buddhist epistemology

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buddhist epistemology

Buddhism has always produced epistemological systems, and those of the Mahāyāna, in particular, always showed knowledge and perception to be inherently delusive. “Higher” forms of Buddhism have a degenerative philosophy of history according to which a sort of Golden Age was disrupted by the rise and gradual development of knowledge and the delusion inherent in it, which have reached their apex in our time – the final phase of the “Era of Darkness.” From this standpoint, this paper intends to show science, in which Marcuse saw an inherent instrumental/technological interest, to have been developed by delusion and to have simultaneously furthered the development of delusion, to the point at which they begot the deadly ecological crisis proper to this concluding phase of the Era of Darkness – which reveals as such the delusion at its root, achieving the latter’s empirical reductio ad absurdum and offering us the possibility of eradicating it and thus healing our minds and, hopefully, our world.

The Role of Personal Experience and the Buddha’s Wager In contrast to Brahmanic dogmatism, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas did not claim to be omniscient (M.I.482); in fact, he proposed a critical attitude toward all sources of knowledge. In the Majjhima Nikāya (II.170-1), the Buddha challenges Brahmins who accept Vedic scriptures out of faith (saddhā) and oral tradition (anussava); he compares those who blindly follow scripture and tradition without having direct knowledge of what they believe with “a file of blind men each in touch with the next: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see.” The Buddha also warns Brahmins against knowledge based on likeability or emotional inclination (ruci), reflection on reasons (ākāraparivitakka), and consideration of theories (diṭṭhinijjhānakkhanti). These five sources of knowledge may be either true or false; that is, they do not provide conclusive grounds to claim dogmatically that “only this is true, anything else is wrong.” Dogmatic claims of truth were not the monopoly of Brahmins. In the Majjhima Nikāya (I.178), the Buddha uses the simile of the elephant footprint to question dogmatic statements about him, his teachings, and his disciples: he invites his followers to critically investigate all the available evidence (different types of elephant footprints and marks) until they know and see for themselves (direct perception of the elephant in the open). The Pāli Nikāyas also refer to many śramanas who hold dogmatic views and as a consequence are involved in heated doctrinal disputes. The conflict of dogmatic views is often described as “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a vacillation of views, a fetter of views. It is beset by suffering, by vexation, by despair, and by fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to enlightentment, to Nibbāna” (M.I.485). Public debates were common and probably a good way to gain prestige and converts. Any reputed Brahmin or śramana had to have not only the ability to speak persuasively but also the capacity to argue well. Rational argument played an important role in justifying doctrines and avoiding defeat in debate, which implied conversion to the other’s teaching. At the time of the Buddha many of these debates seem to have degenerated into dialectical battles that diverted from spiritual practice and led to disorientation, anger, and frustration. Although the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas utilizes reasoning to justify his positions in debates and conversations with others, he discourages dogmatic attachment to doctrines including his own (see the simile of the raft, M.I.135), and the use of his teachings for the sake of criticizing others and for winning debates (M.I.132). Unlike the skepticism of some śramanas, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas takes clear stances on ethical and spiritual issues, and rejects neither the existence of right views (M.I.46-63) nor the possibility of knowing certain things as they are (yathābhūtaṃ). In order to counteract skepticism, the Buddha advises to the Kālāma people “not go by oral tradition, by succession of disciples, by hearsay, by the content of sacred scripture, by logical consistency, by inference, by reflection on reasons, by consideration of theories, by appearance, by respect to a teacher.” Instead, the Buddha recommends knowing things for oneself as the ultimate criterion to adjudicate between conflicting claims of truth (A.I.189). When personal experience is not available to someone, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas proposes taking into account what is praised or censored by the wise, as well as a method to calculate the benefits of following certain opinions called the incontrovertible teaching (apaṇṇakadhamma), which, in some ways, resembles Pascal’s wager. According to the incontrovertible teaching, it would be better to believe in certain doctrines because they produce more benefits than others. For instance, even if there is no life after death and if good actions do not produce good consequences, still a moral person is praised in this life by the wise, whereas the immoral person is censured by society. However, if there is life after death and good action produce happy consequences, a moral person is praised in this life, and after death he or she goes to heaven. On the contrary, the immoral person is censured in this life, and after death he or she goes to hell (M.I.403). Therefore, it is better to believe that moral actions produce good consequences even if we do not have personal experience of karma and rebirth.Buddhist epistemology is by no means a new field of study, and yet knowledge of this field is still largely limited to a narrow group of specialists. Recent scholarship in Buddhist (and more broadly, Indian) epistemology, however, has improved in quality,   broadened in subject matter, and become more accessible to non‐specialists. This makes it possible for students and scholars in broader fields of study – in particular, in Christianity and world religions, as well as both analytic and continental philosophy – to learn more about Buddhist theories of knowledge and the impact that these theories have had on the tradition’s broader religious and philosophical views. This guide offers a framework for teaching about Buddhist epistemology in an upper‐level undergraduate or graduate environment, in either a philosophy or religious studies course.

