Saturday, May 17, 2014

Abhidhamma Studies III: Bradleyan Logic and Bulletproof Baby Vultures

     Logic is little tweeting bird. (—Mr. Spock)

     At the time of writing this, I still haven't finished reading F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality. If you are ever stranded on a desert island, or maybe living alone in a cave or hut in tropical Asia somewhere, it would be an excellent book for you to have, because 1) it's crammed full of strange, interesting, and challenging ideas, and 2) it takes practically forever to wade through the thing. 
     A few nights ago I encountered a strangely intriguing idea: Bradley claims that the smaller and simpler something is, the fewer, relatively speaking, are the relations which condition its existence which are internal to it. In other words, the smaller and simpler something is, the more the causes of its continued existence lie outside of its own boundaries, and thus the less it is self-causing, self-conditioning, or self-sufficient. And thus, according to Bradley, the less self-consistency it has, and so the less reality as an entity. So going with this idea, he asserts that, all else being equal, the bigger something is, the closer to totally self-consistent reality it is—the more real it is. This strikes me as mighty peculiar, yet I don't see the flaw in his logic.
     He elaborates by stating that any object of finite (non-infinite) size cannot be entirely real, since anything with boundaries necessarily has external relations which condition it, "infecting it with externality," and thus it is not entirely self-conditioning and self-contained. Only what is infinite could possibly be fully real, still relatively speaking, since all of the conditions of its existence would lie within itself. This is still just relative though, because F. H. Bradley, like the mystics, asserts that Ultimate Reality, "the Absolute," is unconditioned, with no qualifying relations whatsoever.
     The reason why I mention this in my useful and profound course in Abhidhamma Studies is because of what happens if we move in the opposite direction from infinity, toward an object that is completely elemental, simple, and small. According to our friend Bradley, such an object would contain none of the conditions of its own existence, they would all be external to it, and thus the self-essence of such an object would be completely "dissipated" and non-existent. A completely simple elementary particle would have no intrinsic reality, even in terms of relative truth. It would be purely imaginary.
     More or less ironically, the scholar-monks who developed the Abhidhamma philosophy held essentially the opposite point of view, and constructed an entire phenomenal universe out of completely simple elementary particles (mentioned nowhere in the suttas), plus the spaces between them, plus, sort of, the conditional relations between them. (Modern physicists may be in a similar situation with their never-ending search for the ultimately elementary particle.) The Abhidhamma philosophers were aware of some of the same logical paradoxes that F. H. Bradley perceived, such as the self-contradiction of an "individual" object or subject composed of a multiplicity of constituent parts, thereby constituting the seeming impossibility of mutually contradictory unity and plurality occupying the very same space and time. They tried to avoid this impossibility by claiming that what is ultimately real is that which is completely indivisible and elemental, and then postulated a minimum possible size in space and duration in time—then, letting alone those wiseguy Mahayanists, along came a 19th-century British logician, probably completely unaware of Abhidhamma, who declared what is ultimately elemental and simple, without being infinite, to be unreal and impossible, a mere appearance covering up an essential void. The question of how real something can be if all the conditions of its existence are completely external to itself, completely other, is worthy of consideration, even if we have no use for the likes of F. H. Bradley.
     It may be valid to say that the entire phenomenal universe IS composed of ultimately simple elements, more or less as Abhidhamma asserts, but that they are without self-essence and thus ultimately unreal; so that each elemental "particle" is caused by something else and is causing something else in accordance with what in Buddhism is called Dependent Co-Arising—which the Madhyamaka Buddhists, at least, identify with Emptiness.
     Before moving on to the vitally important subject of indestructible baby vultures, I will sum up the foregoing discussion with a moral: If what is big is more real and true than what is small, then you can't trust little people. (No doubt this is why elves, fairies, and leprechauns have acquired such a reputation for capriciousness and unreliability.) Also, generally speaking, all else being equal, men would be more real than women. Then again, elephants would be more real than humans of either gender. And I still fail to see the flaw in Bradley's logic here. I don't agree with everything he says, though.
This brief account, however incorrect to the eye of common sense, may perhaps, as part of our main thesis, be found defensible. (—F. H. Bradley)
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     The final text in the Pali Tipitaka is the Patthāna, an Abhidhamma text consisting of five thick volumes in the Burmese Sixth Council edition. It is so complicated and abstruse that even some Abhidhamma scholars consider it to be unreadable. The Buddhistic scholar A. K. Warder declared it to be "one of the most amazing productions of the human mind." Patthāna, almost needless to say, is a towering monument of dogmatic intellectuality. (The whole thing, as far as I know, has never been translated into English.)
