Spinoza

Last Tuesday I taught a course on Spinoza for the first time. It is part of the course on Modern Philosophy, starting with Descartes and supposedly ending with Kant. Spinoza figures prominently in this story, and his thought is the most interesting of all the philosophers in the modern period, or in any period for that matter.

We read Spinoza’s Ethics together in the class, trying to understand what is meant in Spinoza’s terse, geometrical language. As one who has only a little familiarity with Spinoza’s thought and writing knows. Spinoza presents his masterpiece “in geometrical order” meaning that he emulates the style of Euclid when he presents his philosophy. This is perhaps the only piece in the history of Western philosophy which is presented as axioms, definitions, propositions, and proofs. And the subject matter is not about points, lines, triangles, or squares, but God, substance, attributes, modes, human emotions, in short everything dealt with in any other substantial philosophy.

Spinoza’s most startling insight is his idea that God is everything. He does not say this as a metaphor; there is no place for metaphors in the Ethics. He means this literally. A standard theistic understanding of God is that he is the creator of the world, so he cannot be everything because that would mean that he is one and the same as his creation, but that is exactly Spinoza’s point. God is a “cause of itself” — he creates himself, and he is the only one entity in the whole universe who does this. In fact it is the universe itself that is God himself, or it is God himself who is the universe. Being a cause of himself God in fact has no beginning because that would mean that there has to be something that exists before God which acts as his cause, but that would contradict the statement that God is the cause of himself. Since God has no beginning, he does not have an end either.

I told my students that if God is indeed everything, then we ourselves are God. Not merely parts of God, but God himself. So I am God, you are God, and so on. This is so because God has infinite attributes, and Spinoza says that an attribute expresses an essence of God. Since there are an infinite number of attributes, that must mean that I myself am an attribute of God also, so are you, and so is everybody else. An attribute expresses God’s essence, so in a sense I am God’s essence, or in other words I am God. (How else can one count the infinite number of the attributes without sooner or later coming across myself or each of my students in the Modern Phil class? You can list the standard properties commonly attributed to God such as benevolence, omnipotence and so on, but after a while you will run out of these and have to start counting properties such as “being Soraj Hongladarom” and others.)

Heady stuff, huh? Western interpreters tend not to interpret Spinoza so as to make him appear a mystic, but in the context of Thailand and other Asian cultures Spinoza makes for a very interesting, if very difficult, read. People naturally tend to compare his thoughts with the major philosophies both in India and in China. We talked about Brahman and the Tao as something comparable to Spinoza’s God. In Buddhism we can certainly compare him with Emptiness. Emptiness is everything too. Well, it is both everything and nothing at the same time, but Spinoza’s God is like that too.

We also talked about Spinoza and the pre-socratic philosophers, most notably Parmenides, with whom Spinoza shares a lot of things in common. God is certainly one, and for Parmenides the substance of everything is, well, “The One.” Scientifically minded western philosophers tend to make fun of Parmenides, saying things like “Oh, Parmenides taught that everything is one, and that I am not it.” We can certainly say the same thing about Spinoza’s God. Someone might say, “Spinoza says that all is one, that is God, but I am not He.” But as I said before Spinoza has an answer to this in his view about the infinity of God’s attributes.

But you might wonder how can God be one if I am God and you are God and that I and you are not one? But in Spinoza’s vision you and I are one. You and I only appear separate from the point of the view of the finite intellect, but from the infinite point of view you and I are certainly one. This is the Buddhist perspective too. Each of us expresses God’s attribute in a different way, but deep down we are both a part of the infinite whole that constitutes God, or nature. As the infinite whole has no real parts, there is absolutely nothing that separates you from me, or me from you.

Spinoza uses his vision of God here as a basis for his thinking on ethics, especially on how we humans could achieve “blessedness” in our lives. But that will take us too long. So let’s wait until I talk with my students again next Tuesday.