Purpose and Motivation

Arguments for a cognition’s reliability generally serve to justify a belief. Thus, one’s belief that “there is a fire in the hearth” is true inasmuch as the cognition that includes that belief reliably represents the causal characteristics of the object in question. For that cognition to be an act of knowing, however, that cognition must include other dispositions. Of prime importance is the desire to know (jijñāsa ) without which the cognition could not arise: it may be true that “there is a fire in the hearth,” but without some purpose one will not have a cognitive event in which that belief occurs. Thus, for Buddhists the account of knowledge as justified true belief is inadequate if that account ignores the role played by cognitive dispositions, especially those related to purpose.

In appealing to dispositions related to purpose Buddhist epistemologists hold that the reliability of a belief shifts according to the purpose to which it is tied. One might believe, for example, that the object on one’s table is an unbreakable vase, although it is in fact fragile. Relative to the purpose of containing a bouquet, the cognition in which that belief occurs is reliable, since the vase can function so as to hold flowers. But relative to the aim of cracking a walnut’s shell, a cognition in which that belief occurs would not be reliable, since the vase lacks the causal capacity to crack open a nut. By thus evaluating complex beliefs within various teleological contexts, Buddhist thinkers can accept some philosophical claims in one context, while rejecting them in another—a strategy that is central to Buddhist soteriology.

In relating reliability to purpose Buddhist epistemologists argue that an act of knowing must not only be reliable but must also be a motivator of purposeful action. Frequently, this assertion is formulated as a requirement for novelty, whereby an act of knowing reveals a previously unknown object (ajñātārthaprakāśa ). On either version—motivation or novelty—this requirement points not only to the role of purpose but also to the notion that an act of knowing reduces doubt. That is, the cognition must pass a threshold whereby the person, usually idealized as judicious (prekṣāvant ), is willing to act on a particular goal based on the content of that cognition. The early epistemologist Dignāga appears less concerned with the utter removal of doubt, but Dharmakirti and most subsequent thinkers maintain that an act of knowing grants apodictic certainty, even if certainty must sometimes be supplied by a subsequent cognition.

Finally, the notion that an act of knowing must motivate action is also tied to ontological issues. The chief concern here is to eliminate the possibility that universals could be the objects of perception. As will be evident in the following text, the Buddhist strategy is to make perception the actual motivator of action, while relegating the determinate content of perception to a subsequent judgment, which is not strictly speaking the motivator.

Relations in Inference

The exclusion theory and the attendant problem of infinite regress may leave several questions unasked, but Buddhists seem satisfied with its use, perhaps because it so greatly simplifies the theory of inference. On their view, all inferences take this basic form: “S is P because S is E,” where S is the subject of the proposition to be proven, P is the predicate, and E is the evidence. A common example would be: “The mountain is a locus of fire because it is a locus of smoke.” The success of the inference depends on the pervasion (vyāpti ), which by the time of Dharmakirti is understood as a necessary relationship between evidence and predicate. Dharmakirti formulates this relation as a necessary rule of unaccompanied nonarising (avinābhāvaniyama ). In other words the evidence cannot occur if it is not accompanied by the proximate occurrence of the predicate, or to put it another way the predicate is necessarily predicable of any subject to which the evidence is correctly predicated.

Buddhist epistemologists describe this invariable relation between evidence and predicate as being of only two kinds: either the evidence is the effect of the predicate, or else the evidence stands in a relation of identity (tādātmya ) to the predicate. The causal relation is operative in the inference of fire from smoke; the identity relation is operative in an inference such as, “This is a tree because it is an oak.”

