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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

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

Chapter 20. The laws of thought in meditation

The three laws of thought are commonly considered by many current commentators[1] to be (at best) only relevant to rational discourse, and not relevant at all or even antithetical to meditation and all the more so to its finale of enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth, as will now be explicated.

The laws of thought are principally ‘moral’ imperatives to the thinker, enjoining him or her to have certain cognitive attitudes in all processes of thought. They call upon the thinker to make an effort, so as to guarantee maximum efficiency and accuracy of his or her thoughts. The ‘metaphysical’ aspect of the laws of thought is a substratum and outcome of this practical aspect.[2]

1. The law of identity is a general stance of ‘realism’.

In discursive thought, this means: to face facts; to observe and think about them; to admit the factuality of appearances as such and that of logical arguments relating to them; to accept the way things are (or at least the way they seem to be for now), that things are as they are, i.e. whatever they happen to be; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires awareness, receptivity and lucidity. The antitheses of these attitudes are evasiveness, prejudice and obscurantism, resulting in “sloth and torpor”[3].

At the apogee of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) consciousness of the “thus-ness” (or “such-ness”) of “ultimate reality”.

2. The law of non-contradiction is a general stance of ‘coherence’ (which is an aspect of ‘realism’).

In discursive thought, this means: while giving initial credence to all appearances taken singly, not to accept two conflicting appearances as both true (or real), but to place one or both of them in the category of falsehood (or illusion); to seek to resolve or transcend all apparent contradictions; to pursue consistency in one’s concepts and theories; to reject inconsistent ideas as absurd and self-contradictions as untenable nonsense; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires harmony, balance and peace of mind. The antitheses of these attitudes are conflict, confusion and neurosis (or madness), resulting in “restlessness and anxiety”[4].

At the peak of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) the “one-ness” (monism or monotheism) of “ultimate reality”.

3. The law of the excluded middle is a general stance of ‘curiosity’ (which is also an aspect of ‘realism’).

In discursive thought, this means: engaging in research and study, so as to fill gaps in one’s knowledge and extend its frontier; engaging in speculation and theorizing, but always under the supervision and guidance of rationality; avoiding fanciful escapes from reality, distorting facts and lying to oneself and/or others; accepting the need to eventually make definite choices and firm decisions; and so on.

Clearly, these same cognitive virtues are equally applicable to meditation practice, which requires clarity, judgment and understanding. The antitheses of these attitudes are ignorance, uncertainty and delusion, resulting in “doubt and indecision”[5].

At the pinnacle of meditation, in the enlightenment experience, this is expressed as (reportedly) the “omniscience” of “ultimate reality”.

Thus, I submit, rather than abandon the laws of thought when we step up from ordinary thinking to meditation, and from that to enlightenment, we should stick to them, while allowing that they are expressed somewhat differently at each spiritual stage. Whereas in discursive thought awareness is expressed by intellectual activity, in meditation the approach is gentler and subtler, and in enlightenment we attain pure contemplation.

When such final realization is reached[6], the laws of thought are not breached, but made most evident. “Thus-ness” is the essence of existence; it is the deepest stratum of identity, not an absence of all identity. “One-ness” is not coexistence or merging of opposites, but where all oppositions are dissolved or transcended. “Omniscience” is not in denial of ordinary experience and knowledge, but their fullest expression and understanding. What in lower planes of being and knowing seems obscure, divergent and uncertain, becomes perfect at the highest level.[7]

Those teachers or commentators who claim that the laws of thought are abrogated once we transcend ordinary discourse are simply misinterpreting their experiences. Either their experience is not true “realization”, or their particular interpretation of their realization experience is just an erroneous afterthought that should not be viewed as part of the experience itself.

Instead of the laws of identity, non-contradiction and exclusion of any middle, they propose a law of non-identity, a law of contradiction, and a law of the included middles! According to them, the ultimate reality is that nothing has an identity, all contradictories coexist quite harmoniously, and there may be other alternatives besides a thing and its negation!

