A Socratic Examination of the Buddhist Truths
B.Contestabile May 2023
Table of Contents
1. The Truth of Suffering
2. The Cause of Suffering
3. The End of Suffering
4. The Path to the End
The Socrethics website stands in the Socratic tradition. This has two consequences:
1. The result of the Socrethics papers is presented in the form of theses, which are open to falsification.
2. The Socratic search strives for a good form of the individual and collective life [Hampe, 415]. For that reason, the theses take an integrative, overall view.
First Noble Truth
Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dhukka: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha [www.accesstoinsight.org].
First welfarist thesis
From a hedonistic and impartial view global human welfare is negative.
(Welfare measured by subjective life satisfaction)
The first welfarist thesis is based on the following papers:
- The Denial of the World from an Impartial View
- Is There a Prevalence of Suffering?
From an impartial view the hedonic scale is asymmetric. The moral weight increases with the level of suffering. The first welfarist thesis does not deny the existence of happy lives. But it postulates that the risks of a human life surpass – in the average – its chances. The topic is restricted to the human condition because there is no data to make statements about the animal kingdom. But there is no doubt that the number of suffering animals exceeds the number of suffering humans by far.
If the risks of a human life – in the average – surpass its chances, then an empty population would be preferable. The description of the world (samsara) and the quest for liberation from the cycle of rebirths suggest that traditional Buddhism came to the same conclusion. The Buddhist therapy cannot be understood without its worldview and, conversely, the therapy indicates the worldview.
Second Noble Truth
And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming [www.accesstoinsight.org].
Second welfarist thesis
Negative global welfare is caused by evolutionary biological mechanisms.
Suffering is an adaptive trait.
The second welfarist thesis is based on the following papers:
- The Biological Evolution of Pain
- The Cultural Evolution of Suffering
- Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition
According to Stephen Batchelor [Bachelor, 96] the Second Noble Truth says that craving is caused by suffering, whereas traditional Buddhism postulates the opposite. From an evolutionary perspective both is true:
- Craving is caused by suffering because suffering is an adaptive trait. Adaptive suffering causes the craving for survival and procreation; see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
- Suffering is caused by craving because the craving for survival and procreation causes (genetic) rebirth. Genetics replaces the ancient metaphysical doctrine of rebirth; see Secular Buddhism and Justice.
Evolutionary theory reconciles Batchelor’s interpretation with the traditional interpretation. It teaches us that the unreflective fight against suffering increases suffering in the long run.
Third Noble Truth
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving [www.accesstoinsight.org].
Third welfarist thesis
Human suffering will end by scientific-technical progress, or by an involuntary extinction of the human species (and not by the Buddhist philosophy becoming accepted worldwide).
The third welfarist thesis is based on the following papers:
- The Cultural Evolution of Suffering
- An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Free Will
The end of suffering in Nirwana
The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth says that some characteristics of the self survive after death, that they are reborn and recreate suffering again and again. If we replace “some characteristics” by genes, then the doctrine is not so far from contemporary biology [Contestabile 2018, 238-240]. According to the Nirodha interpretation of the Pali Canon Buddha was convinced that the (pari-)nirvāṇa [Breyer, 535] is the key to the cessation of rebirth, and therefore the key to the cessation of suffering. But did he associate the cessation of rebirth with the beginning of an impersonal (selfless) form of existence within a cosmic consciousness? We don’t know because he did not elaborate on metaphysical issues [Thanissaro 2013, chapt.5]. Possibly he was influenced by Samkhya, a dualistic school of Indian philosophy [Baus] which was taught to the young Buddha by Āḷāra Kālāma [Ruzsa, Chapter 1]. According to this doctrine there is an eternal, indestructible form of consciousness, which is different and independent from any conception of the self. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth can be attained by leaving the ego and immersing in this consciousness. The Buddhist “deathless” and the Hindu “immortality” are a translation of the same word in Pali/Sanskrit: amata [Batchelor, 89]. Today the findings of genetics and neuroscience have demystified the Nirwana-state. The ancient doctrine of rebirth and liberation in a (heaven-like) cosmic consciousness has the character of a religious belief (Extract from Negative Preference Utilitarianism).
The early Buddhists believed that a stream of consciousness (cittasantana) flows through countless generations, leaving old bodies at the time of death and entering new bodies at the time of birth. Although they didn’t know that genetic rebirth is caused by procreation, they adhered to the ethical ideal of childlessness and lived as celibate ascetics [Beckwith, 46, 93]. Childlessness was justified by the attachment to the world (samsara) that is created by parenthood. Independent of the ancient instructions to avoid rebirth a world of celibate ascetics would definitely end human suffering. The eradication of humanity by global voluntary childlessness, however, can be excluded. It is not even guaranteed that the antinatalist movement reduces global human suffering; see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.
There is an exception, however, where a voluntary extinction is likely to occur. Although suffering will hardly loose its role as an adaptive trait in evolution, we cannot exclude that there will be a transhumanist technology that ends human suffering. In such a case people will be motivated to voluntary leave samsara and become transhumans.
