In July, I’ll be teaching a course at the Buddhist Library in Sydney on Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge.
I’ve wanted to do this for some time, as a personal homage to what I believe is the greatest 20th century book of Buddhist philosophy, one whose message is more urgently needed than ever.
We are descending into dangerous time. We have more information than ever before, yet the truth has become more and more lost. The foundational ideals of rationality and science on which our society was built, and which gave us a shared framework for understanding reality, are being torn apart one tweet at a time. Make no mistake, the undermining of truth in favor of pure subjectivity is dangerous, and it threatens us all.
Consider an obvious case such as climate change. In the 90s, in the USA or Australia, there was a broadly based understanding that this was a real problem needing urgent attention. The parties would differ in their solutions, perhaps emphasizing government intervention or market-based approaches. And they would also share an understanding that both the public and private sectors need to be on board to solve it. In such a situation, there is space for negotiation and compromise, and the best ideas might come from anywhere in the room.
Fast forward to today, and one side is still saying, “let’s solve climate change” while the other is saying, “climate change isn’t real”. You can’t negotiate on that. There’s simply no common ground, no shared perception of reality.
What happens next? If we can’t discuss rationally on the basis of truth, then what do we do?
One side will try to gain the high ground by saying, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion”, “I respect your right to disagree”, “We just have alternative facts”. They will position themselves as the champions of free speech and free inquiry. But what they are really doing is holding themselves unaccountable to the facts.
This kind of rhetoric is persuasive to a point. By adopting the ideals of classical liberalism, they position themselves on the side of openness. What they miss is that classical liberals also believed in the power of rationality and science to discover the truth and resolve differences. Otherwise we are just opining at each other, and the very possibility of rational discourse vanishes. Which is, of course, the point.
When differences cannot be resolved by reason and evidence, what happens? It all sounds nice when we are floating ideas about consequence-free, but our ability to do so is a privilege. I can act like I have a principled stance as to why Black Lives Matter is too extreme. But it’s difficult to argue the opposite point of view when you’ve got a bullet in the head.
And there’s the rub. When truth vanishes, power takes over.
You’re driving with some friends in a car. You reach a fork in the road. Left or right? Do you decide this by establishing a common goal of understanding? Let’s take the quickest route! The most beautiful! The one I’m familiar with! There comes a point where ideas don’t just float about in some nebulous realm of subjectivity. You make a choice or you run into a tree. And if everyone’s choice is equally valid, then the one that wins is the one that has power.
Our institutions of power—police, justice, parliaments, universities—are founded on this understanding, and they try to temper power with reasoned truth. Sure, they often do it really badly, and there is much room for improvement and reform. But at least there’s a theoretical appreciation that certain standards and norms of a shared reality must prevail, lest the state and all its institutions devolve to fascism.
The Buddha didn’t just tell us what the truth was, he showed us how to find the truth for ourselves. There is a place for received wisdom, a place for conversation, a place for individual perspectives, a place for rational inquiry, and a place for liberating insight. All these are necessary and none may be disposed of. Not only that, but they all have a specific role to play, and a relation to each other. His theory of knowledge is rational and evidence-based, but as it includes super-normal states of meditation and liberation, it has a wider and deeper scope than western philosophies.
In spiritual life, we should strive to improve our understanding and deepen our wisdom. Of course it’s true that spiritual truths are subtle and often highly personal. All the more reason why a single truth becomes so precious.
The Buddha by no means endorsed the idea that everyone has their own reality. (Snp 4.12, Bodhi’s translation)
Truth, indeed, is one—there is no second;
a person who understands this would not dispute.
These proclaim their own diverse truths;
therefore ascetics do not speak in unison
Disharmony comes not from the reliance on a view founded in reality, for that is what makes civil and rational discourse possible. Rather, it comes from the embracing of a subjectivist view where my delusion is as valid as your knowledge. When religious movements reject the accountability of the truth, they are taking the first step towards becoming a cult.
The Jatakas (Ja 422) tell the story of the first lie, which arose over the question of patrimony. The true son inherits the kingdom, so for the sake of power, the lie is invented.
This is why the first of the precepts on speech is to tell the truth. It’s only possible to tell a lie if there is an agreed understanding of the truth. If truth is purely subjective, then there is no accountability for the facts. And the precept falls into abeyance.
We can do better, and we must do better. It’s no exaggeration to say that the survival of humanity depends on this. If we allow the truth to continue to slide into irrelevance, we’re over. It’s been nice knowing you. Or did I really ever know you at all?