Logic and Spirituality: The Dream Team

It may appear that by defending metaphysics and human reason so vigorously on this blog I am overvaluing the role of the intellect on the path to liberation.

Far from it. It is just that the blog is about how to do metaphysics and not about how to get to Heaven. I am not a trustworthy source of meditation advice other than to recommend it. The idea is not even to promote the use of mind-altering koans over Zen Master Hongzhi’s method of ‘Silent Illumination’. It was this Master’s poetry that first opened my mind to a world that had no existence for me before the age of fifty. After having solved metaphysics by logical analysis, a result that took me completely by surprise, the very first book I read was Taigen Dan Leighton’s Cultivating the Empty Field, lent to me by the very first Buddhist I had ever met at the end of the very first conversation I had ever had about mysticism.

It was a good decision to read the poetry before reading the Preface and Introduction. Hongzi’s poetry was meaningless to me. Nevertheless it was beautiful, effortless and still, and it’s effect was cumulative. He conveys a state of being that is sharply aware in this world and yet also far beyond it, a state of mind uncannily simple and attractive, not entirely unfamiliar yet also utterly foreign and incomprehensible. I’d never before read anything like it and I knew that it would change my life. The Forward, Preface and Introduction, which I later came to realise are works of art, explained Zen to me about as well as could done in the space given the direction I was coming from. I shall always be grateful for the wisdom of the person who lent this book to me. I had no understanding at all of what was being talked about but could see that it was the same phenomenon that logical analysis had led me to think must be the origin of consciousness and space-time. It exactly met the requirements of the theory. The Zen world-view could not be wrong if I’d just worked out that it must be true before having heard of anything vaguely like it.

It was like reading a recognisably authoritative explanation of the implications of my metaphysical theory. The theory made no sense to me because I had no interpretation. All I had was a logical result that seemed incomprehensible to me. It seemed clearly the only available solution for metaphysics but what did it mean? Here in this book was obviously the correct interpretation, explained in the Introduction and somehow demonstrated or revealed by the Master’s poetry. It would be for this reason that I’ll always defend the power of logic wherever I can.

There is a twist in tale. It took me a further five years to figure out how to reconcile Zen with classical logic, and this was a central problem for me right from the start. How could I argue for the Zen view while being unable to show that it would be reasonable? When I eventually saw how to achieve this reconciliation my jaw dropped at the simplicity of it all. Twenty centuries of metaphysical argument since he lived and here was the solution, buried in the small print of Aristotle’s laws for making philosophical decisions.

Since then I’ve been scratching my head wondering why so few people have seen this solution for metaphysical antinomies when it is always right there under our noses. Perhaps it is so obvious and simple that nobody can quite believe that it could be a solution. I notice that many people are expecting the solution for philosophy to be so complicated that they wouldn’t be capable of understanding it. We are very pessimistic in the West, a characteristic noted by the Dalai Lama on first getting to know us. Buddhists assume they will be omniscient sooner or later, if not already. In earlier times our failure to solve metaphysics is understandable and easy to explain. Now that we have the internet and well-funded multi-disciplinary academic disciplines called ‘Philosophy of Mind’ and ‘Consciousness Studies’ it seems utterly inexplicable.

Except for one thing. There is a widespread view that non-dualism, which is, I was to learn over time, the common name for the solution for metaphysics that I had stumbled upon, would be ‘illogical’ or formally unreasonable in some way, giving rise to contradictions that would reduce it to absurdity. The cause of this view would be the assumption that metaphysical antinomies, all those undecidable pairs of theories and counter-theories that form the dilemmas that seem to prevent us from making any progress in metaphysics, are formal dialectical contradictions that must be decided according to the laws of classical logic, namely the LEM and LNC. We tend to make this assumption whether or not we have heard of Aristotle, and are probably more likely to make it if we have not.

Yet it is trivially obvious that if all these theories and counter-theories are false then no two of them can be combined to form a dialectical contradiction. As a pair they would not obey Aristotle’s Rule of Contradictory Pairs, which states that one member of the pair must be true and one false. Consequently whether either of them is true or not would be an empirical matter and nothing to do with logical analysis. Classical logic would allow for the possibility that they are both false or both true.

This slight misuse of logic is quite common in ‘Eastern’ philosophical thinking but here it would not matter very much. Here experience takes priority over reason and if the world seems to contradict human reason then what else would we expect? It is outside of religion that this issue matters so completely, for it leads to the view that for religion we must abandon our reason and this is more than most people are prepared to do. Quite rightly so I would say.

Yet I believe that if one day in the future we manage to build an Artificial Intelligence that is an Ideal Reasoner, and one sufficiently miraculous that it is able to do metaphysics, then it will become a Zen monk within a fortnight. As Nagarjuna shows, the argument is overwhelming if we use classical logic rigorously.

If we stand back it is easy to see that a great many philosophers despair of deductive metaphysics, the process of proposing and attempting to defeat dialectical propositions in order to identify which ones stand up to the tests and which do not. They conclude that none of the available theories survive the tests. They do not see that there is one theory left over that they have not tested. They do not notice this theory because they have confused Aristotle’s Law of Contradictory Pairs with the Principle of Bivalence, (which states that all meaningful assertions must be true or false). Thus they set up false dichotomies and forever wonder why they are intractable. The do not see that there is a third alternative, the middle way, because they have made a series of category-errors and opposed pairs of assertions improperly.

