Monday, July 19, 2010

I Hate Metaphysics

Stir Fry
Stir Fry, Helsinki, 2008

About twenty-five years ago, when I was a teenager, I read a lot of philosophy. It seemed as if most of it was about metaphysics—pondering great questions like "why is there something instead of nothing?" or "what is Justice?" or "what really exists?" Most of it always ended up dissolving into clouds of words that were rigorously defined in terms of each other, but soon lost contact with anything you'd be likely to bump into in, for want of a better expression, real life. All of them started out by asking some pretty good questions, and all of them ended up exactly nowhere. Plato with his ideas, Aristotle with his essences, Democritus and his atoms, Plotinus and his Divine Principle and Demiurge, St. Thomas Aquinas and his towering cathedrals of scholasticism, on to Immanuel Kant heroically grappling with his Ding an sich, Categorical Imperative, and Necessary Being, who supposedly declared on his deathbed that only one person ever understood what he wrote, and even he got it wrong.

Eventually, I gave up. I also found out about girls and beer. That got my mind off that stuff for a bit, too.

Some years later, I took a course in the philosophy of history, and out of the reading list, I picked some Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx, largely because I figured I already knew more or less what they were saying, so it'd be an easy credit. And, for some reason, this two-volume book called The Open Society and its Enemies, by some guy called Professor Karl Raimund Popper.

That book changed my life.

Or, at least, it changed the way I look at life, which boils down to more or less the same thing. It gave me a conceptual framework I've been applying to just about every intellectual and ethical endeavor since, and it hasn't failed me yet.

The Open Society and its Enemies is a scathing critique of some of the greatest minds in the history of Western philosophy. Professor Popper starts by tearing into Plato, demolishes Aristotle, rips the head off Hegel and pisses down his throat, and finishes off by carefully and respectfully dismantling Marx and showing exactly where and why he went so far into the woods. Then he outlines, in a few short chapters, an alternative way to look at the world—one that avoids both the self-built prisons of Plato and Marx, and the hopeless conceptual anything-goes muddle of Postmodernism.

Popper's intent is not primarily academic. It is political and moral. He holds the mode of thinking that he dubs Platonic essentialism responsible for most things that have gone horribly wrong in the way we live and construct our societies. He abhors the very idea that it would be possible to identify some "essential qualities" in the world, and then use deductive reasoning to arrive at firm conclusions from them. Hegel's Spirit of Liberty, Marx's dialectical materialism, Hitler's racialist idiocies, Friedrich Hayek's Austrian School economics, and the whole concept of 'nationalism' should all be thrown into the same rubbish bin as fundamentally and fatally flawed. Their flaw is in assuming that their conceptual models are the reality, instead of a provisional and necessarily flawed representation of reality, that should be constantly verified by experience and argument.

One reason I'm liking Vasubandhu so much is that his metaphysical suppositions and intellectual method are so close to Professor Popper's. Thing is, as insanely frustrating as it is, it's not possible to entirely escape metaphysics. There are always some suppositions in a philosophy, either implicit or explicit.

The metaphysical basis for both Popper's and Vasubandhu's philosophies boil down to this:
"Something exists, and we're part of that something."
I can live with that.

Things get more interesting when we start moving somewhere from that starting point. The first steps for both Popper and Vasubandhu are strikingly similar, although the two subsequently go in different directions—Popper was most interested in understanding this "something" in order to make use of it and change it for the better, whereas Vasubandhu cared more about the stuff that goes on in our minds and how that could be turned towards liberating people from suffering.

In brief, here's how the epistemological system—their method of distinguishing what's true and what's false, and what 'true' and 'false' even mean—of these two guys works.

You can point at things, describe them, and name them. For example, you can point at a part of the something-that-exists (let's call it the Universe), and call it "a cat." Let's call this a definition.

