Friday, May 07, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: the dialogue continues

Dr. Vallicella wrote a comprehensive, largely point-by-point reply to two posts I wrote. There are parts of Vallicella's post to which I can't reply either because I don't have the requisite training to speak his lingo, or I haven't thoroughly thought through the matter yet. I'll leave those parts aside, and will concentrate on what I think I can respond to here. I encourage you to read Dr. Vallicella's response to me, as well as the many fascinating papers on his great website, which continues to grow and evolve. In what follows, Dr. Vallicella's text will be in boldface type.

I would say that any adequate system of thought must be able to do justice to certain obvious facts of our experience. One such is the fact that things are identifiable and re-identifiable over time. Consider the attachment one has to one’s own body and its preservation. This would not be so much as possible were it not for the body’s relative permanence. For if it were absolutely impermanent, there would be nothing to attach to. It is because I will have the same body tomorrow that I am concerned about it today.

The Buddhist contention is that we don't possess the "same" body in any deep sense. From the Buddhist point of view, there is nothing absolute, necessary, or unconditioned about any aspect of my personal existence, including the configuraton (not merely aggregation) of physical and psychic parts that make me me.

I still don't see the value of "relative permanence" as a concept. It seems to be a different label for phenomena that are "temporary but exhibiting continuity." If "relative permanence" (RP) means only this, then I don't really have trouble with the term. It can, in fact, be safely ignored, because Buddhists already have a notion of continuity supplied to them by the idea of karma, which can be thought of as the momentum driving phenomenal processes (again with the proviso that Buddhist thought on karma and the [dis]connectedness of "contiguous" moments isn't monolithic). In that event, then-- yes, as Vallicella contends later in his reply, this "relative permanence" is indeed obvious: it's just another name for temporariness and continuity, both of which are easily observable.

What I suspect, however, is that RP is meant somehow to tie into Vallicella's larger argument for ontotheological personalism, wherein "individual persons form an irreducible and ultimate ontological category, and that within this category self-subsistent existence is the prime person."

To my mind, the moment RP, as a concept referring to an empirically verifiable quality, is made to apply to anything beyond the empirical, it loses all value as a concept. So: either (1) RP adds nothing to the discussion because we already have notions of temporariness-and-continuity, or (2) the term is being implausibly stretched beyond its narrow purview, into the realm of the "ultimate" (whatever that may mean; I need to read further on this).

The aim of Zen is to transcend the discursive intellect and achieve an intuitive insight into the truth of nonduality. Thus the aim is to get beyond theses and arguments. But Buddhists obviously espouse characteristic theses, such as the anatta doctrine, and they give arguments for them, such as the Chariot. There is need for a distinction between these two activities of arguing and transcending argument. The law of non-contradiction (LNC) certainly applies to the first. So the Big Ho may be muddying the waters here by bringing in Zen. I hope he is not suggesting that LNC is not relevant to the assessment of the characteristic Buddhist claims that underpin the practice of meditation.

Yesterday, I noted Dr. Vallicella's dismissal of Seung Sahn's claim that Zen doesn't explain or analyze anything. Dr. Vallicella's reply was, if I may quote it again:

This is just false. Zen is a form of Buddhism. Buddhism explains things. For example, it explains dukkha, suffering, in terms of desire (Second Noble Truth). Buddhism analyzes all sorts of things. What is the Chariot argument if not a piece of analysis? What is the doctrine of the five aggregates if not a product of analysis? Other examples could easily be given. Your man Sahn seems to be off to a very bad start indeed.

My reply to this yesterday was:

I've dealt somewhat with this question of the degree to which Zen is a form of Buddhism (see my paper here). I actually agree with Vallicella that it'd be wrong to contend, as Ray Grigg does, that Zen is merely Taoism in institutional Buddhism's clothing: Zen is a form of Buddhism-- or at least, Zen Buddhism is a form of Buddhism. Nevertheless, there are moments in Zen discourse where the Taoism peeks through more strongly than does the Buddhism. Seung Sahn's above remark, I think, falls very much into that category. It's obviously Taoist in tone. It's consistent with the playful, non-analytical style of Chuang-tzu.... I don't think Vallicella's comment in any way detracts from Seung Sahn's observation.

Compare the following:

Seung Sahn: Zen does not explain anything. Zen does not analyze anything.

Vallicella: The aim of Zen is to transcend the discursive intellect and achieve an intuitive insight into the truth of nonduality. Thus the aim is to get beyond theses and arguments.

