Buddhism, Science and Socialism

“Looking though human history and through global investigation of philosophical systems, one can conclude that there are two categories of human understanding of reality; One is the “come-on sense” understanding of reality. “Commonsense” knowledge is based on formal logic and empirical data.”

By Dr Vickramabahu Karunarathne

"The trouble is an intellectual one, indeed its solution if there is one, is to be sought in logic” - Bertrand Russell

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( September 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Early human thinkers identified movements, change of power, eternal problem of identity and negation of things. They believed reality consisted of interplay of several energy forms Greeks named these as gods of Olympus. Indians claimed these as "Maha Bhuta”. Similar views can be found in other early communities. This view of matter as “non matter’ or as forms arising out of change was the beginning of human understanding of reality. Natural human perception is thus dialectical. This is borne out by the fact that all early human thinkers including Buddha and Heraclites were dialecticians of one form or the other. They understood the world in its essential impermanence.

This early human understanding of reality was abandoned by Newtonian science. Science is based on investigating dead, inert lifeless matter. Even biology is based on studies made on inert matter. Also motion or dynamic processes are explained as sums of static images, or series of small quantitative changes. Detailed study of compounds and chemicals was seen as the only way forward. It was assumed that such detailed studies put together could recover the reality, not as an integral whole but as a sum total.

Newtonian scientists did not see any use of considerations beyond logic. Formal logic system based on “A =A” was considered to be the ultimate tool of analysis and intellectual investigation. Dialectical view based on in impermanence was considered to be the view of mystics and eccentrics. Empirical study became an end in itself “nothing can be lost by taking things apart; it can give the detailed picture in its essence”. Such views were considered to be serious and sensible. The reductionist principle was applied to everything including human mind. An attempt was made to explain human thought through a set of chemical and electro-magnetic equations.

Success in practice, particularly in the factory system after the industrial revolution was largely responsible for the dominance of this “scientific view" among ruling elites in the Western society. Their motto was “what is useful in practice must be the truth”. Thus science was tied to the usefulness within the industrial world. Hence at that stage nobody in the scientific community was prepared to challenge this “scientific view point”. However, challenge developed outside the scientific community, among the radical philosophers and thinkers. Such thinkers broke the rigid framework set by mechanistic materialism. They brought back to the scientific community the necessity of understanding ever present impermanent nature of things.

The reality of empirical scientists is confined to practical experience and laboratory tests. But this experience of the middle world of ordinary objects and "common sense”, ceases to exist when one moves into cosmology or particle physics. At either of these ends, the material world as defined by physical forms ceases to be the reality. In place of physical forms, the reality turns out to be of fluxes of energy. In the end, change, negation, identity and inter-relations, replace everything that can even remotely be called physical. Does that mean physical experience is an illusion? Does that mean mind and matter cease to be separate things? Does that mean thinking and impermanence are two sides of reality and the identity of mind and matter thus created is the ultimate truth?

Physical Materialism

Formal logic and physical materialism of common sense has been finally overthrown not by philosophers that challenge them. These were overthrown by modern scientists and mathematicians such as Einstein, Neil Bohr, Heisenberg, Gödel and Stephan Gould. They showed very clearly within science and mathematics, that the reality of “common sense” does not exist, beyond the world of scientists. Does that mean physical reality has been abolished? No, what they showed is that physical reality that we experience in ordinary practice is only a form that arises out of impermanence: eternal change, negation, identity and inter-relations. Impermanence creates physical reality and physical reality produces through brain, human mind, and in turn human mind allows perception, thinking and cognition. Hence the identity of mind and matter exists only through the physical reality. Or, in reverse, we could say mind exists in the brain, brain exists in physical reality and physical reality exists in impermanence, the ultimate reality.

