My last post was in June, and I haven’t written about the pandemic or anything else really going on in my life these days. Future-me might want to be reminded of some things, so here goes.Continue reading
I was challenged a few weeks ago on Reddit to read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, amongst 1-2 other atheistic books. The assumptions were 1) that a Christian would never read anything that challenged their faith because they feared challenges, and 2) that if a Christian did read these atheistic books and gave them an honest reading, they would surely ditch Christianity because it’s just so stupid.
I’m about halfway through Harris’s letter and, so far, I’m not terribly impressed. I’m taking notes and I’ll write a response/critique once I’m done, but he’s certainly not selling me on anti-Christianity. I appreciate some of his points, but by and large, I feel his grasp of ethics and logical arguments is shaky at best. His arguments aren’t unsound, per se, they’re just… shallow and generally rely on straw men. They’re not false, they’re just not always applicable to the point at hand.
That’s fine, really, given his goal with the book. I look forward to seeing what the second half says and to begin writing my own thoughts in more detail. I don’t know if I’ll have enough material to form my own book, as one man has, but it’ll certainly be a post or series of posts here. From reading the reviews on the existing replies to Harris’s book, it looks like I have my work cut out for me. There are two (I just found a second) and they both sound like rubbish. Since I’m writing on the Internet in favour of Christianity, I’ll probably come across as similarly terrible, but oh well. We do what we can.
Going to play a game and unwind for a bit before bed. I have a new book to read (Elantris by Brandon Sanderson) but so far it’s depressing as hell. Really morbid, and not something good to read before bed. Maybe some DDO? It’s hard to pick between games these days ^_^
I published an article on October 20th indicating that I was finally beginning to understand Nagarjuna, and if my test results from my Buddhism class aren’t completely based on nepotism, I apparently have a firm grasp on the other concepts of this religion as well. Therefore, I feel confident moving forward with this discussion, at least as confident as I’ll ever be, and turn towards why I disagree with Nagarjuna regarding inherent existence.
To recap, Nagarjuna states that nothing inherently exists because such a concept is absurd. To inherently exist means to be eternal, to never change, and Nagarjuna states that something which never changes can never change anything else either. If something inherently existed, it could not move, could not feel, could not be moved, and could not move anything else. It would also have to be unconditional, which is to say that nothing would cause that which inherently exists. Likewise, that which inherently exists cannot cause anything else.
The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that if something does not possess inherent existence–that is to say, it is capable of change–it will die. Likewise, everything that is temporary and going to die is also conditional; everything is caused by something else. Nothing exists on its own.
That which is temporary and conditional is “empty,” Nagarjuna would say. It has no inherent existence; it is conditional on something else, and is itself a condition for other states. It only exists, is only defined, by its conditions. It is empty.
You may have already surmised my response, which is that Nagarjuna’s perception was limited. He observed the world around himself with the same assumptions everyone in Asia made at the time and came to these logical conclusions, but they’re only logical based on that limited perception.
It should be stated here that, within Buddhist theology, there are gods. I had previously always believed it an atheistic religion, or philosophy, but there are certainly gods within Buddhism. And these gods are the same as everything else: susceptible to change, death, and rebirth.
I believe strongly that I serve a God who is both the beginning and the end, however; who has always existed and always will. Despite that, I do not believe that God inherently exists as Nagarjuna would define it.
The Christian God “inherently exists” in that His existence is not conditional. God does not depend on anything else for His existence. However, inherent existence, to my mind, does not preclude the inability to change or to affect change. Nagarjuna took a step from “not caused” to “unable to cause” that I cannot quite comprehend. The only arguments he offers is that if something is not caused, it cannot exist, and therefore cannot cause anything else. But what if something existed without being caused? Could it not then affect change?
Our God exists without being caused, and this fact alone leads to the unraveling of Nagarjuna’s chain of logic. Beyond this, we know that God can change, else He would have wiped out the Israelites during the time of Moses, left them in exile in Babylon, or left humanity dwelling in sin. The story of Jesus is a story of changing times, and it was our God who changed them.
God doesn’t need us for His existence. God just is. But He presses into us as we press into Him, He shapes and teaches us, and we must therefore recognize that God affects change. God claims to be the beginning and the end, and I cannot dispute His claim. I have met God, and know His face. It smiled, and in this, I saw God move.
