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8. Co-dependence.

· One further argument mentioned by Cheng[1] goes like this: Nagarjuna questions the legitimacy of an “ontological interpretation of causation” that claims “an entity which has essential nature” can be “something which is caused”. In his view such claim is contradictory, for “an entity is supposed to have essential nature and a thing of essential nature is not produced but independent of other things” and “to be caused is to be conditioned or to be dependent”.

This argument evidently refers back to the belief of Indian philosophers that an existent is either permanent and uncaused or momentary and caused. But these temporal and causal notions are not as tied together as Indian philosophers assumed. If we look at their actual genesis in the formation of human knowledge, we see that they in principle allow for intermediate combinations, like “caused and henceforth permanent” or “momentary yet uncaused”.

Furthermore, the concepts of “entity” and “essence” are very confused in Nagarjuna’s and the Buddhist mind. They do not fully realize that these concepts refer to continuities, individual (in the case of “entity”) or collective (in the case of “essence”), which are assumed so as to register and explain experienced repetition of objects. These are not mysterious, arbitrary inserts in the course of human knowledge, but statistical tools for recording and comprehending certain pluralities of experience.

In attacking causality, Nagarjuna effectively also attacks the Buddhist concept of co-dependence, which is normally considered one of the main bases for, or the causal expression of, the fact and doctrine of “emptiness”. Here, as elsewhere, he is not antipathetic to Buddhist belief, but convinced that only by disowning all concepts and doctrines – including causality and co-dependence – can we in fact get in contact with what they merely point to. The finger pointing at something, however accurately, gets in the way and distracts us from that thing, and is therefore best dropped.

Let us venture more deeply into the Buddhist doctrines at issue. I cannot here engage in their detailed analysis, thorough treatment requires a whole book (see my forthcoming publication on causal logic). But I will make a few pointed remarks. The Buddha was previously understood as regarding all phenomena as mutually causally related, interdependent, ‘co-dependent’ – suspended together in the field of appearance without underlying causes and unable to exist in it without mutual sustenance.

Admittedly, all that we perceive is a succession of present phenomenal fields. But by means of our rational faculty, we then subdivide such overall phenomena into constituent phenomena (discernment), and by comparison and contrast find them same or different in various respects and degrees (abstraction), and thereby variously group and name them (classification), and then interrelate them (e.g. causally, with reference to perceived regularities). Such rational work is admittedly hypothetical, but that does not mean it is automatically false. It does not have the same epistemological status as empirical evidence, but may be relied on with various degrees of probability, to the extent that it takes such evidence into account and is guided and regulated by the three Laws of Thought, and the rules of deductive and inductive logic derivable from them.

Our belief in “entities”, as already explained, arises in order to explain the apparent similarities between phenomena that have succeeded and replaced each other in our experience. Such phenomena are partly different (changed), but also partly the same (abiding). If they were only different, we would have no call for a concept of “entity”; but because they are also the same, we do need such a concept to register the fact. Note that sometimes, assumption of an “entity” underlying perceived phenomena is reference to an additional, not yet perceived phenomenon; other times, assumption of an entity is simply reference to a collection of already perceived phenomena, i.e. the entity is no more than the conjunction those phenomena. Once thus understood, the concept of entity is seen to have nothing antithetical to a positivistic approach to knowledge.

Similarly with our belief in “essences”, which arises in response to our experiences of similarity as well as difference between phenomena, even in static situations. If, in our experience, nothing resembled anything else (extreme multiplicity) or if everything seemed identical with everything (extreme uniformity), the thought of “essences” would not even dawn on us. Assumption of an “essence”, once we demystify it and remove its idealistic connotations, and understand it as an expression of work of comparison, it loses the scarecrow status given it in Buddhist epistemology.

“Causality”, as we have already shown, may be similarly justified with reference to regularities of conjunction of phenomena (or more precisely, their presences and/or their absences). Thus, these fundamental concepts have empirical basis, they are not merely arbitrary constructs.

