Saturday, September 18, 2010

The 'Svaha!' Fallacy

Red sunset
Red sunset, Helsinki, 2006

I've occasionally run into a particular problem when debating stuff with Buddhists. I've dubbed it the "Svaha!" fallacy. It has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the basis of philosophy itself: confusion between the phenomenological and the metaphysical.

A metaphysical philosophy purports to deal with reality "as it really is." It looks for universal, permanent truths, immutable laws, and things that 'really exist.' We're natural metaphysicians: it rarely occurs to us to question whether something right in front of us 'exists' or 'is real,' or wonder how it exists. Instead, we tend to treat things as existent, permanent, and distinct by default. It is only through a certain amount of reflection that the flaws in this approach become apparent. A great deal of ink has been spilled in attempts to resolve these problems without stepping out of the metaphysical mode of thinking. Plato is the quintessential metaphysician. Other notable metaphysicians include Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

An alternative solution to the problems with metaphysical thinking is to discard the notion of permanent, objective, and universal truths, either in part or in toto. Instead, we can attempt to describe reality as we experience it. This approach is called phenomenological, from "phenomenon," which in this context means 'something that exists in experiential reality (but not necessarily in objective reality, whatever that may mean).' Some famous phenomenologists include Siddhartha Gautama, Arthur Schopenhauer, Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Baudrillard, and a bevy of French postmodernists, some of which actually have something interesting to say.1

The metaphysical and the phenomenological

Most philosophies have both metaphysical and phenomenological sides. Many are heavily weighted in one direction or the other. Karl Marx's system includes descriptions of the way religious belief is used to shackle proletarians to the factory wheel, or the way class consciousness could be used to mobilize them, for example, but these observations are always secondary to the universal, immutable laws of dialectical materialism that he claimed to have discovered. Conversely, Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy includes the concept of the noumenon, or "real" reality, and a big part of it involves the relationship between noumena and phenomena.

The tricky bit about phenomenologies is that because they deal with the world as it is experienced, they include a heavy subjective component. The operating assumption is that any individual's internal experience is subjectively absolutely true. Since different individuals experience things in different ways and have trouble communicating their experiences, we run into the problem of reconciling a variety of contradictory truths. Phenomena are tricky little bastards; fluid, ephemeral, and hard to pin down.

What does 'true' mean anyway?

In order to be useful, a phenomenological philosophy has to have some mechanism for testing what it says. This is called an epistemological basis. Usually this involves some intersubjective component—different individuals comparing their ways of experiencing the world, using the conceptual structure of the phenomenology they purport to share. For example, the chaotic, incoherent, slapdash, self-contradictory mess of a phenomenology we call "science" relies on experimental verification and peer review by a bunch of arrogant, ornery, territorial, and stubborn characters. That works pretty well.

Most phenomenological philosophies aren't even all that interested in things that lie outside the framework. Schopenhauer's noumenon doesn't really do all that much, and scientists aren't the least bit concerned about what propositions about something 'really existing' 'really mean.'
Metaphysician: But does √-1 really exist?
Scientist: Who cares? Now let me look at that radio, I think there's a resistor on the blink.
Buddhism is slightly unusual in that it is almost purely phenomenological, but the point of the entire exercise lies in that tiny bit of terrain that's outside any and all of its conceptual structures. Teachers go out of their way to emphasize that the Great Matter, nirvana, emptiness, your Original Face, the One Bright Pearl, whatever you want to call it, cannot be found in any of the masses of volumes written for, by, and about Buddhism. They're just fingers pointing at the moon; small peaks surrounding Mount Sumeru; painted rice cakes. The trick is to teach yourself to experience it directly; to open the Dharma eye; to become enlightened.


The purpose of Buddhism gives it its epistemological basis. This is upaya, or skillful means: the value of a concept, practice, or philosophical structure in helping an individual to open the Dharma eye. If it helps you along, it should be treated as 'true,' if it hinders you, as 'false,' and if it does neither, as irrelevant.2

This mechanism is entirely compatible with the fundamental metaphysical assumptions of Buddhism—that no phenomenon has any ontological, independent existence, that all phenomena are interdependent, and that all phenomena are impermanent. Or, in the shorter, simpler Mahayana version, that all phenomena are fundamentally empty.

The mechanism of upaya makes it possible to construct quite elaborate and very remarkable conceptual structures without losing sight of the purpose of the exercise. Even traditions like Zen, which de-emphasize philosophy, include a quite a lot of it. Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, for example, is a remarkable book, and a remarkably coherent, intelligent, and well thought-out one too. These systems can have a great deal of internal coherence, they can have a lot of explanatory power, and they can be highly useful in their intended purpose, even as it is recognized that these structures are 'constructions of that which was not,' to use Vasubandhu's excellent expression.