After this week, I intend to publish a post once a week for the next 5-6 weeks exploring why I do or think some of the things I do. I’ve received a few challenges over the last month questioning why I have this website, why I blog, why I write in general, why I value transparency, and some of my other philosophies in general. Therefore, I will answer those challenges as best I am able with more writing.
April and I watched a movie a week or so ago that really resonated with me because of its focus on speech & debate, primarily policy (cross-ex) debate in high school. I’m assuming the director and/or writers were debaters, because it was spot-on about so many things, and I really enjoyed reliving those times through film. What was particularly interesting, however, was the lead female actress in the film.
She had the role down solid, and as I watched her performance, I realized that most of the girls I knew in high school were all debaters. As such, their personality was very much like this character’s: forceful, arrogant, self-centered, knowledgeable, intelligent, well-read, well-spoken, etc. That was the type of girl I was attracted to, but I don’t think I quite understood that until last night. For most people watching however, she was probably abrasive and it would be hard to understand why someone might like her; she was clearly the antagonist. But to the 15 year old me, she was pretty ideal.
It reminded me of my days in debate, and watching the movie highlighted that there are aspects of that world that someone who didn’t grow up in it, didn’t experience it first hand and really buy into it, could understand. Lines like “debate is life,” and “you don’t take sides, they only prevent you from arguing them both effectively” still have close places in my heart, but non-debaters probably just find it an interesting idea. For us, it was a maxim or a mantra.
I say this to introduce this series by way of referencing academia. My philosophies and life are no longer influenced so strongly by speech & debate, but they are influenced heavily by my work and life in academia. I will talk more about this throughout the series, but the truth of the matter is that people who have bought into the dream of higher education, who really believe in what we are doing here, will understand what I’m talking about. For everyone else, it will likely be just an interesting idea.
I don’t know what day these posts will go live, but they will be tagged and titled appropriately. Look for them in the coming weeks.
I need to recant yesterday’s blog entry because, after a long lecture in my Buddhism class tonight, I understand what Nagarjuna was saying now.
The statement that plagued me over the weekend was “A non-moving thing is not stationary,” so let us begin with that.
First, Nagarjuna doesn’t necessarily redefine words, but he was certainly using them in a manner I did not understand. The key phrase is “inherent existence,” and the important thing to understand is that nothing possesses inherent existence. Inherent Existence means, essentially, that something exists without condition, without cause or effect, and this thing is permanent. It cannot change, and as such, it can be neither interacted with nor can it interact with anything else.
Let us therefore use the example of a ball. There are two things we might say about a ball. First, that it is made of various components; its existence is conditional upon being put together of different pieces, chemicals, what-have-you by various people in various places. It does not purely exist without cause; something and someone had to make it. Second, balls roll. They can bounce and go places.
If a ball is not moving, it is stationary, but when Nagarjuna states that a non-moving thing is not stationary, he’s not really talking about something so simple as “not moving.” Rather, he is referring to its conditional existence. In referring last time to potential motion, I wasn’t far from the mark of understanding a ball’s conditional existence. Because the ball does not inherently exist, it is capable of change. It is not permanent. And because it is capable of change, it is capable of rolling. It can be affected, and it can affect other things.
To be stationary would be to inherently exist, or to be incapable of change. A non-moving thing is simply not-moving, but it is capable of being moved, conventionally speaking.
About an hour and a half into tonight’s lecture, it all clicked for me, and I find Nagarjuna far more intriguing now. I really look forward to finishing this book and digging into the commentary. The problem was that I had come at this text from a very Western perspective, with a preconceived definition of the word “emptiness.” Nagarjuna states that everything is empty and that nothing inherently exists; I interpreted that as a very negative statement, and if you walked up to a person and told them that they are empty, they probably would too.
But Nagarjuna didn’t mean it as an insult, just as an observation. Inherent existence means permanence; it means that the thing in question had no cause and subsequently is incapable of acting on anything else. Inherent existence means that the thing in question cannot change. To be capable of change, to be impermanent, to not have inherent existence… that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me now. And certainly, within Buddhism, it was not; inherent existence, permanence, would mean that one is incapable of nirvana.
Later I will have to write, however, about my disagreement with the view that nothing inherently exists. But for now, it is enough that this text makes a bit of sense to me, and I’m excited to read more.
Just as a moving thing is not stationary,
A non-moving thing is not stationary.
Apart from the moving and the non-moving,
What third thing is stationary?
–Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Nagarjuna
Like I’ve mentioned before, there seem to be some fundamental flaws in Buddhist logic and theology, largely due to a lack of explanation concerning various doctrinal points. It has been stated that several facets of their beliefs are simply taken as natural laws, prima facia with no further consideration. Karma is a law, as is reincarnation, and that’s all there is to it.
Reading Nagarjuna, though I’m not far into it, feels like reading Ayn Rand. Attempting to redefine words and twist them so they support one’s philosophy seems fundamentally wrong to me. It simply doesn’t work.
A definition is, to be fair, simply what a word or thought means according to the majority. The majority of a society has settled upon what the word/idea means, and agreed upon it. We agree that “two apples” means that we have one apple and another apple. Putting these together gives us two. Just the same, we agree that the word stationary in the context of discussing motion means not moving.
So stating “a non-moving thing is not stationary” just seems nonsensical to me. One might argue that it has potential energy, but the entire point of potential is that it’s not happening now.
Nagarjuna is attempting to prove that everything is empty, that there is neither existence nor non-existence. I’m familiar with the style of logical argument he is using, building upon previous statements, but at certain points he makes assumptions that fail, in my opinion. You can’t get halfway in and then redefine a term.
It’s like saying, “Let apple pie equal the world. Because apple pie has a crust, the earth has a crust, and this we know from science. Therefore, just like apple pie is filled with apples, the earth must be filled with apples.”
A non-moving thing is not stationary? Sorry, but unless you suddenly shifted gears to begin talking about posting letters and birthday cards, I don’t think that argument works.
I’m taking a class this semester on Buddhism and will subsequently be writing a series of posts on the subject. They’re not intended as final critiques or conclusions about the religion/philosophy, but are just thoughts I had during lecture. My opinions might change as I learn more, but I want to have a record of what I was thinking as I go through the semester.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are
- Life is Suffering
- Suffering is caused by Desire
- Suffering can be ended
- Suffering is ended by following the Eight-fold Path
As we discussed the life of Gautama Buddha, one of the underlying assumptions that jumped out at me was that suffering is bad. In leaving his palace during his three trips as a youth, he saw a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a begging ascetic, and it was these three encounters that prompted him to leave home and seek out a better way. How can one enjoy life when death haunts our every step? he asked.
Of course, I come at the subject from an extremely different point of view. The concepts of karma and reincarnation were natural laws in south and east Asia, much like we consider gravity, and went unquestioned. Reincarnation was simply a fact of life, but one I clearly disagree with. As a Christian, I take the idea of heaven and eternity very seriously.
Which is to say, I take the idea of eternity with not only full faith, but expectation and recognition. Eternity isn’t something that starts at death, but something that simply is. My soul is eternal, and when this body dies, I merely pass through a doorway between this world and the next. I will have all of eternity to roam, learn more of God, worship and spend time with my Lord, talk and meet and learn with other Christians…
Therefore, my perspective on suffering is very different from a Buddhist’s, or perhaps a non-Christian’s perspective. I do not necessarily assume suffering is bad, and in the case of the Buddha, I couldn’t help ask the question (to myself, anyways), “If not for suffering, would he have been spurred towards enlightenment?”
In The Cave, the famous argument of Plato for why we seek knowledge, Socrates describes a cave in which people are chained to stare at a wall. They can see nothing but the shadows cast by those outside the cave, and so they assume that these shadows are all there is to life. When one is freed, they are led outside, and are blinded at first by the light. After seeing the wonders of the world, if they were taken back and chained to stare at the wall again, their mates would never believe them. What’s more, their suffering would be great, as would their desire to escape and gain more knowledge of the world.
Humans thrive on suffering, pain, and depravation. It is what motivates us to greater good, to higher goals, and while the pain is frustrating and hurtful, its outcome is not always negative. If we survive it, holding our sanity intact and bending rather than breaking, we learn something new about ourselves, the world, or both.
That isn’t to say that I advocate seeking suffering. Self -flagellation or -mutilation isn’t something to be desired in my book, but I can at least see the value of suffering in our lives. I think the key isn’t to try and stop the occurrence of suffering altogether, but rather to turn it to good. Find a way to take a negative situation and derive a positive from that situation.
If I was always content, there would be no reason for me to question, grow, or learn. It just seems daft to me to ignore the value of suffering. While ending suffering is a very noble goal, the initial assumption, that suffering is altogether bad and completely undesirable, seems naïve at best.
“I see Ayn Rand as the paladin who walks around all the time with Detect Evil on.” – Jonny Carter
More on this later when I have time (hopefully within the next few hours).