Saturday, April 16, 2011

Miura Baien and The Disinterested Study of Nature

One of the criteria I use to determine if religious claims are a product of human invention rather than a divine revelation is my human egocentrism test. What I mean by that is that the religion elevates humanity to a position of central importance in the affairs of the divine being credited with creating our universe.

For example, the Abrahamic God, having created a universe filled with billions of galaxies each filled with billions of planets and stars, takes an inordinate interest in the affairs of the species homo sapiens on the planet Earth. What we eat, what we drink, what clothes we wear, and who we have sex with, to list a few behaviors, are all supposedly done under the eye of a ceaselessly vigilant being who wants us to obey its rules and love it with all of our hearts.

From my perspective as an atheist, I view our species and the world we inhabit as part of a larger universe rather than being the reason for the universe. I don't rule out the possibility that our universe is the creation of some higher intelligence, but even if it is, all I can know about such a creator is that it is very powerful and very intelligent.

I was pleasantly surprised recently to see my view echoed in an unlikely place. Like a lot of college graduates, I still have some of the text books I purchased when I was in college. One of them was a book I had to purchase for a class on Chinese and Japanese history. The book, titled Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 1, contains excerpts of mostly original documents from Japanese history from ancient times up to the latter years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. For most of the past couple of decades, the book sat largely undisturbed on the shelf amidst my collection of history books.

A couple of weeks or so ago I found myself perusing it, and looking at the table of contents under a chapter titled 18th Century Rationalism, I saw something called "The Disinterested Study of Nature." Turning to the page, it turned out to be an excerpt of a letter written by a Japanese philosopher of the late Tokugawa era named Miura Baien. A fair chunk of the letter, or at least the portion of the letter printed in Sources, addresses the issue of human egocentrism with regard to the study of nature and the universe.

"Now the universe shelters all things in it, and man is just one of those things.... All beings exist together with us, and we are just one of them. Realization that Heaven (nature) is universal, while man is individual, must be the starting point for all discussion of humanity. This is what I call opening the window of the human sphere. The reason men have remained in the dark about the universe is that, remaining fixed in the human sphere, they have considered their own position to be of the highest dignity and their own intellect to be the most exalted. To view Heaven-and-earth in this way, or to study creation and its manifold objects with this attitude, is exactly the same as brewers of sake, su, moro, and amasake who consider rice only in terms of taste and flavor. In the comprehension of the universe, knowledge is most important. But as long as students approach creation without opening the windows of the human sphere, and persist in keeping a smug sense of their own importance and intelligence, their approach is certain to give rise to delusions, as a mote in the eye casts a shadow on what one sees.

Concern for the world and compassion for the masses is benevolent in motive, but the study of creation in human terms is not conducive to true knowledge. Those whom the world acclaims as leaders in thought and action take humanity and human motives as the basis of their thinking and speculation in order to set up standards for what is to be believed and done. But human minds are like human faces; their preferences differ from one another. Each considers what he has arrived at to be right, a revelation from Heaven or a deposit of truth from antiquity, and thinks those who do not accept his standards should be exterminated. It is my conviction, therefore, that there is no systematic truth or logic except that which enables man to comprehend the universe without setting up standards conceived in terms of humanity or human motives

I don't know if Miura Baien had ever read the Bible, though he likely did not.* Based on what he wrote above, if he did read the creation account of Genesis, he would object to it on account of it being expressed in terms of human needs, with the stars being created to provide us with light at night, and with God creating the fish and the animals so that man could exercise dominion over them. It would be like the flora in our intestines telling each other that humans only exist so that microbes could live in our digestive tracts.

*In 1637-38, there was an uprising of Christians in Shimabara that was brutally put down at the cost of some 37,000 Japanese Christians. Japan was closed off to the outside world except for the presence of a small Dutch presence near Nagasaki. Japanese Christians after that conducted their worship mostly in secret and proselytization by foreigners was no longer possible.

Tominaga Nakamoto, in his "Testament of An Old Man" (1738) wrote "In the world today there are three religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto." None of the other excerpts of Japanese philosophers or historians in Sources during the 18th century period make reference to Christianity and focus primarily on Confucianism. It suggests that the ban on foreign contacts and the suppression of Christianity was such that most educated Japanese in the 18th century knew little or nothing about it, or if they did, that they lived in a climate where even discussion of Christianity could engender the risk of punishment.

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