Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Rational Basis of Buddhist Philosophy

"It is natural that doubt should arise in your minds.

I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it.
But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it."

- The Buddha


Buddhism is founded on two fundamental observations, from which the rest of the philosophy is derived. These two basic premises are:

(i) The underlying nature of reality is process and change, rather than stable entities.

(ii) Processes can be divided into two categories -  mental processes and physical/mechanistic processes (nama and rupa) .

Although mental processes and physical processes interact, mental processes are not reducible to physical processes.

According to Buddhism, the basis of reality consists of ever-changing processes rather than static ‘things’.  If any ‘thing’ is analysed in enough depth, and observed over a long enough timescale, it can be seen to be a stage of a dynamic process, rather than a static, stable thing-in-itself. 

This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself a process (a continuing  expansion from the Big Bang), and so all that it contains are subprocesses of the whole.

The Rationality of Buddhism
Of course most religions don't like having their basic tenets subjected to searching analysis, and Jihadism has abandoned reason altogether, to the extent that you're likely to get your head chopped off for being too rational.
But Buddhism is different. In the Kalama Sutra, Buddha said that all religious teachings, including his own should...

(1) Not be believed on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology by personal experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Buddha told his disciples time and time again not to accept his teachings out of blind faith, but to test them as thoroughly as they would assay gold. It is only on the basis of valid reasons and personal experience that we should accept the teachings of anyone, including Buddha himself.


Reason versus revelation
One advantage of establishing a rational basis for Buddhism is that it gives Buddhism an 'intellectual respectability' at a time when the intellectual prestige of other religions is in steep decline, due to increasing obscurantism, which takes variety of forms varying from creationist anti-science to outright terrorism.

This 'intellectual respectability' also may help to prevent Buddhism being hit by collateral damage from increasing prejudice against all religions resulting from jihadist aggression.

Most religions contain some 'revealed doctrines' or 'dogmas', which were revealed long ago to one person or a few people, and then not to any others.

In all religions other than Buddhism, these ancient, unprovable, unrepeatable revelations are fundamental articles of faith on which the rest of the belief-system is constructed.

In contrast, Buddhism's fundamental doctrines are accessible to reason and investigation in terms of shared, repeatable, reproducible experience... full article



Anonymous said...

You are so very close to being right, but you are wrong. To understand the relationship of thought (information)to what is "out there" you need to understand the analog nature of information. Energy over Time. Knowledge both exists and is quantifiable.

seanrobsville said...

Information is quantifiable. Data is quantifiable. But knowledge consists of more than data and information, it also embodies semantics and intentionality, which are non-algorithmic phenomena and hence non-quantifiable.

Anonymous said...

"But on dissection, logical analysis can find no ‘essential’ car, just a heap of parts that at a certain arbitrary stage of assembly is designated ‘car’, and at a certain arbitrary stage of disassembly is designated 'pile of junk'."

I agree with everything you say, but disagree with your position that designations are "arbitrary". We have objective reasons to for our designations and as long as we are consistent in our useage, no conflict will arise. Objectivity also does not mean that everyone else must agree with YOUR designations. It's certainly helpful if you share an epistemic vocabulary with others, but it is of secondary importance.

seanrobsville said...

@ Anon 11.52

There's a relatively obscure branch of philosophy known as mereology which deals with the points you raise regarding cars, parts of cars, and the basis of designation of a car on its subassemblies and their components.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware of Whitehead, Mereology, etc. So you aren't really telling me anything I don't already know.

What you've seem to have done is accept the same belief at the root of Materialism (i.e. most German Philo. since Kant) that the Noumenon is Objective while Phenomenon is Subjective - and that this "contradiction" is ontological (not epistemic).

Throughout your post you make references to such distinctions as conventional vs. ultimate. You are committing a reification error by granting these epistemic distinctions and ontological (and therefore existential) status.

Living organisms can interact with their environment (i.e. exchange energy over time) and that interaction can lead to information that is objective.

Anonymous said...

"....which deals with the points you raise regarding cars, parts of cars,...."

Lol, these were your quotes.

seanrobsville said...

