Friday, February 15, 2008


My four courses have come together this week more than usual. In Intro we're reading Bertrand Russell's version of the argument by analogy for other minds and Ryle's "ghost in the machine" rejoinder, in Epistemology we're reading Thomas Nagel's The View From Nowhere, but at the moment we've detoured to reading Nagel's "What is it Like to Be a Bat" article and Frank Jackson's "What Mary Didn't Know," and that led us on to David Lewis, "Mad Pain and Martian Pain." So the six of us are trying to figure that article out. In Contemporary we're reading Kenny's chapter on philosophy of mind, which covers Bentham vs. Kant, psychoanalysis, and the Tractatus. And in Philosophy of Psychology we're moving out into Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson's Philosophy of Mind and Cognition, finishing Part One explaining "commonsense functionalism," the view they espouse.
So I was struck by the article in today's NYT "Smaller Version of the Solar System Is Discovered," which turns out to be an excellent illustration of functionalism's advantage over reductive materialism, in addition to being philosophically significant in itself. In our age we're used to physics and biology being philosophically significant sciences, but for much of the history of the modern world astronomy has been seen as posing as great a threat to established ideas as, say, evolutionary biology or big bang theory is seen today. The culture that existed before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo displaced humans from the center of the universe is not the same culture afterwards. This process continued during the 20th century, when Hubble showed that our Milky Way Galaxy is only one of a great many galaxies, and recent observations with the Hubble Space Telescope have caused the estimation of the number of galaxies to be greatly increased. Meanwhile we have seen through spectroscopy, for example, that the natural processes that we observe on Earth, as well as other constants such as the distribution of elements, is apparently much the same in the rest of the universe as it is nearby. The right combination of common ingredients, between a heat source and a heat sink, will start forming the "primal soup," protein chains out of which organic life is built up. The universe is full of life to a mathematical certainty; it's not rational not to believe it. Since 1995, over 250 exoplanets (planets in orbit around stars other than our own) have been discovered, using the wobble effect (the gravitational pull of a massive satellite observed as a tidal pulse on the star surface). Now a new technique called microlensing exploits the refraction caused by one object's gravity bending the light from a more distant object. Today's story informs us, among other things, that the number of nearby stars with planets seems greater than had generally been imagined, and that systems with gaps where temperate, Earth-sized planets might be are being observed.
One type of functionalism is a kind of non-reductive materialism: every token of a mind is a token of a physical thing as well, but mental types supervene on physical types (multiple physical types can realize the same mental type). So psychology doesn't just analyze down into the physical understanding of human nervous systems. To see the point think of the exobiologists: their job is to think about what exoorganisms might be like, what they must be like, what they can't be like, and so forth. The magic of it, as someone else said somewhere, will not be just in the differences or just in the similarities. The magic will be the blend of similarity and difference. Exobiology suggests exopsychology. Functionalism aspires to be a kind of exopsychology: what must be true of a thing in order for it to come under psychological description? What defines the set of "persons"?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

W. K. Essler on Buddhism

This is the second week of a two-week "mini-course" offered here at UPR/Mayaguez by Wilhelm K. Essler, professor of philosophy at the University Mamat in Germany, and author of Die Philosophie des Buddhismus (2006). Dr. Essler is an authority on Kant and a scholar of Ancient Greek philosophy, as well as someone with a lively interest in words and in the ancient languages of Sanskrit, Pali, and others important to Vedic and Buddhist philosophy. In our class he is explicating the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, having spent some time on earlier Vedic influences. His presentations are quite interesting and useful.

I want to raise some questions about taking a Kantian-eye's view of Buddhist teachings. I'm not actually attributing any of these arguments or positions to Dr. Essler, because I am frankly not that confident that I understand his ultimate position on these things, but I have my own thoughts on Kant and Buddhism that I am writing out here so that, among other reasons, I can show them to Dr. Essler and see what he says.

The good idea in Buddhist philosophy of mind that I see, and that Dr. Essler is also focused on, is that the self, as constitutive of the world, cannot be included in the ontology of that world. It makes a big difference, however, if this is interpreted to mean that consciousness is the ground of the world (to use Kantian language, a necessary precondition for the possibility of the world), or it is interpreted to mean that consciousness is identical to the world (Hume: phenomenal experience=mind).

