The past decade has seen a wealth of neuroscientific research into the benefits of meditation, which goes far beyond mainstream conceptions of mindfulness.
A few years ago, philosopher Owen Flanagan appeared on the Partially Examined Life podcast to discuss his 2011 book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain. In this work, he argues that the Buddhist theory of human flourishing, when rendered in naturalistic terms, should be of interest to many in the West.
For Flanagan, implicit in Buddhism is the promise that one can achieve “a stable sense of serenity and equanimity” through the cultivation of Buddhist wisdom-which we might describe as a deep understanding of particular philosophical propositions and the Buddhist model of human psychology-alignment with Buddhist ethics, and embodiment of the virtues of compassion and loving-kindness.
What makes the project interesting is that, unlike much of Western philosophy, Buddhism contains a rigorous program of implementation for its virtue theory. By connecting philosophy, psychology, and ethics with a regime of practice, Buddhism becomes more of a way of life than a pure abstraction-and one that might be open to empirical validation. Such a project is not an simple one: bridges need to be built between the theory in question, the application of that philosophy, and the structure of experimental research. In short, we must be able to operationalize the philosophy, breaking it down into testable components, which, over time, can be knitted together to present a coherent meta-argument. While I am skeptical that such a project can have an end point, it may nonetheless yield interesting insights that should be of interest to the philosophically inclined.
Meditation is often placed at the center of such a project, though Flanagan, like well-known “Secular Buddhist” Stephen Batchelor, is critical of Western practitioners who attempt to sideline the importance of wisdom and ethical conduct. Some schools hold that meditation allows practitioners to directly realize the philosophical claims of Buddhism. While this might sound suspiciously like a claim to divine or esoteric wisdom…