Now, let return to Nagarjuna’s ideas. One of them is that an entity or essence cannot come and go or be caused. It has to be seen that this is a particular (not to say, peculiar) thesis proposed by Indian philosophers, and not one inherent in the concepts involved. This proposition is not analytically obvious, and may only be regarded as an additional hypothesis to be synthetically established. It is not deducible from the initial conceptions, which (as above described) refer to various sorts of uniformities or regularities; it would have to be demonstrated by induction (grounded in some sort of empirical evidence) that these uniformities and regularities coincide as proposed. Otherwise, it is arbitrary (from our ordinary consciousness point of view, though it may be obvious to enlightened consciousness).

The initial concept of an entity only stipulates continuity in the midst of change; it does not preempt that such assumed substratum as a whole may itself appear or be generated, or disappear or be destroyed. Indeed, the fact that we commonly speak of entities as limited in time and as susceptible to initiation or termination shows that we do not ordinarily view entities so rigidly. For example, those who believe in a soul may view it as naturally arising (an epiphenomenon of matter) or as divinely created (an injection into matter), as temporary or eternal (in past and/or future) – the concept of soul leaves such issues open to debate. Similarly, the initial concept of an essence only requires that the abstract exist wherever and whenever the concretes it is attached to exist; when and where the concretes come or go or are caused to come or go, the abstract may in a sense be said to similarly behave or be affected (though strictly speaking such concepts are inapplicable to abstracts, as already discussed).

Another Buddhist idea, that of ‘co-dependence’, which might stated broadly as each thing exists only in relation to others; and furthermore, since each other thing in turn exists only in relation to yet others, each thing exists in relation to all the others. The relation primarily intended here is causality, note. We tend to regard each thing as capable of solitary existence in the universe, and ignore or forget the variegated threads relating it to other things. We ‘do not see the forest for the trees’, and habitually focus on individual events to the detriment of overview or long view.

For example, consider a plant. Without the sunlight, soil and water it depends on, and without previous generations of the same plant and the events that made reproduction possible and the trajectories of each atom constituting and feeding the plant, and without the cosmic upheavals that resulted in the existence of our planet and its soil and water and of the sun and of living matter, and so forth ad infinitum, there would be no plant. It has no independent existence, but stands before us only by virtue of a mass of causes and conditions. And so with these causes and conditions, they in turn are mere details in a universal fabric of being.

The concept of co-dependence is apparently regarded by Buddhists as an inevitable outcome of the concept of causality. But reflection shows, again, that this doctrine is only a particular thesis within the thesis of causality. That is, though co-dependence implies causality, causality does not imply co-dependence. Moreover, it is a vague thesis, which involves some doubtful generalizations. The above-cited typical example of co-dependence suggests three propositions:

· everything has a cause (or is an effect),

· everything has an effect (or is a cause);

and perhaps the more radical,

· everything causes and is caused by everything.

The first two propositions are together what we call ‘the law of causality’. It has to be seen that these propositions do not inevitably follow from the concept of causality. The latter only requires for its formation that some regularity of co-existence between events be found in experience, but does not in itself necessitate that every event in experience be found to have regular co-existence with some other event(s). The concept of causality is valid if it but has particular applications; the law of causality does not automatically follow – it is merely a generalization from some experiences with this property to all existents. There may well be things not found to have regular co-existents, and thence by generalization assumed to have no cause and/or no effect. A universe in which both causality and non-causality occur is quite conceivable. Furthermore, the first proposition does not logically imply the second or vice versa – i.e. we may imagine things with causes but no further effect, and things with effects but no preceding causes.

“Early Buddhists”, Cheng tells us, “believed in the principle of causality to be objectively, necessarily, eternally and universally valid.” Many Western philosophers have concurred, though not all. Today, most physicists believe that, on a quantum level at least, and perhaps at the Big Bang, there are events without apparent cause. I do not know if events without effect are postulated by anyone. In any case, we see that even on the physical level “chance” is admitted as a possibility, if not a certainty. The law of causality can continue to serve us as a working principle, pressing us to seek diligently for causes and effects, but cannot in any case be regarded as an a priori universal truth. Causal logic has to remain open-minded, since in any case these “laws” are mere generalizations – inductive, not deductive, truths.

