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BUDDHIST ILLOGIC

© Avi Sion, 2002 All rights reserved.

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BUDDHIST ILLOGIC

10. God and creation.

Nagarjuna sought to show[1] that it is “unintelligible to assert the existence of God as the creator or maker of the universe”[2]. He does this by means of several arguments, which I shall try to summarize, based on Cheng’s account, and to evaluate. Let me say at the outset that I personally do not believe we can prove or disprove the idea of God[3], so I cannot be accused of having an ax to grind on this issue. If Nagarjuna’s conclusion is deemed a disproof and denial of the concept, I am showing it erroneous. But if it is deemed a mere denial that the concept can be proved, I agree with him but am showing his reasoning in favor of such conclusion logically inadequate.

(a) One argument proceeds as follows: “if there is a fact of producing, making or creating… what is produced?” It is either the “already produced” or the “not yet produced” or the “being produced”. These three alternatives can, according to Nagarjuna, be “refuted in the same way as the concept of motion”, whence production “cannot be established” and therefore “it makes no sense” to affirm a “creator or maker”.

The pattern and content of this argument are by now familiar to us (see higher up), all Nagarjuna does here is repeat it with reference to the universe and God. But since, as we have already shown, the argument against production is logically worthless, the conclusion against creationism and God drawn from it is also without credibility.[4] But note additionally that Nagarjuna does not, as philosophers often do, make any radical distinction between “production” in the sense applicable within the universe (which is a mere reshuffling of preexisting elements) and “creation or making” in the sense applicable to the universe (which is ex nihilo, or at least a conversion of the spiritual substance of God into material and other substances).

(b) The next argument we shall review is more interesting. Let us suppose that something (symbolized by an ‘x’) is “made or produced by someone or something”. Now, x has to be made either “by itself” or “by another” or “by both” or “by no cause”. But, firstly, it cannot be made by itself, for that would imply that “it makes its own substance”, and “a thing cannot use itself to make itself” for that would be “reflexive action”, i.e. the thing would be “both subject and object at once,” which is impossible since “subject and object are different.” Secondly, x cannot be made by some other thing, because the latter would be “causal conditions” and these ought to be considered as “its substance” and so would be “the same” and not “other”. It follows that x cannot be made both by itself and by another. Lastly, it cannot be made by no cause, because “there would be a fallacy of eternalism”.

It is not clear to me what or who is the subject, x, of this argument. It might be intended to be the universe or God. In either case, the argument seems to be that a thing can neither be self-created, nor be other-created, nor be both, nor be uncreated (i.e. neither). With regard to self-creation, I would agree with Nagarjuna that the concept is nonsensical. His second thesis, denying that something can be “made by another”, is however not convincing. He claims that the causes or conditions of something have to be counted as part (of the substance) of that thing, so that the alleged “other” is in fact not “other” (implying that the concept of other-creation is self-contradictory). But we do not ordinarily count all “causal conditions” of a thing as part of it or of its substance; we might do so in some cases, if such antecedents are exclusive to that thing and no other factors can be used to define it, but usually we would regard them as separate events that bring it about.[5]

The third thesis, against “both” self and other creation, could be admitted offhand since we have admitted his first thesis that a thing creating itself (wholly, ex nihilo) is impossible. Alternatively, we could interpret the third thesis as referring to something partly created by another, and then that part proceeding to create the remaining parts. If we so conceive Nagarjuna’s third option, as other and self creation in sequence, we have to disagree that this is impossible. As for the fourth thesis, that a thing may be created by neither self nor other, i.e. may be uncreated, again two interpretations are possible. One, which Nagarjuna mentions, is that the causeless was always there; Nagarjuna considers that impossible, in accord with Buddhist doctrine that eternity is a fallacious concept, but I have seen no logical justification of that viewpoint and to my Western mind eternity (of God or of the universe) is quite conceivable. Another interpretation, which Nagarjuna apparently ignores, is that something might arise spontaneously, i.e. pop into existence out of nothing; this is an idea which some find unconscionable, but we may accept it as at least imaginable.[6]

To summarize, Nagarjuna conceives of four scenarios for creation, and claims to find reason to reject all four, concluding that the idea of God creating universe is unthinkable and therefore that God is unintelligible. We, however, are not overwhelmed by his arguments. Only his rejection of self-creation makes sense. His rejection of other-creation is forced. His interpretations of “both” and “neither” are incomplete, and we can offer additional ones, which leave the issues open. The dilemma as a whole is therefore inconclusive, and Nagarjuna may not logically draw the conclusions he draws.[7] However, let us return briefly to Nagarjuna’s second thesis, for he might be trying to formulate a more complex thought than appears.

