02 March 2017

Buddhism and Philosophy.

I've been contributing to Reddit's r/Buddhism a bit lately. It required me to block a large and growing number of unpleasant people, but trying to explain how I think and why in this format, in the face of some intense scepticism, has been a welcome distraction. One continuing frustration is that Buddhists seem to think that philosophy boils down to an argument between Cartesian Dualism and reductive materialism. This essay aims at showing what a tiny little corner of philosophy this covers, but also to try to sketch out how we can do better if we take a more sophisticated view.

In this approach I will outline a number of metaphysical views, not all of which are actually held, but which represent a full spectrum of possibilities. There are two fundamental approaches to metaphysics, reductive and antireductive. One focusses on fundamental substances and the other on encompassing structures. In the Chinese yin-yang symbolism the former is yang and the latter yin. Within each approach we can subscribe to there being nil, one, two, or many types. This gives us several modes of metaphysics which I will now run through.

Modes of Metaphysics

Reductive metaphysics assert that there is a fundamental substance that is real or that there is an underlying "true nature" of reality to which everything can be reduced.
  • Reductive nihilism: In this view there is no fundamental substance, everything is structured. Certain forms of Madhyamaka take this view.
  • Reductive monism: There is a fundamental substance and it is of one kind. Quantum field theory is the modern representative of this mode.
  • Reductive dualism: The world is divided into two substance, typically mind and matter or mind and spirit. There are four sub-modes of reductive dualism
    • Reductive dualist realism (aka Cartesian dualism) - mind and matter are both real
    • Reductive materialism - only matter is real
    • Reductive idealism - only mind is real
    • Reductive nihilism - neither mind or matter are real. 
  • Reductive pluralism: In this view there are many kinds of substances each of which is real.
Antireductive metaphysics argues that there is no ultimate substance and that everything is systems, or indeed one big system. 
  • Antireductive nihilism: In this view there is no real universe. We may be living in a simulation, for example. In the film The Matrix, the heroes had grown weary of the simulation and craved something "more real", even if it was less satisfying. This view has similarities with Gnosticism.
  • Antireductive monism: the universe, taken as a whole, is the only real thing, no subset of the universe is real.
  • Antireductive dualism: The universe is divided into superstructures consisting of mind and matter, or mind and spirit. Again there are four sub-modes of antireductive dualism
    • Antireductive dualist realism mind and matter are both real on the universal scale, but cannot be subdivided.
    • Antireductive materialism:  only the material part of the universe taken as a whole is real.
    • Antireductive idealism - only the mental part of the universe taken as a whole is real.
    • Antireductive nihilism - neither mind or matter are real. 
  • Antireductive pluralism: In this view there are many kinds of substances each of which is real. An example of this view is the Shingon idea of the three mysteries (triguhya), in which the figure of Mahāvairocana represents the entire universe. All forms are his body, all sounds are his voice, and all mental activity is his mind. 
From this we can see that the possible views are quite diverse, including some that may not be held by anyone presently, or at all. And note that characterising debates on metaphysics to reductive dualism and reductive materialism is to reduce the play to a small corner of the field.

But also these are the extremes. For example the materialis biologist who knows that their organism is only interesting when whole and alive takes an antireductionist approach when they study it's behaviour. Or the chemist who understands that atomic theory is sufficient to describe chemical reactions and to analyse an unknown compound. Neither may assert that this view is ultimate, but they display a tendency in the respective directions. The chemist may also take an antireductive approach when dealing with the synthesis of a new compound; while the biologist may dissect an example of their organism to better understand its physiology.

So within each category there are degrees of membership and different people may pragmatically take different approaches depending on the kind of knowledge they are seeking. The latter gives us a clue to a more general approach to metaphysics.

When we are interest in substance, we take a reductive approach. In describing substances we may use reductive epistemology, and finally in approaching metaphysics we may argue that one or more substances are fundamental. However reductive approaches to structure do not produce knowledge. The biologist who dissects a dead specimen learns nothing about its behaviour. Indeed one the organism is taken apart it no longer even exists. So in dealing with structures, systems, or complex objects, we need to take antireductive approaches. We look at things as wholes, or parts of larger systems.


In my essay on Theseus's ship I described how both the planks and framing that make up the ship as well as the structure that they are made into are required to obtain an object with the intrinsic properties of a ship. I argued that it was the structure itself that facilitated the emergent properties to emerge. Structure is both existent and causal, and thus, by most definitions, real.

Everything we experience with our human sense is somewhere in the middle of the scale of minimally simple and maximally complex. All the objects we experience are complex. Everything is made up of parts, and those parts are not simple. So everything we experience requires us to consider both substance and structure, both reductive and antireductive metaphysics, epistemology, and methods. Substance and structure exist together in a gestalt or dialectic. Focussing exclusively on one or the other excludes a considerable part of the universe from our purview.

Thus taking a fixed position on metaphysics that sides either with reductive or antireductive ontologies makes no sense. And the fact that so many Buddhists see philosophy as a dichotomy between two extreme forms of reductionism means that debates have unsatisfactory outcomes. The world in which we live is one that requires us to adopt strategies for knowledge seeking that are appropriate to the kind of knowledge that we seek. 

When it comes to understanding mind we also need to be aware of bias. For example, though we experience mental phenomena and material phenomena through different sensory modalities, and though mind appears to us as subjective and matter as objective, this does not mean that our experience accurately reflects reality. 

In my essay on experience and reality I noted that in the case of the sunset illusion, our motion and acceleration sensors (proprioception, kinaesthetics, inner ear, visual, and viscera) inform us that we are at rest with respect to the earth. In reality, the earth is turning, meaning that a person at the equator is moving at 1600 kmph. However the circle being described is 9600 km in radius, and thus the acceleration is tiny and below the threshold of our senses. Hence when we watch a sunset we intuit that the sun is moving, because our usually reliable senses are telling us that we are at rest. In reality we are moving and the sun is still with respect to us (though of course it too is in motion).

The point is that experience and reality do not always coincide and experience can be very misleading as a guide to reality. We should not put too much store on the fact that the experience of mental and physical phenomena seems real. It seems much more likely, given the evidence discovered by scientists, that there is only one kind of substance. Mental and physical phenomena are not fundamentally different. The universe is made of one kind of stuff (reductive monism), but that stuff is made into a myriad of complex and beautiful things (antireductive pluralism).

I have been mulling over what to call this view that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism and have been using substance-structure dialecticalism. I see substance and structure involved in an exchange that "creates" the universe, or at least makes it possible.