@ Anon

Conventional truth versus ultimate truth is not an ontological distinction. It is an epistemic, or maybe even a utilitarian one, determined by the way we want to use information.

There is no noumenon corresponding to car, because there is no car-in-itself. The 'thing-in-itself' is a useful mental construct for ordering the everyday world, but has no ultimate reality, no objective existence, and no ontological validity.

According to the 'apoha' theory of concept formation, noumena are created by double-negative mental exclusion. The mental construct of car-in-itself is actually the opposite of not-car , which bizarre though it may seem, is actually an algorithmically efficient way of generating a definition.

However this information is of no use whatsoever if you need to fix a flat tire.

Anonymous said...

Let me say upfront that I really like your web site and have visited quite often.

What I'm trying to suggest to you is that your inability to refute Materialism is because you have adopted it's dialectic mode of reasoning about intrinsic and irreconcilable "opposites". Whether you are aware of it or not, you've adopted a from of intrinsicism.

Whereas Materialism says that Freewill is an illusion, you've similarly interpreted Buddhist understanding of change, or "non-being" to mean that our observation of "things" is a form of illusion. You posit that there is Ultimate Reality vs. Conventional Reality and that conventional understanding is "arbitrary".

Anonymous said...

I should add, that you discount and/or equate "epistemic" with Subjectivism with is another intrinsic "dualism": Objective vs. Subjective.

I would argue that Buddhism shows how to dispense with this type of reasoning not by declaring one an "illusion" and the other "real" - although I will concede that this is the way the most Westerners interpret it.

Anonymous said...

I read your post on Aphoha, but it seems rather calorie consuming. You could just as easily assume that instead of A is A, that A is not B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M, N,O,P, Q....

There is a much more direct and energy efficient epistemic method.

seanrobsville said...

@ Anon
"What I'm trying to suggest to you is that your inability to refute Materialism..."

What is commonly referred to as 'materialism' (the belief that mind is an epiphenomenon of matter) is in fact an incoherent concept. It is difficult to obtain a generally acceptable definition of 'matter' that excludes mind, due to the presence of observer-interactions at the level of fundamental particles.

These mind-matter interactions in quantum physics require us, for clarity of expression, to make a mental/mechanistic distinction rather than a mental/material one. We don't have a generally agreed definition of ‘material’ that excludes ‘mental’, but thanks to the work of Alan Turing we do have precise definition of ‘mechanistic’ that excludes 'mental'.

Also, as well as being incoherent, 'materialism' is a substantialist concept. The word 'physicalism' is probably more useful in a process-philosophy context, as this refers to physical processes, and if the processes are restricted to those of classical physics, then according to the Church-Turing-Deutsch (CTD) principle , 'physical' becomes synonymous with 'mechanistic'.

What I have tried to show is that there are mental processes which are non-algorithmic , and hence non-mechanistic, and therefore non-physical in the CTD sense.

Anonymous said...

Basically, all Western Philosophy can be seen as how Plato treated Essence vs. how Aristotle treated Essence. Plato believe that Essence was apprehend by means other than the senses i.e. a priori. Aristotle believed that Essence was ontological, and apprehended by the senses. Both were wrong.

The Buddha, who I regard as a Pre-Socratic Philosopher, correctly states that Essence is Epistemological. However, the Buddha does not state that our apprehension of Ultimate Truth is in the form of Illusions.

This is a Western interpretation, applied to Buddhism, arguing from a dialect of oppositional logic, often times expressed as some form of: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Your Aphoha is a pure expression of this faulty means of reasoning.

This is the mindset that has ruled most of German Philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Marx)and mathematical foundationalism (Cantor)and Quantum Mechanics - (too many to name).

Following this form of reasoning (which is flawed and does not model what information really is) it leads a practitioner to one of two unavoidable conclusions: Nihilism or Transcendentalism. Both which led to Nazism, Communism, Maoism. It is a veneration of the ontological separation of the subject from the object.

Your writing is full of interpreting Buddhism using this dialectic, oppositional reasoning.

Anonymous said...

When you look out a window and see the leaves in motion, the motion is an analog signal of the winds amplitude over time and it's direction. The leaves have absorbed photons, and those photons were emitted at resonant frequencies.

