KARL JASPERS FORUM
TA 109 (Bhatt)
NIRVANA VERSUS METAPHYSICS
by Herbert FJ Müller
25 August 2008, posted 30 August 2008
A : APPARENT ADVANTAGES OF THE BUDDHIST THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
Western writers have often commented on the advantages of the Buddhist world-views, as compared to various occidental ones. This concerns mostly the religious (or perhaps one should rather say general world-view) aspects. Such opinions have been presented by, among others, the philosopher Schopenhauer, the poets Goethe and Aldous Huxley, and the scientist Einstein (see also ‘the ZenFrog’ reference, where the difference between emptiness and Platonic ideas is pointed out). On the other hand, so far I am not aware of a systematic attempt to examine the epistemological aspects of Buddhism in comparison with those of the corresponding occidental views.
In the following I try to formulate, mainly on the basis of Prof. Bhatt’s TA109, a few principles and questions related to the task of developing a subject-inclusive epistemology, suitable for dealing with the mind-brain relation difficulty, as I have outlined them in previous communications in the KJF. I realize that my present attempt is probably overly simplistic, but the fundamental Buddhist view is so attractive that I will take that risk. I hope for comments and critiques.
For one thing, the Buddhist theory of knowledge is a corollary of the Buddhist theory of reality (TA109 ). Reality is ‘void’ or ‘empty’ (‘no-substance knowledge’), in the sense of being directed toward the main spiritual aim of Nirvana in Buddhism. This agreement between epistemology and world-view is in my opinion an advantage; it contrasts with the situation in other cultures, where objective science conflicts with religious views (e.g., the denial of evolution by some fundamentalist groups); or where simple aspects of experience are denied in the naturalistic view (some neurophysiologists have claimed that there is no subjectivity).
Secondly, the concept of ‘no structure’ is a straightforward principle, and it is in agreement with the zero-reference (0-D) view that mental structures are created (structured) within encompassing unstructured ongoing experience; without such structuring there are no structures at all (no mind-independent ‘onta’).
Thirdly, the Buddhist view has been available for as long as the classical Greek philosophy; it has been dealing with the same conceptual situations, and was able to withstand historical challenges.
B : SOME QUESTIONS
Some other statements about the Buddhist theory of knowledge are not clear to me so far, as I will explain in this section. This covers only the first part of TA109, and I will wait for discussion before proceeding further. A further question, which I have already mentioned on a previous occasion (C4 <6> to TA109) concerns the effect of Buddhism on social and scientific progress.
From the discussion of the cognitive process in the early Pali literature, involving external objects (TA109 [4-7]), it did not become clear to me whether the split between perceiving subject and perceived object is understood as primary (which would mean ontological – but that is presumably not possible in the Nirvana view), or else secondary (pragmatic), as required for the 0-D understanding of structuring from no structures. On the other hand, the concept of manas  as ‘the mind seeing’ implies mental structuring, and so does the notion of interplay of mind with the five senses . However, even pure sensations, such as a toothache, or a gestalt perception, require the subject’s activity, since they can be abolished respectively by anaesthesia, or by closing the eyes. The term ‘interplay’ is therefore not clear, since it implies that ‘the senses’ are not a part of ‘the mind’ (or more accurately, of ‘experience’).
The more elaborate later Buddhist theories of knowledge are said to have aimed at building ontological or metaphysical structures . If that term means the same as it does in Western epistemology, it would seem to conflict with the ‘no structures’ basis. It would also be incompatible with a constructivist view, which is inherently non-metaphysical in the traditional sense (in 0-D metaphysics-ontology is changed to the mental instrument of ‘working metaphysics-ontology’, see below). Perhaps the answer lies in the term ‘process-ontology’  and in the statement that action is preceded by knowledge . But the emphasis on ‘discursive knowledge’, which is directed to ‘objects’, again raises the question of traditional ‘ontology’ – and its presumed incompatibility with the Nirvana view. Probably, one will need more discussion to clarify the meanings.
