Bertrand Russell and rebirth

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Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 5:57 pm

Of the Buddhist I know who believe in rebirth, many justify it saying something like: although I have not personally recalled my past lives, I know much of the Dhamma to be true from my experience, so I trust the Buddha when he says he recalled his past lives. Or I trust someone else I know who has recalled his or hers.

I have been thinking about that justification, and came across this quote by Betrand Russell:

"From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and there­fore has abnormal perceptions. Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception."

I have two questions:

1. What do you think of Russell's quote?

2. If you believe in rebirth for a reason not listed above, what is the reason?

Thanks,

kmath
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Sam Vara » Sun May 19, 2013 6:42 pm

Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.


Two points here. Alvin Plantinga points out that perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true. The deluded person might have greater success in passing on genes than the one who is honest with himself. A quick reflection on sexual desire shows that there is some truth in this. Is that other person really so enchanting that I must join my body to theirs? The same applies to violence. Was Genghis Khan seeing things as they really were when he conquered swathes of land and fathered so many children?

The second point is that Russel's "normal perceptions" might indeed be useful in the struggle for life, but the Buddha's insight transcends this utilitarian concern. Practicing what the Buddha recommended will probably help you to live well, but many would consider it to be of deeper importance than this. Kamma, evolution, God or luck gives us our faculties suited for this life, but the Dhamma asks us whether we are satisfied with what this life affords.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 6:54 pm

Sam Vara wrote:
Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.


Two points here. Alvin Plantinga points out that perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true. The deluded person might have greater success in passing on genes than the one who is honest with himself. A quick reflection on sexual desire shows that there is some truth in this. Is that other person really so enchanting that I must join my body to theirs? The same applies to violence. Was Genghis Khan seeing things as they really were when he conquered swathes of land and fathered so many children?

The second point is that Russel's "normal perceptions" might indeed be useful in the struggle for life, but the Buddha's insight transcends this utilitarian concern. Practicing what the Buddha recommended will probably help you to live well, but many would consider it to be of deeper importance than this. Kamma, evolution, God or luck gives us our faculties suited for this life, but the Dhamma asks us whether we are satisfied with what this life affords.


Thanks a lot for your answer. One follow-up question:

You said that " perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true." But I wonder about perceptions that are not useful in the struggle for life, ie, recollection of past lives. Can they be trusted?
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby binocular » Sun May 19, 2013 6:55 pm

kmath wrote:I have been thinking about that justification, and came across this quote by Betrand Russell:

"From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and there­fore has abnormal perceptions. Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception."

I have two questions:

1. What do you think of Russell's quote?

He is unduly limiting the scope of "useful in the struggle for life," and thus the scope of "normal" and "correspondence with fact."
For example, heroin or killing a hundred people are sometimes useful in the struggle for life; the perception that one is worth more than other living beings is useful in the struggle for life.
Apparently then, by Russell's standards, the perception that one is worth more than other living beings, corresponds to fact, and is a normal perception. It's not clear though how he hopes to establish that this is a fact.

More fundamentally, since it is impossible to define what a "normal" physical condition is, his whole point is moot.


Here's a similarly intuned credo from another skeptic, William Kingdon Clifford:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.



EDIT: I see another poster has posted a similar argument while I was typing my post.
Last edited by binocular on Sun May 19, 2013 7:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby binocular » Sun May 19, 2013 7:01 pm

kmath wrote:But I wonder about perceptions that are not useful in the struggle for life, ie, recollection of past lives. Can they be trusted?

Whether a recollection of past lives is useful in the struggle for life or not would depend on what those past lives have been.
If one has had a long series of lives as a very successful business person, recollecting that could serve as inspiration in this life.
If one's past lives haven't been plain sailing, then recollecting them could be depressing.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Sam Vara » Sun May 19, 2013 7:04 pm

kmath wrote:
You said that " perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true." But I wonder about perceptions that are not useful in the struggle for life, ie, recollection of past lives. Can they be trusted?


Well, if they are true, then they are useful. But as to whether any or all such recollections can be trusted, I'm afraid answering that is above my pay grade.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 7:16 pm

Sam Vara wrote:
kmath wrote:
You said that " perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true." But I wonder about perceptions that are not useful in the struggle for life, ie, recollection of past lives. Can they be trusted?


Well, if they are true, then they are useful. But as to whether any or all such recollections can be trusted, I'm afraid answering that is above my pay grade.


You're right. It seems like if these perceptions are true, then of course they would be useful, in the same way that ones' memories are useful in this life.

Anyway I wonder if you could point me in the direction of that argument by Plantinga. Thanks,

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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby binocular » Sun May 19, 2013 7:21 pm

kmath wrote:You're right. It seems like if these perceptions are true, then of course they would be useful, in the same way that ones' memories are useful in this life.

Suppose a person recollects that in their past lives, they have lived a miserable life, often abused, in poverty, plagued by disease.
That may be true, but how is it useful?
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Sam Vara » Sun May 19, 2013 7:23 pm

kmath wrote:
Sam Vara wrote:
kmath wrote:
You said that " perceptions which are useful in the struggle for life are not necessarily true." But I wonder about perceptions that are not useful in the struggle for life, ie, recollection of past lives. Can they be trusted?


Well, if they are true, then they are useful. But as to whether any or all such recollections can be trusted, I'm afraid answering that is above my pay grade.


You're right. It seems like if these perceptions are true, then of course they would be useful, in the same way that ones' memories are useful in this life.

Anyway I wonder if you could point me in the direction of that argument by Plantinga. Thanks,

kmath


Hi kmath,

You could try
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism
or just Googling Alvin Plantinga. Beware, though: Plantinga is a Christian philosopher, and uses it in a "Christian" way, to prove the existence of God. This bit is, of course, optional!
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Sam Vara » Sun May 19, 2013 7:24 pm

binocular wrote:Suppose a person recollects that in their past lives, they have lived a miserable life, often abused, in poverty, plagued by disease.
That may be true, but how is it useful?

