The Reality of Altruism: Reconstructing Śāntideva, A review of Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicāryāvatāra
By Paul Williams

Reviewed by Siderits, Mark

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 50, No. 3 (July 2000)
pp. 412-424

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

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Paul Williams' new book Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicāryāvatāra is Buddhology at its best, a masterful blend of two elements seldom successfully combined: a scholarly investigation of the tradition and a critical philosophical interrogation of some of the tradition's more important theories and arguments. The book is made up of five separate studies of some key verses of the eighth and ninth chapters of Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra [1] and their interpretation by Indian and Tibetan commentators. One of Williams' aims is to shed some light on the process whereby Tibetan commentarial traditions reshaped Indian Madhyamaka, with sometimes striking results. For instance, his study of Bodhicāryāvatāra 9.140 (chapter 4, "Identifying the Object of Negation") helps explain how the dGe lugs understanding of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka epistemology came to look rather more like the Svātantrika of the Indian Mādhyamika Bhāvaviveka. There is also discussion of a controversy over the nature of nirvāṇa (chapter 1), and an argument for cittamātra or consciousness-only, the view of the Yogācāra school (chapter 3). But it is the subject of his second and fifth chapters, the relation between the practice of altruism and our understanding of the nature of persons, that I shall focus on here.

    In two key passages Śāntideva argues that, given that the person is a mere conceptual fiction, it follows that one should be equally concerned for the well-being of all, that is, that self-interested concern for one's own welfare to the exclusion of that of others is the product of ignorance. The thesis that there is this entailment has been widely viewed as providing a rational ground for the bodhisattva's compassion. More recently, Derek Parfit (1984) has argued at some length for a similar claim. Williams is not convinced of the truth of the entailment. Indeed, in the long and intricately argued fifth chapter, Williams takes issue not only with the entailment thesis, but with the Reductionist view of persons itself. [2] In doing so he makes interesting use of current work in metaphysics and philosophy of mind. I agree with Williams that such views require careful philosophical scrutiny. And I most wholeheartedly applaud his efforts to bring contemporary analytic philosophy and the Buddhist tradition into dialogue with one another. I disagree with his conclusions, however. In what follows I shall, like Williams, be using considerations drawn from

 

 

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both the Buddhist tradition and contemporary analytic philosophy. My aim, though, is to defend what I take to be Śāntideva's position from Williams' critique.

    The subject of Williams' second chapter is Śāntideva's argument in Bodhicāryāvatāra 8.97-98. Śāntideva has just claimed (8.94-96) that the aspirant to enlightenment should work to help others overcome suffering, on the grounds that suffering is equally bad regardless of where it happens to occur. To this he can well imagine the opponent responding that there is all the difference in the world between suffering that happens to someone else and suffering that happens to oneself. Śāntideva then argues as follows:

97. If one says that that suffering [of other persons] does not harm me, hence it should not be protected against,
Then since the sufferings of future bodies (āgāmikāyaduḥkha) do not harm me, why should they be protected against?

98. "Because that is me"; if this is one's thought, that is a mistaken construction, For it is one [person] who dies and another who is [re]born.

    As Williams construes it, the argument is that since one does have self-interested concern for one's future births, even though the person who is reborn is numerically distinct from the present person, one is shown to be inconsistent in not exhibiting equal concern for contemporary others. But, Williams maintains, this argument creates a dilemma for Śāntideva. The Buddhist tradition had generally taken personal identity to extend over rebirth. If Śāntideva denies this, he on the one hand runs the risk of falling into the heresy of annihilationism (ucchedavāda), with its alleged consequence of moral nihilism. He thereby invites the opponent to respond (in the manner of the moral nihilist) that one then does not have reason to care about the consequences for that person in the next life. The opponent will then conclude that one should show special concern only for the welfare of oneself in this life, and not for the welfare of contemporary others. On the other hand, if Śāntideva takes the orthodox line on personal identity over rebirth, then the opponent can claim that since the person who is reborn is indeed me, I do after all have special reason for self-interested concern in that person's welfare, a reason that is absent in the case of contemporary others. On either horn of the dilemma, the opponent is able to escape the conclusion that one should exhibit equal concern for the suffering of others.

