Healing desire: Hindu and Buddhist wisdom for our post-truth predicament

"Other traditions can reteach Christians what we have forgotten," writes John Thatamanil.

The question “What is truth?” is an old one. Pilate poses it as he stands unaware before the One whom Christians confess to be the Truth. Pilate does not care to know the answer. His query is lazy, world-weary, even cynical. With great power comes the illusion that the facts are what you say they are. So Pilate seems to believe.

How one asks the question of truth says a very great deal already. Is the question asked with powerful yearning, driven by a desire to know? Or is it a cynical throwaway? Those who ask with genuine longing are not far from what they seek; by contrast, those who believe that “truth” is but fodder for the gullible have turned away from the one thing necessary. Truth and love of truth are not two things, because truth and love are one. Pilate would know this if he only opens his eyes to the One before whom he stands.

Our post-truth predicament is not new

That those in power have always had, at best, a tangential relationship to truth is not news. In the 20th century, this reality was spelled out urgently by both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, arguably the last centurys most ardent defenders of truth. In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt famously wrote,

“Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Truth and love of truth are not two things, because truth and love are one.

Sound familiar? The resonance with our time is uncanny.

Arendt’s words should equip us to register that our “post-truth” predicament is not novel. The term “post-truth,” Merriam-Webster’s 2016 word of the year, points to the pervasive sense that truth no longer matters, nor can it be secured. What feels true matters more than what is true. Surely, our time has novel features, with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” but we do ourselves a disservice if we presume that our era’s prevarications put us in new territory. Such faulty assumptions lead us to misdiagnose our present malady.

The gravity of our post-truth predicament and the problems it poses for democratic life were articulated with troubling clarity in Jeffrey Goldberg’s post- presidency interview with Barack Obama, published in November 2020 in The Atlantic. Here’s how Obama put it:

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis. I can have an argument with you about what to do about climate change. I can even accept somebody making an argument that, based on what I know about human nature, it’s too late to do anything serious about this … I don’t know what to say if you simply say, ’This is a hoax that the liberals have cooked up, and the scientists are cooking the books. And that footage of glaciers dropping off the shelves of Antarctica and Greenland are all phony.’ Where do I start trying to figure out where to do something?”

… we must beat back the rising tide of fake news and “weaponized lies” with the power of critical thinking.

If Arendt discloses our slippery foothold on truth under fascism and mass propaganda, Obama reminds us that democratic life is unsustainable where no agreement about facts exists. A polluted infosphere corrodes our capacity to take concerted action.

If our post-truth moment isnt novel, then diagnoses based on recent trends cannot hit the mark. Our epistemological crisis cannot be blamed on postmodern university professors, the internet, the lack of information literacy or the other usual suspects. Quickie solutions tied to these putative causes can only offer symptom relief, not the underlying and undiagnosed condition.

A return to the Enlightenment: Problem or solution?

A prominent but unpersuasive diagnosis of our ailment says that we have lost track of the decisive gains made by the Enlightenments commitment to sober rationality, evidence and argumentation. According to this analysis, we urgently need to teach scientific principles, media literacy, and information and numeric literacy. Improve knowledge hygiene – that is, improve the conditions under which knowledge is disseminated and grasped by teaching people how to test information quality – and the truth problem will sort itself out.

This claim lies at the heart of Daniel Levitins work, notably in his 2019 book titled A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking with Statistics and the Scientific Method.

He argues that we must beat back the rising tide of fake news and “weaponized lies” with the power of critical thinking.

But what if the Enlightenment is part of the problem, not the solution? Or to put it less f lat footedly: What if our problem is rooted in a way of thinking about reason that does not do justice to the human person? What if no knowledge is possible where there is no desire to know? What if attending to the desire to know is indispensable to the work of knowing? We hear a lot about critical thinking, but we hear little about critical desiring.

For human beings, coming to know requires the desire to know and the capacity to handle the truth: to bear what must be borne when one’s convictions are shattered by what one comes to know.

However, in an age in which desireless artificial intelligence programs are constantly learning, questions about desire seem superfluous. Why should accessing truth require anything more than the time it takes to learn something? Humans will surely be slower than AI, but isnt knowing an identical process for computers and humans? To paraphrase the Queen of Rock nRoll, Tina Turner: Whats desire got to do with it?

