Sunday, March 29, 2015

Science, Buddhism and Causality

Kurt Lewin was brilliant to distinguish systematic from historical causality. When people think of causality today, most of the time they are thinking of cause and effect within some artificial, abstract reference system. That's because their education trained them to think within these reference systems. They work like transparent maps that are superimposed onto perceived phenomena that structure the otherwise chaotic experience below. Those reference systems in modern, scientific terms most commonly share one important property: they reside within Gaussian space with its independent-event models. Within this type of thinking, cause is always linked to an effect, most commonly within a dimensional reference frame.  If a projectile travels in your general direction with a certain speed, you can calculate the time until impact. You're hit because a projectile travels toward you. Even if there are exceptions, the Gaussian assumption guarantees the explanation to hold true for at least a significant amount of cases. What is significant, then, goes by consensus. (Lewin, 1936, ch. 5)

When reading and thinking about classical Ionian and Buddhist philosophies, systematic causality is not very helpful. It is tied into our modern, scientific thinking whose models were not established yet. Apart from "everyday" causality, i.e. that which is apparent to our rudimentary thinking, ancient causal chains were free from the predictive notion of effect. They were retrospective, explanatory models of phenomena that emerge upon each other, where the subsequent phenomenon may arise on these causes non-predictably, but it may not arise without these causes. Probabilities, equal and other distributions were not "scientifically" available yet.

So cause in this sense is retrospective: It is not possible that the latter may be there without the former. Thus, the chain of dependent-origination as translated by Walshe (1987) must be understood in that particular epistemology:

  • Aging and death may not be there without Birth.
  • Birth may not be there without a concept of Becoming (something).
  • Becoming may not be there without a concept of Clinging (to the concept that is the target of Becoming).
  • Clinging may not be there without a concept of Craving (the desire to experience the target of craving).
  • Craving may not be there without Feeling (sensual experience conditions desirable and non-desirable concepts)
  • Feeling may not be there without Contact
  • Contact may not be there without the Six Sense Bases (that which smell, taste, touch, sound, feeling and thought emerge from)
  • The Six Sense-Bases may not be there without Mind-and-Body (the biology and the emerging phenomenon of a mind)
  • Mind-and-Body would not exist without consciousness (there was nothing that could take notice of it as Mind-and-Body)
  • Consciousness would not exist if there were no Karma-formations (a cosmic momentum that drives the evolutionary and autopoietic processes and produces awareness, being conscious of being conscious)
  • Karma-formations were not possible without Ignorance (the illusion that phenomena are something special that need conscious recognition and appraisal; Walshe, 1987, p. 34)

So this causal chain is a cognitive rather than an ontological one, from an introspective first person perspective that does not assume any outside phenomena that exist apart from consciousness thereof. From today's perspective this chain is not deterministic. Only because there is craving, there must not be clinging. Each stage is constructed on the prior one. So this model of the world is perceptional, not a cosmology. This is understandable, as it serves the purpose to deal with and rearrange internal, perceptional phenomena of the mind. Buddha aims at the deconstruction of mental phenomena in the sense of Derrida, who stated that there is no thing outside of context, "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (Derrida, 1967, p. 219). All things reside within the the perceptional context of the now. Thus, deconstruction aims at the above-described schemata that are superimposed on the perception of what we project as "outside" world. John Locke distinguishes these two modes of perception as sensation (direct perception) and reflection (internal perception of thoughts; Locke, 1690, Book II, ch. I-5).

Thus reflection is the target of the chain of deconstruction that is done by bracketing mental constructions to understand their nature and thus transcend them. Buddha  explains these stages to his disciple Ananda in the Mahâparinibbâna Sutta that describes Buddha's last days:

  1. Realize, that everyday consciousness produces internal perception of external forms that are limited and judged beuatiful or ugly.
  2. Realize that there is judged internal perception of external forms, but the external forms are really unlimited.
  3. Giving up internal forms, one sees external forms that still appear to be limited and judged.
  4. Giving up notions of limitation, one realizes that external phenomena are not limited but everything is expresison of one context, however there is still judgment of the perception. This stage creates the awarenes of an observer of observation.
  5. -7. When the perception of forms are given up there is still the perception of colours that makes a difference (blue, yellow and red).
     8.  One transcends the perception of colors and realizes everthing is light ("white")

Thus, the final realization is one of a blank slate of light, the consciousness where every phenomenon appears in (Walshe, 1987, pp. 248-249). As with the above causal chains: Every realization is only possible if the stage before has been established as a foundation where further realization may form upon. Thus, an early notion of causality is explanatory, retrospective and non-empirical. Modern notions of cause and effect are limited to homogenistic, hierarchical and independent-event epistemologies. The early chains of causation were describing complex effects that are heterogenous and reside outside of these models. Maybe the drive to judge and model arises from a preference of many people for predictability over ambiguity. However, it is the chaos and ambiguity that brought them forward in the first place. Pondering this predictability, many people are concerned with next lives, past lives and afterlife. So from a perceptional point of view Buddha is not wrong when he emphasizes that this mental deconstruction is good for people in "all of their lives". Very likely concepts of past and subsequent lifes will fade once this deconstruction has been made. Of course, there is a human tendency to reintroduce them at any time.


Derrida, J. (1967). De la grammatologie. Prais, FR: Minuit.

Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Locke, J. (1690). An essay concerning humane understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC. London: Eliz. Holt.

Walshe, M. (1987). The long discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.