The last several posts have been written with a particular purpose in mind: to lay the foundation for assessing other worldviews. In a sense we could say that the laws of logic, the particularist solution to the problem of the criterion, and the effectiveness of the Kalam cosmological argument as an explanation for the universe can all act as a three-layered lens through which we can look at various other worldviews. Having now established these ideas, I would like to take a look at an important feature of an eastern worldview – Buddhism – and determine whether or not it is logically consistent.

Buddhism

Central ParkBuddhism draws a sharp distinction between appearances and reality which plays into the foundational claim that we suffer because we perceive things with a deep ignorance; i.e. we do not see things as they truly are.[1] For example, on the one hand, there is what appears (to New Yorkers) to be many trees in Central Park. But, on the other, there are no such things as trees. At least, there are no essences of trees that exist independently in the world. Human beings merely construct the essence of a tree from seeing fundamental elements (i.e. elementary particles).[2] While some Buddhists will not even affirm that there are such things as elements or particles and some do, the important takeaway is that there are no objects that independently exist. There are only the mental constructs of objects that human beings ignorantly create. And the goal of enlightenment is to realize that there are no objects; there is only emptiness.[3]

The Self

Buddhist monkThis notion that independent objects do not exist actually applies to all things in the universe, including human beings. Therefore, just like there are no trees, according to Buddhism, there are no selves either. The “self” is the ignorant belief that there is a unified essence of a person.[4] Along with this mistaken belief of a self is the belief that objects endure over time. What is meant by “endure” is that an object maintains existence from one moment to the next. This goes hand in hand with the Buddhist notion that there are no independent objects since no object can endure over time if there is no such thing as an object in the first place.

This is where a logical test of coherence can be applied. For the purposes of this post, I will boil them down to two important questions.

Question 1

First, if there are no such things as independent objects but only mental constructs of objects, then what is it that is doing the constructing? Remember, the selves of human beings are constructs as well. If human beings are constructs then the Buddhist is saying that the construct is having a construct. But this is logically incoherent. There cannot be an infinite set of constructs in the midst of the emptiness of reality. There must be a constructor that first creates the construct. And the only way there can be a constructor is if there is an actual self that exists. Buddhists must deny that there is a constructor since they believe there are no selves. Therefore, they have created a view that ultimately self-destructs.

Question 2

Second, if there are no objects that endure from moment to moment, then what is having the ignorant belief that there are objects that endure? In other words, how can a person, or a self, hold to a belief if she cannot maintain existence moment to moment? It seems that a fundamental feature of holding to a belief is that the person, or self, doing the believing actually exists over time. It would, then, be logically incoherent to say that nothing, or emptiness, is having a belief just as much as it would be incoherent to say that nothing is holding to a belief over time. But Buddhists must essentially draw this irrational conclusion if they are to be consistent with their original claim.

Conclusion

L1009371Buddhism, ultimately, is like a plaster mold attempting to be a marble statue. While its outward structure appears solid, it lacks an internal skeleton rooted in coherence and consistency.[5] Therefore, one must be careful in assessing the Buddhist worldview; especially as it pertains to the fundamental nature of the self and the role of logic in the world.


[1] Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 26.

[2] Keith Yandell & Harold Netland, Buddhism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 129.

[3] Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 70.

[4] Keith Yandell & Harold Netland, Buddhism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 130.

[5] By the way, I cannot appeal to logical consistency or coherence unless the laws of logic are true. A Buddhist cannot say that it is both true that a construct exists while no constructor exists without violating the law of non-contradiction. That’s because the proposition is essentially stating that a constructor exists (because a construct exists) while, at the same time, a constructor does not exist.

15 COMMENTS

  1. First, if there are no such things as independent objects but only mental constructs of objects, then what is it that is doing the constructing?
    I believe what Buddhists are saying is that there is an underlying reality. That reality is called consciousness, god, source etc….I’m not sure if they are saying that there is no such thing as independent objects, I think they are saying that any object perceived (including the body, mind) are a superimposition over this “reality”. So what is doing the constructing? Consciousness. Consciousness only knows consciousness. We don’t experience objects outside of consciousness. We experience senses. We see seeing, hear hearing, etc…..is there something there? Yes, however it is not outside of consciousness. I think like most religions there is always a pseudo following that misunderstands and exploits these understandings. The body/mind cannot be said to not exist. There is a three fold aspect to the essential nature of man, and man consists of Essence (source), medium (body), and witness (“I”). These three aspects constitute a person. Pseudo Buddhists deny this aswell as other eastern culture.
    Your second question was How can a self hold to a belief if it doesn’t not exist moment to moment. Well when someone is speaking on behalf of the aspect of essence, time does not exist. Therefore moment to moment is unreal. However from the aspect of the body, time is very real. So there are a lot of yes AND no’s to these questions. Depending on what state of consciousness these authors are in when they say things things need to be factored in. I believe the same accounts for the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes he was speaking from a worldly perspective, and sometimes from a more inward perspective. Once these teachings are crystallized they become stale and misunderstandings take over. Great web page by the way Nate! Awesome questions.

