the skeptic & the buddhist

Alison Gopnik, a professor of philosophy and psychology at UC Berkeley, was deep into a midlife crisis when she encountered Buddhism through meditation:

I had always been curious about Buddhism, although, as a committed atheist, I was suspicious of anything religious. And turning 50 and becoming bisexual and Buddhist did seem far too predictable—a sort of Berkeley bat mitzvah, a standard rite of passage for aging Jewish academic women in Northern California. But still, I began to read Buddhist philosophy.

And then she began seeing unexpected connections between Hume and Buddhism:

Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people. 

In  "How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis", she tracks down the possible connection. She is a persistent researcher, a fine connector-of-dots, and an interesting writer.

What had I learned?

I’d learned that Hume could indeed have known about Buddhist philosophy. In fact, he had written the Treatise in one of the few places in Europe where that knowledge was available. Dolu himself had had firsthand experience of Siamese Buddhism, and had talked at some length with Desideri, who knew about Tibetan Buddhism. It’s even possible that the Jesuits at the Royal College had a copy of Desideri’s manuscript.

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what Hume learned at the Royal College, or whether any of it influenced the Treatise. Philosophers like Descartes, Malebranche, and Bayle had already put Hume on the skeptical path. But simply hearing about the Buddhist argument against the self could have nudged him further in that direction. Buddhist ideas might have percolated in his mind and influenced his thoughts, even if he didn’t track their source.

These sorts of possible connections are endlessly fascinating. Was Hume indeed influenced by Buddhism? It's possible, as Alison Gopnik explains. Regardless, the dissolution of the self is a common theme between the two.

So often with Buddhism I find a great idea - do not look out only for your own interests; put others above yourself - taken so far that it loses coherency. It retains a transformative force, but at the cost of something even more crucial: the imago dei.

And so often with the critique of faith I find the commitment to the absence of God so dominant that it takes genuine insight - I never can catch myself at any time without a perception - and turns it into an awkwardly (ironically?) dogmatic conclusion: there is no I; all that is is experience.