Category Archives: Human Nature-Religious

Summary of the Bible on Human Nature

The Bible: Humanity in Relation to God

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.) 

The Old Testament is recognized as the word of god by both Jews and Christians; the New Testament is only recognized as such by Christians. Islam also recognizes the patriarchs and prophets of these books, but asserts that Muhammad is “the last and greatest of the prophets, and that the Koran is the uniquely authoritative message of God.” Needless to say there are so many varieties of belief that there is no way to say “the Jews say this” or “the Christians say that.” We begin with a theory of the universe common to both Jews and Christians (and to Islam too.) The author begins by telling us that he is a Christian in case you want to know where he’s coming from.

Metaphysical Background: The Judaic-Christian Conception of God – It is not clear from the opening verses of the Bible whether god is one (monotheism) or god is many (polytheism.) [There are other well-known conundrums. For example there are two creation accounts corresponding to the first two chapters of the book. In the first multiple humans were created after the animals and man and woman were then created simultaneously; in the second humans were created before animals, with man created first, then the animals and then a woman from man’s rib.] But this god(s) creates evidently by commanding, gives things names after bringing them into existence, and all created is good. Soon the first two humans disobey god, then one of their children kills the other, and god resolves to kill all humans. Finally Noah is allowed to save his family and all the animals. There are also stories of sons of god having sex with woman and races of giants. [This is all in the first book of the Bible.] No doubt the text “is a compilation of several ancient stories containing different conceptions of the divine.”

This god speaks to people throughout the book, instructs them, and is represented variously as having a face and voice, being a shield, having nostrils, being a shepherd, and more. In later books he generally speaks through intermediaries and later on still there is less talk of god. All of this causes the author to ask “Where should we draw the line between symbolic or metaphorical talk of God and realistic, literal talk of Him?” He is not sure of the answer. But traditionally (classical theism) holds that god is non-spatial, non-temporal, immaterial and yet a personal being who creates, loves, guides, judges, and cares for us. He is endowed with intelligence, desires, knowledge and other traits of personality. He intervenes in the world, performs miracles, and tells us how to live. In short he is a disembodied person. But what does this mean if we cannot confirm or falsify it? The author suggests that we understand this talk of god as a metaphor. [But of what?]

The Hebrew Theory of Human Nature – Humans exists “primarily in a relation to God, who has created us to occupy a special position in the universe … The question immediately arises whether we should read this story literally as narrating historical events … or as mythology…” The author, as I did previously, notes the main problem with a literal account—there are multiple and contradictory creation stories. Another problem is the stories inconsistency with modern science, including but not limited to cosmology, geology, and biology. Science provides entirely different accounts of our past. Furthermore, these stories contradict common sense. How did Adam and Eve’s sons find wives if all humans were descended from the first couple? The author, a Christian, says “I propose that only symbolic readings of the creation stories can be taken seriously. It is now widely … accepted that they are myths …”

Humans are supposedly made in the image of God [if true then looking around the world one might conclude god is a monster]. Of course we can turn this around and say humans made god in their image. In other words we don’t partake in the perfect intelligence, moral perfection and personhood of the creator but imagine our own imperfections don’t exist in a godhead. [Both Nietzsche and Feuerbach said that God didn’t make us in his image but we made god in our image.] Humans are thus special yet also continuous with nature made from dust to which they return. And humans are not made up of body and soul. The Hebrew world ruach means wind or breath, it is not a separate soul. This idea is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.  [In all my years of teaching I think this is the most common misunderstanding of orthodox Christianity by Christians.] In fact there is no expectation of the afterlife in the Old Testament, the Jews developed the idea of the afterlife only slightly before the time of Jesus.

As for woman the one biblical account has them appearing second to man and a woman is represented as the temptress who brought about man’s fall and tempts him to sin, especially sexually. For their disobedience woman will suffer in childbirth and must accept men as their masters. And of course, god is a man! [I’m guessing all of this was written by men.]

Humans are supposed to be free [there is a tension here because woman are supposed to submit to men] to love and obey god or not. God commanded humans not to learn about good and evil, and humans must choose whether to know about good and evil (to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and their eternal salvation depends on it. But why is it bad to learn this? Is not the mark of the mature to put childhood behind and search for one’s own answers? Here we confront the emphasis on faith and the heart characteristic of the Hebraic mind in contrast to the emphasis on reason and intelligence characteristic of the Hellenistic (Greek) mind.

The emphasis on the heart implies a concern with human goodness, with the personal characteristics, and with good actions. But faith in the godhead is of primary importance, for god created us “so that we fulfill the purpose of our life only when we love and serve our Creator.” Thus the ultimate requirement is obedience to god “rather than the use of the intellect to reason things out and make one’s own judgments about truth and morality.” Thus god rewards Abraham because he is willing to kill his own son Isaac in order to submit to god.” [Kierkegaard famously called Abraham the “knight of faith” for doing this. Might we instead call Abraham … insane and god malicious?] As the author puts is “… such a command could not really come from a loving god … Even if it was only given as a “test of faith,” what sort of god would play such a trick?” Another example of the emphasis on faith vs. reason is in the story of Job. Satan persuades god to torment Job for no reason. God asserts his authority and Job submits. The point seems to be that one should be humble before god [or he will mess you up], rather than there being any intellectual insight as to why this has all happened to Job.

