An Introduction to Abhidharma Metaphysics

The Abhidharma school of Indian Buddhism represents one of the earliest attempts to form a complete, coherent philosophical system based on the teachings of the Buddha. Abhidharma metaphysics rests on mereological reductionism: the claim that wholes are reducible to their parts. On the Abhidharma view, a composite object like a table is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is a convenient designator based on our shared interests and social conventions. Crucially, for Abhidharma Buddhists, this also extended to the self. The self, rather than being an enduring substance, is reducible to a bundle of momentary mental states (Carpenter, 2).

Based on this principle of reductionism, Abhidharma went on to develop the Doctrine of Two Truths. A statement is “conventionally true” is if it is based on our commonsense view of the world, and leads to successful practice in daily life. Thus, it is conventionally true that macro objects such as tables and chairs exist. A statement is “ultimately true” if it corresponds to the facts as they are, independent of any human conventions. According to the Abhidharma view, the only statements that can be considered ultimately true are statements about ontological simples: entities that cannot be further broken down into parts. The tendency to think that statements involving composite objects like tables are ultimately true arises when we project our interests and conventions on to the world.

The primary opponents of the Abhidharma Buddhists were philosophers of the Nyāya orthodox tradition, about which I have written before. Nyāya philosophers were unflinching commonsense realists. They held that wholes existed over and above their parts. The word “table” is not merely a convenient designator or a projection of our interests on to the world, it is a real object that cannot be reduced to its parts. Nyāya held that there are simple substances and composite substances. Simple substances are self-existent and eternal. Composite substances depend on simple substances for their existence, but cannot be reduced to them. They possess qualities that are numerically distinct from the qualities of their component parts.

There are some obvious difficulties with the view that wholes exist in addition to their parts, and Abhidharma philosophers were quick to point this out. If the table exists in addition to its parts, it would follow that whenever we look at a table, we are looking at two different entities – the component parts and the (whole) table. How can two different objects share the same location in space? Nyāya philosophers responded by stating that wholes are connected to parts by the relation of inherence. In Nyāya metaphysics, inherence is an ontological primitive, a category that cannot be further analyzed in terms of something else. To put it very crudely, inherence functioned as a kind of metaphysical glue in the Nyāya system. The inherence relation is what connects qualities to substances. The quality redness inheres in a red rose. Similarly, the inherence relation also connects wholes with their parts. In this case, the whole – the table – inheres in its component parts.

At this point in the debate, the standard Abhidharma move was to ask how exactly wholes are related to their parts. Do wholes inhere wholly or partially in their parts? If wholes are real and not reducible to their parts, but nonetheless inhere only partially in their parts, it would mean that there is a further ontological division at play. We now have three different kinds of entities. The parts of the table, the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table, and the whole. Now, what is the relation between the whole and the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table? Does the whole inhere wholly or partially in the second set of parts? If it is the former, then the second set of parts becomes redundant, for the whole could simply inhere wholly in the first set of parts (that is, the parts of the table). If the whole inheres partially in the second set of parts, then we will have to introduce yet another whole-part distinction, and there is an obvious infinite regress looming.

The Nyāya school held that wholes inhere wholly in their component parts. They drew an analogy with universals to make the illustration clear. Just as the universal cowness inheres in every individual cow, the table inheres wholly in every one of its individual parts. 

Abhidharma philosophers rasied a second set of difficulties for Nyāya. Consider a piece of cloth woven from different threads. According to the Nyāya view, the cloth is a substance that is not merely reducible to the threads. But now let us suppose I cannot see the whole cloth. Let us suppose most of the cloth is obscured from my view, and I only see a single thread. In this case, we would not say that I have seen the cloth. I am not even aware that there is a cloth – I think there is just a single thread. But if the Nyāya view is correct, then the cloth (the whole) inheres in every single thread, so when I see the thread, I should see the cloth as well. But since I don’t, it follows that the Nyāya view is incorrect.  

Now consider a piece cloth woven from both red and black threads. Since the cloth is a separate substance, and since composite substances possess qualities numerically distinct from their component parts, the cloth must have its own color. But is the color of the cloth red or black? Nyāya responded that the color of the cloth is neither red nor black, but a distinct “variegated” color (Siderits, 111). But this only multiplies difficulties. If the cloth is wholly present in its parts, and it possesses its own variegated color, why do I not see the variegated color when I look at its component parts? When I look at the red threads, all I see is red, and when I look at the black threads, all I see is black. I do not see the variegated color in the component parts and yet, if the whole inheres wholly in its parts, I should.

