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A personal God

3 December 2011

One of the major differences between Christianity and Buddhism, as I understand it, is that Christians believe in a personal God, whereas Buddhists don’t even believe in personal human beings.

One of the most mysterious things about life is consciousness and recently some neuroscientists have come close to the Buddhist view that though we think we are conscious beings, there’s actually nobody home. This is Your Brain on Buddha, by Erik Davis:

Ultimately, the kind of mindfulness practice that Nisker teaches can lead folks to personally realize one of the core insights of Buddhism: that the self we think we are, the self we coddle and trumpet and worry about, doesn’t essentially exist. On this point, the vast majority of neuroscientists would agree, arguing that the solitary “I” is really a society of mind, or an emergent property, or an illusion fostered by some narrator module lodged in the left hemisphere. Nisker even jokingly suggests that neuroscientists set up little brain-imaging booths that would allow people to personally see the pictures of their own noodles at work. “Then we could believe it. There’s nobody home.”

If it is true that there’s nobody home, then perhaps this photo “says it all” about the human condition.

What is it about this photograph that makes you feel uncomfortable?

In his principal philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre identified the power of the human gaze as one of existential affirmation; to stare into the face of another and not only recognize them as a person, but see them recognize you in return, was to Sartre a necessary interchange in the development of one’s sense of individuality and self.

Perhaps this is why so many of us find the blank gaze in this photograph so psychologically unsettling. To find no recognition of separateness or personhood in the eyes of another is to have one’s identity shaken and sense of control stripped away. It’s part of what makes some of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who monsters so terrifying, and why the image up top might make you feel a little uneasy.

I don’t have any problem with the notion that the consciousness arises from the multiplication of many simple neural circuits in the brain. That idea was suggested to me (in an unscientific way) by a book called A Subway Named Möbius which I read as a teenager more than fifty years ago.  The story is about an underground railway system in which, as it expands, the topology of the network becomes so complex that trains start disappearing into another dimension. The human brain is far more complex than any railway network, and so it is easy to see that as a kind analogy of consciousness, even though it is totally unscientific. Other science fiction stories have speculated about computers becoming conscious, and there is talk of artificial intelligence. Human technological developments suggest interpretations of human life, and so it is quite possible to ses, as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, that God has use all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

But whatever the neurological basis for consciousness, it doesn’t answer the question whether there is an “I” that is conscious, not necessarily as as a spectator watching a performance, but in a sense arising from the performance. Buddhists and some neuroscientists believe that there’s “nobody home”, that if we find photos like the one above disturbing, it is because in the course of evolution we are hard-wired to recognise hostility and danger onn the one hand, and friendliness on the other, through facial expressions, and so find the lack of such signals disturbing — though of course there is not really anything there to be disturbed.

Long before Sartre, however, Christian theologians maintained that God is personal, and that human beings are personal, and that the relationship between God and man is a personal one.

So Orthodox philosophers like Christos Yannaras can say:

In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word ‘person’. What we call ‘person’ or ‘personal’ designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms ‘person’ and ‘individual’ as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, ‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man’s common nature, and quantitative comparisons and analogies. Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling out is considered progress, since it helps
to make the organization of society more efficient.

And later goes on to say

In man’s sin, in his failure to be what he is called to be, the Church sees an affirmation of the truth of the person: that personhood is affirmed even in man’s capacity to say no even to life and existence itself, to say no to God, although relationship and communion with Him are all that makes existence into a hypostasis of life. In man’s sin, the Church sees the tragic adventure of human freedom, which is human morality in its real, ontological truth. She sees human morality in sin (actual deviation) and in deification (the natural sequel and consequence of human morality within the Church). There are no abstract theoretical principles or conventional legal ‘axioms’ in the ethics of the Church, no impersonal imperatives. The foundation of this ethic is the human person; and person means constant risk, freedom from all objectification, and the dynamics of death and resurrection.

In some ways one can find many similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, but just as one thinks one is getting to the core of the similarities, some kind of identity, even, the two jump apart, like the north poles of two magnets when brought together.

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