Diagnosis: Human DisobedienceWe misuse our freedom and choose evil over good and therefore mess up our relationship with god. God punishes our disobedience by sending pain, suffering, and death. [Did god know all this was going to happen beforehand?] There is thus a tension between our inclinations and our duties, but why do our (biological tendencies) imply moral failure?

God’s Covenants and Regeneration – God made us to be in a relationship with him, we broke that relationship, so god must fix it—hence the idea of salvation initiated by the mercy of god. In the Old Testament this is described as the idea of a covenant between god and his chosen people—the Jews, especially Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Still problems persisted, sin did not disappear from the earth, the Jews commit genocide that god orders, and more. God uses history to punish both friends and foes alike, but the idea arises that god’s mercy can also intervene in history to rectify all these problems. “Thus the hope arose among Judaism for the coming of a God-appointed savior, “the Messiah,” which Christians identify with Jesus.”

The New Testament – The Jewish rabbi Jesus didn’t leave any writing but the new religion of Christianity developed with the letters of St. Paul and the gospel narratives about his life written between 40 to 70 years after his death. [His existence as a historical figure has also been called into question.] Christians soon recognized god the father, god the son, and god the holy spirit who inspired Christian believers—thus 3 persons in 1 god. What is a Christian? This is a complex question, but at a minimum it requires believing that Jesus was at least a special, historical, revelation of god, and that god was uniquely present in Jesus. This is usually expressed as the doctrine of the incarnation—Jesus is both human and divine. What this doctrine means is a matter of theological dispute. [The issue was settled historically for Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 which settled the issue of the relationship between god the father and god the son in a debate among council members.]

The New Testament Theory of Human Nature – St. Paul talks of (the level of) spirit and (the level of old nature) flesh. This distinction is one “between regenerate and unregenerate humanity, redeemed and unredeemed human nature.” The idea, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to be that the best of human nature rejects power, fame, wealth, and sex for moral righteousness. Sex is a particularly vexing issue, as both St. Paul and St. Augustine deride it. As for women, Jesus evidently didn’t choose any as disciples and St. Paul and Christianity ever since “… has found females theologically problematic  …” [Should woman cover their heads in church? Should women be ordained? etc.] Again none of this assumes an afterlife, although some have obviously interpreted the Kingdom of God in this way.

However, eternal life implies loving god and one’s neighbors certainly, and the New Testament does discuss on resurrection, the last judgment, and eternal punishment. The idea that Jesus was resurrected has traditionally been taken to imply that we can life forever too, at least if we are saved by god. The Christian expectation of resurrection of the saved appears in Corinthians.

The New Testament Diagnosis of Sin – We are all imperfect in god’s eyes, as is the entire creation after the Fall—since human beings rejected god by eating the forbidden fruit.

God’s Salvation in Christ – It is unclear what Jesus thought of himself, as it was Paul who first formalized the doctrines of salvation and the incarnation. Paul thought that God was uniquely present in Jesus and his life and death somehow restored our relationship with god. Paul believed that one misdeed condemned all humanity and one righteous act—Jesus dying—saves everyone. But it is counter-intuitive to believe that one bad act and one good act could do this. And how does Jesus atone for our sins anyway? Today most theologians don’t accept the idea that this was a blood sacrifice like in the Old Testament. So again, how does this supposed event 2000 years ago redeem the world of sin? How can one be saved by Jesus? Traditionally then we are saved by god’s grace, not our own works. On the other hand Christianity assumes we are free to choose to accept god’s salvation. This creates a tension.

Spiritual or Supernatural Versions of Christianity? – But how are we to rationally understand perplexing Christian doctrines, like the resurrection and virgin birth? Must we just accept them on faith? What of the outlandish material in the book of Revelation? How can resurrected bodies not exist in space and time? One might respond by partaking in the spiritual life of the church, regardless of the truth of its theological claims, but surely this can be achieved without accepting all the supernatural and metaphysical claims.

Summary of Buddhism

Buddhism: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.) 

Buddhism developed in Northern Indian in the 5th Century BCE and spread throughout Asia. Like Hinduism it is a disparate tradition, but our chapter will focus on the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

We begin with a story in the Pali Canon. When confronted with the great questions “Do we have souls?” “Do we live after death?” “Is the world eternal?” the Buddha refuses to answer these questions insisting that “the religious life does not depend on dogma.” One will die before these questions are answered. Buddha likens asking such metaphysical questions with claiming—after being struck by a poison arrow—that you won’t have the arrow removed until you know who wounded you, what kind of person they were, the nature of the arrow, etc.  Again such a person would die before all their questions are answered.

Moreover even if one had answers to all these abstract questions what good would it do? Would you cease to suffer in this life? [He might be wrong. If you know that you would have infinite being, consciousness, and bliss after death it might help. His point though is to first eliminate the cause of suffering and then proceed.] Thus Buddhism is anti-metaphysical. Rather than constructing esoteric theories, the Buddha wants to understand the nature, causes, origins and the possibility of removing suffering. Buddhism is like medicine that we use until we gain full health.

Life of Buddha – The story of the Buddha, independent of its historicity, is crucial to understanding Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born a privileged prince after a miraculous birth. [By legend a white elephant entered his mother Maya’s womb through her side.] Siddhartha grew up shielded from life’s unpleasantness but one day went for a ride outside the palace where he saw, in succession: old age, sickness, death, and finally a simple monk who had renounced the world. Buddha thought the monk revealed a possible way out of this suffering and, in response to these experiences—he left his wife, newborn son, and the comfort of the palace.

