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BUDDHIST ILLOGIC

© Avi Sion, 2002.  All rights reserved.

 

 

6.   Motion and rest.

Nagarjuna denies the knowability and possibility of motion and likewise of rest, and purports to refute them by various arguments[1], thus (by negation) proving the truth of the “emptiness” doctrine. He does this by means of outwardly logical argument forms, like (two- or three-pronged) dilemmas or showing some propositions to be self-contradictory or circular. But in all cases, it is evident that some of the premises he appeals to are arbitrary and designed to sow confusion so as to yield his foregone conclusions. I shall first present his arguments, then their rebuttal.

a)      According to Cheng, Nagarjuna divides the “path of motion” into three segments, the “already passed”, the “yet-to-be passed” and the “being passed”, and argues that if we examine each of these, we cannot find “the act of passing” in it, concluding that “motion is impossible and cannot be established”. The act of passing is not to be found in the already passed, “because it has already been passed”; nor in the yet-to-be passed, “because it is not yet”; nor in the being passed, “because if we are still examining whether there is the act of passing, how can we use the ‘the path which is being passed’ to establish the act of passing?”

b)      Similarly, Nagarjuna contends that motion cannot even “begin”, in any of these three segments. Not in the already passed, because is it is “the effect of” the beginning to pass, which “is over”. Nor in the beginning to pass, because it is “the starting point of change” (i.e. it precedes the yet-to-be passed), which “has no change yet”. Nor in the being passed, which “is possible only if there is an act of passing,” which in turn “is possible only if there is a beginning of passing”. Additionally, “since motion cannot even be started, how can we talk about a place to go?”

c)      Similarly, it is claimed that “the mover or moving entity cannot be established” and that “the mover cannot move”. For “if someone moves… we cannot say that ‘the one who has already moved’ moves because his action is over”; and “we cannot say that ‘the one who has not yet moved’ moves because that involves a contradiction”. Finally, we cannot say “the mover means ‘the one who is moving’”, since “there can be a mover only when there is an act of moving, yet whether there is an act of moving is the issue we are examining” and so we would be “begging the question”.

d)      It is also claimed doubly fallacious to say “the mover moves”, because we would be asserting that “the mover can be separated from the act of motion” and that “there are two kinds of motion, namely, motion in the mover and motion in the act of moving”. Here, Nagarjuna questions the very relation between mover and motion. Are the two “identical or different”? If the former, then “the mover would always be moving”. If the latter, then “the mover can exist without motion, and vice versa”. Both these assumptions are “absurd”, so “neither motion nor mover could be established”.

e)      Lastly, we might be tempted to conclude, from the preceding arguments against motion, that everything is at rest; but Nagarjuna preempts this way out, by arguing that even “rest cannot be established” as follows. That which rests is either a “mover (or moving thing)” or a “non-mover (or non-moving thing)”. But “it is absurd to say that the mover rests, because this involves contradiction”; nor can it be said that “the mover rests when he stops moving”, because “when someone stops moving, he is not the mover anymore”. It is also impossible to say that “the non-mover rests… because rest means cessation of motion,” and since “the non-mover does not move” he “cannot cease to move (rest)”. Since these are the only two alternatives, “rest is impossible”.

f)        Another argument with the same conclusion: rest “must happen at some place or at some time”. It cannot happen “at that which is already passed (or the past), or at that which is yet to be passed (or the future), or at that which is being passed (or the present)”, because “as pointed out previously, there cannot be motion in any one of these situations, hence there cannot be the cessation of motion, or rest.” Cheng goes on to explain: “For Nagarjuna, motion and rest are relative to each other”, and he concludes “hence both are devoid of specific character or nature, and neither is real.”

Thus Nagarjuna apparently shows that “one cannot hold that what is real is permanent or impermanent”. It would follow that the beliefs relating to motion and rest, generated by ordinary consciousness and by its logic, are illusory and invalid; whence, we ought to instead adhere to that other, superior way of knowledge defended by Nagarjuna – awareness of the void. All this is of course nonsense, as I shall now demonstrate.

