Nagarjuna, Hume, and the God Particle
Posted by Tom Pepper on July 6, 2012
Is The Dharma a reified account of things—mind, self, causality, world? Or is it a metaphorical model? The former arrogates authority to itself; it has the first and final word. The latter eagerly awaits upgrades to its explanatory power, even to the point of its very displacement.
If x-buddhism offers a reified account, what are we to do with one of that account’s central tenets: contingency (paticcasamuppada), or what Hume called the “collocations of conditions”? For, doesn’t this tenet call into question the very notion of The Dharma—of, that is, an authoritative account of things? Why would x-buddhists bemoan this demotion of The Dharma from conclusive account to metaphorical model? For, as Tom Pepper says in the essay that follows,
If we are content to accept that everything is the result of conditions, and that our explanation will never be final, our knowledge never complete, then we have not a problem but an opportunity.
Taking advantage of such an opportunity, of course, requires x-buddhists to form a radical new relationship to The Dharma. Ironically, this new relationship would be one that more closely honors their own doctrine of contingency. For as a “final level of explanation, we must imbue [The Dharma] with intention and essence”—an irreconcilable contradiction of the tenet of contingency.
Why do x-buddhists resist this final embrace of contingency? Why are they more like Hume than Nagarjuna, as Pepper shows, in refusing to follow their own hard-won insight wherever it might take them? What role does ideology-blindness play in this refusal?
A final irony struck me in reading Pepper’s essay. X-buddhists—particularly Secular Buddhists and Mindfulness para-Buddhists—are anxious to enlist science in their quest for validation of The Dharma. The irony: they seek to further reify their account on the authority of a perishable model.
Nagarjuna, Hume, and the God Particle
Western Buddhists are usually quick to appropriate any new scientific news, invariably taking imprecise popular-press accounts of the latest discovery and pressing it into service as evidence of some purported ancient Eastern wisdom. So, one can imagine the discovery of the Higgs boson particle being put to such use fairly soon in the pages of Tricycle or in Alan Wallace’s next book. Maybe it will demonstrate that science has finally proven the ancient mystical truth of the “substrate consciousness,” or perhaps it will be called on to demonstrate the scientific truth of dependent origination or impermanence.
I am not about to make any such claim. The “science has finally demonstrated the ancient Buddhist wisdom” approach is always a mistake.
Instead, I am interested in using this event to demonstrate the distinction between science and ideology, and to argue, once again, for the necessity of this distinction, as well as for the impossibility of living purely in science. This question continues to crop up, on this blog and elsewhere, as those responding to my writing accuse me of producing ideology (which I hope I am), with the obvious implication that we should deal with truth, that we should live with only a clear conception of reality as it is, independent of any human values or intentions. Or, I hear the alternative, that we live only in our ideological depictions of our world, with no access to any mind-independent reality at all; for these critics, I am accused of implying a mind-independent, transcendent reality (which I hope I am). This new scientific “discovery,” then, in no way proves anything about Buddhist philosophical thought. Instead, it offers an opportunity to use such concepts.
The Higgs boson particle is, according to the popular media, that magical final cause that somehow gives form and mass to the universe, that provides the underlying structure of our material existence. It is the final piece of the puzzle, unfortunately, but perhaps aptly, named the “god particle” by the physicist Leon Lederman about twenty years ago. I say aptly, because the particle is often talked about as if it had intent and causal power, as if it were the transcendent “mind” that shapes creation. But is it? Is such a final, causal essence even possible?
It is a commonplace in academic philosophy and eighteenth-century studies to say that David Hume argues that there is no such thing as causation, that there is only constant conjunction, and we mistakenly attribute causal power when we encounter such repeated conjunctions of events. This, the argument goes, is the origin of all our error: we mistake our misattribution of causal powers for a really existing entity, and delusions proliferate from there, because in actuality we are only justified in speaking of conjunctions we have actually witnessed as events occurring closely in time and space. Now, this isn’t, I think, completely accurate as an account of what Hume says. His claim is, ultimately, that there in fact is causal regularity in the universe, that a specific set of conditions really will lead to another predicable set of conditions, and we in fact can know that this will happen. If I let go of this book, it will fall to the ground. Every time. Not only in the instance in which I have witnessed it, but in every instance, even those that have yet to occur. What Hume claims is that we make an error when we reify our explanation of why this happens. We say it happens because of an invisible universal force called “gravity,” when in fact we have no perceptual experience of that force, and only a mathematical model which works to predict what would happen if that force in fact did exist. Hume’s point is that we think in metaphors, creating models to explain and predict, and what is most important is that we not forget that these models are always only models, that we not mistakenly convince ourselves that we can perceive these metaphorical explanatory constructs. Our description of the world, then, will always be open to greater refinement. We will be able to explain and predict events better and better, but only if we remember that we are using conceptual models, metaphors—only, that is, if we avoid reification.
The similarity to Nagarjuna’s discussion of causality in the first chapter of his Mulamadhyamakakarika is interesting. As Jay Garfield explains, for Nagarjuna “carving out particular phenomena for explanation or for use in explanations depends more on our explanatory interests and language than on joints nature presents to us”(113). The assumption that there is a causal power inherent in a thing, separate from its conditions, is a fundamental error: “phenomena arise as consequences of the collocation of those conditions”(110). We are, if we think in terms of causes, stuck with “a vicious, explanatory regress, for then one has to explain how the powers to act are themselves brought about by the conditions”(113). But this “explanatory regress” is only a problem if we insist that there must actually be some final, transcendent, ultimate cause, some “prime mover” of the universe. If we are content to accept that everything is the result of conditions, and that our explanation will never be final, our knowledge never complete, then we have not a problem but an opportunity. The Higgs boson is desperately needed because we want the final answer, we want to know we have reached the ultimate level of explanation. But for Nagarjuna, as indeed for Hume, to think that this particle is finally the one in which causal powers inhere, that it’s capacity to give structure to the world is its essence, and not a result of its “collocation of conditions,” would be an epistemological error, bringing our description of the world to a stop, and preventing us from further refining our explanations and predictions.
