Graham Priest on Buddhism and logic

Buddhism47gfby Massimo Pigliucci

Graham Priest is a colleague of mine at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, a world renowned expert in logic, a Buddhist connoisseur, and an all-around nice guy [1]. So I always pay attention to what he says or writes. Recently he published a piece in Aeon magazine [2] entitled “Beyond true and false: Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions. Now modern logic is learning why that might be a good thing.” I approached it with trepidation, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, I am weary of attempts at reading things into Buddhism or other Asian traditions of thought that are clearly not there (the most egregious example being the “documentary” What The Bleep Do We Know?, and the most frustrating one the infamous The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra). But I quickly reassured myself because I knew Graham would do better than that.

Second, Graham knows a lot more than I do about both logic and Buddhism (especially the latter), so surely I was going to learn new things about both topics and, more crucially, how they are related to each other. The problem is that I ended up learning and appreciating more about logic, not so much about Buddhism, and very little about their congruence. Hence this essay.

I am going to follow Graham’s exposition pretty closely, and will of course invite him to comment on my take at his pleasure. Broadly speaking, my thesis is that the parallels that Graham sees between logic and Buddhism are more superficial than he understands them to be and, more importantly, that Buddhism as presented in his essay, is indeed a type of mysticism, not a philosophy, which means that logic (and, consequently, argumentation) are besides the point. Moreover, I will argue that even if the parallels with logic run as deep as Graham maintains, Buddhism would still face the issue — fundamental in any philosophy — of whether what it says is true of the world or not, an issue that no mystical tradition is actually equipped to handle properly.

Graham’s essay begins with the complaint that many Western philosophers dismiss Buddhism as mysticism. While he claims this is due to ignorance and incomprehension, the point to keep in mind is that such opening clearly marks the charge of “mysticism” as an important motivator behind his whole essay. Keep this in mind, because it will come in handy later on.

An early example, in Graham’s piece, of what so many W-philosophers are complaining about is this famous saying by Buddhist thinker Nagarjun: “The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.” At first glance, I do share the puzzlement of my W-colleagues, but I am certainly willing to let Graham help me to clear the fog of my incomprehension.

He pins much of the alleged disdain toward Buddhism to W-philosophers’ aversion to contradictions, which is rooted, of course, in Aristotelian logic, and particularly in two of its pillars: the principle of non contradiction (contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time) and the law of the excluded middle (either something is true or it isn’t, no third option available) [3].

Graham invites his readers to go back to the 5th Century BCE in India, when Buddhism was just beginning, and when a principle known as catuskoti (“four corners”) was being formulated. Here is how he explains it: “[catuskoti] insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.” The literature on this developed because of answers that the Buddha gave to questions such as what happens to enlightened people when they die. The Buddha, apparently, often simply refused to answer the question at all (wisely, I might add); but at other times Buddhist texts seem to suggest that none of the four catuskoti actually provides an answer, and that therefore there was a problem to be handled. Apparently, things got a bit more clear with the second most important Buddhist thinker of all time, 2nd Century CE’s Nagarjuna, who espoused the view that things are “empty,” which Graham tells us doesn’t mean non-existent, but rather that they are because they relate to other things. Nagarjuna spends time discussing the four catuskoti and concludes that there are instances — such as the question of what happens to an enlightened person after he dies — that are not covered by any of those cases.

Graham himself refers to Nagarjuna’s writings as “cryptic,” and to his reasoning as “opaque,” which are both highly irritating characteristics of some Western (think Heidegger!) and Eastern philosophies, and which I really wish people stopped defending or taking for granted and began to seriously criticize. At any rate, here is Graham’s summary of Nagarjuna’s position:

“The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuskoti.”

[Notice the reference to German phenomenology, more on this in a minute.]

This amounts to a sort of catuskoti+, characterized by the four initial possibilities plus a fifth case standing for ineffability. Bear with me for a few more minutes, there’s going to be a pay off.

So far, W-philosophers would have two sources of trouble: the catuskoti is bad enough, because it violates both non-contradiction and excluded middle; but now Buddhists are talking about ineffable things, too! The thing about the ineffable is that it is defined as something of which one cannot talk, it is by definition beyond words. And yet, Nagarjuna and his followers gingerly go on telling us things about the alleged ineffable! In particular, in Graham’s rendition, they tell us why some things are ineffable, even though they cannot comment on the things-in-themselves.

Okay, if you are even superficially familiar with Western philosophy, you might have recognized parallels — which Graham duly notes, of course — with Kant, or even Heidegger. Kant makes a distinction between the phenomenal world, to which we have access through our senses and reason, and the noumenal one, which is in a sense ineffable, but about which we can tell why it is so. Heidegger, much more bizarrely and certainly more obscurely, wrote a big book about Being and then told everyone that you can’t really say anything about Being.

Graham says that all of this is a contradiction, and one that should not actually worry W-philosophers, regardless of whether they are contemplating Kant, Heidegger or Buddhism: “you can’t explain why something is ineffable without talking about it. That’s a plain contradiction: talking of the ineffable.”

I think this is a questionable move. I don’t think there is any real contradiction at play here. Let me take the case of Kant in particular, since it is by far the least obscurely put. A reasonable retelling of the story, I suspect, is that Kant identified an epistemically inaccessible zone, one the content of which we cannot know. But we can observe the contours of such zone, the epistemic perimeter, if you will, from the outside. Imagine a physical analogy: you use Google map and find out that a certain location on it, say Dick Cheney’s house, is missing from it. There is a large blacked out area around it, to which you have no access. There is no contradiction in a) acknowledging that you can’t say anything about what is inside that geographical black hole while b) you can say something about it, for instance that it exists, and that it has a certain perimeter.

What I have not told you so far is that Graham had in the meantime weaved a fascinating series of analogies between the contradictions of Buddhism and developments in logic since Aristotle. We are therefore treated to a breathtaking, and truly enlightening, overview of things like the distinction between a relation and a function in mathematics (the later relates objects in a one-to-one fashion, the former in a one-to-many); relevance logic (a non-classical system designed to deal with paradoxes) [4]; the Russell paradox (concerning the set of all the sets that are not members of themselves) [5]; many-valued logic (invented by Polish logician Jan Łukasiewicz in the 1920s to deal with the contingency of statements about the future, which are strictly speaking neither true nor false, as Aristotle himself recognized) [6]; and plurivalent logic (which deals with paradoxes originating from self-referential sentences, and was co-invented by Graham himself) [7]. It’s a veritable tour de force, and it’s worth every minute of your (focused!) attention.