Let us start with argument (a). At first sight, it may be construed as an attempt to say, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus did, that you cannot step into the same river twice – or indeed once, since as you are stepping into it, its waters have already moved on. But the intent of such a statement is merely to say that everything is always in motion. This is indeed one of the tenets of traditional Buddhism (“impermanence”, anitya), but not Nagarjuna’s intent here, which is a denial of motion as such.

His argument states that actual motion (“the act of passing”) has to take place in past, future or present. Being by definition present, actual motion admittedly cannot take place in the past or future, as the first two premises imply. But that does not mean that when the past was present, motion was not actual in it; nor that when the future becomes present, motion will not be actual in it. The label “actual” is not static, but refers dynamically to every instance of “the present”; as the present changes position on the time-line, so does the reference point of actuality. As for the third premise, it is misleading, for we can well (and indeed must) say that actual motion exists in the present.[2] Nagarjuna suggests that we have to prove (“examine” and “establish”) that actuality is in the present before we can affirm it. But even if this were granted, the inferred third premise would be problematic, and not the assertion that actuality is not in the present; in which case, the dilemma as a whole would remain inconclusive, and not result in denial that motion is possible and knowable.[3]

However, furthermore, we can prove that motion is actual in the present. We can refer to the appearance of actual motion in the present, and claim it as ‘empirical evidence’. Such experience is logically sufficient to prove the point at issue, even if only taken phenomenologically, as mere appearance, irrespective of the status of ‘reality’ or ‘illusion’ ultimately granted to particular motions, and irrespective of the issue as to whether what is perceived (the phenomenal) is material or mental or whatever. Additionally, we have to ask how the concepts of actuality, motion and present arise in the first place. They arise in relation to such experiences, and therefore cannot be required to be thereafter “proved” by unstated means and standards to be related to them.[4] There is no inconsistency or circularity in our position; it is Nagarjuna’s position that deserves such criticism.

Next, consider argument (b). Without a doubt, when motion begins, it must begin in past, future or present. But incidentally, a fourth possibility exists, which Nagarjuna does not mention – that of a motion without beginning; so we should say when and if motion begins. Even so, here all three horns of his dilemma are incorrect.[5]

Motion may well begin in the past – even if later motion, in the more recent past, is a consequence of such earlier (beginning) motion; there is nothing illogical in this scenario, and Nagarjuna’s rejection of it is arbitrary.[6] Motion may also well begin in the future – it has indeed not yet begun, but when and if it does, it will take place in the segment of the time-line we now call the future; this too is obvious and quite consistent. Nagarjuna seems to have trouble understanding the tenses of verbs, freezing some verbs (e.g. begin) in the present tense while mixing them with others in the past or future tenses.[7] Lastly, motion, when (and if) it begins, begins in the present; “beginning of passing”, “act of passing” and “being passed” are one and the same in the present instant (point of time), though as the present stretches into a moment (duration) the concepts may diverge. Nagarjuna uses that ambiguity to suggest a conceptual conflict, but there is none.[8] Incidentally, similar arguments could have been formulated with regard to “ending of motion”, and similarly rebutted.

Let us now inspect argument (c). Here again, Nagarjuna tries to confuse us with mixtures of tenses, in his first two premises.[9] We indeed cannot say that one who has already moved now moves, but we can say that he did then move; his action is now over, but was not over then. Nor indeed can we say that one who has not-yet moved is currently moving, but we can say without contradiction that he may well later move. As for the third premise, it is true that we cannot speak of a mover (or moving thing)[10] without referring to a movement, but it is not true that whether there is a movement is an issue under examination. As indicated earlier, the present motion under discussion is an empirical given, not requiring further proof of whatever kind. The concept of it arises only in relation to such experiences (current, or at least remembered), and all discussion about it is subsequent; without such experience, the word ‘motion’ would be meaningless to all of us, including Nagarjuna, and there would be nothing to discuss.[11]

Whether or not motion necessitates an underlying entity (a mover or moving thing) is, however, an issue – we can legitimately ask the question. The assumption of a substratum to (empirical) motion is a more complex, conceptual act, subject to the usual checks and balances of inductive and deductive logic. On a naïve, pre-philosophical level, we would argue that we never experience instances of disembodied motion, but always things in motion. But further reflection puts this impression in doubt, for we cannot empirically equate a body experienced at one time to a body experienced at another time. Such equation is very conceptual, requiring a hypothesis of continuity. We may claim that hypothesis as inductively true, if it is consistent and repeatedly confirmed, and providing no counter-hypothesis of equal or better coherence and credibility is found, but we cannot claim it as a purely empirical or deductive truth.