The Kantian interpretation holds that the technique of the transcendental deduction yields a proof of the existence of the mind as something apart from the experienced world.The problem that I have with the Kantian interpretation, which appears to infect the entire German Idealist tradition of the 19th century, including Schopenhauer, is that the Kantian interpretation underwrites a further metaphysical discussion of the self, this time as part of a noumenal aspect of reality. Thus Schopenhauer attributes to the Will a kind of Parmenidean unity, among other fantastic properties.

Meanwhile, the interpretation that is suggested by Buddhist language (Dogen: "The blade that cuts, but does not cut itself") and, I think, by Wittgenstein in the "solipsism" passages in the Tractatus and upheld later in the Investigations is a kind of eliminativist interpretation: that phenomenal properties do not exist. There are no such properties, and there is nothing like traditional notions of "mind" or "consciousness." The discussion of dependent arising in the Four Noble Truths is the genealogy of bad karma that is just identical with the "self," which is something that must be addressed through Buddhist practice. (My own interest in this point, by the way, developed not so much from my interest in meditation as from my interest in the problem of phenomenal properties as a block to naturalism about the metaphysics of the mind/body problem, notably modern versions like Frank Jackson's "Mary" argument and discussions of phenomenology as a problem for behaviorism and functionalism, such as Chalmers' "zombie" discussion. My current view on these matters, inspired by Wittgenstein and Buddhism, is that the problem of phenomenology is a pseudoproblem, as phenomenal properties do not exist.)

Meanwhile, just a comment on Essler's dismissal of meditation. Whether we take what I am calling a "Kantian" or an "eliminativist" interpretation of the Buddha Dharma, either way meditation is a key technique in the Buddhist tradition that roughly tracks on to what we call "phenomenology." As with many older traditions, they have plenty to offer to people with similar interests. For example I would recommend "mindfulness" meditation to anyone with an interest of the theory of self developed in Being and Nothingness. Essler wants to approach Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology in a spirit of philosophical excavation and reconstruction, but his dismissal of meditation is a shortcoming.

Silencio Bouche made the following excellent comment near the time I originally posted this blog. Now Dr. Essler has been kind enough to send a substantial response to us both, which I have posted after Silencio's remarks.

Silencio Bouche writes:

My understanding is this:
Ultimately the "self" in Buddhism is considered merely a thought or a sense---and there is no personal self beyond this. The foundational insight of the practice of Buddhism is that personal self is the power of the notion that a personal self exists and that this self is a confining limitation on what there is.

It is not that there is an entity which mistakenly sees itself as a personal self and is limited by that notion--rather the dominance of the notion is the entity itself--there is no entity beyond the notion that there is a self that is limiting. Liberation is then a dissolving of the dominance of the notion of a self as a limitation over what is.

The notion of self persists but not as a limit-- thoughts arise on liberation expressing amazement that such a notion could have constituted a limitation. And to the question as to what we are--the answer closest to the matter is that what you are- or rather what there is--(there being no difference) is forever undefined and yet in that there is nothing missing, there is only completeness and fulfillment. No definition touches this undefined and nothing needs be added.

Take a common current conception of consciousness wherein consciousness and the content of consciousness are completely separate. If this is so then anything present to consciousness cannot be consciousness--since consciousness cannot be any content--and any notion of consciousness must be merely a thought of consciousness and not consciousness itself.

But this means that consciousness cannot be known by any content--sense, thought, feeling. It is not even possible to know if there is such a thing or not , since nothing present to consciousness is anything but the content. And any notion then --even the notion of consciousness--cannot be consciousness- (So, is there even such a thing?)
You can note the pending infinite regress. Better, from a philosophical point of view then, not to posit a something separate from what appears---self or a conscious being or some other entity. One can argue too that the entity --consciousness-- is superfluous--and by Ockham's Razor may be dropped. So rather than "things appear to an x" it would be " things appear".
The only impetus to preserve a self or a conscious entity or some such in the mix--is to preserve the human ego as the center of things---a poor practice according to Buddhism.

