Logical Criticism of Buddhist Doctrines

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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11. Causation and change


1.    Buddhist causation theory

Whereas skeptics such as Hume considered that nothing has a cause, or at least that if anything does cause anything else we cannot know about it – Buddhist philosophy went to the opposite extreme and advocated that everything is interconnected to everything else, claiming that this universal truth is knowable through enlightened cognition and not merely through induction.

This philosophy of “interdependence” or “co-dependence” sounds good at first sight, because it implies that none of us is an island unto himself or herself. It is an ethical teaching against selfishness and irresponsibility. We are all part of a complex tapestry of relations, and no one can pride himself or herself on true independence from the rest of us. We should be grateful to each other and lovingly help each other. To put it very idealistically: everyone is an indispensable part of myself.

But on a strictly logical level, this view is difficult to uphold. For, if everything were causally interconnected, then we could not inductively identify causes and effects, because we could never ‘remove’ or ‘add’ any cause or effect! We would thus be deprived of one of our main scientific techniques of causal logic.

To identify causality, we need to consider what happens around a phenomenon (say, X) in both its presence and its absence. We need to experiment different situations. But the view that everything is both a cause and an effect of everything implies, for every X, both X and the negation of X to be always causally present, somehow. Universal contradiction seems to be required; that is, all contradictories coexisting and equally active at once.

We might at best say that this thesis implies that nothing has a complete and necessary causal relation to anything else, but all things are causally interrelated in the way of partial and contingent causation. Natural spontaneity and freewill are of course excluded from this thesis; it is essentially deterministic, note. But is it possible to even imagine partial-contingent causation without complete-necessary causation? I don’t think so. But supposing it is arguable, there would be no logical way to prove it.

Logically, such claim can only be an arbitrary assumption. It follows that the universal mutual causality claimed by the Buddhist is only knowable, if at all, by purely intuitive means – no scientific proof of it is possible. Furthermore, such universal intuition necessitates (implies) omniscience of all things, everywhere, at all times. And though we project that God has such cognitive power, and the Buddhists consider that a human being can acquire it through enlightenment, omniscience is not something we ordinarily encounter or know how to prove.

In a past work of mine[1], I explain how the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependence must not be taken as nugatory of the law of identity that ‘facts are facts’. I want to reiterate it here, because this insight of mine hit the nail on the head with regard to the significance of co-dependence. The advocates of co-dependence explicitly argue for it by means of diachronic examples (sunlight causes growth of plant, plant causes feeding of animals, etc.), i.e. across time; but subsequently, they tacitly intend it synchronically, i.e. in the present tense.

This is the hidden lie of this doctrine: the implication that somehow the present does not firmly and definitely exist, but currently ‘depends’ on things outside it (i.e. in past or future). In truth: once actual, the present’s existence is not in need to any support by anything else; it just is and that’s that. Co-dependence implies that even actual present existence is somehow tenuous. Of course, such antinomy is precisely the ‘paradoxical’ aspect of co-dependence that makes it so emotionally attractive to postmodern readers, and which makes this doctrine quite distinct from any other causal philosophy.

Note well that I am not saying that causation requires change. We can establish causation between static existents – by referring to different instances of a class, i.e. with reference to the extensional mode of causation. The natural mode of causation, on the other hand, implies underlying changes in individuals – even when we express it verbally as a relation of static characters, we mean that the change from presence to absence or vice versa of those characters is involved.

The paradoxical aspect of the co-dependence thesis is its claiming the possibility of causation without differences across space and time, i.e. entirely in the here and now. This is a logically unthinkable and unknowable sort of causation. It should hardly be necessary to say that the present, once present, is a done thing; it can no longer be affected by the present, the past or the future. The past, once past, is gone; it is no longer changeable. The future is the only potentially changeable thing[2].

We can use these logical insights to refute the Buddhists’ view of the soul’s mode of existence. They consider that the soul has “no real existence” (in itself, as an essence) because of its interdependence with everything else. They argue that the soul has actual past causes of generation (e.g. parents, food, etc.) and possible future causes of destruction (e.g. if the body dies, the soul disappears, say). But in truth, such retrospective and prospective causalities do not change the reality that once the soul is, and so long as it is, its actual present existence is, and it is independently of anything else.