Furthermore, the law of causality just mentioned is only at best a law of causation. Philosophers who admit of volition[2] cannot consistently uphold such a law as universal to all existents, but only in the ‘mechanistic’ domains of physical and psychological events. With regard to events involving the will, if we admit that a human being (or equivalent spiritual entity, a higher animal or God) can ‘will’ (somehow freely produce) a physiological event (i.e. a physical movement in his body) or a psychological event (i.e. an imagination, a mental projection), or even another soul (at least in the sense of choosing to reproduce), we have to consider this as an exception to such universal law of causation.

Also, if we consider that the Agent of will is always under the influence of some experience or reason, we might formulate an analogical law of causality with reference to this. But influence is not to be confused with causation; it does not determine the will, which remains free, but only strengthens or weakens it, facilitating or easing its operation in a certain direction. Moreover, it is not obvious that will cannot occur ‘nihilistically’, without any influence; it may well be free, not only to resist influences but also to operate in the absence of any motive whatsoever. In the latter case, the law of causality would again be at best a working principle, not a universal fact that volition requires a motive.

Let us now consider the more extreme statement that ‘everything causes and is caused by everything’, which could be construed (incorrectly) as implied by co-dependence. To say this is effectively to say paradoxically (as Nagarjuna would no doubt have enjoyed doing!) that nothing causes or is caused by anything – for causality is a relation found by noticing regularities in contrast to irregularities. If everything were regularly co-existent with everything, we would be unable to distinguish causality in the first place. It follows that such an extreme version of the law of causality is logically untenable. Causality cannot imply that ‘everything causes everything’ or ‘everything is caused by everything’ – and to deny the latter statements does not deny the concept, note well. The concept is not derived from such a law, but independently from observation of regularities in experience; our ability to discern such regularities from the mass of experience implies that there are irregularities too; whence, such an extreme statement cannot be consistently upheld. We must thus admit that things do not have unlimited numbers of causes or effects.

Although ‘everything causes everything’ implies ‘co-dependence’, the latter does not imply the former; so our refutation of the wider statement does not disprove co-dependence, only one possible (extreme) view of it. My criticism of co-dependence would be the following. For a start, the doctrine presented, and the illustrations given in support of it, do not use the term causality with any precision. First, as we have suggested above, causality, is a broad term, covering a variety of very distinct relations:

· causation or ‘mechanistic’ causality within the material and mental domains, and causation itself has many subspecies;

· volition, or action by souls on the material or mental or spiritual domains, and will has many degrees of freedom; and

· influence, which refers to limitations on volition set by material or mental or spiritual entities.

The doctrine of co-dependence glosses over the profound differences between these different senses of the terms ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, using them as if they were uniform in all their applications.

Also to be included as ‘causal relations’ in a broader sense are the negations of these relations. Even if some philosopher doubts one, two or all three of these (positive) relations, he would have to consider them. Concepts of ‘chance’ or ‘spontaneity’ are not simple, and can only be defined by negating those of causality; likewise, the concept of ‘determinism’ requires one of ‘free will’. It is only in contrast to causality concepts, that non-causality can be clearly conceived. Furthermore, co-dependence ignores that some things are not (positively) causally related to each other, even if they may have (positive) causal relations to other things. That something must have some cause or effect, does not imply that it has this or that specific thing as its cause or effect; there are still things to which it is not causally related. If everything had the same positive causal relation to everything, and no negative causal relation, there would be no such thing as causality, nothing standing out to be conceived.

Secondly, if we consider chains (or, in discourse, syllogisms) of causal relations, we find that the cause of a cause is not necessarily itself a cause, or at least not in the same sense or to the same degree. For instance, with reference to causation, we can formally prove that if A is a complete cause of B and B is a complete cause of C, then A is a complete cause of C. But if A is a complete cause of B and B is a partial cause of C, it does not follow that A is at all a cause of C. Similarly, when we mix the types of causality (e.g. causation and volition in series), we find that causality is not readily transmitted, in the same way or at all. It is therefore logically incorrect to infer transmission of causality from the mere fact of succession of causal relations as the theory of co-dependence does.