If we allow for the fact that Seung Sahn's English isn't perfect, is Seung Sahn's claim about Zen really all that different from Vallicella's? Vallicella actually seems to be agreeing with Seung Sahn when he talks about Zen's aim. What if Seung Sahn, wearing his Taoist hat, was also referring to the aims of Zen? If so, then Seung Sahn's claim isn't false, and Vallicella is inconsistent to call it false.

A danger that some Buddhists succumb to is to want to have it both ways at once: to invoke arguments when it is convenient to do so, but then, when the arguments are criticized, to take refuge in a rejection of logic with its LNC. If Buddhists give arguments, then they must submit them to rigorous logical standards. Otherwise, they should refrain from giving arguments. Either one or the other, but no mixture of the two.

I think there's some truth to this, but part of the problem is that the nondualist Buddhist is often left with little choice. Whenever nondualism is expressed discursively, it's going to trip over itself. This is why, at least in the case of Zen discourse, so many Zennists begin by saying some form of "Ignore what I'm saying."

Where I disagree with Vallicella is in the idea that Buddhists are switching hats because it's convenient. Maybe some are. I'm sure there are plenty of Buddhists who should plead guilty to this accusation. But to my mind, the problem of argumentation is more a function of the nondualism on which the discourse reposes. How do you say the unsayable? Is it possible to say it in a way that's rationally, conceptually coherent?

Isn’t 'nondualistic perspective' a contradiction in terms?

This is a paper in itself.

Short answer: yes, of course it is. Therefore?

The Buddhist is routinely self-contradictory when s/he uses the term "I." This is nothing new. Speaking of a "nondualistic perspective" or the equally fuzzy "nondualistic experience" (which would seem to imply an experiencer) produces the same notional problems. And there's the hint at how to get out of the bind: these are notional problems.

To use language and concepts is to engage in dualism. Vallicella has already recognized that one form of Buddhism, Zen, seeks to transcend language and concepts. But the fact is that we're forever stuck with language and concepts as an awkward means of pointing to that which is unsayable (pick your term: translinguistic, prelinguistic, preconceptual, transconceptual, nondiscursive, etc.). Believe it or not, Zen recognizes this.

The Buddhist supplement to my above claim is this: to use language and concepts is also not to engage in dualism. You "realize" emptiness by observing and participating in form. As the title of Katagiri-roshi's book says: "You have to say something!" There's no escaping the trap of language by avoiding language altogether (though many Zen students try this approach in dokusan-- faux-beatific silence). There's no discovering the truth of existence by stepping outside of existence.

Vallicella's asking for too much in the case of Zen and truth. "Either argue coherently and well or don't argue at all," he's saying. But that's not how it works for us non-philosophical proles: you have to say something!

Given the above, the following claim is false from a Zen perspective:

In the nondual state, one neither speaks, writes, or thinks. No blogging either. Lao Tzu: He who speaks, does not know; he who knows, does not speak. That could be glossed as follows: He who abides on the plane of duality is ignorant of nonduality; he who abides on the place of nonduality has no truck with duality.

Itself a dualistic move, this separation of nonduality and duality. Zen is "just this," and you find the "just this" in everday living, not in remaining immovable, thoughtless, and silent.

I also think the above quote is a misreading of the Tao Te Ching. It's an irony I've discussed with Asian Spirituality students at our church: the TTC seems to begin by closing off all discourse ("The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao"), but then... what happens in the rest of the TTC? It talks about the Tao! The TTC's first sentence takes on deeper meaning when viewed in the larger context of the whole work. Here, as with the critique of the anatman doctrine, I think Vallicella's focus is too narrow. Concepts are being taken out of their original organic context and treated with a rigorous literalism that turns them into straw men. And properly speaking, are terms like "Tao" and "emptiness" referring to concepts?

[Trivia: many recent scholars suggest that the TTC may have been a cleverly disguised text of the Legalist School whose purpose was to serve as a manual of statecraft, especially for small, weak countries surrounded by larger, stronger countries. If you read the TTC in this light, a lot of the major themes-- compliance, harmony, naturalness, nondoing-- make a great deal of practical, political sense.]

It might be better to say that the ultimate end of Buddhism is therapeutic/soteriological rather than ethical, given that ethics has to do with duty and obligation and cognate concepts.

A friend of mine (the Air Marshal, who guest-posts on this blog and on Naked Villainy) is an engineer. One of the things he notes time and again is that, when engineers use terms, by necessity everyone has to understand these terms the same way, otherwise communication becomes garbled and the quality of one's work suffers. Imagine if everyone had a different understanding of a term like "wave." Engineers have a low tolerance for semantic plasticity. They prefer clarity and simplicity.