Let us suppose Nagarjuna is discussing whether God created the universe. If we take “the universe” as an open-ended concept including whatever happens to exist at any one time, then God was himself the whole universe before He created the rest of the universe[8]. Viewing creation thusly, we are not talking about ex nihilo creation, which is a confused concept since it ignores or obscures the preexistence of something (God) doing the creating – but of an earlier universe, with only God in it, giving rise to a later universe, with God plus other things (matter, people with minds) in it[9]. The mystery of creation in that case is simply, how can a spiritual entity, such as the God we conceive, produce matter, either from nowhere (i.e. without self-diminishment) or out of itself (as the tsimtsum concept of creation of Jewish Kabbalah seems to suggest)? The latter idea, that God might have given something of Himself to fashion matter, does not seem too difficult to accept philosophically (though some may consider it sacrilegious, as it implies that God either was diminished thereby or consented to transform part of His spirituality, if only a tiny speck of it, to the lower status of material substance).

It should be pointed out here that ‘creation’ does not simply mean causality by God of (the rest of) the universe. The presumed type of causality involved is volition, a free act of will, rather than causation. Furthermore, God is not conceived as the direct cause of everything in the universe, but merely as First Cause and Prime Mover, i.e. as the cause of its initial contents and their initial movement, as well as of the ‘laws of nature’ governing them. This might be taken to mean, in a modern perspective, the core matter subject to the Big Bang, the ignition of that explosion and the programming of the evolution of nature thereafter, including appearance of elementary particles, atoms of increasing complexity, stars and planets, molecules, living cells, evolution of life forms, organisms with consciousness and will, and so forth (creationism need not be considered tied to a literal Biblical scenario).

Once God has willed (i.e. created) inchoate nature, it continues on its course in accordance with causation, with perhaps room for spontaneous events (as quantum mechanics suggests) and for localized acts of volition (by people, and perhaps higher animals, when they appear on the scene). As already mentioned, there are degrees of causation; and when something causes some second thing that in turn causes some third thing, it does not follow that the first thing is a cause of the third, and even in cases where it is (thus indirectly) a cause, the degree of causation involved may be diminished in comparison with the preceding link in the chain (dampening). Similarly with volition, the cause of a cause may be a lesser cause or not a cause at all. It is therefore inaccurate to regard a First Cause, such as God is conceived to be relative to nature, as being ‘cause of everything’ lumped together irrespective of process. The succession of causal events and the varieties of causal relations involved, have to be taken into consideration.

Spontaneity of physical events and freedom of individual (human or animal) volition are not in logical conflict with creation, because they still occur in an existence context created by God. God may well be the indirect cause of spontaneous or individually willed events, in the sense of making them possible, without being their direct cause, in the sense of making them necessary or actualizing them. Furthermore, to affirm creation does not logically require that we regard, as did some Greek philosophers, God as thereafter forced to let Nature follow its set course unhindered. It is conceivable that He chooses not to interfere at all; but it is equally conceivable that He chooses to interfere punctually, occasionally changing the course of things (this would be what we call ‘miracle’, or more broadly ‘providence’), or even at some future time arresting the world altogether. His being the world’s initiator need not incapacitate Him thereafter from getting further involved.

All that I have just described is conceivable, i.e. a consistent theory of creation, but this does not mean that it is definitely proven, i.e. deductively self-evident or inductively the only acceptable vision of things in the context of all available empirical data. Note well that I am not trying to give unconditional support to religious dogmas of any sort. Rather, I am reacting to the pretensions of many so-called scientists today, who (based on very simplistic ideas of causality and causal logic) claim that they have definitely disproved creation, or who like Nagarjuna claim that it is logically not even thinkable. Such dogmas are not genuine philosophy. One should never let oneself be intimidated by either priestly or academic prestige, but always remain open-minded and consider facts and arguments impartially and fairly.