Finally, if the whole is a distinct substance over and above its parts, the weight of the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. But we do not observe this when we weigh composite substances. This is highly mysterious on the Nyāya view. But these problems are all avoided if we simply accept that wholes are reducible to their parts.

Abhidharma is a broad tradition that encompasses numerous sub-schools. Two of the most prominent ones are Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika. While both sub-schools agree that everything is reducible to ontological simples, they disagree on the number and nature of these simples. The Vaibhāṣika school is fairly liberal in its postulation of simples, while Sautrāntika is conservative. Moreover, Vaibhāṣika treats simples as bearers of an intrinsic nature. According to Vaibhāṣika atomists, an earth atom, for instance, is a simple substance that possesses the intrinsic nature of solidity. The Sautrāntika school rejected the concept of “substance” entirely. There are numerous reasons for this (most of them epistemological, that I will cover in a subsequent essay), but roughly, it came down to this: We have no evidence of substances/bearers, only qualities. Further, there is no need to posit substances, because everything that needs to be explained can be explained without them. For Sautrāntika philosophers, an earth atom is not a substance that is the bearer of an intrinsic nature “solidity” – rather, it is simply a particular instance of solidity. Thus, in Sautrāntika metaphysics, there are no substances or inherence relations, there are simply quality-particulars. This position is similar to what contemporary metaphysicians call trope theory.

The term “reductionism” is often cause for confusion when used in relation to Abhidharma Buddhism. It must be emphasized that the kind of reductionism relevant here is mereological reductionism. Abhidharma Buddhists were not reductionists in the sense of believing that consciousness could be reduced to material states of the brain. All Abhidharma schools held that among the different kinds of ontological simples, some were irreducibly mental, as opposed to physical.   

Apart from mereological reductionism, the other key aspects of Abhidharma metaphysics are nominalism and atheism. I have covered the Buddhist approach to nominalism in a previous essay, so I will not go over it here. When it comes to atheism, it is important to recognize that Abhidharma Buddhists (like all Buddhists) were only atheistic in a narrow sense. They rejected the existence of an eternal, omnipotent creator of the universe. This did not mean that they were naturalists or that they rejected deities altogether. They believed in many gods, but these gods were not very different from human beings apart from being extraordinarily powerful. Venerating the gods was a means of obtaining temporary benefits in this life or a good rebirth, but the gods could offer no help with the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice: liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The gods themselves, being unenlightened beings, were stuck in the cycle of birth and death. To attain liberation one must seek refuge in the Buddha, the teacher of gods and men.

Works Cited:

Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Routledge, 2014. Print.  

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Śrīharṣa’s Master Argument Against Difference

The Advaita Vedānta tradition is one of the most popular and influential Indian philosophical systems. The best translation of the Sanskrit word advaita is “non-dual.” The thesis of Advaita is that reality is at bottom non-dual, that is, devoid of multiplicity. Advaita recognizes that our everyday experience presents us with of a plurality of objects, but maintains that the belief that plurality and difference are fundamental features of the world is mistaken. The ultimate nature of reality is undifferentiated Being. Not being something, but Being itself – Pure Being. The phenomenal world, in which we experience Being as separate beings is not ultimately real. It is constructed by avidya – ignorance of the true nature of reality. We are beings alienated from Being, and true liberation lies in ending this alienation.

One of the reasons offered by Advaitins for accepting these claims is that they form the most plausible and coherent interpretation of the Upaniṣads – scriptures accepted as being a reliable source of knowledge. But this will hardly convince someone who does not already acknowledge the authority of the Upaniṣad. Here, the strategy of Advaita philosophers has typically been to go on the offensive and argue that the very notion of “difference” or “separateness” is in some sense conceptually incoherent. The arguments for this claim were first formally compiled by the 5th century philosopher Maṇḍana Miśra. Subsequent philosophers in the Advaita tradition further developed, defended and extended these arguments. In this essay, I will briefly go over the master argument against difference presented by the twelfth century philosopher Śrīharṣa in his magnum opus, Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”).

Śrīharṣa begins his inquiry by asking what “difference” really is. He identifies four possible answers to this question:

  1. Difference is the intrinsic nature of objects.
  2. Difference consists in the presence of distinct properties in objects.
  3. Difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects.
  4. Difference is a special property of objects.

Śrīharṣa considers each option in turn, and finds them all untenable.

