Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Emptiness and Deconstruction and Politicized Science

Brad Warner's recent post about skeptics and their take on the Buddhist concept of emptiness reminded me of something I wanted to write a blog post about, but forgot; I was, you know, pretty busy as of late.  Ven. Warner pretty articulately says:

I believe that this conclusion about the doctrine of emptiness negating the law of identity (A=A) therefore no rational statement can be made runs something like this. I'm guessing here, because this is so foreign to my understanding of the doctrine of emptiness that I have a hard time getting my head around it. But here goes nothin'.

1) The doctrine of emptiness says everything is empty of self nature (so far so good).

2) If everything is empty of self nature then every thing in the universe is its exact opposite. White is black, war is peace, The Beatles are The Bee Gees. (This is already going wrong)

3) Since every thing is its opposite no rational statement can be made.

4) Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists are all crazy because they believe that good is evil, chocolate is peanut butter, and Charlie Sheen is the Dalai Lama*. You can't even argue with people like that!

The actual doctrine of emptiness bears no relation to this. Even if your buddy the Buddhist at the coffee shop down the street claims it does and even if he ought to know because he read a book by Alan Watts six years ago...
Buddhists do not think pink is orange, fish are elephants and Paris Hilton is the entire London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Things are what they are. Zen texts like the Sandokai (Harmony of Equality and Difference) are not trying to refute the law of identity. Things are different from each other. Yet ultimately all things are of one substance.
 I'd add at the end of the last sentence, "without an inherent essence, and yes, this statement is also self-referential."  That does not mean 1=2.  That too would be trying to pin down reality like a butterfly pinned in some collection. Can't do it. Nope.

Which brings me to this:

That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.
This was the era of the culture wars, the years when the conservative University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom warned in his book “The Closing of the American Mind” of the dangers of liberal know-nothing relativism. But somehow, in the passage from Bush I to Bush II and beyond, the politics changed. By the mid-1990s, even some progressives said that the assault on truth, particularly scientific truth, had gone too far, a point made most famously in 1996 by the progressive New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who managed to trick the left-wing academic journal Social Text into printing a tongue-in-cheek article, written in an overblown parody of dense academic jargon, that argued that physical reality, as we know it, may not exist.
Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” 

I often feel like a dual fish out of water: Having to explain Buddhism as philosophy to rationalists, and at the same time having to explain to Western Buddhists that most New Age garbage is just that.
Alan Sokal's article can be read on-line.  I think Alan Sokal might be a bit proud of what he did with his Social Text hoax, but I could be wrong.  Regardless, if you actually read  Alan Sokal's article  he actually never goes anywhere near refuting the fact that science is fundamentally open; that good science can't be done unless one is open to the possibility of falsification.  This, while not a parroting of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (not to mention the premise of deconstruction as a method) is not at all incompatible with it.  Sokal's hoax allowed for a politicization to creep into his paper  - which should have raised a red flag to the reviewers from Social Text - but did not.

Facts are not made up.  Things are as they are. The fundamental emptiness of all things not only does not negate the fundamental outlook of the scientific method, but is in fact highly compatible with it to the point of being a reflection of the emptiness of all things.

Does that clear things up?

One could say this is a typical Times "Both sides do it too!" bit of nonsense. One probably would say it.  But the fact remains, regardless of your politics, the scientific method is the best tool we have for describing the behavior of nature that can be observed, measured, and for which effects can be separated.  And the nature of existence itself appears to be fundamentally empty.


J said...

Im not one to defend buddhism but the "law" of identity is not used correctly here. Pi will be Pi. and roses will be roses. But this spring's roses are not last spring's. Pi is a different sort of creature than a rose, or a river. The Ganges... or the Rio Grande is everchanging--.

My own take on bud. "emptiness" --it means something like being aware of one's thoughts, impermanence of self, illusions, etc.

Some buddhist concepts seem a bit irrational, or contradictory however: the sage aka gautama was fond of saying things like neither be an atheist or theist A(assuming like the Dhammapada is accurate). In that case, ..sort of a contradiction. I understand how one might read it somewhat mystically, or as wisdom--ie, don't make ultimate metaphysical judgements or something. But in the real world, one is a theist, or not. More could be said, but many zen hepcats tend to read all sorts of things into the sayings of that ancient Deeprak There may be a certain wisdom to the dhammapada, but much spooky BS as well--quite outdoing say ...Plato and early christianity.

(and japanese zen--the code of the aristocratic samurai-- should not be mistaken for the teachings of the buddha. Zen works well for corporate executives as well).

Mumon said...

I'd say based on my experience that Japanese Zen surely does not exclude the teachings of the Buddha, and if done right emphasizes those very teachings.

Unfortunately, it's been famously abused as well.

J said...
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J said...

The Buddha was a moral teacher--many involved in "Steve Jobs Zen" overlook that, IMHE. The early texts are not unlike the writings of Confucius or hindu wise men. The dharma involves rules--laypeople were not held to the same standards as monks but its not hedonistic as many read it (ie, there are rules against gambling, music and dancing, wine, lust etc). People will be held accountable for their actions, according to all the early texts.