Unfortunately, that's not possible once you step outside the context of engineering and start talking religion. Vallicella disagrees with my usage of the term "ethics/ethical," but he's proceeding from a particular-- and not universally agreed-upon-- definition of that term. Luckily for us, this will lead to creative discussion, not badly designed airplanes that kill people. I think my usage of the term works just fine. If Vallicella argues that the philosopher's task is similar to the engineer's-- i.e., to proceed with as much clarity as possible-- then I submit that a philosophical approach to religious questions is doomed to frustration: there's no achieving the ultimate goal of discursive, conceptual clarity when talking about religion and religious concepts.

For me, "ethics" refers to something practical, and while it may be distinct from "morality," it's not totally distinct; there's plenty of overlap. I think it's perfectly reasonable to apply terms like "ethics" and "ethical" to Buddhist thought and action (just so you know I'm not alone in this, see here-- check out the journal's title). I don't disagree with Vallicella's characterization of Buddhism as therapeutic and soteriological. The therapeutic aspect of Buddhism lies in the practical benefits of practice; the soteriological aspect has a grander, more existential relevance to the Buddhist. But my notion of "ethics" is, it seems, more flexible than Vallicella's.

A respectful caution: this is a discussion between two non-Buddhists that often ventures into the murky waters of what Buddhism "is" and "isn't." Some of this will appear laughable to practicing Buddhists. To be clear: I take the empirical stance that a religion is as it is practiced. Broad claims about the religion-- indeed, any claim that treats the religion as a discrete entity seemingly independent of the practitioners who incarnate it-- can never be totally true. On this blog, I've dealt with the question "Is Islam a religion of peace?", for example. My answer is that Islam is as it is practiced. It's not inherently or necessarily peaceful or violent. So when I make claims about nondualism or nonessentialism in Buddhism, I do so fully realizing that there are plenty of dualistic, essentialist Buddhists out there (I wrote about this as well) who are part of the phenomenon we label (and therefore mislabel) "Buddhism." Also: specific claims, such as Vallicella's claim that Seung Sahn's contention about Zen is false, have to be examined in light of who is saying what. Seung Sahn is a long-practicing Buddhist; Vallicella isn't, as far as I know (and neither am I, come to think of it). Claims of truth and falsity may very well be predicated on an unjustifiably essentialist view of what a religious tradition "is" or "isn't." Seung Sahn instantiates Korean Zen in a way Vallicella doesn't. Is Vallicella then on solid enough ground to make his claim? If Zen is as it is practiced, and Seung Sahn is one such practitioner, doesn't that have to be taken into account? (Notice, too, that I'm not therefore saying Vallicella is flat-out wrong.)

The obvious reply to the above is: "So we simply can't say anything? Even a single exception invalidates a general claim about Religion X?" No, that's not what I'm saying. We need to be careful, and we always need to consider both the larger context and the smaller subtleties. General claims are fine, but can't be passed off as unqualified categorical truths. For instance, the claim "Christianity is theistic" is a generally true claim, because empirically speaking, at least 90% of all practicing Christians are theists. But there are quite a few nontheistic-- and even atheistic-- Christians, too. An essentialistic definition of Christianity that can't accommodate the empirical fact that a certain group of nontheists call themselves Christian is, to put it bluntly, a bad definition. The simpleton's way out is to classify these people as "fake Christians" for the sake of preserving one's black-and-white worldview.

Vallicella takes me to task for claims I make about the relatedness of mathematical truths to this world. Here's what I wrote:

...while I might not be able to wrap my mind around the idea that 7 + 5 = 12 isn't true in all possible worlds, this inability of mine doesn't constitute proof (or even an argument, or even the sketch of an argument) that other possible (actual??) worlds would not operate in a manner totally unfamiliar and incomprehensible to us...

Vallicella's reply:

First, it is not just an inability of yours, but of everybody. Second, a merely possible world is not another actual world. There is and can be only one actual world. Third, what happens in singularities is highly unusual but not impossible. Finally, consideration of possible situations is essential to the kind of conceptual clarification that philosophers engage in. But I can’t expand on this metaphilosophical point at the moment.

Vallicella says, "There is and can be only one actual world." Does he mean "reality"? Or does he mean "universe"? I'm sympathetic to (but not totally sold on) the idea that there's only one actual reality. How can we claim there's more than one reality, after all? From what perch do we sit to do this? Such a claim actually implies that we sit on a perch providing a larger, englobing context in which the two realities must reside-- so we're back to one reality again.