The claim that difference is the intrinsic nature of objects is rejected because difference is necessarily relational. To state that bare difference is the nature of X is to utter something meaningless. At best, we can say that difference-from-Y is the intrinsic nature of X. However, this raises another problem. To describe the intrinsic nature of X is to describe what X is in and of itself, independent of anything else.  In contrast, the very notion “difference-from-Y” indicates a dependence on Y. We have arrived at a contradiction: if X has an intrinsic nature that is parasitic on the nature of Y, then it follows that X doesn’t really have an intrinsic nature.

Śrīharṣa offers a subsidiary argument to drive home the implausibility of the view that that difference is the intrinsic nature of an object. Consider a blue object and a yellow object. An object that is blue by its very nature does not depend on the yellowness of the other object. Even if all the yellow objects in the world were to disappear, the blue object would still be blue. But this could not be the case if difference-from-yellow-objects was the intrinsic nature of the blue object.

According to the second definition of difference, X is different Y if distinct properties are present in X and Y. X and Y can be any two objects, but we may use Śrīharṣa’s example: A pot is different from a cloth because the property potness is present in the pot, while the property clothness is present in the cloth. But this raises an obvious question: what makes potness different from clothness? The answer cannot be (1) – that is, that difference is the very nature of potness and clothness – because that view has already been refuted. If we answered the question with (2), then we would end up saying that what makes potness different from clothness is that potness is itself possesses a property that clothness does not. We would have to maintain that potness-ness is present in potness, and clothness-ness is present in cloth-ness. Even if we ignore the oddness of properties being present in other properties, we can raise another question: What makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness? This series of questions could go on indefinitely, generating an infinite regress. Hence, this option is unsatisfactory. 

Śrīharṣa considers the possibility that difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects. According to this view, what makes a pot different from a cloth is the absence of potness in the cloth, and the absence of clothness in the pot. But much like before, this raises the question of what makes potness different from clothness. It cannot be (1) or (2), because they have already been refuted. If we bring up (3) here, we would have to say that what makes potness different from clothness is the absence of potness-ness in clothness, and the absence of clothness-ness in potness. At this point, much like before, we could ask what makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness. Once again, we are left with an infinite regress.

This brings us to the final option: that difference is a special property of an object. According to this view, difference-from-Y is itself an attribute of X. But if difference-from-Y is an attribute of X, then difference-from-Y is not X itself, but something different from X. This entitles us to ask what makes the attribute difference-from-Y different from X. It cannot be (1), (2) or (3), so it must be (4). This would mean that it must be another attribute that makes difference-from-Y different from X. But then this attribute itself would be different from both X and difference-from-Y, which simply raises the same question. One more, we see an infinite regress looming.

Having rejected all four possibilities, Śrīharṣa concludes that the very notion of difference is incoherent, and so it cannot be a true feature of the world. A typical reaction to Śrīharṣa’s arguments is that there must be something wrong with them – indeed, something obviously wrong with them. But it isn’t necessarily straightforward to identify what exactly it is. One could question whether Śrīharṣa really has considered all the possible options, whether some of these options really lead to an infinite regress, and finally, whether an infinite regress is something to be worried about. Philosophers from rival traditions adopted all these approaches. Śrīharṣa and his successors anticipated and responded to a number of these objections. They also modified and extended the arguments against difference to more specific cases, to show that differentiating cause and effect, moments in time, and subject and object, were all impossible. For a thorough examination of Śrīharṣa’s critique of difference, Phyllis Granoff’s Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta is a good place to start.  

Buddhist Apoha Nominalism

The Problem of Universals is one the oldest subjects of debate in Indian philosophy. Realists about universals believe that universals exist in addition to concrete particulars, while nominalists deny the existence of universals. The Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā schools were vocal defenders of realism. Nyāya philosophers believed in universals for a number of reasons:

  • Universals explain how different objects share common characteristics. Cow A and Cow B differ from each other in various ways, and yet we recognize that they’re both cows. The Nyāya explanation for this is that what Cow A and Cow B have in common is the universal “cowness” that inheres in both.
  • Universals fix the meanings of words. The word “cow” doesn’t just refer to a particular cow, but cows in general. How can a word refer to many different objects at once? The Nyāya solution is that the word “cow” refers to a particular qualified by the universal cowness, which is present in all individual cows.
  • Universals are a solution to the Problem of Induction, first raised by the Cārvāka empiricists. Nyāya philosophers viewed the laws of nature as relations between universals. Our knowledge of these universals and the relations between them justifies inductive generalizations, and consequently, inferences such as the presence of fire from the presence of smoke.