A Report on Erwin Schadel’s Visit to Chula

Intercultural Dialog on Philosophy and World Peace:

Erwin Schadel’s Visit to Chulalongkorn University, 28 to 30 July 2010

Many scholars and students in Thailand were fortunate that Erwin Schadel from Bamberg University, Germany visited Chulalongkorn University and gave a series of lectures from 28th to 30th of July this year. I have known Prof. Schadel for a long time, having made first acquaintance with him in April and May, 2002 when I was invited by Prof. Beck to visit Bamberg University under the auspices of the DAAD, who generously gave me a scholarship for my travel and stay in Germany in order to do research. Prof. Beck had visited Thailand before in 1995, and that was the first time I began to know him. Then in 2002, when I had the opportunity to travel to Bamberg, I had another chance to work closely with Prof. Beck and got to know Prof. Schadel, who had been working very closely with Prof. Beck, at the same time.

The visit was very fruitful and it led to many deep impressions on my thinking and my career which is still felt today. I still remember the warm summer days in Bamberg, especially a hike in the Bavarian forest with Prof. Schadel, his wife and Mr. Manfred Wengeborski, a violinist who became my friend. I also remember the days in the office at the Department of Philosophy at the university, which Prof. Schadel shared with me. Even so eight years have passed I still remember it very vividly.

Thus I was very delighted when Prof. Schadel accepted my invitation to come to Thailand. I received a research grant from the project on “Buddhism in World Literature,” directed by Prof. Pornsan Watanangura, a professor in German at Chula, which finally made it possible for me to repay the kindness Prof. Schadel shown to me during my stay in Bamberg. I asked Prof. Schadel to give a series of lectures so that students and faculty members and members of the public could benefit from his expertise and to engage in intercultural dialogs, which had been our common concern for a long time. Even though we are from different continents living far away from one another, we do share this common concern that sustained, common, intercultural, and interreligious dialog is one of the best ways to achieve lasting peace in the world.

Prof. Schadel agreed to talk on three topics to the general audience: John Amos Comenius’ view on dialogs as a means to development of mankind, Leibniz’s famous view on theodicy and whether this is the best possible world, and lastly on ontological elucidation of the principle of harmony. These are very difficult topics; however they are fascinating and, importantly, these are topics that Thai audience hardly ever had a chance to listen to. So to listen to these talks by experts such as Prof. Schadel was highly beneficial to the Thai academic scene. Moreover, Prof. Schadel also agreed to give yet another lecture for a more limited audience on the philosophy of the Japanese philosopher Nishitani, who talked about the Buddhist concept of Emptiness.

The informal talk on Nishitani and Emptiness was the first one that Prof. Schadel gave in the morning of Wednesday, 28th of July. We were a little bit unlucky that the time that Prof. Schadel was available to travel to Thailand was the midterm examination week for students at Chulalongkorn University; hence there were fewer students than we first expected. Nonetheless, those who came were really interested in the topic and we had very stimulating discussion on the very difficult topic of emptiness and how this quintessential Buddhist view could compare and contrast with those in Western philosophy. The topic is “Absolute nothingness as selfless self: Nishitani’s remarks on Zen-Buddhistic concept of reality as Asiatic contribution to intercultural understanding.” What impressed me most during this talk was the quality of the discussion that ensued. We spent quite a lot of time talking about the concept of emptiness and nothingness. In Buddhism the two are not the same; understanding this is key to understanding the central message of the Buddha. Things are empty of their inherent characters; this does not mean that they are nothing. They are there, but they can’t be taken as existing in such a way that they are independent of anything surrounding them. It is this quality of existing without inherent subsistence that should lend a lot of support of the project of cultivating intercultural dialog. If both sides are entrenched in their own position, which would be a consequence of the idea that things and viewpoints are fixed because of their internal essence, then in a real sense no dialog would be possible. For dialog—giving, taking and exchanging—to be possible, one must be prepared to change one’s own view and one’s own position, in effect sharing one’s mind with others. This is provided metaphysical support by the Buddhist conception of emptiness.