For the next six years he tried ascetic experiences with no success—nearly starving to death in the process. Eventually he found a middle way between the opulent decadence of palace life and extreme asceticism. While sitting under the Bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he achieved enlightenment, he finally achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama had become the Buddha, the Awakened One. He decided to share his insights with others [like the enlightened prisoner in Plato’s cave who returns to it.] His own life became the model for the monastic life of a Buddhist monk. He died, surrounded by his followers at the age of 80.

Theory of Existence – The 3 most fundamental characteristics of existence for the Buddha are: 1) radical impermanence (constant change); 2) lack of a solid self (no self); 3) unsatisfactoriness (suffering).

The first mark of existence captures life’s transitory, ephemeral, fleeting nature. Nothing in the world is solid or independent of anything else. And nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures. Everything is impermanent, changing constantly at every moment. And this constant changing brings about constant changing in everything else. Everything, including you and me, are dependent upon and interconnected with other things without which we wouldn’t exist. [Our parents, grandparents, gravity, evolution, the air and water, the sun and stars, etc.]

Consider also how our thoughts, desires, cravings, interests, wants, preferences, hatreds, loves, lusts, and beliefs, all depend on situations largely out of our control—and consider how much mental suffering we endure on this basis. Buddhism aims to free us from the ignorance that is at the root of all this suffering. Of course our present life is one of a long series of them and our present condition is determined by past actions. [Again to make this scientifically believable consider many of your behaviors emanate from your biological past; and how many of your beliefs emanate from your social and cultural heritage.] Karma is the term which denotes this moral law of cause and effect. And karma is enough to propel the universe along in Buddhism, there are no creator or sustainer gods. Some versions of Mahayana Buddhism do imply that some eternal form may be behind the world. Still this is not a personal god in any sense.

Theory of Human Nature – The second mark of existence means that the idea that there is nothing solid or permanent about reality also applies to the self. There is no self. (anatma or no atman.) Consider a chariot (or the car you drive or university you attend.) They are all made up of many parts, but the word chariot or car or university applies to all of those parts together—they are not independent existing things. In the same way the word I or ego or self is simply a name for all of the parts put together. There is nothing in addition to the parts—there is no soul of the car or university or body. You are the sum of your parts (and their interrelationships); there is no separate soul or essence to you anymore than to your car or university. [Even saying “to you” in the above is misleading. When you say “you” that refers to all the parts of your body and their interactions.] Again there is no independent self, ego, I, soul, etc. [A truth confirmed by the Buddhists in meditation. And one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve encountered in 40 years of doing college level philosophy.]

Of course you have continuity of memory, but there is nothing permanent underlying your being, nothing like a soul. You are a mind, body, and stream of consciousness. You are not really a being [a substance] but a becoming [an event.] The idea that you are a separate ego is also harmful, harmful because it leads to fear of death, violence, theft, and completion. Realizing the self is an illusion leads to compassion—the most important Buddhist virtue.

The idea of the separate ego is an expression of the 5 attachments or components (skandas) that make up what we call a person. The components are: 1) form— the body and its sense organs; 2) sensations—the physiological process produced by the contact of senses and the world [eye see object or ear hears sound]; 3) perception—sensations that lead to object recognition [What I feel is a table]; 4) mental formations—our predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, habits, and karma [states of mind like conceit, impatience, humility, wisdom, etc.]; and 5) consciousness—not only does one sense and perceive something one becomes aware of something; consciousness is awareness.

Perhaps the most important component are the mental formations, which themselves result from the interplay of bodies, sensations, perceptions, and conscious awareness. All of this leaves karmic residue or ideas in our minds. [This is a fascinating topic. How and why do we form mental constructs? And how do the state of our reality and the reality of the world depends on good and true consciousness.] In short our consciousness is conditioned by [nearly determined by] our mental formations. [And if they are in turn completely determined then we have no control over consciousness.] In short our consciousness is conditioned by what has gone before which then shapes our consciousness perhaps forever. [How my mind doesn’t feel like my own when I read this.]

Consciousness consists of these every changing, ephemeral states or forms of mind—and how brief our conscious life is. Like a chariot that exists on a single point of its wheels, we live only for a brief moment of a single thought. We are changing every millisecond. Thus there is nothing permanent about us, not even for a moment. [You may think a piece of granite or steel is stable but it too is changing every moment. You can confirm this by looking at ancient ruins. In fact all of reality is radically impermanent. Not only can you not step into the same river twice, you cannot even step into it once.] Ask yourself this. Are you the same or different than when you were 6 years old? In one sense you are the same—born of the same parents, same DNA—but in another sense you are radically different. The Buddhists explain the self using a candle flame. At every moment it is different—you are always changing—but there is a connection between the candle flame now and it flame an hour ago—you have some psychological continuity with your 6 year old self. [This is known as the problem of personal identity in western philosophy. How can you be both the same and different from what you used to be? What, if anything, persists in a person over time? It is one of the most vexing and studied questions in contemporary philosophy.] Finally, reincarnation is explained by the analogy of one candle relighting another new one as the former one burns out.

