Thursday, March 04, 2004

contra Vallicella

I was introduced to Dr. William Vallicella's interesting website, IndependentPhilosopher, by Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges, who sent me an email with Dr. Vallicella's URL.

Dr. Vallicella's self-intro describes his personal stance thus:

My philosophical position may be described as onto-theological personalism: I defend the view that individual persons form an irreducible and ultimate ontological category, and that within this category self-subsistent existence is the prime person. This is the theme that unifies my seemingly disparate investigations. Thus my critique of the anatta doctrine of Pali Buddhism subserves this end, as does my rethinking of themes from the great but now neglected native Californian philosopher, Josiah Royce. The same goes for my critique of Heidegger's phenomenological approach to Being, as well as my critique of the logical approach to existence found in Frege, Russell, and Quine.

This immediately caught my interest, because his stance is the polar opposite of my own. I certainly don't see persons or personhood as "an irreducible and ultimate ontological category" because I agree with the Buddhist contention that people, like all phenomena, are dependently co-arisen-- or to borrow Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing" terminology, people inter-are with all of reality.

Today is Thursday-- Buddhism/Zen Day on my new schedule, so I wanted to devote this blog to critiquing Dr. Vallicella's interesting paper on Buddhist metaphysics, found on his site here. Dr. Vallicella's paper is titled "Can the Chariot Take Us to the Land of No Self?" The "chariot" is a reference to a dialogue between a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, and a Greek (many say "Indo-Bactrian") king, Milinda (or Menander), as recorded in the Milindapanha. As the dialogue between the monk and the king progresses, the monk demonstrates (or Dr. Vallicela might say "demonstrates") that the chariot contains no inherent chariotness. By extension, the monk contends, people contain no inherent personness (personhood, selfhood, etc.). A transcript of the classic dialogue can be found here, with some typos.

Dr. Vallicella describes his paper's thesis:

The [chariot] argument [by Bhante Nagasena] aims to show that no (samsaric) being is a self, or has self-nature, or is a substance. My thesis will be that, successful as this argument may be when applied to things other than ourselves, it fails when applied to ourselves.

Here is how Dr. Vallicella sums up the dialogue early on in his paper:

The issue dividing the interlocutors [i.e., the king Milinda and the monk Nagasena] seems to be this. Although both agree that there is a reality independent of mind and language, they disagree about its nature. Milinda claims that it contains unitary and self-same individuals corresponding to such proper names as 'Nagasena.' It is this claim that Nagasena denies. For the latter, reality consists of radically impermanent and insubstantial momentary entities that we, wielding words and concepts, group together into unities for our purposes. Thus the issue is whether in reality there is an ontological unity corresponding to the linguistic unity of the name 'Nagasena,' or whether there is no such ontological unity but only disconnected momentary entities that we collect for conventional purposes under the name 'Nagasena.'

Dr. Vallicella then lays out how he will critique Nagasena's position:

It is no part of Milinda's position as I shall reconstruct it that the individuals denoted by proper names be absolutely permanent entities: they could well be relatively permanent. Thus one is not forced to choose between saying that 'Nagasena' has no referent in reality and saying that it has an absolutely permanent referent. Charitably construed, Milinda's position is that the unitary and self-same individuals corresponding to names like 'Nagasena' are relatively permanent entities possessing relative self-nature. If Milinda's position so construed were correct, then of course Nagasena's would collapse.

I'm still a tyro when it comes to Western philosophical terminology, so I had to wonder what "relative permanence" meant. Luckily, Dr. Vallicella provides a definition in his footnotes:

An absolutely permanent entity is one that exists at all times, while a relatively permanent entity is one that exists at some, but not all, times. An absolutely impermanent entity is one that exists in a radically momentary fashion.

Unfortunately, this sounds like a bogus notion to me: permanence strikes me as a yes/no proposition: things either are or aren't permanent. This is certainly the frame of reference from which the Buddhist makes the claim that all phenomena are impermanent. I don't know who first introduced the notion of "relative permanence," but it seems to be a convenient redefinition that allows one to claim permanence where no permanence is to be found.