Thirdly, those who uphold co-dependence tend to treat both directions of causal relation as equivalent. Thus, when they say ‘everything is causally related to everything’, they seem to suggest that being a cause and being an effect is more or less the same. But something can only be regarded as a cause of things occurring after it in time or below it in conceptual hierarchy, and as an effect of things occurring before it or above it. Upstream and downstream are not equivalent. Thus, ‘interdependence’ cannot be taken too literally, using ‘causal relation’ in a too vague sense, without attention to the distinction between causal and effectual relationship.

Fourthly, the doctrine of co-dependence suggests or calls for some sort of law(s) of causality, and as already discussed higher up, no universal or restricted law of causality is logically necessitated by the concept of causality, although such a law may be considered a hypothetical principle to be validated inductively. The concept of causality only requires that some causality occur, without prejudicing how much. So, though co-dependence implies causality, causality does not imply co-dependence.

Fifthly, the concept of ‘co-dependence’ is upheld in contrast and opposition to a concept of ‘self-subsistence’. Something self-subsistent would exist ‘by itself’, without need of origination or support or destructibility, without ‘causal conditions’. Buddhism stresses that (apart perhaps from ultimate reality) nothing in the manifold has this property, which Buddhism claims ordinary consciousness upholds. In truth, the accusation that people commonly believe in the self-subsistence of entities is false – this is rather a construct of earlier Indian philosophy.

People generally believe that most things have origins (which bring them into existence), and that all things once generated have static relations to other existents (an infinity of relations, to all other things, if we count both positive and negative relations as ‘relations’), and that things usually depend for their continued existence on the presence or absence of other things (i.e. if some of the latter come or go, the former may go too). What is doubtful however, in my view, is the vague, implicit suggestion of the co-dependence doctrine, that while a thing is present, i.e. during the time of its actual existence, it has a somehow only relative existence, i.e. were it not for the other things present in that same moment, it could not stand.

This is not essentially a doctrine of relativity to consciousness or Subject (though Yogachara Buddhism might say so), note well, but an existential incapacity to stand alone. This is the aspect of co-dependence that the Western mind, or ordinary consciousness, would reject. In our world[3], once a thing is, and so long as it is, irrespective of the causes of its coming to be or the eventual causes of its ceasing to be, or of other things co-existing with it in time and its relationships to those things, or of its being an object of consciousness, it simply exists. It is a done thing, unchangeable historical fact, which nothing later in time can affect. It cannot be said to ‘depend’ on anything in the sense implied by Buddhists, because nothing could possibly be perceived or conceived as reversing or annulling this fact.

What Buddhism seems to be denying here is that ‘facts are facts’, whatever their surrounding circumstances, and whether or not they are cognized, however correctly or imperfectly. It is a denial that appearances, whatever their content and whether they be real or illusory, have occurred. We cannot accept such deviation from the Law of Identity.

Such considerations lead me to the conclusion that ‘co-dependence’ is not easy to formulate and establish, if at all. Nevertheless, I regard it as a useful ‘way of looking at things’, a valuable rough and ready heuristic principle. Also, to be fair, I remain open to the possibility that, at some deep level of meditative insight I have not reached, it acquires more meaning and validity.

[1] See pp. 87-88. Cheng there refers to MT XV:1a,2a,2b, XVII:1-33, XXIV:18, and Hui-cheng-lun, 72, as well as to TGT II.

[2] And at least some Buddhists seem to. For instance, the statement in the Dhammapada (v.165) that “by oneself the evil is done, and it is oneself who suffers: by oneself evil is not done, and by one’s Self one becomes pure. The pure and the impure come from oneself: no man can purify another” – this statement seems to imply existence of a self with responsibility for its actions.

[3] We can, incidentally, imagine a world where only one thing exists, without anything before it, simultaneous to it or after it.

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