    Williams himself shows some sympathy for the line the opponent takes on the first horn of this dilemma: that one does have reason for special concern with regard to one's future states in the present life, but not for the states either of one's future lives or of contemporary others. He takes the fact of bodily continuity to ground special self-interested concern over a lifetime: refraining from smoking now results in absence of lung disease later, not flossing now results in gum disease later, and so forth. And it shall be me who has the healthy lungs and painful gums. Williams grants that that future person's being me does not consist in the continued existence of some extra entity, the self; it is rather just the product of what he calls the "me-construction." But he takes this construction to be grounded in the facts of bodily

 

 

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continuity. There could be no such grounding for the sort of "we-construction" that Śāntideva seems to advocate -- a construction that had each of us exhibiting equal concern for the welfare of all.

    Śāntideva should, I think, be taken to task for his formulation of the argument in 98cd. To say that it is one person who dies and another person who is reborn is incompatible with the orthodox Buddhist view of rebirth. In regard to that view, one can say either of two things:

1. The person who dies and the person who is reborn are the same person.

2. The psychophysical elements (skandhas) that occur at the end of one life cause the arising of (numerically distinct) elements at the beginning of a new life.

(1) is conventionally true, while (2) approximates to an expression of the ultimate truth. Moreover, (1) is conventionally true just because of the ultimate truth of (2), plus the fact that 'person' is a convenient designation for a causal series of sets of psychophysical elements. The ultimate truth is completely impersonal: one can only speak of skandhas (or better yet, dharmas), not of the persons who are thought to "have" these bodily and mental states. Thus it would be ultimately false to state that the person who dies and the person who is reborn are distinct persons. [3] This statement is likewise conventionally false. Given the convention that assigns the convenient designation 'person' to a causal series of sets of skandhas, plus the causal link between death consciousness and rebirth consciousness, we must say that these are the same person -- and thus that karmic fruit is deserved. The situation here is not different in kind from the one that typically obtains over the course of a single lifetime: none of the psychophysical elements that make up the youth exists continuously into one's old age; yet, for all that, we may hold the old person responsible for the deeds of the youth. Since it is not identity of material and mental constituents that account for this, it must be the fact that there are complex causal links between the elements that make up the youth and those that make up the old person.

    But did Śāntideva actually mean to say that it is one person who dies and another who is reborn? Granted, this is a natural reading of 98cd, but another is possible, one that Williams himself hints at (pp. 44-45). This is that the psychophysical elements constituting the person at death are numerically distinct from those constituting that person at rebirth. That is, Śāntideva means to indicate the link between the conventional truth (1) and the ultimate truth (2) discussed above. I concede that the verse in question would be an infelicitous way of putting this point. But it does open up a way of more charitably construing the argument. On this reading, Śāntideva is calling our attention to the fact that it is through a convention that there is constituted a person who then exhibits self-interested concern for her/his future (in this life or, for those who take rebirth as a given, in future lives). While self-interested concern strikes us as natural and inevitable, the truth is quite otherwise. None of the presently existing psychophysical elements will continue to exist when that future suffering occurs; that that future suffering will occur to me is a socially constructed fact. Specifically, it is the product of my having learned to identify with the past and

 

 

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future states of this causal series -- my having learned to think of this series as a person, me. It is worth remembering that we must teach children to anticipate future pleasure and pain. The child's first response to the parental "You'll be sorry tomorrow" is one of indifference to the fate of that future unfortunate. Likewise the child must learn, when the painful consequences of past deeds come to fruition, to regard those acts as its own, and to feel regret. The child's first response is to feel simple, unbridled outrage at the pain being visited upon it by an apparently hostile universe.