Dr. Vallicella (or whoever) is free to redefine permanence as he sees fit, but the question then becomes whether his critique of the Buddhist position is still aimed at the actual Buddhist position. On the assumption that the strongest critique of a position is one that employs that position's own terms, I don't think Dr. Vallicella has started well.

I also think that quite a few Buddhists would take issue with Dr. Vallicella's phrase, "radically impermanent and insubstantial momentary entities." There have indeed been Buddhist philosophers who speak in these terms (corresponding, perhaps, to the process theological notion of "concrescence"-- discernible phenomena arising and falling in the larger process of things), but in general the entire Buddhist metaphysic is a critique of the term "entity." The Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna introduced the idea of "two truths," conventional and ultimate, to allow us to understand how to deal with just this problem: on a conventional, practical level, I can distinguish discrete entities like cats and cars-- a necessary skill that allows me to avoid taking the cat in for new brakes and an oil change. But at the ultimate level, we see that, because of the dependently co-arisen nature of all phenomena, the distinction between apparently discrete entities doesn't hold-- and this ultimate truth is operating at the same time as the conventional truth. The very doctrine of "two truths," as Nagarjuna himself would probably agree, is itself simply a construction for helping us deal with reality. The ethical purpose of Nagarjuna's formulation is to keep us from positing exactly the kind of radical ontological differences advocated by people who, like Dr. Vallicella, view the world through the prism of onto-theology. These differences are seen, from the Buddhist perspective, as poisonous for how they affect our behavior toward ourselves, others, and the world.

Dr. Vallicella writes:

So has Nagasena won the debate? Has he established the doctrine of no-self? I can’t see that he has.

The underlying argument seems to be as follows.

P1. No concrete partite thing is identical to any one of its proper parts.
P2. No concrete partite thing is identical to the mere(ological) sum of its proper parts.
P3. No concrete partite thing is identical to something wholly distinct from each of its parts.


C. Singular terms denoting concrete partite things, useful as they are for counting and classifying, do not refer to anything real.

The premises of this argument are exceedingly plausible. Thus it is surely obvious that the king’s chariot is not identical to its right wheel, or to any other proper part, or to any two proper parts, etc. It is also obvious that the chariot is not identical to the mere sum of its parts: the sum of the chariot’s parts can exist even if the chariot does not exist, as when the chariot is disassembled. It is the same sum whether the chariot is assembled or disassembled. As for the third premise, it also seems quite clear that there is not, in addition to the parts, some further physical or metaphysical entity that is the ‘real chariot’ or essence or substratum of the chariot which could subsist in splendid isolation from the parts. That is no more the case than that there is a little man – a homunculus – inside my head looking through my eyes, and hearing through my ears, etc.

Then Dr. Vallicella lets fly:

The premises, then, seem to be true; but does the conclusion follow? One obvious response is that the argument is a non sequitur since it ignores a fourth possibility: that terms like ‘Nagasena’ and ‘this chariot’ refer to wholes of parts in a definite arrangement, where this arrangement is a feature of reality and is not introduced by our use of such terms as ‘Nagasena’ and ‘chariot.’ Thus a chariot is neither a sum of disconnected chariot-parts, nor something wholly distinct from the parts, but a sum of parts connected in the right way.

And perhaps this gives us some insight into where Dr. Vallicella is coming from.

I think we're looking at a form of Platonism here. The definition of "chariot" implies the arrangement of the chariot's component parts. In other words, there's a cosmic category called "chariot" that's waiting for material reality to arrange itself in a manner corresponding to the dictates of that category.

In simpler language: think of the cosmic category as something like a cookie cutter, with reality as squishy cookie dough. You don't get a "cookie man" until the dough is in conformity with the cookie cutter's shape. The cutter has to be there already (a priori) for this to occur; the dough's conformity with the cutter's shape is what allows us to see the "cookie man."

