A critical analysis of neural Buddhism’s explanation of moral transformation

Автор: Jeffrey R. Dickson

Журнал: Revista Científica Arbitrada de la Fundación MenteClara @fundacionmenteclara

Статья в выпуске: 1, Vol. 1, 2016 года.

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As non-theistic arguments for morality become increasingly sophisticated and complex, they are harder to criticize without first admiring their skillful design and near-artistry. One such argument involves a relatively new innovation that is the child of naturalism and eastern philosophy—Neural Buddhism. Like two world- renowned designers collaborating on a new garment, Naturalism and Buddhism have come together in this distinct program to offer something inventive, especially in its explanation of moral transformation. However, this critical analysis will ultimately reveal that Neural Buddhism’s explanation of moral transformation is incapable of providing good answers to several compelling criticisms.


Buddhism, Morality, Moral Transformation, Apologetics, Critical Analysis, Neural Buddhism

Короткий адрес: https://sciup.org/170163601

IDR: 170163601   |   DOI: 10.32351/rca.v1.1.9

Фрагмент статьи A critical analysis of neural Buddhism’s explanation of moral transformation


One of the warmly welcomed and perhaps largely unintended consequences of our present Sitz im Leben is the blurring of the distinct lines erected by Kant in the philosophical world and Newton in the scientific world between the noumenal and phenomenal.1 The impermeable membrane between these two dimensions that has guided nearly every enlightenment and post enlightenment figure is being transgressed more and more as individuals in multiple disciplines begin to recognize that distinctions between the physical and the metaphysical are not nearly as strident or unrelated as once believed. However, the question becomes, which worldview is able to best account for a richly spiritual/physical world in which both realms supervene on each other in copious ways?

Any worldview prepared to delineate a robust view of the universe fits into one of two categories: theistic and non-theistic. As non-theistic arguments for phenomena such as morality (which is both a physical and spiritual consideration) become increasingly sophisticated and complex, they are harder to criticize without first admiring their skillful design and near-artistry. One such argument involves a relatively new innovation that is the child of naturalism and eastern philosophy— Neural Buddhism.2 As will be concluded later, Neural Buddhism might be defined as a synergistic amalgamation of naturalism and an eastern non-theist spirituality on the grounds of reason and experience that affirms the following: the impermanence of all things, a deterministic cosmology, and moral realism. Like two world-renowned designers collaborating on a new garment, Naturalism and Buddhism have come together in this distinct program to offer something inventive, especially in its explanation of moral transformation that is both a physical as well as a spiritual phenomenon. Inasmuch as it deals with the spiritual and physical together, Neural Buddhism offers a non-theistic explanation for how morality works and how individuals achieve moral maturation. However, this critical analysis, after delineating Neural Buddhism and explaining its program of moral transformation, will ultimately reveal that this non-theistic worldview is incapable of providing good answers to several compelling criticisms—criticisms that do not so easily threaten theism.


First, this argument must reach a robust delineation of exactly what is meant by Neural Buddhism. At its core, this hybrid worldview is an inimitable amalgamation of naturalism and spirituality that seeks to mix science with spiritual considerations of consciousness. In its attempt, Neural Buddhism strives for empirical consistency while avoiding dogmatic belief systems (religious or otherwise).3 That Buddhism is able to be thusly construed is due to its underlining commitments. Many Buddhists affirm two such commitments that prove integral to the present discussion: reason and personal experience4 (two convictions that immediately attract Buddhism to some proponents of naturalism).

Through reason and experience (contra revelation in a theistic worldview) Buddhism promotes several important principles that form an intricate framework known as the “four noble truths”: the truth of suffering, the source of suffering, the cessation of suffering together with its source, and the path leading to that cessation.5 Again, proponents of this eastern philosophy want to root these conclusions in reason which, according to eastern philosophy, “…consists of practical intelligence (phronesis) to see things as they are, assess a situation for what it is, evaluate means-ends relations, and settle on an appropriate course of action in conformity with the doctrine of the means.”6 This definition of reason betrays this worldview’s pragmatic concern. Just as a scientist observes a problem worth solving, the first task in the Buddhist program is to apprehend the nature and full range of suffering to which humans are vulnerable.7 Careful observations of one’s experiences are able to provide the data necessary for this first step. Next, a hypothesis is posited for the source of the perceived suffering and various means of alleviating this suffering are tested (see the second and third noble truth). Finally, a program is introduced that is representative of the data collected and the results achieved in the first three steps, offering an integrated path of ethical discipline through which suffering ceases.