    Williams will no doubt point out that this convention is all for the best, and this is true. The convenient designation 'person,' like any other convenient designation, is adopted for its utility, given our interests. But what are the specific interests that are expressed in our adoption of this convenient designation? Śāntideva has already told us (8.94), and he will make the point even more clearly in a few more verses (8.102-103): suffering is bad and should be prevented. There is, ultimately, no one who suffers; there is just suffering, associated with this and that psychophysical element, occurring in this and that causal series. Since suffering is bad, the arrangement to be sought for is the one that minimizes suffering. And the convention that unifies causal series of sets of elements in accordance with the concept of the person helps achieve that end. When present psychophysical elements learn to identify with past and future elements in a causal series, this lessens the incidence of what we conventionally call gross imprudence: acting in a way that brings about minor present pleasure but that also results in greater pain later in that causal series. In a culture that supports the belief in karma and rebirth, this can also lessen the incidence of acts conventionally deemed immoral -- acts that result in pleasure for the agent series but also greater pain in distinct causal series.

    The person-convention has, then, consequentialist grounding. But as is often the case with consequentially justified rules, other arrangements may prove equally efficacious, or even more so at maximizing overall utility. It is, after all, only an accident of location that makes it the case that these psychophysical elements are well situated to look after the welfare of future elements in this causal series. It frequently happens that these elements are also well situated to promote the welfare of contemporary elements not a part of this causal series. When this is the case, then the same justification that stands behind "Because that is me" will apply with equal force: suffering is bad, and should be prevented. One has just as much reason to prevent the suffering of others, when one is able. And just as the child can learn to identify with past and future elements in the causal series -- to anticipate that future pain, to feel shame at that past action -- so the aspirant to enlightenment can learn to identify with suffering occurring in distinct causal series. This is just what Śāntideva sets out to show in the remainder of Bodhicāryāvatāra 8: he describes a variety of techniques that are useful in cultivating sympathetic identification with the hedonic states of others. The point of the argument of 8.97-98 is that the childhood training that resulted in our becoming persons was incomplete, and needs to be supplemented with these techniques of bodhisattva training.

    The subject of chapter 5 is the argument of Bodhicāryāvatāra 8.101-1 03, which may be rendered as follows:

 

 

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101. The continuant and the collective are unreal, like the row, the army, etc. There exists no one whose suffering this is, hence of whom will there be the owning of this?

102. Ownerless sufferings are all devoid of distinction [between "mine" and "other"]. Because it is suffering, it is to be prevented; how can this be restricted?

103. If it were asked why suffering is to be prevented, it is agreed upon without exception by all [that it is].
Thus, if it is to be prevented, then also all [of it is to be prevented]; if not, then one's own case is also like that of [other] persons.

Williams takes the argument to be essentially this: while we all show self-interested concern in seeking to remove our own pain, rational consistency requires that we strive equally to remove the pain of others. For since there are no persons, the only possible justification for seeking to remove one's own pain is that pain is bad and should be removed. And this justification applies equally to the pain of others. Hence, the realization of the fact that there is no self and that the person is a mere conceptual fiction must bring about the transformation of egoistic concern into genuine altruism.

    Williams lays great emphasis on the point that the argument must be construed as denying the existence of persons not only ultimately but conventionally as well. For, Williams claims, if Śāntideva merely denies that persons are ultimately real, but concedes that the me-construction is a useful conceptual fiction that may be adopted for purposes of ordinary interaction, then we will still be justified in distinguishing (conventionally) between our own pain and that of others. And our interventions in the world require conceptualization in terms of the conventional truth: we cannot, for instance, act so as to end the pain of others if we are unable to distinguish between the person who is presently suffering and the person who is presently experiencing indifference, for then we won't know whom to help. So Śāntideva needs the claim that persons are unreal to be true conventionally. But this has many dire consequences; indeed it renders Śāntideva's position incoherent. Hence the subtitle of the chapter: "How Śāntideva Destroyed the Bodhisattva Path."

