I was watching a video of a talk by the British Humanist philosopher AC Grayling recently. He spoke of Humanism as encouraging you to live for yourself. This did chime with my own Taoist / Buddhist views as the message I get from them is to attempt to be fully present in the moment and live according to your own reason. The Kalama Sutra makes this clear and any attempts to avoid this that I’ve seen boil down to a Theistic attempt to frighten people into agreeing with the speakers views, or those of their sect.
This got me thinking about Pascal’s Wager. This is a famous bit of thinking that attempts to make the case for believing in God. The idea is that God either exists, or does not; You can either believe or not. If you believe and God exists, then you’re saved; If not, then you’re no worse off than an Atheist. If you don’t believe and God exists, then you’re in some trouble; if not then you’re no better off than the Theist anyway.
There are a few problems with this. The whole question assumes that you have the right God, but how do Zeus or Odin feel about all this? It assumes you understand the nature of God properly, but surely an all loving God makes the wager irrelevant? It assumes the nature of an afterlife, but what about reincarnation? But, I think that there’s another story here; one of the poverty of the supposed victor.
The theist “wins” by worship and submission to the will of a God, and in loss is supposed to be no worse off than an Atheist. However, has the Theist ever really lived for their own reasons? They’ve lived for their God, for their faith; but never for themselves. So, if the Theist does win the wager, it’s a hollow victory. They won, not on their own choices or merits, but by blindly towing the line; who they were never really mattered. And in loss? The only life they had was thrown away living for someone else’s agenda. Not a wager I think I care for.
Last week, I mentioned the idea of the world as we see it being an illusion. I think that there’s a bit more to be said on this. It’s very easy to interpret this as a thing that happens purely in the individuals head, but I think it’s important to realise the outside factors that weigh in on this.
In my eyes, the world of illusion that the Buddha warns us about (or “Maya”) is more like a shared illusion, a dream we all agreed to have. The illusion is reinforced by others, no matter how well meaning. We’re educated and raised into it from the cradle, our very language a construct. Weights, measures and moral values are all imparted, though all of this is a construct of the Human mind. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself if a remote people might measure with pounds and ounces? Even in the west we have both Imperial and Metric systems.
The illusions that surround us are reinforced by society and by our fellows, try to hold values that differ from the crowd and see how far you get against peer pressure. The state and the media reinforce things too, it’s worth looking at the language used in news articles; the tone of words and phrasing used to push the message. It’s subtle at times, but still there.
We have 24 hour news, RSS feeds, social media; the pulse and the reinforcement is constant and insistent. The Buddha awakened in the 6th century BCE, I can’t help but wonder if he’d manage it today?
I recently found myself reflecting on the idea that the world is an illusion. In Buddhism, the world is said to be “Maya”, though I prefer English terms for plainness. It can seem pretty strange to insist that the world around us is some sort of illusion; I mean, try to walk through the nearest wall and see how far you get!
What’s more accurate is to say that our view of the world is an illusion. This also sounds a bit odd, but let’s give it a minute. Our view of the world enters via our senses and is then subjected to all kinds of preconceptions. These can be cultural, racial or simply learned from experience. Everything we see or hear get interpreted by our beliefs, tastes and values. I should also point out genetic preconceptions, an anecdote from an ex-army chap I met a couple of years ago serves quite well. During his service, his regiment had several black soldiers. These guys were quite happy operating in heat that the white soldiers found oppressive, however when they were sent up to very cold northerly regions, the reverse was true.
There’s more to it than all of this. To see this, just look around you, just see. Everything in your vicinity was designed. All the buildings, vehicles, technologies, streets and city layouts. Every standard, every language, every concept and belief. Every way we choose to divide and categorise the world. It’s out of someone’s head, all of it.
The world is a huge, communal fantasy. This is an important realisation, especially in these times of resource constraint and peak energy. Our illusions are comforting, but they don’t serve us well.