    • Hey, look who finally discovered my site!

      Well, you and I have had this conversation many times over now, Colin. The thing that strikes me about your worldview is your belief about consciousness. You assert that consciousness is a source that underlies all things in the universe. Out of that particular understanding, you write, “Consciousness only knows consciousness.” What does that statement mean? Consciousness is, itself, a range of conscious states. There are at least five conscious states: Sensations; thoughts; beliefs; desires; and acts of will. Nothing experiences conscious states unless it possesses a mind that can have conscious states. Simply referring to consciousness as a noun is subtly misleading because it appears that consciousness, then, can be its own entity. But consciousness is not necessary, it is contingent to minds. Therefore, the questions I have are: What is consciousness without a mind? Where is the evidence for such an idea? And what good reasons would you have to believe such a thing?

      • What is consciousness without a mind? Well, I don’t think I can answer that as the little box can’t see outside the big box. Every appearance within consciousness is interpreted by what you call “mind”. Remember, what is it that is defining “mind”? If you say “my mind” than what you are really saying is “this idea I have of what a mind is, is my mind…”. Most people cannot see let alone objectify anything prior to thought. That doesn’t mean there is “nothing”. This creates the paradox of logic. It seems to me that when limitation (body/mind) is imposed on consciousness, the appearance of duality occurs. All of a sudden there is space, time, subject, object, etc….That doesn’t make all of these things “Real”. Where is the evidence for such an idea? Simple, I exist is all that I am sure of, I am that I am. If each one of us were to really investigate our self, we will find the answer is closer to us than our breath. It’s is our very being…everything else is interpretation. “And what good reasons would you have to believe such a thing?” Well, I don’t “believe” it, for it is all I can be sure of! Any belief will take you further from source. The ray cannot contain the sun. Belief had never given me any answers, however exhausting every form of belief helped me catch a glimpse of something far greater. We have eyes yet can’t see and ears yet can’t hear. That is why we can’t answer questions from a dualistic nature.
        Also, when I say the term consciousness, that is just the term is use for what is…existence…prior to “consciousness”

        • I’ve been thinking about this and I believe I know why we always end up here when we have these kinds of conversations. Look at what just happened:

          Me: What is consciousness without a mind?

          You: “When limitation (body/mind) is imposed on consciousness, the appearance of duality occurs.” (new claim)

          Me: Where is the evidence for such an idea?

          You: “I exist. Everything else is interpretation” (new claim)

          Me: What good reasons would you have to believe such a thing?

          You: “I don’t ‘believe’ it.” (….)

          When I ask you to ground your claims in some kind of reasoning I’m not looking for new claims. I’m looking for a rationale rooted in some kind of evidence or inference to ground your claims in. I would expect no less from anyone asking the same of me about my beliefs.

          If you could do that, then I could better understand your view.

          • ???
            I am not sure you read my response as I didn’t answer your questions in that way whatsoever. If you read the answer to your first question I told you that we cannot define consciousness without a mind when everything that is experienced is through mind. Hence my example of the little box not being able to define anything outside of the big box. I will say again, all I/we can be certain of is that I/we are aware. Also when I say that “I exist and everything else is interpretation”is that really a new claim? I am not trying to ground my claims in the least bit. If you analyze your direct raw experience instead of the thought/belief that comes after the fact. Things become a lot more clear and less misty. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

          • Not only did I read what you said, I quoted you.

            The problem that inevitably happens when we talk about these things is that you don’t seem to understand what I’m getting at. So you respond by giving new assertions when that is specifically not what I’m asking you for. I’m looking for some kind of explanation that leads you to believe what you’re espousing about reality.

            It would look more like this:

            You: I believe that everything has consciousness. And I believe that because X, Y, and Z.

            Me: So are you suggesting that everything in the universe (including inanimate objects) possesses conscious states?

            You: Yes.

            Me: What is your definition of consciousness?

            You: Consciousness is P.

            Me: Where is your evidence that everything has conscious states? And how did you come to this conclusion?

            You: I came to the conclusion because I was thinking about Q when I considered the evidence for R which explains X, Y, and Z.

            Me: “Ok, but how do you account for S and T with your view?”

            And then you’d respond with more explanations. And then we’d be understanding each other a little more.

            Having the ability to do this for your view quickly reveals either its consistency or inconsistency. If it is consistent this would go a long way towards making it accessible, and possibly attractive, for others who don’t share your view.