The advocates of this idea, that the soul’s existence is unreal, can be seen to profit from confusion between two terms: ontological dependence and epistemological dependence. Certainly, demonstrable past causes are indicative of what they call “dependent origination”, but future causes cannot be assimilated by anticipation to the same concept. They might at best be eventually described as instances of “dependent obliteration”! Just because in our present minds the existence of the object (here, the soul) is at the center of a mass of past, present and future causes, it does not follow that all these items can be indistinguishably considered as present causes.

Nevertheless, it is possible and valuable to view the whole world as one big Ocean, and all things apparently in it as complex waves and swirls of its water, always in flux. This image is often proposed in Buddhist teachings, in seeming justification of the idea of co-dependence, as well as the idea of impermanence and others.

Just as in a large body of water, a sea, a lake, a river, all the waves, though twirling and churning, are inseparable from the whole, so the waves of matter, mind and spirit in the universe, form a continuous whole. The various, changing many are ultimately a harmonious one. All subdivisions of the one in space or time are illusions or artificial projections by some observer. With regard to interdependence, a pressure in any locale of the whole is bound to somewhat affect all other locales.

This image reconciles the apparently conflicting views of the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitean philosophy emphasizes appearance, materiality, multiplicity and change: “you cannot step into the same river twice” (or indeed, even once), for by the time you do so, both you and it have changed. In Parmenidean philosophy, the opposite is stressed: “everything is one and the same”. At first sight, these views seem contradictory – one is pluralist and relativistic, and the other is monist and absolutist; but using the image of a body of water they can be made compatible and complementary.

Initially, this analogy to water seems to call for a universal underlying substance – an assumed “ether”. But, as Einstein has pointed out, since the velocity of light is the same in all directions and displays no Doppler effect, there can be no ether! Thus, all is one and one is nothing! This interesting discovery of modern science seems to confirm the much older Buddhist view that the universal ocean is one of Emptiness (Shunyata). Judaism also has this notion of the All as originally Nothingness (Yesh me-Ayin).

Be that as it may, we must still consider and deal with the world as it appears – in all its details of variety, change and causality. And this task has to be fulfilled responsibly – i.e. in a credible, empirical and logical manner. Vague, colorful, idealistic pronouncements will not do, however poetic they sound.

Thus, with regard to interdependence, it must be stressed that we can formally show with reference to causative syllogism that the cause of a cause cannot necessarily be regarded as a cause in turn – so the image of a tiny stir in one part of the ocean having an effect on all others is incorrect.[3]


2.    A formal logic of change

I have in the past[4], following Aristotle and Darwin, proposed three forms of change for logical consideration. Namely:

  1. Alteration, stated as “X gets to be Y”, meaning that something is characterized as X and not Y at one time and as X and Y at a later time. This is intended to imply that, while remaining X for the whole time under consideration, the individual thing concerned is successively not Y then Y. This signifies a mere change of attributes (not Y to Y), without essential change (X constant).
  2. Mutation, stated as “X becomes Y”, meaning that something is characterized as X (and not Y) at one time and as Y (and not X) at a later time. This is intended to imply that the individual thing concerned does not remain X or Y for the whole time under consideration, but is successively X then Y (these two being different, or incompatible, characterizations). This signifies metamorphosis or essential change (X to Y), insofar as the thing concerned is here defined by its being X or Y.
  3. Evolution, stated as “Xs evolve to Ys”, meaning that a set of things is characterized as Xs (and not Ys) at one time, gives rise to another set of things characterized as Ys (and not Xs) at a later time. Note well the intended implication here that the individuals subsumed under the classes X and Y are all different entities, although there is a significant causal relation between them. For instance, in the evolution of a living species, the earlier individuals (the Xs) are no longer present at the later stage (among the Ys), but they are their biological ancestors.

The first two forms of change can be expressed in terms of each other. “X gets to be Y (after not being Y)” can be stated as “X + notY becomes X + Y”; and conversely, “X becomes Y” can be stated as “Something gets to be notX + Y (after being X + notY)”. This is pointed out to show that the differentiation between changes of attribute and essence are relative, depending on what one focuses on as the substratum of change: in the case of alteration, the substratum is specifically the label “X”, whereas in the case of mutation, it is more vaguely “some thing”.

While the first two forms of change are found in Aristotelian logic, the third form did not become fully formulated (in Western philosophy[5]) till Darwin and after. Evolution is often confused with mutation, but they are clearly very different logical forms, note well. Two very different kinds of subsumption are involved.

