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The Middle Way to Reality: on Why I Am Not a Buddhist and Other Philosophical Curiosities

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  1. Housed for many years at the Church of the Holy Communion and Buildings in Manhattan, the Lindisfarne Association (1972–2012) served as a gathering place for scientists, scholars, artists, and contemplatives seeking to foster a global culture rooted in spiritual awakening and ecological consciousness.

  2. There is some debate in early Abhidharma about how best to account for change if the irreducible elements of existence and/or experience (dharmas) persist across time. The debate concerns the ‘changing of that which endures’ (Pāli thitassa aññathatta), that is, the ontological status of entities and processes between origination and dissolution. Specifically, the question is whether the passage from origination to dissolution is momentary (kṣana) or temporally extended and, if the latter, whether endurance is a property of aggregate empirical phenomena only or applies to the dharmas as well. For Vaibhāṣikas, the transience of empirical phenomena provides enough evidence for postulating a principle of momentariness, but the dharmas themselves must be regarded as eternally existing realities (which is in keeping with their “all is real view” (sarvāstivāda)). The Sautrāntikas, on the other hand, take the principle of momentariness (kṣanikavāda) to be all encompassing, and to apply to empirical phenomena and the dharmas alike (von Rospat, 1995, 23–31; Kim, 1999, 61–62; Ronkin, 2005, 61–65; Karunadasa, 2010, 32–40).

  3. Specifically, a view of the brain as consisting of highly cooperative, albeit not uniformly structured, networks that perform specific tasks is said to give some credence to the Buddhist model of personal identity, which renders agency in terms of a set of causally interdependent experiential formations (e.g., sensations, dispositions, discerning awareness) (Varela et al., 1991, Chapter 6).

  4. I am indebted to my colleague Todd Grantham for this example.

  5. Buddhist doxographic traditions typically address the problem of doctrinal differences and disputes by ordering them in a hierarchy modeled on the hermeneutical principle that some views are provisory while others are ultimate, with the hierarchy itself reflecting doctrinal allegiance to a given tradition. When Buddhist thinkers are found to endorse more than one doctrinal position, as is the case, for instance, with Śāntarakṣita (c. 725–788) and Kamalaśīla (c. 740—795), their views are designated using various hybrid categories such as Yogācāra-Madhyamaka or Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka.

  6. If different disciplines, say, computer science and neuroscience, studying the same domain, say human and mammalian brains, are taken to operate with differing ontological commitments (Shaw, 2018), they could be making competing cases for the viability of their respective approaches if success is not a factor in delivering results. By invoking the success of science, particularly in the case of accounting for unobservable entities, I simply mean to suggest that assuming realism is both a coherent position and better suited to unify knowledge about a specific domain (Saatsi, 2020; Wray, 2020).

  7. Sprevak offers a solution to the puzzle by differentiating between mind dependence of the reductive base as a whole (including neural computations, mechanisms, networks, dynamic relations, etc.) and individual parts and relations, which need not be mind-dependent: “there is nothing contradictory in supposing that a part or relation of the reductive base can occur individually without any specific condition involving mental agents being met” (Sprevak, 2020, 366).

  8. This demand need not collapse naturalistic metaphysics into a narrow conception of physicalism––essentially, the metaphysical position that everything that exists is physical or supervenes on the physical. Much of the problem with that narrow view lies in the very notion of ‘physical’ (an essential features that all physical things have, but which nonphysical things lack), which, as some have argued, is too vague to serve as a foundation for a complete theory of what there is (Chomsky, 2006; Dowell, 2006). Deferring to physics for a definition of ‘physical’ faces the well-known Hempel dilemma: if defined in terms of current physics, well, that is an incomplete science; and if defined in terms of a future, perhaps ideal physics, well, that is too vague to provide useful explanations (Hempel, 1969, 1980). But a fundamental ontology that is in line with fundamental physics need not assume that if something is physical it must be exclusively non-mental (Howell, 2009, 87f, 2013, 19f). Indeed, realist monists who take experiential phenomena to be physical phenomena (because of the impossibility of radical emergence) argue that in principle physicalism ought to be compatible with certain forms of panexperientialism (Strawson, 2008, 54, 71).

  9. As Siderits has convincingly argued, the claim that everything originates in dependence on causes and conditions cannot be used to prove that nothing has intrinsic nature. Indeed, Abhidharma thinkers held both that things originate in dependence on causes and conditions and that they have intrinsic natures, since possessing an intrinsic nature says nothing about how that nature was realized: ‘consequently, its coming into existence in dependence on causes and conditions is not by itself incompatible with its having an intrinsic nature’ (Siderits, 2011, 170).

  10. In his ambitious and far ranging book The Non-Existence of the Real World, Jan Westerhoff attempts to show that certain developments in contemporary analytic philosophy and cognitive neuroscience can be read as actually endorsing precisely the sort of radical anti-foundationalist stance that is at work in Madhyamaka (Westerhoff, 2020). For a critical response that considers whether the empirical findings and theories Westerhoff marshals in defense of key Madhyamaka claims do actually support irrealism, see Coseru (2021).