But what do we get out of all of this? Graham himself acknowledges that all these developments in logic, which largely took place within the Western tradition, occurred entirely independently of Buddhism. There was pretty much no cultural cross-fertilization, going either way. That, in itself, is not a problem: a reasonable interpretation of what happened is that Western logicians and Buddhist thinkers arrived at the same conclusions independently of each other.

Except that that strikes me as a forced analysis of what is going on. Relevance logic, many-valued logic, various treatments of paradoxes, and so forth were explicitly tackled by Western philosophers as logical problems, and confronted by means of rigorously formal analysis and carefully developed arguments. This is not at all the impression of Buddhism that I get from reading Graham (and from my intro-level familiarity with Buddhism outside of taking Graham as a source [8]). Instead, Buddhist thinkers clearly arrived at their formulations by non-philosophical, and more precisely, mystical, means.

Graham seems to recognize this when he says: “Call it mysticism if you want; the label has little enough meaning. But whatever you call it, it is rife in great philosophy — Eastern and Western.” I beg to differ. It may be great mysticism (if one is inclined to take on board this approach to truth and knowledge), but not great philosophy. The term “philosophy,” in my book (and I’m sure Graham will disagree) is best reserved for the sort of argument-cum-logic approach developed by the pre-Socratics and their immediate successors (who, after all, introduced the very word!), and to confuse it with other modes of thought is, well, confusing.

This, by the way, isn’t a West-East thing at all. Graham squarely numbers Heidegger among the “call it mysticism if you want” group, which is why I really don’t like Heidegger: he may have something interesting or profound to say (unlike, say, Derrida), but if he doesn’t bother to say it in clear and logically cogent ways, the hell with it, as far as I’m concerned. (Graham also includes Wittgenstein in this group, though in his case things are more complex, both because of his famous first and second philosophical phases throughout his life, and because even his second phase is crystal clear compared to Heidegger!) And on the other side of the geographical divide we have the vibrant tradition of Indian logic and epistemology [9] which certainly counts as philosophy, and which paralleled many of the developments of the Western tradition, arriving at several of the same conclusions.

Now, I realize that the word “mysticism” almost automatically carries a negative connotation in the West (thanks, Deepak Chopra!), and I must confess to being deeply mistrustful of mystical insights myself. But if by mysticism we simply mean an intuitive, rather than a discursive, approach to thinking about the nature of reality, by all means, bring your intuitions to bear on whatever it is we are discussing and let’s hash it out. Still, this points to a major disanalogy between Western (and Indian!) logic and Buddhism as presented by Graham’s attempt to interweave them: in logic we are concerned with the formal properties of hypothetical systems, not with the way the world is. Logic and math do often have surprisingly insightful things to say about reality, but this isn’t their point. Logicians in particular are concerned with the properties inherent in the structure of sentences, not in their content — which is why logic texts read like endless streams of “if p then q; p; therefore q,” where it simply doesn’t matter what the damned p and q actually represent.

That is most definitely not the case for metaphysicians concerned with the noumenal vs phenomenal world (Kant), with Being (Heidegger) or for Buddhist disciples concerned with what will happen to them if they die after achieving enlightenment. Graham suggests that Nagarjuna’s problem with the ineffable is analogous to the Hungarian mathematician Julius König’s work on ordinals and what happens after we have been through all finite numbers (which is an infinite set, of course). I don’t feel comfortable with that analogy, precisely because questions about ordinals are questions about logical-mathematical objects, while Nagarjuna’s (and Kant’s, and Heidegger’s) attempt is at saying something about the world as it is. Not the same thing.

Graham draws two conclusions at the end of his must-read essay:

“Mathematical techniques often find unexpected applications. Group theory was developed in the 19th century to chart the commonality of various mathematical structures. It found an application in physics in the 20th century, notably in connection with the Special Theory of Relativity. Similarly, those who developed the logical techniques described above had no idea of the Buddhist applications, and would, I am sure, have been very surprised by them.”

Yes to almost all of the above, except that I see a glaring difference between applying logic to the theory of relativity and retrofitting it to a mystical tradition.

“The second lesson is quite different and more striking. Buddhist thought, and Asian thought in general, has often been written off by Western philosophers. How can contradictions be true? What’s all this talk of ineffability? This is all nonsense. The constructions I have described show how to make precise mathematical sense of the Buddhist views. This does not, of course, show that they are true. That’s a different matter. But it does show that these ideas can be made as logically rigorous and coherent as ideas can be.”

Well, no. To begin with, whether Buddhist views are true is precisely the matter. Logic and math cannot be false, unless one has made a mistake in the formalism. And they cannot be false precisely because they do not deal with statements concerning the world. The same courtesy cannot be extended to any form of mysticism, philosophy or science, for that matter.

As for Buddhist ideas being just as rigorous as Western logic and math, again, no. The rigor in the latter comes out of the ability to very precisely spell out formalism, build arguments and proofs, defend or abandon axioms, and so on. Nothing of the kind appears to be the case within Buddhist tradition, though again I’m certainly more than willing to be corrected (with detailed examples?) by Graham, who knows that tradition much better than I.

Graham’s parting shot is this: “As the Buddha may or may not have said (or both, or neither): ‘There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.’” Being conscious of the hubris of improving on the Buddha, I’d add a third: one can get started on the wrong path.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] He has also been, more than once, on my Rationally Speaking podcast, to talk about logic and Buddhism.

[2] Beyond true and false: Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions. Now modern logic is learning why that might be a good thing, by G. Priest, Aeon, 5 May 2014.

[3] The third fundamental principle of classical logic is the law of identity: each thing is the same with itself and different from another.

[4] Relevance Logic, by E. Mares, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[5] Russell’s Paradox, by A.D. Irvine and H. Deutsch, SEP.

[6] Many-Valued Logic, by S. Gottwald, SEP.

[7] Plurivalent Logics, by G. Priest, Australasian Journal of Logic, vol 11, 2014.

[8] See the following SEP entries: Buddha, by M. Siderits; Madhyamaka, by R. Hayes; The Kyoto School, by B.W. Davis; Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy, by S. Nagatomo.

[9] See these SEP entries: Logic in Classical Indian Philosophy, by B. Gillon; Epistemology in Classical Indian Philosophy, by S. Phillips.

104 thoughts on “Graham Priest on Buddhism and logic

  1. “…and I don’t think meditation has yielded any new understanding of the world. It may have other effects, but it doesn’t generate knowledge.”

    This is a laugh. So the whole of mysticism is nonsense? Case closed then. There would obviously no point in doing any empirical research. Strange how the practice is all about knowledge but produces none. You’d think a billion meditators would have noticed by now.