“Whether there is an act of moving” is not an issue; the issue is whether there is an abiding “mover or moving thing” beneath that “act of moving”, or whether that “act of moving” is a mere event of successive experiences flashing forth. My own answer would be that even if there are no individual entities behind successive appearances, we can at least point to existence as such as a substance, or the universe as a whole as an entity, and regard that as necessarily abiding in the midst of its successive, changing appearances. If this argument establishes a collective substratum, then individual substrata become more easily acceptable.

Moreover, the concept of a substratum is not an arbitrary invention, but designed to register and explain the enduring similarities between successive appearances despite the dissimilarities we label as changes. We say that change has occurred because we notice that two appearances are in some respects different; we can also say that something has endured because we notice that the two appearances are in other respects the same. Without the hypothesis of some constant underlying change, we would have to regard the remaining similarities between the two appearances as mere coincidence. But it seems improbable to us that such repetition would be just happenstance; explanation seems called for. It is to calm our surprise at such recurring coincidences that we posit a substratum or substrata.[12]

As already explained in the previous chapter, this underlying constancy may in some cases be identified as something concrete (i.e. a phenomenon to be sought and found), whereas in other cases it remains merely abstract (i.e. just an appearance of sameness in some respect). The constancy may most appropriately be labeled a substance or entity if it is phenomenal. But even in cases where no phenomenal substratum can be pointed to or found, but only the repetition over time of an abstract characteristic, we may think of the latter as a substratum of sorts, for abstract existence is also a category of being. This is especially true if abstracts are regarded as objective; but it is also true if they are considered subjective, for in such case the continuity of something within the Subject has to be admitted.

Thus, Nagarjuna’s third premise is wrong in some respects and right in others. Ab initio, he is wrong in doubting motion and alleging a circularity, but right in effectively doubting a mover or moving thing. The former is not inferred from the latter, but vice versa. The former is empirical and requires no proof, the latter is hypothetical and requires proof. But reason is able to propose proof. The proof proposed by it is, however, inductive, not deductive. The room for doubt that inductive (as against deductive) proof leaves over, opens a window of opportunity for the thesis of “emptiness”; but that is not thanks to Nagarjuna’s wobbly reasoning.[13] His Buddhist goal is still possible (perhaps through meditation), but not his discursive means.

Now for argument (d). Let us first focus on Nagarjuna’s claim that if mover and motion were “identical” then “the mover would always be moving”. He ignores that we may well call that which is moving a mover during the duration of his motion, without implying that this label remains applicable before or after the motion.[14] Furthermore, that motion and mover are precisely co-extensive in time does not imply that they are “identical”; if that was our belief, we would not use distinct words for them (or we would consider them synonymous) – our intention in doing so is to refer to distinct aspects of the whole event, the perceived change of place and the conceived substratum of such change.

Likewise, his claim that if mover and motion are “different” they could exist separately is gratuitous. Two aspects of a single event may be distinguished intellectually without signifying that they ever appear separately on a concrete level. “Motion” and “mover” are two types of concept, formed relative to the same percepts. “Motion” as a concept refers to the abstract common character of all concrete motions, known by comparisons between them and contrasts to other things (such as restful events). “Mover” is another sort of concept, referring to a hypothetical explanation of the existence of constancies as well as variations observed in the course of motions, as above explained. Both refer back to the same collection of concretes, yet each concentrates on an abstract level on a different aspect of what was perceived.

