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LOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL REFLECTIONS

© Avi Sion, 1996-2009 All rights reserved.

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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

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

Chapter 15. Impermanence

Man is like a breath; his days are as a passing shadow. (Ps. 144)

The transience[1] of worldly existence is rightly emphasized by Buddhism; but it is wrongly formulated when it is stated as “everything is transient” (or some similar expression), because “everything” formally includes the statement itself, implying it to be transient too, whereas the statement is intended as a law not subject to change – so there is self-contradiction. The contradiction is avoidable if we just qualify the statement, saying: “everything in this world is transient”, implying that beyond the domain of material and mental phenomena there is some sort of stability.

The existence of an underlying or transcendental constancy is admitted by Buddhists when they speak of the “original ground of being” or of our having a “Buddha nature” – but they are at the same time doctrinally committed to the idea of universal transience. The latter is a dogma many refuse to budge from, although when pushed to the wall some will admit that there are “two truths” – the truth of transience in this world and the truth of permanence in the world beyond.

That is to say, whereas the world of matter and mind (known through sensory and mental perception) is indeed impermanent, the world of the spirit (known through intuitive consciousness) is free of change.

Consider for example a car. If we scratch the paintwork or change one of its wheels, is it another car or the same car? We would conventionally continue to regard it as “one and the same” car, but add that its paintwork was scratched or its wheel had changed. But if this is true, then if we successively changed all its parts, we would be calling a completely different car “the same” car, even though not one of its parts is still present at the end of the process!

Analysis of this sort shows that there is some absurdity in our naming material – or likewise, mental – objects as if they are constant – although they never are. The question then arises: where should we draw the line? How many changes are compatible with calling the car the “same” individual, and how many force us to call it a “different” individual? Any answer we might propose would obviously be quite arbitrary!

This insight was central to the Buddha’s doctrine that phenomenal objects are mere composites without an abiding essence. There is no “ghost” of a car underlying an apparent individual car, which stays on while the components of the car change (as they inevitably and invariably do). The same is true for any part of the car: e.g. a wheel is itself a mere composite of bits of metal and rubber. There is no concrete phenomenon we can point to and call “the car” or “the wheel”. The same can be said of mental objects, i.e. memories, imaginations, anticipations and dreams.

It follows that our naming of material and mental objects is a conventional act, which cannot sustain critical scrutiny. The individual object is apparently “the same” moment after moment, because we conceive a similarity between our perceptions at successive times. But such similarity is an abstract truth, made possible by our ability to compare perceptions and find some common measures between them. It is not a concrete truth – there is no phenomenal underlying unity. Thus, and in this sense, the appearance of sameness is an illusion and not a reality.

Note, however, that this argument is not entirely convincing. First, because in involves an extrapolation from an epistemological limitation (our inability to perceive an essence) to an ontological assumption (that there is no essence). This is presented as a deduction, whereas it is a mere hypothesis – and inductive logic still allows us to propose the counter-thesis that there is a unity of some sort, provided we adduce more favorable evidence and arguments in its support.

Second, we can point out that in the transition from one composition of the object to another (e.g. a car with a old wheel, then with a new wheel), there is some continuity in the way of overlap (i.e. some of the car parts seem unchanged). We could not change all the car parts at once and call the new construct “the same” car (i.e. the same individual car, even if the kind of car is the same); the past constituents would have to instantly disappear and be “replaced” by a new set of constituents – and even then (if we could prove this had indeed occurred) we would hesitate to call the two incarnations “the same” individual.

This is at least true for matter; that is to say, in our experience of matter we do not encounter complex things that instantly pop in or out of existence, or change into something completely different. This sort of wild behavior is, however, experienced in dreams or daydreams – and the reason why is that in the mental domain we are free to intend any one thing to be “identical with” any other thing. Even so, even though mental scenarios are arbitrary, it does not follow that what we thus intend is really equal.

The next question to ask would be: are there or not irreducible primaries, i.e. phenomena (whether material or mental) that are not themselves composed of other phenomena? Some Buddhist philosophers (of the Abhidharma school) have insisted that there must be some initial building blocks (said in Sanskrit to have svabhaha, “own-being” or “self-nature”[2]) from which all other things in the world are constructed; while others (mostly from the Mahayana school) have opted for the idea that there is no end to the subdivision of matter and mind into simpler constituents.

The former opinion may be compared to the atomism[3] of antiquity and early modern science, and the latter to more recent approaches in modern science, which keep going deeper in matter and finding no end to it.

I would like to state that contrary to common claims by its opponents so-called Aristotelian logic does not depend on belief in “essences” for its validity. The term is for a start ambiguous: does it refer to concrete particulars (i.e. irreducible primary phenomena), or to abstractions (i.e. conceived commensurability)? If by essences we mean abstractions, it is clear that logic would be unnecessary and impossible without them. But if we mean concrete prime constituents, the laws of thought are equally applicable whether they are affirmed or denied. They do not prejudice the result of infinite subdivision, but they do clarify some potentially absurd lines of thought.

For one, the infinite subdivision view seems nihilistic if taken to an extreme, and indeed some have taken it that far, inferring that literally nothing (or “emptiness”) is at the root of all being. But such an inference is not only paradoxical – it is not justified from the premises. For even if we forever keep finding smaller or simpler constituents, it does not follow that the constituents ever become non-existents. It is a fallacy, like the assumption that infinite divisibility of space ultimately implies subdivisions without extension, or that an infinity of zeros can add up to anything more than zero.