  2. Peter, that was unnecessarily sarcastic, and your reading of my comment unnecessarily uncharitable. It ought to have been clear that I meant that meditation does not provide the sort of knowledge or understanding of the world we get from logic, math and science. Please provide a counterexample if you are not convinced. As for the other benefits of meditation, I’m sure there are some, though the research in it is ambiguous to say the least. (And yes, I’ve looked into it. I’ve even practiced meditation for a while!)


  3. Several notes:

    1. Self-hypnosis is quite similar to meditation, without any quasi-mystical overtones. Years and years ago, I once got “deep” enough to see the spiraling mandalas and a bit of the white light/tunnel.

    2. Massimo, what is Graham’s take on the likes of Stephen Batchelor and the “Buddhism(s) is/(are) really just a philosophy” movement? Mine is that:
    A. This move was NOT done by Westerners alone, but rather in conjunction with Victorian-era Buddhist thought leaders, as with Hinduism; and
    B. It’s true only in a trivial sense (with just the right focus), as it would be if I made the same claim of Judaism or even Christianity (shades of George W. Bush!).

    My take is that all main varieties of Buddhism are focused on two metaphysical properties, namely, a metaphysical life force (even if an individualized soul is rejected) and a “law” of how this life force, or even an individualized soul, enters a new physical form, and why. All main varieties of Buddhism offer guidance, even a program, on how to properly align the direction of that life force with that law. Philosophy may have descriptive metaphysics, but, unlike religions, it does not have prescriptive ones generally.

    Also, not a “contradiction” in terms of logic, but a quasi-contradiction, in empirical terms. If all that is reincarnated is an impersonal life force, how can it be “punished” by bad karma if it’s impersonal? If it is a personal soul that’s reincarnated (more shades of Hinduism), then how can it be punished for bad acts it can’t remember? Squarely as a religion, or two religions, to keep Hinduism in the mix, this is why I find karma/reincarnation at least as troubling, if not offensive, as “original sin” or good old Calvinist “double predestination.”

    Next, to something that partially jumps from empiricism to logic. If one claims, on the other hand, that either that life force or an individual soul does remember, or can be led to remember, past life events, doesn’t that undercut a cardinal principle, namely that of nonattachment?

    3. You separate, early on, Indian logic from Buddhist and (I think) from Western logic as well. Do you have any further take to offer?


  4. “That sounds right, but there are two huge caveats: first, because of the admitted (by Graham) obscurity of Buddhism writings, it is actually hard to make the case that Buddhists have, indeed, made those jumps; second, this brings up the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification: we can have a good, possibly correct intuition about X. But we won’t have knowledge of X until we have managed to verify that intuition, logically and/or empirically.”

    Massimo, I agree but even the Western ideas of action at a distance or distortion of a space-time continuum may have had their origins in some form of creative or mystical thinking but as you say were proven by mathematics. I think the higher point is whether it is Western thinking or Easten thinking it is all the activity of neurons in people’s brains. Maybe when people sleep on the problem the hardening of those neural paths by logical thinking loosen up and moments of creative insight transcend the scaffolding of the brain.


  5. Interesting comments, SocraticGadfly. I have never been satisfied with either Hindu or Buddhist explanations of karma or rebirth/reincarnation. Here, for example, is Jonardon Ganeri’s explanation in one of Gary Gutting’s interviews ( ):

    “Let me be clear. The idea of karma is that every human action has consequences, but it is not at all the claim that every human action is itself a consequence. So the idea of karma does not imply a fatalistic outlook on life, according to which one’s past deeds predetermine all one’s actions. The essence of the theory is simply that one’s life will be better if one acts in ways that are ethical, and it will be worse if one acts in ways that are unethical.

    “A claim like that can be justified in many different ways. Buddhism, for example, tends to give it a strictly causal interpretation (bad actions make bad things happen). But I think that within Hinduism, karma is more like what Kant called a postulate of practical reason, something one does well to believe in and act according to (for Kant, belief in God was a practical postulate of this sort).”

    And, then, there’s Gutting’s interview with Jay Garfield who gives his take on reincarnation ( ):

    “I would, first, drop the term “reincarnation,” which has a more natural home in a Hindu context, in favor of “rebirth,” which makes more sense in a Buddhist context. That is because we must understand this doctrine in relation to the central doctrine in all Buddhist schools: that there is no self or soul. So there is nothing that takes on new bodies as does the soul in the Hindu traditions from which Buddhism arose and against which it reacted.

    “Indeed, given the radical Buddhist notion of momentary impermanence, we can say without exaggeration that one is reborn every moment. Buddhism is an Indian tradition, and rebirth across biological lives is taken for granted in most classical Indian philosophical and religious traditions. Buddhism takes that over, and it is taken for granted in many Buddhist traditions that the same kinds of causal continuity that obtain among subsequent stages within a life obtain between stages of our current biological lives and those of past and future biological lives. Many Buddhists would even take this to be an essential commitment of the religious tradition. But in some Buddhist traditions, especially those of East Asia, this view plays no role at all, and many Western Buddhists reject it altogether.”

    So I personally don’t bother with karma or reincarnation and don’t see them as helpful outside the interpretations of their respective traditions.


  6. Sorry to intervene and I hope not to derail the thread, but shouldn’t your view on the mathematical universe hypothesis commit you to accept that something like an essence of a chariot exists. For I can certainly (at least in theory) program an algorithm that reliably differentiates chariots from other objects on the basis of a finite set of markers. Would this algorithm be a “well-defined mathematical object”? Should’ tut exist independently of any implementation then?


  7. @DM

    Thanks for taking the time to answer. I think my enduring confusion will be related to the process of “instantiation”, which appears to imply at least some sort of causal efficacy. In other words, if mathematical objects are causally “inert” (as many mathematical platonists claim), then how do they come to be in relation to the concepts we have of them? It’s essentially the dualism problem.

    But I think the causal nature of instantiation is exactly where the needle can be threaded between nominalism and platonism. So I’m clear enough, I think, to state things correctly.

    A hint of where that is going: Rather than being related to whether the concept is “well-definable”, I think the difference between numbers and chariots has to do with the *structure* of reality, which causally works by imposing constraints. So (roughly and imprecisely), mathematical entities could be said to have a “structural” rather than “material” sort of existence – kind of like formal vs material/efficient causality.


  8. Massimo,

    If you are not denying “b” because “a” supposedly doesn’t make “b” plausible even if true, but for other reasons, then ok, and I will conclude that I misunderstood you. But in that case why would “b” be false?


  9. Hi Asher,

    I think my enduring confusion will be related to the process of “instantiation”, which appears to imply at least some sort of causal efficacy.