The next lecture took place in the afternoon of the same day. Prof. Schadel talked about Comenius, a Czech philosopher who was virtually unknown in Thailand. So this talk was perhaps the first time a lecture was given on the thought of this important philosopher. Comenius is known as the philosopher who advocates dialog as a means toward understanding. He is recognized as the Father of Modern Education, since he put a lot of effort toward reforming the way children were educated in his times. However, Comenius was a “pansophist,” i.e., one who believes that reality is one and that there should be global solidarity and brotherhood of mankind. It is through dialog, a mutual sharing of persons entering into discourse, that reality is revealed. Hence his philosophy is directly constrasted with that of Descartes, who taught famously that there is a radical distinction of mind and body. Since all is one, there must be dialogs between mind and body, resulting in a triangulation by means of which there emerges a realization that both mind and body are merely aspects of the one reality. Here one is reminded of the discussion on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness alluded to earlier, where dialog is possible because no things possess absolute essence or inherent characteristic.

His lecture on the second day, Thursday 29th of July, was the most attended, and in fact a number of both graduate and undergraduate students came to listen to his talk today who did not come to the others. This is perhaps because Leibniz is better known to Thai students than Comenius. The title of the talk was a question: Do We Live in the Best Possible World? (The exact title was “Do We Live in the Best Possible World?: Some Commentaries on Leibniz’ Monadology and Theodicy.”) Leibniz was well known as a great optimist and he taught that this world of ours is the best possible world there is because God, being supremely merciful and rational, could not have created it otherwise. For God to have created the world otherwise would mean that God acts in contrary to his Being, which is absurd. Leibniz’s view here has a direct relation to the problem of evil. For theistic religions, one of the thorniest philosophical and theological problems has been this: Since God is omnipotent and all compassionate, how could it be that he created the world in such a way that there are many evils, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, epidemics, and so on. Since these calamities are facts of life which can’t be denied, either the Christian has to accept that God somehow allows them to happen, or God is not all powerful and all compassionate as once thought. Either way God does not look good to the believers at all. Leibniz’s answer to this is that, since God could not have created the world otherwise, all these calamities are already parts of the nature created by Him and must serve some purpose. In other words, we have to accept all these evils and calamities as facts of life which we can’t escape from, and since we are mortal creatures with limited capacity of understanding, we cannot fathom God’s ulterior plan behind all these evils. There must be some good behind such things as tsunamis, earthquakes and so on. When these events occur, the best possible world would show that humans are capable of helping one another, so that they show their best possible aspects toward one another. Without these calamities, there would be no occasion for this supremely good aspect of human beings to come to the fore.

The first two lectures took place at Room 708, Faculty of Arts Building; however, last lecture took place at the Recital Hall of Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, where the music department of the university resides. The topic was “The Principle of Harmony: Ontological Elucidations of the Basic Structures of Tonality (with a Special Reference to Johannes Kepler).” This is a different lecture from the previous three, as Prof. Schadel talked about the physical and ontological basis of harmony as the underlying feature of reality and the cosmos. Here the phrase “music of the spheres” is given literal interpretation as the cosmological spheres themselves are compared to a huge symphony consisting of harmonious interactions resulting in a cosmologically grand piece of music. The basic idea in his lecture is that there are harmonious relations between music and reality. The structures and relations one finds in music have their counterparts in reality. For example, the interval of the octave is produced by sound frequencies having a 1:2 relation with each other. That is, the pitch C and C of a higher octave are produced when the frequency of C is doubled. And there are also other ratios for other intervals. These intervals and ratios also appear in nature. Most interestingly perhaps is Schadel’s diagram showing the male and female human bodies with their internal ratios, which correspond to the ratios in music. It is known that a philosopher or scientist who paid the most attention to this issue was Johannes Kepler. It was Kepler who discovered that, instead of the plants orbiting around the sun in perfect circles as previously believed, they traveled around the sun in an elliptical orbit, with the sun functioning as one of the focal points. Hence it was in this lecture that the principle of harmony in philosophy and metaphysics which he expounded a great deal in the previous two lectures came to concrete reality. It is in musical harmony that the principle of triangulation, a process by which two things of dissimilar nature come together in a “dialog” and produce a harmonious and pleasing sound. One should note that harmonious tones, such as a triad, are not the same as unisons. In unisons one does not have a harmony, because every sound is the same. Harmony occurs when there are different sounds, each of which plays a part in the emerging whole. Hence one can say that here all is one (i.e., all are parts of the harmony), and one is all (i.e., each of the part is distinct and retains one’s own identity). Thus his last lecture provides a concretization context of the whole series, a fitting end indeed. Furthermore, Prof. Schadel also played the pipe and the piano for the benefits of the audience in the Recital Hall. He played pieces by Chopin, Mozart and some others to the delights of all in the audience.

