SuttaCentral

Philosophical Criticisms of Buddhism

I was wondering if there are Buddhist answers to this kind of philosophical criticism of Buddhism:

I have the impression, correct me if I am wrong, that there are no great metaphysical or apologetic thinkers of Buddhism in our time - in the philosophical sense I mean, like what William Lane Craig and others are to Christianity: Buddhist thinkers who work on the philosophical foundations of Buddhism and defend them rationally against other philosophers. Maybe because Buddhism is practice-oriented and these issues are seen as “undecidable”?

It’s a pity, it leaves a whole area of reason to others and doesn’t help to convince people who are sensitive to rational arguments. Yet I do not think that the Buddha abandoned rational debate, nor did he reject the confrontation of ideas.

I have the impression that Buddhists are a bit quick to throw reason out the window, preferring a kind of supra-rational mysticism, presupposing (probably rightly) that it is incapable of capturing the absolute. But even when Nāgārjuna criticizes logic, he does so by using it to show that, in his opinion, it is unreliable. He didn’t just assert it, he tried to demonstrate it.

But as William Lane Craig says:

(…) Rather the eastern religions you speak of deny the application of logic to ultimate reality at all. As mentioned, the Absolute is beyond all distinctions, and therefore nothing can be said of it. It is apprehended only in mystical experience. Such a view is logically incoherent. For if nothing can be said of the Absolute, how can we say that nothing can be said of it? It is not true, after all, that the Absolute is beyond all distinction, for that is to say something truly of the Absolute. The position is thus self-refuting. Thus, you were quite wrong (…) to say that these eastern perspectives are “logically coherent.” They are by definition logically incoherent, since they renounce logic, and are, moreover, self-refuting.

In any case, what ought to be clear is that no reason whatever can be given to adopt such an incoherent perspective. For any argument one gives will involve the assertion of certain truths and the use of the logical rules of inference in order to draw conclusions. No sort of justification can be given, e.g., “Ultimate reality is beyond human logic,” for that is to assert a putative truth about ultimate reality, when there is none. Why would anyone want to adopt such a logically incoherent view for no reason at all?

What do you think?

:pray:

1 Like

I am moving your post out of Q&A, @Satananda, because there’s no short, conclusive answer to your question! I hesitate between choosing the Watercooler (general Buddhist non-EBT discussion) and Discussion (discussion of the Early Buddhist texts) because I can’t predict which way the answers will go.

In the hope that answers will draw on the EBTs for the discussion I’m choosing the Discussion category. If they veer the other way we can always move it again. :smiley:

4 Likes

I highly recommend The Emptiness of Emptiness by C. W. Huntington, in which he refutes some criticisms of Madhyamika from the western philosophical tradition. It is one of the best works I’ve read on any subject.

He includes this gem from Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyavartani, line 29. It’s a shame the authors above missed it. Then they wouldn’t have had to waste their time. (Yes, I’m being snarky.)

If I had any proposition, then this fallacy would be mine. I have, however, no proposition, and therefore I have no fallacy.

1 Like

Three of these are critiques of Madhyamaka, not “Buddhism” in general.

Paul William’s views have been well critiqued by Sujato in his blog a while back. You can see it here: https://www.google.com/amp/s/sujato.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/contentment-and-hope-or-why-paul-williams-is-wrong-about-buddhism/amp/

The last paper hardly requires much of a response, its understanding of DO is simplistic at best, and its arguments for a first cause and for the existence of God are the same old tired arguments theists have used for millennia now. There’s no need for Buddhists to critique them because western thinkers and atheists have already done so, extensively, for generations now. From David Hume to JL Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, these arguments have been shown to be feeble and toothless. So there’s really no need to go over them again.

7 Likes

Thanks! Yeah, I didn’t really know which category to pick. :joy:

Thank you for the resource, I’ll take anything on the subject!

Amazing, thanks!