Now it may be that we don’t, for any practical reason, need to get any finer in our predictions than the Higgs boson would allow for. If we were to stop there, and simply say we should fill in the picture a bit before we go any further, smaller, deeper (pick your metaphor), that would not be a problem; we would be considering this particle as part of the descriptive, metaphorical model that allows us to interact more extensively with the world. If, however, we say it is the final level of explanation, we must imbue it with intention and essence.
And this is where the question of ideology enters the picture. Because our model of the world, even though it is always only a conceptual model, is not ideological so long as we remember that it is a model, and so long as we are describing an actual state of affairs in the world, about which the model could possibly be imprecise or incorrect. This is the register of science, that category of human thought and practice which seeks to map out the intransitive dimension, the world as it is regardless of what intentions or desires we may have. Ideology, to continue the mapping metaphor, would be our mode of getting around in the world we have mapped out: where do we want to go, and what’s the best way to get there? Ideology, then, is not falsifiable in the same way as science; we can, perhaps, be wrong about where we really want to go, but this is a different kind of wrongness than being wrong about whether or not that location exists. Sometimes, science and ideology will impact one another—they are not completely isolated categories. We may cut off scientific investigation at a certain point for ideological reasons, for instance if to go further, to know more, would destabilize our social system; we don’t want to know that all races are biologically equal if we have a slave mode of production. Clearly, scientific knowledge would impact our ideologies, because knowing what the world is like is bound to influence what we want to do in it, what we think we can do in it. Nevertheless, we need to maintain the distinction between the two. We don’t want to invest the Higgs boson with godlike qualities simply because we are uncomfortable with too much detail in the map we are drawing; and we cannot assume that nature of the universe can tell us anything about what kind of social formations will provide the most human happiness. We need ideology, because it structures how we can get around in the world, and we can pick an ideology that helps us do that with a minimum of suffering.
This, I would suggest, is where Nagarjuna parts ways with Hume. Hume is consistently puzzled by the existence of things like customs, morals, tastes; he always collapses science and ideology into one category of knowledge, and so cannot quite make sense of where our “habits of thought” come from, or why we might need them. Nagarjuna, in contrast, ends his Mulamadhyamakakarika with a chapter on the formation of the subject, the central concern in the register of ideology. Although Garfield implies it is a bit anticlimactic after the crucial arguments of chapters XXIV and XXV, for me the chapter on “Views” is the pinnacle of the argument. Here, Nagarjuna addresses the question of the nature of the self. Just as Hume argued that there is some “secret connection” that unites our past, present and future experiences, producing a kind of bundle of phenomena, Nagarjuna addresses the existence of an “appropriator” which has the experiences; both find this hidden, appropriating, connecting principle to be logically flawed and experientially non-existent. For Hume, this is a defeat, and he abandons all hope of solving this problem. For Nagarjuna, however, this is not a problem at all: “There is no self without appropriation. But it is not true that it does not exist. To say ‘in the past I wasn’t’ would not be tenable. This person is not different from whoever existed in previous times” (MMK XXVII 8-9; Garfield, 346). The “appropriator,” for Nagarjuna, is conventionally existent, similar to a physical phenomenon in that it is also a “collocation of conditions.” Yet it does exist, so long as the conditions persist. Hume’s atomism will not allow him to consider that the “secret connection” exists in ideology, and his atheism will not allow him recourse to a soul, so he finds the problem impossible. For Nagarjuna, the construction of a (conventional, non-essential, impermanent) “self” by human social conventions is not troubling at all. Our ideology then becomes something that is just as open to infinite improvement as is our scientific knowledge of the world. For Nagarjuna, not having a permanent, abiding, transcendent self is the condition for having a self that can improve its world: “If anyone had come from anyplace and were then to go someplace, it would then follow that cyclic existence was beginningless” (XXVII 19). If we had an essential self, we would never be able to escape our present samsaric existence, our ideology would be ontology, and suffering would never cease.
This new scientific discovery, then, doesn’t serve to support any ancient mystical wisdom. Instead, it can serve as an opportunity to put some of these concepts to use. Why is the Higgs boson particle so popular? What makes it so much more appealing than the various “Higgsless” models of the universe? Are we going to reify our metaphorical model just because we so desperately need a final answer? And do we need that final answer because without it we face the possibility that our own autonomous, abiding, transcendent selves are just “collocations of conditions”? Are we interested in science, or ideology?
Finding the Higgs boson may say more about our “interests and languages,” to borrow Garfield’s phrase, than it does about the natural structure of the universe. We do science to get a better map of the world, to explain and predict, to aid our interactions with our environment. What explanations and predictions are aided by this discovery? That is its scientific value. However, to the degree that we are seeking this particle to validate our “interests and languages,” to convince ourselves that the way we choose to interact with our world is meaningful and important and inevitable, that there is a “god particle” that explains it all, well, that is its ideological function. When ideology masquerades as science, it never seems to turn out well.
Garfield, J. (1995) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tom Pepper teaches English at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in English from the Stony Brook University, and is a graduate student in counseling psychology, as well as pursuing a further degree in mathematics.
Image: Sally Gall, Bruges, 1986
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