Human thinking arises within human self. Two are dialectically related. Human thought is an autonomous function, but mind could relate to the physical reality only though the human body. Identity between physical reality and mind exists through human body. Mind cannot divorce itself from the brain. Those who ponder on such existence move into the domain of idealism. Idealistic thinking can exist with or without Einstein. It arises out of the assumption that mind can arise without the base provided by the human type physical existence. Dialectical materialism accepts impermanence as ultimate reality. Physicality is only a form of this reality. Impermanence gives rise to the laws of dialectics. Identity and inter-relation of all things, unity of the opposites, quantitative changes leading to change in quality and Negation of Negation are the laws that govern this reality. Already many scientists have become unconscious dialecticians.

Looking though human history and through global investigation of philosophical systems, one can conclude that there are two categories of human understanding of reality; One is the “come-on sense” understanding of reality. “Commonsense” knowledge is based on formal logic and empirical data. Elementary use of six organs, i.e. eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and brain made such a perception possible. But it is not a mental construction. One goes into practice on the basis of such knowledge. There are collective agreements and common conventions arising from such practice. Social production is the result of this process. It is the reality of ordinary day to day existence. All physical objects and physical experience fall within this reality.

Physical reality

Development of science whether it is in Europe, China or India was based on “common sense” understanding of reality. Investigations were carried out by breaking physical reality apart. Objects and phenomena were studied using component parts. Cartesian framework and ordinary understanding of time, based on day and night and movement of sun and moon, defined the background for scientific investigation.

On the other hand many great men of the ancient world including Buddha and Heraclites saw the fundamental reality as impermanence. If one investigates beyond reality of "commonsense” by entering the domain of macro or micro world, what exist is impermanence; arising and decay of identity and inter-relations. Physical reality of the commonsense world is only a form, arising out of impermanence and change. Marx, a relatively modern thinker arrived at the same understanding. However there are certain differences in the approach. In any case Buddha and Marx are separated by history and culture. Situations in which they arrived at “Fundamental reality” are very different. Buddha lived before exploitive societies appeared on earth. He struggled against Aryan caste system and its patriarchal reactionary practices, using debates and public discussions. Marx was born into Western capitalist society at the 'end of history'. It is the history based on class struggle.

Human thinking arises within human beings who are part and parcel of physicality created by impermanence. Hence there is identity between human thinking and impermanence, and it should be natural for humans to understand impermanence and the fundamental nature of reality. But in fact that does not appear to be the case. Buddhism explains this inability as a result of “Thrushna” (craving). Conversely if any human can remove this barrier then she/he would be able to understand impermanence, “the fundamental reality”. Marx on the other hand explained the inability of the proletariat in the capitalist society to gain consciousness by pointing to their “alienation’. Human alienation has removed the relative independence of human mind. Capitalist market system has taken control of human thinking. Under the hegemony of capital, humans are incapable of arriving at “Fundamental reality”. A conscious revolutionary movement is necessary to break out of this situation.

Technological innovations

The question is raised, why Europe entered this capitalist stage when others did not. Scientific discoveries and technological innovations were available in many countries. But in countries such as India and China, these inventions and innovations did not lead to an industrial revolution or to hegemony of formal empirical ideology. Industrial revolution was the result of the factory system. Main feature of a factory is the division of work among humans confined to the limits of factory. Creative work is replaced by monotonous repetitive jobs by detailed breakdown of the creative process. This happened long before the introduction of machines. To start such production it is necessary to find humans who are conditioned for monotonous, repetitive jobs, and also joined together by formal technical relations.

Humans naturally emerged as social beings in an ancestral society. Family bonds, blood relationships and tribal communal existence provided primitive emotional security. First civilizations did not disturb this natural organic existence of humans. There was harmony with nature and matriarchy remained dominant, at least at the village level. It was necessary to destroy such existence to create human dust necessary for the factory system. Europe which came under attacks from Nomadic hordes from the East since first wave of Aryan invasions became a rich ground for delocalized humans suitable for factory set up. There was, of course, several other reasons for the industrial take off. But the primary condition for the evolution of the factory system is the growth of humans displaced out of organic existence. Europe, through the brutality that it underwent, emerged as a strong industrial center that could dominate the world.

