…locke, voltaire, hume, & reid on the self

daniel rozen, self-centered mirror.

Locke gets the conversation going with the notion that the self is constituted with memory and consciousness. If we accept that memory is consciousness, this brings in the philosophical point that cognitive thinking is closely linked to memory. To be a conscious person is also to remember.

With Voltaire’s comments on identity, we mostly find a question of retributive punishment, and how we are held accountable for things we remember or forget. Surely his idea that the self is like an ever-changing river is something to consider given the changes we undergo in a lifetime are significant. As we mentioned, this is a problem of personal identity because if we cannot remember a crime, can you be punished for that crime (in this lifetime or the next)? Voltaire offers the slightly confusing example of a father who blames the Euphrates for drowning his son Xerxes. The river would reply that the waves responsible are far away and no longer to be blamed. Here we have the problem of responsibility that is similar to the problem we have today with people who commit crimes. People continue to pay the price for their past crimes long after the penalty has been met.

Yet once I write this down, I see the difference. With Voltaire, he’s seems to be critiquing Locke’s claim that personal identity is closely linked to memory, while simultaneously refuting the notion that a immaterial soul should be responsible for the sins of its body. With our example above, people have a hard time getting away from their past because they are required to ‘remember’ their past when filling out job applications and the like. Our problem is different than Voltaire’s in respect to memory. Voltaire wants to detach from this idea that we are our memories, and how does an immaterial soul hold responsibility for the sins of its former body? His two difficulties stay unresolved in this excerpt. It is implied that these notions are problematic and deserve adequate scrutiny. In light of our contemporary problem of responsibility, we do not want people to forget their past as an extension of their public identity.

Then going back to Hume, we must be clear to see that he was denying an identifiable self. For Hume the way we think is due to impressions of things as they appear to us via our perceptions—he is an empiricist. His empiricism is far more stringent than Locke’s with a heavy dose of skepticism. If the impressions we have of the world are looked at in any given moment, we cannot pull a self out of those impressions. For Hume there is not a self that coheres through each impression. This does not feel right for us though, we do have a sense of ourselves as cohering through all of the impressions we have from day to day. We, at the very least, have to account for the ‘bundle of impressions’ with have that persist through space and time are what constitute something we call a self.

Then we have to have some account of the body which is where Reid comes in indirectly. He doesn’t exactly state that the body is what constitutes the self—Reid places the self on existence. If it is not memory as Locke proposed, it must be based on a continued existence through time for Reid. Reid is also critical of Hume with regard to the self as not determinable from the ‘bundle of impressions’, whereby we can see that at the very least the self must be an accumulation of these impressions as moving somewhat beyond the impression themselves. There are other mechanisms of thought involved in the thinking of an individual person—namely reason, the appetites, space and time. No, we might not be a ‘bundle of impressions’ according to Hume, Reid expands the self to include more.

–aurelio madrid

…on kant’s epistemology

transcendental idealismKant’s Epistemology
What is Transcendental Idealism?

Transcendental idealism can be understood on two ways. On a topical level it can represent the whole of Kant’s enlightenment philosophy, and in the context of his epistemology, transcendental idealism is to be distinguished from rationalism & empiricism. Kant’s philosophy is often thought of as a blend of rationalism & empiricism and transcendental idealism became a way to identify Kant’s particular contribution. However, this way of defining transcendental idealism does not actually define what the term means in Kant’s overall project (it merely describes his philosophical position as a blend of empiricism & rationalism).

The easiest route is to divide the term in half, first looking at the term: transcendental. This can be understood as a ‘going beyond’ the matter at hand. To transcend something means to ‘go beyond’ what that something actually is in experience. The classic example: ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ is one such example of this ‘going beyond’. In other words, we ‘go beyond’ experience with the epistemological claim that bachelors are unmarried—we have no need to go out into the world to have certainty that bachelors are unmarried. Such knowledge is known “beyond” experience. Now also acknowledge that what we are describing here is also the way a priori thinking is understood.
With Kant, whatever is transcendental, at the same time describes the particular way in which we think using our a priori reasoning. When we conclude with certainty that a bachelor is unmarried our thought, our cognition, our knowledge is transcendental—we ‘go beyond’ experience in order to affirm this type of a priori knowledge about the world.

