www.TheLogician.net © Avi Sion - all rights reserved
© Avi Sion
All rights reserved
Avi Sion, 2002. All rights reserved.
Not ‘empty logic’, but empty of logic.
I shall stop
here, save for some concluding remarks, though a lot more could be said. As we
have seen, Nagarjuna is motivated by very good intentions: he wishes to help us
achieve enlightenment or liberation, by freeing us from all obstacles to
cognition of the “emptiness” underlying the phenomenal and conceptual world.
For him, the principal obstacle is Reason: as he says, “if conceptualizations
are permitted there will arise many, as well as great, errors”.
His strategy is therefore to invalidate for us our every logical tool.
From a practical
point of view, we might well agree with and congratulate Nagarjuna. When one is
engaged in meditation, it is appropriate to stop all thought, or at least to
dissociate oneself from all imaginative and rational processes till they stop by
themselves. One may also make one’s whole life a meditative process, and
legitimately choose to altogether abstain from rumination and cogitation. There
is no doubt in my mind that in such context thought is useless, and indeed a
hindrance to progress, apart perhaps from some initial theoretical studies and
reflections to put oneself on the right track, as well as a minimum of ongoing
thought to deal with routine aspects of survival.
But that is
not what is at issue, here. Our concern in this paper is with Nagarjuna’s theoretical
discourse, his philosophical theses and claims to ‘logic’. We may well doubt
these, in view of the underhanded means he is willing to use to achieve his
ends, including ignoring, eclipsing or distorting relevant facts, diverting
attention from controversies or lying outright, begging the questions (circular
arguments), stealing concepts (using them even while undercutting them),
contradicting himself, manipulating readers in every which way. However noble
his motives may be, they cannot justify such methods of discourse.
legitimately ask whether Nagarjuna’s “Middle Way” corresponds to the
Buddha’s original concept with the same name. The Buddha’s teaching is a
practical one, eschewing the behavioral extremes, the fanaticism and asceticism,
that religious desperation and enthusiasm tend to generate. Nagarjuna’s is not
a teaching of equal moderation in theoretical issues, but an extremist position,
one I would characterize as nihilistic. This has been made evident again and
again in the above exposition.
When I picked
up the book Empty Logic, earlier this year in Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, I
was eager to learn more about Buddhism, and in particular about Nagarjuna and
his Madhyamika school (having read many positive appraisals of them in other
books, and some quotations). As a logician, I was especially pleased at the
prospect that there might be a ‘logic of emptiness’, perhaps forms of
reasoning still undiscovered in the West. Unfortunately, thanks to Cheng’s
very competent presentation, I soon discovered that Nagarjuna work contains no
new field of logic, but is basically empty of logic, a ferocious mauling of
logic. What a disappointment!
well that I have nowhere tried to deny
Buddhism’s thesis that ultimate reality cannot be accessed through rational
means, but only through some fundamental change of cognitive paradigm. I nowhere
claim to know what “emptiness” is, only what it is not. I
remain open to such an idea, though I cannot claim to have achieved such deep
levels of meditation that I can confirm it firsthand. I expected Nagarjuna to
help me break through to such higher knowledge, not by attempting to destroy my
lower knowledge but by proposing some evolutionary process.
conceptual knowledge complements and improves on perceptual knowledge, without
dismissing all perception, so may we expect meditative knowledge to correct the
errors of and enlarge what came before it, without ignoring and belying all
conception. I would not resist a fundamental rejection of logic, if some
convincing means were used to this end; it is not attachment which prevents me.
The way offered by Nagarjuna is unconvincing to anyone with high standards of
knowledge; it is merely a malicious parody of logic. What revolts me here is the
shameless sophistry engaged in by Nagarjuna, in his impossible attempts to give
logical legitimacy to his anti-logical ideas. (See
Appendix 1 for a list
of fallacies he uses repeatedly.)
sincerely believes that no words have true significance, would he write his
skeptical words and expect others to understand them? If someone thinks or
writes about motion, even to deny it, is he not thereby engaging in motion? If
someone writes about causality, denying it so as to convince others to give up
the idea, surely it shows that he himself believes in causality, in his ability
to influence others and in their ability to choose a different cognitive path.
Read his lips – if he did not believe in these things, why would he bother
writing about anything? Like many Western skeptics, Nagarjuna does not take the
trouble to harmonize his words and deeds, testing his thoughts on his own
thinking; if knowingly indulged, this is hypocrisy. Like many religious
apologists, Nagarjuna considers logic, not as a tool of research and discovery,
but as a weapon of rhetoric in defense of preconceived ideas; if knowingly
indulged, this is cheating.
legitimate to draw conclusions about someone on the basis of his arguments;
this is not to be confused with ad hominem argumentation, which is
judging the arguments with reference to the person making them. We might excuse
Nagarjuna as a sloppy thinker, but it is evident that he has logical
capabilities, so we must infer deceit. Occasional errors of logic are human –
but such systematic misuse or selective use of logic is monstrous. He evidently
takes people for fools, who will swallow whatever he dishes out. Worse still, he
does not fear to intellectually incapacitate generations and generations of
young people. Philosophy is a responsibility, like the medical profession. It
should be an attempt to increase the mental health and efficacy of one’s
fellow humans, not a pastime for dilettantes or jokers or a cruel con game.
makes one wonder whether Nagarjuna himself achieved the supreme consciousness he
attempts to guide us towards. If he is already enlightened, where are the
honesty and sincerity, the realism and healthiness, the compassion and
loving-kindness, one would expect from such consciousness? If he is not yet
enlightened, how can he claim firsthand knowledge that abandoning logic is the
way to such consciousness? In the latter case, he would have done better to
stick to meditation, rather than speak out prematurely.
result of his philosophical action (at least, those aspects of it we have
encountered here) is, counterproductively, to cast doubt on Buddhism itself. For
if one respected figure claiming, or being claimed, to have achieved
enlightenment is uncertain to have done so, why not the others? But, as with all
hearsay evidence on esoteric claims, Buddhists have to rely on faith, anyway.
Also, fortunately, Buddhism is a lot richer, has much more going for it, than
the few philosophical ideas and arguments treated in the present essay.
presumably the same can be said for Nagarjuna (I have not read all his work). If
we view his arguments as serious logical discourse, we are bound to condemn him
as above done. But perhaps we should view it all more generously as a guru’s
tongue-in-cheek mimicry of logical discourse, intended purely as a koan
for logically minded persons (like me) to mull over and go beyond. In that case,
it is not the content of the discourse which counts for him, but its
psychological effect. He wants us to ‘die’ of laughter.
The Heart Sutra states: form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. And the same is true for sensation, perception, conception and consciousness.
Hakuin comments: “Striking aside waves to look for water when the waves are water! Forms don’t hinder emptiness; emptiness is the tissue of form. Emptiness isn’t destruction of form; form is the flesh of emptiness… Form and emptiness are not-two. If you pass these strange apparitions without alarm, they self-destruct. Forms sensation perception conception are sparks in the eye.”
Cheng, p. 37 – quoting MT
To reject arguments offered in favor of a conclusion does not imply
rejection of the conclusion concerned, since it might be reached by other
Zen Words for the Heart, translated in by Norman Waddell (Shambhala:
Boston, Mass., 1996). “The Heart Sutra was probably composed in
India about 1500 years ago”, which means a few hundred years after
Nagarjuna. The commentary is by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), a Japanese Zen