Buddha himself refused to answer the question of whether a separate, permanent soul exists. [I have encountered Buddhism on and off for 40 years and with each new encounter I am always moved by its profundity.]

Diagnosis – We begin with the 4 noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction. (This is also the third mark of existence.) We suffer from anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, frustration, disappointment and loss—everything is imperfect and flawed. In addition everything is constantly changing, radically impermanent, so even the good things and times never last. The first kind of suffering is ordinary suffering: aging, sickness, death, unpleasant conditions, sadness, pain, not getting what we want, etc. The second kind results from change, even happiness doesn’t last, is fleeting and ephemeral. The last type results from the false sense of ego. [Thus we suffer when slighted, insulted, not recognized, etc.] The Buddha did not say that life is essentially or only suffering but we experience much suffering. And this is not meant to be pessimistic but realistic—the basic problem of life is that we experience so much dissatisfaction.

The second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving, grasping, desiring. We try to hold on to and possess things that don’t last. The essence of reality is change and grasping or desiring tries to prevent change by keeping things as they are. Much of this desiring is motivated by the idea of the separate ego, which wants to have more and more. [Think of it simply. I want money, sex, power, drugs, food, fame, etc. What happens? When in the state of wanting, I am dissatisfied. Then I get what I want, but soon I want more. I want a thousand dollars and then ten thousand and then a million and then a billion and I am still unhappy. The thrill of the new car or house makes me happy for a very short time.  In fact studies show that after one has about a 100 thousand dollar income more money does not make people happier. Does a glass of wine taste good? Maybe. Do ten glasses make you feel better? Is it nice to have a roof over your head? Yes. Does having ten houses make your happier? No. This is what Buddha is getting at when he says our desires cause our troubles.]

Prescription – The end of craving and desiring is the key to relieving suffering. This is the third noble truth. [This is of course antithetical to a capitalist economic system propelled by creating desires through advertising.] This leads to the state of nirvana, a peaceful state with no desiring. But what exactly do we do to experience this blissful state of not wanting and desiring and craving? We understand the fourth noble truth, which is to follow the eightfold path, also known as the Middle Way between a life of complete asceticism and a life of desiring pleasure. This path addresses ethical conduct, which is based on compassion, mental discipline, which flows from meditative practice and leads to the realization of the true nature of self, and wisdom, which is the realization of the true nature of reality.

Ethical components of the eightfold path include: 1) right speech—speech that tries to benefit others, speech that doesn’t lie, and silence when called for; 2) right action—moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, no lying, killing, cheating, stealing, and the like; and 3) right livelihood—making a living without harming others.

Mental discipline is comprised of: 4) right effort—working toward wholesome rather than unwholesome states of mind; 5) right mindfulness—achieved through mindfulness meditation that leads to a better understanding of the impermanent nature of reality and lack of self; and 6) right concentration—meditation on a single point [like the breath, a flame, an image, a mantra].

Wisdom includes: 7) right thought—detachment from the idea of self; and 8) right understanding—accepting the 3 marks of existence (life is impermanent, there is no self, and there is suffering) and harmonizing the mind with this realization. It also implies accepting the 4 noble truths.

Different Paths – For monks this involves selfless, detached actions which aim to free one from karmic residue, and ultimately which leads to enlightenment. For the laity this involves doing good deeds, accepting the 5 precepts—don’t kill, steal, lie, consume intoxicant or have illicit sex—and improving their karmic lot. The monks provide a model of the spiritual life; the laity provides minimal food for the monks. In the Theravadan tradition the monk who reaches nirvana, while in the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva does not enter nirvana but stays in this world and helps the rest of us be liberated. The bodhisattva is often characterized as more compassionate than the monk who withdraws from the world. In some schools of the Mahayana tradition the idea our true consciousness already exists and we must work to uncover it. [Similar to how Socrates thought of knowledge.] The idea is that we don’t have to work to achieve Buddha nature, but recognize that it is already within. [Even if it is within it seems we have to work to bring it forth.] The Mahayana tradition also recognizes other ways besides the monastic life to enlightenment, including devotional practices.

Women in Buddhism – In some texts woman are treated as inferior in Buddhism and perhaps by the Buddha himself; yet the Buddha allowed women to be monks as long as they were subordinate to men. On the other hand some Buddhist texts advocate an all-inclusive salvation. Today Buddhism is still dealing with these issues.1


1. If you think this is only an issue in Hinduism or Buddhism consider what seminal Catholic thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas say about women:

“Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition…” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1

“I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman was not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5-9

“Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q.92 a.1 reply 2

And you can find other disparaging remarks about women throughout the history of philosophy. I’d say the first thinker who says nice things about women is John Stuart Mill. For more see his book: The Subjection of Women (Dover Thrift Editions).

Summary of Hinduism on Human Nature

Om (Aum)

Upanishadic Hinduism: Quest for Ultimate Knowledge 

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.) 

While Hinduism is incredibly diverse (consider also that there are about 41,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide1) and there is no way to adequately capture that diversity in a few pages. In response the authors will focus on the Upanishads, the most foundational texts of Hinduism. Unlike Confucianism, Hinduism is a metaphysical philosophy whose “overall theme is one of ontological unity.” [Roughly the idea that all being is one. In fact, in non-dualist Vedanta, only Brahman is real.]