The findings that Buddhism has published as a result of this process suggest that everything in the world is impermanent in at least two ways: eventually everything passes away, and everything that exists it is in a state of constant change.8 These realizations inevitably eradicate the concept of a permanent essence (i.e. that which corresponds to the form of something/someone or what is necessary for a thing/person’s existence), even in considerations of the “soul” which, according to this worldview, is “really no more than an ever-changing combination of psychophysical forces.”9 Unlike a theistic worldview that roots existence in the essence of a changeless and all-powerful being, in Buddhism generally and Neural Buddhism in particular the only root is change and impermanence,10 removing the potential for divine essence and human essence (the soul) along with it. That the soul is delimited to psychophysical forces is in keeping with the Buddhist belief that everything can be divided into the “five aggregates” of matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formation, and consciousness.11

As all items lack permanence, everything in the Buddhist system depends for its existence and properties on the existence and properties of something else.12 Therefore, Buddhism and its new “neural” manifestation endorses a relatively sophisticated cosmology that is comparable to evolutionary causation.13 Though evolutionary determinism has its own issues in explaining what is moral, exalting the flourishing of the species as the litmus test for behaviors and decisions, Buddhism wants to affirm a moral element in its promotion of karma: good actions yield positive consequences while bad actions yield negative consequences. In addition to the kinds of actions performed, the moral quality of actions (decided on the basis of intention) is also relevant.14

These specifically Buddhist findings comport well with scientific tradition and even help shade in some of the un-nuanced areas of naturalism.15 For instance, the cognitive sciences have yet to develop adequate methodologies for the first- person study of the mind and, as a result, have largely delimited their investigations to studying behavior. Buddhism embodies a wealth of insight drawn from the first-person exploration of the mind by means of personal experiences and reason, thereby supplying cognitive scientists with helpful data. This is one reason why the scientific tradition is beginning to join the Buddhist tradition in its pursuit of understanding the nature, origins, and potential of the mind in a program that some are beginning to call “Neural Buddhism.” This practical collaboration along with several shared philosophical commitments render these two worldviews uniquely capable of working together to provide a more robust explanation of the world in general and moral transformation in particular. Moral transformation in this system is preoccupied with the alleviation of suffering (first conceptualized in the Buddhist tradition as witnessed in the “four noble truths” mentioned above and clearly witnessed in multitudinous ways through scientific observation).

Neural Buddhism’s proposed solution to the problem of suffering involves an integrated path of ethical discipline that is achieved by means of a specific state of mind complete with its own set of appropriate mental attitudes.16 Such attitudes/mental states, to be discussed later, have causal bearing on the manifestation of virtue in the life of the individual who practices these with regularity. This is what Alan Wallace means when he concludes:

…such well-being is a natural consequence of developing mental balance in ways that fortify the ‘psychological immune system,’ so that one rarely succumbs to a wide range of mental afflictions. A state of calm presence, emotional equilibrium, and clear intelligence are all characteristics of such


Though a much larger study is required to demonstrate how this emerging worldview explains moral value, moral obligations, and moral knowledge, this paper has decided to limit its scope to Neural Buddhism’s argument for moral transformation. Though this may not seem like an appropriate place to begin, as will soon be demonstrated, Neural Buddhism’s pragmatism and fascination with reaching an enlightened state over and above more ontological considerations render the transformative facet of morality especially significant in this program.

One reason why considerations of virtue/transformation supersede considerations of the good and the right in Neural Buddhism involves its commitment to a postmodern view of morality. This commitment is witnessed in its adoption of “an intentionally general notion of human flourishing that leaves it up to the individual reader to determine what virtues are ‘the best and most complete.’”18 Others who delineate the post-transformation state achieved by means of a virtuous life admit to using terms like eudaimonia in an effort to maintain the polysemous character of the concept of flourishing, fulfillment, and meaning.19 These proclivities ultimately yield a relatively flexible understanding of exactly what a virtuous life looks like following moral transformation.


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