Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized

After proposing my own interpretation of a Buddhist doctrine recently, I enjoyed Owen Flanagan’s book about Buddhism. Flanagan (a proponent and practitioner of analytical philosophy and natural science) read a lot of classical Buddhist texts, interviewed the 14th Dalai Lama on several occasions, talked to many other Buddhists, reviewed the results of brain research on Buddhist monks, and explored scholarly literature from East and West. He concludes that:

  1. The Buddha’s own metaphysics and epistemology are strikingly consistent with modern science–a point made by Einstein and others but worked out here in more detail;
  2. Buddhist ethics is appealing from a modern liberal’s perspective, complementing liberalism with its deeper account of a good inner life, but offering a thin account of justice that needs development;
  3. Buddhist philosophy and practice might have some bearing on personal happiness, but that is a complex matter, and the causal link is by no means automatic. Becoming a Buddhist won’t just make you happy, but Buddhism has interesting things to say about happiness (what it is and how to pursue it).
  4. The brain science related to Buddhism is interesting and worth pursuing but has been hyped beyond recognition. The most straightforward causal hypothesis is not about Buddhism and happiness but about the impact of particular forms of meditation on mental health. The studies on that question are inconclusive. In Flanagan’s view, there are also empirical questions regarding the impact of Buddhism on happiness, but they cannot be settled by brain science alone, because Buddhism is much more than meditation, and happiness is a contested term requiring normative analysis.

As I noted above, Flanagan belongs to the “tribes” (his word) of analytical philosophy and natural science. Science is defined by empiricism, but it now also requires a commitment to Darwinism, because the empirical evidence in support of Darwin is overwhelming. As for analytical philosophy, its definition is less obvious, and I actually think Flanagan practices a somewhat unusual form of it.

He writes:

Analytic philosophy is a style of philosophy that prefers care in argumentation, and that favors strong inductive and/or valid and sound arguments, where possible, for its conclusions. Poetic, purely evocative discourse is welcomed, as long as truth claims, if there are any, can be put into arguments. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are stunningly great analytic philosophers who meet this standard.

People who have studied academic philosophy will know that the field has been (was?) divided into two camps, the analytic and the Continental schools. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are generally seen as Continental giants. Flanagan’s move to include them as analytical philosophers is thus generous, ecumenical. But it means that “analytical” has become basically an evaluative standard, not the name of a particular tradition, canon, or community of thinkers. As long as your arguments are careful and sound, you are “analytic.” (And who doesn’t at least want to have sound arguments?)

I don’t think this use of the terminology is illuminating. I can think of two alternatives:

  1. Analytical philosophy isn’t just any philosophy that happens to be clear or that favors sound arguments. Rather, it is a project of clarification. It always takes input from some external source, turns it into structured arguments, and puts it through a clarity screen to see what survives. So analytical philosophy of mind is becoming the clarification of current brain science (as brain science provides more and better data). Analytical ethics is the clarification of ethical views or opinions that come from outside analytical philosophy. The sources of ethical ideas tend to be pre-analytical philosophy or popular opinion, whether current or past. Note that by this standard, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are probably not analytical philosophers, because each of them intends to erect a new worldview.
  2. Analytical philosophy is philosophy that takes natural science as its model. Some questions may not be empirical or subject to the “scientific method,” but natural science is the model insofar as it is cumulative, testable, and universalistic. Philosophy is not a form of writing (as Rorty claimed), nor a manifestation of culture (like novels or dance), nor the expression of its authors’ mentalities (pace Emerson). It is rather a set of truth-claims that anyone can assess, that should be mutually consistent, and whose authors should be irrelevant. Again, by this standard,¬†Kierkegaard and Nietzsche do not fit.

Is Flanagan an analytical philosopher by these definitions? He clearly takes natural science for his model. (P. 55: “… philosophy and the other human sciences.”) That is not to say that he thinks moral reflection can be replaced by brain scans. Rather, a combination of psychology, neuroscience, phenomenology, ethnography, and ethical analysis should yield a cumulative research project that functions rather like a science.

Flanagan also likes to find moral views and put them through a clarity screen by turning them into arguments (composed of discrete steps) and seeing if the steps follow. This is his method for analyzing Buddhism. In that sense, it is classic analytical philosophy.

But Flanagan’s view of how moral philosophy works is a bit more complicated than that. He realizes that no argument about morality will be fully satisfactory, because moral issues are highly contingent and embedded in “forms of life” that vary from place to place and time to time. Moral wisdom is experiential and involves not only correct propositions but also commitments, relationships, and emotions.

Thus “moral philosophy” has two meanings in the book. Sometimes it means the analysis of moral opinions, ideally employing clear and sound arguments along with scientific evidence about humans as a species (what we “are like deep down inside beneath the clothes of culture,” p. 93). We get analytical techniques from modern philosophy, science from evolutionary biology and brain research, and material to analyze from sources like classical Buddhism.

The second meaning of “moral philosophy” is an embedded, evolving way of life that encompasses both abstract doctrines and practices. Differences in moral opinion

are to be expected since moral conceptions are developed in response to local ecologies, and thus are dependent on preexisting aspects of the social, economic, and philosophical climates of different places and times. Conceptions of human nature and the human good, on this view, can be understood as part of the “philosophical climate,” by which I mean to include much more than the purely theoretical, but something like what is produced and reproduced by the intellectual, aesthetic, political, and economic climate of a place and time with its own distinctive history.

I find all of this quite persuasive. It implies a combination of two approaches. One is the sensitive, largely sympathetic interpretation of whole philosophical forms of life, whether classical Buddhism or medieval Catholicism.  The second is a critical review of these forms of life based on what we believe to be true today: modern logic, scientific evidence, and our own core moral principles (such as equality). To rely only on the first source means moral relativism. It presumes there is no truth, only a set of diverse cultures. But to employ only current methods is equally unwise, because in ethics, there are no arguments that run all the way from uncontroversial premises to useful conclusions. If we reject all moral opinions that we cannot ground in scientific data or pure argument, we will be left with far too few principles to live decent lives.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.