More than 90 per cent of Americans, Owen Flanagan observes, still believe in God and immortal souls. From his perspective as a neurophilosopher, they are mistaken. These beliefs simply do not square with what we know of the world from scientific research and philosophical reflection. Such beliefs may have value in giving life meaning and in encouraging humans to act ethically and for the greater good, but when the foundations of morality rest on delusions, the whole edifice may come tumbling down.
Buddhists believe neither in God nor in immortal souls (at least not unchanging ones that define what it is to be a "person"), yet they see no contradiction in advocating a moral life aimed at alleviating suffering and achieving a certain kind of happiness. Of course, Buddhists also believe in other things that are (again from Flanagan's perspective) foolish, principally rebirth and the view that consciousness is something other than the brain. They also believe in karma, which although an impersonal law is regarded as punishing the wicked and rewarding the good much as God is supposed to.
Nevertheless, compared with the followers of Abrahamic religions, Buddhists would seem to have a head start when it comes to finding meaning in a material world as revealed to us by science and philosophy. So can we make sense of a Buddhism from which karma, rebirth and disembodied consciousness have been abstracted - of Buddhism naturalised? Flanagan's answer is, with some qualifications, yes. Buddhism can be represented as setting out a largely coherent theory of the good life much in the manner of Aristotelian eudaemonics or virtue ethics - a life oriented to human flourishing, the cultivation of virtues (especially compassion) and the attainment of individual happiness conceived as a kind of serenity.
Flanagan's book is also concerned with the interpretation of recent research on Buddhist meditators, often enthusiastically reported with such headlines as "Buddhists lead scientists to the 'seat of happiness'". Apart from the question of what we might mean by "happiness", there are all sorts of difficulties in correlating what shows up in brain imaging with specific mental states and specific causes (meditation, or a walk by the sea?). Nevertheless, Flanagan is generally positive about research in cognitive and affective neuroscience progressing by correlating "first-person" phenomenological accounts with "third-person" results from brain imaging - not as a way of proving that Buddhism will make you happy, but of better understanding the nature of consciousness. In this connection, as Flanagan observes, Buddhist systematic thought has unparalleled resources to offer in the form of "the best taxonomy of conscious-mental-state types ever produced".
While one can quibble with his representation of Buddhism, Flanagan is one of very few Western philosophers to take Buddhist thought seriously and to acknowledge its achievements. Yet his project remains one of assimilating a Buddhist understanding of the world to that of the Western tradition of philosophy and science - because for Flanagan, this is where truth lies. But as he himself hints, for most of us, the status of scientific and philosophical truths is hardly different from the status of religious truths. While science and philosophy can in principle be tested by experiment and reason, few people have the time, means or intellectual capacity to do so -especially when it comes to the intricacies of quantum mechanics or the nature of consciousness. We thus believe what we believe about consciousness or God or the meaning of life on trust - in some authority or our gut instinct.
But never mind where you tend to place your trust: if you are interested in current debates at the interface between religion, science and moral philosophy, there is much in this book that will engage you.
The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized
By Owen Flanagan
MIT Press, 2pp, £19.95
Published 28 October 2011