Both in the case of the causal relation and the identity relation the success of the Buddhist analysis of inference depends heavily on the exclusion theory of meaning and reference. For example, when one infers the presence of fire from seeing smoke, the inference succeeds precisely because of the meaning of the concept smoke. That is, an instance of smoke is excluded from all those other entities that do not have the causal characteristics of smoke. One of those characteristics is central to the inference: namely, that any entity properly called smoke is necessarily caused by an entity that can be properly described as fire. Hence, if one’s perceptual content has been correctly interpreted, the identification of the object as smoke already gives one the information needed to infer the presence of fire. The same type of account holds true in the identity relation: the concept or term oak can only be properly applied to an entity that also has all the causal characteristics that make it suitable to be called a tree. In this way the inferential process is a matter of recognizing the relation between concepts, sometimes through the help of empirical examples.

The exclusion theory thus provides a seemingly analytical relation between the concepts employed in an inference, and inferences are therefore treated as intrinsically reliable. This suggests that inference is largely a matter of understanding the conventions that govern the use of concepts. The problem, however, is determining whether those conventions accurately depict the causal characteristics of real things. How does one determine, for example, that smoke is necessarily produced by fire? Here, one encounters the general problems of induction, and while Buddhist epistemologists propose various empirical means of overcoming such problems, it would be difficult to argue that they have fully succeeded.

The Role of Personal Experience and the Buddha’s Wager

In contrast to Brahmanic dogmatism, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas did not claim to be omniscient (M.I.482); in fact, he proposed a critical attitude toward all sources of knowledge. In the Majjhima Nikāya (II.170-1), the Buddha challenges Brahmins who accept Vedic scriptures out of faith (saddhā) and oral tradition (anussava); he compares those who blindly follow scripture and tradition without having direct knowledge of what they believe with “a file of blind men each in touch with the next: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see.” The Buddha also warns Brahmins against knowledge based on likeability or emotional inclination (ruci), reflection on reasons (ākāraparivitakka), and consideration of theories (diṭṭhinijjhānakkhanti). These five sources of knowledge may be either true or false; that is, they do not provide conclusive grounds to claim dogmatically that “only this is true, anything else is wrong.”

Dogmatic claims of truth were not the monopoly of Brahmins. In the Majjhima Nikāya (I.178), the Buddha uses the simile of the elephant footprint to question dogmatic statements about him, his teachings, and his disciples: he invites his followers to critically investigate all the available evidence (different types of elephant footprints and marks) until they know and see for themselves (direct perception of the elephant in the open). The Pāli Nikāyas also refer to many śramanas who hold dogmatic views and as a consequence are involved in heated doctrinal disputes. The conflict of dogmatic views is often described as “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a vacillation of views, a fetter of views. It is beset by suffering, by vexation, by despair, and by fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to enlightentment, to Nibbāna” (M.I.485).

Public debates were common and probably a good way to gain prestige and converts. Any reputed Brahmin or śramana had to have not only the ability to speak persuasively but also the capacity to argue well. Rational argument played an important role in justifying doctrines and avoiding defeat in debate, which implied conversion to the other’s teaching. At the time of the Buddha many of these debates seem to have degenerated into dialectical battles that diverted from spiritual practice and led to disorientation, anger, and frustration. Although the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas utilizes reasoning to justify his positions in debates and conversations with others, he discourages dogmatic attachment to doctrines including his own, and the use of his teachings for the sake of criticizing others and for winning debates.

Unlike the skepticism of some śramanas, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas takes clear stances on ethical and spiritual issues, and rejects neither the existence of right views (M.I.46-63) nor the possibility of knowing certain things as they are (yathābhūtaṃ). In order to counteract skepticism, the Buddha advises to the Kālāma people “not go by oral tradition, by succession of disciples, by hearsay, by the content of sacred scripture, by logical consistency, by inference, by reflection on reasons, by consideration of theories, by appearance, by respect to a teacher.” Instead, the Buddha recommends knowing things for oneself as the ultimate criterion to adjudicate between conflicting claims of truth (A.I.189).

When personal experience is not available to someone, the Buddha of the Pāli Nikāyas proposes taking into account what is praised or censored by the wise, as well as a method to calculate the benefits of following certain opinions called the incontrovertible teaching (apaṇṇakadhamma), which, in some ways, resembles Pascal’s wager. According to the incontrovertible teaching, it would be better to believe in certain doctrines because they produce more benefits than others. For instance, even if there is no life after death and if good actions do not produce good consequences, still a moral person is praised in this life by the wise, whereas the immoral person is censured by society. However, if there is life after death and good action produce happy consequences, a moral person is praised in this life, and after death he or she goes to heaven. On the contrary, the immoral person is censured in this life, and after death he or she goes to hell (M.I.403). Therefore, it is better to believe that moral actions produce good consequences even if we do not have personal experience of karma and rebirth.

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