How to speak when words are empty?

There are two fruitful ways of conducting a meaningful argument within a phenomenological framework.

One is to evaluate any given proposition while taking the phenomenological framework itself as a given. For example, we might discuss whether 'socially engaged Buddhism' is upaya or not, while taking the Bodhisattva precepts, the goal of liberating all beings, and the observations about anger, delusion, greed, attachment, and 'idiot compassion' as givens.

The second one is to evaluate the validity of the phenomenological framework itself, relative to the testing mechanism that the phenomenologists agree upon. So, for example, if a Theravadin and a Soto Zen Buddhist both accept upaya as a valid epistemological basis, they could have a constructive discussion about their respective enlightenment models.3

This way lies madness

Sometimes something else happens. Instead of taking either of these two approaches—challenging a particular phenomenology relative to the shared epistemological basis, or challenging a particular claim within a shared phenomenology—a disputant challenges the validity of any phenomenology, by pointing out that the phenomenology is, in fact, a phenomenology, and not a metaphysical philosophy, and therefore any proposition made within the framework of that phenomenology, or indeed any phenomenology, is without metaphysical validity. He's discarding the epistemological basis—upaya, for example—that the structure is built on and for, thereby rendering every statement meaningless, not just the particular proposition he was disputing!
Emptiness is form, form is emptiness. Therefore, your argument is invalid. Svaha!
This is an understandable mistake. Since we are natural metaphysicians, and Buddhist philosophy first appeared in circumstances where metaphysical philosophy was dominant, Buddhist teachers and philosophers have spent far more time on countering the danger of mistaking phenomenology for metaphysics than on the danger of sliding from phenomenology into solipsism or nihilism. Someone who isn't too sophisticated intellectually might not even be aware of this second trap, and fall right into it when first encountering, say, a pithy Zen story about 'mouths flapping,' demonstrating the dangers of excessive philosophizing.

Buddhist philosophers themselves were very much aware of this danger, and went to considerable lengths to point it out. They knew full well that the phenomenologies they were dealing in are 'constructions of that which was not,' but they pointed out that nihilism—the facile assumption that that makes them useless or irrelevant, that nothing exists, that all is subjective—is just as big a mistake as the facile assumption that they constitute permanent, immutable, universal, objective truths. They point out that 'existsm' is not the same as 'existsp'. Whether the selfm existsm is debatable, but it's pretty obvious that a selfp existsp, in most everyday phenomenologies at least. The famous kōan Mu puts you bang-splat in the middle of this paradox: if everyone has Buddha-nature, what the hell did Joshu mean with his "has not?"

Drying driftwood, lighting a fire

Perhaps Buddhist practice is like trying to make a fire out of driftwood pulled straight out of the sea. You need a spark to light it, but you have to get the wood dry first. Zen tradition has a lot of sparks in it. They're bright and scintillating and dance prettily, some are funny, and most make for great quotes. They'll also do nothing whatsoever unless the wood is dry (except maybe set your hair on fire). I could easily look up "the solution" to the kōan Mu on the Internet, but it wouldn't enlighten me any more than buying a Zen master's robes from eBay. Polishing a tile won't turn it into a mirror. Zazen won't turn you into a Buddha. Zazen is for drying the wood.

The 'Svaha!' fallacy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the very basis of philosophy itself. Anatta, anicca, paticca-samuppada, and śunyatta aren't win-any-debate-for-free cards. Phenomenologies and the constructs that make them up may or may not be 'truem,' but they can still be 'truep.' They can be upaya for evaluating whether something is upaya. That misunderstanding leads to a hopeless dead end, both intellectually and spiritually. The only things you'll find there are nihilism, solipsism, or the towering ontological cathedral the system was first set up to dismantle. Not to mention lengthy debate that yields only frustration.


1My main beef with postmodernists is that they're shaky on epistemological basis. This makes them slide very easily into solipsism or nihilism. All discourses are subjectively true, yes, but if you're compelled to treat all of them as 'truep,' then you're rapidly on the path to madness.
2Which doesn't mean it couldn't be true in some other context, using some other epistemological basis. Buddhist philosophers would probably file finding the Higgs boson under 'irrelevant,' but would cheerfully recognize that it's a worthwhile exercise in the context of scientific endeavor.
3Conversely, a scientist and a Theravadin would have much more trouble having a constructive discussion, because their epistemological basis is different. A scientist would have a great deal of trouble even finding a meaningful definition of 'enlightenment' workable in his epistemological framework.