Here we confront a crucial problem, a distinctively Enlightenment problem. We traffic in a philosophical anthropology that ignores the fact that human beings are desire-driven, organic creatures not merely computational processes housed in carbon rather than silicon-based circuitry. For human beings, coming to know requires the desire to know and the capacity to handle the truth: to bear what must be borne when ones convictions are shattered by what one comes to know.

This insistence on the intimacy between desiring and knowing finds no place in standard Enlightenment accounts. Desire is either indifferent or inimical to knowing. Attending to desire, at best, distracts from the work of knowing. Desire is a matter of the body; knowing is a matter of mind. The body must be either subdued or set aside if the mind is to do the work of knowing. This is a colossal modern mistake — perhaps the colossal modern mistake.

The Enlightenments deepest diagnostician, namely Michel Foucault, is customarily regarded as no fan of truth. But in his early 1980s lecture series, published in 2005 as The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault spoke of the Cartesian error, which he associated with Descartes but without blaming it all on poor René:

“… we can say that we enter the modern age (I mean, the history of truth enters its modern period) when it is assumed that what gives access to the truth, the condition for the subjects access to the truth, is knowledge (connaissance) and knowledge alone. It seems to me that what I have called the “Cartesian moment” takes on its position and meaning at this point … I think the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth. That is to say, it is when the philosopher (or the scientist … ) can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself … without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject.” (Emphasis mine)

This is the modern malady: the assumption that knowers can know the truth without “anything else being demanded” of them. Of course, investigation and research must take place, but truth will present itself to any inquirer who deploys right method, whether the inquirer be man or machine.

But what is the alternative? If this posture is peculiarly modern, what was the case in all earlier truth regimes? In his lectures, Foucault argued the inseparability of philosophy from spirituality:

“We will call philosophythe form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subjects access to the truth. If we call this philosophy,then I think we could call spiritualitythe search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call spiritualitythen the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subjects very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth.”

In my estimation, Foucault offered the most perspicacious diagnosis of the post-truth predicament. Although Foucault could not have had our contemporary situation in mind, his reading of modernity recognizes why we are where we are: We have come to believe that we can know the truth without paying any price. By disregarding spirituality, by refusing to take up the practices, experiences, purifications and ascetic exercises necessary, moderns refuse to see that subjects must become other than what they are in order for us to know rightly. Instead, we entertain the naive postulate that truth will stand up and announce itself to those “who do their own research,” the clarion call of every conspiracy cult.

No wonder we have come to a cognitive dead end. In the end, our epistemological crisis is not a matter of knowing but rather is the result of severing knowing from the labor of healing desire. The epistemological crisis turns out to be at heart an affective crisis. Seeking to tutor the mind without tutoring desire is foolish.

Why should accessing truth require anything more than the time it takes to learn something?

The remedy found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions

If Foucault was the foremost diagnostician of contemporary epistemic pathologies, the remedy will come in part from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The colossal error of severing knowing from desiring, of severing philosophy from spirituality. This error is absent in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. These traditions have no question of right knowing apart from right desiring. Tutoring desire is a propaedeutic measure to attaining transformative knowledge and more. Right desire and right knowing are but two sides of the same coin. The desiring self must be disciplined and reconfigured before right knowing is possible.

The first qualification of the ideal student is an intense desire for liberation. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, liberation comes ultimately from gnosis (jnana), but jnana is impossible apart from an intense desire for liberation.

Consider volume 3 of the classic Advaita Vedanta text, the Vivekacudamani, attributed to Sankaracarya (here translated by John Grimes in a 2016 edition): “Rare and difficult to obtain are these three: a human birth, a burning-desire- for-liberation, and association with great-beings. They are the results of divine grace.” The term translated here by Grimes as “burning-desire-for-liberation” is mumukshutvam, the desire for moksha, liberation. To be selected as a properly qualified Advaita student, the aspirant must have spent years – in fact, the tradition assumes uncountable past lifetimes – in disciplined spiritual seeking. Through this process, superficial desires for transient goods are overcome, surrendered and replaced by the only authentic desire for an eternal good, namely liberation.