Buddhists were the best-known nominalists in the Indian philosophical tradition. The Buddhist hostility towards universals is perhaps best expressed by Paṇḍita Aśoka (9th century): “One can clearly see five fingers in one’s own hand. One who commits himself to a sixth general entity fingerhood, side by side with the five fingers, might as well postulate horns on top of his head.”¹

In this post, I will briefly go over how Buddhists responded to the first two reasons for believing in universals provided by the Nyāya school. The Buddhist defense of induction will have to be the subject of a separate essay.

The form of nominalism Buddhists advocated is called apoha, the Sanskrit word for “exclusion.” The first precise statement of apoha nominalism can be found in the works of Dignāga (6th century). Dignāga claimed that the word “cow” simply means “not non-cow.” Since there is obviously no universal “not cow-ness” present in every object that is not a cow, this semantic view doesn’t commit us to the existence of universals. Every cow is a unique particular distinct from all other objects. We simply overlook the mutual differences between cows and group them together based on how they’re different from non-cows.  Thus, it’s not because cows share something in common that we call them by the same name. Rather, we think all cows share something in common because we have learned to call them by the same name.

There are some objections that immediately spring to mind, and Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers brought them up repeatedly in their criticisms of apoha nominalism. First, how does saying that “cow” means “not non-cow” provide a solution to the problem of universals? “Not non-cow” involves a double negation, so to say “cow” means “not non-cow” is just to say “cow” means “cow.” This leads us right back to where we started, and just as before, it seems that we need to posit a universal cowness. Second, how can we focus on cows’ common differences from non-cows unless we already know how to tell what a cow is in the first place? Once again, we seem to have gone in a circle, and apoha seems to presuppose precisely what it was supposed to explain.

Dignāga’s successors responded to the first objection by drawing distinctions between different kinds of negation. Consider the statement: “This is not impolite.” Now, at first glance it might seem like this just translates to “This is polite,” because of the double negation involved in “not impolite.” But this is not necessarily the case. The statement could be about something to which the very category of politeness does not apply, in which case “not impolite” is distinct from “polite.” Thus, “not non-cow” can mean something genuinely different from “cow.”

To understand how Buddhists responded to the second charge of circularity, it helps to look at another Buddhist view. Buddhists were mereological reductionists: they did not believe that wholes were anything over and above their parts. So, a table, for instance, is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is just a conceptual fiction: a convenient designator we use because of our shared interests and social conventions. It is conceivable, for instance, that someone who has never seen or heard of tables before will not see a table, just pieces of wood put together in seemingly random fashion. The idea that the table is ultimately real arises when we project our interests on to the world. How is any of this relevant to the question of universals? Buddhist philosophers argued that something similar goes on when we fall under the impression that all cows share a common cowness. We overlook the differences between individual cows because they satisfy some of our desires – for example, the desire for milk – that non-cows don’t. We then project our interests on to the world, mistakenly concluding that cowness is a real thing.

This may not seem like a very satisfactory response. It just pushes the problem back a step. How do all these particulars satisfy the same desire if they don’t share something in common? In this case, it seems like the cows really do share something: the ability to satisfy our desire for milk. Dharmakīrti (7th century) responded to this by using the example of fever-reducing herbs. He pointed out that there are many different herbs that reduce fevers. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that there exists a universal “fever-reducing-ness.” Each of these herbs is different, and they don’t reduce fevers in the same way, or use the same mechanisms to do so. We group them together under a single category only because of our subjective interest in reducing fevers. Dharmakīrti’s claim is that the same is true of everything. Each particular serves our interests in a manner that’s utterly distinct from everything else in the world. And so once again, there is no need to posit universals.

But there are still some lingering worries here. While we may accept that in the case of the herbs there is no universal fever-reducing-ness, does the same response work for simple substances such as elementary particles? Assuming for the sake of argument that an electron is an elementary particle, surely all electrons share something in common. Doesn’t the ability to bring about similar effects require a shared capacity – in this case, the same set of causal powers? One possible response to this line of argument, formulated by the philosopher Kamalaśīla (8th century), is to adopt what we would recognize as a Humean view of causation. Kamalaśīla rejected the notion of causal powers entirely, and like Hume, stated that there is nothing more to causation than constant conjunctions of events. Once again, talk of “causal powers” is just a convenient way of speaking about certain correlations that we never fail to observe.