By the same token, squishy physical reality, when it coalesces into the chariot shape, gives us a glimpse of the cosmic category (cookie cutter) of chariot-ness. This is pure Plato. Or, hell-- it could also be Aristotelian "formal cause" (think: the blueprint of a house and not the house itself). A physical chariot is an instantiation (i.e., a realized instance) of the formal chariot.

To a Buddhist, such thinking is ass-backward because it ignores the mind's role in producing these categories. The move Dr. Vallicella makes here is simply one of postulation, not argument. However, Dr. Vallicella is aware of this objection (and I won't quote him here; he actually surveys a couple possible objections, but it's a lengthy survey). What's more, he provides a fair summary at the end of his paper's first section:

Thus one can see that the Chariot is an intriguing argument that cannot be easily dismissed. We want to say, with King Milinda and with common sense, that a whole of parts is more than a mere sum of parts, and that this something more -- the unity of the parts -- is something real as opposed to something introduced by our conceptual or linguistic activities, or by our craving for permanence. But since we cannot find this ‘something more’ by analysis, the pressure is on to write it off as illusory.

At some point, people who want to argue on behalf of permanence or self-existence (aseity) have to posit the "something more" referenced above. It's a bit like positing a soul to explain the continuity of selfhood. Dr. Vallicella's argument is about to move in a similar direction.

Section II of his paper begins:

But even if the Chariot succeeds in showing that nonpersons lack self-nature, does it also show that persons lack self-nature? It may be that to argue by analogy as Nagasena does, applying to persons what is true of nonpersons, is a mistaken procedure. Indeed, I will now argue that the analogy is mistaken, and that a person is a whole of parts in an importantly different sense than that in which a chariot is a whole of parts.

Vallicella argues that we have successive mental states (moving from pleasure to pain, or perceiving a series of musical notes, or hearing two musical chords), but that we are also conscious of this succession, implying that something must "perdure" as we pass from one mental state to another-- something that allows us to be conscious of how previous mental states relate to each other. To wit:

...since there is consciousness of mental change, mental change is alteration and thus requires a substratum that is numerically identical across the change. The point was appreciated by Kant, who wrote that “A coming to be or a ceasing to be . . . can never be a possible [object of] perception.”

Vallicella is here positing the "I" that remains throughout the succession of mental states, but here again, I think he has severely misinterpreted the Buddhist position. By mistakenly viewing the Buddhist notion of process as one in which successive states are both radically impermanent and unrelated, Vallicella passes by the notion of continuity (cf. my essay on emptiness here for a fuller explanation). For any given phenomenon (from the Buddhist perspective), so-called "successive moments" are, first, not discrete moments, and second, they are connected by causation, each "moment" leading to the next. The momentum driving this continuity is what Buddhists name karma.

For a Buddhist, the "I" is itself a construction, and because it's a construction it's a contingent phenomenon-- no different, therefore, from all other phenomena in its contingency, its dependently co-arisen status. The "ultimate" truth, then, accords this "I" no greater (or more fundamental) ontological weight than would be accorded to any other phenomenon-- say, a daisy or a chariot or my present desire for some Doritos (I may have to hit the local 24-hour mart after I finish this essay).

Dr. Vallicella thinks, then, that he's established the self as something ontologically significant:

What [this argument] shows is that there is direct awareness of the self as that in which the two distinct states are united. The fact of experienced mental change refutes the anatta [Pali, no-self] doctrine. There is not just an awareness of one state followed by an awareness of a second; I am aware of myself as the transtemporal unity of the two states. Unity, of course, is not identity: so talk of the unity of the pleasurable and painful states is consistent with their numerical distinctness. The self, therefore, is directly given in the experience of mental change; but it is of course not given as a separate object wholly distinct from its states. It is given in and through these states as their transtemporal unity. The self is not one of its states, nor the sum of all of them, nor something wholly distinct from all of them; the self is their self-unifying unity. Thus one must not think of the substratum of mental change as wholly distinct from its states. It is not like a pin cushion into which pins are stuck. A pin cushion without pins is conceivable; a self without conscious states is not. The self is not an unconscious something that supports consciousness; it itself has the nature of consciousness. Consciousness/self-consciousness is a sui generis reality that cannot be understood in terms of crude models from the physical world.

