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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought

Chapter 11. Buddhist causation theory

Whereas skeptics such as Hume considered that nothing has a cause, or at least that if anything does cause anything else we cannot know about it – Buddhist philosophy went to the opposite extreme and advocated that everything is interconnected to everything else, claiming that this universal truth is knowable through enlightened cognition and not merely through induction.

This philosophy of “interdependence” or “co-dependence” sounds good at first sight, because it implies that none of us is an island unto himself or herself. It is an ethical teaching against selfishness and irresponsibility. We are all part of a complex tapestry of relations, and no one can pride himself or herself on true independence from the rest of us. We should be grateful to each other and lovingly help each other. To put it very idealistically: everyone is an indispensable part of myself.

But on a strictly logical level, this view is difficult to uphold. For, if everything were causally interconnected, then we could not inductively identify causes and effects, because we could never ‘remove’ or ‘add’ any cause or effect! We would thus be deprived of one of our main scientific techniques of causal logic.

To identify causality, we need to consider what happens around a phenomenon (say, X) in both its presence and its absence. We need to experiment different situations. But the view that everything is both a cause and an effect of everything implies, for every X, both X and the negation of X to be always causally present, somehow. Universal contradiction seems to be required; that is, all contradictories coexisting and equally active at once.

We might at best say that this thesis implies that nothing has a complete and necessary causal relation to anything else, but all things are causally interrelated in the way of partial and contingent causation. Natural spontaneity and freewill are of course excluded from this thesis; it is essentially deterministic, note. But is it possible to even imagine partial-contingent causation without complete-necessary causation? I don’t think so. But supposing it is arguable, there would be no logical way to prove it.

Logically, such claim can only be an arbitrary assumption. It follows that the universal mutual causality claimed by the Buddhist is only knowable, if at all, by purely intuitive means – no scientific proof of it is possible. Furthermore, such universal intuition necessitates (implies) omniscience of all things, everywhere, at all times. And though we project that God has such cognitive power, and the Buddhists consider that a human being can acquire it through enlightenment, omniscience is not something we ordinarily encounter or know how to prove.

In a past work of mine[1], I explain how the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependence must not be taken as nugatory of the law of identity that ‘facts are facts’. I want to reiterate it here, because this insight of mine hit the nail on the head with regard to the significance of co-dependence. The advocates of co-dependence explicitly argue for it by means of diachronic examples (sunlight causes growth of plant, plant causes feeding of animals, etc), i.e. across time; but subsequently, they tacitly intend it synchronically, i.e. in the present tense.

This is the hidden lie of this doctrine: the implication that somehow the present does not firmly and definitely exist, but currently ‘depends’ on things outside it (i.e. in past or future). In truth: once actual, the present’s existence is not in need to any support by anything else; it just is and that’s that. Co-dependence implies that even actual present existence is somehow tenuous. Of course, such antinomy is precisely the ‘paradoxical’ aspect of co-dependence that makes it so emotionally attractive to postmodern readers, and which makes this doctrine quite distinct from any other causal philosophy.

Note well that I am not saying that causation requires change. We can establish causation between static existents – by referring to different instances of a class, i.e. with reference to the extensional mode of causation. The natural mode of causation, on the other hand, implies underlying changes in individuals – even when we express it verbally as a relation of static characters, we mean that the change from presence to absence or vice versa of those characters is involved.

The paradoxical aspect of the co-dependence thesis is its claiming the possibility of causation without differences across space and time, i.e. entirely in the here and now. This is a logically unthinkable and unknowable sort of causation. It should hardly be necessary to say that the present, once present, is a done thing; it can no longer be affected by the present, the past or the future. The past, once past, is gone; it is no longer changeable. The future is the only potentially changeable thing[2].

We can use these logical insights to refute the Buddhists’ view of the soul’s mode of existence. They consider that the soul has “no real existence” (in itself, as an essence) because of its interdependence with everything else. They argue that the soul has actual past causes of generation (e.g. parents, food, etc.) and possible future causes of destruction (e.g. if the body dies, the soul disappears, say). But in truth, such retrospective and prospective causalities do not change the reality that once the soul is, and so long as it is, its actual present existence is, and it is independently of anything else.

The advocates of this idea, that the soul’s existence is unreal, can be seen to profit from confusion between two terms: ontological dependence and epistemological dependence. Certainly, demonstrable past causes are indicative of what they call “dependent origination”, but future causes cannot be assimilated by anticipation to the same concept. They might at best be eventually described as instances of “dependent obliteration”! Just because in our present minds the existence of the object (here, the soul) is at the center of a mass of past, present and future causes, it does not follow that all these items can be indistinguishably considered as present causes.

Nevertheless, it is possible and valuable to view the whole world as one big Ocean, and all things apparently in it as complex waves and swirls of its water, always in flux. This image is often proposed in Buddhist teachings, in seeming justification of the idea of co-dependence, as well as the idea of impermanence and others.

Just as in a large body of water, a sea, a lake, a river, all the waves, though twirling and churning, are inseparable from the whole, so the waves of matter, mind and spirit in the universe, form a continuous whole. The various, changing many are ultimately a harmonious one. All subdivisions of the one in space or time are illusions or artificial projections by some observer. With regard to interdependence, a pressure in any locale of the whole is bound to somewhat affect all other locales.

This image reconciles the apparently conflicting views of the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitean philosophy emphasizes appearance, materiality, multiplicity and change: “you cannot step into the same river twice” (or indeed, even once), for by the time you do so, both you and it have changed. In Parmenidean philosophy, the opposite is stressed: “everything is one and the same”. At first sight, these views seem contradictory – one is pluralist and relativistic, and the other is monist and absolutist; but using the image of a body of water they can be made compatible and complementary.

Initially, this analogy to water seems to call for a universal underlying substance – an assumed “ether”. But, as Einstein has pointed out, since the velocity of light is the same in all directions and displays no Doppler effect, there can be no ether! Thus, all is one and one is nothing! This interesting discovery of modern science seems to confirm the much older Buddhist view that the universal ocean is one of Emptiness (Shunyata). Judaism also has this notion of the All as originally Nothingness (Yesh me-Ayin).

Be that as it may, we must still consider and deal with the world as it appears – in all its details of variety, change and causality. And this task has to be fulfilled responsibly – i.e. in a credible, empirical and logical manner. Vague, colorful, idealistic pronouncements will not do, however poetic they sound.

Thus, with regard to interdependence, it must be stressed that we can formally show with reference to causative syllogism that the cause of a cause cannot necessarily be regarded as a cause in turn – so the image of a tiny stir in one part of the ocean having an effect on all others is incorrect.[3]

[1] Buddhist Illogic, chapter 8.

[2] And that only if we assume some indeterminism; otherwise, if the future is inevitable, it can hardly be considered as changeable. Certainly, though science fiction fans and some science theorists are wont to imagine time travel, it has not to date been shown empirically possible, and therefore cannot be taken seriously.

[3] For further discussion of these issues, see my The Logic of Causation, especially chapters 10 and 16.

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