Furthermore, when Nagarjuna suggests that to say “the mover moves” implies belief that the mover can be concretely “separated” from the motion, and that there are “two kinds of motion” (one “in” the mover and the other “in” the moving), he is not showing commonplace theses to be fallacious, but merely attacking red-herring theses of his own interpolation. He takes advantage of the equivocation in the word separation, to confuse mental and physical, or more precisely intellectual (abstract) and phenomenal (concrete), separation. And he artificially adds a new and redundant third concept to those of motion and mover, referring to motion “in” each of them – although we never ordinarily regard motion as itself moving[15] or a mover as having a motion besides the motion by virtue of which he is labeled a mover.

Thus, both horns of Nagarjuna’s dilemma are based on mere equivocations, and therefore unfounded.[16]

Finally, let us examine argument (e). Here again, Nagarjuna is playing on words. Certainly, as his first premise remarks, we cannot without self-contradiction say that “the mover rests” – but we can consistently say that that which was previously moving is now resting. The label “mover” is not forever fixed once applied to something, but applicable only so long as that thing is considered in motion; thereafter, a new label must be applied to it, that of “thing at rest”. Nagarjuna himself admits this in the next breath, when he argues “when someone stops moving, he is not the mover anymore”. He adduces this to deny that “the mover rests when he stops moving”, and then goes on to define rest as “cessation of motion”, again contradicting himself. But anyway, “rest” does not exactly mean cessation of motion, it refers more broadly to absence of motion. Cessation is a special case of absence, and not co-extensive with it; something may be at rest without precedent motion as well as after motion.

In his second premise, aiming to deny that the “non-mover rests”, he conversely implies that the “non-mover” was not previously moving and so could not have ceased to move and so cannot be at rest. But we can reply without self-contradiction that something may well be a non-mover at present, and yet have been a mover in the past (who ceased to move); or that anyway he may be at rest now without having in the past moved and then stopped moving. Our concept of time is built precisely to deal with such issues. The label non-moving is not inalienable, but tied to actual situations of rest and inappropriate in all other situations; moreover, the concepts and labels of “non-moving” and “rest” are intended as identical (mere synonyms, and antonyms of “moving” and non-rest”).

All these comments are of course obvious to everyone, but have to be made here to show point-by-point the tragicomedy of Nagarjuna’s word-games. Both premises of Nagarjuna’s dilemma are dissolved, being based on unfair fixation of terms.[17]

With regard to argument (f). Nagarjuna here recalls his earlier arguments against motion, and infers from their alleged conclusion that motion is impossible, that cessation of motion, and therefore rest, are likewise impossible. We can answer: indeed, if there was no motion, there would be no cessation of motion; but since motion was not successfully disproved, it cannot be inferred that cessation of motion has also been disproved. Furthermore, even if motion and cessation of motion were disproved, it would not follow that rest is impossible or unknowable, for rest is a genus of both “cessation of motion” and “never in motion”, and to deny one species does not necessitate denial of the other (or else denial of anything would imply denial of everything).[18] In short, if there was no motion in the world, it would just follow that everything is at rest – the universe would simply be static[19].

Thus, Nagarjuna’s cunning attempt to deny rest as well as motion, and thereby to invalidate “dualistic” reason and impose a “non-dualistic” consciousness, is easily disabled. Both motion and rest remain conceivable and consistent theses; his “logic” is fake throughout. Nevertheless, we must address his last assumption, that (as Cheng puts it) “motion and rest are relative to each other”. Let us here generously ignore his specification of rest as cessation of motion, and consider the term properly to mean non-motion, because the issue is important and moot. I have stated that motion has to be accepted as undeniable empirical evidence, because even if an apparent motion is judged illusory and not real, it remains classifiable as motion.