So what he's saying is: the "I" is not reducible to the mental states of which it is conscious. It is, instead, the ground of such states-- their "transtemporal unity," having coherent existence over time.

You know, I don't really see anything wrong with the idea that the above argument is conventionally true, but Dr. Vallicella has provided no convincing reasons to believe that selfhood has any ultimacy-- the best we can do is fall back on the problematic notion of "relative permanence," a notion I find fishy.

Overall, Dr. Vallicella seems to have made the circular mistake of defining "self" or "personhood" a certain way, then "discovering" it in an examination of human consciousness and positing it as a rebuttal to a Buddhist argument. But because of the notions he employs, I'm not convinced he's responded directly to the Buddhist argument. Instead, he's simply laid out his own position, not so different from staring at the color black and declaring, "This I call black." The same thing is happening when we look at the difference between a car's components strewn about the ground, and a fully assembled parked car. We look at the pieces and declare/define: "Those are pieces (of a car)." We look at pieces assembled in a way that conforms to our preconceptions and declare/define, "That's a car." The fact that the difference between "car" and "not-car" is a function of our preconceptions is what keeps the car's car-ness from having any fundamental significance, from the Buddhist perspective. What applies to the car also applies to people, who are also contingent, impermanent, and dependently co-arisen.

Further along, in his paper's third section, Dr. Vallicella writes:

Now if there is the unity of the chariot, but this unity derives from the unifying power of the mind, then minds must be self-unifying unities. In other words, if the unity of the chariot derives from the unity of a concept which subsumes a manifold of data, and this concept expresses the unity of a conceiving which is itself a synthesizing of a manifold of data, then the synthesizer or unifier must be a self-unifier: it must be the ground of its own unity. How then could minds lack self-nature?

You'd think the answer to this question would be obvious: human brains and bodies (I say this to avoid unnecessary debate about where a mind is "located") are material and therefore contingent. This funnels directly into the larger Buddhist argument that applies to all phenomena, with "mind," "brain," and "bodies" all being subsets of the supercategory "all phenomena."

On his website, Dr. Vallicella calls his own position onto-theological, i.e., he wants eventually to come to rest on a firm ontological ground-- preferably God, I assume, since this is onto-theology. I get the feeling, while reading this paper, that Dr. Vallicella would very much like to posit a soul, because ultimately, that's the only way to confront the Buddhist directly: as long as Dr. Vallicella is unable to de-link his notion of "I" or "consciousness" from materiality, then his "I" will always be subject to the Buddhist charge of contingency, impermanence, and no-self. As far as I can tell, the only way to agree with Dr. Vallicella's argument is to take seriously the notion of "relative permanence." If you can't take that notion seriously, the rest of his argument is completely unpersuasive.

Does Dr. Vallicella posit a soul in this paper? No, but he sure seems to move in the same direction as St. Thomas Aquinas' cosmological proofs:

If, in reality, Nagasena’s mind -- call it M1 -- were just a bunch of disconnected momentary data, then its unity would have to derive from some other mind, call it M2. (Don’t forget: the difference between a complex entity and the sum of its constituents is real and must be accounted for on pain of nihilism; this principle applies to minds and non-minds alike.) The unity of M2's mind, in turn, would require for its unification M3, and so on into a regress both infinite and vicious. To avoid this regress, we must say that at least one mind possesses an intrinsic principle of unity. We must say that at least one mind is a self-unifying unity of consciousness and self-consciousness.

In the above we again see the insistence on mischaracterizing Buddhist process ontology as disconnected moments (keep in mind that not all Buddhist thinkers take this approach, though some arguably do). I'm not sure Dr. Vallicella has any understanding of what karma is. His own notion of the transtemporal "I" actually fits rather nicely into the Buddhist outlook, because such an "I" would indeed possess a certain unicity and distinctness-- just not on a fundamental level. Vallicella's "I" would also be transtemporal from the Buddhist point of view, because like all dependently co-arisen phenomena subject to the law of karma, that "I" would be continuous over time. But continuity is not the same thing as permanence, and as mentioned before, the only way out of the Buddhist argument is to take seriously the notion of "relative permanence."

