Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification (Newland)

Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification: Models of the Conventional in Tsongkhapa’s Account of Madhyamaka (by Guy Martin Newland, in  Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)

Following Candrakirti’s interpretations of Nagarjuna, Tsongkhapa (LRC [Byang chub lam rim che ba, Xining 1985] 606-607) argues that if things had any sort of essence or intrinsic nature [svabhava] of their own, this nature would have to be located under ultimate analysis. Therefore, the fact that things are not found under ultimate analysis means that they utterly lack intrinsic nature (not that they are nonexistent). Things lack the sort of existence that would be found, were it there, through ultimate analysis. For Tsongkhapa, not existing under ultimate analysis, not existing ultimately, and not existing intrinsically or essentially are three ways of saying the same thing. The knowledge that things lack essential reality is a liberating insight into emptiness, the absence of intrinsic existence [nisvabhava].

(The difference between Prasangika and Svatantrika, according to Tsongkhapa, is that Svatantrikas, while recognising that nothing withstands ultimate analysis, regard things as having an intrinsic nature conventionally, while Prasangikas take intrinsic nature to be just that which would be found by ultimate analysis if it existed, concluding from the fact that nothing withstands ultimate analysis that nothing has any intrinsic nature at all, even conventionally.)

Thus, the deeper and ultimate ‘level of explanation/analysis’ in Madhyamaka is in fact that level upon which we see the utter lack or absence of any core or pith to which all matters can be reduced. This very lack, emptiness, is all that is ever discerned at that level. It is the entirety of what can be observed from that perspective – but is certainly not on that account the only thing that exists. Still, it must give us pause to consider that ultimate analysis – the mind that knows the final nature of things – does not at all find persons or cars. When persons and cars cannot withstand such rational analysis, when their vivid and seemingly solid presence recedes and finally evaporates as they are scrutinized, then does this not suggest that scrupulous investigation has at last refuted them? And if so, then how can anyone talk about things having any kind of meaningful existence at all once they have been refuted by reasoning?

Tsongkhapa has an interlocutor pose this very question (LRC 606). In response, he argues that this question comes about through conflating (1) the inability to withstand rational analysis with (2) invalidation or refutation by reason. While it would be foolhardy to claim that things are refuted by reason and nonetheless exist, he argues, things may very well exist although being unable to withstand rational analysis. To ask whether something can withstand rational analysis is to ask whether it is ‘found’ or demonstrated by a line of reasoning that analyses what exists ultimately. This kind of analysis is intent upon seeking out the essential nature that is the core reality behind an appearance. When such reasoning analyses a car, it does not find any such essential reality, and this is what it means to say that a car is ‘unable to withstand rational analysis’ (LRC 606-610).

Thus, the unfindability of a car under ultimate analysis is not a sign of a car’s nonexistence; it is only a sign of a car’s not existing in the manner sought by this sort of analysis. That is, it is a sign of the utter nonexistence of an essentially real car. We do not expect to see Saturn looking through a microscope; we do not expect a sociologist to find quarks; we do not expect rational analysis to find conventional existence and so do not conclude that there is none just because it is not found thereby. As Tsongkhapa says, we cannot expect to see sounds even when we look with utmost care.

The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (Westerhoff)

The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (from Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, A Philosophical Introduction, by Jan Westerhoff, Oxford 2009)

Nagarjuna’s rejection of entities existing by svabhava is not restricted to the study of the external world around us. At least as important as refuting the existence of fundamental substances which provide the basis for a world independent of human interests and concerns is the refutation of a substantial self, which constitutes the fixed point around which our internal world revolves. Such a substantial self is an essentially unchanging entity, distinct from our physical body and psychological states, which unifies our sensory input and mental life and acts as a foundation of our agenthood in the world. Nagarjuna wants to replace this prima facie plausible and compelling view of a self, which, however, he claims to be mistaken, by a conception of the self as a set of causally interconnected physical and psychological events. He sets out to account for the fact that we normally do not see ourselves in this way by arguing that this set of events is usually under the misapprehension of its own properties: it sees itself as a substantial self, even though it is not.