We cannot explain-away (perceived) physical motion by supposing that it might be a figment of imagination, for we would still have to admit or explain-away the imaginary motion that we have by our very supposition posited as existing. “Imaginary motion” signifies a movement of projected mental entities – that too is a perceived, concrete event (differing from “physical” motion only in respect of presumed underlying location, substance and possible genesis – occurring “in the head”, made of some “mental” stuff, and perhaps “generated by the perceiver”). We might try to explain imaginary motion away too, by claiming that both physical and mental motion are “verbal constructs”, i.e. that motion is a word without reference to a concrete experience of any kind, but defined by putting together previous words. But this would just mean that we regard motion as abstract, conceived – whereas, we clearly concretely perceive motions. The experience of motion has to be admitted, we cannot ignore it. Whether this experience is imaginary or physical is another (conceptual) issue, which does not affect it.[20]

Now, the question arises, is rest equally evident? Prima facie, my answer would be: yes. Our experiences include not only appearances of motion but also appearances of rest. Whether perceived rest is at a conceptual level real or illusory is irrelevant; that it is perceived suffices to qualify it as empirical evidence. Here again, to claim that the concept of rest is based on a mental projection on dynamic physical phenomena, does not invalidate the concept, for we are still left within that thesis with the experience of static mental phenomena. Unfortunately, when we formulate theories of motion, in a bid to understand it, two broad hypotheses emerge:

·        One (the “divisionist” theory) is that motion is infinitely divisible, so that there is no time at which the moving thing (be it physical or mental) is at rest. This theory does not in itself exclude the possibility of rest, since it leaves open the possibility that there are times and places devoid of motion; it only specifies that, at least when and where motion occurs, it is infinitely divisible.

·        The other (the “atomist” theory) is that motion is discrete or “atomic”, a fitful succession of instantaneous motions and momentary rests. According to this theory, motion as such takes no time (an instant is a point in time), only rest takes time (a moment is a duration of time). When something moves, it exists first in one place then in quite another without traversing intermediate places. The moving thing can never be said to have stopped existing momentarily, i.e. for any duration of time, since it switched places instantaneously, i.e. in zero amount of time.

Both these theories are compatible with rest, as well as motion. But the second one implies rest as real, whereas the first one only allows for rest as real. Many philosophers, including Nagarjuna as a Buddhist[21], go one step further and regard that everything is really in constant flux, so that rest is only (somehow) illusory. This thesis, note well, is a possible though not necessary offshoot of the first proposition, and logically implies it since not compatible with the second. Now, we cannot simply deny it as an arbitrary generalization, because it has a lot going for it in a large context of empirical and rational considerations. Namely, it seems implied by modern physics, which seems to reduce everything to wave motions (fields), and this idea in turn (generalized beyond the physical realm) provides us with a neat explanation of “universals” (i.e. abstracts) as the shapes and measures of the waves constituting all things[22].

So we have to conceive some respect in which rest might differ from motion experientially, so that although both are indubitably phenomenal (perceived, concrete, experiential, empirical), whether on a physical or mental level, we can still label the one illusory and the other real. We might propose that physical rest is only superficially apparent, due to our sensory inability to observe the motion which constantly underlies it; that is, because our sense-organs are limited in the degree of detail they allow us to perceive – limited in both space and time – we only perceive fragments of physical reality and those fragments we fail to perceive we treat as absent. Similarly with regard to imaginary entities (i.e. mental projections) – we may not be perceiving all their details.

This thesis is credible and consistent, and indeed confirmed by various experiments. It does not appeal to a concept of illusion based on the mind-body distinction, but rather to an “optical illusion” effect (not limited to the visual field, but analogously applicable to all the sense-modalities, and to imagination). It does not say that what we perceive is wrong (which would lead to self-contradiction), but only that we do not perceive everything that is there (conceptual considerations may suggest this without self-contradiction). The issue is, does this thesis succeed in differentiating experienced rest from experienced motion, condemning the one as illusory and justifying the other as real?

We might succeed, by saying that every (perceived) fragment of (infinitely divisible) motion is still motion, whereas a (perceived) fragment of rest may upon further division be found to conceal underlying motion. Thus, although both motion and rest are undeniably present on the perceptual level (in both the material and the mental phenomenal fields), we may still on a conceptual level give the one ontological precedence over the other. The Atomist hypothesis implies both motion and rest to be equally real, but the hypothesis of Divisionism only demands that motion be real, allowing for the possibility that rest be real (limited or moderate version) or unreal (general or extreme version). We can thus conceptually ‘explain away’ the phenomenon of rest as imperfectly perceived motion. Since the perception of rest is not dismissed, but only conceptually ‘reduced’ from rest to motion that has been only roughly experienced, this is epistemologically acceptable.