Marx identified tragedy of the humans under capitalist factory set up as ‘Alienation.’ Production system that was created by the humans has in turn deprived them of all sense of life. Human consciousness is detached from the reality of existence. Capital has 'taken over' consciousness, leaving humans as slaves tied to the system. Relative independence of human mind is lost. Under such conditions, humans are incapable of understanding "fundamental reality”. Proletarian revolution carried out by the conscious movement of working people under the leadership of Vanguard party armed with revolutionary ideology is the only way out.

Human alienation

Technology and forces of production built on human alienation consolidated the formal empirical view of reality. Domination of bourgeoisie productive forces is expressed by the hegemony of false ideology: “scientific outlook” based on formal logic and empirical investigation. However, further development of science itself created problems for the system. Philosophical criticism started with Kant and Hume. Kant exposed that the accepted notions on space and time are but the human way of conceiving reality and not reality itself. Hume showed that all causality recognizable to human intelligence is but the fragile principle of induction.

However, Newton- Aristotle world, with modifications, remained the reality for most scientists. Because it is the framework where modem technology exists.

Marx arrived at Dialectical Materialism through critical investigation of Hume, Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach. However this philosophical contribution was influential only within social sciences. The attempt of Soviet scientists to give lip service to Dialectical Materialism in their investigations reduced it to a collection of set phrases without a real content. All serious scientists were repelled by this crude attempt to use a philosophical view-point as an appendage of a propaganda kit. Hence until science has grown far beyond the limits set by Newtonian time space framework, no scientist was eager to look around for an explanation in the domain of philosophy. Temporary periods of stability that existed in the past within Western industrial society consolidated this attitude of the scientific community.

However, many scientists and mathematician in the course of their investigations exposed the limitations of the formal empirical system. Gödel showed that no formal system could be both complete and consistent. Heisenberg’s paradoxical principle of indeterminacy, in quantum mechanics showed the impossibility of ascertaining jointly certain magnitudes. Einstein rejected Newton’s space tint frame work, changing the hold of common sense reality within the scientific community. In the meantime in biology organism was seen as more than a thing made out of component parts. It is claimed that an organism cannot be understood except as a dynamic unified whole that is more than a sum of all parts and processes. Stephan Gould radically altered the concept of continuous evolution by his theory of punctuated equilibrium.

Breakdown of formal empirical framework of science created two trends within philosophy of science. These are not trends openly recognized by the Western scientific community, which is still dominated by the Newton Aristotle worldview. But in practice, these two trends have affected scientific research and investigation.

Firstly, there are those who wanted to rescue scientific practice - experimentation and induction-- from the rigidity of Newtonian framework, such as Kant, Mach and recent logical positivists. Secondly, there are those who looked around for a new kind of logic that will be useful in scientific investigations.

Though detached from Newtonian space, what positivism has done is only to sharpen the tools of formal logic and empirical analysis. Question of reality is thrown out of the domain of philosophy. According to positivists the philosopher’s function is to “clarify the propositions of science, by exhibiting their logical relationship and by defining the symbols which occur in them." By sticking to formal logic, positivism in general has restricted itself to the ordinary common sense reality. Thus the whole edifice of positivism rests on sense - experience of physical reality and identification of elements x. y. z. etc. Problem of positivism is so aptly expressed by Wittgenstein when he said “our justification for holding that world could not conceivably disobey the laws of logic is simply that we could not say of an unlogical world how it would look”.