The photons entered your eyes and landed on your retina, where the radiant energy was transduced to bioelectric energy, which is then stored in neurons that were formed over hundreds of millions of years for just such a purpose i.e. gaining information about your environment. You see leaves in motion, and know that it is windy outside. No algorithms or computations needed.

Living organisms are intimately attuned to their environment. Information is analog - not algorithmic.

When you have an idea (bioelectric analog signal) you convert that signal to mechanical energy that presses the keys on your keyboard. Your mechanical energy is transduced and, by an algorithm, converted to a binary, electromagnetic signal which eventually makes it way to my monitor and then to my eyes, where it is transduced once again to biochemical analog signal, to be stored in neurons formed over hundreds of millions of years for just such a purpose. I have information of what was in you mind.

Our exchanges are not illusions. In fact, it would be possible to calculate exactly how much energy was expended (calories and public utilities) in our exchanges and what they cost. And how much a toll entropy took on such a signal.

And furthermore, since neither energy nor information can ever be lost, the exchange or energy will last forever.

seanrobsville said...

"This is a Western interpretation, applied to Buddhism, arguing from a dialect of oppositional logic, often times expressed as some form of: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Your Aphoha is a pure expression of this faulty means of reasoning."

It isn't my Apoha. The two Buddhist philosophers who are usually credited with developing the apoha theory are Diṅnāga (c. 480-c. 540 CE) and Dharmakīrti (sixth or seventh century CE)

'Buddhist philosophers argue that there is no general entity, such as a universal, which is responsible for the fact that we can apply a term, such as "pot," to more than one particular. They argue this because they believe that only momentary particulars exist. Dividing the world into enduring substantial objects that can be classified according to their differing natures is at best a useful illusion, according to Buddhists. The issue then becomes how to explain the fact that we refer to seemingly enduring entities in our language. Buddhists claim that when we use the term "pot" as a general concept, we refer to every individual that is not a non-pot. This is the "distinctive" feature of the Buddhist apoha theory, as mentioned in the above quote. The advantage of this theory for Buddhists is that it does not require any general essence that all pots have to share. Instead, the term "pot" refers as the result of a double negation...'

seanrobsville said...

"Following this form of reasoning (which is flawed and does not model what information really is) it leads a practitioner to one of two unavoidable conclusions: Nihilism or Transcendentalism. Both which led to Nazism, Communism, Maoism. It is a veneration of the ontological separation of the subject from the object.

Your writing is full of interpreting Buddhism using this dialectic, oppositional reasoning."

I hope I made it clear in my discussion of quantum physics that I consider the observer to be an intrinsic and inseparable part of the system

seanrobsville said...

"Information is analog - not algorithmic."

Algorithmic mathematical formulations, such as the laws of physics, are what constitute scientific explanations of the natural world .

Non-algorithmic phenomena are likely to be beyond scientific explanation.

Anonymous said...

When we read words written on a page, we do so using both time and energy. We read from left to right, absorbing varying a stream of photons over time. This is an analog signal.

When we write down mathematical formulas on a chalk board, we do so in a specific order, over time. When we solve problems, we do so sequentially, over time. Analog.

We you speak to me, your bioelectric signal is converted to a mechanical wave varying over time by your lungs and larynx. All analog. When I hear your words, I do so as a varying signal over time. Analog.

Even when we write various lines of computer code, and run them in binary form on binary machines, it takes time and energy and is done sequentially. The information that has been encoded to binary form will be un-encoded to analog so we can appended it by our eyes and ears and brain.

If Entropy came to a complete stop (no Brownian motion, photons stop, etc.) information and life would not be possible. And at one time, when the Universe was at a much lower level of entropy than it is now, and there was no stable matter in the universe, information and life were not possible.

Tree rings are an analog signal of varying amplitudes of precipitation and temperature due to the earths axial tilt and orbit around the sun. This is information stored on a slowly growing, stable organism.

Life cannot exist without information, this is what DNA/genes are. Life cannot exist without change or interaction with it's environment or some stability.

"Impermanence" is not what makes things illusions. "Impermanence" is what makes things real.

This is the Middle Way.