Saturday, June 25, 2005

postal scrotum: exchange with Sperwer

Sperwer, my occasional critic re: matters Buddhist as well as my benefactor re: matters optometric and dental, wrote the following after reading my post on mind:

Damn, damn, damn; you write so well about this stuff that now you've got me thinking about it

I replied (here slightly edited):

High praise indeed! Many thanks.

I emailed my favorite prof at Catholic U about the subject and we talked a wee bit about Hindu and Buddhist views of mind as compared to views found in the West. I suspect that an East-West comparative essay would have to start at absolute Square One, because Indian thinking has, I believe, a very different point of departure from Western when it comes to "mind." Consider the Hindu notion of "cit," or consciousness, which isn't merely personal but also has a cosmic resonance not found in the standard Western philo lexicon (maybe Western New Agers will expand the concept of mind, but they're likely borrowing from Hinduism et al.). Especially in post-Upanisadic thinking, you get the "tat tvam asi" theme over and over-- big Self is identical to little self.

There are some issues I didn't adequately address in my blog essay. One of them was a strong rebuttal by Dr. Vallicella re: whether Cartesian substance dualism was really positing a "ghost in the machine," as Gilbert Ryle called it. According to Dr. V, that's a mischaracterization, and those who refute the ghost are refuting a straw man. I need to examine Dr. V's argument more closely and get back to it.

Thanks, in the meantime, for the moral support.

Sperwer then wrote this academic gem of a reply:


I think you're right about having to start at square one for the east/west perspective. Just for starters while "The Western philosopher would say that the Taoist is talking about qualia," I think the Taoist would be utterly non-plussed by such a statement.

While qualia and the Tao both may be ineffable, etc., etc, I think that's about all they have in common. Tao/nibbana is NOT a "property of sensory experience by virtue of which there is something it is like to have them"; they are "reality" "pure and simple" (?!). Qualia is a technical term that has little, if any, significance outside the parochial matrix of the narrowly conceived western mind/body problem.

You are on the mark, though, with your comments on the equivalence in ancient vedic thought of self and Brahman. There's a great book by Steven Collins called, I think, Selfless Persons that does a wonderful - albeit difficult to follow - job of tracing the evolution of this idea in the vedic literature and showing how its main intra-vedic transmutation - which resulted in the renouncers getting the upper hand in spiritual valorization over the brahmin ritualists - set the stage for the Bud's taking, as it were, the next step and chucking the very notion of self as some kind of substantial thing, either in the personal or the universal sense.

In a very general way, I think it could be said that buddhism sidesteps the classic western mind/body problem insofar as it holds that all dharmas are radically conditioned phenomena about which, on a theoretical level, it is unnecessary, meaningless and profoundly dangerous to think they have any substantial existence.

The real principal problem for the buddhist, of course, is accounting for continuity, identity, etc. if one otherwise accepts their radical conditioned phenomenology. Collins has a lot of good stuff to say about these topics too; in fact, as you might surmise from his title, that's the real focus of the book.


I'm happy to have such high-quality correspondents. It's one way I learn.

I'd agree that the philosophical Taoist would likely be nonplussed by qualia. By the same token, so would the Buddhist, especially if both are thinking in nondualistic terms. The verb "to experience" is dualistic because it implies an experiencer and the thing experienced (or more simply, the experience). The mind-body discussion, even in the monistic camps, doesn't attempt to transcend a subject-object metaphysics.

Some of this is understandable, especially if we're trying to talk science. Science operates in a highly dualistic mode: observation, repeatability, verifiability, analysis, induction, deduction, etc. But whether any of this is metaphysically relevant to the Taoist or Buddhist is a different question. I'd like to flesh this out a bit more in later posts.


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