    Not necessarily. All it takes for a mathematical object to be instantiated is for there to be an isomorphism (e.g. structural similarity) between a mathematical object and a physical object. These can even be entirely chance occurrences. So if some random collection of particles happens to assemble into the shape of a cube by pure chance, then it is isomorphic to a mathematical cube and we can use the mathematics of cubes to calculate the volume, the ratio of the lengths of the sides to the lengths of the diagonals and so on. The physical cube wasn’t caused to exist by the abstract cube.

    Of course these isomorphisms are often not chance occurrences. Often we very deliberately create physical instantiations of abstract objects, but if these are motivated by our perception of abstract objects they can also be explained from another point of view by physical interactions in the brain which happen to have the kind of isomorphisms I’m talking about — and these isomorphisms can also be explained similarly so that we have an unbroken physical chain of cause and effect all the way back to the Big Bang without ever needing to invoke the idea of abstracta having causal efficacy.

    Software is also abstract. We can say software causes stuff to happen, but this does not contradict naturalism because everything that happens can also be explained from a physical perspective. I say software exists because it is natural and useful to say that it exists, not because it is vital for any explanation of a physical event.

    I think the mind is abstract and exists in the same way.

    , mathematical entities could be said to have a “structural” rather than “material” sort of existence – kind of like formal vs material/efficient causality.

    This is also my view. I don’t think it contradicts anything I said. Their structure and their definition is basically the same thing. But you seem to be equivocating a little between physical chariots (which have a material sort of existence) and the concept of chariotness (which seems to have a mind-dependent sort of existence).


  10. I’m not sure that (b) is necessarily false. But I don’t see any good reason to believe it, and therefore I feel confident in a prima facie rejection, subject to revision, of course.


  11. Hi miramaxime,

    Sorry to intervene and I hope not to derail the thread, but shouldn’t your view on the mathematical universe hypothesis commit you to accept that something like an essence of a chariot exists.

    I don’t think so.

    For I can certainly (at least in theory) program an algorithm that reliably differentiates chariots from other objects on the basis of a finite set of markers.

    Sure. And it would be reliable. But not 100% reliable. There are borderline cases where I know I could not decide if a thing were a chariot or not, so I don’t know how I could define a program which could decide it for me. What if the wheels are motorised? What if one wheel has fallen off? What if it’s basically just a litter?

    So you could create one algorithm and I could create another. They might agree 99% of the time but they might disagree 1% of the time. Your algorithm is therefore working with a concept of chariot which is different from that of mine. Both versions exist and both are mathematical objects, but it seems there is no justification for saying one is The Ideal Chariot and the other is a pretender. It’s the existence of The Ideal Chariot that I deny, because it would privilege one chariot-model above all others without justification.


  12. Ah. Okay SciSal. I read the sentence as it stood, and for this I apologise profusely. Often this remark is made and meant as it stands, and it often prompts me to say something stupid and ill-advised as I did above. Sometimes I am amazed by the idiocy of my own posts.

    I would agree, of course, that the knowledge gained from meditation s additional to that gained through logic, math and science, Indeed, that’s the point of it.


  13. “Or it could be, as I suspect, that there are true logical contradictions (just like there are singularities in math) and that’s the end of the game.”

    I don’t know how possible foundational problems end the game of Buddhism any more than demonstrated foundational problems in mathematics or logic have finished those games. My thinking here is perhaps more radical: I don’t think you can be sure you have found anything true or false or both or neither when you examine only the form of an argument, ignoring the content.

    “But as I wrote in the essay, I think that’s yet another category mistake: I can be faced by a black box that I cannot open and about whose content I can say nothing at all. But I can still say that I am faced by a black box that I cannot open and about whose content I can say nothing at all. There is no contradiction at all between the two sentences.”

    Well, we both agree in disapproving the ineffable as a logical proposition. But I do so because I think the ineffable is a proposition without content. You are committed to a formalism that ignores content. It appears to me that you resolve the logical contradiction of talking about the ineffable by drawing a distinction. In the OP you distinguished the epistemically unknowable aspect of the ineffable as a blank area on the map, while in the comment it was the inside of a black box. I don’t know that unknowable and ineffable are the same thing or even necessarily overlapping descriptors. If you defined the ineffable as the disjunction of the set of all elements that are not members of another set and the set of all possible null sets, it wouldn’t be?

    At any rate, we can, as so often happens, follow the metaphor to a proper conclusion: We can determine some information about the ineffable in a black box by weighing the box or measuring the behavior of seismological waves passing through the blank spot on the map. Demarcating the ineffable gives you information. (This is why I don’t believe in Kant’s noumena by the way.) In other words, the ineffable is a helium gas that escapes all the balloons you want to put it in. Saying that you can handle it in a balloon can’t be literally true. At best you can handle almost all of it for short periods.


  14. Massimo,
    Thank you for your reply.
    “But logic dictates no particular ethics.”

    I agree. The Buddhist logicians thought it did, and so have a number of Western philosophers, but I now see this to be confusing structure with substance.

    “But I think a charitable reading of that section, especially the SEP references to Indian logic, make it clear that that’s what I meant.”

    Of course, that’s how I discovered how I misread you in my first comment.

    “All sorts of notions from modern science blatantly contradict everyday experience. Could this be a problem for the Eightfold Path?”

    No, because the natural laws we learn through science give us the world that we experience, and thus provide right knowledge about it.

    “looking at [elementary particles’] “parts” to show they have no essence is strange, given that there are no parts to look at”

    The ideas we have about them clearly have parts – parts of speech and parts of other ideas. Without these, we would only have gross events happening in colliders.

    “And why is this not a claim about physical entities (or phenomena)? I think consciousness is a physical phenomenon, for instance.”

    I agree that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, One can get such a theory from various Western philosophers but one can get it out of some Buddhist thinkers as well. That’s why I say I could make use of Nagarjuna: I came to physicalist theory partly thanks to wrestling with Nagarjuna’s destruction of the independent Self – that is, the idea that the Self is independent of body and sense – even, in some way, independent of cognition. (We only recently had a discussion here about David Chalmers’ p-zombies who have all the physical behaviors we do, including those occurring in our brains, yet lack ‘consciousness,’ i.e., a subjectivity independent of physical activity – an independent Self.)

    But to the primary question: Nagarjuna’s position is a kind of extreme nominalism, holding that there is a complete disjunction between the ideas we have and the world those ideas appear to be about. Holding up a physical entity and asking “what is this thing?” will only get a response like “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
    Before we toss this off as having no value or leading inevitably to ‘ineffables,’ we should remember that Descartes begins modern philosophy by first denying the validity of his senses – an extreme nominalist maneuver. Of course he didn’t stay there; but any philosophy can have its uses.