We can negotiate these definitions as we go. You can point to the part of the universe that you call "a cat," and ask if I'll agree to call it "a cat" as well. If I agree, we can, together, start saying all kinds of things about the cat, like that it's furry, it's full of pointy things, it thinks it's pretty smart, before it was a cat, it was a kitten, and after it's no longer a cat, it'll be a lump of decaying meat, fur, and bone. We can point at other parts of the universe and discuss whether they fall under the definition of "cat" that we're negotiating or not. We can discuss questions like, "Is cat poop a part of the cat when it's still inside the cat?" and arrive at some answer, or not, depending on the context. This process is called intersubjectivity. 

We don't need to start from scratch. We already have a language, a system of ethics, a dharma, a society. We can take that and mold it for the better, instead of trying to invent new ones from whole cloth. Systems don't need to be pristine, pure, and flawless in order to be useful.

Definitions are never true or false, only more or less useful. The definition we're negotiating, however sophisticated it is, has no intrinsic value or meaning. It's never "true," or "the" definition.  At best, it's useful in some context. In some other context, another definition might work better. In some context, it might be useful to include parts of the universe we sometimes call "lions" under the definition. In another context, such as when shopping around for a pet to keep you company in your little downtown flat, probably not. Endless fights around No True Scotsman fallacies1 can be completely avoided, since there is no such thing as a 'true' Scotsman, or a 'true' cat. They're just disagreements about definitions. It's semantics. No big deal.
When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'
—Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass
The upshot is that heavy stuff like "ultimate truths" are entirely cut out of the system. There are no ultimate truths. There is no absolute right, complete good, or irredeemable evil. It's all relative. It's all phenomena. Concepts are defined relative to each other, by intersubjective negotiation and pointing at parts of the Universe. If lots of people agree that yes, that there thing is a 'cat,' then we can so define it, and move on. Or, in Vasubandhu's terms, if lots of citta-streams are experiencing similar things near a particular point in time and space in the Universe, then we can start to say meaningful things about those things. It's just absolutely vital to recognize that those things aren't the Universe; they're just mental, conceptual constructs we impose on it in order to be able to make sense of it, talk about it, and eventually manipulate it—creating wondrous things like the plow, the sword, and the thermonuclear bomb.

Or, in Vasubandhu's case, work out a method that can trigger a "revolution at the basis" and let us apprehend the Universe without filtering it through these discriminations we so like to construct. I'm starting to think that that's at least as worthy a goal as building a thermonuclear bomb.

What's more, the system doesn't decay into solipsism, or a sterile chaos where every discourse is equally valid. It provides a perfectly workable way to test claims. This is, essentially, "prove it." Point to something in the Universe that fits whatever damn-fool idea you have. Point to every bit in your chain of reasoning that makes you think so. Then we can examine them, determine if our citta-streams are experiencing similar things about them, renegotiate the definitions, re-make the observations, and eventually agree to retain, or discard your idea. Or, as it often happens, not.
To be considered true, a proposition must be supported by argument and experience.
I've been using this method—Popper calls it critical rationalism or Socratic rationalism, in recognition of Socrates's Dialogs that Plato so butchered—in my approach to all this Buddhist stuff. It's working pretty well for me so far. However, it's clear that this won't work with all flavors of Buddhism. I think there are many gates into Buddhism; some of them involve ritual and esthetics, others involve faith in metaphysical unknowables; some involve identity. The one I'm knocking on is just one among many. I get the impression that the Theravadins like to do this sort of thing, and Zennies don't mind as long as you don't mistake intellectual understanding for the Dharma eye. Some of the others might get a bit weird about it, if you tried to apply it to propositions like… well, never mind.

This puts me in a position where I can't help but think that people at some of the other gates believe in a lot of nonsense, because they adopt a whole bunch of metaphysical unknowables as the basis for their practice.

The way out for me is to recognize that while they're using the same basic system of intersubjectively negotiated relative definitions, their criterion for 'truth' is different. It's based on the concepts of 'beneficial' and 'unbeneficial' rather than 'demonstrable' and 'undemonstrable.' In that epistemological framework, an undemonstrable metaphysical proposition should be considered true if it leads to the end of suffering, and false if it leads to the perpetuation of suffering, never mind if it corresponds to a part of the Universe you can actually point to. The Dorje Shugden controversy, for example, makes a certain kind of (weird) sense when looked at this way.