2/23/09: Dr. Essler has been kind enough to send me these substantial comments:

"I am not the first one who sees similarities between the epistemology of Kant and Buddhist epistemologies, especially the Mahayana epistemology: decades earlier such a similarity was asserted by Kurt Schmidt. And most probably he, too, was not the first one who recognized such parallels. For during the period of Neo-Kantianism, large parts of the Hinayana sutras of the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni were translated into German; and I am sure that these texts were recognized by the philosophers of that period, not only by Ernst Mach.

Keeping in mind Kant's hint "... wie tuechtige englische Seeleute berichten ...", and recognizing that during those past centuries -- contrary to our time -- the sailors and merchants and businessmen were not narrow-minded, the assumption of his being influenced by such reports on Indian philosophy in general and Buddhist epistemology in particular is, of course, not provable but not unreasonable.

In a rough way, Kant's epistemology may be described as follows: There are two limits of the world, which both do not belong to the world: an outer limit, and an inner limit.

The outer limit is the Ding an sich selbst. For the world is constituted out of the appearances (including the results of measuring) by concepts (determined by suitable background-theories); and this constituting is structured by the categories, including the category of causality. Therefore, the empirical meanings of the category of causality and of the other categories are restricted to the appearances and what is established out of them by empirical concepts; in other words: They are restricted to the world established in that manner.

Therefore, assuming a causal chain from the Ding an sich selbst to the appearances is without any empirical sense; and the WASP-philosophers who nevertheless assert such a causal chain are in advance refuted by Kant's arguments.

Kant, being mostly very cautious in his use of philosophical terms, nowhere uses the expression "causal" in this particular context; what he writes here is that the Sinnlichkeit - the sensority, the subtle sense organs - is afficirt - is touched, is affected - by the Ding an sich selbst, which is something outside of our experiences and thus outside of what can be described by empirical means. But, in my view, this is not cautious enough: Hume, who was admired by Kant, was completely cautious in this respect; for, in speaking about the world, he avoided using such expressions which are without any empirical meaning.

Kant was very cautious with regard to the inner limit of the world, i.e.: concerning the transzendentales Ich, as I may call it here. For he himself avoided using such a concept: The concepts "Ich" and "empirisches Ich" are used synonymously and therefore exchangeable by him. And, according to him, the empirical I is, of course, part of the world, constituted - like other parts of the world - by empirical concepts out of (outer as esp. inner) appearances structured by the categories.

But, alas, also at this point Kant did not follow Hume's path of being completely cautious. For, lead by his hope to establish timeless truths at least for the background-theories of empirical knowledge, and perhaps also seduced by the Pre-Buddhist philosophy of Yajnyavalkya, Kant introduced the concept "transzendentale Apperzeption", consisting solely of his re-interpretation of the "sum" -- the "ich bin", the "I am" - of Descartes.

According to Kant, this "Ich bin" is not to be regarded as knowledge, neither empirical nor aprioric; but it is a knowledge-establishing Idee - idea, in the Latin sense of the word - which (is not added but) may be ad ded to every knowledge, guaranteeing in this way this knowledge's timeless validity.

Of course, the empirical I - which is, according to Buddhist philosophy as well as Heraclitus's philosophy as well as, later on, Mach's Philosophy, always changing - may be observed a moment later by some new empirical I, however small this period of the mind's moment may be; and this observer may be observed some moments later by another empirical I of that later period; and so on. No transcendental I - no unchangeable I, no Self - is to be found on this path, as was already observed by Yajnyavalkya, who - being hereby less cautious than Kant - postulated the existence of such a Self, of such an Atman. But Kant's transzendentale Apperzeption is not a Self, but merely an Idea, a knowledge-constituting idea, therefore being itself.

Concerning my dismissal of meditation within the last lecture on the philosophy of Buddha Shakyamuni at Mayaguez, I should confess that I hesitated to explain this Fourth Noble Truth because of several reasons, especially because of these ones:

* First of all, I was not aware that someone at this Campus was interested in receiving information upon this important part of the Buddha's teaching.