Mutation concerns an individual entity, which persists from its early state (X) to its later state (Y); in the plural (i.e. some or all X become Y), this form refers to many entities but still as individuals. Evolution distinctively refers to groups, so that the individuals referred to at the beginning of the change (Xs) are not the same as those referred to as the end of it (Ys). Implied in the latter case is, not only a qualitative change in the same individuals, but more thoroughly a change of individuals. Nevertheless, note well, the two sets of individuals are causally related in some way, i.e. there is still a continuity of sorts between them; this is why we say that one set has evolved into the other.

These three forms of change seem to cover all our ordinary discourse concerning change. On the surface, that analysis of change seems unassailable; but as we shall now see, it is possible to radically criticize it.


3.    Buddhist critique of change

The above analysis of alteration and mutation, inspired by Aristotelian logic, has a weakness, in that it refers to “something”, some underlying abiding essence or static substratum in the midst of the forms of change considered. Thus, we defined alteration by saying “something is characterized as X and not Y at one time and as X and Y at a later time” and mutation as “something is characterized as X (and not Y) at one time and as Y (and not X) at a later time”.

In the case of alteration, the thing concerned retains the qualification X throughout the process of change; whereas in the case of mutation, the only implied constancy is the thing’s quality of existence. This relatively constant “something” in the midst of change may at first sight seem obvious, but upon reflection it is open to criticism. It is at least an element in our analysis that has to be discussed and somewhat justified, assuming we find no reason to decidedly reject it.

Alteration is presented as a mere change of predicate, and mutation as a more radical change of definition, but in either case it is presumed that there is some one thing to which those changing predicates and definitions are being attributed, something that is unitary enough during such changes that we can continue to name it by the same label (viz. “X” in alteration or “something” in mutation).

The Buddhist critic would suggest that it is illegitimate to assume such underlying constancy without first establishing it; and that would seem something hard to do, in view of the transience of all things experienced. He would suggest that change in general fits more into the format of evolution than in those of alteration or mutation. For in the evolutionary model, the two terms of the proposition do not refer to the same individual instances, but to instances that have been in constant flux, and which are related to each other by mere causal succession rather than by uniformity in identity.

Alterations and mutations are of course in practice involved even in the course of evolutionary change (e.g. in evolution of species, the individuals of a species at any stage are themselves subject to alterations and mutations), but such underlying events remain tacit in the formal presentation of evolution, because even if such individual changes were imagined as totally absent, the definition of evolution would remain applicable provided earlier species generated later ones.

Thus, the evolutionary theoretical model could be considered universal, if we do not assume (as Aristotle did) that individuals themselves change in alteration and mutation, but rather assume (as Buddhists suggest) that we are faced with successions of individual appearances, which we may assume are causally connected. On this basis, rather than constancy of identity, an individual is named with the same name across time.

That is, my dog yesterday is not strictly-speaking the same dog as my dog today or tomorrow, but rather each momentary appearance (from his birth to his death) is caused by an earlier appearance and causes a later one, and for this reason I may repeatedly refer to all these apparently connected appearances as “my dog”. Strictly, then, a term like “my dog” is always meant in the present tense, but different instances of the present across time may be identified together under certain logical conditions (viz. causal continuity) and the term is then generalized to all my dog’s existence as if he were one abiding essence.

Moreover, one might venture, that which says “my dog” (i.e. me), is also in flux, and not quite the same over time. However, while it involves valid criticism, this Buddhist perspective has its own weaknesses and even faults.

Its main weakness of conception is the appeal to causal connection between successive appearances. What is here meant by causality – and on what basis is such relation between appearances to be established? That is, how do we claim theoretical knowledge of causality as such, and how do we claim knowledge of it in a particular case? For causality (or at least, causation) is never known through single instances, but through generalizations – and to generalize we have to assume certain uniformities.

Thus, our recognition and concept of causality would seem to be logically posterior to our recognition and concept of identity, and not prior to it (as the Buddhist critique requires). There is no immediate and incontrovertible knowledge of either similarity or causality, but both are ratiocinations, i.e. logical formats or molds we (the cognizing Subject) try out tentatively on appearances, to gradually rationally organize them. These ratiocinations are inductive hypotheses, reflecting what seems to us applicable and true at a given stage in our knowledge development, but keeping an open mind for possible adaptations and corrections if (if ever) things appear differently at a later stage.