This is obviously a very brief sketch of apoha nominalism. There is much more to say, particularly on the subtle differences between different versions of apoha defended by different Buddhist philosophers. This is a good place to start for further reading.

References

[1] From the translation in Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans and Arindam Chakrabarti (2011).

Nyāya Substance Dualism

In an earlier post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this¹:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing scale, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the scale. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self.

Notes

[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.

A Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Argument for the Existence of God

Historical Context

The different philosophical traditions in classical Indian thought are usually categorized under the labels of orthodox and heterodox. The orthodox traditions accepted the scriptural authority of the Vedas, while the heterodox ones such as Buddhism and Jainism did not. Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika were initially two different orthodox schools. Nyāya was mostly concerned with logic, reasoning and epistemology. Vaiśeṣika focused on metaphysics and identifying the different kinds of substances that ultimately exist. By the eleventh century, these two traditions had merged into a single school, which came to be known simply as Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika (NV henceforth). Apart from a few academic philosophers, the NV tradition is basically extinct today. Historically, however, they were extremely influential and made a number of important philosophical contributions.

Of all the theistic systems in India, NV had the greatest confidence in the scope of natural theology. They came up with a number of arguments for the existence of Īśvara (“the Lord”), and were engaged in a series of polemical debates with other thinkers, their primary adversaries usually being Buddhists. I will go over their most well known argument for theism in this essay.

What the Argument is Not

Before I lay out the the argument, I want to make a few preliminary comments on what the argument is not, since this is often an issue of confusion.

The argument is not like the popular Kalām cosmological argument, which states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and that if you trace the chain of causes you eventually get to an uncaused cause that explains the beginning of the universe. Indeed, the NV system holds that a number of entities are eternal and uncreated. These include the atoms of different elements, time, space, universals, individual souls, and of course, God.

The argument also does not belong to the family of arguments from contingency, which conclude that there is a necessarily existent being that explains why anything at all exists. The NV thinkers were not committed to the view that everything that exists has an explanation for its existence. Finally, the argument is not like familiar teleological arguments that draw on observations of biological complexity to infer that an intelligent designer exists.

That said, the NV argument does bear some resemblance to all of the above arguments. It is therefore best understood as a hybrid cosmological-teleological argument. The argument points out that certain kinds of things require an intelligent creator that has the attributes traditionally assigned to God.

Overview of the Argument

The argument can be stated as follows¹:

(P1) Everything that is an effect has an intelligent maker.

(P2) The first product is an effect.

(C)  Therefore, the first product has an intelligent maker.

The argument as spelled out here is a little different from the way the NV philosophers usually framed it, primarily because they had a more elaborate way of laying out syllogisms. But that need not concern us. The important point is that the argument is valid – if the premises are true, the conclusion does follow. But what are we to make of the premises?

Some terminological clarification is in order before we can assess the premises. By an effect, defenders of the argument refer to a composite object – i.e., an object made of parts. Buildings, rocks, mountains, human bodies are all examples of effects. Recall that NV philosophers were atomists, and since atoms are indivisible and indestructible, they do not count as effects.

The first product refers to the simplest kind of effect that can be further broken down into atoms. In the NV system, dyads – imperceptible aggregates of two atoms – were seen as the first product. But again, that need not concern us. All we need to know is that the first product is the smallest unit that is itself further divisible. We can now move on to scrutinize the premises.

Support for the Premises

P2 is necessarily true, since the first product is defined as the simplest kind of effect. Things get interesting when we consider the first premise. P1 states that every effect has an intelligent maker, where an intelligent maker is defined as an agent who:

(i) Has knowledge of the components that make up the effect;

(ii) Desires to bring about the effect; and

(iii) Wills to do so.

The obvious question then is: why believe that every effect has an intelligent maker?

The support offered for P1 is inductive. NV philosophers defend P1 by pointing out that we have a very large number of examples that confirm it. The classic example is that of a pot. We observe that pots have an intelligent maker: the potter who is aware of the material out of which the pot is made (the clay), desires to make the pot, and wills to do so. Atoms are deliberately excluded from P1 since they aren’t effects, and hence cannot be seen as counterexamples. Given this, defenders the argument claim that the numerous confirming instances (as in the case of the pot/potter) entitle us to accept P1 as a general principle.

Responding to Objections

Philosophers in the NV tradition were aware that the argument was extremely controversial, and came up with a number of interesting responses to common objections. I will go over three of them here. 