I don’t really agree, I think some of the theistic arguments are sound, and that theistic philosophers win most of their debates with atheists. The best Atheist philosopher I’ve seen so far seems to me to be Graham Oppy, and I found him to be in trouble with Edward Feser and his rehabilitation of the Thomistic arguments.

On the other hand, I think that Buddhism would easily accommodate to a God creator-of-the-world, easier than people think, being more - in its scriptures - a transtheistic religion than an atheistic or agnostic one.

What is powerful in these theistic philosophers is also their philosophical arguments against the infinity of the past, which seem solid and which could scratch some Buddhist doctrines.

:pray:

I just read Sujato’s article and even if I don’t agree with everything I found it very good!

If I had to give my opinion, I would say that he is perfectly right when he contrasts Buddhist methodology with (modern) Christian methodology. This is the eternal philosophical debate between rationalists (Plato) and empiricists (Aristotle).


- Plato points to the heavens, reason, Aristotle takes to witness the earth, experience.

And the Buddha was clearly an empiricist: no matter how crazy his assertions were, they were based on the faith he placed in his mystical experiences (e.g. his visions, his powers) rather than on rational arguments and intellectual speculation.

The problem is that rationalists have good arguments, and science seems to show that reason alone can reach the truth (through ontological predictions - Higgs boson -, or mathematics, for example). On the contrary, our experience proves to be misleading all the time. No offense: I feel like an experience can never tell us anything about what’s true, whether I’m a Buddha who sees all the saṃsāra or a hippie on a DMT trip talking to elves.

I have the impression that, as always, in fine, the metaphysical difference between the Buddhists and the theists is based on the Münchhausen’s trilemma. Buddhists seem to prefer the regressio ad infinitum (saṃsāra), theists the axiomatic transcendental rupture (God). The problem is that the second solution seems to me more credible than the first. Unless one abandons one’s reflection.

:pray:

The Buddha’s procedure when it came to the study of rebirth was similar. He began with plainly observable phenomena. When this was insufficient, just as scientists expand their sphere of observation by means of physical instruments, he expanded his sphere of observation by means of mental development. Sure, it’s hard to do this, and you can’t verify the claims easily. But it’s also hard to build a particle accelerator. No-one said it was going to be easy! It took scientists 2000 years to meaningfully test the theory of atoms. Science has only just begun its investigation into states of enhanced consciousness, and it may be another 2000 years before the results are in.
~ Bhante Sujato

5 Likes

I can’t say I agree, theist arguments can’t show what they want to show (a loving/caring and personal creator). If these arguments were shown to be true, the best they could prove was that there was a beginning. But as Hume showed generations ago, this does not prove monotheism, for the first cause could be a number of different things.

But even if a first cause can be shown for this universe, one can always ask, what came before it? And there is always the possibility that something came before it. It’s impossible to truly prove an absolute beginning IMO. You can always rationally ask what caused something else. Theists want to draw a line in the sand and give one phenomenon special status, saying “you can’t ask that for this one thing.” But that’s just special pleading on their part because they don’t like the idea that you can always keep tracing causes back.

And this is what I think the Buddha meant by " a first point (koti) is not discerned." He wasn’t making a metaphysical or ontological argument that the universe is infinite, as that last paper seems to think (and as later Buddhists argued). Rather, the Buddha was making an epistemic claim: you cannot find an absolute beginning to samsara.

Of course, there are many other issues with Theism too, like the problem of evil, inconsistent revelations, god’s silence and so on. There’s no need to go over them here, but suffice it to say that Buddhists don’t need to accommodate themselves to theism, its a deeply problematic position and not in line with the Buddhadhamma.

[Edit]
Also, I really recommend JL Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, it goes over all the classic arguments fairly and systematically and shows their problems. It was covered on The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast if you like to listen to podcasts too. Contemporary theists are just rehashing these classic arguments, but they’re not really saying anything that is particularly new. The issues pointed out by philosophers since the enlightenment with these arguments remain and cannot be fixed by sprinkling some modern cosmology here (Craig, I’m looking at you!) or some modal logic there (Plantiga!).