Theory of the Universe – All reality is one, in other words (philosophical) Hinduism a type of monism. This ultimate ground of all being [a phrase later adopted by 20th century Christian theologians like Paul Tillich and John T. Robinson] is called Brahman. Brahman is a force, power, or energy that “sustains the world;”an ultimate reality that causes or grounds existence, an essence which pervades all reality. Ultimately all of reality is one; all is Brahman.

But why then is it (or does it appear) that reality is a plurality composed of many things? A possible answer lies in the Hindu creation myth. All originates in nothingness [as it does in contemporary quantum cosmologies] except for Brahman [this is similar to creation “ex nihilo” in Christianity.] Being lonely Brahman divided into female and male and from this the entire plurality of the elements of the universe came into being. [It is hard to reconcile this story with the non-personal nature of Brahman.] However, “the original unity is never lost; it simply takes on the appearance of multiple forms.” [So multiplicity is ultimately an illusion—there is really only Brahman.]

This also implies that Braham is both immanent and transcendent—it both within and outside all reality. [This view is called panetheism, “… a belief system which posits that the divine (be it a monotheistic God, polytheistic gods, or an eternal cosmic animating force) interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it.”2] These are the two aspects of Brahman. It is both all the changing things of the world and the unchanging ground of all things. This is the one ultimate reality seen from different perspectives. [Think of a gestalt picture like the faces/vases or young woman/old woman. One picture, two perspectives from which to see it.] But in the end there is only Brahman. Finally there is a tension in Hinduism between those who believe Brahman is ineffable and impossible to conceptualize, and those who disagree, identifying Brahman with everything.

Theory of Human Nature – We are all one and thus radically interconnected with all being. The self or soul within all, the Atman, is connected (identical?) with all other selves. We are like spokes all connected to a central hub or, more radically, what we are is identical to all of reality. Thus Hinduism distinguishes the transitory self as ego or I or persona (ahamkara), with the eternal, immortal self, the Atman. This true self is identical with Brahman. [Thus Atman is Brahman or, as it appears in the Vedas Tat Tvam Asi (Sanskrit: तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि), … translated variously as “That art thou,” “That thou art,” “Thou art that,” “You are that,” or “That you are,” or, for western ears, “you are god.”]

Atman is not an object of consciousness but the subject of consciousness—it is consciousness itself and thus cannot be known like other objects. [This distinction is important in contemporary, western philosophy of mind.] Our true selves are identical with the consciousness which animates all consciousness. We are not transient egos inside bodies but identical ultimately with all reality. Again Atman is (ultimately) Brahman. [You are identical with whatever power, force or energy animates all reality; you are (non-personal) god.] Moreover this true self migrates from body to body. [To make reincarnation plausible, consider that people die and other people are born, in other words Atman/Brahman continues. Remember this is a very brief, general description of Hinduism and there is a lot of disagreement in Hinduism like there is in any religion. For example some believe in Saguna Brahman, a personal god with attributes as opposed to Nirguna Brahman, transpersonal without attributes. Some Hindus are completely non-dualistic, there is only one reality; others are dualistic, etc.]

Diagnosis – The main problem of human existence is ignorance regarding the nature of ultimate reality. Most do not recognize the reality of infinite Brahman, and thus identify with the transitory objects of consciousness which all fade away. Since Atman is Brahman this ignorance is also ignorance of our true selves. [As we proceed into metaphysics one wonders how we know if any of this is true. Through experience? Meditation? The power of the arguments? Or could this all be speculation designed to comfort us at the thought of life’s transitory nature? How do we decide?] We identify with the phenomenal world instead of with Brahman. We concern ourselves with our little egos and small threats of offenses to them, rather than recognizing that are egos are essentially illusory, and we are identical to all reality. We are alienated from ourselves, from others, and from all reality. We are isolated and lonely.

This (misguided) individualism is caused by karma. [This is simply a moral law of cause and effect.] This means that our actions are not free but determined by past desires and actions. We are in psychological bondage to previous actions and the desires that caused them. [Consider the binding nature of previous gambling, smoking, eating junk food, aggression, etc.] Hindu meditation in large part is an attempt to get in touch with our true nature and free us from egoistic desires.

Prescription – Hinduism is generally optimistic about attaining freedom from desire and discovery our true nature. This is done by multiple paths. The beginning of freedom though is a special kind of knowledge. [The basic ways (or yogas) are the paths of: 1) knowledge; 2) love; 3) work; and 4) psychological exercises. The way one chooses depends on their personality.]

Upanishadic Hinduism: Quest for Ultimate Knowledge

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes from the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature.)

Divergent Interpretations – Hindus disagree regarding whether ultimate reality is personal or non-personal, (and whether the world is real or not.) Two seminal thinkers who espouse different views are Shankara (sometimes called the” Thomas Aquinas” of Hinduism) and Ramanuja.

Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta – This is a highly philosophical form of Hinduism. (The kind you would probably find in Vedanta centers in the US, especially those run by the Ramakrishna order of monks, a highly intellectual branch of Hinduism somewhat like the Jesuits are to Catholicism.) Shankara was interested in big philosophical questions like: “what is the relationship between Brahman and the world as it appears to our senses?” and “what is the relationship between Brahman and atman?” His is a philosophy of total unity. “For Shankara, Brahman is the only truth, the world is ultimately unreal, and the distinction between God and the individual is only an illusion.” Brahman is the only reality, and it is without attributes [it is not omnipotent, omniscient, personal, fatherly, etc.] To fully realize Brahman all distinctions between subjects and objects fade away [since there is only one reality]. Shankara concludes that the phenomenal world is false—it is maya, it is illusory.