     The purpose of Patthāna is to describe all the ways in which phenomena can interact and condition each other. Orthodox Theravadin tradition asserts that a thorough understanding of these conditional relations is essential for a thorough understanding of dependent co-arising, and thus of Dhamma, and of Reality.
     According to this text, there are 24 possible ways (called paccayo) in which phenomena may condition each other's existence. Strangely, despite the extreme intellectuality of the system, some of these 24 paccayos are synonymous and redundant. For example, of the last four paccayos on the list, atthi-paccayo ("presence condition"), natthi-paccayo ("absence condition"), vigata-paccayo ("disappeared condition"), and avigata-paccayo ("non-disappeared condition"), the first and fourth are essentially identical, as are the second and third. I once asked a Burmese monastic scholar why some of Patthāna's paccayos have exactly the same meaning and function, and he explained, according to tradition, that the redundancies are for helping people of different temperaments to understand difficult concepts—if they don't understand it under one name, they may understand it under another. But it seems to me that presence and absence are fairly straightforward concepts (a tripod stands if its third leg is present, and falls if it is absent), while some of the most mysterious and inscrutable paccayos have no redundancies to help us. So I still don't know why some paccayos on the list have exactly the same meanings as others. Maybe the ancient formulators just liked the idea of a total number of 24.
     Interestingly, the Abhidharma referred to by ven. Nāgārjuna, and by Mahayana philosophy in general, which I guess originally came from the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism (a school closely related to Theravada, which split away from it around the time of the third council, and which, I have read, still exists in vestigial form in southern Japan), in its analogous text to the Theravadin Patthāna, lists only four conditional relations to account for all phenomenal reality—"efficient condition," "percept-object condition," "dominant condition," and "immediate condition" (hetu, ārammaa, adhipati, and anantara paccayos in Pali). But my purpose here is not to describe or summarize all possible conditional relations, much less their convoluted combinations.
     Mainly I want to discuss a particularly strange and interesting one: pacchājāta paccayo, "after-arisen condition" or "post-nascence condition." This refers to a condition which occurs after the phenomenon that it conditions—or in other words, a cause which happens after the effect that it causes. One might imagine, as a possible example of this, a precognitive dream or genuine premonition which modifies our present behavior. But Abhidhamma says that true precognition is impossible; not even an omniscient Buddha can really see the future, for the simple reason that the past and future do not really exist. According to Abhidhamma, only the present moment is real…then the next present moment is real…then the next one. So from this perspective it would seem like pacchājāta paccayo would be totally impossible. For that matter, even purejāta paccayopre-nascence condition—would appear to be an impossibility, since something that just doesn't exist cannot cause or condition anything in the present moment. But of the two impossibilities, a cause coming after its effect would seem to be even more impossible, if that means anything at all. 
     Venerable Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary, a very useful and valuable book (although tending toward some rather rigid dogmatism), defines the paccayo in question as follows: 
Post-nascent-Condition (pacchā-jāta-paccaya) refers to consciousness and the phenomena therewith associated, because they are—just as is the feeling of hunger—a necessary condition for the preservation of this already arisen body.
It seems that all the venerable author is saying here is that "after-arisen condition" implies a condition or cause which sustains, or helps to sustain, a continuing ("already arisen") chain, or momentum, of events. But this is certainly not the same as a condition coming after what it is actually conditioning. I fail to see how a feeling of hunger now could condition my pre-existent (and therefore non-existent) body of yesterday, or how a (non-existent) feeling of hunger tomorrow is conditioning my body today. It would seem, rather, that hunger now conditions my body (or rather the grouping of elemental particles cumulatively called "my body") now, and that hunger tomorrow will condition my body tomorrow. It may be that ven. Nyanatiloka was hard put to make sense of an idea that does not make much obvious sense. His interpretation of the condition relies upon a figurative manner of speaking, on conventional truth; but from the perspective of Abhidhammic "ultimate truth" there simply is no pre-existent body. All that is real, and all that is conditioned, is Now.
     The medieval commentarial tradition of Theravada goes farther out onto the limb, yet closer to the apparent meaning of the term, with its standard example of pacchājāta paccayo. The example involves baby vultures. According to the commentary, mother vultures do not feed their chicks. Instead, the babies grow because they are going to eat after they reach maturity. Thus the cause of their growing now is the food they will consume in the future. If we interpret it to mean that the chicks' hunger, or the intuitive appreciation of the fact that they will eat someday, is what causes them to grow, then we are back to a present cause for a present effect, and a genuine post-nascence condition once again falls to the ground.
