Against Nirvana

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Religions considered to be “Eastern” often get treated as being more profound or deeper than religions considered to be “Western”. (Or at least they do in many countries considered to be Western.) As I’ve discussed, I don’t think this has much merit. The Buddhist concept of enlightenment or Nirvana provides what I believe is a case in point in terms of relying on some of the same fallacies that religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and so on rely on.

Let’s consider the alleged enlightenment of the historical Buddha (ie. Siddhartha Gautama who lived around 400-500BCE and was the founder of Buddhism, at least according to what I believe to be the mainstream view). Gautama became the Buddha achieving enlightenment/Nirvana. Stripping this down to the bare basics, this would generally mean* that he achieved something like an unparalleled view of the ultimate nature of reality and/or saw things as they are and/or achieved a level of consciousness beyond anything imaginable and/or extinguishing the control over his earthly cravings (see the 4 Noble Truths) and/or something even more supernatural.

There are at least two big problems with this:

1. Gautama was profoundly ignorant about how the world works

This is not an insult but a fact. Everyone at the time knew next to nothing about (say) physics, cosmology, biology. Nobody knew about evolution, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, game theory, computing and AI and so on. Now, this is not to say that the Buddha’s teachings are of no value, or even that they’re not profound — that’s a separate question. But the idea that you can achieve some view of the human condition (or anything similar to the Buddha’s achievements listed) without science is ludicrous.

Let’s consider a few possible responses:

  • “Of course the Buddha knew about these! The Buddhist texts are full of the most profound observations on both the world at large and the human mind. From quantum physicists to psychologists, scholars everywhere are finding out that the Buddhist texts knew it all along.” When I see claims like these my eyes glaze over about as much as for claims that the Quran tells us about modern genetics or that the Torah mentions the Big Bang. These associations with science are always done in retrospect, relying a lot on vague language and metaphor. I don’t see why the Buddhism isn’t held to the same standards. I guess its texts have more metaphor which makes such nonsense easier. And again, if you think the texts at least reveal some profound insight on human nature, even if that’s true there’s a lot about human nature that they’re missing: namely the important things that have been discovered during, I dunno, the last 500 years?
  • “Your arrogant claim to know how the world works reeks of typical Western imperialist scientism. Have you ever considered that sciense hasn’t figured out all that transpired? You might be wrooooong. There’s more things in heaven and earth etc etc.” Actually, being pessimistic about how successful science is today would make the case stronger. If our current physics is spectacularly false, that would make the implied physics behind Buddhist texts even more out of step with reality. The only way around this is if current science gets overturned in favour of older theories (eg. if Aristotelian mechanics makes a comeback). Ain’t gonna happen!
  • “Your autistic missing of the point is typical of materialist reductionists. Nirvana is not a set of propositions one intellectualises, it’s a state of being you nincompoop!” As soon as the Buddha began to teach, out came some propositions. These propositions are the only evidence we have to distinguish Buddhism from nonsense so I wouldn’t dismiss them so readily. If on the other hand this was only a self-reported state of being, this would also be a problem since there is plenty in science to cast doubt on the transcendent origin of such states.
  • “Nirvana can’t be defined in words, you arrogant fundamentalist!” In that case the argument ends. Nirvana then becomes indistinguishable from my made-up state of garachilevsky which I obtained on January 1st 2011.

2. People since Gautama have [generally] not achieved this state

This is the other major problem. According to many** sects of Buddhism, no person has reached Nirvana since the historical Buddha. This is despite several hundred million practitioners over the years. Certainly the monks who have dedicated most of their time to following the Buddha’s methods number in the millions. If enlightenment is as is generally portrayed, why according to those sects has nobody been able to replicate the Buddha’s alleged achievement?

There are of course some obvious objections but I don’t see that any would be reasonable without referring to some kind of decline in spirituality in the world. This is a trope common to other religions (see for instance, yeridat hadorot). This attitude of kids-these-days-ism is entirely a fallacy, based on a mixture of conjecture, nostalgia and yearning for a non-existent golden age.

Either way, it looks pretty impossible to defend something like the Buddhist notion of enlightenment without resorting to the same kinds of problems that other believers have. Different religion, same fallacies. In the end, from what I’ve seen Buddhism might have a few more profound things in its teachings compared to most religions. I wouldn’t oversell it but maybe it’s above average. But there’s no reason to see nirvana as anything but a myth of the resurrection variety or a slippery concept that means whatever people want it to mean like garachilevsky.

*I realise that none of these phrasing are likely to capture what Nirvana means to a Buddhist. This is why I listed a few different phrasings separated by “and/or”. I do welcome any corrections so if you have a better wording let me know in the comments. However, I don’t think the specific wording is relevant to the points that follow and I doubt that there’s a widely-accepted definition of enlightenment that’s different enough to make a difference.

**Not all.