In a previous post entitled “Problems with the Buddhist View of the Self” I briefly sketched out some logical problems with Buddhist beliefs. For Buddhist adherents examining their religion with a logical lens can cause some consternation since it is well known in many (Western) Buddhist circles that the religion is rooted, not so much in logical doctrine, but experience; particularly, the experience of the ineffable (i.e. nirvana). As a matter of fact, according to Buddhist Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism without Beliefs, the doctrine of “the four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.”[1]

In the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha tells a story about a man who needs to get to the other side of a river but has no means to cross. So he collects branches, grass, and leaves and constructs a makeshift raft. After the man rides his raft to the other side, the Buddha points out the foolishness in bringing the raft wherever the man continues to travel since it has already served its particular purpose. Like the raft, the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. doctrine) serve a purpose to cross over to nirvana but not to be carried around forever. This story is used in Buddhist circles to suggest that the doctrine is only true insofar as it is useful. Therefore Buddhism cannot (and should not) be proved or disproved.

As Keith Yandell and Harold Netland point out:

“The understanding of Buddhist teaching as primarily pragmatic and conducive to attaining enlightenment… should not be taken as meaning that correct understanding or belief is not important in Buddhism… [I]n classical Buddhism rejecting certain incorrect beliefs and embracing correct beliefs is regarded as essential to overcoming the causes for suffering and rebirth.”[2]

As a matter of fact, meditation, as well as mystical experiences, is not an end in itself but a precursor “to an analytic discernment of the ‘truths’ of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) and impermanence (anitya) as they apply to the ‘self.’”[3]

If Buddhism’s goal is to shatter the ignorant view that there is an enduring self then the “action” of shattering the illusion stands on the truthfulness of the proposition that there is no enduring self. It also stands on the proposition that one must do what the Buddha prescribed in order to shatter the illusion. Also, if one’s goal in Buddhism is enlightenment, then he achieves it by understanding what is true (which is the definition of enlightenment). But, then again, truth claims are expressed as propositions. Once propositions are in play they should be thoroughly scrutinized to determine whether or not they are true.

Long story short: the notion that Buddhism is immune to logical assessment is false. Buddhism invites logical evaluation.

[1] Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 7.

[2] Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, Buddhism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 115-116.

[3] Robert Gimello, ‘Mysticism and Meditation,’ in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven T. Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 181.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’d strongly agree with your conclusion, Nate, and feel it’s a very important point. .

    The Buddha suggests that we use our brains to test his teachings and anyone who knows Nagarjuna will know that Buddhism is logically sound and demonstrably so – up to the point where distinctions must be abandoned and logic cannot operate.

    –“This story is used in Buddhist circles to suggest that the doctrine is only true insofar as it is useful. Therefore Buddhism cannot (and should not) be proved or disproved.”

    I believe that this is not true and does damage to the doctrine. Perhaps some Buddhists believe this but not enough to allow this generalisation. What is true is true for everyone. Logic cannot decide what is true in reality, non-tautologically, as Aristotle tells us, but much of the doctrine is logically demonstrable as Nagarjuna, Bradley and others demonstrate, in the sense that we can judge that according to logic and reason it ought to be true. According to reason and logic the moon ought not to be made of green cheese, but this is not quite enough to show that it isn’t.

    The mistake would be to apply logic beyond its realm, or to imagine that logic brings certainty or understanding. Nothing wrong with trying to falsify the doctrine. I tried for five years and gave up. It is logically sound. But being logically sound is not enough to prove its truth, just as being unsound is not enough to prove its falsity. In the end empiricism trumps logic, or at least our everyday folk-idea of logic. as we see from QM.

    The dialectic is core curriculum stuff in Buddhist universities.
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