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Rick Repetti

For Mark Siderits:
In the western analogue of the two truths doctrine, which you alluded to in your example of the smootness of the lecturn (common-sense-level = conventional reality) versus its atomic structure (scientific-level = ultimate realty), there are things on the conventional level that are considered identical with, reducible to, or may be translated as, things on the ultimate level. For example, heat = mean molecular kinetic energy, water = H2/0, etc. And there are things that don't equate, reduce, or translate, such as phlogiston or aether. There are also things that partly translate, where some aspects of the conventional concept do, but others don't, such as weight and mass. My intuition is that selves and persons are in this latter category for Buddhist reductionism. Could you speak to this, and also say why you think that whereas there is no semantic insulation in the western analogue of this bifurcated (conventional/ultimate) model, there has to be such insulation in the buddhist version? In other words, we can say heat = mmke, so why can't we say the person = the person-series (suitably described, e.g., as what Charles Goodman intimated in terms of a dense cluster of causal processes, and some which details I tried to sketch regarding certain metavolitional counterfactuals)?

Rick Repetti


I think your overall idea—which I would characterize very generally as the claim that the part of Buddhist metaphysics that bifurcates reality into ultimate and conventional truths is essential to a full understanding of the Buddhist position on the issues of determinism-like dependent origination, free-will-like voluntary action, and their compatibility—is basically right in general outline, although I am not sure I agree about or fully understand some of the particulars. I would be happy to weld your account, or as many elements of it as possible, to my own, for you and I both seem to be compatibilists of one sort or another. But there are some issues I would like to hear a little more about first.

One more preface. You are trying to articulate what Buddhism thinks about free will (however alternately described by Buddhist terminology). I am as well, but I also focus here on what Western philosophers can draw from Buddhism to shed light on their own understanding of the free will problem, independently of any doxological constraints of Buddhism. This may amount to what one critic said of Flanagan’s approach, that it’s “Buddhism without Buddhism,” but that is a little unfair insofar as the Buddha was committed to the truth, and I doubt my or Flanagan’s approach admits of the charge “truth without truth.” I think that unlike those already committed to Buddhism (namely, Buddhists), we just don’t come into this investigation already committed to the idea that “Buddhism = the truth,” but we are at least seriously open to discovering whether that is correct. Part of that investigation involves calling one Buddhist view into question if it contradicts another Buddhist view, or any another plausible claim. So, I may be more at liberty to pluck one idea, leave behind another, and then blend that with something Buddhists might not accept but which suits compatibilism, for example. So please bear this in mind in what follows.

I think you are correct that most Buddhists would take determinism to be an ultimate reality level doctrine, but I find this difficult to square with certain other ideas, such as the Buddhist idea that momentariness can undermine the ultimate reality status of anything that involves more than one moment. Zeno's arrow paradox involves this sort of thinking: if in any instant (=moment) an object must occupy a space equal to its size, then in that instant it must be at rest (otherwise it would be partly occupying a space larger than its size), in which case in each moment there is zero motion, and 0+0+0...=0, in which case throughout its flight (defined by motion) the arrow doesn't move at all. Of course, if Buddhism is committed to anything like this, it seems impossible to square with the axiomatic Buddhist notion of change (which conceptually requires more than one moment). In his talk, Karl Potter used the same momentariness idea to undermine the possibility of action, arguing that trying to act and acting are both necessary conditions for action, among several others, but both cannot occupy the same instant.

I know that momentariness is an essential element in the axiomatic Buddhist notions of impermanence (which I just noted is deeply problematic) and emptiness (which is defined typically by reference to impermanence and dependent origination, which also requires more than a single moment), but if this line of thinking is the basis of the denial of the ultimate reality of anything in form (selves, causes, actions, motion, etc.), then (setting aside the above-mentioned problems) it makes sense that Buddhism really needs the notion of conventional (relative, empirical, linguistic, pragmatic, etc.) reality (to house these apparently existing but ultimately problematic things), otherwise it cannot even say that there is dependent origination (since for anything to depend on anything in any two instants there has to be something that is transferred from the one thing to the other across those two instants, e.g., two spatio-temporally adjacent elements in a stream, the momentum of one of which propels the other), nor change (requires two or more moments), nor that there is anything that requires change, such as progress along the path, nor a transformation from being unenlightened to being enlightened, etc.

