Monday, February 14, 2005

postal scrotum: about "contra Vallicella"

I received a very interesting email from a gentleman who had read my exchange with Dr. Vallicella regarding Dr. V's paper on the "chariot" no-self argument by Bhante Nagasena. To orient yourself, you might want to visit the following links:

1. Dr. Vallicella's paper, "Can the Chariot Take Us to the Land of No Self?"

2. My response, "contra Vallicella."

3. Dr. Vallicella's first reply.

4. My responses to (3), here and here.

5. Dr. Vallicella's "further response."

6. My response here.

Dr. Vallicella outguns me philosophically, but perhaps because I'm a stubborn bastard, he still hasn't convinced me that he's refuted the no-self doctrine.

Without further ado, here is the email I received (it was cc'ed to Dr. Vallicella as well) from Alan J. Cook of Austin, Texas:

Messrs. Kim and Vallicella,

I was delighted to discover your exchange of views on the Milandapanha; I'm going to try to work through it and throw in my own two cents worth. The first installment is on my blog at [permalink].

Here's the most relevant portion:

Not far into his initial presentation of the issues, Vallicella states the following:

"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."

Kim raises an objection here:

"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."

From my preliminary scanning of the exchange, it looks like this issue, whether "relative impermanence" is a coherent notion, remains point of contention throughout. This is a boon for the ambitious but lazy commentator like myself, because it allows me to throw in something relevant to the entire dialogue without having read very much of it yet.

Kim to the contrary, relative permanence is a perfectly sound notion, for the reasons that Vallicella adduces; moreover, it has a respectable pedigree in Buddhist thought, where it occurs as the distinction between the original doctrine of impermanence and the more radical notion of momentariness. Here's a passage from David Kalupahana's Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, pp. 82-3:

"[T]he Sarvastivadins and the Sautrantikas, in their attempt to present a logical analysis of the doctrine of impermanence (anicca), came to accept a theory of moments, which in turn led to several theories not consistent with early Buddhism...

What, then, is the theory of impermanence as found in the early Buddhist texts? Hardly any evidence can be gathered from the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese Agamas to support the view that things were considered to be momentary (ksanika, ch'a na). We do not come across any statement such as "All forces are momentary." The theory of momentariness is not only foreign to early Buddhism but is contradicted by some statements in the Nikayas and the Agamas.

For example, two suttas in the Samyukta called Assutava describe how a man should give up attachment to the physical body made up of the four primary existents because the body grows and decays, comes into being an perishes.

Comparing the vacillation of the mind with the change taking place in the physical body, it continues: "This physical body made up of the four primary existents exists for one, two, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred or more years. That which is called the mind, thought, or consciousness arises as one thing, and ceases an another whether by night or by day."

That description of mind and body is not inspired by a theory of momentariness. In fact, it seems to refute the idea of momentariness when it says that the physical body is comparatively more stable than the mind. Physical bodies are experienced as enduring for some time, although they are subject to change and decay, which change is not perceived as occurring every moment. Nor is there any suggestion that the mind is subject to momentary changes. The suttas merely emphasize the relative speeds at which the body and mind change."

Of course, Kalupahana's views are controversial among scholars. (They wouldn't be scholars otherwise.) But the considerations he cites should be sufficient to establish that the theory of momentariness is not the universally accepted interpretation of anicca.

I'll let you know when I've added something more substantive, unless either or you would prefer not to be bothered. Or check out the blog.

Alan Cook
Austin, TX

Fascinating material. I've got a lot more reading to do. Thanks, Mr. Cook.

Regarding relative permanence: I remain of two minds about this.

On the one hand, it seems to be trivially true that material things are impermanent but retain some sort of coherence and continuity over time. This has never been a point of contention for Buddhists, as far as I know (and I admit I'm not nearly as well-read as I should be). If the term "relative permanence" is simply a synonym for "coherence and continuity over time, implying no absolute permanence," then I don't see how the term adds anything to the discussion, at least from the Buddhist end (keeping in mind that this exchange is primarily about the doctrine of no-self).

On the other hand, Dr. Vallicella seems to be using relative permanence as part of his own theory of "onto-theological personalism," in which personhood represents a supposedly "irreducible" category. Ultimately, what motivated me to write my original rejection of Vallicella's paper was this question of irreducibility, which smacks of an unjustifiable foundationalism, and the concept of relative permanence seemed to be fueling that foundationalism. To my mind, people don't "come down to" anything. They're just as dependently co-arisen as all other phenomena.

Vallicella contends that the self is not an object of thought and experience, precisely because it is the subject of thought and experience. I reject this as well: if I can talk about the self, then in some sense it's an object of thought.*

Bernard Lonergan's cognitional theory opposes Vallicella's stance, too: in Lonerganian thinking, one can "experience one's experiencing," which means that metacognitive processes can indeed catch lower-level cognitive processes at work in the mind. The subject of experience is always the object of experience in this cognitional schema. In fact, there's no theoretical limit to the meta-layering of cognition, in Lonergan's paradigm. Try to assign ultimate subjectivity to a certain "layer" of the mind, and watch that ultimacy fray and disappear in those constantly interweaving metacognitive processes. This undermines the idea that the self can ever be said to "come down to" something, or that personhood represents something irreducible. One never reaches an ultimate subject.

*Maybe I'm misunderstanding Dr. Vallicella's intentions here (it's happened before, after all), but let's put it this way: a round square might be a logical impossibility, and we will never see a physical instantiation of it, nor ever even properly conceive of "round squareness," but the fact that I'm writing about it right now means that, in some sense, it's an object of thought.


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