Tag Archives: buddhism

Is Apocalyptic Prophecy a Prediction of Certainty or Possibility?

book of revelation angelOn Friday with the Asian Philosophy class, I was discussing apocalyptic Buddhists, such as the followers of Shoko Asahara who attacked Japanese subway passengers with poison gas in an attempt to bring about the apocalypse.  I have a friend who repeatedly mentions that some individuals in Israel have been trying to breed an all red calf for just the same reason in accord with the Book of Revelation.  It later dawned on me that, whether or not we believe in religious prophecy or the apocalypse, that the dream in the Book of Revelation may simply be revealing a possibility, and not a certainty.  It could be argued that the dream is a warning of what may happen, but need not, if we clean up our act.  Perhaps those who wish to bring about the apocalypse and those who think it is an inevitability should be presented with this possibility.

How Things Look

rorty2I recently posted a review of Dreyfus and Taylor’s new book Retrieving Realism (2015) in which I am critical of their treatment of Rorty and pragmatism.  In his piece Charles Taylor on Truth (1998), Rorty challenged Taylor to explain or abandon the distinction between “in itself” and “for us”, arguing that we do not need to appeal to an independent, objective reality separate from the forms of life we live.  Against Rorty, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we know our reality through our practices, but also that there may be a single coherent structure of reality independent of our practices.  I myself am a proponent of pragmatism, and I agree with Rorty that we do not need truth or meaning in itself beyond what they are for us, nor do we learn about reality as it is independent of our interaction with it through our interactions with it.

wittgenstein grafFrom a pragmatic perspective, and in accord with the later work of Wittgenstein, it is nonsensical to speak of reality independent of ourselves or of facts that we have yet to experience.  It makes perfect sense to speak of matters deep in space that we have yet to encounter, but it makes no sense to speak of facts deep in space that we have yet to establish.  Facts are fashioned in language and judgement through our interactions.  Thus, facts do not exist in locations we have yet to encounter and encode, even as we imagine all sorts of things to be there.  To say that there are facts we have yet to encounter is to say that there are accurate judgements and descriptions we share that we have yet to discover.

Green ChairLet us say that there is a green chair we leave in a room out of sight.  It makes sense for us to agree with each other, after consultation, that the green chair is in the room and that this is a fact even when we do not see the chair, but only because we have seen the chair, last saw it in the room and have no reason to think it has been moved.  The reason that the positivist, as opposed to the pragmatist, wants to say that there are facts independent of our experience is that we are always in the uncomfortable position that what seems like a fact for you and I may, in any instance, turn out to be false.  It may be that someone has moved the chair or painted it blue, in which case our “fact” turns out to be false.

fallen tree forestWe would like our facts to be infallible, but if we cannot speak with complete certainty about the location of a single chair, it is difficult to secure anything we consider true as completely immutable and indisputable.  Consider that, if I ask you if the chair is green, you could say that it looked green when you last saw it.  However, it would be strange for you to say that the chair looks green right now when we are unaware that anyone is currently looking at it.  Just as the Zen Buddhist muses that the tree which falls in the forest does not make a sound if there is no listener to receive it as “a sound”, delimited and individuated, it does not make sense to say that a green chair looks green at this very moment when neither you nor I are looking at it.  Rather, the chair has looked green regularly to us when we have looked at it, and this is the evidence available.  The question is how we establish and share truth in our interactions with others and things, not how we establish that it is completely independent of us.

Wittgenstein BlackboardWittgenstein would argue that there are circumstances in which we would be presented with evidence that calls the chair’s location or color into question, and that in the absence of this evidence we would find it nonsensical to question our shared understanding as fact.  However, this does not mean that our fact is itself absolutely certain or guaranteed to be true.  Rather, there is little need to establish certainty in most circumstances when there are no problems or changes.  Thus, it makes sense for us to believe in the fact that the chair is green, but it makes no sense to insist that this fact is absolutely certain beyond disbelief, nor to insist that it is a fact that the chair looks green when we do not know of anyone currently looking at it.

blue chairThe positivist says that this would make our facts sadly uncertain, and the pragmatist agrees.  The positivist says that some things are indisputable, and the pragmatist agrees, as we are not in this moment disputing all things, but we could, if we choose, dispute any particular thing if and when we want to.  In philosophy, of course, we upset all kinds of people by disputing endlessly about what the true and the good are, which is useful for developing critical and creative minds.

It is here that we come to our most confusing conclusion: Facts are not simply true, nor are they simply to be believed.  Sometimes, our facts turn out to be false and should not be believed.  This sounds odd because we use the word in two overlapping ways, both as a positivist who affirms the idea of an independent objective reality and as a pragmatist who rejects it.  This is why putting “fact” in scare quotes feels fitting, as in one way a “fact” is a fact, but in another way it is not.  A “fact” that turns out to be not true is an agreeable belief fashioned in judgement and language, but it is not in that we cease to agree with it when we find it is false.  If something was a true fact but is now false, we could say that it is a fact that is false, or we could say that it is not a fact, as it is false.

Buddha & Descartes, Thought & Thinker

The opening lines of the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, read:

We are what we think.  All that we are arisBuddha Statue Taiwanes with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.  Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart… Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.

Speaking and acting are the two ways one uses one’s mind to draw trouble or happiness from the world.  This fits with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, who said that when we speak, our words are our thoughts, with no separation between speaking and thinking.  The same applies to acts.  Perhaps all thinking is rooted in speaking and acting.  Perhaps picturing something in the head is rooted in the experience of looking, moving one’s eyes, head, neck and body such that a thing comes into view.

Descartes statueDescartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am”.  Both Buddha and Descartes reason that if there is thinking, then there is a thinker, but they see this relationship in opposite ways.

For Buddha, the thinking is the coming into existence of the thinker, such that there is no thinker without thought making it so.  The thinking causes the thinker to be a particular thing.

For Descartes, the thinking is evidence of the thinker, leading to the conclusion that there exists a thinker prior to and independent of the thinking.

WISE UP: The Best Dada Quotes of Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara (1896 – 1963) was the manifesto writer for the DADA art movement of the early 1900s which inspired much of modern art.

I know that you have come here today to hear explanations.  Well, don’t expect to hear any explanations about Dada.  You explain to me why you exist.  You haven’t the faintest idea.  You will never be able to tell me why you exist but you will always be ready to maintain a serious attitude about life.

Dada is not at all modern.  It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.  Dada is immobility and does not comprehend the passions…but with the same note of conviction I might maintain the contrary.

I love you so, I swear I do adore you.

Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people.  The truth is that people love nothing but themselves and their little possessions, their income, their dog.

If one is poor in spirit, one possesses a sure and indomitable intelligence, a savage logic, a point of view that cannot be shaken.

Always destroy what you have in you.  On random walks.  Then you will be able to understand many things.  You are not more intelligent than we, and we are not more intelligent than you.

I consider myself quite charming.

We are well aware that people in the costumes of the Renaissance were pretty much the same as the people of today, and that Zhuangzi was just as Dada as we are.

If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,” I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all, everyone dances to their own personal boomboom.

I am against all systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.  To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s own littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of a propeller into lilies…

Here is the great secret: thought is made in the mouth.

I still consider myself very charming.

A great Canadian philosopher has said that thought and the past are also very charming.

To make a Dadaist poem: Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Cut out words and put them in a bag. Shake, gently. Take out the scraps one after the other. Copy them down. The poem will resemble you.