At its next session – on Tuesday, Dec. 18 – the Camden Philosophical Society reading and discussion group will consider Buddhism as a path to synthesize the different strands of its discussions over recent months, particularly as they have related to ethics. The Society gathers on the third Tuesday of each month, from 4-6 pm in the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library. All are welcome.
The December discussion will be led by Jory Squibb, who is providing readings he himself wrote on “Existentialism evolves into Buddhism,” covering his own personal journey. The first of two readings from Jory appears below. A second set of readings will be sent out over the next few days.
While the Buddha’s thunderous insights pre-date Existentialism by 2500 years, my own involvement is in the reverse order. So before we get into Buddhism, I’d like to review the past two months of the Society’s discussions, since Metzinger’s delving into the science of the “ego tunnel” –that is the self-referential thought habit–and Jon Olsen’s wonderful quick exploration of Sartre, both lay the phenomenological foundation for why the Buddhist experiment might make sense.
Metzinger used the mind of a scientist to explain how we are conditioned from the beginning to “own” our existential experience as a fixed self. This conditioning has survival value to our species. It makes us more energetic, attached, and organized in dealing with “our” experience and makes it easier for larger entities—commerce, community, government, etc– to manipulate behavior, by threatening and enticing this illusory fixed self. If you don’t remember this, you might review that reading material of two months ago or perhaps watch: https://www.uctv.tv/search-
Last month, by reviewing Sartre, we refreshed ourselves in all the basics of Existentialism. Sartre built on Heidigger’s “Dasein”, this being of pure action thrown into the world. Sartre stressed the fierce freedom and responsibility of this being, whose existence—this free agent thrown into the world– proceeds all essence—any conditioned self-image. To fully live out this freedom, one must march out into immediate phenomenological openness. This is the “nothingness” of our being. One must somehow leave our own freedom-process out of the object-consciousness by which we observe all other objects in the sense realm. Our being-in-the-world is limited, of course, by our ‘facticity’, all the specific aspects of our situations; but in the midst of them, our being is not existentially conditioned, not forced into an attitude, an intention, and thus the basic freedom is unassailed. Almost all philosophy is heir to DeCarte’s mistake, his ‘cogito’. He immediately identifies with object-consciousness, when, with effort, we can experience ‘pure consciousness’ —an immediate sensing which is prior to any labelling, any judgement.
Three more things to note: that as we step into this freedom, it is our intention which illuminates the preceived world; gives it a density it otherwise cannot have. A mountain is perceived as obstructive if we want to pass to the other side, or helpful if we need a view. Secondly, we have Sartre’s notion of “bad faith”. Our existential freedom is scary. We are condemned to it. But it is easier to cop-out and operate from the ego-tunnel, to act in light of an aparently fixed and consistent series of past acts. This lets us off the hook. We can shelter from freedom’s storm. And thirdly, we are largely left without a practice: how do we step into freedom and avoid bad faith? If bad faith is powerfully conditioned, how do we de-condition it?
I’m sorry that, because of the holiday, some of you were not at November’s meeting, because we began to confront the limitations of this epistemology, however exciting. You remember that our basic quest, this past year or so, is to find a convincing, almost universal ground for ethics. Ethics has degenerated. Some ethical systems are ‘eternalist’, that is, based on an unquestioned book or person or being. These have little power to sway outsiders. Some ethical systems are nihilist, such as hedonism, emotivism, materialism, and these lose all moral power. As we look closely at existentialism, it lacks either of these grounds. Existentialism’s imperative is to act in ‘good faith’, yet it seems possible that both an axe-murderer and Mahatma Ghandi could be thus operating. And besides, why is ‘good faith’ so precious?
As our meeting concluded, the consensus was that without “externalities” –as Chuck titled them— without some ‘summum bonum’, some convincing goal toward which human freedom might move, without something more gutsey and energizing than simply being true to utmost freedom; that existentialism remains amoral in it’s ethics.
So, dear buddies, that is the platform. I don’t know if you are all standing on it, if you see the human project under this microscope. But if you are close, perhaps you are prepared to talk about an “externality” which is neither eternalistic nor nihilistic: You might accede to having Wisdom—that is learning, by experiment, the nitty-gritty of how human life can be positively conditioned– and Compassion—that is an engaged relation to others’ and our own suffering—as twin means which are so obvious that we dare to measure actions thereby. And why are we moved to engage these two means? Because our most central existential perception is the awareness of human suffering, human not-enoughness; and–not to be pessimistic–also our experience of little snippets, most often haphazard and not firm habits, of the end of suffering.
In a few days, I will send you some preliminary glimpses into the Buddha’s path, with the caviat that the Buddha’s way is walked and not talked. And as you read them and reflect, you might wonder, how does this fit into the tree of philosophy? Essentially what you are reading is “pragmatism”: What mind trainings can conduce to the transformation of negative states of mind, speech, and action.