    “‘Samsara (…) We are born, we live, we die. [Etc.]’
    “No, that’s not a cycle, and I seriously doubt that’s what it’s meant in the original. What you describe is a trivial observation about the human condition, not a mystical (or any other kind of) insight into the nature of things.”

    Death is an animal condition; the human condition is coming to terms with it. (Other animals may have a sense of impending death, I don’t know; but only humans have years to deal with it as an ongoing dilemma.)
    You’re right that Samsara has traditionally meant much more than this. But the original insight – the Buddha’s – has to do with the pain generated (in part) by this dilemma and one way (the best way I know) to live with it. I admit I have lost something – perhaps a great deal – of the tradition in making this move, but ultimately the question is whether I can live with less pain and meet my mortality with fewer qualms.

    Again, I thank you for your reply. This conversation has raised important issues for me.


  15. Both versions exist and both are mathematical objects, but it seems there is no justification for saying one is The Ideal Chariot and the other is a pretender. It’s the existence of The Ideal Chariot that I deny, because it would privilege one chariot-model above all others without justification.

    You seem to unduly privilege typical “mathematical definitions” to me. After all it is just circumstantially the case that mathematicians usually (but not always!) accept the “names” that their peers attach to concepts. If two mathematicians disagree on what a convex polytope is, they cannot point to any “ideal form” to convince the other. Only to historical use and parsimony among frequently used labels. Why should this be different with a chariot?

    So after all you seem to be committed to the view that a “chariot1”, “chariot2”, “chariot3”, … necessarily exist – as in different programs that reliably identify chariots even though they might disagree in some borderline cases. Now you write a master program that outputs the intersection of all sets of chariots that the programs identify and one that outputs the union of the sets and voila – you have the essence of a chariot in the narrow sense and one in the wider sense. Does this make sense?


  16. After all it is just circumstantially the case that mathematicians usually (but not always!) accept the “names” that their peers attach to concepts

    I feel this slightly misses the point. The point is not that there is general agreement on which terms refer to which definitions, but that there are precise definitions. Indeed, I think mathematics could be considered the study of precise definitions. Wherever a truly precise definition occurs, I think it describes a mathematical object.

    If two mathematicians disagree on what a convex polytope is, they cannot point to any “ideal form” to convince the other.

    Indeed. So where there is no agreement on what a particular mathematical term means, then I would say it is meaningless to assert or deny that the correct referent of that term exists. Only the various mathematical objects exist. There is no correct referent unless by convention.

    Thankfully, such disputes are rare.

    Why should this be different with a chariot?

    If there were general agreement on a precise definition of chariot, it would probably depend on yet more fuzzy concepts like wheels, axles and horses. You’d end up needing to model the entire world. A precise definition for chariot seems to me, if not impossible, then at least infeasible. Mathematical objects are easier. Contrast the ease with which the term ‘dragon’ is defined in the context of Conway’s Game of Life with the term in more vernacular usage.

    You have the essence of a chariot in the narrow sense and one in the wider sense. Does this make sense?

    I understand your point. However, in order to enumerate all the programs which could identify chariots, you would first need a definition of chariot so as to distinguish those from programs which identify carts or cars or litters. The set of programs which identify chariots is itself a fuzzy concept if we don’t first have a definition of a chariot, so ultimately your argument is circular.


  17. Cheers Massimo.

    “Yes, that may be his reply, but I think it is a mistaken one, for the reasons I summarized above in this particular set of responses. And if that doesn’t fit Graham’s Inclosure Schema I’m going to be dollar to donut that there is something wrong with the Schema…”

    It’s a point I’ve been struggling with throughout the reading. Half the time I find myself saying “of course!” and then the other half I can’t help thinking that there’s something afoot.

    However I’m not convinced that Priest is making any systematic error of the sort you identify. I’ll try to illustrate why with your black box example above. The metaphor of a ‘black box’ draws a sharp distinction between boundary and content, which is exactly the move Priest does not want to make. As I’m reading him, he seems very interested in the notion that boundaries of a certain sort, as we face in cases like of the unexpressable, unknowable, unconceivable etc., are not boundaries of the sort that our intuitions respond to when we talk about e.g. black boxes. I am very much a novice to set theory so I’m glad to be corrected, but so far it seems to me that this is the case because membership in a set cannot be readily made into an analogy with the contents of a physical boundary for anything more than a restricted example.

    Without a sharp distinction between boundary and content, I’m not sure the charge of a category mistake or equivocation, between what counts as ‘limit of a set’ and ‘content of a set’ for example, can stick. It might seem intuitive to say that the statement ‘I am facing a black box about which I can express nothing’ is not a member of the set of things which can be said about the black box I am facing. We aren’t talking about anything inside the box, it’s content, but rather some fact external to it, about it’s boundary or perhaps something beyond it. I think that firstly this is right, and secondly this is so far consistent with Priest.

    Where I think the metaphor goes wrong is that, in treating membership in a set as analogous with being determinately inside a physically extended box, it excludes statements of the above type from *also* belonging to the set of things that can be said about the black box. But it is not clear to me that this is the case, or even why it should be — surely it is the case that the very statement ‘I am facing a black box about which I can express nothing’ is admissible as a member of the set of things which can be said about the black box? If not, what is the content of that expression? If it’s to have meaning at all, certainly it’s *about* the black box? If this is not the case (and I suspect it must be if the objection is to hold), then I’m not clear on what exactly the statement is talking about, and moreover, how whatever it is talking about is sufficient to exclude said statement (I should have used letters for this) from the set of things that can be expressed about the black box.

    (In saying all that, this is just me trying to sound out some responses to this line of objection; it’s certainly a point I’ve had in mind and will be keeping in mind as I continue on.)


  18. Contrast the ease with which the term ‘dragon’ is defined in the context of Conway’s Game of Life with the term in more vernacular usage.

    Whoa – now *that’s* a coincidence! The entire piece I’m writing is centered around Conway’s Game of Life.

    I’m planning to submit it to SS, so, Massimo willing, we’ll see what you think of my needle-threading.

    I definitely feel like you’re sidestepping the causality issue. If we just happen to have isomorphic conceptual structures, then fine – but then mathematical objects can’t be said to “exist” in any meaningful way (they don’t do anything, they can’t be perceived, etc.). If, however, the structured world affects our structured brains in such a way that isomorphisms become likely to develop, then there’s causality at work.