They adduce as proofs the Buddhist principles of non-selfhood, impermanence and interdependence.

But they cannot claim that something has no “nature” whatsoever, for then what is that “something” that they are talking about? If it is truly non-existent, why and how are we at all discussing it and who are we? Surely these same people admit the existence of an “ultimate reality” of some sort – if only a single, infinite, universal substratum[8]. They call it “void” or “empty”, but surely such a negation is not logically tenable without the admission that something positive is being negated; a negation can never be a primary given.

Similarly, we might argue, “impermanence” means the impermanence of something and “interdependence” means the interdependence of two or more things. They cannot claim infinite impermanence, without admitting the extended existence in time of something however temporary; and they cannot claim a universal interdependence, without admitting causal connections between actual facts.

There is an unfortunate tendency here to use words without paying attention to their relational implications. Another example of this practice is to speak of “consciousness” (or perception or thought or some such cognitive act), without admitting that this implies consciousness of something (called an object) by something (called the Subject).

This is done deliberately, to conform with the ideological prejudice that there is no cognizing self and nothing to cognize. Similarly, so as not to have to mention the Agent willing an action, volition is concealed and the action is made to appear spontaneous or mechanical. They refuse to admit that someone is suffering, thinking, meditating or becoming enlightened.

Another claim often made is that our common experience of the world is like a dream compared to ultimate reality. The implication being that the laws of thought are not obeyed in a dream. But in truth, even in a dream, though images and sound come and go and seem to intertwine, actually there is no contradiction if we observe carefully. As for the difference between dream and awake experience, it is not strictly a contradiction since they are experienced as distinct domains of being.

Contradiction is not even thinkable, except in words (or intentions). We cannot even actually imagine a contradiction, in the sense defined by Aristotle (is and is not at once in every respect). We can only say (or vaguely believe) there is one. We of course commonly encounter apparent contradiction, but that does not prove that contradiction exists in fact. It is an illusion, a conflict between verbal interpretations or their non-verbal equivalents.

We formulate theories; they yield contradictions; we correct the theories so that they no longer yield these contradictions. We tailor our rational constructs to experience. We do not infer contradiction to exist from contradictions in our knowledge. We question and fix our knowledge, rather than impose our beliefs on reality. That is sanity, mental health. That is the way knowledge progresses, through this dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

[1] Judging by Internet postings and debate on this topic.

[2] It could also be said that the two aspects are ‘co-emergent’, mutually significant and equally important. But here I wish to stress the psychological side of the issue.

[3] See Kamalashila, p. 253.

[4] See Kamalashila, p. 249.

[5] See Kamalashila, p. 258.

[6] I submit, on the basis of my own limited experience, but also out of logical expectation of consistency between all levels of being. I think many people more knowledgeable than me would agree with the descriptions here given of the higher realms.

[7] Buddhist, and especially Mahayana, philosophers often stress that nirvana (the common ground of all being) and samsara (the multiplicity of changing appearances) are ultimately one and the same. Even while admitting this, we must remain aware of their apparent difference. The whole point of the philosophical idea of monism (“nirvana”) is of course to resolve the contradictions and gaps inherent in the experience of plurality (“samsara”). At the same time, the one-ness of nirvana is in a sort of conflict with the multiplicity of samsara. We must somehow both admit and ignore this tension. In truth, all this remains an unsolved problem at some level.

[8] The “great self” or “ocean of permanence”, to use the words of Dogen (p. 267. Note that Dogen is not here saying there is no such thing, but is stressing that we do not – as some people claim – automatically all return there after death, but rather are subject to various rebirths according to our respective karmas; he is implying that to get there is hard-won realization, not something given gratis to all comers). Some identify this underlying ultimate reality with the “Deus sive Natura” of Baruch Spinoza (Holland, 1632-77). But I hasten to add that I do not subscribe to Spinoza’s equation of God and Nature, which implies that God is like Nature subject to determinism. For me, as in normative Judaism, God is the free, volitional creator of Nature. He underlies and includes it. It is a mere product His and but a tiny part or aspect of Him.

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