Buddhists and Jains believe there is moral and evolutionary continuity between animals, humans and “gods,” and that all creatures can evolve from animal to posthuman. This places them closer to the progressive optimist and posthumanist aspects of European Enlightenment thought, than followers of the Abrahamic faiths. The Buddhist emphasis on anatta or no-self is also close to neuroscientific reductionism. From a Keynote Address delivered at the International Jain Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, August 24-25, 2012.
Many questions in contemporary bioethics turn on views about the nature of personhood and which creatures possess it. Christians and many other faiths believe that humans, and only humans, possess a supernatural soul that confers moral significance, that they possess it from conception to death, and that it is not capable of evolution or improvement. Modern secular bioethics, on the other hand, focuses on the emergence and dissolution of a psychological self dependent on the brain. For secular bioethics humans share elements of this psychological self with other animals, the self changes throughout the life course, and it is open to improvement through the use of science and technology. Jainism and Buddhism stand between these views on the self and humanity in ways that can contribute to contemporary bioethical thought.
On the one hand, both Buddhism and Jainism believe there is moral and evolutionary continuity between animals, humans and “gods,” and that all creatures can evolve from animal to posthuman. This places Buddhists and Jains closer to the progressive optimist and posthumanist aspects of European Enlightenment thought. On the other hand, while the Jain concept of the eternal and supernatural soul is closer to the Abrahamic faiths, the Buddhist emphasis on anatta or no-self is closer to neuroscientific reductionism. These theories of personhood, static or evolutionary, human-only or trans-species, supernatural or materially contingent, have many moral implications. I explore the implications of these views for two bioethical issues: abortion and the genetic enhancement of humans and animals. I close with some reflections on the implications of the mahapurusha and cyclical cosmological myths that Buddhists and Jains share for our attitudes about a posthuman future.
Theories of Personhood
Many questions in contemporary bioethics turn on views about the nature of personhood and which creatures possess it. Personhood is debated around:
* Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, reproductive technology, prenatal screening
* Brain death, anencephaly
* Animal rights
* Neurodiversity, cognitive enhancement
Underlying the personhood debate are a variety of religious and secular views about what confers moral significance on a creature. Christians, and many other faiths, believe that humans, and only humans, possess a supernatural soul that confers moral significance, that they possess it from conception to death, and that it is not capable of evolution or improvement. In his essay “The Soul of Transhumanism” the Lutheran theologian Ted Peters (2005) outlined five basic views of the soul that are present in Christian theology, and the sixth atheist materialist viewpoint.
First, there is substance dualism,found in the Hindu concept ofatman, the Jain concept of jiva and the concept of the soul for most lay Christians. For substance dualists the soul is a unitary unchanging, supernatural essence that exists before birth and after death. Then, for some Christians, there is atrichotomous theory of body, soul, and spirit, in which baptism replaces the human spirit with a divine spirit. There are emergent dualists, who hold that the soul is a supernatural essence that is created with the body, and survives its death. Fourth, there are non-reductive physicalistswho hold that the soul is physical, not supernatural, and dependent on the brain, but not reducible to the brain. On this theory the soul does not survive death, but would be reconstituted at Judgment when bodies are resurrected. Fifth are the theological materialists who hold that the soul is the brain’s spiritual capacity. Finally there is atheist materialism, which dispenses with the idea of soul in favor of the material processes of sentience, consciousness and identity in a brain.
During the European Enlightenment John Locke is cited as the pivotal figure in the transition from the possession of a supernatural soul as the basis of moral significance, to the focus on psychological personhood. Locke believed an immaterial soul was an unnecessary explanation for the self. He argued that since we are thinking matter, which is as much in God’s power to create as an immaterial soul, that it is our capacity to think which makes us ensouled persons. He considered however that this created a problem for the identity of the soul at the Resurrection and Judgment. If consciousness resides in the body, and the resurrected body at the end of time has none of the matter of the original body, then how could you be the same person? His answer was that God would have the mind in that body remember its previous self. For Locke memory connected one’s present self to one’s past, and was therefore the basis of personal identity. In Peters schema Locke was a theological materialist.
Fifty years after Locke the Scottish philosopher David Hume dissected this materially emergent psychological self and argued that it, like all apparent enduring substance, was a perceptual illusion. In his Treatise on Human Nature he argues the self is an illusion created by the contiguity of sense perceptions and thoughts. The self is merely a “…a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement” (Hume, 1739). While for Locke memory was the core of personal identity, knitting together past and present selves, for Hume memory only creates the illusion that there is continuity between past and present mental states.
This reductive model of personhood, as an aggregation of multiple cognitive processes that create an illusion of personal identity, is increasingly the one held by contemporary neuroscience. The personhood it implies is analog rather than binary, with the self coming into being gradually, dissolving in myriad ways at the end of life, and the self from one point in your life only probablistically related to later selves. This view of the self implies that creatures can possess greater or lesser degrees of moral significance depending on their cognitive functions, at different points in the life course and across species.
Buddhists and Jains share many core ideas, but the most fundamental of their disagreements 2500 years ago was over the nature of the self. Jains profess supernatural dualism, that jiva or soul is eternal, unitary, and that all living things possess it. Buddhists on the other hand are closer to the view of reductive neuroscience, holding that personal identity is an illusion created by mental processes. For Jains the soteriological goal is the cleansing of karma from the immortal soul through the purification of thought, word and deed. For Buddhists the purification of thought, word and deed can only lead to nirvana if the illusory nature of self is embraced. On the other hand since most Buddhists, like Jains, believe in reincarnation of soul stuff (even if it doesn’t add up to personal identity for the Buddhists), Buddhism is not materialist in Peters schema but closer to his “non-reductive physicalism.”
Another way that Jains and Buddhists are more similar to contemporary secular bioethics and neuroscience is in their emphasis on a moral continuity between animals and humans. While Abrahamic faiths believe that only human beings were endowed with souls and moral significance by their Creator, evolutionary theory and ethological research have revealed that many animals share the psychological attributes that secular bioethics believe confer moral standing, from sentience to higher cognition. For Jains and Buddhists the karma accrued from harming other creatures depends on the whether those creatures possess soul stuff, and both believe animals possess soul stuff, while the debate within secular animal rights is over which psychological characteristics confer moral standing.
On behalf of James Hughes