Maya is the process through which we perceive multiplicity, even though reality is one. The world as it appears to our senses is not Brahman, and thus not ultimately real. This does not mean the world is imaginary; it is real; it exists. But it is not ultimate or absolute reality. [It is derivative from Brahman. This parallels Plato’s notion that things in this world are derivative from forms, which are more real.] The world of the senses exists in relation to Brahman the way a dream stands in relation to being awake. We may think that a rope in dim light is a snake, even though in good light we could tell the difference. [The parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in Shankara’s philosophy are striking.] By analogy, the world of multiplicity is superimposed on Brahman in the way the snake might have been superimposed on the rope.  [Modern science has confirmed that humans are pattern-seekers who superimposed order when there is none. They see the face of a man on mars, Jesus in grilled cheese sandwiches, or destiny in sporting events that were really decided randomly by statistical fluctuation.] The experience of the world is finally revealed as false when one comes to the knowledge of Brahman.

The idea of a personal god [Saguna Brahman] with attributes is ultimately an illusion, since Brahman is not limited by attributes. Such a being plays a role for those “still enmeshed in the cosmic illusion of maya.” In other words the notion of a personal god [who you can talk to and listen to] helps most people begin to leave behind the attachments of this world. But ultimately [Nirguna] Brahman is transpersonal, and without attributes. [Some philosopher said he preferred the personal god because the impersonal god seemed like a bowl of tapioca pudding.]

And Shankara also rejects the individual soul. Positing an individual soul is better than being attached to one’s ego and body, but the final realization is that the true self is Atman, or pure consciousness. Thus the world, god, and the individual soul are merely apparent reality—the ultimate and only reality is Brahman. Atman is Brahman. This realization is the ultimate one in Hinduism; it is the goal of spirituality. There is no ultimate distinction between subjects and objects [for there are no multiplicities that can be distinguished.] We are like drops of water trying to understand that we are ultimately united in one big ocean of being. This describes the quest for ultimate knowledge.

A necessary step in this spiritual journey is the realization that desire [especially for the things and activities of this world] must be eradicated. The highest spiritual path consists then of renunciation of the world followed by a lifetime of meditation designed to confirm the insight that “I am Brahman.” [If this sounds strange consider the typical vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” of priests and nuns and monks. All designed to turn one’s back on this world and focus—in different ways—on a more real spiritual world.]

Ramanuja’s Vishishta Adviata Vedanta – For Ramanuja the divine is personal, and different things are real, although they are still attributes of Brahman. Brahman is the sole reality but with different aspects or qualities. Ramanuja thus accepts a personal god—a god with personality and qualities—and rejects Brahman as “undifferentiated consciousness, contending that if this were true, any knowledge of Brahman would be impossible, since all knowledge depends on a differentiated “object.” [He is presupposing that knowledge is subjects knowing objects, and that knowledge of oneself—like being able to see your own eye without a mirror—is impossible.] The love of god entails a subject knowing and loving an object. Ramanuja wants to taste sugar not be sugar. [I suppose the theologians who wrote this centuries ago didn’t realize that sugar is bad for you!]

And the physical world is real for Ramanuja. It was created from divine love, and is the transformation of Brahman, similar to the way that milk transforms into cheese. In this view the world is not something to be overcome but something to be appreciated as the product of Brahman’s creativity. Maya refers not to illusion, but to this creative process. Thus the world is god’s body. [Here we find echoes of pantheists like Spinoza.] The world is an attribute of the eternal god analogously to how the body is an attribute of the soul. The soul is also part of god; it is both different and not different from god. [This “paradoxical logic” can be hard for Westerners. But the idea is that truth is often found in paradox.] The soul separates from Brahman at creation and returns to Brahman at dissolution. Yet the soul is still somehow both separate and eternal. [This probably sounds more familiar to those raised in Western monotheistic religions.]

The path to freedom for Ramanuja consists of action “that avoids both the attachment to the results of action and the abandonment of action.” [Do your homework and the results will take care of themselves.] We will be more effective if we are not overly concerned with the results of our actions. After all the world is lila, or god’s play, and we are actors not the playwright. There is so much beauty in the world that if we do our duty we will be fulfilled. We need not renounce the world, but revel in it. As for worshipping various manifestations of the gods, Ramanuja believes this helps most people as it appeals to their emotions. [Think of veneration of saints in Roman Catholicism.] The goal of these devotional acts is a feeling of the presence of gods, not oneness with a god. Finally the book notes that for the majority of Hindus “devotional practices in temples and home shrines dominate the Hindu tradition. [Something similar could be said about almost all religious traditions, they emphasize the emotional and devotional rather than the abstract and intellectual.]

Critical Discussion – Vedanta philosophy is highly textual—reliant on ancient scriptures—which most contemporary philosophers reject as a source of truth. It also makes transcendental claims, which is also problematic in modern western philosophy. Vedanta philosophy also has little to say about social and political philosophy or practical morality, concerned as it is with esoteric metaphysical concerns. Vedanta is also an elitist philosophy, generally excluding the uneducated.