  19. Hi Asher,

    If we just happen to have isomorphic conceptual structures, then fine – but then mathematical objects can’t be said to “exist” in any meaningful way (they don’t do anything, they can’t be perceived, etc.).

    Then we just differ on what we find meaningful!

    They don’t do anything, and they can’t be perceived directly (at least not with senses), but I think they can be perceived indirectly. And they can be explored. And the same discovery can be made independently by two different people. It seems more natural to me to consider these things which seem to be independent of any particular mind to actually exist in their own way.

    Plus I argue that Platonism is the only way to reconcile computationalism with the belief that the mind actually exists, and I’m pretty sure you hold both views. The mind (e.g. conscious experience), after all doesn’t actually do anything (that can’t be accounted for by describing the physical processes within the brain) and it can’t be perceived (except perhaps by itself).

    The same goes for the universe. The universe doesn’t do anything (on a B theory of time it’s just this static structure that sits there eternally), and it can’t be perceived by observers external to itself — much like the mind.

    OK, you say, but we can observe our own minds and the universe, so it’s not true that they can’t be perceived.

    But what of mathematical objects that are or contain their own observers, such as the structures describing universes similar to but slightly different than our own? From a neutral standpoint, where neither universe is directly perceivable, there seems to be no justification for assuming that there is a difference in their ontology. Either both exist or neither do. I prefer to say the universe exists so I prefer to say mathematical objects exist.

    There’s more on my blog.

    Look forward to your own article!


  20. The joke from the late ’60’s about the old Jewish lady who travels to the Buddhist monastery asking to speak the the Lama: after a long journey on donkey, finally talking her way into the inner sanctuary, she approaches the Lama, smacks him with her purse, and says, “Sheldon, come home.” Graham needs to Kimmen heim.

    I don’t think it’s an accident that there are so many first generation Buddhists in America claiming it’s a philosophy and not a religion. Only if your parents aren’t Buddhists can you claim that Buddhism will do, unlike other religions, all that it promises. The first gen acolytes do all sorts of backbends to get around the obvious malarky of the dogma. Whether it’s the three card monty move of saying “there are many Buddhisms” so that any BS version of the doctrine you point out can be quickly pushed onto the wrong sect, or whether it’s the annoying “ineffable” dodge, or whether it’s the putting off until other lives the need for any sort of freaking evidence.

    Owan Flannagan did his best to come up with a naturalized Buddhism, and I find it unsatisfactory. Nagarjuna is no more a logician than Democritus and Leucippus were Physicists, which, with Massimo’s blessing, they were not. Still I’m going to read the book for the history of logic.


  21. Thomas, I can buy dropping the word “reincarnation” with Buddhism. As I noted, distinguishing between an impersonal life force and a personal soul, right there, makes it a bit different than in Hinduism.

    But, per your excerpts from Garfield …

    That said, I think Buddhism here undercuts itself again. How can one impute an essentially personal “causation” to an impersonal entity? I mean, in the West, we’re beyond the late-medieval through early-Rationalist witchcraft fearing era; we don’t flog unhitched carts for “deciding” to run over people.

    Hinduism is actually, in this case, more logical than Buddhism, and that’s saying something!

    And, to undercut the alleged profundity that Garfield is putting forth?

    “We are all born dying.” — Martin Luther

    I could easily extend that to say, “We are dying every moment.”

    (Massimo, you could introduce Graham Priest to Theo Wit. 🙂 )

    That said, I don’t see karma or reincarnation helpful, period!


  22. SocraticGadfly, my intent in quoting the two passages was to note how each tries to distinguish one tradition from the other. But I don’t loose sleep over it. Nor, I might add, over Plato/Socrates’s speculations about rebirth.


  23. Oh, I’m with you on that, Thomas. I don’t lose sleep over any of that, any more than, like my gravatar idol, I do over the “problem” of induction! Good point about some “jockeying” between the two world religions; there is some parallel to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, or, even more, perhaps, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Or maybe the Hindu-Buddhist relationship parallel is about halfway between the two above?

    Besides, if you’re a Buddhist, at least if you’re a good one, there is no “I” to lose sleep over anything anyway!


  24. Agreed on your “first-generation” observations. When I said that, to be honest, all the Buddha himself could actually have claimed is that “Life seems to be suffering,” rather than “life is suffering,” a number of seeming first-generation Buddhists “visited” the blog post where I said that.

    That’s all right, because, to riff on Phil Sheridan and a famous book, mashed together, I then said that “The only good Buddha is a dead Buddha.”


  25. Buddhism is (one philosophy) about saving lives,
    Your philosophy is about ‘getting things right.’
    Now, do I want to save lives or ‘get things right’?
    I think you lose in that in that equation.


  26. SocraticGadfly.
    Most of what Hume had to say was said by Buddhist philosophers long ago. But of course admitting that would require a) admitting that a 2000 year tradition of philosophy alien to your culture might be in advance of your culture; and b) actually reading the texts you treat dismissively.
    The ‘arguments’ that you and Aaron Shure offer amount to culturally laden denials that conversations between east and west could be in anyway meaningful. That is clearly not Priest’s intent, and it has become clear in this thread that this is not Massimo’s intent either.
    You seem to be saying, ‘this conversation is not useful.’ Given your position points, I have to agree with you.
    So what do you or Aaron Shure bring to this conversation that I can learn from? So, to put it bluntly – who cares?


  27. PeterJ: “Ah. Okay SciSal. I read the sentence as it stood, and for this I apologise profusely. Often this remark is made and meant as it stands, and it often prompts me to say something stupid and ill-advised as I did above. Sometimes I am amazed by the idiocy of my own posts.”

    Good. I was not planning to discuss the mysticism issue. Now, I think I must.

    PeterJ: “This is a laugh. So the whole of mysticism is nonsense? Case closed then. There would obviously no point in doing any empirical research. Strange how the practice is all about knowledge but produces none. You’d think a billion meditators would have noticed by now. … I would agree, of course, that the knowledge gained from meditation s additional to that gained through logic, math and science, Indeed, that’s the point of it.”

    One, yes, mysticism by ‘definition’ is nonsense.

    Two, meditation will definitely help a ‘learned’-person to get a clear-mind to think issue through. Meditation will definitely not help an ‘uneducated’-person gain one single ‘bit’ of epistemic-knowledge.