I don't "believe" in early buddhism per se, but I think it has been mostly misinterpreted, starting in the 60s via the hippies and the zen types, mainly .

Reading like Schopenhauers presentation of buddhism (and hinduism), one gets a rather different impression--darker, mysterious-- pantheistic. It's not newage psychology, but about decay, suffering, cycles of life and Death, entropy broadly speaking--the adept must be become aware of destruction, in a sense, and attempts to overcome it. The nature mysticism is not a holistic thing such as Thoreau but something like ...Kipling's Jungle book. Not granola and smokey the bear, but king cobras, bengal tigers, jackals, elephants, forest stupas, funeral grounds.

Via Steve Jobs Zen all the nasty pantheism has been cleaned up.Zen-Co management strategies! Or use them on the fairway.

Mumon said...


Schopenhauer isn't what I'd call at all a reliable guide to "what Buddhism is."

Schopenhauer was by no means a practitioner of Buddhism; he was a professional philosopher who was reading Buddhism through the experience and learning of Western philosophy.

Schopenhauer himself was not much of a moral exemplar either, but that's a whole other story.

Pantheism is certainly not part of Buddhism. If you want to read how Japanese Zen Buddhists themselves attempted to "explain" "Buddhist theology" to Westerners c. the late 19th/early 20th century, you couldn't go wrong here, although, yes, Shaku Soen did see himself much aligned with the early stages of Japanese imperialism - an issue which has been acknowledged with remorse a number of times by the Japanese Zen community.

Too, you couldn't go wrong reading William Barrett's "The Illusion of Technique" for a good explanation of what mysticism really is, at least if you want to talk about it crisply.

Mumon said...


Barrett, btw, is an excellent source simply because it took quite a few decades for Western philosophy to actually begin to grasp what Buddhists, and Zen Buddhists in particular, were saying.

The results, for better or worse were the revival of Existentialism, and yes, deconstruction.

Instead of Schoepenhauer, I'd recommend instead a good translation of Nagarjuna too.

J said...

To the contrary. The german philologists closely studied the sanskrit and pali texts. Schop. was in that tradition, and read them in original. That he knows philosophical tradition, greeks , as well as a fair bit of modern science should be viewed as a positive. Not a negative.
Bu. is not purely "intuitive", or aesthetic. That's the romantics misreading. There is a philosophical dimension -- a Weltanschauung.

The hippie romantics misread the early buddhist texts, if they read them at all. The Dhammapada is not Alan Watts, and not occultic either. There is a hell-idea for the evil-doers--Naraka. Whether one reads that literally or not, that was the tradition. The Path requires some sacrifice. Perhaps not as extreme as the hindu tradition (or...catholics) but not hedonism or amoral. A human can't be a nazi, AND a buddhist, or a nazi and a christian (except in name only)

Some zen types claim the pali texts were not written down until 400 years after B's death. that is incorrect. The earliest manuscripts were lost. The surviving ones are copies--like the Dhammapada. Even the edicts of Ashoka were carved probably 250 BC.( In sanskrit, greek, and Aramaic IIRC)

Buddhism also is alluded to in hindu writings. It's the mahayana texts--and the sutras-- which are suspect. I wouldn't say all of them are mistaken, but not the original teachings, and actually quite bizarre at times (ie tibetan gurus flying on tigers, etc). Theravada may not be your cup of tea, but that's the original dharma.

The sort of frat-boy techie into Zen, man wants some new-age, or psychological reading (or the mahayana mysticism), but that is not correct. Bu.'s not a self-help movement, or quasi-Freudian BS, but a religious movement. A mistake to call it atheist as well, as many modern asian buddhists agree . DT Suzuki himself opposed the secular readings of Bu. and zen. Suzuki did not completely approve of Schopenhauer's reading IIRC, but he does discuss it. Actually I would argue Schop. had a profounder grasp of Bu. than Suzuki did. Suzuki wants to relate it to Christianity, he wants the holy light, etc...Schopenhauer doesn't really subscribe to judeo-christianity (only someone who has never bothered reading him would think so)--or christian mysticism (actually he interprets Christ in ....somewhat Bu.terms). He's aware of the ....monistic elements of bud and hinduism--ie, which does not posit a transcendent soul...or theism.... but...immanence of a type (since you dont like pantheist). And also understands the dukkhas, and darker stuff Zen-Co wants to purge. Nagarjuna is not Buddha ( sounds nihilist, often).

Your reference to the postmodernists is interesting. A few PoMo ideas--say in regard to how humans rely upon false binaries....seem slightly buddhistic. Gautama's ethical ideas are not necessarily "bless the science establishment at any cost.". Some of the PoMos went too far with their anti-rationalism. But there was an element of Process thinking to PoMo. Somewhat like.... german philosophy--ie, Schopenhauer--- rather than Darwin & Co.

Matt Basil said...

Buddha is a scholar of morale. Some buddhist concepts seem a bit irrational, or contradictory , still the teaching can bring inner peace for a human being. 7 chakras Meditation