4 Likes

IMO, the program the Buddha lays out in the EBTs is pretty close to our modern idea of an experiment. The noble eightfold path is the treatment and the end of suffering is the treatment effect. In the EBTs, the Buddha is basically saying “Hey everyone, I (re)discovered the treatment for suffering, here’s how to apply it on yourself”.

The Buddha of the EBT seems to me utterly rational, explaining things in terms of causal sequences.

I’ve never heard anyone claim that science shows reason alone can reach the truth. As far as I know, there’s no consensus on the nature of mathematical knowledge in mathematics. The higgs boson was experimentally verified, I don’t know what ontological predictions are.

Are you basing your understanding of Buddhism on the EBTs or something else though? I don’t see how the trilemma is relevant for the Buddhism of the EBTs, sorry.

3 Likes

Physicists can’t agree right now on how to interpret the big bang / initial expansion of the universe. It continues to be a heated topic. So, really, modern physics does not provide any “proof” of an absolute beginning to the Universe.

See for example: https://www.quantamagazine.org/physicists-debate-hawkings-idea-that-the-universe-had-no-beginning-20190606/

2 Likes

I think that someone smarter than me proved the incompleteness of logic.

Indeed, the Buddha understands the limitations of logic and presents instead a verifiably practical approach based on an openness to experience and practice:

SN35.70:2.5: this is how the teaching is visible in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.

I also think that examining and dispelling one’s own doubt is far more important than dealing with others doubts or views.

MN8:12.45: ‘Others will be attached to their own views, holding them tight, and refusing to let go, but here we will not be attached to our own views, not holding them tight, but will let them go easily.’

Because of this, I believe it more effective to discuss personal interpretations of the EBTs than worry so much about others praise or criticism of the EBTs. From the Buddha’s own time:

DN1:1.5.3: If others were to criticize me, the teaching, or the Saṅgha, and you got angry and upset, would you be able to understand whether they spoke well or poorly?”

4 Likes

The big bang is not the only scientific argument for the finitude of the past. There is also the BGV theorem, etc.

The same person argued for theism! :joy:

The Higgs boson was predicted by reason alone before being verified decades later: reason, and therefore logical reasoning, can tell us more about what is true than experience (which was impossible at the time).

It is simple: the Buddha explains the world by a saṃsāra without a visible beginning (regressio ad infinitum), theists by an axiomatic transcendental rupture (God as prima causa).

1 Like

:laughing: Theism did not work for me for ending suffering. I can only verify that the EBTs have proven personally effective. :pray:

2 Likes

It’s standard science to make predictions based on theory and then try to experimentally test the prediction.

If no-one had been able to verify the higgs-boson, i.e. it if it was found not to agree with experiments, it would have eventually been rejected.

Tons of things in science are predicted by reason alone but are rejected when found not to agree with experiments or empirical findings.

The theoretical structure that allowed the Higgs boson to be hypothesized was also developed based on this back-and-forth between theory and experiment.

@Javier already pointed out that the Buddha is making a statement about ‘what can be known’ empirically.

‘A first cause cannot be known’ is consistent with both a samsara that has ‘causes all the way back infinitely’ and a samsara that had a first cause at some point.

2 Likes

What I meant was, contemporary physics has yet to prove an ontologically absolute beginning. It probably never will.

You can prove that this universe had a beginning, but not that there wasn’t some event that happened before that. Or that there are other universes influencing this one (indeed, that is one theory, the multiverse view). So really, you can’t establish an ontological absolute from empirical observations, all you can do is provide a adequate description.

That of course, is the difference between science and ontology / metaphysics. Science describes what is knowable through its methods, but it does not make ultimate philosophical assertions.