Confucianism: The Basic Ideas

Confucianism: The Way of the Sages

 (This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Theory of the Universe – (Humanism or secularism as opposed to the supernatural.) Confucius cared about human beings, the human condition—not metaphysics (grand theories of the universe.) Worry about humans, not gods; worry about life, not death, he said. He emphasized that good government would promote social harmony and the general well-being. [Confucius is primarily a political thinker.]

Still Confucius is somewhat metaphysical when he says that morality is embedded in the universe, and that it is within human beings. Its essence is a concern with the general welfare. [Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, and the American Presidents Jefferson, FDR, LBJ, Jimmy Carter and others shared this view. Such concern is obviously out of fashion with large parts of American politics today.] Rulers who rule for their own benefit rather than the general welfare, Confucius claimed, will not be supported by the decree of heaven. [While it is nice to think that the heavens favor the just, it is true hard to believe this is true looking around the world. Perhaps the heavens support selfish leaders? Perhaps nice guys finish last?]

Another metaphysical concept in Confucian thinking is the idea that some things are beyond our control—they are the result of destiny. Confucius talked as if destiny was a design of the heaven’s that was beyond human understanding. [It seems that the “decree of Heaven” refers to the natural order of things, but I’m not totally clear what he means by the heavens except to say that it is not a supernatural concept.] Humans can conform to the decree of heaven if they choose—by promoting the general welfare—but our destiny is beyond our understanding and control. [This is reminiscent of the Stoics.] Humans should follow the decree of heaven by being unconcerned with wealth, status, longevity, etc. [Reminiscent perhaps of the “sermon on the mount.”]

The tao is the way of the sages, essentially the way that previous good rulers followed the decree of heaven and promoted the common good, promoted social cohesion. [This concept is transformed by the Taoists and is the most important concept of Taoism. It famously has multiple meanings. Here are more than 175 translations of the first few lines of Tao Te Ching. This should give one pause when they talk of literal translations.]

Theory of Human Nature – Confucius was optimistic about human potential; he wanted people to be sages or wise persons who instantiate the goodness of the heavens within them. This is accomplished by being benevolent. [When you read this beautiful idea it is hard not to contrast it with all the ugliness that surrounds us.] The result of being moral, essentially benevolent, is joy. [Here he echoes Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who all thought the moral life was the good life, that the just person was the happy person. I don’t know if they are right about this or not, but I hope they are.] Confucius recognized however that most people are not sages, they are miserable. But why?

Confucius was not clear on why so few people become wise, benevolent sages, but he suggested that it might be that we freely choose not to be good. He also thought that our environment plays a large role in shaping us. [Here we see the tension between freedom and determinism, one of the classic philosophical problems.] Thus we need to be molded so as to achieve moral perfection, molded especially by a culture and a social system conducive to our moral development. [Would Confucius think the US is generally conducive to moral development? China? Russia? Pakistan? What societies best encourage their citizens to being benevolent toward their fellows? What societies best provide for the common good, social harmony, and human flourishing?]

Diagnosis – Social discord is “caused by selfishness and ignorance of the past … Consequently human interaction is marred by strife, rulers govern with attention only to personal gain, common people suffer under unjust burdens, and social behavior in general is determined by egoism and greed.” [Sound familiar?] Why is life so bad? Confucius answers it is bad because of: 1) Profit motive; 2) lack of respect for parents; 3) lying; 4) ignorance of the past; 5) little benevolence.

  • The moral or right thing and profit are opposed; the wise understand justice, the small person understands profit. Most are guided by self-interest, especially in wealth or profit. This leads to immoral results and social disharmony. [Income inequality? Unjust incarceration? Class struggle?]
  • Selfishness motivated by profit also “implies a lack of self-respect for others in society,” including other family members. If one doesn’t act ethically within the family they will spread their discord throughout society. [Essentially they will flush their psychic waste throughout. Think of certain television political pundits, politicians, etc.]
  • So it is better to recognize that actions speak louder than words. If there is no connection between actions and words there is no basis for societal trust. [Truth telling has been found to be a universal moral imperative. Society cannot function without the presumption of truth-telling.]
  • Without knowledge of past sages, people have no moral insight. [Moral education is important.]
  • The most important virtue is benevolence (kindness, charity]. Benevolence is moral perfection. [Christianity, Buddhism, utilitarianism, and other religions and philosophies say the same thing.] Yet Confucius realized this virtue was rare, hence life is filled with strife. [Read the news.]

Students Taking Imperial Exams

Prescription – Confucius prescribes self-discipline for individuals and rulers in order to cure the ills of society. [I wrote about this briefly in a recent blog entry “The World Desperately Needs Better People”: ] In other words society will be better when the people who make it up are better. This approach provides answers to the 5 problems listed above.