    There are two types mysticism in Buddhism.
    Frist, the mystic-stories: those stories cannot be experienced by any nonbeliever and no way to be demonstrated by believers, such as the detailed ‘description of hell’. By all means, these ‘nonsense-stories’ are REALITY in this universe as the ‘linguistic-facts’. When a nonsense-story is told, it becomes a reality of this universe, and it can actually ‘live’ in many persons mind and memory (that is, actually touchable). This first type of mysticism shows the ‘power’ of linguistics which is not bound by any type of ‘logic’. Many illogic sentences are perfect sentences, such as,
    The colorless green
    The married bachelor
    The living dead
    The non-zero zero
    The bad goodness
    Etc. to ad infinitum

    Second, mysticism is used for claiming a ‘super-truth’ without any supporting evidence or any supporting ‘description’. The ineffability is the copout for hiding its ‘ignorance’. The math-conjecture is a kind of mysticism, as its proof is unknown. This math-mysticism hints that its claim is true although its proof is not available. Many mysticisms try to play the same role as math-mysticism, claiming a truth without the ability to give any proof. By all means, this type of mysticism is nonsense by definition.

    Buddhism as a ‘great’ religion, it comforts many souls in the world. While there are many different traditions in Buddhism, there is only one Buddhism-theology, depending on its methodology, the way of ‘searching’ the ultimate-reality (UR), and it is the way of ‘negation’. It starts at the place of where one is currently ‘standing’. Is my desk the UR? No, then throw it away, the process of ‘emptying’. The Buddha’s way is ‘emptying’ anything which is not UR. Thus, emptying the treasures, emptying the family, emptying the society, emptying the humanity, and finally emptying his own soul. Finally, he reach the state of ‘Nirvana’. Yet, if he gains the nirvana, he is doomed. He must also empty out that nirvana. After awhile, the Buddha got tired and he knew that this ‘emptying’ nonsense must end at one point. So, he must accept that the ‘largest-emptiness’ is the UR. Of course, at the UR, it has the highest peace, highest happiness, highest love, highest knowledge, highest ‘everything’. What are they? They are way (way, … way…) beyond the ‘description’. The truth is that he (the Buddha) did not know anything. And, this is the Buddha’s MYSTICISM which knows absolutely no modern knowledge (no modern math, no modern chemistry, no modern physics, no modern biology), not knowing any modern knowledge, period.

    Let Buddhism does its best, comforting billions souls; in the past, now and in the future. Don’t pretend it knows any modern knowledge; it did not, does not and will never can be.


  28. ej, well, I don’t see things as that dichotomous. The branch of philosophy concerned with “saving lives” is ethics, the one concerned with “getting things right” is epistemology (and metaphysics, and a number of “philosophies of”). Philosophy has understood from the Greek-Roman tradition has very clearly been involved in both.


  29. What Hume said about human nature was from a naturalist, philosophical point of view, and not a religious POV, which Buddhism is, despite your attempt to also make the “just a philosophy” claim. So, no, I have no need to “cede” anything to Buddhism. The “denials” therefore aren’t culturally laden, either.

    And thus, I repeat your last line back to you, topped with a generous dollop of the old Zen word “Mu.”


  30. I drew a grand dichotomy – and I now feel I was being too contentious in doing so, and I apologize – because you seem to be saying there’s nothing to be learned in philosophies of the past. But the reading of other philosophies, old and new, while they certainly often take place in a dialogue and debate concerning which provides a better description of the world, frequently involves discovering, not only useful ideas, but useful attitudes, useful vocabularies, useful questions. We can certainly find these in texts from the past and texts of other traditions.


  31. Hi DM,

    Mathematical objects are easier.

    I do not see how this line of reasoning is open to you given that the MUH entails that the whole world – and everything in it – is (part of) a mathematical object. This should mean that all observed messiness is in actuality an aspect of a well-defined concept, should it not?

    The set of programs which identify chariots is itself a fuzzy concept if we don’t first have a definition of a chariot, so ultimately your argument is circular.

    Yet we manage to reliably identify chariots, so something’s gotta give. I never argued that such a definition would be easy to attain just that it seems to me that – on your view – it should be possible in principle given that we study an aspect of a well-defined concept when we study chariots. Or do you argue on the basis of inseparability?

    Anyway, I’ll also be looking forward to Asher’s essay and would like to pick up the topic again there. Thanks for the clarification!


  32. “What Hume said about human nature was from a naturalist, philosophical point of view, and not a religious POV”
    What Hume said about human nature is about human nature. What the Buddha and some of his later followers said about human nature is about human nature. What Owen Flannagan says about human nature is about human nature. If our inquiry is into human nature then it may be possible to learn from each of these. “POV” is just another effort to cut off choices.
    I wanted to apologize, SocraticGadfly, for sounding too contentious, as I apologized to Aaron Shure. We all have our triggers, and I need to keep a watch on mine. But simply dismissing the interests of others is unenlightening.


  33. Oh, such claims aren’t unique to Buddhism, either, if you will. First-generation Christian apologist Justin Martyr tried to sell Antoninus Pius on the idea that Christianity was just a philosophy!

    As for Flanagan, I found this quote:

    What they make of the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth is another matter.

    In light of that quote, how many Buddhist arhats, etc., would accept him as a legitimate expostulator of Buddhism? I know it’s primarily directed at Americans (many of them commenting on this blog?) who largely equate meditation with Buddhism, and putting thoughts into their heads, but what does he think of Buddhism’s core doctrines — yes, doctrines — himself?


  34. The metaphysical, or non-metaphysical background of Hume vs. Buddhism matters. When Hume said, “Whenever I try to grasp myself ….” etc., he didn’t next say “That means there’s no soul, but, there IS an impersonal life force.” So, without being contentious, I stand by what I said. Evoking Hume as a “testimonial” to the validity of Buddhist observation doesn’t fly in my book. And again, it’s not for cultural reasons, it’s for empirical ones.


  35. Massimo,
    I couldn’t reply to your reply immediately, so I’ll do it here.
    First, my responses to Aaron Shure and SocraticGadfly were unnecessarily contentious, and I offered them my apologies.
    The dichotomy I drew was false, but it was drawn to make that point, that drawing boundaries between different traditions – or around new ones, e.g., “first generation Buddhists” – is unnecessarily ‘drawing lines in the sand.’ However, I did not make that point well, and it would have been better not to comment than to comment badly. So I apologize to you as well.


  36. ejw – I wonder why you think Buddhism is only about human nature. Buddhism is all about knowing the truth about the world. What else could it be about? Because of the way the world is, a profound knowledge of how the world works inevitably brings with it an end of suffering. Or, this is what is claimed by Buddhism. It would simply be one of Wittgenstein’s facts that suffering is an unreal phenomenon and can be observed to be such. All phenomena except one would be unreal, and this is exactly what Nagarjuna proves. Buddhism is about human nature, as you say, but it is about everything without a single exception.