So the performance was a very appropriate end to his series of talk; we discussed about harmony and we got the opportunity to listen to music, which is a concrete expression of harmony. I would like to thank Prof. Schadel, his wife Helene and her sister Maria for their visit to Bangkok, enriching us with their presence. I certainly hope that we will have a chance to meet again in the near future.

Soraj Hongladarom

Department of Philosophy

Chulalongkorn University

What is Emptiness?

I have talked quite a lot in this blog about emptiness, but in the Buddhist sense. However, here is a lecture by Kim Greist from University of California at San Diego on precisely the same topic, but from the standpoint of contemporary physics. Are things in the end one and the same?

Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?

Georges Dreyfus came to Chulalongkorn University again for the third time, and this time he gave a public talk on “Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?” The talk was really interesting and touched upon some of the very difficult issues in Buddhist philosophy. He started by recounting the tenet found in the Madhyamika system, especially as propounded by Nagarjuna. According to the Madhayamika, a thing does not have its own ‘inherent characteristic,’ which defines what it is to be that thing and none other. Thus Madhyamika is contrasted with a branch of Indian philosophy that asserts that there is an inherent characteristic in everything that makes it the caase that that thing is what it is. One might compare this to the Aristotelian essence — whatever that gives a thing its defining characteristic. Thus a chair, according to this view, is a chair because it possesses something called ‘chairness.’ By virtue of possessing the chairness a chair is a chair and not, say, a table.

For Nagarjuna that is unacceptable. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), he presents a barrage of arguments intending to show that no thing whatsoever possesses this inherent characteristic. However, that does not mean that a thing can be anything else. It means rather than a thing is what it is, for example a chair, only through its being related to other things and through its being an extension or instances of concepts. In short, a thing is what it is simply because it is recognized that way. A chair is a chair because people sit on it and call it a ‘chair.’

A consequence of this is that, ultimately speaking, for Nagarjuna it does not make sense to say of any thing that it exists. On the other hand it also does not make sense to say that it does not exist. The chair in a sense does not exist because it lacks any inherent characteristic (the Sanskrit term for this is svabhava). However, to say that it does not exist does not make sense either because the chair is there. Nagarjuna goes on to say that it does not make sense to say that it both exists and does not exist, because to say that would presuppose that there is something the existence and non-existence of which is being asserted. Furthermore, to say that a thing neither exists nor does not exist does not make much sense either for the same reason.

This is known as the tetralemma. The idea is to exhause any and all possibility of saying anything about any object whatsoever. If it does not make sense to say anything in the four sides of the tetralemma, then it is clear that it does not make sense to say anything of anything at all. For example, Nagarjuna says somewhere in the Fundamental Verses that it cannot be said that the Tathagata (the Thus-gone, hence the Buddha) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist.

The  tetralemma has been a subject of intense interpretation. Dreyfus cited an example of a relatively obscure Tibetan translator and philosopher, Patrap Nyima Drak (I have to look up whether this is correct), who asserted that what the tetralemma says is true literally. Other scholars, such as Chandrakirti himself and Tsong Khapa, shied away from asserting baldly that the tetralemma is true literally. For them to do so is very close to being irrational, for it means that one can’t say anything of anything at all. If that is so, then why is one saying anything at all? Why don’t keep quiet all the time?