Alternatively, Nagarjuna could be supposed to discuss in his second thesis whether God was created by something else. In that case, I would agree with his rejection of the idea. We could claim that God is uncreated, on the ground that we have conceived God as an explanation of the world appearing before us, and cannot go on looking for an explanation of the explanation and so on, ad infinitum. This position can however be legitimately contested, on the ground that if we demand one explanation, consistency requires that we demand an infinite regression of them. So we are in a quandary, faced with either a lack of explanation or an overdose of explanations, neither of which is logically satisfying.

We might oppose an atheist conclusion by arguing that if we consider it acceptable to offer no explanation for the world, then we could equally well be allowed to offer none for God. However, there is a difference between these two positions, in that the world is empirically evident before us, whereas God is not[10]; furthermore, explanations are meant to simplify problems, whereas the assumption of God introduces new and more complex questions compared to the assumption of a world without God.

In conclusion, the ideas of God and creation are certainly full of difficulties, as Nagarjuna asserts (though for the wrong reasons), but altogether abandoning them also leaves us with difficulties, which Nagarjuna does not consider. The currently most rational position is probably an agnosticism leaning towards atheism. This does not preclude a personal leap of faith, based not on reason but on more emotional grounds – that is precisely what we mean by ‘faith’[11]. It is interesting to note, concerning Buddhism, that “when someone asked Buddha the question whether the world was made by God, he did not answer”[12].

Cheng tells us that “the true Madhyamika approach” is “neither theistic nor atheistic”, but merely that God “cannot be conceived of as existing”. Nagarjuna does not really infer from the latter (though at times he seems to) that God does not exist, because “only a significant statement can be significantly negated or contradicted”. Thus, even agnosticism is rejected by him, since it considers the issue meaningful. Clearly, I am disagreeing, and maintaining that God is (somewhat) conceivable, but is neither provable nor disprovable; i.e. a reasonably intelligible and consistent theological theory can be formulated, but it remains speculative as we have no way to verify or falsify it.

(c) Other issues raised by Nagarjuna include the following:

· He asks who in turn created God, and who in turn created that creator of the creator, ad infinitum? This is of course a serious logical issue, legitimately raised. We have already addressed it, without claiming to have finally resolved it. The important counter-argument to note here is that atheism, too, leaves an unanswered question: how come existence exists?[13]

· Nagarjuna asks in what place God was staying when he created the world, and in what place he put the world he created, and whether he or another created those places; and he claims that such considerations give rise to infinite regress of creations and creators. This query is also legitimate, but more easily opposed. One might hypothesize that God takes up no space and created space as well as its contents. One might add the more modern view, that space is not independent of matter, nor ‘occupied’ by it, but a relation between material items. It is also interesting to note that modern physics postulates certain basic constituents of matter as without spatial extension.

· He asks why, if God (as we conceive Him) is omnipotent and omniscient, and so unhindered by obstacles, He did not create the world “in its totality at one and the same time”. To me this question does not seem very unsettling – we can just answer, why not? I mean, if God had done so, Nagarjuna would be asking: why not create a world of process?[14]

· He should rather have asked why, if God (as we conceive Him) is complete and self-sufficient, and so lacking nothing and so desiring nothing, He created the world at all. What might possibly have been His motive? That is a $64,000 question, for which no answer is forthcoming from anyone! Nagarjuna perhaps senses this question, when he argues that “God wanted to create all creatures” implies antecedent “causal conditions”, i.e. that “all things were produced from karma”. But it must be pointed out that if creation is an act of volition, it might well be without motive, and even if it has a motive such motive would be an influence but not a deterministic cause. There is no inconsistency in regarding free will as occasionally motiveless, or when motivated as unforced by its motives. That is precisely what distinguishes volition from mechanical action: it remains free and the responsibility of the Agent irrespective of all surrounding circumstances.

· Nagarjuna also brings up “the problem of evil” (what we today call theodicy, i.e. the justice of God): if God (as we conceive Him) is omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely good, just and compassionate, why does He let “moral evil and physical suffering” exist in the world? “Evil men enjoy happiness and… good men suffer” and yet God will not or cannot prevent it. “If God cannot prevent evil he is not omnipotent, and if he can but will not, he is not all good.” Thus, at least two of the attributes we assign to Him, omnipotence and perfect goodness, are mutually contradictory, given that “obviously, there is evil in the world” (and being omniscient, He must be aware of it). Therefore, God is either “not omnipotent” or “not all good” (or both), which in either case would mean a lack of the attributes we conceive him as having to have to be God, so that “he is not God” and “God cannot be conceived to exist”.

