Nirvana is to cease from conditioned existence, how can one have karma if karma is what ties us to conditioned existence?

    I'd rather hammer out Theseus's ship and the meaning of Siddharta's myth/biography, and come back to this.... because it will make much more sense in that order. If it helps, I don't know if the Buddha ever even talked about time being cyclical or linear because I don't know if it's even relevant to Buddhism.

    I'm going to make a quick post on my blog so I don't use up all your comment space.

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  12. "Instead of teaching doctrines about enlightenment, the Buddha chose to prescribe a path of practice through which people can realize enlightenment for themselves."

    The Life of the Buddha - http://buddhism.about.com/od/lifeofthebuddha/a/buddhalife.htm

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  13. "Most religions are defined by their beliefs. But in Buddhism, merely believing in doctrines is beside the point. The Buddha said that we should not accept doctrines just because we read them in scripture or are taught them by priests.

    Instead of teaching doctrines to be memorized and believed, the Buddha taught how we can realize truth for ourselves. The focus of Buddhism is on practice rather than belief. The major outline of Buddhist practice is the Eightfold Path."

    What is Buddhism? - http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/a/basicshub.htm

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  14. Sorry its taken a while on this one. I want to flag your statements about converts not understanding their original religions for a later discussion (possibly a whole post on its own).

    I noticed that you make the statement "The focus of Buddhism is on practice rather than belief". I also verified that this is correct in one of the sources you provided above. My question is this: do you have to believe that practice should be the focus rather than doctrine to focus on practice in the first place?

    My point is that you can't practice something unless you believe it. In essence, Siddartha IS teaching a doctrine; however, that is the only doctrine, because it cuts off any more (other than itself). It could also be taken as far as to say that it is self-refuting, but I won't take it that far.

    I see what you're saying about Nirvana being obtained by equalling out karma (so, the answer to my question would be "no, you can't 'enter' Nirvana if your karma is too far one direction). My point about time is that if it is infinite (circular or linear), and a being is in conditioned existence (karma is not neutral) then that being has existed for an infinite amount of time with a non-neutral karma. The "amount" of karma (one way or the other) would then be infinite, and the being would also have to spend eternity neutralizing karma to "enter" Nirvana- meaning that Nirvana is impossible to "enter". The only way to fix this problem is to have time be finite- but that eliminates the possibility of an infinite regress in conditional existence- there MUST be a starting point.

    If Buddhism is correct, then either Nirvana is impossible to obtain (obviously denied by Buddhists) or an infinite regress of conditional existence is impossible (also denied by Buddhists).

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  15. "In essence, Siddartha IS teaching a doctrine; however, that is the only doctrine, because it cuts off any more (other than itself). It could also be taken as far as to say that it is self-refuting, but I won't take it that far."

    I think it would be more proper to say that Siddharta taught a METHODOLOGY rather than a doctrine, per se. While he did teach doctrines, the emphasis is on the methodology itself.

    I'm also kind of confused by you paragraph that starts with "I see what you're saying."

    Let me see if I can re-phrase it in the way that makes sense to me and if it's what you are saying.
    "p1: If time is infinite, and a being has karma, that that being has existed an infinite amount of time with karma. p2: The amount of karma would be infinite, and the being would have to spend an infinite amount of time neutralizing karma to enter nirvana. ergo: nirvana is impossible to enter."

    The problem here is premise 2. But Buddhism does not say that a being has to spend an infinite amount of time to "neutralize" karma. The goal here is not to neutralize karma, but rather to get rid of all karma. I know it sounds the same, but it is not. I will try to explain.

    If an atom has a positive charge, it is positively charged. If an atom has a negative charge, it is negatively charged. If an atom has neither a positive or negative charge, it is electrically neutral. At the end of the day, we still have an atom.

    The tathagata (thus gone, another name for the Buddha) is no longer an atom (in keeping with the metaphor).
    .
    Soteriology in Buddhism isn't so much a balancing act of karma as it is an ontological transformation into a different kind of human being. Buddhist methods are aimed at enacting such a change.

    The focus in the beginning may be on getting good karma, but that's not the end that is sought - it's only a means to make the end easier to achieve.
    The ultimate end, nirvana, is obtained by becoming free from karma and samsara. So a being does not have to work an infinite amount of time trying to balance their karma, in fact, Buddhism should say that for most of us, it's very important to try to accumulate good karma and rid ourselves of bad karma. But in following the 8-fold path, we not only focus on Right Action (morality), we also focus on Right Meditation and Wisdom. While they all work in concert, it is not just about doing good deeds, but becoming a more wise and compassionate person.

    This ontological transformation is the process to attain Nirvana - not the act of trying to balance karma itself.

    Does that make sense?

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