Dreyfus said that for Patrap, he held that no statement could be held and believed, because ultimately speaking any statement at all falls into one leg of the tetralemma and is thus untenable. So Dreyfus compared his position to that of ancient skepticism, also known as Pyrrhonism. According to Pyrrhonism it is not rational to hold any belief. All statements are ‘suspended’ because no statement ever acquires enough evidence to support it.

Nagarjuna himself also could be interpreted as supporting this view in a way, since he says at the very last stanza of the Fundamental Verses that in the end the goal of the Buddhist philosophy is to “relinquish all views.” So in a way this is not a philosophy at all, if you hold that philosophy is nothing but putting out words and more words. Since nothing can be asserted in any way of anything, then according to Patrap the only course left is to suspend any and all judgments. (But is this philosophy?)

So this comes to Dreyfus’s own question at the beginning. Can a Buddhist be a skeptic? Yes, because at least one Buddhist, Patrap Nyima Drak, was a skeptic. But is this a valid position to hold in Buddhist philosophy? It can be useful as a guide for practicing, and of course in Buddhism this is in the end what counts.

This leads to a very difficult problem for Buddhism. On the one hand, if you can’t defend any position at all, then how can you show that any of the teachings of the Buddha is true? How can one teach Buddhism to anybody? There ae a number of Buddhist teachings thatmany Buddhists take to be true, such as the law of karma, the Four Noble Truths, and so on. If a Buddhist can be a skeptic, then how can one come to believe the law of karma or the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism?

However, the advantage of Patrap’s standpoint (paradoxical again because the skeptic has no standpoint) is that it leads us to non-attachment even of doctrines and teachings. We realize that in the end these are only words and language, and being attached to them would only lead to suffering and further wandering in samsara, even though these words are the Buddha’s. The key is to ‘relinquish all views.’

So what gives? We have to wean ourselves from the belief that there is one true, correct version of things that we can arrive at. Language does not represent reality as it really is. Language is only a tool. The tetralemma shows that no matter how much we try, language still deceives us. The point is to get at reality without language. So practice is important, but philosophy and teaching the Dharma is important too. Otherwise how can we ever come to understand all this?

You can listen to Dreyfus’ talk right here on the podcast of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Thousand Stars Foundation.

 

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Before we speculate on the future of the Internet, let us go back deep in time, very deep indeed, just close to the beginning of the universe itself. I came across this amazing video from YouTube about the “Hubble Ultra Deep Field:”

It makes us wonder about what it is all about and why things are what they are right now, doesn’t it? The Hubble was pointed to an area in the sky where there was apparently nothing, but in the end it found out that this area was full of very distant galaxies, and as they are very distant they look very old from our perspective, so old that the light traveling from them shifted the wavelengths and they appear reddish to us. This phenomenon also corroborates the theory that the universe is expanding at a very fast rate, and they say in the video that it is faster than the speed of light itself.

This naturally makes us wonder. On the one hand we realize that we are just a tiny speck in the universe, but on the other, does the light from these distant galaxies are traveling toward “us”? It surely seems to be because we are the ones who are watching this video right now and are reflecting on the meaning of it all. So even if we are a tiny speck, we seem to be at the center of it all because we are thinking about it. The fact that we are conscious makes all the difference.

So what does the Buddhist say about this issue? The message of the Buddha is nothing if not directed toward the mind, toward realization of how to become one with reality such that we are released from the bondage of suffering. There is always a human dimension in the teaching. So it is well and good that we are perceive all these distant galaxies but the really important message  should be how these images point to our own realization inside ourselves. We are looking deeper and deeper at the outside, but are we beginning to look any deeper into the inside? Are we looking at our minds?

After all, it is our minds that comprehend the vastness of the univese and marvel at it. But what is more marvellous is our mind itself. In the end, however, there is not much difference between the two. Hubble ultra deep field may satisfy our curiosity, in the same way as vistas of unseen geographical regions satisfied the curiosity of our forefathers a century ago. We want to know what is out there. That is why we went to the North Pole and sent out subs to explore the ocean floor. But all these explorations would come to nothing if we do not explore the mind. If we keep on searching the outside, some part of ourselves will always be missing. Before long these images from Hubble will cease to be exciting and then we will crave more and more. More images, deeper resolution, going deeper in space and time, build a large telescope, and so on.