Perhaps this why the Diamond Sutra says that while so many sentient beings are to be enlightened, no sentient beings are ever enlightened, etc., but however wise this may be, it still seems simply to assert, as deep wisdom, what is in need of an explanation, instead of offering that explanation, except if all these (phenomena) are conventional, and if only emptiness is ultimate.

My intuition or conclusion is that the claim that dependent origination (or determinism) is an ultimate reality type doctrine is unconvincing, if ultimate reality is restricted to the emptiness that exists in a moment or a state of momentariness. A problem with moments, moreover, is that there don't appear to be any (for almost the same reason some philosophers suggest there are no heaps, i.e., because they cannot be demarcated), but a bigger problem is that any (temporal) unit with (temporal) magnitude is infinitely divisible. The Buddha says there are roughly several trillion kalapas (mind moments) per blink of an eye (roughly, per a small number of milliseconds), which is a finite number, so he can at least initially avoid the specific divisibility problem I just posed. But even trillions of moments per blink is problematic for anything that takes more than one kalapa (since everything we experience and almost everything else we know about takes more than one-trillionth of a blink). Any claim about relations or causal processes that span very long series of kalapas/moments (enough of them to experience the tiniest perceivable qualia moment) is ultimately unreal.

Dependent origination seems therefore to be about everything that is ultimately unreal, but only conventionally real, if at all. I doubt that the sense in which the doctrine counts as an ultimate reality doctrine is simply that the Buddha taught it, it is metaphysical, it must therefore be true, ordinary folks don’t typically see or get it, so it must be ultimate.

So, what I would be inclined to say, if I wanted to articulate how the two truths doctrine may be used to help explain free will and determinism, is that both determinism and free will are conventional, so they are robustly compatible (whereas whether items on different levels can even be meaningfully said to be compatible is not as obvious), but neither is ultimately real. To me, to put them both on the same level seems less likely to be thought of as a tricky maneuver (cf. the charge against compatibilists of “wretched subterfuge”), not to suggest your parsing is sneaky. To the contrary, I think you are right that most Buddhists would say that dependent origination is an ultimate level claim and free will is a conventional level claim (regardless of whether it is held to be a valid one).

The other problem with the two truths doctrine is that Buddhists disagree about what it means, as Cozort, Thachkoe and others have made clear. On one such interpretation of this doctrine (which, from the perspective of what Western philosophers and scientists may wish to borrow from Buddhism, appears most promising), anything with genuine causal powers is ultimately real (apparently despite the problematic fact that anything causal logically requires going beyond one momentary kalapa). I obviously like this interpretation, as it supports my response to any objection (such as what one audience member suggested) to the effect that no Buddhist would be interested in, or accept, the sort of causal/counterfactual analysis I offered of the sort of control an agent-like process or person-series can exhibit over itself.

Some Buddhists evade counterfactual understandings of causation, in favor of a weaker Humean constant conjunction view (where there is no connection between cause and effect), but that eliminates the rational ground for saying dependent origination is anything like determinism, and it also faces the problem of saying how it even counts as causation, rather than an error theory about it (like Hume’s projectivist account). If there is any sense to be made of a non-genuinely-causal or nomological ‘determinism’, such a doctrine would pose no problem for free will anyway, as only the causal/nomological (hence counterfactual) model even appears to eliminate the ability to do otherwise and thus to pose a challenge to free will. Besides, the Buddha’s own formulas for understanding dependent origination seem prima facie to involve a causal/conditional element that is easily interpreted as implicitly counterfactual: when this happens, that happens; when that doesn’t happen, this doesn’t happen. (Compare: had this happened, that would have happened; had that not happened, this would not have happened.)

So, my question, finally, is: How can Buddhism maintain that determinism is an ultimate reality level doctrine, rather than a (perhaps valid) conventional level one, when it is about the phenomenal realm, and specifically about relations between phenomena occurring across moments?

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