    I agree with Williams that the argument will not work if it involves denying that persons are conventionally real. As will already be evident, however, I do not think the argument need be construed this way. Instead, I think that Śāntideva is once again reminding us that since persons are ultimately unreal -- that ultimately there is suffering but none who suffers -- the conventional reality of persons can only be grounded consequentially, which in turn shows that the utility of the me-construction can be improved upon. When we come to know the truth of Reductionism, we realize that our thinking of ourselves as persons -- each living a separate life -- is merely a useful device for realizing the ultimate (impersonal) goal of maximizing overall welfare. And we thereby come to see that it is equally incumbent on us to strive to ameliorate the suffering of others. It would be rational to persist in the practice of privileging self-interested concern only if it could be shown that this practice results in less overall suffering than any other. And we have ample reason to

 

 

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believe that this is false. We may continue to employ the useful fiction of the person in our interactions. But seeing this fiction for what it is, we now know not to let it blind us to the real needs of others for our assistance.

    There is much more to Williams' critical assessment of the argument, however, and even if I am right in my overall interpretation, a number of Williams' more specific criticisms are still capable of doing serious mischief. For Williams is convinced that the Reductionist position espoused by Ābhidharmikas and, more recently, by Parfit, is untenable. Of the many objections he raises, I shall focus principally on two that strike me as especially important: (1) the question whether, if persons are not conceptually primary, it is possible to identify sets of psychophysical elements in the way required for the construction of persons, and (2) the question whether sense can be made of the claim that pains are subjectless.

    Williams claims that Reductionism cannot explain in a non-question-begging way the construction of persons out of wholly impersonal psychophysical elements. For consider all the psychophysical elements occurring at moment tn, all the elements occurring at tn+1, and so forth. The construction of persons requires that certain of the elements that occurred at tn be associated with certain ones occurring at tn, and how are we to know which go with which? The Reductionist will, of course, appeal to causal connections here: the person-series is constructed out of psycho-physical elements by associating a given simultaneously occurring set with its prior causes. But Williams suggests that this cannot be right, since events in (what we intuitively consider) one person-series can cause later events in another: my sneeze causes your startlement, your witty repartee causes my amusement, and so forth. [4] The Reductionist's glib appeal to causal connections "of the right sort" merely masks covert appeal to persons as continuants: we could know which causal connections are the "right" ones only if we already knew what it means for a person to continue to exist over time. [5] Now Williams has also claimed that Śāntideva must deny that persons are conventionally real (unlike the Reductionist, who affirms their conventional reality), so it is not clear why this should be a problem for his argument. On my reading of the argument, though, Śāntideva is relying on Reductionist assumptions. So a successful defense of the argument will require that this objection be answered.

    The Buddhist Reductionist response will rely on the idea that persons are constructed out of sets of psychophysical elements exhibiting the property of maximal causal connectedness. To see how such a construction works, consider the set of elements at t1, including a certain nose-state, that collectively give rise to a sneeze at t2, which in turn causes a feeling of startlement at t3, but also to a feeling of relief at t3. Now the nose-state that is among the conditions of the sneeze is likewise a condition of the feeling of relief (it is a feeling of relief from that very state). And the feeling of startlement has as one of its conditions a certain faculty of hearing. In order for the feeling of startlement to have occurred at t3, the nose whose nose-state that is and the ear whose faculty of hearing that is must be in proximity to one another at t2. But as we track this nose and this ear at subsequent moments, [6] we shall find them moving out of proximity to one another, so that the states of one can no longer cause

 

 

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events in the other. The ear will, though, remain in relatively close proximity to the hand that was caused, by the feeling of startlement, to drop the cup. And the nose and the feeling of relief may together directly give rise to further psychological states. And so on. Including the feeling of startlement in the set containing the sneeze would thus diminish the degree of overall causal connectedness. Including the feeling of relief in this set, on the other hand, would increase the degree of overall causal connectedness of the set. The goal of the construction is to include as many elements as possible consistent with the maximizing of causal connectedness.

    That the Reductionist can give a recipe for constructing the person out of impersonal elements does not, however, prove that the construction is not question-begging in Williams' sense. For it is possible that this recipe was arrived at in total reliance on our pre-theoretic intuitions about persons and personal identity, so that it does, after all, smuggle in the concept of a person. The Reductionist needs to give some independent reason, formulatable in impersonal terms, why this construction should have been adopted. This the Reductionist can do, once we grant that the point of the construction of persons is the maximization of overall utility. For, systems with the capacities of self-scrutiny, self-control, and self-revision turn out to be quite effective at local maximizing. And such systems can only be constructed out of sets of elements exhibiting maximal causal connectedness. The construction of the person as a series of psychophysical elements with maximal causal connectedness has consequential justification.