     Of course, skeptical modern wiseacres with some knowledge of science could argue that the monks who concocted this example were laughably ignorant of principles of elementary biology, let alone ornithology. But devout traditionalists could argue back, and with some reason, "What! Do you wiseacres think you are wiser than venerable renunciants who dedicated their lives to the cultivation of wisdom? Have you seen a specimen of every species of vulture actually feeding her chicks? Maybe the venerable Theras who composed the commentaries knew something that you don't. Besides, some of the most central tenets of Abhidhamma philosophy are derived from these same commentaries." So let's give the medieval commentators the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were right. (Let's assume that there's an obscure species of vulture inhabiting a remote area of the Himalayas…) It turns out that baby vultures are, potentially, an invaluable resource, and extremely great benefactors to the human race.
     It seems to be simple logic that, if a baby vulture has grown at all, if its mass has increased by so much as one milligram, then it simply must reach maturity, in order to eat, in order to have grown. If a vulture chick has grown because it's going to eat after it reaches maturity, then by golly it's going to eat after it reaches maturity, and nothing can stop it from doing so. Thus it follows that any baby vulture that has grown at all must be absolutely unkillable before it reaches maturity. I assume there would be two main possible explanations for the unkillability of vulture chicks: 1) they are bulletproof, bombproof, fireproof, poisonproof, and, in short, completely indestructible; or 2) they are necessarily lucky. The form of their unkillability would determine their potential value to humankind.
     It would be a simple matter to determine which of the two possibilities above is the actual fact. All it would require is for a qualified scientist (or, if he is prudent, one of his graduate students) to attempt to kill a baby vulture—say, by shooting it with a high-powered rifle. If the bullets all ricochet off the defiantly cheeping bird, then it may be presumed indestructible. (There is also a theoretical possibility that the bullets would pass through, and the flesh would simply close up again behind them, leaving the chick unharmed, but I consider this unlikely. For instance, the baby vulture could then be completely vaporized, and it would then have somehow to reconstitute itself, like the legendary Phoenix. But, maybe the Phoenix itself was a juvenile vulture, which would be interesting, but somewhat of an unwelcome complication.) On the other hand, if all attempts to shoot the bird fail—for example the shots always miss, or the gun misfires, or some disabling calamity suddenly befalls the shooter (hence the prudent use of disposable grad students)—then we may conclude that it is necessarily lucky.
     If vulture chicks are physically indestructible, then they could be extremely useful. They could be used to cover the nose cones of reentry vehicles in the space program, for example. Or, more importantly, they could be grouped together and formed into containment vessels for nuclear fusion, thereby practically ending the world's energy problems, including our dependence on fossil fuels. But the following thought experiment causes me to doubt their superman-like indestructibility: If this were the case, then a baby vulture could be launched by rocket into the sun—where it would roast, without dying, for perhaps billions of years; and after the sun ceases to exist it would then have to float through space, probably for many, many more billions of years, until inevitably landing on an earth-like world where, after reaching maturity, if it had not reached it already, it could find some suitable carrion to eat. So it seems more plausible that they are just necessarily lucky. Even Jungian synchronicity could account for extreme luck, without necessitating any appeals to unknown laws of the Universe, as the indestructibility hypothesis requires. 
     Absolutely lucky vulture chicks could also be invaluable to the space program; one baby vulture brought along on each mission would ensure that the vessel it was on would not explode, or crash, or be lost in the depths of space. At least one vulture chick aboard every commercial airline flight would similarly prevent crashes and other fatal disasters. And if, through repeated bizarre coincidences, the bird simply could not be placed aboard the vessel, then that would be obvious, sufficient grounds for aborting the flight. Thousands of lives could be saved.
     I have urged several scientists to study this potential goldmine of unkillable baby vultures; but despite the potential huge benefits for the human race, only one scientist so far, at a small institute in California, has shown any interest—yet nowadays he is more interested in acquiring funding for a space mission to land on the sun. Instead of relying on as-yet untested lucky vulture chicks to avoid incineration, he plans to go at night. Perversely, NASA has shown no interest at all in the potential effect of baby vultures on the exploration of space. I assume they've lost all enthusiasm for such things since funding that study which determined that American civilization has reached the stage of irreversible collapse anyway. (For more information, do a Google search on "NASA civilization irreversible collapse." It's not funny though. It's rather a buzz kill actually.)