Samvega.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 7:27 pm

binocular wrote:
kmath wrote:You're right. It seems like if these perceptions are true, then of course they would be useful, in the same way that ones' memories are useful in this life.

Suppose a person recollects that in their past lives, they have lived a miserable life, often abused, in poverty, plagued by disease.
That may be true, but how is it useful?


Sure I suppose there are cases in which recollection of past lives is not useful. But that's not really the point. The point is whether or not those recollections are trustworthy.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 7:37 pm

Sam Vara wrote:
You could try
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism
or just Googling Alvin Plantinga. Beware, though: Plantinga is a Christian philosopher, and uses it in a "Christian" way, to prove the existence of God. This bit is, of course, optional!


Ok right I've actually seen this argument. I didn't realize it was such a hot topic though. I'll have to read up more. Thanks a lot!
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby reflection » Sun May 19, 2013 7:40 pm

As said, "normal" perceptions aren't necessarily the truth. In meditation many of our perceptions change. Things we once thought were like this, turn out to be like that. Mostly, the sense of identity. Things we thought were "us" turn out to be not so, not self. And with a still and sharpened mind we can see these things we normally don't see. Of course, it can also happen people think they see something in meditation that actually was not that.

Seems to me the same with recollection of previous lives. It can happen as a clear understanding, as a delusion or somewhere in between. It's impossible to say they can all be trusted, or they can all not be trusted. That's treating it too general. But there is no need to bother too much as long as you haven't had such memories yourself anyway, because other's are probably not going to convince you either way. When you do really recollect past lives yourself, it will be one of -if not the- most clearest memory of your life and there won't be much reason to doubt it.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Sun May 19, 2013 7:55 pm

reflection wrote: But there is no need to bother too much as long as you haven't had such memories yourself anyway, because other's are probably not going to convince you either way. When you do really recollect past lives yourself, it will be one of -if not the- most clearest memory of your life and there won't be much reason to doubt it.


Ya that's fair enough I suppose. Good answer :thumbsup:
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby binocular » Mon May 20, 2013 11:21 am

Sam Vara wrote:
binocular wrote:Suppose a person recollects that in their past lives, they have lived a miserable life, often abused, in poverty, plagued by disease.
That may be true, but how is it useful?

Samvega.

Samvega all on its own is not useful. There needs to be pasada in order for samvega to be useful. Plenty of people have some measure of samvega; pasada does not appear to be so common.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby binocular » Mon May 20, 2013 11:32 am

kmath wrote:2. If you believe in rebirth for a reason not listed above, what is the reason?

I'll offer another reason. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a suitable online resource, so I'll refer to a similar reasoning proposed for the existence of God. So, to rephrase an argument provided at SEP (see Arguments IX and X for the original form):

It would be demoralizing not to believe there is a moral order to the universe.
Demoralization is morally undesirable.
There is a moral advantage in believing that there is a moral order in the universe.
The doctrine of karma and rebirth provides the best theory of the workings of moral order.
Therefore there is a moral advantage in accepting the doctrine of karma and rebirth.


and

Morality demands that we ought to aspire to become as good as we can be.
If there is no source of moral order in the world, then the project of becoming as good as we can be is fraught with difficulties.
These difficulties would be taken away if we were assured of the truth of the doctrine of karma and rebirth.
Therefore we have a moral reason for getting ourselves in a state whereby we can come to believe in the truth of the doctrine of karma and rebirth.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Sam Vara » Mon May 20, 2013 11:43 am

binocular wrote:Samvega all on its own is not useful. There needs to be pasada in order for samvega to be useful. Plenty of people have some measure of samvega; pasada does not appear to be so common.


Indeed, but pasada is less likely to be generated by the experience you describe, so I didn't specify it.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby Alex123 » Mon May 20, 2013 11:51 am

binocular wrote:It would be demoralizing not to believe there is a moral order to the universe.
Demoralization is morally undesirable.
There is a moral advantage in believing that there is a moral order in the universe.
The doctrine of karma and rebirth provides the best theory of the workings of moral order.
Therefore there is a moral advantage in accepting the doctrine of karma and rebirth.



Just because something makes one feel better, that by itself doesn't make it right.

It seems to me that concepts of God, soul, eternal life, kamma, etc was thought up to deal with difficulties and mortality of oneself and loved ones.

World doesn't have to follow our wishes. World is what it is.
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby daverupa » Mon May 20, 2013 11:51 am

binocular wrote:It would be demoralizing not to believe there is a moral order to the universe.


This claim is unsupported.

Morality demands that we ought to aspire to become as good as we can be.


This phrasing obscures the various moralities which are on offer in the world, and then takes a preferred result as the only possible result, which is disingenuous.

:zzz:
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Bertrand Russell and rebirth

Postby kmath » Mon May 20, 2013 3:45 pm

reflection wrote:As said, "normal" perceptions aren't necessarily the truth. In meditation many of our perceptions change. Things we once thought were like this, turn out to be like that. Mostly, the sense of identity. Things we thought were "us" turn out to be not so, not self. And with a still and sharpened mind we can see these things we normally don't see. Of course, it can also happen people think they see something in meditation that actually was not that.



Then again, Russell didn't actually say that normal perceptions are true ones, only that they are more trustworthy than "abnormal" perceptions.

The point is that testimony of others is unreliable when it comes to mystical experience. Sure, if you recall your own past lives, then of course you'd believe in rebirth. But when it comes to the recollections of others, we must suspend judgement. That's his point.
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