This is of course a big issue for theists to face, and Nagarjuna’s reasoning here is generally valid. However, the problem is not logically insurmountable and Nagarjuna’s conclusion is too quick and radical. For we can suppose that God has a more complex accounting process in mind (regarding reward and punishment, tit for tat), or that He has instituted a system of trials for our ultimate greater good. What we view as inexcusable suffering of innocents, may in God’s view not be as serious as we think, because (as Buddhism itself ultimately suggests) suffering is superficial and illusory. We may even have volunteered to be born into this world of apparently unjust suffering, to fulfill some purpose for God. And so forth – the concepts involved are logically too vague and uncertain to allow us to draw a definite conclusion.

Before leaving this topic, I would like to make some comments regarding Buddhism in general. At its core, the Buddhist doctrine is not theistic, in the sense of believing in a creator, nor particularly anti-theistic, though effectively atheistic. However, having arisen in Indian culture, it adopted ideas of gods, in the sense of supermen or supernatural beings, who were however themselves still ultimately subject to the Four Noble Truths, i.e. though they were very high-minded and heavenly, due to their good karma, they too eventually had to find liberation from the karmic cycle or face a lesser rebirth. At a later stage, as Cheng says, “the Buddha was deified”, not in the sense of being regarded as creator, but in the sense of having the other “main admirable characteristics of God or divine being” that we have listed above. Initially a saintly man, he was promoted by his disciples to the highest rank of godliness, above all the other gods just described, because no longer subject to ignorance and karma. He had, as it were, dissolved in the universal unity (reality, nirvana) underlying the world of multiplicity (illusion, samsara), and thus merged with what might be called God.

Another aspect to be mentioned is that of idolatry, i.e. the worship of statues representing gods. This practice was present in Indian culture when Buddhism arose, and in other Asian cultures when Buddhism later reached them. Buddhists soon adopted this practice too, making and worshipping statues of the Buddha, and later other presumed Buddhas, boddhisattvas and arhats (saints). For at least some Buddhist sects, prayer and offerings to such statues seems to be the main religious activity. It is very surprising that Buddhism did not from its inception firmly discard such polytheism and idol worship. One would have thought, considering the otherwise ‘scientific’ mindedness of core Buddhist doctrine, that it would have sharply criticized and inhibited such irrelevant and dubious tendencies. No doubt, the initial motive was tolerance, taking potential converts as they were and avoiding conflict; but this attitude effectively perpetuated primitive habits.[15]

But it ought to be emphasized that the worship of carvings of Buddhas is in direct logical contradiction with the ‘nothing has a self’ doctrine of Buddhism, since it involves a mental projection of selfhood into statues. The fact is that, in the idol worshipper’s mind, the figure he calls to and bows to is somehow a part of or an emanation of or a conduit to the transcendent deity, and so possessed of a (derivative) ‘soul’. Thus, idolatry perpetuates one of the main psychological errors of people, according to Buddhism. If it is ignorance to assign soul to a living being, which at least seems to have consciousness, emotion and volition, how much more foolish it is to assign it to stone (or paper or even, finally, mental) images! Ordinary Buddhists surely cannot hope to attain the ideal of Buddhism by such practices, which have exactly the opposite educational effect.

All this to say that, whereas the core Buddhist doctrine is not especially concerned with theological ideas or issues, but with promoting wise and loving attitudes and behavior patterns, tending to enlightenment and liberation, Buddhism in practice is, for most of its adherents still today, a theism of sorts.

It should moreover be stressed that the attack on Creation is a distraction. The main underlying problem of the beginning of things remains, even for non-theists. Physicists have to face it, and so do Buddhists. In the latter context, in the beginning is the “original ground” of Nirvana. Its nature and essence is stillness, quietness, peace, perfection and fulfillment. All of a sudden, it stirs and subdivides; then more and more, till it engages in a frenzy of motion and distinctions. Samsara is born and proceeds. Since then, according to Buddhism, existence is suffering; and the meaning of all our lives is to intentionally return to the original mind state, by means of meditation and good deeds. So, what caused this madness? Was the original ground unstable or dissatisfied? Was it an incomprehensible “spontaneous” event or was it a stupid “act of will”? Buddhism does not really explain.