Suffering could end by an involuntary extinction of the human species, e.g. by a natural catastrophe or a self-destructive war. For information on this topic see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
Critique of the individualistic view
If death marks the end of individual suffering, then there is no threat of an unfavorable rebirth and no karmic reward in the form of a (heaven-like) cosmic consciousness. However, since 99.9% of the genome is identical for all humans [Embacher] an essential part of every individual – including the childless individuals – continues to exist after death; see Secular Buddhism and Justice. One has indeed the certainty not to be reborn as exactly the same person (not even Buddhists expect that), but on the other hand it is also certain that very similar people – and therefore an essential part of the self – will be reborn or already exist. As far as the ability to feel pain is concerned, (almost) all humans are very similar. With a mixture of compassion and self-interest the ethical priorities shift from the individual salvation to the welfare of the global community. In Buddhism a similar shift could be observed in the 1st century, when the Mahajana movement emerged, perhaps inspired by the doctrine of non-self (anatta). To prepare for a favorable rebirth (translated into our time) means to engage for a better world, a world in which 99.9% of our genome is permanently being reborn.
Forth Noble Truth
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (www.accesstoinsight.org).
Forth welfarist thesis
Secularization requires embedding the Eightfold Path in an impartial concept justice.
(In the Eightfold Path – in contrast to Aristotelian virtue ethics – justice is no issue).
The fourth welfarist thesis is based on the essay Secular Buddhism and Justice.
Critique of the Eightfold Path
The idea of cosmic justice and some of Buddha’s rigorous ethical guidelines were shaped by a controversial theory of karma and rebirth and require validation. The traditional conservative views regarding abortion, voluntary euthanasia and human sexuality are accordingly called into question (Secular Buddhism, Wikipedia).
Furthermore, the Eightfold Path is criticized – as any other form of virtue ethics – for its claim on universality and its lack of authenticity. Possibly it is not the best therapy of suffering in every historical time and environment [Zhang, 442], in particular not the best therapy for everyone. For examples of competing theories see
- Philosophy as Therapy – Conceptual Models
- Indian Sources of Hellenistic Ethics
- Moral Perfectionism and Justice [German]
- The Good Life in Philosophical Films
Finally, the Eightfold Path is a therapeutic concept to end individual suffering. It does not reflect the political preconditions under which this concept can be taught and promoted. In traditional Buddhism political philosophy is replaced by the trust in cosmic justice.
“In Socrates’ day, almost all Greek thinkers assumed or argued that the polis, the community, was the correct and only environment for developing morality – that a good polis created good citizens. As a moral philosopher, then, Socrates was also a political philosopher” [Waterfield 2009, 29]. Why was Buddha less active as a political philosopher than Socrates?
A possible reason is that democracy – in contrast to ancient Greece – was no issue in ancient India. Another reason could be that there was less need for political philosophy in a world, where the belief in cosmic justice was predominant. Both reasons make sense in the light of their cultural and historical context, but both reasons do not apply in the present. Secularization means, amongst others, that the belief in cosmic justice transforms in a quest for mundane justice. The concern for justice descends to earth, so to speak [Contestabile 2018, 244-246].
Buddhism can be interpreted as a consequentialism of compassion [Verhaeghen]. Negative utilitarianism shares the intuition of compassion with Buddhism [Contestabile 2014] and is the consequentialist ethics that comes closest to Buddhism [Keown, 176]. As long as there is no consensus on the desirable degree of compassion, however, the normative force of this approach is limited; see Negative Utilitarian Priorities. More disturbing, for many people, may be the fact that consequentialism has a totalitarian potential, independent of the driving ethical goal. Much of Rawls’ motivation to work on a theory of justice was founded in the totalitarian potential of classical utilitarianism [Thomas, 16]. A plausible alternative (to consequentialism) is therefore to ratify Rawls’ principles as a framework for tolerance and solidarity, and then to promote specific Buddhist values within this framework [Contestabile 2018, 247].
Specific Buddhist values can be found in the Eightfold Path and in the doctrine of the non-self (anatta). Non-violence (ahimsa) and universal compassion (including all sentient beings) are also emphasized in Jainism.
A fair life – according to Rawls – requires the engagement for human rights, for the equality of opportunity, for the welfare of the worst-off and for intergenerational justice (keyword sustainability). This concept leaves some room for hope. Everyone is free to choose his/her own form of therapy (including the Eightfold Path) to end individual suffering. And if it were possible – thanks to scientific-technical progress and the difference principle – to eliminate at least the worst cases of suffering, then global human welfare could turn positive.
Rawls’ concept guarantees the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech and therefore also the survival of Socratic debates. In authoritarian and totalitarian systems Buddhism may not be able to survive, because of disinformation, propaganda, and censorship. Rawls-type democracies represent a contemporary protective power for philosophies like Buddhism and Antinatalism. Without patronage, compassionate, suffering-averse and non-violent ethics succumbs in the competition with power-seeking, suffering-tolerant and expansionist ideologies. For an example see The Decline of Buddhism in the Indian Subcontinent.
Rawls’ theory is a concept for domestic justice, but it shares key values with the Charter of the United Nations: the promotion of peace and security, basic liberties, equal opportunities and solidarity. These shared values also answer the question, how domestic justice can be improved in non-democratic societies. In cases of severe violations of human rights, the UN has the duty to intervene. In 2005 a global consensus on justified violence has been reached under the title Responsibility to Protect. It concerns the prevention of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. For more information on the UN’s mission for human rights, peace and security see Negative Utilitarian Priorities.
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