KARL JASPERS FORUM
TA 109 (Bhatt)
Commentary 4 (to C3 by Priya)
ON NAGARJUNA’S EPISTEMOLOGY
by Herbert FJ Müller
5 August 2008, posted 16 August 2008
I am much obliged for Dr. Priya’s commentary on the view of Nagarjuna and others. It complements the very interesting material from Bhatt and Holmgren, previously posted. In my first answer to Priya I will restrict myself to a few comments and questions which I hope might lead to a further exchange.
Some of the described Buddhist opinions are strikingly relevant for the western theories of knowledge, and one obvious question is whether they have been integrated into the ongoing discussions. My impression is that the extent of such exchange has been very limited. Possible reasons are, I would guess, firstly the one of language, and secondly the prevalent objectivism (for instance materialism) in western science.
In contrast, it seems to me that much of the described opinions can fairly easily be inserted, or transformed in a way that will be compatible with western thinking, and can greatly aid it. I think particularly of the frequently used term ‘deconstruction’, which parallels corresponding efforts in 20th century European epistemology, and the question of the unstructured origin, which has had a long but very spotty tradition since the early Greek thinkers. I can try to elaborate on this aspect, in case of interest.
Another question concerns the rise of western science, which took place without contact to Buddhist theories. More precisely : how does a ‘wrong’ epistemology, such as materialism or the formal logic of analytic philosophy, influence the development of science ? The opinion has been offered that theories are like ladders that can be thrown away after use (Wittgenstein), or that theories may be wrong in an enormously productive way (Byers). No theory is entirely adequate to what is experienced when using the structures. Theories are techniques, not statements about what is - this makes them compatible with a non-structured start-point by dissolving (deconstructing) the fictitious ontological aspect. Some of the greatest progress has been made in fighting against (erroneous ontological) assumptions, like the one of absolute time and space. Instrumental thinking needs to be distinguished from (static) ontological fiction.
On the other hand, some questions, like the mind-brain-relation or problems in particle physics, are still obstructed by erroneous assumptions, such as that reality is self-contained and excludes subjective experience.
But there is a related question. Although the origin of structures in the unstructured may be conclusively provable, one would wonder whether the attainment, or even approximation, of a personal state such as nirvana (reduction of suffering and of errors of thinking by eliminating craving) might not become counter-productive. It is probably desirable for monks, but for people leading an active life it might prevent inquiry and action, for instance concerning scientific, social, or business needs and possibilities, which require desire, tension, and goals.
In more general terms, what is the Buddhist-epistemological opinion about ‘science’ and its ‘realities’, given that at least some Buddhists regard the search for reality as foolish ? Has this question been discussed and formulated ? Has there been a discussion about quantum physics and relativity theory ? The ‘Block Universe’ ?
The question of ‘micro-materialism’ has come up particularly in connection with contributions to this Forum by De, Pal, and Vimal. I wonder whether this is a historic trend in Indian thinking, since I have not seen it elsewhere. As I understand your reply, materialism is not compatible with the Buddhist theory of knowledge, though it might be acceptable in other views.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>