Moreover, it must be realized that this very discourse by the Buddhist critic is conceptual and verbal. The question must be asked: does the thesis proposed by the critic itself escape from the criticism used to support it? That is, if we apply the same criticism to the critic’s discourse, do we not end up with the same doubt concerning it? The answer is obviously: yes.

Since the critic’s discourse is itself verbal, it tacitly implies a uniformity of some sort in the midst of change, even while explicitly rejecting such uniformity as “merely verbal”. To admit even a merely verbal uniformity is to admit uniformity as such. If we could not even say of two words that they are “one” in form and content, no discourse at all would be possible. If verbal uniformity is possible, then other types of uniformity may also be postulated. Since the critic resorts to words, he must admit the logical repercussions of such action[6].

As regards the Buddhist claim that “everything is continually changing”, it must not be naively accepted, even if it is presented by its proponents as the essence of wisdom. On the empirical level, at a given moment of time that our consciousness encompasses as ‘the present’, we experience both changing and unchanging phenomena. The latter may in turn change the next present moment or at a later time; but the comparison involves memory and the assumption of time’s passing, and so is not purely experiential but partly judgmental. We may indeed experience changes in a given moment, but much of the changes we ‘experience’ occur over time and so are not purely empirical.

If we stand back and examine the existence of all phenomenal things across time, we may well conclude that everything we experience is subject to eventual change. But we must admit and keep in mind that the rates of change of different phenomena vary widely. While one thing is changing, another is apparently static. While one part of something changes, another is apparently static. There is not the total anarchy implied by the expression “everything changes”. We may thus mentally hold onto something for some time at any given time, even if we cannot hold onto everything.[7]

This something ‘held onto’ can be the underlying subject of a proposition about alteration or mutation. Such propositions are thus logically justifiable.


4.    Different strata of knowledge

The fact of the matter is that we all experience appearances as same and/or different in various respects. This is a fundamental given of our ordinary experience, which we must admit, even while granting that it ought not be taken as necessarily true in all cases. And the latter caveat is not some sort of transcendental knowledge, but itself merely the product of common experience – viz. that sometimes, what has seemed to us as similar at first sight has later (upon review or reflection) seemed to us as different, or vice versa.

The basis of our rational ordering of experience is experience. We realize that it involves rational ordering only at a much later stage, after much philosophical reflection; but initially, we just instinctively do it and believe in it. The classification of such initial rationality as naïve is only possible by means of this very same faculty; there is no other, higher faculty by which we can do it. The subtlety of distinguishing between pure experience and rationally ordered experience is itself a product of such rational ordering and cannot be used to justify it or criticize it.

Once this natural order of things is understood, we can begin to understand the development and validation of human knowledge. To avoid adopting superficially logical but deeply illogical theories, we must always make sure we test any suggested argument or explanation on itself. By such reflexive thinking, we save ourselves a lot of time and trouble. This leads to the realization that human knowledge is essentially inductive, rather than deductive. Deductive logic can indeed help us eliminate absurd and inappropriate constructs, but a positive theory depends mainly on gradual induction, using experience to form and develop ideas by trial and error.

The “something” underlying change (in the Aristotelian view) is seemingly justified by experience in that when we perceive the world around us or in us, at any given moment, some aspects of the whole field of experience (all sense organs included) seem to be in flux and others seem to be static. There is no reason for us to admit the flux as real, while denying the evidence of our senses with regard to the unchanging aspects. We would have to provide some very convincing reason to allow such difference of evaluation. In the absence of justification, such difference of treatment would be arbitrary prejudice. It is therefore logical to admit both perceptions as equally empirical givens ab initio.

We may nevertheless, at a much later stage in the ordering of knowledge, in the way of a theory subject to the rules of inductive logic, posit an ultimate reality that is per se static while giving rise to changing appearances – or, oppositely, posit that nothing but change exists really. However, since the latter proposition is self-contradictory (being itself apparently something static to some degree), we would be wiser to aim for the former. Nevertheless, the latter must still be given serious consideration, for it has much going for it as a description of our world of experience.