Vallicella's paper makes a bizarre move toward its end: a critique of both David Hume and the Buddhists-- both of whom find no discrete self at the end of the day. I'm not quite sure why Hume suddenly got brought into this; Vallicella spends most of his paper confined to the specific question of Buddhist metaphysics as laid out in the Milinda-Nagasena dialogue. Hume seems to be here to provide a comparison between the Buddhist "mistake" and a similar "mistake" being made by a Westerner, but when Vallicella concedes that the Buddhist mistake isn't as grievous as Hume's (I encourage you to read the paper to see what I'm talking about), he doesn't turn back to the Milinda-Nagasena dialogue: he turns instead to the no-self discourse found in the Anattalakkhana Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, which isn't discussed anywhere else in the paper.

I mention this because it shows that Dr. Vallicela's argument employs a rather dubious strategy: since the Milinda-Nagasena dialogue doesn't go into the nitty-gritty of Buddhist notions like karma, and doesn't cover other aspects of Buddhist process ontology such as continuity, Dr. Vallicella may have felt free to construct a Buddhist straw man based almost entirely on the limited scope of the Milinda-Nagasena dialogue. This obviously isn't going to work, because to critique the anatman (Skt. "no-self") doctrine, you'd have to consider more than just this one dialogue. I think Dr. Vallicella knows this, which explains why his paper suddenly expands in scope toward the end.

So the inconsistency is this: Dr. Vallicella conveniently miscontrues Buddhist process ontology as a series of disconnected moments with no thought to karma and continuity, because this particular Milinda-Nagasena dialogue doesn't deal with karma, continuity, etc. Much of his argument then proceeds from this misunderstanding, deliberate or not-- but by the end of his paper, Dr. Vallicella ropes in more Buddhists than just Nagasena because he recognizes that, for his critique to have any weight, he does indeed have to consider more than just this one Buddhist dialogue.

And finally, I don't think Dr. Vallicella has convincingly stated his case for a self or "I" whose ontological status is not dependently co-arisen. His argument has weight only if we take "relative permanence" seriously, and if we take "relative permanence" seriously, we're no longer seeing things from the Buddhist perspective. If we fail to take this perspective into account, then any critique of that perspective will also fail, because the critique will have falsely reconstructed matters-- i.e., produced a straw man. Further, the Buddhist metaphysic, which Dr. Vallicella rightly points out is very empirical, will take material reality into consideration when discussing phenomena. Because human brains and bodies lack permanence and exist in a dynamic of processual interbeing or dependent co-arising, then whatever epiphenomenal "self" or "I" arises from that karmic swirl will itself be dependently co-arisen. While I find Dr. Vallicella's argument fascinating (and to be honest, I'll need to re-read parts of it and perhaps revise this essay according to what I learn), I don't find it cogent.

[NB: check out this reference to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, where the commenter writes: "Thus Buddhism does not teach that "you" are "soul" which is "reborn" (although certain forms of Hindu teaching may be understood in this way). Rather, Buddhism teaches [that] "Mind" and "Mindfulness" exist, and that there is a karmic continuity between incarnations of mind. The link then is karmic, not essential." The part in boldface is what Dr. Vallicella is glossing over.]

UPDATE: Dr. Vallicella sent me an email in recognition of my linkage to his site... but I don't think he'd had a chance to read this critique of his paper yet. Heh. I expect to be thoroughly flayed in reply, but my feeling is, if you're going to test yourself philosophically, you may as well test yourself against the big guns: it's a better learning experience, and you find out your many weaknesses faster. For what it's worth, while I doubt I'll ever agree with Dr. Vallicella's basic position, I'll continue to visit his very educational site for the same reason I keep going back to AnalPhilosopher: great writing, lots to learn, and a different perspective.

UPDATE 2: Sperwer's blog offers incisive comments and critiques.


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