  11. Other interpreters of Madhyamaka, most notably Jay Garfield, have argued that it would be a mistake to think that Madhyamaka, at least as articulated by Nāgārjuna, Candrakīrti, and Tsongkhapa “eschews reliance on or an account of epistemic authority” (Garfield, 2011, 29). But as Garfield himself acknowledges, Madhyamaka rejects an “account of epistemic instruments…according to which the instruments are taken to be foundational to all knowledge” because such a position “would undermine his account of emptiness” (ibid., 26–27). However, an account of epistemic instruments that works to demonstrate the thesis of emptiness is not exactly a neutral way to advance knowledge claims. The possibility that a revised and reformed account of epistemic authority could end up invalidating the thesis of emptiness might be precisely why Mādhyamikas resist this approach. For to forgo the thesis of emptiness is to concede (with the Ābhidharmika) that epistemic instruments can under certain conditions ground our knowledge of particulars and relations.

  12. This point is obscured, for instance, by Candrakīrti’s relentless critique of any epistemological endeavor (e.g., Dignāga’s) operating with the premise that perception grounds our cognitive lives in ways that invite constant revision of the dependency relation between cognition and its object (Arnold, 2005, 462–463).

  13. Early Abhidharma does distinguish between two layers of basic entities––the singular atom (dravya-paramāṇu) (consisting of the four elements) and the collective atom (saṃghata-paramāṇu) (the minimally functional collection of atoms required for the emergence of sensible properties)––but their ontological status is not ascertained on the basis of a mind-independent external world model. Rather it is ascertained on the basis of derived material elements (upādāna-rūpa) that function as causal conditions (paccaya). The atomism that finds clear articulation in works such as Dharmaśrī’s Abhidharmahṛdaya and the Dhammasaṅgaṇi is phenomenal and relies on a conception of material phenomena as present to cognitive awareness. The Vaibhāṣika version of phenomenal atomism takes both the basic and the derived entities to be real, whereas the Sautrāntika version is more parsimonious: only the basic entities are real; macro-level manifest phenomena are mere (conceptual) constructs. Thus, Abhidharma atomism does not fit the metaphysics of substance model of the Vaiśeṣika, the Greek materialists, and Aristotle. Rather it aligns more closely with the flux or mutual transformation ontology of Heraclitus, process philosophers such as Whitehead, and the American pragmatists (Collins, 1982: 225–233; Cox, 1995: 133–158; Ronkin, 2005, 34–76).

  14. Of course, dialetheists often talk about inconsistent objects and states of affairs, though it’s an open question whether actual worlds can contain such objects.

  15. Where references to Madhyamaka tenets (such as the view that all dharmas are devoid of intrinsic nature) do appear, as in, for instance, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, Saṃghabhadra’s Nyāyānusāra and Vasumitra’s Abhidharmadīpa, these are for the most part dismissed as distortions and heresy, and their proponents as ‘upholders of destruction’ (vaināśika). Even when these tenets do get discussed in some detail, as Harivarman does in the Satyasiddhiśāstra, the notion that all dharmas are non-existent as they appear at the conventional level is likened to a congenially blind person denying the existence of colors simply because he does not see them (cf. Sastri, 1975, 374). Goran Kardaš has recently argued that much of the source for this negative and dismissive attitude toward Madhyamaka might not be Nāgārjuna himself, but Āryadeva, whose Catuḥśatakaśāstra places less emphasis on the conventional grounding of the doctrine of emptiness, thus giving opponents the impression that for the Mādhyamika “does not exist ultimately” essentially means “does not exist at all (abhāvavāda)” (Kardaš, 2016, 362, fn. 22).

  16. For instance, where the neural correlates of a unified perceptual experience indicate that areas which correlate with episodic memory are also activated it may be proper to revisit the phenomenological analysis and make sure we did not unwittingly overlook or fail to notice the presence of some structural elements of episodic memory in that experience. Of course, this is a two-way process, as better phenomenological analysis can also establish important structural feature of experience whose neural correlates may be difficult to discern or narrow down. In the case of blindsight, for instance, an individual’s ability to reach an object despite any discerning awareness of it, might point to subtle behavioral and sensorimotor cues that regulate a basic level of sensorimotor intentionality (Milner & Goodale, 1995; Carey et al., 1996). Drawing on such evidence, I have argued that taking perception to involve a direct kind of sensorimotor awareness speaks in favor of regarding cognition as a form of embodied action (Coseru, 2012, 116–117; Coseru, 2017).


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Many thanks to Jonardon Ganeri, Todd Grantham, Sheridan Hough, Chiara Robbiano, Robert Sharf, Mark Siderits, and two anonymous referees for helpful suggestions that improved this essay. Thanks also to Evan Thompson for clarifying his position on some of the critical issues raised in this exchange.

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Coseru, C. The Middle Way to Reality: on Why I Am Not a Buddhist and Other Philosophical Curiosities. SOPHIA 62, 87–110 (2023).

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