* Secondly, in order to try to explain this part, I would have needed at least four additional extended evening sessions in order to present these teachings in a roughly-complete form.

* Thirdly, I was trying to avoid the term "meditation" because of its vagueness, using instead terms like "internalize" or "deepening (in one's mind)".

* Fourthly, and mainly, I should confess that I do not have any remarkable experiences concerning the internalization of what I understand and accept of Buddha's teaching.

But there are people today who are fullfilling this condition. One of them was Geshe Tandin Rabten, who is regarded by all of those who met him as a living Buddha, as a fully-enlightened person. He died about twenty years ago in Switzerland, and his reincarnation is Tenzin Rabgye Rabten Tulku. His main disciple is Lama Gonsar Tulku, a fully-liberated person, the fourth reincarnation of the first Lama Gonsar. Lama Gonsar Tulku is able not only to explain Buddhist philosophy in its particular cases, but especially to present the Fourth Noble Truth not merely, like me, in repeating what was heared and read, but out of his own experiences in applying these methods in a fruitful and directed manner.

Dr. Essler sent a seperate message responding to Silencio Bouche:

I am not sure whether I got the point of Silencio Bouche's comment; therefore let me explain here my view of the early Buddhist philosophy in some of its main semantical and epistemological aspects.

As to semantics, first of all it should be noted that Buddha Shakyamuni very often used expressions -- e.g. Sanskrit-terms for "world", for "suffering", for "I", and for "Self" -- in different senses, depending on the presuppositions of the men to which he explained his doctrine: To laymen who were not philosophically educated, he used such expressions mostly in their everyday-meanings, but to philosophically educated people -- not everytime and not solely to ordained ones -- he used these terms, and especially the term "atman", i.e.: "Self" -- like it was used among the philosophers at that period, namely: in the sense of Yajnyavalkya, a philosopher who lived in India about three centuries before the Buddha. According to Yajnyavalkya, the Self is the perceiving one which is per se different from everything which it perceives, and the thinking one which is per se different from everything which it thinks, and the creator of the -- phenomenal -- world together with its men and gods which is per se different from everything which it creates. This Self is the unchangeable substance, thus the stable basis of all the changeable appearances resp. phenomena; it is -- so to speak -- the Archimedian point for the phenomena. And Buddha Shakyamuni then used this meaning of the term "Self" in arguing that believing in the existence of such a Self is a fundamental error, an avidya.

According to the epistemological aspect of the Buddha's philosophy, every perceiving one may become the object of some perceiving, every thinking one may become the object of some thinking, and every acting one may become the object of some acting. For the person in all its bodily and mental aspects as well as in particular the mind is not regarded to be some stable object. The mind, in particular, is regarded by him -- and that's what I, too, accept from his doctrine - not as a mental substance but as a continuity of mental states solely, whereby every single state is causing its subsequent state, dissolving itself thereby completely, which is comparable to the continuities of, e.g., electromagnetic energies. In even this way, the thinking one of this moment -- i.e. the mental state of this moment -- may easily become the object of thinking within some subsequent mental states of the same continuity of these states. Nothing else than the mental states are performing the mental aspects of perceiving, of thinking, and of acting: No unknown and unchangeable substance is needed for explaining this continuity of mental states - in short this mind - and no substance of this kind - no Self - is to be to determine elsewhere, not even in a conceptualized kind, in using Kant's resp. concept: not even as a transcendetal apperception.

There is per se no such limitation of the abilities of the mind, which -- unfortunately for the not yet liberated ones -- does not prevent one's mind from being captured and imprisoned by self-made limitations like wrong views concerning the mind and its functions.

This is -- according to the Buddha as well as, in succession, to me -- the result of a cogent philosophical analysis.

But deeply entrenched in the mind of a not yet liberated being is that -- besides the mind -- some precious imperceptible and unfathomable and unchangeable leader -- the atman, the Self, the soul, or whatsoever -- is leading the mind and thereby everything which the mind is leading. This wrong view leads the mind to perceive its objects of perceiving in a biased manner, to think about its objects of thinking in a biased manner, to act concerning its objects of acting in a biased manner. And one of the re-actions of such biased perceiving, thinking, and acting is: to maintain the being familiar with that wrong view, and furthermore to strengthen and to deepen this wrong view in one's mind, i.e. to strengthen and to deepen one's being captured and imprisoned by such views.