  1. A complex post, but a clear one for all that. I found your exposition of the fine line between nihilism, solipsism and the letting go of illusion I as an outsider identify with the core of Buddhist thought extremely helpful to my understanding. (On a personal note, I'd say the journey to Mount Doom is totally on track.)

  2. Great post!. I have seen this in my zen center, and it is an easy trap to fall into if you are not aware of the subtleties involved.

  3. "Phenomena are tricky little bastards; fluid, ephemeral, and hard to pin down"


  4. Why use "Svaha"? Did I miss where you explained that? Isn't that just an explicative in Sanskrit that is often found in Mantras?

    This post is well-said Petteri!
    But I will have to read it a few more times to see if I really get it.
    It is a bit too sophisticated for this little brain -- but damn, I wil try! Smile.

    I am curious too if you used the word "metaphysical" where perhaps "ontological" would have been better.

    Here are some of my reactions:

    More important to me that the ontological question (you called it "metaphysical) "does this really exist?" is the pragmatic empirical question of "Can I reliably duplicate this?"

    As you said, intersubjective duplicating is important. I initially am satisfied with just mere subjective replication thoug I don't consider it a resting point and I hold these humbly. So by what you write, I think I am a phenomonologist -- though I don't find any resonance with the post modernists for similar reason you list in the footnotes.

    So, if I see something as duplicatable then I feel safe declaring such a thing as "really existing". But you point out well that the us of "exist" in a phenomonologicl vs. metaphysical sense is often an unnecessary confusion springboard.

    So, am I understanding and agreeing with you so far?

    One objection:
    Or maybe I should call it a technical foul. (smile)
    You said, "Someone who isn't too sophisticated intellectually might not even be aware of this second trap."

    Ouch! Well, certainly people fall for this error you mention, but I don't think it has to be from pervasive lack of sophistication but instead, we all have partitioned areas of intellectual blindness. These areas actually often serve us some other benefit -- good or bad. But we ALL do this. Little harsh, dear Petteri! Smile.

    Lastly, you said:
    "...aren't win-any-debate-for-free-cards"

    I loved that. Great line. I am new to surfing the buddhblogs, but if I hear another dismissing Buddhist use the "finer pointing to the moon" line to stop dialogue, I think I will jump headlong into a Buddhist hell!

    Do you think I have understood you, or am I also one of those intellectually unsophisticated ones you spoke of?

    Let me help you answer the questions. --> I am significantly intellectually defective !! -- and damn proud of it! Smile.

  5. First, yeah, I do think you got what I'm saying, more or less. Much respect for making the effort!

    Re terminology: ontology is a subset of metaphysics. So, at least in the way I use the terms, an ontological question is always also a metaphysical one, but not all metaphysical questions are ontological ones. I was thinking of metaphysical thinking in general, not just ontologies. Hope that clarifies that point.

    Second, re the lack of intellectual sophistication, I meant exactly that, in a very literal sense.

    As stated, we're natural metaphysicians. It's already more than most people ever do to question that mode of thinking. Managing to think of things as phenomenologies consisting of experiential, provisional truths rather than ontologies consisting of universal, objective truths is already pretty sophisticated. To get from that point to being able to understand how not to slide from phenomenology into solipsism or nihilism is exponentially more difficult. There are plenty of credentialed, lecturing philosophers around who are surprisingly fuzzy about these points, you know—I've locked horns with a couple. There's a dinner party I could tell about… but I digress.

    It's also virtually impossible not to ever make a misstep step on that mine (or a number of other ones) even if you're watching out for them.

    In other words, I maintain that yes, it is a lack of intellectual sophistication rather than a personal blind spot—because everybody (more or less) starts out with that particular blind spot, and they have to do a great deal of work to even realize it's there, let alone see their way around it. That blind spot is very deeply embedded the way we cognize. I couldn't tell you how long it took for me to have that sink in, but it was… long.

    It's by no means mandatory to understand this stuff. You can think perfectly clearly in phenomenological mode simply by accepting a phenomenology as a given, adjusting it as you go, and working with its epistemological basis; it's just that if you're not aware of this problem, you're likely to back into it when cornered. You're also more vulnerable to being taken in by woolly-headed nonsense, but many people seem to have pretty good built-in reality checks for that. Going by your blog, you certainly do. Then again, going by the bio you've posted, I think you have more hands-on experience than most with woolly-headed nonsense but have managed to make your way through it, so your bullshit-o-meter is a field model rather than a lab one—which probably means it works better than mine.

    (Oh, and, to answer your question: originally I thought of labeling this the 'Emptiness is form, form is emptiness, therefore, your argument is invalid. Svaha!' fallacy, but that felt rather long, so I just left 'Svaha!' because it sounds funnier than 'emptiness is form, form is emptiness.' I understand it comes from 'svadati' which is Pali for 'to salute.' Could be wrong, though, my knowledge of Pali amounts to one primer I've leafed through. Sanskrit probably has a close cognate.)