    One consequence of this approach to the construction of persons is that it becomes possible for persons to undergo fission, namely in those cases where one causal series x gives rise to two successor causal series y and z, and both xUy and xUz have maximal causal connectedness, but yUz does not. Indeed fission, or branching, is a possibility for any version of Reductionism. For it is the hallmark of this view that personal identity is all in the numbers: my now being the same person as someone at some distinct time just consists of there being enough connections (of a certain specified sort) between me and that person. This opens up the possibility that in exceptional cases there may be enough such connections between me now and two distinct persons later. Williams raises the possibility of fission as a reductio on Reductionism (p. 135), but it is not clear why he takes this consequence to be absurd. As Rovane (1990) points out, while many of us would not want to branch, all the first-person psychological attitudes could survive such an event, provided we knew in advance that it was going to occur. (Indeed, the Tibetans are said to grant the possibility of branching rebirth.) That many of us find fission inconceivable may just show that our intuitions concerning personhood are constructed on the basis of certain contingent features of our world, such as that we lack reliable teletransportation, and that a functioning human brain stem cannot now survive surgical division and transplanting. If Williams is to use the possibility of fission as the basis of a reductio, he needs to give some principled argument for its absurdity.

    Williams also claims that Śāntideva's argument requires that pains be "free-floating," that is, that pains are not the states of particular subjects such as persons. In one sense this is false. On my understanding of his argument, Śāntideva can per-

 

 

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fectly well endorse the conventional truth that pains are always felt by such sentient beings as persons. So it would be misleading to characterize his view as maintaining that pains simply occur somehow scattered across the landscape. It would be conventionally false to claim that there could be pains that are not felt by any sentient being. At the level of conventional truth, there are pains and there are subjects who experience them. What Śāntideva's argument does require is that pains also be ultimately real, but that persons are not. Since persons are conceptual fictions that are constructed out of such psychophysical elements as pains, persons cannot share this ontological status with such things as pains. The argument is that since the conventional truth that pains are felt by persons is not grounded in the ultimate existence of persons, but instead merely reflects a useful arrangement for maximizing overall utility, our intuitions about ownership should not stand in the way of our adopting practices that better maximize overall utility, namely the practices of the bodhisattva path. This does commit Śāntideva to the ultimate existence of subjectless pains, however. So, to this extent, Williams is correct.

    Williams holds that the notion of free-floating pain is incoherent -- that pains necessarily have a subject. To this end, he advances both an adverbial analysis and an event analysis of pain statements. At the same time, he assures us that pains are quite real, that there genuinely is such a thing as what it is like to be in pain. Of course this "what it is like" is elliptical for "what it is like for the subject whose pain it is." This is necessary in order that it be a deep truth that your pains are yours and mine are mine -- that ownership not be a mere conceptual construction. Thus he utilizes a locution of Abhidharma to claim that pain is "found under analysis" (p. 247 n. 86), that it has its own intrinsic nature: "It hurts. Its existence is its hurting..." (p. 246). Here, interestingly, he sides with Abhidharma over Madhyamaka: he finds incoherent the Madhyamaka claim that nothing bears its own intrinsic nature (which he finds equivalent to metaphysical nihilism; see p. 222 n. 26). And he sees sheer sophistry in the common argument that what is dependently originated cannot bear its own intrinsic nature (pp. 244-245). Indeed, he goes so far as to doubt whether sensations in general (including pains) can in themselves involve propositional attitudes (p. 246) -- thereby apparently accepting the so-called myth of the given. Ābhidharmikas would, of course, applaud this endorsement of their view about what the ultimate reals are like. Whether Williams can appropriate this part of the Buddhist Reductionist package without also accepting the other part -- that pains are ultimately real but that their subjects are not -- is worth looking into.