Becoming liberated, therefore, consists in abandoning this wrong view completely, i.e.: not only at the surface of one's mind, as I am able to do it when -- from time to time -- thinking about these things, but at every outer and inner areas of one's mind, within all its gross as well as subtle states.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Early and Late Wittgenstien

The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, with his "atomic", "picture" theory, was still seeing the issue as one of the way language and mind represent the world. He had the idea that what pictures represented was not so much individual things as relations between individual things, or what he called "facts." Language captured (or ought to capture) logical relations. His fascination with the relationship between logic and pictures is very High Modern, like one of those Cubist paintings by Braque or Picasso.
In the later Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein moves away from representational ideas altogether. The fundamental insight was that an authentically naturalized account of mind and language would have to have done with intentional and semantic properties altogether. This is a kind of behaviorist/functionalist reading of Wittgenstein: there are no such things as symbols. There is nothing "under the surface" of language (no meaning) and thought (no "inner space").
It is important to see the continuity between the earlier and the later work. The idea that consciousness and qualitative experience (and "good and bad," for example) were not possible objects of representation is common to both books, and an exploration of the limits of language is an organizing principle of both. Sometimes people who like the Tractatus dismiss the P.I. and vice versa, but that is a mistake.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Hume's Response to Skepticism

Most traditional interpreters of Hume have read his language of "impressions" as Cartesian/Lockean, in the sense that he is wedded to a representational view of mind such that skeptical doubt is an inevitable (albeit perhaps trivial) problem. Thus the empiricist is a kind of cheerful skeptic, suggesting (as Hume does) that rationalist approaches overstep their bounds in the face of inscrutable nature. I've been wondering if Hume wasn't perhaps closer to Wittgenstein, with his idea that skepticism is a kind of pseudoproblem, than he was to early 20th century "analytic" philosophers, like Russell and the "phenomenalists" of early 20th century philosophy of science. So I was pleased to see that one of the selections in my Intro anthology was "Of scepticism with regard to the senses," Book 1 Part 4 Section 2 of the Treatise. Three paragraphs in we find "For as to the notion of external existence, when taken for something specifically different from our perceptions, we have already shown its absurdity" and we get a footnote directing us to "Of the idea of existence, and of external existence," Book 1, Part 2, Section 6.
Hume writes, "The idea of existence, then, is the very same with the idea of what we conceive to be existent. To reflect on anything simply, and to reflect on it as existent, are nothing different from each other. That idea, when conjoined with the idea of any object, makes no addition to it. Whatever we conceive, we conceive to be existent. Any idea we please to form is the idea of being; and the idea of being is any idea we please to form."
The Cartesian reading of this sort of thing is that we cannot get around our "ideas" or indeed past our "impressions" in order to know the external world directly. For all we know the external world might not exist, but there's simply no sense playing philosophical parlor games. Beyond experience lies the unknown. (I noticed reading Bryan McGee's Confessions that he was particularly enamored of this sort of idea, which he attributed to Kant.) But it looks to me that there is a much more powerful argument here, one that does aim to defeat Cartesian skepticism. On this more Berkeleyan reading the external world just is experience just is the external world. There cannot be any "abstract idea" (Hume thinks that the problem is that these are fishy abstract ideas) of an existing thing apart from our actual experience. So skepticism is a pseudoproblem motivated by a misconception of the meaning of "being." Experience is the ground of conception, so there are not any genuine concepts that extend beyond experience. This I take to be broadly equivalent to Wittgenstein's diagnosis. It is not a mere throwing up of the hands of an empiricist: I think that Hume positively rejects the Cartesian possibility as a demonstrable error. One can not be said either to "know" or to "not know" about the existence of the external world. Wittgenstein is making the same argument with his appropriation of the word "solipsism" at the end of the Tractatus.