4 Likes

Logic and Philosophy are amazing tools, but what philosophers don’t seem to have a conception of is paññā(wisdom). Speaking as someone who has come to have faith in the Buddhadhamma, there is such a thing called pañña in the universe. It can be developed and fulfilled such that it ends all dukkha. Some times compared to a great mountain or great height,

Just as one upon the summit of a mountain beholds the groundlings, even so when the wise man casts away heedlessness by heedfulness and ascends the high tower of wisdom, this sorrowless sage beholds the sorrowing and foolish multitude
Dhp

I am pretty certain, as viewed from this great height, all philosophical positions, this jungle of opinion, this wilderness of opinion, this puppet-show of opinion,this scuffling of opinion, this fetter of opinion, can be put in its proper place simply as ‘born of contact’ (tadapi phassapaccayā ; Brahmajala Sutta). And what a relief it must be.

A victor am I over all, all have I known. Yet unattached am I to all that is conquered and known. Abandoning all, I am freed through the destruction of craving. Having thus directly comprehended all by myself, whom shall I call my teacher?
~The Buddha

3 Likes

But the possibility of a “first cause at some point” seems to be ruled out by what follows in the Avijjāsutta:

‘A first point of ignorance, bhikkhus, is not discerned (na paññāyati) such that before this there was no ignorance and afterward it came into being.’ Still, ignorance is seen to have a specific condition.

“I say, bhikkhus, that ignorance has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment… etc.

So it seems to me (pace Javier) that the na paññāyati (“is not discerned”) here is not just epistemological. It’s as ontologically pregnant as the na paññāyati of, say, the Hatthapādopamasutta:

“When, bhikkhus, there are no hands, picking up and putting down are not discerned (na paññāyati). When there are no feet, coming and going are not discerned (ibid.). When there are no limbs, bending and stretching are not discerned (ibid.). When there is no belly, hunger and thirst are not discerned (ibid.).”

An absence of hands means that there isn’t any picking up and putting down. It doesn’t mean merely that picking up and putting down can’t be seen happening (but might nonetheless be happening in a manner that no one has the epistemic nous to discern).

5 Likes

To me, the idea of something happening outside the epistemic capabilities of the 6 sense senses / 5 khandas is “proliferating the unproliferated”.

To put it another way, conscious experience, that which is discerned, is IMO what is real and actual. Something that is not discerned is not real and actual (this has been called ‘conscious realism’ in modern times).

I think some suttas support this view, e.g SN 35.23:

And what is the all? It’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts. This is called the all.

Mendicants, suppose someone was to say: ‘I’ll reject this all and describe another all.’ They’d have no grounds for that, they’d be stumped by questions, and, in addition, they’d get frustrated. Why is that? Because they’re out of their element.”

AN 4.174:

“Reverend, when these six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, does anything else exist?”

“If you say that ‘when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, something else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. …

IMO, we cannot imagine or think about anything outside sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and mental objects. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking about something outside the all, but that is actually just mind objects hitting the mind sense base.

So I have to revise my initial statement. If I go by conscious realism, a “first cause” cannot be real and actual if it cannot be discerned.

I am willing to accept a hard limit about what can be known about the past here. The best the 5 khandas can do is to recollect eons of past lives. Speculating about what is outside this doesn’t work.

Maybe, who knows :slight_smile:

6 Likes

I guess there can be the conviction that there is an ‘outside’, an untouchable ‘real’ which sustains our physics as an emergent phenomenon. As you said, I don’t think there’s a benefit in imagining what this could be, but it’s a reminder that what we deal with are mental images which work more or less. The projection of time for example is necessary for a normal human/social functioning, but it’s not ‘real’.

What we are left with is to examine (with the mind) how mind and consciousness function and how - by their nature - they constantly produce specific distortions. My image of the Buddha is that he was a scientist is this peculiar field.

3 Likes

There is a sutta, MN 76, where Ananda warns that logic is not a good method for understanding the truth. Neither is tradition, trusting allegedly infallible teachers, or eel-wriggling. Instead, practice of Samadhi and the higher knowledges are encouraged. Of course, it’s Ananda making this claim, not the Buddha. Does anyone know of a parallel to that sutta where the Buddha says something similar?

1 Like