Friday, June 11, 2004

more re: analogy, etc.

As I look back over what I just wrote, I'm not happy with the way it came out. Here's the quote from my other post that prompted much of Sperwer's dissatisfaction:

To the extent that the no-self doctrine is an analogy rooted in the physical nature of things, then it should be obvious that living things scatter once they die.

Maybe the problem is poor phrasing, and Sperwer's right to catch me on this. How about this:

To the extent that the no-self doctrine is largely conveyed to us via analogies rooted in the physical nature of things, then it should be obvious that living things scatter once they die.

I'm not about to back off from using the term "analogy," because as I noted in the followup post, the Buddha's insight is neither obvious nor shared by everybody. This is because no one can directly point to no-self as an obvious phenomenon/quality/concept/etc., which makes analogy an inevitable tool in explaining it.

Also, I'm not sure I made clear why I wrote the above sentence. My point is that, if insights about no-self proceed from an analogical thought process (e.g., the chariot has no inherent self; by this means we can see that people, too, have no fundamental self), then for the analogy to be effective, a closer look at physical nature needs to be made. I contend that a closer look will show that things lose their coherence over time. Therefore, the idea of anything coherent continuing after bodily death is completely unjustified by nature, for we see nothing in physical nature that retains its coherence forever.

Note, too, that my stance makes irrelevant the question of whether the Buddha himself arrived at his insights through analogical means. First, the literature on the Buddha's life was written centuries after his death, making much of it apocryphal at best. We can't know what was going on inside the Buddha's head. Second, the question of "arrival at insights," when coupled with Buddhism's overall stress on finding truths out for oneself, help make the Buddha's insights irrelevant: many Buddhists will contend that Buddhism's truths aren't propositional, but experiential (that's a whole can of worms for another time; I happen to disagree with that claim and with the parties to the interreligious debate surrounding it). In other words, it's not enough just to believe someone else who got enlightenment; you have to go get enlightenment for yourself.

[NB: I'm borrowing the phrase "get enlightenment" from Seung Sahn. Let's agree that language often fails when talking about these core matters.]

The stress on experience (and Sperwer gets into this in his reply to me) is important in Buddhism, and it's also the avenue by which many Buddhists would critique my personal beliefs. "How can you make those claims about rebirth if you haven't committed to the practice?" they'd ask. And that's a good question. I have no answer. If a Buddhist like Zen Master Shin Go Seong of Hanguk-sa says he followed his dog's spirit after it died, and saw that it entered a house, and when he visited that house a few months later, he saw that the family's newborn human baby-- i.e., the dog-- recognized him, then this is experiential evidence against my own claim about rebirth. Go Seong experienced these events; I didn't. As a skeptic, I can claim he didn't have the experience he said he had, but it's only a claim. The event is unrepeatable: unverifiable and unfalsifiable by scientific standards. What more can I say to Go Seong?

Sperwer wrote:

I'm not sure it makes all that much difference, but I believe that the actual position of Shaky is not that the "self" should be understood by analogy to physical phenomena, but that it is IN FACT just the same.

Whether the analogies lending insight into no-self come to us from the Buddha or from his successors, the analogical thinking nevertheless remains. While Sperwer, as a practicing Buddhist, can claim that the Buddha's insights aren't analogical but the actual truth of the matter, this claim will be convincing only to like-minded people. Personally, I agree with the doctrine of no-self, so maybe we can say I'm one of those like-minded people. Where I disagree, however, is in the idea that there is coherent continuity of personal aggregates after bodily death. While the Buddha himself may or may not have argued for such continuity, it (the continuity) is widely understood to be the case by many, if not most, practicing Buddhists. Here again, a prime example is the Jataka Tales: how can anyone claim these tales represent "the former lives of the Buddha" if personal continuity isn't strongly implied in that phrase? Something is traceable from life to life. That's the practical upshot of such thinking.

If the self is like a stream, possessing distinctness while also being dynamic (and therefore having no permanence or inherent selfhood), then the self, like the stream, should by all rights do something similar to what a stream does at the end of its existence: run dry, scatter, get recycled somehow. When a stream has "run its course" over time and has lost all coherence, there are no leftover "stream-aggregates" that hop into some other discrete phenomenon and are still recognizable as "that which was formerly the stream." I can't point at a certain large rock and say, "That's the stream I once knew!" If science has anything to say about the matter, then science clearly tells us that that's not how nature works.

If the self (perhaps "self" in quotes is better) is to be conceived as analogous to a stream (or any other physical phenomenon), then the analogy retains its power only so long as the stream's traits are taken seriously.


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