This is not a bad thing in itself. But if we do not accompany these yearnings by looking deeper at our mind, then we won’t be any different from what we are right now. We will still be yearning, suffering creatures we used to be even with much more powerful telescopes than the Hubble.

So the feeling we have, the sense of spirituality we feel through looking at these deep space images perhaps shows that there is a connection between the outside and the inside. We need to stop and reflect more and be more sensitive to what this feeling tells us. If we keep on doing so, perhaps one day we may arrive at a deja vu, things we have been yearning to see turning out to be what is already there in us all along.

Georges Dreyfus’ Talk on “Self and Subjectivity”

Last Friday Georges Dreyfus came to give a talk at Chula on “Self and Subjectivity: A Middle Way Approach” where he argued for a role of Yogacara in solving a dilemma in current philosophy of mind. It was quite well attended. Around twenty-five people came, which is a bit unusual for talks as difficult and technical as this one.

The problem for Georges, and also for philosophy of mind in general, is how to account for the mind and consciousness. On the one hand there’s the Cartesian dualist position, which holds that mind does exist and that body does exist. The problem for this position, as is well known, is how to explain how the two interact with one another. If mind and body are two distinct substances, then how one can influence the other. On the other hand, there’s the “reductionist” one a la Daniel Dennett. Here mental facts reduce to physical ones. The fact that I am conscious, for example, is reducible to my brain states. My brain states’ being in such and such pattern constitutes my having this type of mental phemenomena. For Dreyfus this account is also unsatisfactory because it is materialistic and could not account for the obvious fact of our being conscious and especially our subjective phenomena.

So Dreyfus would like to propose a “middle ground,” so to speak. Based on an interpretation of the Yogacara, especially that of Vasubandhu, he argued that, instead of consciousness being intentionally related to an outside object, consciousness does relate to some kind of its own representation. So instead of the direct realist picture where the mind perceives external object tout court, the mind does relate to representations of external object without being directly related to them. This is a key idea in Vasubandhu, and is quite common in the Yogacara’s account of how perception does in a way alter the very nature of things perceived. For example, for us human beings water appears as what it is to us, namely as clear liquid we can drink, bathe in, and so on. But for the hungry ghosts what appears to us as water appears to them as pus and urine. But what is what the water really is? There is no answer to that because what appears to a being is as real to them as it can be. “Pus” and “urine” are as real to the hungry ghosts as “water” appearing to us.

Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu

So instead of consciousness being either dualistically there, or reducible to physical states, it depends very much on interaction with the physical so much so that they neither are wholly reducible to matter, nor are they totally distinct as Descartes had it.

The Yogacara has been consistently charged with being idealistic. If there is no way out for consciousness except relating ultimately to itself in the form of the representation, then there is no way for consciousness and the physical world to meet. By proposing the “reflexive” character of consciousness (rather than the “reflective one which presupposes ontological existence of external objects), the Yogacara has a relatively easier time accounting for how what we perceive and how we perceive are intimately connected.

This is very heady stuff. Perhaps we should understand this better if Georges did give something to us to read. But unfortunately he did not, so that will be a subject matter for the future.

Georges Dreyfus to give a talk at Chula

ANNOUNCEMENT

Public Lecture

“SELF AND SUBJECTIVITY: A MIDDLE WAY APPROACH”

by
Georges B. Dreyfus
Jackson Professor of Religion
Williams College, USA

In this talk I will discuss Buddhist theories of consciousness and their relation to views of the self. I will argue that among the many Buddhist views on this topic, the Yogacara tradition offers resources for Buddhist thinkers to elaborate a view of consciousness and the self that treads a middle way between reductionist and Cartesian views of consciousness and the self.

Date and Time: March 20, 2009, 1 – 3 pm
Venue: Room 309, Boromratchakumari Bldg., Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University