But this isn't what I was talking about. My argument is more like this: I live in House A, which operates according to certain house rules, and contains a good deal of suffering. It's possible I can look out my window at House B next door, see into their window, and perhaps discover that House B runs by very different house rules-- rules that make little sense to me, but make House B's inhabitants obviously happier than House A's. That's pretty clear, isn't it? Vallicella spends a great deal of space trying to demonstrate how my argument is self-contradictory, but it's nothing of the sort. Why? Because I'm not concerned with the question of how many realities there are (at least, not in the context of this particular exchange; it does concern me in my capacity as a proponent of religious pluralism, and it's one of the reasons why I'm fascinated by Stephen Kaplan's holographic model of religious pluralism).

It is simply false that "constraining God to what is logical" exculpates God.

My larger argument is that this is the strategy many theists adopt in order to exculpate God. So we're in agreement: constraining God to what is logical doesn't exculpate God. It's a bad strategy. As for the question of coherence:

On the contrary, they take it so seriously that they do not want it to turn into nonsense, which is what would happen if there is no restriction on divine power. If there are no restrictions at all on God’s power, then he can create a world in which contradictions are true, a world in which contradictions are both true and false, a world in you both exist and do not exist, a world in which God both exists and does not exist, a world in which God is an uncaused cause and also caused to exist by the Big Ho’s atheistic denial of him, and so on.

I think there's plenty in religion that's nonsense from a philosophical (not to mention scientific) perspective. I don't understand the fear of nonsense (or maybe I should say "paradox") and the desire for rhetorical and conceptual coherence with regard to core terms and concepts at the heart of the religions, whether we're talking about Buddhist philosophy or Western theological argumentation. I grant that the brain is wired to try and make sense of things (having long argued this myself), so it's human nature to adopt different approaches (is "doxastic practices" the right term here?) to provide that sense. But the subtext of the philosophical project, especially when tied to theology/religious discourse, seems to be that our core concepts must make some kind of rational, discursive sense, or they need to be thrown out. I think the urge to find/make sense is evident in the untold number of scriptures, books, and academic papers humanity has produced and still produces. I'm less and less convinced that philosophy is helpful with many of these Big Questions, which is one reason why, in my other discussions of religious pluralism on this blog, I've come around to favoring the abandonment of philosophical approaches to issues of religious pluralism. While paradigms like Kaplan's holographic model fascinate me, they aren't compelling.

I wrote:

Sorry, but I think that a truly omnipotent God could have created a better universe in which humans are totally free and yet totally immune to suffering. From our vantage, such a universe would be logically absurd, given what we know about physics and human nature. But to a God whose purview includes paradox, this is small potatoes. God is therefore not exculpated by arguments from logical necessity.

Vallicella replied:

This makes no sense. Your first sentence contradicts the second. The first sentence implies that there is a possible universe God could have created. Then you say that such a universe is impossible (“logically absurd”). Which is it? (“From our vantage” is a weasel qualifier.)You also seem to be confusing what is logically possible with what is physically possible. The laws of physics are logically contingent. The third sentence has no clear meaning. Nevertheless, in your fourth sentence you draw a conclusion from the foregoing mishmash.

Let's break this down:

The first sentence implies that there is a possible universe God could have created.

Yes, indeed.

Then you say that such a universe is impossible (“logically absurd”). Which is it?

That's not what I said, though. "Logically absurd" might mean "impossible to us," but that doesn't imply "impossible to God," unless we're already assuming God can't do what's logically absurd. That's a circular way to approach the problem.

My point was that, for a God unconstrained by paradox, all things are possible. Just because we can't wrap our minds around those things doesn't make them impossible for an unconstrained God (my larger point was that God is therefore complicit in human suffering in this, our universe-- something many believers are unwilling to admit). Vallicella seems to be saying that, if it's logically impossible, it's impossible, period. My response is that we're talking about this universe, i.e., House A in my previous analogy. While Vallicella might be able to argue strongly that there is only one actual reality (and I'd be inclined to agree), he can't make the same argument for there being only one actual universe. At this point, we simply don't know. What if there is a House B with very different house rules? What if it's a recognizably happier household (notice I never said House B's rules would be totally incomprehensible)?

Vallicella gets brutal with this parenthetical:

("From our vantage" is a weasel qualifier.)

But that's the entire point of my argument from possible worlds. We're trapped in our vantage, in this universe, with its discernible, discoverable rules. It's only natural, don't you think, that we'll view certain concepts (or phenomena) as impossible. This doesn't keep us from envisioning other possibilities, though, and a theist who grants that all things are possible for God-- including those things that appear impossible to us-- is forced to consider why God didn't make our universe the best of all possible universes, where "best" relates directly to the question of human suffering-- the issue that motivates efforts at theodicy.