And what is liberation? In this tradition, moksha has two meanings. The first meaning most readily comes to mind to Western readers: escape from the cycle of reincarnation. But a deeper meaning eventually replaces this preliminary understanding: namely, the recognition that ones inmost self (atman) just is the ultimate reality (Brahman). Standard meanings of liberation are transfigured when one realizes that one just is Brahman and has never not been Brahman. Seen in this light, liberation is now not an escape from the round of rebirth but rather a recognition that one was never trapped to begin with. Liberation is instead – to echo the title of a 1991 book written by Anantanand Rambachan, the distinguished contemporary Advaita theologian – a matter of “accomplishing the accomplished,” of realizing what one truly is.

But why isnt everyone immediately transformed and awakened when they hear one of the Upanishads Great Utterances (mahavakya,) such as “That thou art” or “I am Brahman”? Why doesnt knowledge alone do the trick? Borrowing Foucaults terminology, to ask this question is to be in the grip of modernitys mistake: the error of severing philosophy from spirituality. Apart from the work of spirituality, the work of transforming the desiring self, the Great Utterances function merely as information; they cannot accomplish transformation.

For this reason, no student in my Introduction to Hinduism classes has shouted, “Aha, now I see!” and then left my class enlightened upon hearing that they are Brahman. (Not yet, at any rate.) Like all human beings, they are gripped by a host of attachments to their conventional identities. I think of myself as a father, husband, Anglican priest and professor. I cannot shuck these identities like corn husks, because the longings that come with them hold me securely in their grip. Therefore, the truth about my inmost identity remains ineffectual so long as I am bound by these attachments. Truth remains mere information so long as the structure of my desiring remains unaddressed. Without educating desire, there is no possibility of transformation.

Indic and many other Asian traditions are often depicted as enemies of desire: a persistent and superficial mistake. What Hindu and Buddhist traditions seek to do is to contest penultimate desiring for the sake of an ultimate desire — the desire for liberation. To regard only how these traditions challenge penultimate desires is to misread the depth of their desiring.

If any doubts persist about the intensity of Buddhist desiring, consider only the following lines from a Mahayana text, the Vajradhara Sutra (quoted in Francis Brassards 2000 book, Concept of Bodhicitta in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara):

“It is my resolution to save all sentient beings, I must set all beings free, I must save all the universe, from the wilderness of birth, of old age, of disease, of rebirth, of all sins, of all misfortunes, of all transmigrations, of all pains caused by heretical doctrines, of the destruction of the skillful Dharma, of the occurrence of ignorance, therefore I must set all sentient beings free from all these wildernesses.”

Talk about an intense desire! This is the Bodhisattvas desire and aspiration. To have this desire is to have bodhicitta (the awakening mind). In the final analysis, this all-encompassing desire for the good of all beings is itself the mind that comes to know that no real separation whatsoever exists between self and other. This knowledge of our inseparability from all beings and our compassion for them are but two aspects of the selfsame reality. Desiring and knowing cannot be separated.

Hindus and Buddhists know that we will not give ourselves to the highest desire so long as we remain addicted to conventional desires. In these traditions, the highest goal is to reconfigure the whole of ones comportment — the whole person, not the mind alone. To put it more accurately, the mind itself is never reductively understood as an information processing center, a calculating machine carried around by a meat suit. To know is to be radically transformed in the direction of what is really real. Such transformation requires a “therapy of desire” – to use philosopher Martha Nussbaums felicitous phrase – so that the conventional desires that so powerfully define who we are can be contested. Left unaddressed, any other deeper disclosure about our true identity will remain ineffectual.

If I am so bound to capitalist desiring – I am what I do for work, I am what I produce, I am what I can purchase – as long as this structure of desiring remains in place, then good luck telling me that I am Brahman or that what I am most truly is a Bodhisattva. Youll win my notional assent but accomplish little else. Where there is no education of desire, there is no possibility of transformative truth. Truth cannot set us free so long as addictions keep us in chains. And the only cure to powerful addiction is a still more powerful desire.