That means that I'm able to at least try to respect even beliefs that I think are silly. At least up to the point that someone makes an inference from them that's morally repugnant. Unfortunately, that happens too, sometimes.

1—No True Scotsman puts salt on his porridge. —But Angus puts salt on his porridge! —Then Angus isn't a True Scotsman.


  1. What strikes me most after reading this is how important it seems to be for us as humans to impose some sort of order on the universe we experience; to make ourselves comfortable with something we can never define--by tentatively or subjectively defining it anyway, or even by saying we can't define it, or in some other way naming it for our brains. Reading about all those metaphysical and philosophical systems from Plato to Marx reminded me a bit of the old saw about the blind men describing an elephant.

    That certainly doesn't make it all bad;it just says a lot about us as a species, I think. It's very hard for us to live in this world without making a lot of decisions and judgments about everything. One of the nicer things about these ruminations of Vasubandhu you're sharing is that he doesn't seem to interject much in the way of binary valuing, or attempt to boil everything down into a concentrated moral truth gruel.

    I hate gruel.

    P.S. FYI, checking the reaction boxes brings up a clickjack warning in Firefox with NoScript. (I disabled the block to no apparent ill effect. Let me know if I will now start receiving phone bills from Nigeria...)

  2. If we didn't impose that order, all we could do is sit.

    And I agree, there's not much truth gruel in Vasubandhu at all. In fact, I haven't come across much truth gruel in any of the Buddhist stuff I've been reading, and it seems the closer you get to the source, the less of it there is. It's very refreshing.

    NoScript is paranoid. It's designed that way. I checked, and the reaction boxes use Ajax with JSON (don't ask) to talk to the server. It's a perfectly legitimate technique that's used for lots of things, but it is potentially exploitable (like almost anything out there). I think just that might be enough to make NoScript yell. I'm pretty sure the reaction boxes are safe. I don't host any ads here, so either Flickr or Blogger would have to be hacked for them to go evil.

  3. Thanks for the reassurance. Yes, NoScript is paranoid (and occasionally a bit intrusive)but I like it that way,as it saves me from a lot of digital STD's I'd be clueless to prevent without it--also from having to look at a lot of Flash aplets everywhere, which I find endlessly annoying and distracting.

    AFA having to impose order, I don't know. It's one of those things with a downside that pulls the upside a bit awry, I think. Too many people are sloppy thinkers or easily lead, or both, and it's one thing to have your order come about as a result of diligent sifting through history's most profound thinkers, or conscientious self-examination, and another to get there through swallowing propaganda or conspiracy theories or tribal drum-beating.

    Still, the few people I've known who have allowed order to exist independently from their own chaos and refused to do much imposing haven't done so well either. I do think, as you point out, Buddhist stuff does try to look at the construction materials and methods of all that scaffolding, which is a good mental habit to encourage if nothing else, and hopefully goes as far as you're willing to travel as well.

  4. There's the rub, really. In order to be able to think, talk, and function, you need some kind of conceptual system. Not all of them are equally good. One system will lead you to think of lots of people as 'enemies' and 'evil;' another system will lead you to think of them as 'misguided' or 'suffering.' I prefer the latter. Also, a system that's overly rigid is no good; a system that's overly sloppy is no good either.

    I feel very strongly that we can and should improve these systems in order to be able to live better. For example, I'd very much like to see many concepts related to 'race,' 'nation,' and 'religion' either be scrapped altogether or transformed to mean something rather different from how they're usually understood.

    That's not what Buddhism is really about, though. The Buddhist POV is that no matter how good a conceptual framework you arrive at, it's still just a flawed, provisional representation. It's not reality. It's still dukkha—impermanent, incomplete, unsatisfactory. The only way out of that is to "go beyond" it; to fully, personally, and intimately apprehend its provisional nature; its emptiness.

    (Somebody asked me once here "what for?" To that, I don't have an answer, other than that it feels... important. Also, I like what it's done to some people I know, online and especially off.)