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     During the writing of this article my Burmese friend ven. Iddhidaja has cautioned me that, if I were to study Abhidhamma more extensively, I might realize that it is true. I admit that sometimes what appears ridiculous on the surface may turn out to be profoundly true, or at least logically viable—the idea that big things (or people) are more real than small things (or people), for example. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that prolonged, intensive study of the Koran or the Book of Mormon would result in me acknowledging it as Divine Truth, and converting accordingly (although I will say that the Koran, at least, has some wisdom in it). Sometimes what appears absurd at first, stays absurd. I do like absurdity though. Nonsense is the beginning of wisdom.

1 comment:

  1. Actually the influential Sarvāstivāda Ābhidharmikas did conclude that dharmas must be real - sparking ferocious controversy. I've been exploring why they might have come to this conclusion recently.

    Because cittas can only occur one at a time we cannot reflect on experience in real time - the citta we reflect on, say greed, must be in the past. In order to reflect on it that citta must still exist in some (undefined) sense. Exist as a memory we would presume.

    However they had another problem that they solved in a different way to the Theravādins. If

    1. cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi "I declare that cetanā is action";
    2. and according to paṭiccasamuppāda an effect exists (hoti) when the condition exists (sat) and ceases when the condition ceases;
    3 and if according to karma the vipāka of any particular cetanā can ripen in a subsequent life, then
    4. that dharma must exist in that subsequent life.

    I call 1-3 the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. Theravādin Ābhidharmikas solved this very serious problem by positing a cascading series of karma/vipāka that mainly produced just the same kind of citta. Thus down the track just the same kind of citta was available to be the condition for the appropriate vipāka to arise.

    Sarvāstivādins by contrast reasoned that if the dharma was to cause an effect in the future than it must exist in the future. And if past actions ripened now as the condition for present vedanā then that dharma must exist in the past. And thus they concluded that dharmas were 'sarva-asti' - omni-existent. And if dharmas are not subject to arising and passing away then they are real and self-existent (svabhāva).

    The latter idea was also influenced by the process of encyclopedic categorisation: a useful taxonomies has clear categories and criteria for membership. The early meaning of svabhāva was the particular quality of dharmas that allowed them to be categorised. But with fixed categories and criteria is is almost inevitable that the members of the categories will also start to seem fixed. If a dharma always fits in the same categories then the svabhāva that allows it to do so cannot change. And unchanging svabhāva is more or less the same as true existence.

    Despite having a different solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance, the Theravādins did have fixed categories and criteria for membership and also seem to have drifted into ontological thinking.

    There are two essays on my blog here and here which flesh these comments out a bit if you are interested.