The distinction between two kinds of objects  is I believe of interest for the 0-D view, according to which we have to structure all experience, but invent only some of it. For instance we invent a song, or a religion, but do not invent a stone which we hold in the hand because there is a great deal of involuntary structures, both tactile and visual in type, and we can only add further structures by saying to what class of stone it belongs, etc. But we tend to take Gestalt-information to mean ‘mind-independent reality’ - which does not follow, except by an ontological leap of faith, which is not compatible, I assume, with the ‘Nirvana’ position.
C : THE EPISTEMOLOGIC NIRVANA PRINCIPLE IN RELATION TO OCCIDENTAL VIEWS
Despite the limitations of my understanding of the Buddhist theory of knowledge, I think there may be some points in its basic position of reality as ‘void’ or ‘non-structured’, which could help with difficulties in the Occidental theories. As I mentioned above, this is in agreement with the view that subjects (have to) structure all reality, although they ‘invent’ only some of it. The reason for my interest in this topic is the assumption that Western epistemology might profit from a comparison of the Buddhist epistemology with a few representative historical epistemological positions.
In the CLASSICAL GREEK EPISTEMOLOGY, Plato proposed that there is a reality (of forms, ideas) behind all appearances, but which we subjects cannot know (and Aristotle held a similar view). It implied a mind-independently pre-structured reality (ontology-metaphysics, which was however - paradoxically - inaccessible to humans), and consequently often the disappearance of the subjects, in favour of ideas.
Comment : This historically very influential opinion is not compatible with the ‘non-structured’ (nirvana) view. To get to the root of this question, one has to consider how the metaphysics-belief has come about.
It results firstly from the habit of taking Gestalt-information of visual and other type to mean ‘mind-independent reality’ (such as ‘object-ness’). But this implies a lapse in reasoning, since it means not only Gestalt-completion but also an unsupported leap to the assumption of mind-independent (ontological) object-completion and -persistence. On the contrary, all of these are subject-inclusive functions : even pure sensations, such as a toothache, or a visual gestalt perception, require the subject’s activity, since they can be abolished respectively by anaesthesia, or by closing the eyes. And furthermore, object-creation and object-persistence are abilities that develop early in life (Piaget and others).
An additional motivation for metaphysical belief is the desire to have reality (and truth) determined from outside of one’s experience and responsibility, in the search for a guarantee from beyond subjective belief. But that results in an inversion thinking. Mental tools (God, Nature, etc.), become invested with mind-independent authority, and subjects are then seen as their extensions, or they may be disregarded entirely.
The subject-object split has started as a pragmatic feature (in the course of structuring within encompassing unstructured experience) rather than as primary (ontic, mind-independently pre-structured). Therefore, the assumption of primary pre-structured (ontic) objects and world is an error, although a practically useful error (i.e., a useful conceptual shortcut) in many situations. Recognition that this is an error leads to a subject-inclusive (constructivist) understanding. Subject-inclusive designs that go beyond present experience replace the fictitious transcendence of experience and thus the belief in mind-independent reality. Transcendence of experience is not required in a view that starts from unstructured nirvana; nor is it possible, since all supposedly ‘transcendent’ structures appear within encompassing experience, and thus are not beyond it.
The main difficulty with such a ‘working ontology-metaphysics tool’ is the loss of the imaginary external guarantor, such as ‘God’, or ‘Nature’. But some Buddhist thinkers have pointed out that the search for mind-independent certainties about reality is futile, or even ‘mad’. The acceptance of the lack of guarantor is, in my understanding, implied in the Nirvana position.
The medieval SCHOLASTIC EPISTEMOLOGY saw all reality, including the subject (soul) and the all, derived from a personified holistic concept, God. It incorporated the classical Greek ideas of the ‘demiourgos-creator’ and ‘unmoved first mover’. It preserved the subject, but as an extension of a holistic God. The holistic theistic positive structure is complete but inherently self-contradictory, as Tertullian already observed.
Comment : Rational structures are goal-directed and circumscribed (Feyerabend). Positive holistic structures are inherently inconsistent, in case they are meant to be complete (Gödel). But completeness is their raison d’être, since their aim is overall doubt-free guidance and stability. The Nirvana position denies this possibility, and replaces it with a non-structured start.