  37. Me
    “How do we know if a contradiction that applies to the physical world is a ‘true contradiction’, or an indication of our limited access to the world at this time”

    “I think that talk of contradictions in the physical world is a category mistake: contradictions can be found in logic, not in nature.”

    Me again:

    Ok, but this is what I was trying to get at. The natural world is just what it is, and therefore cannot be a contradiction. Even that is a logical statement about ultimate nature, of which I think Priest would characterize Nagarjuna as saying we cannot be certain. It think it is a fair point if you find taking the para-consistent logic that far unhelpful.

    I think however, we tend to confuse our best models of the natural world for the ‘thing itself’ which leads to too much certainty. We do see contradictions in our best models of the physical world, and I think that is probably always going to be unavoidable as a consequence of our limited access. I think how we make use of those contradictions drives progress.

    As someone who read a lot of taoist philosophy (and some Buddhist), who also practiced and taught tai chi I was always drawn to the aspects of the philosophy that helped train a mindful receptivity to uncertainty (not to the religious aspects). To be mindful and wary of how ingrained thought patterns drive our conclusions. This aspect of the philosophy may not directly reveal knowledge in the sense you describe, but for me I think the value lies in helping to guard against pervasive issues like confirmation bias. This is what I felt was beneficial for me before I had ever heard what confirmation bias was.

    I am sure there are other philosophies or practices that can be helpful in this regard, and maybe more directly without excess baggage. I’m just speaking from my experience.


  38. PeterJ
    The question you’re asking really belongs in a discussion of Buddhism per se, which I’m not sure is appropriate to this webzine. (‘Is all life really suffering?’ ‘Is the world by nature directed toward human suffering?’ Perhaps important metaphysical questions, but only between Buddhists. If non-Buddhists can live well without such questions, why bother them ? The question is, less pain. If they don’t feel it, why should they?)
    I will note this: “a profound knowledge of how the world works inevitably brings with it an end of suffering” – No, the end of suffering comes from practice. Acquiring knowledge is only one of the eight practices that can get one there.


  39. ejw – This is an out of order reply to your other post to me.

    Yes. practice is what brings the end of suffering. This would be because practice would bring knowledge. So we do agree on this.

    The reason why the discussion is appropriate to this thread is that Nagarjuna proves that suffering is unreal. Either that or his proof fails.

    This is a metaphysical issue, as you say, and Nagarjuna deals with all such issues. His proof is completely general and provides a complete solution for all metaphysical problems. He proves only what Kant and Hegel concluded, and what Bradley tried to prove in his metaphysical essay ‘Appearance and Reality’, and it seems to me we would be better off focusing on his result than his method. Is his result a fact about Reality? if it is, then Buddhist doctrine is true. . .

    In order to falsify this doctrine we would have to either invalidate N’s proof or empirically falsify his result. His proof stands up in dialectic logic so it is impossible to invalidate. In this case, we must focus on his result and ask whether there is any way to falsify it. Arguing about what Buddhism is and is not would be a red herring. Nagarjuna’s logical proof and its result is the topic. The simple question is, can we refute or falsify his result. The only way to do this would be to provisionally accept it and explore the consequences in order to see if any absurdities arise. .His logical system is a bit beside the point from a scientific perspective.

    There is only one metaphysics. The results of non-Buddhist metaphysics are exactly the same as they are for Buddhist metaphysics. They cannot be any different. It is only the interpretations and responses that vary.


  40. Hi Seth – You say, “We do see contradictions in our best models of the physical world, and I think that is probably always going to be unavoidable as a consequence of our limited access.”

    This is the importance of Nagarjuna’s proof. He shows that there are no contradictions in his model of the world or the world that it models. It would not be limited access that causes these contradictions in our physical models, It would be the idea that we can build a physical model that is complete and fundamental. It would impossible to do this without building in some logical contradictions, and this would be exactly what Nagarjuna proves.

    You say, “How we use those contradictions drives progress”. I’m very sure that Nagarjuna would have completely agreed with you. I certainly would. The lack of progress shows that we do not use them. We deny them. We become logical positivists, dialethists, objectivists, materialists and mysterianists, or espouse naturalistic dualism or somesuch, or end up rejecting philosophy altogether and believe any old thing. These contradictions tell us something crucial about the world, and this would explain all Nagarjuna’s;hard work on his proof, but we would have to be listening.


  41. PeterJ
    Ok, I see how your original post is appropriate to the context of the present discussion.
    If Nagarjuna’s argument holds, then the source of suffering – the dependently arising self – is empty. Obviously, I think Nagarjuna’s argument holds. But while this led to metaphysics in some Buddhist traditions, I don’t think its necessary to go there. I see cessation of suffering as a more important goal.
    A successful metaphysics of today needs to account for the science of today, and I don’t think Buddhist metaphysics can accomplish this; however, I could be wrong.


  42. A successful metaphysics of today needs to account for the science of today

    I wonder if that’s true in a strict sense. If science stays out of metaphysics, then science can be a set of models that correspond to phenomena, and the “truth” criteria are purely pragmatic (“whatever works best”).

    What doesn’t seem to be accepted yet (in philosophy) is the idea of “circular” meta-theories, such that physics flows from metaphysics (where metaphysics explains what kind of models we will have and what access we have to reality) and physics supports metaphysics (as if our physical theories themselves are “empirical observations” of a metaphysical theory). We still seem to want things the be “grounded”.


  43. Hi PeterJ-

    Your interpretation of Nagarjuna with regard to his conceptions of contradiction and ‘ultimate reality’ are certainly in opposition to Graham Priests’ interpretation. I don’t really care who is right with regard to what Nagarjuna intended although I do think Priest makes a strong argument.

    You claim that Nagarjuna produced a complete model of the world with no logical contradictions. What specifically removes the necessary contradictions of a purely physical world model? Are you claiming some type of subjective access to ‘ultimate reality’ that fills in this gap? I know some Buddhists’ that claim having experienced such access through meditation, but I find this type of certainty detrimental to the process improving both our knowledge and our wisdom. I don’t think either a purely objective physical model or pure subjective experience can access ‘ultimate truth’. Actually I think don’t think there is anything purely subjective or objective, but that consciousness, knowledge, and wisdom all emerge from an interdependent relationship of the two. I do think that mindfulness practices can help us receive the shared experience of others with less bias as we work improve our knowledge of the world through science. I think when we are doing well this we spots the gaps, contradictions, and paradox’s in our understanding with less resistance. When someone claims to have removed all contradiction or attained certain access to ‘ultimate truth’ I become very skeptical. So I favor Priests’ interpretation regardless of whether or not he is correct with regard to Nagarjuna.


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