Both change and stillness are immediately apparent in our experience. They are concrete, perceptual givens in the physical and mental fields of experience. This is a phenomenological truth, whatever conceptual theories we may at a later stage construct concerning them. When I look, listen, or otherwise physically sense or mentally project – I sometimes see, hear, etc. static things, sometimes see, hear, etc. events in motion, sometimes a bit of both kinds of phenomena, and never neither (except in intuitive experience, which is non-phenomenal).

Change is not a mere conceptual construct out of experience – it is itself experienced. Likewise, stillness is not a mere conceptual construct out of experience – it is itself experienced. Thus, though stillness and change are opposites, we ought not define either of them by negation of the other. They are both independent percepts to begin with. At any moment, I may perceive some static things, some changing things, and some partly this and partly that. The concepts we have of change and stillness are later derivatives of those percepts. It is only on a conceptual level that change and stillness are correlated as each other’s opposite.

This nuance between percept and concept has to be understood to avoid misleading analyses of the static or changing, which in any way reduce the one to the other or vice versa. Such analyses are theories – to be distinguished from the experiential facts of stillness and change. Such theories are not needed to prove the existence of stillness or change – their existence is already established by direct observation at every moment. The mere appearance of stillness and change is enough to justify the concepts of stillness and change, respectively.

It suffices that stillness seems apparent to categorically admit it exists; and it suffices that change seems apparent to categorically admit it exists. Their justification is pre-conceptual, phenomenological and prior to any epistemological or ontological hypotheses. This is true, even if at a more developed stage of knowledge, we hypothesize that apparently static phenomena are really underlain by change and so essentially illusory, or alternatively that apparently changing phenomena are really underlain by stillness and so essentially illusory.

We have to admit this position; otherwise, we would not be able to explain why or how things at all appear as static or as changing.

Thus, though the table I am looking at during this moment is an apparently quite static phenomenon, science tells me that beneath the surface, at more and more microscopic levels, this table is really composed of molecules, made up of vibrating atoms, themselves reducible to subatomic particles in motion, etc. Even while accepting the scientific theory as correct, I must still admit that at the level of my perceptions, the table does appear static. The conceptual knowledge science gives me of the table does not annul (but only complements) my perceptual knowledge of it.

Similarly, though I may go on to claim that even more deeply, the changes postulated by science are themselves just some of the movements of a single, universal fabric of being – such ultimate monistic philosophy must not be construed to invalidate the observed fact of changing phenomena at the perceptual level or the conceived fact of change in scientific descriptions of what goes on beneath the surface of static or changing phenomena. Monism is a philosophy, a theoretical construct, intended to explain[8], not erase, the facts of change.

Moreover, if through meditation we eventually arrive at a direct experience of the essential unity and rest of all things, such mystical experience could not be regarded as canceling lower level experiences of change and stillness, or theories about such experiences.

Note too that all the above comments can be repeated with regard to uniformity and variety, peace and conflict, eternity and temporality, and all such basic dualities. At no level of existence or knowledge are the levels above, below or adjacent to be considered as eradicated; they all coexist. All this may seem somewhat paradoxical, but it is the only way to reconcile differences.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008-9), book 3, chapters 11-14.



[1]              Buddhist Illogic, chapter 8.

[2]              And that only if we assume some indeterminism; otherwise, if the future is inevitable, it can hardly be considered as changeable. Certainly, though science fiction fans and some science theorists are wont to imagine time travel, it has not to date been shown empirically possible, and therefore cannot be taken seriously.

[3]              For further discussion of these issues, see my The Logic of Causation, especially chapters 10 and 16.

[4]              See my Future Logic, chapter 17, and Volition and Allied Causal Concepts, chapter 14.

[5]              Leaving aside some vague brief statements to similar effect in ancient Greek philosophy.

[6]              This of course is what the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna refused to admit, choosing rather to criticize others by means of logic while claiming for his views a privileged exemption from logic. Such selective logic cannot properly be called logic.

[7]              For example, I know my computer will end up in smoke one day, but meanwhile it is here and I can well use it and rely on it. I expect my life to be longer than my computer’s existence, because people usually last longer than machines.

[8]              For example, monism might explain the differences between matter, mind and soul by postulating different degrees or shapes of motion. Viewing the ultimate fabric of existence as resembling a sea – matter might be represented by big waves and currents, mind perhaps by little vibrations, and soul say by rotations. By such analogy, we can roughly imagine how these three “substances” might be quite different yet essentially the same. (This example is not intended to exclude the possibility of other, better models.)

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