    Using an adverbial analysis, being in pain is a state that a person (or other subject of experiences) is in. Using an event analysis, being in pain is a change that a person undergoes. Williams hastens to assure us that there is such a thing as what the pain itself (what being in pain) is like. Thus he imagines that a robot might feel pain, even though the robot shares none of our biological properties or evolutionary history. Still, pains are necessarily states of persons, or changes that occur to persons. (Since Williams holds this to be a necessary truth, he believes it to be ultimately true.) In support of this he quotes psychologist Ronald Melzack: "Pain ... demands immediate attention, and disrupts ongoing behavior and thought. It motivates or

 

 

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drives the organism into activity aimed at stopping the pain as quickly as possible" (p. 252 n. 98).

    So pain is to be given a functional analysis: something's counting as a pain-state or pain-event necessarily involves its playing a certain functional role for the organism (or robot) whose pain it is. The question now arises as to what gives pain its allegedly intrinsic nature, that is, its phenomenal feel, its "what-it-is-like-ness." If something's being a pain-state/event necessarily involves its playing a certain functional role for certain sorts of complex systems, then it appears that its phenomenal properties must reductively supervene on the more basic properties of that system. [7] If nothing else, the multiple realizability of functional states ensures this. If humans, bats, and robots can all feel pain, then what realizes the "pain" role will differ across systems -- in the human system a certain neurophysiological state, in the robot system a certain electromechanical state, and so forth. But then the phenomenal properties of human pain will supervene on facts about human neurophysiology. There are ultimately just those facts about human neurophysiology (and their evolutionary history) that make it the case that, given certain inputs, certain outputs can be anticipated. These facts wholly explain human pain-behavior. Given all this, pain turns out not to have an intrinsic nature. To revert to Abhidharma vocabulary, it "borrows" its essential properties from other things, namely its neurophysiological realizers. Pain, it transpires, is a conceptual construction.

    Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that our commonsense notion of pain as a subjective state is inherently unstable, consisting as it does of two distinct elements that are hard to reconcile. On the one hand there is the reading of "subjective state" that makes of pain something that necessarily pertains to a subject whose pain-state/event it is. This reading seems to require that pain be identified functionally. On the other hand there is the reading of "subjective state" that makes of pain something whose nature it is to feel a certain way. This reading requires that pain have an intrinsic nature. A functional analysis is difficult to reconcile with claims concerning an intrinsic nature. Buddhist Reductionists sought to reconcile these two aspects of our notion of pain by placing them at different levels. Conceived as something that ultimately exists, pain is said to have an intrinsic nature, being painful. That it is ultimately real means, however, that it is not the state of a subject, or that it represents some change in a subject. Pain is, of course, cognized by a consciousness, but a pain-feeling and a consciousness are two distinct reals, both of equal ontological status, and neither may be said to be a subject in the ordinary sense. If we wish to speak of pain as the state of a subject, we must revert to the conventional truth, where we speak of the person as the enduring owner of the impermanent psycho-physical states. This locution results from adopting the policy of hypostatizing the causal series of psychophysical elements, which yields a subject that is thought of as transcending these elements, these then being treated as its states. This policy is adopted because it facilitates a system's capacities for self-scrutiny, self-control, and self-revision, capacities that enhance overall utility. [8]

    To put the point in conventional terms, persons need to be able periodically to review their states, actions, and policies, and make needed adjustments to maximize

 

 

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overall well-being. For it is these capacities that give the person-construction its consequentialist justification. Realizing these capacities requires that persons be able to think of certain states, actions, and policies -- those pertaining to the causal series that constitutes a person -- as their own. Hence the construction of the "transcendent yet contentful" subject (Strawson 1986, p. 112), the construction of the person as something existing over and above the psychophysical elements. This fiction is useful. The point of Śāntideva's argument, though, is that its utility can be improved upon through other sorts of constructions.