It is interesting to note that this alternative view of the self presented here (which, to be sure, is not a Madhyamaka specialty but widely shared between different Buddhist traditions), despite its intuitive implausibility, finds a surprising amount of support in recent research on cognitive science. Of particular interest in this context is the so-called narrative view of the self, a theory that has been explored in detail by Daniel Dennett [most famously in his Consciousness Explained, London 1991], who also presents supporting evidence from our current knowledge of how the brain works. One of Dennett’s central observations is that the processing of neurophysiologically encoded information is spread across the entire brain. There is no place in the brain where “it all comes together”, no “Cartesian theatre” where the stream of sensory information is unified into mental content and presented to consciousness. He argues that not only is there no neurophysiological analog to the self anywhere in the spatial organization of the brain, also the temporal sequence of events in the brain cannot be used as a foundation of a continuous self. Dennett shows that in certain cases the order of events as the appear in our consciousness does not line up with the temporal order of their underlying neurophysiological bases. The view of our selves as continuous, temporally extended entities therefore cannot be seen as a mere reflection of a series of events in the brain, but requires a significant deal of conceptual construction. Our subjective feeling of spatial and temporal location cannot be grounded on the spatially and temporally spread out, discontinuous series of events in the brain in a straightforward manner. Our view of the self as an essentuially unchanging unifier and agent cannot be based on the structure of the piece of matter that occupies the space where we locate the center of gravity.

Dennett argues instead that the self is a product of our linguistic capacities. The capacity to use language is hard-wired into our brain, and once we start using language, we tell stories, including stories about ourselves which continuously create that very self. The self emerging on this theory is not the author, but the authored. Dennett notes that “our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. The human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is the product, not their source”. For this reason there is no fundamental difference between the self created by our own narrative and the selves created in works of fiction. It is not the case that the former are intrinsically more real than the latter; in fact they belong fundamentally to the same class of things (even though the fictional selves, unlike our own narrative selves, are usually not open ended). Both are conceptual constructs produced by our brain regarding a narrative, our own or that in some text, as revolving around a single fixed point.

The Identity of Man with the World and its Soul in Hinduism (Melamed)

The Identity of Man with the World and its Soul in Hinduism (adapted from a reprint of Spinoza and Buddha, Visions of a Dead God, by S.M. Melamed, Chicago 1933)

What Spinoza called substance the ancient Hindu thinkers called Atman. While Spinoza’s substance never underwent any changes, Atman shows many stages of development. Originally it meant the cosmic ego, which later vanished, leaving only indeterminate, infinite, and inarticulate substance. From this cosmic principle the Hindu sought to deduce the world. This deduction seemed to be the more necessary since this is an articulate world, full of words, expressions, and thoughts, while Atman is indeterminate and inarticulate. This chasm between Atman and the world the Hindu bridged with Brahman, the holy word, accompanying the sacrificial rites. Brahman, or the logos, became the second cosmic force, and then united with Atman to form one cosmic principle. Both, as a oneness, represent the physical and the logical principle of the world.

Just as Spinoza called thinking the son of God, so did the ancient Hindus regard Brahman, the logical principle, as the first-born in this world. In this Atman-Brahman idea, ancient Hindu thought found its kindling-point and anchor ground. It, too, is no more a Deity in the theological meaning of the term than is Spinoza’s Deus. It is a mystical cosmic principle, a dead God. It does not demand that man pray to, adore, or venerate it. It does not pretend to be man’s teacher and guide. Atman-Brahman means ‘I am the all’, ‘I am the cosmos’, and is expressed in the formula ‘Tat tvam asi’, ‘Thou art that’. In this recognition man loses the feeling of limitation and finiteness, and feels himself to be part of the infinite whole, a link in the infinite chain. He is at one with the world and with God, and hence need not face them in opposition. There is no inside or outside, no subject or object. The world is a oneness which manifests itself in variety. None of the parts is isolated from the whole. God’s relationship to the world is identical with [its] inner ground and outer manifestation.

Atman-Brahman is in the final analysis the identity of man with the world and its soul. It is often referred to in the Upanishads as Karya Brahman, the nature of Brahman, or what Spinoza would call natura naturans, as distinguished from Karana Brahman, or natura naturata. This Brahman has all the properties of Spinoza’s substance and is the true hen kai pan [One and All]. It is the infinite in all things finite, and the eternal in all things fugitive. It is the ultimate and highest reality.

This conception presupposes a type of knowledge which cannot possibly be empirical in nature. The senses cannot possibly furnish us with the truth of the absolute. Empiric knowledge is only fragmentary in character. Only knowledge of the whole, which is created intuitively, can furnish us with truth. Only intuitive knowledge makes the unheard become heard, the unperceived perceived, and the unknown known. This form of knowledge also enables man to grasp the highest reality, frees him from passion and suffering, and unites his soul with eternity. It is man’s greatest spiritual treasure. This theory of knowledge is common to all mysticism, including Spinozism.