I wrote:

I'm not a Buddhist, but I don't think a Buddhist would have any trouble with the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 everywhere in this universe. Nor would he have trouble with the idea that the truth of 2 +2 = 4 is true at all times in this universe. Does this therefore make this truth permanent in some metaphysically absolute sense? To say yes, you'd have to argue from a godlike vantage none of us has.

The reply:

This sounds incoherent. If arithmetical truths are true always and everywhere, then they are permanently true. How can you deny that? And what does a godlike vantage point have to do with it?

To put it as a simple yes/no question, then:

Can we definitively prove that mathematical truths retain their truthfulness outside our universe?

I contend the answer is no, not unless we adopt a godlike perspective, which we can't.

First of all, you seem to be confusing two distinct theses:

T1: A truth such as ‘2 + 2 = 4' is true only if THIS physical cosmos exists.

T2: A truth such as ‘2 + 2 = 4' is true only if SOME physical cosmos exists.

To refute T1 it suffices to refute T2. Now T2 implies that it is impossible that ‘2 + 2 = 4' be true and nothing physical exist. But surely it is conceivable that the proposition in question be true while nothing physical exists. Simply conceive of God existing alone with the truths of mathematics. The conceivability of this state of affairs strongly supports the possibility of it. But there is no need to bring God into it. Simply conceive of a possible situation in which mathematical truths exist, but nothing physical exists. Or think of a region of space in which everything physical is annihilated. Do you really want to say that in that region of space 2 + 2 ceases to equal 4?

I'm just a hominid. I can't "simply conceive of a possible situation in which mathematical truths exist, but nothing physical exists," nor can I conceive of "a region of space in which everything physical is annihilated." If everything's annihiliated, where's the space? Space is physical, too, isn't it?

Furthermore, if you say that it is contingently true that 2 + 2 = 4, then that implies that it is possible that 2 + 2 be equal to some other number. Now, seriously, can you conceive of that? I mean, really try to conceive it. If not, then what are you talking about?

Yes-- my point exactly. Re: space/math comments above-- What are you talking about? I think we've hit the wall on this one. Heh.

The Buddhist should just concede my point about truths of mathematics and simply restrict his thesis. He should say: everything we are aware of through the inner and outer senses is impermanent. Now he’s on safe ground. BUT NOTE: This still does not get him to the conclusion that every object of inner and outer sense is absolutely impermanent, or in radical flux. That I would say is an interpretation, a conceptual overlay, even if the Buddhist claims to experience it in [Vipassana] meditation. But this is too big a topic to be discussed here, the topic of the veridicality of meditational insights.

For all I know, some Buddhists would take this route. The Dalai Lama was asked, "What if science ended up disproving some of Buddhism's major metaphysical claims?" His reply was that Buddhism would have to change, of course. I think that's wise.

Vallicella's argument in the above quote seems to be that you can't move from empirical/experiential insight to broader claims about the nature of the (physical) cosmos. I think many scientists would strenuously debate this-- not necessarily because Vallicella is wrong (and I'm not claiming he is), but because that style of thinking is completely unconstructive and runs counter to common sense.

One of the better arguments in favor of scientific method is that the discoveries we've made about physical laws are obviously applicable outside our own local situation: we can look at neighboring galaxies, for instance, and see that their behavior is consistent with what we know to be true for the Milky Way. Physical laws, as we currently understand them, seem to apply everywhere on the macro-scale, as far as we can see. It's a safe bet, scientists would argue, that our universe is consistent in this regard. This doesn't affect Vallicella's argument, philosophically speaking; there could still be pockets of space in which physical laws are totally backward. But, the scientist might ask, how useful is it to proceed on that assumption?

By the same token, the Buddhist observation about the impermanence of physical and psychic phenomena seems to be a common-sensical extrapolation of an empirical/experiential insight. Can you show me a single physical phenomenon that exhibits the character of permanence or eternal fixity or absolute independence? It seems the best we can muster is "relative permanence"-- something the Buddhists already acknowledge when they talk about karma and continuity. Can you show me a mathematical truth that doesn't contain its own relationality (e.g., you can't speak of 2 + 2 = 4 without implicitly relating this to all numbers)? If you can't demonstrate permanence or non-relationality, I think it's impossible to move from that to the idea that "personhood" contains anything within it that qualifies as "ultimate" or "self-subsistent." Personhood is merely relational and contingent, which is why I can't accept the claims of ontotheological personalism.


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