The Tao of Physicalism


Original Essay

Eastern thought holds that physical reality consists of the mind's conditionally-dependent distinctions, which are drawn within a single, indefinable, language-transcendent reality. Physical objects are "things," and only things can have the property of existence. Because the monistic unity (Tao, Sunyata, or whatever one wants to label it) is language-transcendent, it is not a thing - it cannot be meaningfully ascribed the property of existence (or any other metaphysical property). Therefore, the only things which exist are those which can be meaningfully described in epistemological, physicalistic terms.

Of course, that isn't the end of the story. If we insist on making some kind of reference to ontology, it is apparent that this Eastern physicalism is essentially idealistic rather than materialistic in the traditional sense - resembling the more sophisticated phenomenological conceptions of physicalism rather than the simplistic mechanistic interpretations thereof. Without minds to draw distinctions and define "things," physical objects do not have inherent existence. Physicality, then, is a function of what Eastern philosophy terms "dependent arising" - things do not exist except in relation to other things, and the mind is that which draws the distinctions necessary to establish these relations.

So, while reality itself is not mind-dependent, anything we can ever know about it is. No-knowledge (the knowledge of "no-thing" or thinglessness/namelessness) is the only exception - and nothing can be said about no-knowledge. We can only use language to point to it. As Wittgenstein put it, "what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." For several years, it has been my firm position that the oft-overlooked depth and relevance of Eastern thought demanded a return to metaphysics. However, I am currently moving away from that position. It seems increasingly clear to me that the reverse is likely true - a more sophisticated understanding of dialectical monism (my term for this sort of transcendental physicalism) suggests that all but the broadest metaphysical ideas (those which essentially say nothing more than "reality transcends thought and language") are ill-grounded.

So what really exists? Well, things - simply because physical things (the perceived objects of sensory data) are all that can exist. For the mind, which is the arbiter of existence, trees, rocks, atoms, fenceposts, and all of the ordinary physical objects exist. That which transcends existence, of course, is what all of the Tao fuss is about, and to which my words can only point. Silence, as Wittgenstein implied, is the only accurate description of that which goes beyond words. Thus, although everything that exists can be described in physical terms, reality itself will remain fundamentally mysterious, for that which is neither existence, non-existence, both, or neither resists all distinctions and can only be experienced non-conceptually.

Discussion Highlights

Whatever ontological content there is in this "Eastern" physicalist position, it is superceded in importance by the epistemological content (since the existence of "things" is basically dependent on what we are equipped to know about them).

Essentially, ontology is almost always trying to talk about things it actually can't talk about meaningfully. Whatever can be talked about can be talked about in physicalist terms. Whatever can't be talked about (encapsulated in language) - if we heed the opening line of the Tao Te Ching and Wittgenstein's rule - must be experienced, and can only be "pointed to" with words. Descriptions of the indescribable will always and necessarily fall short (to a greater or lesser degree).

So, ontology as a rigorous discipline in pursuit of "the one ultimate truth" seems to be ill-conceived. As a way to point at whatever transcends words and distinctions (and therefore ontology itself), it may be of some use, in a literary or poetic sense.

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Relations are distinctions. Distinctions delineate physical objects, facts, sense data, etc. In fact, in a deeper sense, distinctions create all of these. Absent distinctions (relations), none of them exist inherently ("of themselves"). This is what is meant by "dependent arising."

This does not somehow grant relations and distinctions themselves priveleged existential (metaphysical) status. They are created by minds, which exist relationally as well. So, relations exist only relationally; they are conditional, and without inherent existence.

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Instead of using the terminology of "substance" (conventional in Western monism), I am using the complementary terminology of "emptiness" (or non-substance), which is conventional in Eastern monism. What I have been saying here is exactly this - "If we (i.e. the substance wherein consciousness resides) were in fact made of the same substance as everything else in the external world, then we would have little or no method of discriminating the nature of this substance." However, I am looking at "substance" in terms of "emptiness," since we do indeed have little or no method of discriminating its nature. And yet, ontology is precisely the study of the fundamental nature of being. If we have little or no access to that fundamental nature, where does that leave ontology?

If the basic nature of reality is beyond description and therefore conceptually empty, how are we served by attempting to conceptualize it? I think that we can introduce some basic ontological assumptions (such as "there is something"), but beyond this and its immediate implications, we quickly fall into the trap of trying to describe that which resists description.

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A fundamental assumption in the modern scientific (epistemological) approach is the idea that world displays various consistencies which can be reasonably expected to persist. Given this assumption, one has justification to make predictions, and judging by the predictive power of a particular hypothesis, its usefulness in describing the world in a manner consistent with various other data can be ascertained. There are few, if any, profoundly metaphysical assumptions in the physicalist approach. Those which can be argued to exist can be conceptualized more usefully in epistemic terms.

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That of which we cannot speak is a source of deep experiential value for me - as it was for the Taoists, Zen Buddhists, and many others. What I am doing is simply acknowledging that we cannot speak of that which we cannot speak of. We can't talk about "the fundamental nature of reality" except in a conventional (non-ultimate) sense. Nagarjuna recognized this in his distinction between samvriti (the conventional) and paramartha (the ultimate). Predictably enough, Nagarjuna never gave a paramartha discourse, in keeping with his view that one cannot be given. All discussions are samvriti by definition, so if our lips or moving or our fingers are typing, we aren't addressing the ultimate. So, in consequence, even Nagarjuna's view of samvriti and paramartha is a samvriti (conventional) view, and does not touch the ultimate. His whole point was that we simply cannot have views about the ultimate.

* * *

I acknowledge that we cannot know everything. We can only know everything that is knowable. It is the task of epistemology to determine what is knowable, and the task of science to expand our knowledge thereof.

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If there is one reality, there is only one reality. And yet, we consistently perceive distinctions within this necessarily singular unity. Is it because such distinctions exist outside the mind, or is it because the mind is uniquely equipped to draw them? If a hypothetical creature existed which had somehow evolved to see empty space the same way we see concrete, how much distinction would this creature perceive between earth and moon? If another creature existed which saw "electronuclear" objects (such as earth and its satellites) and the gravity associated with them the same way we see two infinitesimally different shades of green, would it notice any important distinction?

And what about the strangest creature of all - the one equipped to make no distinctions at all? Forget for a moment the fact that it could never have survived or evolved. Let's suppose "god" creates it right now. What would it have to say about the mind-independent existence of physical realities, given that it isn't even able to think, much less speak (since the capacity to do either depends on drawing distinctions)? Perhaps it would directly, thoughtlessly, and silently perceive only a single, totally seamless reality in which nothing exists inherently, and so all appearances are free to present themselves.

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