Objection 1: Counterexamples to P1

The most common objection is that there are obvious counterexamples to the first premise. Rocks, mountains, plants – these are all made of parts, and yet, don’t have a maker. Thus, P1 is false.

The NV response is to say that this objection begs the question against the theist. The mere fact that we don’t immediately observe a maker in these cases does not establish that a maker was not at least in part involved. For the maker could, after all, be spatially or temporally remote² from the effect.

NV philosophers press the point by insisting that if direct observation of the cause was necessary, then even ordinary inferences would be defeated. For instance, we wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of fire from smoke if the fire wasn’t immediately observable. But of course, the fire could be a long distance away. Similarly, if we happen to come across a pot, we wouldn’t suspend judgement about whether it was made by a potter simply because we didn’t directly and immediately observe the pot being made by one. The potter could, after all, be in a different town, or even be dead. In other words, this objection proves too much, since it would render everyday inferences that we all rely on unjustified.

Objection 2: The Possibility of Counterexamples to P1

At this point, we might be willing to concede that we can’t rule out the existence of a maker for things like rocks and mountains. However, since the maker isn’t directly observed, the theist can’t be sure that a potential counterexample doesn’t exist either. It may be true that we have observed several instances of effects that have makers, but the possibility that there exists a counterexample means that P1 is at the very least unjustified, if not shown to be false.

Once again, the NV response is that the objection proves too much. The mere possibility of a counterexample is not reason enough to give up on the first premise. Consider, again, the example of smoke and fire. The mere possibility that there may have, at some time in the distant past, or in a faraway land, been an occurrence of smoke without fire does not give us enough reason to reject general fire-from-smoke type inferences. Unless we are willing to give up on induction entirely, there is no reason to reject P1.

The skeptic is also accused of another inconsistency at this point. Why does the skeptic not doubt that material things have material causes? If someone who is skeptical of P1 came across an object they had never seen before, they probably would not doubt that the object had been made out of pre-existing matter. And yet, the support for the belief that material objects have material causes is also inductive. The skeptic must provide some principled reason to reject P1 while also believing in material causes without the reason collapsing into the first objection which has already been refuted. Since the skeptic has not done this, they have failed to show that we must not accept P1.

Objection 3: The Gap

Many arguments for theism face what is sometimes called “the gap” problem. In other words, even if these arguments establish the existence of an intelligent maker, there is no reason to think this creator has any of the attributes traditionally assigned to God. A skeptic may point out that in all the cases of intelligent makers we have observed, the makers were embodied agents. The makers were not omniscient, uncreated or eternal. So there is no reason to suppose that the argument, even if successful, gets us to God. At best, it can establish the existence of some kind of intelligent maker, but any further claims about the omniscience or eternality of the maker would not be justified, since these properties are not observed in any of the cases we discussed.

Predictably, the NV response is that the criterion for inference being proposed as part of the objection is too strong, and would defeat many of our everyday inferences. In most inferences we make, we go beyond the general cases, and can justifiably infer special characteristics depending on the context. To go back to the commonly used fire-and-smoke example, if we observe smoke rising from a mountain, we don’t merely infer that there is fire. Rather, given the specific context, we infer that there is fire that has the property of being on the mountain. In other words, it isn’t fire-in-general that is inferred, it is fire-on-the-mountain. Similarly, based on the specific context, we can conclude that the maker of the first product has certain characteristics.

Since the maker exists prior to the first product, it must be uncreated. It cannot have a body, since bodies are made of parts, and this would simply introduce a regress that would have to be terminated by a creator that is not made of parts. Thus, the maker must be disembodied and simple. Since it is simple, it cannot be destroyed by being broken down into its constituent parts, and hence must be eternal. Since it has knowledge of all the fundamental entities and how to combine them, it must be omniscient. Finally, simplicity favors a single maker over multiple agents. The intelligent maker thus has many of the attributes of the God of traditional theism.

Conclusion

The argument, if successful, does get us to a God-like being. P1 is the controversial premise, and as we have seen, NV philosophers respond to objections by essentially shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptic. This can seem like trickery, and indeed, that’s how the influential 11th century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti characterized it in his work Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara, which is arguably the most thorough critique of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika argument. Either way, it is at least not obvious that the first premise can be easily rejected, so the skeptic must do some work to justify rejecting it. I may go over Ratnakīrti’s criticisms in a future essay.

References

[1] The argument as I’ve presented it here is roughly based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.

[2] The terminology I’m using is based on Parimal Patil’s translation of the original Sanskrit terms in Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India.