    There is one further point concerning Williams' understanding of Buddhist Reductionism that I think deserves comment. The Abhidharmika denies that wholes such as chariots, trees, and persons exist, claiming that they are mere conceptual fictions thought to exist solely because of our use of a convenient designation. Williams takes this to mean that according to the Buddhist Reductionist, if there were no minds there would be no such things as chariots, and so forth. Williams takes this to be absurd:

The parts making up a mountain genuinely are parts making up a mountain. The parts exist independently of minds, their relationships exist independently of minds, and the mountain exists independently of minds. All this, is perfectly compatible with there being no mountain apart from and alongside its parts, and of course with the impermanence of the mountain when its parts come apart. (p. 120)

To think otherwise, Williams claims, is to advance the absurd view that mountains come into existence only when minds have appeared. But here I think Williams may be confused about what the Reductionist is saying. They agree that it is absurd to suppose that before the appearance of sentient life on Earth there were none of those arrangements of atoms that are conveniently designated as mountains. They agree that these parts have mind-independent existence, as do their relationships (i.e, the properties of each particular atom). But they see no way of affirming the mind-independent existence of the mountain without supposing it to be something extra, existing over and above the parts. All the facts about the mountain can be explained in terms of facts about the particular atoms; the mountain itself plays no autonomous explanatory role. Our belief in the existence of the mountain is readily explained by our use of a convenient designation reflective of our contingent human interests. Why, then, suppose it to exist? This question becomes especially pointed when we consider the sorts of sorites difficulties that are attendant upon admitting mountains to our ultimate ontology: where, precisely, does Mt. Everest begin? [9] While the parts with their properties have determinate identities (as befits things with mind-independent reality), the whole does not.

    My defense of Śāntideva has proceeded on the basis of an interpretation of his view that differs in some ways from Williams' own. Williams might respond by pointing out that on the interpretation I favor, Śāntideva appears to hold that such things as pains and other psychophysical elements are ultimately real. Yet as a Mādhyamika, Śāntideva ought to claim that nothing is ultimately real, that there are only conceptual fictions. [10] Indeed Śāntideva says nothing in either of the arguments

 

 

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we have considered that could not be said by an Ābhidharmika, and we should find this fact surprising. I suspect the reason for this has to do with the fact that chapter 8, "The Perfection of Meditation," precedes chapter 9, "The Perfection of Understanding," and it is only in the latter chapter that the doctrine of emptiness is established. Śāntideva is, in other words, giving us a "graded" or progressive teaching (cf. MMK XVIII.8).

    Indeed, the practice of extending self-interested concern to all sentient beings is not unknown in the Buddhist Reductionist tradition (see, e.g., Visuddhimagga IX). But this, in turn, suggests a possible answer to another important question Williams raises. One of his final objections to Śāntideva's argument is that if our motivation for helping others stems from the realization that ultimately there are no persons, our efforts may come to seem aloof and uncaring to their recipients, thereby rendering them relatively ineffective (pp. 175-176). The suggestion, however, is this: if we see the arguments of chapter 8 as fitting into a scheme of progressive teachings, then that makes them provisional, with corrections ensuing after the full realization of emptiness (the topic of chapter 9). And if the realization of emptiness involves the understanding that existing things can only exist in the manner of conceptual fictions, then it is possible that the bodhisattva's practice of helping others may take on a more personal tone -- may, that is, reflect greater attentiveness to the concrete individuality of the persons involved. For while personhood is still seen as a fiction, this status is no longer subject to invidious comparison with something deeper -- since everything is equally empty. While the fact remains that one should help others because suffering is bad regardless of location, taking location into account will no longer appear to the bodhisattva as sheer ignorance. I advance this reading of the argument as no more than a suggestion, for it has its own difficulties; but it strikes me as a possibility worth investigating.

    I should close by repeating that I find Altruism and Reality important and exciting. My focus here has been on those elements I disagree with, but there is much that I think is exactly right, and much, too, that is, for me, useful new information. Even where I disagree, I am impressed by the seriousness with which Williams takes the views in question, and the rigor he devotes to their examination. Buddhist philosophy deserves no less; on this I am sure Williams and I agree.