    (Re WordPress vs. Blogger… this place ain't much, but it's home.)

  6. (Comments cleaned up, as per request.)

  7. Thank you kindly for the reply -- it seems we are on the same page.
    "field model bullshit-o-meter" --> got a big chuckle out of me -- you've got me understood well on that point!

  8. So, if you were going to name the fallacy with an informative short name,what would you change it to?
    -- The Mystical Nihilism Fallacy
    -- The Epistemological Nihilism Fallacy
    -- The Mystical Solipism Fallacy
    [See, my choices may reveal that I don't really get your point. But then maybe the other commentors do and can offer suggestions]

  9. I think you do get my point. You're just no more successful than I am at finding a name for it. The best I could come up with would be something like 'the confusing-phenomenology-with-metaphysics-and-dumping-the-epistemological-basis-nihilism fallacy,' and that's a bit of a mouthful.

    I think "Svaha!" expresses something about the mindset behind the fallacy rather the same way as "No True Scotsman" expresses the mindset behind that fallacy—even though No True Scotsman is much more expressive of the rest.

    It's a complicated fallacy.

  10. @ Petteri

    In your comment above you said:

    "In other words, I maintain that yes, it is a lack of intellectual sophistication rather than a personal blind spot—because everybody (more or less) starts out with that particular blind spot, and they have to do a great deal of work to even realize it's there, let alone see their way around it."

    Over on my blog you quoted me and said,

    ME: "I’d wager there are those who think themselves meta-cognitively sophisticated but that are unaware of their own meta-cognitive blind spots."

    YOUR: "Uh, like, everybody? The damnedest thing about blind spots is that you’re, by definition, unaware of them. That’s why they’re blind. "

    I will now split this comment for blogspot which also doesn't allow "Blockquote" tags -- persistent, aren't I.

  11. (cont)
    So my only objection is with the pervasive implications of the phrase "intellectual sophistication". I like the idea of blindspots. You do too -- well at least on my blog you did.

    So, is the "Intellectual Sophistication" you speak of a pervasive skill without blindspots? I'd wager you'd say no. But just wanted to check.

    And concerning the name of the fallacy, I see the difficulty you speak of.

  12. Yes, you've got it. Intellectual sophistication/metacognitive ability isn't an on-off proposition; it's a scalar. Someone who's more intellectually sophisticated in this way will be more aware of more blind spots than someone who's less intellectually sophisticated. Both will certainly have plenty of blind spots left.

    As I said on your blog, I don't believe it's possible to get anywhere near completely rid of such blind spots. In fact, believe that some of them are so deeply wired into our neurons that it's just not physically possible to do that, any more than it would be physically possible to fly like Superman.

    This was clearly a poor choice of expression. I still haven't managed to think of another one that would convey the meaning better, though.

    PS. You don't need to split the comments for Blogspot—just ignore the error message it throws after posting a "too long" one. They work just fine; it's only the redirect URL that goes screwy.

  13. Thanks for pointing me to this post, Petteri. I think you're right on in seeing that much of what the Buddha/ists have taught is phenomenological rather than metaphysical in nature. As Sue Hamilton wrote, the Buddha was asking 'how'not 'what'. Buddhist philosophy turns us toward processes as opposed to things.

    But getting there, to pure process, takes a great deal of careful analysis - good old intellectual power. People who think they can jump to the enlightened perspective without the work are of course wrong, and I've long since learned to avoid them and their silliness.

    Regarding the comment at Speculative Non-Buddhism, it doesn't appear to have been well received. The replies mostly seem to be about who I am and why I don't get the original post. Oh well. As with anti-intellectuals, there is for me a recognition that some interlocutors may be too wrapped up in a certain theory or ideology for me to really have a profitable conversation. That usually includes far right Republicans and Postmodernists for whom anyone who disagrees with the theory is de facto part of the problem that the theory sets out to solve.

  14. I think Buddhist philosophy is one Dharma gate among many. Some people go about it intuitively, others intellectually. We all carry different baggage and have different tools in our boxes. Philosophizing appeals to me and I've found it helpful, but most practices relying on "other-power" are (at this time anyway) closed to me, for example. For many it's the opposite.

    Re Speculative Non-Buddhism, I think of them as expert trolls of a very specific type. They're after a very particular type of people, and they step on their corns with great precision, starting from the in-your-face snobbiness of their writing style. I kinda like to read them, but would definitely not want to comment. They'll just point and jeer, and that's not all that much fun.