Beyond Formal Logic

However there were those who wanted to go beyond the system of formal logic. They started by questioning classical negation, and on that basis challenged the law of excluded middle. If formal negation and alternative, is removed from the picture, "many valued logic” is possible. But the question is, if one were to reject the classical true - false dichotomy or the classical negation, what does negation mean? Birkoff and Von Neumann made a serious attempt to answer this question. But they could not give a valid answer that could be useful in quantum mechanics. Another attempt to exceed formal logic was made by Van Kampen who made use of Dirac delta functions to design new functions which are finite, infinite, continuous and non-continuous in the same sphere of application. However, all these attempts to go beyond formal logic have the same deficiency. They could not give a dynamic interpretation to negation. If negation in new logic is different from classical negation then it has to be impermanent. It should be a negation which gives rise to something other than the formal alternative. That means a becoming.

So the crisis in the scientific world continues. It is not only a crisis in the scientific outlook but a crisis of philosophy perpetuated by the industrial and technological complex. Human gains in the form of technology and culture consolidate our attachment to logical empiricist reality. We are forced to assume that the logical empiricist understanding as the end of human cognition. Intermediate reality, to which “unenlightened” mind is so strongly attached, cannot be exceeded without overthrowing the system that controls the human mind. In fact one has to detach from the physicality to identify with the “fundamental reality”, which is beyond the sense experienced physical reality. One has to understand that physical reality is a condition arising from impermanence and auto change. To achieve that understanding, one has to over come impediments that block the mind from realizing this end. Buddha explained these impediments in relation to craving. Craving represents the attachment to the physical reality and the common sense world. By suppressing craving one is empowered to see beyond the logical empiricist understanding, to see the fundamental nature of things. But irrespective of the process of arriving at “fundamental reality”, it enables us to use a logical apparatus dormant in mind. This new logical apparatus conforms to the reality that we are about to see. On the other hand, empowerment of mind by arrousing new logical tools to the thinking process means none other than understanding “fundamental reality” it self. In fact dialectical logic is nothing new to the human mind. Humans are endowed with this facility but craving for physicality suppresses this natural ability.

Problem of alienation

When we go from intermediate world of physical reality to either the microscopic world of quantum physics or the macroscopic world of astrophysics, we go through a qualitative change. We enter the fundamental reality where logic and analytical tools based on sense experience of ordinary reality is no longer valid. We cannot extend our sense experience using physical instruments beyond a certain point where physicality of the intermediate world ceases to exist. A new frame of reference is necessary in a fundamental reality where impermanence, identity and inter-relations have overcome physical identity. Not only Buddha and Marx but also great scientists such as Robert Oppenhimer appealed for such an approach for resolving this problem. Buddha approached fundamental reality going beyond conmen sense experience in the field of human existence and psychology. Logical tools used are discussed in Buddhism in relation to this approach. Buddha used several symbolic devices to explain dialectic logic. On the other hand Marx approached fundamental reality in the field of social science, history and political economy. Marx following Hegel introduced this new logical set up as a set of laws valid in such reality. So far no serious attempt is made to put dialectical laws into a convenient symbolic form, acceptable to the scientific community. However, absorbing dialectics and arriving at an identity with fundamental reality is not so much a problem of learning and conceptual clarity. Both Buddha and Marx agreed that overcoming alienation of mind which blocks the mind from seeing fundamental reality is a must. This cannot be done entirely through intelligence and formal logical analysis. One has to make a conquest in the unconscious and come out of alienation.

Crisis in science is now over 50 years old. But it has not affected the ruling classes who are increasingly moving away from philosophy. Last few decades are completely empty of any substantial philosophical discussion. Formal empirical framework is firmly fitted into the system by the needs of the Western industrial technological set up. Only those who are breaking away from this system can show any interest in a counter philosophy. The fall of Russia has removed the false picture maintained by the bureaucracy on dialectical materialism. All discussions on the Buddhist version of fundamental reality can only improve and expand the free development of the international movement of working people, the proletariat. - June 1997


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-Sri Lanka Guardian
Innovative Thinking said...

An excellent article with very lucid deliberations and discussions. I completely agree that a new approach is a must based on new thinking. But it seems that the challenge lies in understanding the principle of 'negation of negative'. However, science and dilectic materialism are not at loggerheads. One feeds into the other.
Dibyendu De