Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions. Now modern logic is learning why that might be a good thing
Western philosophers have not, on the whole, regarded Buddhist thought with much enthusiasm. As a colleague once said to me: ‘It’s all just mysticism.’ This attitude is due, in part, to ignorance. But it is also due to incomprehension. When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying:
The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.
An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. Statements such as Nagarjuna’s are therefore wont to produce looks of blank incomprehension, or worse. As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared:
Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.
One can hear similar sentiments, expressed with comparable ferocity, in many faculty common rooms today. Yet Western philosophers are slowly learning to outgrow their parochialism. And help is coming from a most unexpected direction: modern mathematical logic, not a field that is renowned for its tolerance of obscurity.
Let’s start by turning back the clock. It is India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called thecatuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.
We know that the catuskoti was in the air because of certain questions that people asked the Buddha, in exchanges that come down to us in the sutras. Questions such as: what happens to enlightened people after they die? It was commonly assumed that an unenlightened person would keep being reborn, but the whole point of enlightenment was to get out of this vicious circle. And then what? Did you exist, not, both or neither? The Buddha’s disciples clearly expected him to endorse one and only one of these possibilities. This, it appears, was just how people thought.
At around the same time, 5,000km to the west in Ancient Athens, Aristotle was laying the foundations of Western logic along very different lines. Among his innovations were two singularly important rules. One of them was the Principle of Excluded Middle (PEM), which says that every claim must be either true or false with no other options (the Latin name for this rule, tertium non datur, means literally ‘a third is not given’). The other rule was the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): nothing can be both true and false at the same time.
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While strolling round the harbor this morning about 11 am., I noticed this character shouting “Allah be praised” and “Death to all infidels” and suddenly he tripped and fell into the water. He was struggling to stay afloat because of all the explosives he was carrying. If he didn’t get help he would surely drown. Being a responsible citizen, and abiding by the law of the land that requires you to help those in distress, I informed the Police, the Coastguard, the Immigration Office and even the Fire Dept.
It is now 4 p.m., the terrorist has drowned and none of the authorities have shown up. I’m beginning to think I wasted four stamps.
Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say
Parents should be allowed to have their newborn babies killed because they are “morally irrelevant” and ending their lives is no different to abortion, a group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued.
The article, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, says newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. The academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.
The journal’s editor, Prof Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said the article’s authors had received death threats since publishing the article. He said those who made abusive and threatening posts about the study were “fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society”.
The article, entitled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?”, was written by two of Prof Savulescu’s former associates, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.
They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”
Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”. They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.