    • Do what is right because it is right, not for profit. [Can one do this in our current economic system? And if not, do we live in an economic system that prevents us from being moral? And if this is true, what an indictment of the system this would be.] By struggling to be moral we align ourselves with the decree of heaven, with something like the natural order. We also shield ourselves against disappointment because we care about moral virtue rather than those things we cannot be assured of getting—like fame and fortune. Moral excellence is its own reward, whether we are recognized for it or not. This encourages us to keep working for righteousness in the world even if no one else appreciates it. If we are motivated by what is right, we will find joy in our efforts even if we do not fully succeed. Thus we also accept that destiny plays a role in human life. But moral excellence is within our control and we should struggle to attain it through self-discipline. We should cultivate self, not social recognition, fame or fortune.
    • Cultivating self [being the change you want to see in the world as Gandhi put it] implies you will be a better family member. [Are you struck by the emphasis on the community rather than the individual as is the case in much of Western culture?] Being a good family member reverberates through society. A person who is good to their parents and siblings and children will be good to others as well. Transformation of the self and benevolence begin in the family and spread outward. [Confucius suggests that we should follow the ways of our parents, if they were virtuous. This may sound strange to our individualistic ears, but the idea is that we learn from the experience and virtue of those who have gone before us. To better understand this think of something like Dan Fogelberg’s: “The Leader of the Band.”]

  • Regarding lying, Confucius says we need word and deed to conform, in other words, actions should reflect words. [So don’t say, “I care about you and I will be a good public servant if you really just want money and power.] If we all lie, trust will evaporate. [Think how communication would fall apart if you couldn’t ordinarily assume people were telling the truth. Why ask for the time or directions if people usually lie?] “Words are easy to produce; if a person or government uses them to conceal the truth, then social chaos ensues. Trust is a critical ingredient of all dependable social interaction.”
  • The answer to ignorance of the past is education, study and scholarship. Most important for Confucius is the study of the cultural legacy of our past, for the purpose of revealing how moral perfection might be achieved. [Today, for us in the West, this would mean something like the “Great Books” curriculum. ] Such education is also crucial for good government. Only after a good education should one be allowed to be a leader. [Confucius and China took this very seriously and the result was the Imperial exams as a prerequisite to hold political office. How our own society would benefit if its leaders had to pass some kind of examinations!]
  • Benevolence (kindness, goodwill, charity, compassion, generosity, munificence) is the primary means of moral perfection. For Confucius, the process of becoming benevolent involves 3 elements: a) clinging to benevolence at all times; b) treating others as you would like to be treated and not doing to others what you don’t want done to you; and c) habituating actionaccording to moral rules, which we learn from studying the classics. Benevolence is achieved by acting in accord with the moral rules we learn by studying which is to live according to the way of the heavens.

This goal of attaining self-discipline, self-mastery, or self-perfection takes a lifetime. Benevolence is the outward expression of this internal state, and serves as a model to others who want to be sages. For the sages benevolent action naturally flows from them; it is the expression of an internal perfected state. For the self-disciplined person, their behavior is modeled on the sages, with the goal of becoming sages. [Hence the idea that moral perfection is a process of development.] As Confucius says the master and student may appear similar from the outside, but the master does things naturally and spontaneously in a way that the student does not. In the end moral perfection may be achieved by studying the classics and becoming a sage. If people bettered themselves, society would improve. [However I think Confucius would agree with Spinoza]:

“If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Later Developments – But is human nature originally good or evil? Mencius subscribed to the former, while Hsun-tzu to the latter. Mencius tries to refute the view that human nature is neither good nor bad, arguing that humans are inherently good. For Mencius the heart is a gift from the heavens which inherently contains compassion, shame, courtesy, and a sense of morality which will sprout into benevolence, dutifulness, observation of rites, and wisdom. Nonetheless Mencius grants that people are also selfish and the good qualities of the human heart must be cultivated. Thus the right conditions must apply. [[I assume this process of development will come to fruition under conditions like parental love, good education, good society, physical safety, health care, food, clothing, shelter, etc.] Mencius even offers an argument that humans are inherently good: if they saw a child in danger they would instinctively try to help the child. [Of course this argument only works if what Mencius is saying is true.]

Hsun-tzu argued that our interior life is dominated by desires. As these desires are unlimited and resources limited, a natural conflict between people will result. [Eerily reminiscent of Hobbes’ argument that the state of nature is a state of war precisely because the things we want—fame, fortune, etc.—are in short supply.] Our nature thus is generally bad and we must work consciously to be good. [Reminds one of Hepburn’s remark to Bogart in the movie, “The African Queen.” She tells him that our nature is something we should overcome.] Hsun-tzu says that the desire for profit, as well as envy, hatred, and desire are our natural tendencies which lead to strife, violence, crime, and wantonness. Still Hsu-tzu believed that with proper education, training and ritual everyone could become morally excellent. This takes effort and is aided by a good culture.

Despite their disagreements both Mencius and Hsun-tzu agree that the path of sagehood consists of action based on the examples of previous sages. For Hsun-tzu we are naturally warped boards that need to be straightened; for Mencius we are relatively straight boards that can be warped.

Critical discussion

  • Confucianism teaches obedience to superiors, which is good if the heads of family or state are good. If they are not the whole system is undermined. Confucius thus emphasized the moral character of leaders. [As did Plato.]
  • Looking to the past may restrict creativity and originality in the present. Should we be so enamored with past wisdom and the scholars that interpret it? Is morality objective and are those who interpret it impartial?
  • The common people and wisdom seem to be excluded from the Confucian system.
  • The pragmatic, utilitarian, anti-metaphysical nature of Confucianism, which emphasizes social affairs, can be a small, limited world for those who have metaphysical concerns.

Despite these criticisms, neo-Confucianism may be able to be modified “as a positive resource for thinking about ways to overcome the destructive side of modernization that threatens both human communities and the natural world.”