The irony would be that the reason they give for giving up on philosophy, that it reaches no clear result, is that they have completely succeeded in solving it! They abandon it because they have refuted all positive, selective, partial or dualistic theories of the world as a whole. This is no small achievement and it should be a matter of pride. So what is the problem?

The problem would be their belief that these refuted theories exhaust the possibilities. This idea turns a great intellectual victory into an utter failure. Because they believe that the two horns of all metaphysical dilemmas, (strictly speaking ‘anti-dilemmas’), can be represented as A and not-A for the dialectic, with complete disregard for the rules, they do not see that in every case there is a third alternative. They unthinkingly rule out this alternative because it seems to them to contradict the rules of logical reasoning. The specific problem is their assumption that one half of these polarised or extreme metaphysical positions must be true and the other false. They forget that this is an assumption and start think that it is actually the case.

Because of this they miss the fact that nobody has yet refuted non-dualism and its associated neutral metaphysical position. They do not see that there is still hope for metaphysics. By refuting all other theories they have proved that non-dualism is the most plausible description of Reality. They just don’t know that this is what they have done. They do not see that the arguments of, say, the Logical Positivists are strong arguments for Middle Way Buddhism.

If we look at things in this way then the fact that Western metaphysics is perceived as a failure by so many of its practitioners can be interpreted as a formal proof of Buddhism as well as being overwhelming evidence. This tradition of metaphysics is a complete success in respect of its deductions and result, and a complete failure in respect of the interpretation of this result. It does the calculations correctly but does not see that its endlessly repeatable result implies that the world is just as the Buddha describes it.

This would be the price of misusing Aristotle’s Rule of Contradictory Pairs, which states that the LEM and LNC should not be applied to a pair of propositions unless one member of the pair is true and the other false. If we are not sure that this is the case then all bets are off. We may have made a category-error and there could be any number of alternatives.

An example. Does the world begin with Something or Nothing? How do we know that these two options exhaust the possibilities? If we do not, then classical logic allows that there may be an alternative. Since metaphysical problems are holographic this approach can be taken to all of its many antinomies and dilemmas. The result of taking this approach would be the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism or the ‘doctrine of the mean’. This would be a neutral metaphysical position. We would reject all extreme views for a unified reality in which all distinctions, including even life and death, are emergent and not truly real. Hence we can escape from the cycle of birth and death by realising the deeper truth that lies behind this world of suffering, beyond the ‘coincidence of contradictories’ and thus beyond the reach of the calculating intellect.

In this way arrive at the first main line of the poem by Bernardo Kastrup The Legacy of a Truth-Seeker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgiwVYZM5A8

“Only untruths can be experienced.”

This would be because Truth would lie beyond the division between experience and experiencer or, equivalently, because Truth is not an experience. An experience must be untrue because it requires a division and thus a duality, and this division would be purely conceptual. Truth is Being, not knowledge, and this is made very clear in A Course in Miracles and in the above poem. The universe would be a unity.

Nevertheless, it would not follow that metaphysics can be of no use as a path to the discovery of these things. Logic can prove the unreality of all distinction and division and thus can shed light on our meditative practice and motivate it. It also allows us to defend the nondual view of reality against all reasonable objections. It can also help us to make sense of it intellectually. So I’ll go on defending the power of logical analysis even though it seems to be a distasteful topic for many spiritually-minded people. It is not a substitute for Silent Illumination but a motive for discovering what it is, and this may be its most beneficial effect.

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4 Responses to Logic and Spirituality: The Dream Team

  1. johsh says:

    “power of logical analysis even though it seems to be a distasteful topic for many spiritually-minded people. ”

    I think, at some point, one has to stop focusing on any one particular thing, which is what logic does at any instant.

    Its like hamster in a wheel, it has to shift the focus away from the wheel, and onto itself. Eventually, it will know itself well enough, it will transcend its existence, self-transformation happens.

    What is the use of logic, or metaphysics, if one does not change their being, habits, or mental ways (experience of existence). I doubt spiritually minded people totally abandon logic…they will probably use it selectively, where needed, just like any tool.

    buddhism without 4th truth (doing perfect karma) is not true buddhism.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi johsh – Yes. Quite so. Balance is everything.

      • johsh says:

        self-transformation is the key, which requires heavy focus on one’s mental compulsions (inertia, caused by karma).

        Logic is just a side-effect, or consequential process, of underlying emotion/self. Logic is always heavily colored, biased. Its not ultimate, real or pure. Its just a good tool at best.

        Any methodology (metaphysics, mysticism, Christianity, zen or pick yours) that does not help one to totally “let go”, and self-transform, is just wasting time. If one could, its preferred they go extreme , and not waste time trying to find so called balance. Its a matter of urgency. The nature of reality is neither or (balance, middle-way, etc)., but causation(karmic inertia) is as real as apple falling from tree.

  2. PeterJ says:

    Thanks for your views, Josh. I don’t agree with what you say about logic, of course, and think you miss the point of the post.

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