DESCARTES wanted to obtain non-theistic certainty starting from subjectivity : he was certain that he existed because be doubted (like Augustinus) and because he thought (cogito). The remainder of reality was mechanical (res extensa). But this certainty was nevertheless still backed up by belief in a benevolent God who would not deceive him (a carry-over from scholasticism).
Comment : Even in occidental epistemology, the subjective certainty basis, as proposed by Descartes, was not accepted. From a Nirvana viewpoint, such a subject-based certainty-belief would probably be considered as entirely mistaken.
The EMPIRICIST and POSITIVIST successors of Descartes did not accept the subject-based certainty, and instead maintained the ‘res extensa’ only, where the authority of the mind-independent God was implicitly transformed into the authority of mind-independent Nature (which would not deceive us if we understand it well.) This is the basis of naϊve ontology-metaphysics-realism.
Comment : Here too, the assumption of being able to know reality directly conflicts with the Nirvana position, in which such attempts are seen as futile.
The CRITICAL PHILOSOPHY of Kant tried to deal with the problem caused by metaphysics-belief, by re-introducing the subject as an active agent in reality-creation, via ideas. But this attempt remained incomplete, because Kant maintained the idea of unknowable things-in-themselves (‘objects are given’). He also maintained the concept of God as responding to the need for systemic unity.
Comment : Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution of thinking’ remained incomplete, and the further development led to new difficulties. Seen from a Nirvana start-point, the problem is that he did not investigate how ‘objects’ come about (see above).
A further development in the empiricist-positivist-realist direction has been FORMALISM, which wanted to arrive at a subject-free truth (as proposed by mathematicians like Frege and Hilbert, and philosophers like Whitehead and Russell, and also Wittgenstein). They tried to get around the difficulty of having to use subjective certainty, and doubtful objectivity (with its implied metaphysics), by working with mental tools like language, logic, and mathematics, but without the producers and user-subjects of the tools, which were considered to be too vague, and too biased (e.g., intuition or conviction) for certainty. Wittgenstein even considered referring to subject(s) a ‘disease of thinking’.
Comment : This was an attempt to get away altogether from any subject’s activity. It considered ‘truth’ as pre-structured and unrelated to persons; thus there is no possibility of dealing with personal experience.
Hegel’s IDEALISM is one of the consequences of the Kantian emphasis on subject-generated ideas. Hegel claimed that the subjective mind is a ‘natural entity in the physical world’, and that successive stages of theses and anti-theses eventually lead to a God-like ‘absolute knowledge’. This was quickly criticised by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, who insisted on the importance of individual non-intellectual factors like ‘will’ and ‘despair’, etc. In EXISTENTIALISM and PHENOMENOLOGY this was further developed; they also emphasized the role of the subject. But despite this centrality of the subject, phenomenology paradoxically wanted to arrive at mind-independent ontology and related fundamental knowledge (‘Wesens-Schau’, Husserl; ‘fundamental ontology of Dasein’ and ‘history of being’, Heidegger; ‘peri-echontology’, Jaspers; ‘experience-transcending world’, Merleau-Ponty) Derrida’s efforts to DE-CONSTRUCT ontology also remained incomplete, so far as I am aware, since he denied wanting to eliminate the metaphysical ‘referent’ of thinking.
Comment : These aims show that the authors saw reality as mind-independently pre-structured, even though the subject was included in the considerations; this leaves no possibility for subject-inclusive reality-structuring from the non-structured as in the Nirvana-state.
EPISTEMOLOGICAL CONSTRUCTIVISM is in principle able to deal with the question of the subject(s)’ activity in reality-creation. For that purpose, it requires acceptance of the unstructured start-point, as it is known to Buddhist epistemologists; this means that belief in a pre-structured reality has to be explicitly abandoned.
My very preliminary impression from this brief survey is that the unstructured basis of ‘Nirvana’ has been used with success for 2500 years, and that it can be of help for efforts to deal with some conceptual problems in Occidental epistemology which are the result of positive structured assertions. On the other hand the Buddhist theoreticians of knowledge apparently have not included the subject-inclusive structuring activity any more than the Western thinkers did; since if they had done so, they would not claim the achievement of metaphysical or ontological results. I would much appreciate comments by list members and others who are familiar with these questions.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>