 

Notes

1. The widely available translation by Crosby and Skilton (Śāntideva 1993) is useful and generally reliable.

2. I shall use "Reductionism" to refer to the view of persons that is, I believe, common to Parfit and most schools of Abhidharma Buddhism (most importantly Vaibhāṣika and Theravāda). For a fuller characterization of this view, and an argument for the claim that it is held in common by these parties, see my "Buddhist Reductionism," Philosophy East and West 47 (4) (October 1997): 455-478.

 

 

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3. Neither can one say that ultimately they are the same person; at the level of ultimate truth, personal identity is subject to genuine failure of bivalence. For instance, in Milindapañha, when Nāgasena tells Milinda that the adult Milinda is neither the same person as, nor someone other than, the infant Milinda, he is not equivocating on "same person"; it is numerical and not qualitative identity that is at issue in both parts of the "neither the same nor different" formula. Dummett (1978) has taught us to see bivalence failure as the mark of the antirealist. But this failure of bivalence does not come about for Dummettian reasons, for example because Nāgasena holds that personal identity cannot obtain independently of the warranted assertibility of certain statements concerning the history of a particular psychophysical complex. Rather, Nāgasena would claim that adult and infant cannot be said to be either the same person or different persons because ultimately persons do not exist, that is, because no statement concerning persons can be ultimately true.

4. Williams also sees a problem for the Buddhist Reductionist in unifying the series of body elements and the series of mind-elements (p. 135), but it is not clear why. Abhidharma followed early Buddhism in building causal interaction between rūpa and nāma skandhas into its picture of the causal series. Indeed, it would be difficult, on the Buddhist Reductionist picture, to construct two distinct series.

5. Williams is wrong to attribute (p. 130) this allegedly question-begging use of the expression to Parfit. When the latter couches the Psychological Criterion of personal identity in terms of a psychological continuity that has the right kind of cause, he is merely leaving it open what sort of causal mechanism is responsible for the obtaining of causal connections between, say, a certain experience and a later experience-memory: the normal cause (the continued existence of the same brain), any reliable cause (e.g., reliable teletransportation, or rebirth with full memory retention), or any cause (e.g., an unreliable teletransporter, on those occasions when it does work). This results in three distinct versions of the Psychological Criterion, of which at most one can be correct. Parfit is not thereby issuing a blank check to the Reductionist to tailor causal series to our pre-theoretic intuitions. See Parfit 1984, pp. 207-209).

6. Or, if we are assuming momentariness, the successor noses and ears that replace these in succeeding moments.

7. By reductive supervenience is meant determination with explanation. That is, there can be no change in base properties without change in the supervening properties, and the supervening properties lack genuinely autonomous explanatory and causal powers.

8. Here my thinking has been influenced by Dennett's account of control and self-control (1985, pp. 50-73), as well as by his account of the self as the Center of Narrative Gravity (1991, pp. 412-430).

 

 

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9. Buddhist Reductionists did not employ sorites arguments against the existence of wholes for the simple reason that their realist opponents the Naiyāyikas anticipated the difficulty and resolved it, by a drastic expedient: they claimed that with respect to partite substances, the replacement of a single part or the change of a single quality results in its cessation, the result of the change being the coming into existence of a new entity. See Ramaiah 1978, pp. 61-90.

10. Williams finds this Madhyamaka view incoherent, whereas I do not. But this difference need not concern us here.

 

References

Dennett, Daniel. 1985. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Bradford.

Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Dummett, Michael. 1978. "Realism." In Truth and Other Enigmas, pp. 145-165. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Milindapañho. 1972. Edited by R. D. Vadekar. Bombay: Bombay University Publications. (Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids as The Questions of King Milinda. Sacred Books of the East, vols. 35, 36. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1890.)

Parfit, Derek. 1984. Reasons and Persons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ramaiah, C. 1978. The Problem of Change and Identity in Indian Philosophy. Tirupati: Sri Venkateswara University Press.

Rovane, Carol. 1990. "Branching Self-Consciousness." Philosophical Review, July, pp. 355-395.

Śāntideva. 1993. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton. London: Oxford University Press.

Strawson, Galen. 1986. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Clarendon Press.