          • One problem….I have never said that everything in the universe has consciousness. You aren’t understanding. I also have never defined consciousness as “conscious states”. Let’s get to explain this. As a human being I experience conscious states. What is it that is experiencing a conscious state? If you say the mind, that is an unstatisfactory answer as your definition of mind is only coming to you trough a conscious state. Are you following me? So I am defining consciousness as that “I” that is prior to thought, and conscious states. The Buddhists and other eastern philosophy is a very deep self observatatory psychology. When you have the humility and honesty to find the “I” that is experiencing these states the answer becomes very clear. However language and symbolism can’t possibly be a sufficient tool to communicate these things. I can definitely get into philosophy of objects when you can understand what I mean by this very fundamental assertion. Can you agree that you are aware of the knower (Nathan) and the known (objects)?
            What is it that is aware?
            If you say mind that isn’t satisfactory either as the mind is a collection of thoughts that are being presented within awareness.
            I will stop rambling on here as I don’t really think you understand what I am saying and that maybe my poor explanations fault.
            Unfortunately both of your last comments are paraphrasing things that I have never claimed on this blog or otherwise. It is very difficult to get to the original topic when false accusations are being made throughout. So again I will repeat I have never made these new claims that you have accused me of. All in good sport
            Thanks 🙂

          • I can understand why you’re frustrated, Colin. I hear you: The reason I don’t understand your view is because I’m misrepresenting and falsely accusing you. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing at all but I’ll go back and look at everything we’ve said so far.

            Let me just point something out here: In my last comment I offered a hypothetical conversation (that you and I have not had) as an example of what I’m looking for. That means that the hypothetical conversation I offered does not represent your real views (whatever they are). And I think it’s pretty clear to everyone else that they were never meant to do that. I only offered the hypothetical conversation to show what I am looking for from you based on the questions I gave you.

            While I know you’re eager to discuss what your view is, you still have never explained why you hold your view. This distinction between what and why is the key to understanding my line of questioning.

            Look, this is going to be the last comment from me because I think this has been played out now. Please consider what I’ve said because this explains why our conversations have always ended up here over the last several years.

            Hope you got my voice message and card wishing you a Happy Birthday.

  2. It’s a good idea, I think, to test the consistency of a doctrine in this way. But it’s not this easy to find a fault with Buddhism. Otherwise most people would be able to do it.

    Don’t get hung up on the name for what is fundamental or ultimate. Common terms are Ultimate, Authentic, Reality, Original, First, Unity, etc. The solution to your problem here, of not seeing the logical consistency of the dhamma, may be dependent origination. The subject and the object (or whichever duality we choose) would reduce to an ultimate phenomenon. Effects such as time, space self, and so forth would arise from the interplay of these dualities. All distinctions would be false, and so no contradiction could arise.

    The logical consistency of the dhamma is demonstrable, (Nagarjuna, Brown, Bradley et al) but it’s a big topic for a comments section.

    • Thanks for the comment. I apologize for responding so late but I’m afraid I won’t be at this site very much for the next two weeks (for various reasons). Thank you for reminding me to be careful about terms! I never quite succeed at this even though I do try. I’m sure you understand that I’m not going to get anywhere near solving these kinds of problems in a thorough way, especially considering the intended readership of this kind of a blog (which is more of a 101-style treatment, as it were). I do appreciate the rationality of Buddhism; that is, it is not irrational at its heart but is rational as long as certain presuppositions are accepted. I suppose what I’m doing is questioning the presupposition. To say, as Mahayana Buddhists (like Nagarjuna) do, that inter-dependence solves the problem that I’ve posed is simply to make the claim. But this raises new questions that (unless you’ve arrived at them) I’ve never heard answers for:

      Matter itself gives no evidence of possessing consciousness (unless one wants to expand the normal bounds of the term such that it is almost redefined). Therefore, 1) if all matter has consciousness, why does it only emerge in special ways during certain configurations (like persons)? 2) If human beings are merely combinations of consciousness (that, then, emerges from the combination), what explanation is there for the unity of consciousness? And 3) why don’t people have memories of the conscious experiences of these bits of matter prior to their combination in human form?

      This isn’t a push-back, guymax. I’m genuinely curious and would love to get your thoughts. Thanks for the discussion!

  3. Right. Third time lucky.

    No need to accept presuppositions in Buddhism. Indeed, this is exactly what we’re supposed to avoid doing. I would say it is rational with no provisos.

    I don’t know the answer to these three questions. All three seem to make questionable assumptions. Perhaps consciousness does not only emerge only during certain configurations, perhaps consciousness is not unified (the unity of consciousness is not quite what Buddhism proposes), and perhaps we do have memories of previous states at some reptilian or pre-reptilian level.

    Your point about constructs seems spot on. Something has to be doing the constructing. It would be a telling objection against subjective idealism, which says that to be is to be perceived. Even Berkeley found he needed a third phenomenon to make his idea work. But this is not what Buddhism proposes.

    Sorry. Scrappy. Brain not in gear this morning.

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