Very similar notions are found in Judaism. Note first the ambivalence about Creation, which is presumed by Rabbinical commentators to be an ‘act of love’ by God for his creatures (on the principle that whatever God does has to be good), but at the same time is admitted as an act that gave rise (at least since the Garden of Eden incident) to empirically evident “evil” in the world. In particular, while procreation is prescribed so as to perpetuate life, the sex act is viewed as involving the “evil impulse”. Note also the Jew’s duty to work his/her way, through study, prayer and other good deeds (mitzvoth), towards – according to kabalistic interpretations – a renewed fusion with God (teshuvah). If we draw an analogy between the Jewish idea of God (one, unique, universal, infinite) and the less personalized Buddhist idea of Nirvana, we see the equivalence between the questions “why did God create the world?” and “why did Nirvana degenerate into Samsara?”



[1] See Cheng, pp. 89-96 on this topic.

He refers to MT XXII, as well as to TGT X, XII:1 and the last chapter.

[2] Note that Nagarjuna identifies God with the Indian deity Isvara. Cheng wonders in passing whether this was warranted; a more accurate identification would in my view have been with the Brahman of Hinduism. However, this need not concern us here, for the attributes used by him to describe God correspond to those any Western philosopher would grant.

[3] I normally follow a Jewish tradition that the word should be written incompletely, as “G-d” – but this has proven confusing for many people. The reason for the tradition is to avoid that the word be taken into an impure place, or be physically torn or deleted.

[4] See Appendix 1: fallacy D.

[5] See Appendix 1: fallacy D.

[6] See Appendix 1: fallacy C.

[7] See Appendix 1: fallacy B.

[8] Cheng at one point (p. 92) recalls Bertrand Russell’s argument against God and creationism – that while it is reasonable to inquire about the causes of particular phenomena, it is nonsensical to inquire about a cause for the totality of all phenomena. This is of course a very forceful argument, considering that (as we have seen) the concept of causality arises only in response to perceived regularities of conjunction between phenomena(here including in this term, as well as sensory or mental perceptions, intuitive experiences and conceptions). It is true that the search for causes of phenomena is always a search for other phenomena that might be regularly conjoined with them. But Russell’s argument is not logically conclusive. For if God existed, and we could one day perceive Him (or a “part” or “aspect” of Him), He would simply be one more phenomenon. In which case, creation would refer not to causation of the totality of phenomena (by a non-phenomenon), but simply to causation by one phenomenon of all other phenomena – which is a quite consistent viewpoint. If “the universe” is understood in a fixed, narrow sense, of course it is absurd to seek for a cause of it beyond it. But if the term is taken as open to all comers, no difficulty arises. A term with similar properties is the term “Nature” – if we understand it rigidly, “miracles” are possible; but if we take it flexibly, the concept of something “supernatural” like that becomes at best merely conventional.

[9] Of course, Nagarjuna would reject the proposition that God is eternal and at some time chose to create the world, since he does not admit of eternity.

[10] The theory that God exists counts the existence of the world as empirical evidence for itself, since that is what the theory is constructed to explain. But this confirming evidence is not exclusive to that theory, since it is also claimed by contrary theories. This standoff could only be resolved, deductively, if some inextricable inconsistencies were found in all but one theory; or inductively, if some empirical detail were found which is explicable by one theory and not by the others.

[11] Even Buddhism calls on its adherents to have faith – faith enough to pursue enlightenment by meditation or whatever practices, till they get there and see its truth directly for themselves.

[12] Cheng, p. 93.

[13] See Appendix 1: fallacy I.

[14] See Appendix 1: fallacy I.

[15] I have never seen idolatry even questioned in any Buddhist text, ancient or modern! But anyway my historical analysis is confirmed in Christmas Humphreys’ Buddhism (Harmondsworth, Mx.: Penguin, 1955. Rev. ed.). He states: “As it gently flowed into country after country… [Buddhism] tended to adopt, or failed to contest the rival claims of, the indigenous beliefs, however crude. In this way the most divers and debased beliefs were added to the corpus of ‘Buddhism’, and embarrass the student to-day” (p. 12). Later, he writes: “Certainly within a hundred years of the death of Asoka… from a human being the Buddha had become a super-human being, and his spiritual Essence had entered a pantheon nearly as large as that of the Hinduism from which it largely derived” (pp. 48-49).

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2013-11-24T13:29:56+00:00