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Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought


Chapter 13.      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[1].

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.[2]

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


[1]           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.

[2]           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.



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