Let us now return to Nagarjuna’s premise that “motion and rest are relative to each other”. He does not ultimately believe in either motion or rest, remember, but considers these concepts tied within ordinary consciousness. In the light of our above analysis, we have to deny such a strong relationship between these concepts. It is possible to affirm both motion and rest, conceptually (through “moderate divisionism” or “atomism”) as well as empirically – although we may choose not to adopt this course for various reasons (such as our need for a theory of “waves” in Physics or a theory of “universals” in Philosophy). It is also possible to affirm motion, while denying rest – we have just done so, with reasonable consistency, at least on a hypothetical level (in “extreme divisionism”). A world in universal and continuous flux seems conceivable, even while admitting the empirical status of both motion and rest, by considering the coarseness or graininess of the objects of perception. We cannot, however, affirm rest and deny motion, or deny both rest and motion; motion must be in any case affirmed. [23]



[1]          See Cheng, pp. 78-83, on this topic. He there refers to MT II:1-21. Nagarjuna’s claim that motion is impossible is comparable to that of Zeno the Eleatic, but the latter does not deny rest like the former; furthermore, their arguments are very different.

[2]          See Appendix 1: fallacy H.

[3]          See Appendix 1: fallacy B.

[4]          See Appendix 1: fallacy G.

[5]          See Appendix 1: fallacy B.

[6]          See Appendix 1: fallacy D.

[7]          See Appendix 1: fallacy H.

[8]          See Appendix 1: fallacy F.

[9]          See Appendix 1: fallacy H.

[10]        The terms ‘mover’ or ‘moving thing’ are clearly not intended here to have causal connotations, i.e. to tell us who or what is causing the movement or being caused to move. That is not the issue under discussion, note well. The terms are meant neutrally, to refer to the underlying entity undergoing movement.

[11]        See Appendix 1: fallacy G.

[12]        To give an example. A bird stays awhile in my field of vision. Many of its features are constant (e.g. the shape of its head); some vary (e.g. its wings may be folded or spread out). If the bird appearance changed suddenly into the appearance of a rabbit, then a tree, then a car, then an elephant – I might well be tempted to consider appearances as without substratum. But because this does not happen, at least not within the brief and narrow scope of my experience of life, I opt for the thesis that there is an underlying entity (that I call a concrete “bird”). At a later stage, seeing many similar entities, having in common various anatomical and biological characteristics (such as wings, etc.), which distinguish them from other entities (e.g. winged insects), I additionally formulate an abstract class of “birds”.

[13]        See Appendix 1: fallacy B.

[14]        See Appendix 1: fallacy H.

[15]        This is not to be confused with the concept of acceleration, i.e. change of velocity.

[16]        See Appendix 1: fallacies F and B.

[17]        See Appendix 1: fallacies H and B.

[18]        See Appendix 1: fallacy C.

[19]        A vision seemingly adopted by Parmenides, incidentally.

[20]        See Appendix 1: fallacy G.

[21]        We have already cited Heraclitus as the first Western philosopher known to have done so.

[22]        It might be that waves and universals can be assimilated by an atomist theory, but to my knowledge no one has tried and succeeded in doing this – so in the meantime we may assume it cannot be done.

[23]             Concepts like motion and rest, or like space and time, do not concern abstracts. All our discussion, note well, has revolved around concretes; abstracts are ultimately just measures or degrees of these. As concretes come and go, so in a sense do their abstract features (since features are tied to what they feature, being but aspects of them) – but we regard two similar concretes as having not two but one abstract in common. That is the whole point of abstraction: to ignore plurality and concentrate on unity. We might however talk of change of an abstract, when the underlying concretes have changed so radically that they no longer display a certain abstract in common. For example, water may be changed into hydrogen and oxygen; the result is no longer water but other chemicals; in contrast, when liquid water is changed to steam, it remains water.

 

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