Also, those who claim that you can keep subdividing things, i.e. each phenomenon can be reduced to still finer phenomena ad infinitum, do not realize that this “you can” claim is fantasy and generalization. For, in truth, they do the subdivision mentally, and not physically; and they do it a small number of times, and not infinitely (which would surely take forever). Emptiness in this sense is not an experience, but at best a rational truth; and it is not even a deductive certainty, but a mere generalization. Thus, emptiness is at best an inductive truth.

To claim emptiness as a sure fact, one would have to be literally and demonstrably omniscient, knowing all of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and everything else in advance of any empirical efforts. One cannot subdivide something if one does not know what to subdivide it into; for instance, to say that white light is a mix of various colors of light, one would need to have experimented with a prism.

Furthermore, emptiness cannot be claimed a one-off experience, because it is defined by negation as the absence of “essence” (or “self-nature”). Negation is a basic act of reason; it is not something ever directly experienced, not a positive phenomenon. Thus, to claim that what the Buddha experienced is precisely emptiness, it would be necessary to claim a positive character to emptiness; otherwise, it must be admitted his rational faculty was involved.

Another fallacy involved in this view is the idea that “relationships” are somehow more real than the things (or non-things) they are considered as relating. It is claimed that nothing exists on its own, but everything exists dependently on other things or on everything else (codependence or interdependence theory) – but the relations of causal dependence here referred to seem to be implied to have independent existence! Superficially, due to use of ‘solid’ words, the dependences of all things on each other seem to provide a support for their alleged emptiness – but if the same analysis is also applied to those relational suppositions, everything is left hanging up without support.

Those who adopt this view do not realize that they are using the word “things” in a way that does not subsume “dependencies” – i.e. in a way not as wide-ranging as it seems. If we examine their outlook closely, we realize that by “things” they mean the concrete objects of experience, i.e. phenomena, while by the “relations” between things they mean abstractions introduced by conception. So ultimately their thesis is that concepts are more “real” than percepts! This is the very opposite of inductive logic, for which phenomenal data precedes and justifies any rational ordering and organization.

A more credible viewpoint, which reconciles the two said theses, is to assume some sort of monism – i.e. that all things are expressions of the same one thing. We need not regard that ultimate matrix of being as literally substantial, as did the alchemists of yore when they spoke of a prima materia. On a material level, the idea of an ‘ether’ (a cosmic fluid of some sort) has been shown untenable by the constancy of the speed of light; and the idea of ‘fields’ that replaced it is still rather abstract and needing of ontological clarification.

As for the stuff of mind, it might be assumed some kind of rarified matter, or vice versa, but that issue yet needs to be resolved. One problem in proposing this sort of equation is that we commonly believe that “mind” (i.e. the substance of mental objects, like memories, dreams, imaginations and anticipations) is more dependent on consciousness and its Subject than “matter” is.[4]

In any case, some sort of ultimate unity of all phenomena has to be assumed. In this monist model (as against the pluralist and nihilist hypotheses), the apparent variety and variability of the phenomenal is but an “expression” of the ultimate One[5]. The phenomenal is the surface of being, while the One is its depth. Whatever the mode of existence of that One (be it conceived as spiritual or energetic), it remains constant even as it generates variegated phenomena.

If “all is indeed One”, then “all names are falsely divisive” and “all phenomena are interdependent” (or at least all depend on the same common source). Thus, monism ought to be acceptable to the Buddhist philosophers who have the views described above. It is also acceptable to their critics – since we can say that at the level of the One, names are falsely divisive and phenomena are co- or inter-dependent; but at the pluralist level of common phenomena, names are valuable and extreme dependence is misleading.[6]

Be it said in passing, the spiritual expression of belief in monism is equanimity.



[1] Anitya in Sanskrit.

[2] I find enervating the way many people keep piously repeating the expression “self-nature” as if it has some clear established meaning. It is far from clearcut, and so cannot even be used as a logical yardstick the way some Buddhists use it.

[3] ‘Atom’ literally means ‘cannot be cut up further’; the word is here being used in a generic sense, not in the specifically material sense intended by Democritus or Dalton. The idea of atomism is that there are irreducible constituents of matter (and eventually, we could add, of mind), whose movements and combinations can be traced to explain all entities and states of the material (and analogously, the mental) world. If atoms had a beginning, they all came into being together; and if they ever have an end, they will all go together; so that, as of when and so long as the world exists, they are effectively unborn, unconditioned and indestructible. This is postulated in support of the hypothesis that atoms, though possibly of different varieties, do not change qualitatively, or increase or decrease quantitatively, but merely move around.

[4] Material objects seem more independent of their observers than do mental objects, since two or more persons may see the same material object (it is in the public domain) and when one leaves off watching it the other(s) continue to see it; whereas, a mental object is seen by only one person (it is in a private domain) and fails to exist if unseen by that person. While a material object is not apparently a product of any observer or nervous system, a mental object is considered as voluntarily produced by its observer or at least produced by the brain associated with that observer. Note however that in the case of mind, it is not accurate to say that consciousness affects its content – rather, the mental content is produced just prior to its being observed (although such production may necessitate earlier acts of deliberative consciousness). So the “subjectivity” involved is not extreme – there is a mental object somewhat apart from the Subject and his/her consciousness of it.

[5] Such monism is perhaps intended by the Buddhists in their concept of the dharmakaya, although if pressed they would likely insist on equating this original ground of being with sunyata (emptiness).

[6] This is more or less the Buddhist doctrine of Two Truths, anyway.

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2016-08-23T09:51:42+00:00