Idealism, the other half of the term, is the philosophical (epistemological) position whereby the content of the way in which the world appears to us is mind-dependent. Kant’s epistemology is often characterized by the notion that the world as it is known to us is dependent on the very reasoning we use to understand it. That the world of experience, for example, has a certain causal order is not something we simply observe, but it is the way in which the world is understood by us in a rationally ordered way. Our rational mind constructs the way the world is experienced. A sequence of causal events is not just an observation it is also a construct of our a priori knowledge. This is idealistic because the way in which the world appears to me is mind dependent.

So idealism is different from realism in the sense that realism claims that if a tree falls in the forest & we’re not around to hear it, it still makes a noise. With Kant’s idealism a tree falling out of ear-shot would describe something that falls outside of the way the world appears to us, therefore it might be what Kant named the “thing-in-itself”, that part of things we’ll never have a grasp of.

How does Kant’s transcendental idealism move from Hume’s empiricism?

Hume’s critique of causality awoke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ because Hume was astute enough to observe that there is no necessity to be found in any causal connection. Hume is an empiricist who based all the way we know of the world is through sense experience alone. When Hume called into question the very notion of necessity as absent from causation, his empirical skepticism pointed to something we typically identify as reason itself. Kant seizes this opportunity to make a claim for the necessary connection Hume is finding absent in experience. Why?—because it is reason that supplies the connection according to Kant. Hume was on to something & Kant resolves it with a priori reasoning. This is the missing part of Hume’s critique that Kant grabs onto as obviously product of reason itself. In other words, a causal relationship is one that is considered to be a ‘category of understanding,’ for Kant, which is a fancy way of saying it involves reasoning alone to understand a cause & effect relationship at its necessary core. The necessary connection is not found in experience as Hume empirically observed. Kant agrees with this & shows that the necessary connection is not a matter of habit as Hume posited, rather it is an act of reason that supplies the necessary connection we find when one an effect causes something to happen.

Even if we understand causation rationally, we need the experience of it in order to know what to do with it. Kant shows us that we cannot have one without the other. Say for example, I already know that reason supplies the necessary connection between an effect & cause. That’s a pretty minimal way in which to understand the world, given that cause & effect relationships are everywhere. We need to think of the particular empirical manifestation of casual relationships so as to know how to understand their specific relationships & significance.

–aurelio madrid

thoughts on karma, cause & effect

mutual possesion of the ten worlds
mutual possesion of the ten worlds
the nine consciousnesses
the nine consciousnesses

(click on diagrams for a better view)

 Thoughts on Karma, Cause & Effect

Within Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism

 Although David Hume said that causation is the “cement of the universe,” I couldn’t use any of what he said on causality for this discussion (other than this little quote).  I also couldn’t talk about Aristotle’s views on causation, his four causes &c., although he did say that “all causes are beginnings…” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book V, Part 1). Both thinkers are not silent on the subject, & I am not suggesting that what they had to say on causality is valueless, but I did have to put them aside, since their brilliant theories (on causation) are ancillary to this month’s gosho: “Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution.” The Buddhist philosophers Daisaku Ikeda & Nichiren Daishonin are of complete relevance here & it is their thoughts I will focus on.

The word Renge in Nam Myoho Renge Kyo means lotus flower (in Sanskrit), it also signifies the concept of the simultaneity of cause & effect.  Simultaneity here suggests that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo one can (with faith) access/cause one’s Buddha nature to be effected immediately.  We believe that we all contain (and can access) our own individual Buddha nature (enlightenment) & that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo we will manifest it in our lives immediately.  The lotus seeds & blooms simultaneously, which is why it’s used as a metaphor for this concept.  The form of causality that is simultaneous is as I just described & it is also related to the concept of the 10 worlds, since (the theory is that) we inhabit all the 10 worlds at once (& we have mutual possession of the ten worlds) & are able to use the nine worlds to propel us to the tenth world of Buddhahood &/or enlightenment (by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo).  Non-simultaneous causality is also important here, because all the past actions we’ve taken (in life), (good or bad), are also inevitably contained & manifested in our present lives (karma) & on into our future lives.  The nine consciousnesses concept describes the Alaya (8th) consciousness as the karmic store-house: where all our past actions, thoughts, words (&c.) are stored as latent potential.  Karma might also be seen as an intermediary between cause & effect (in non-simultaneous cause & effect). Karma is where all our latent causes are waiting to be “effected” by some external stimuli in one’s life.  When we look into (note that it is said that karma is unconscious, but let’s say that we can look into) this store-house & rummage through our past causes, we are able to understand our present lives better, we are on the road to enlightenment, & we are enlightening our own lives, by doing so. 

Nichiren Daishonin quotes from The Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra,” that states:

If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present.  And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (WND-1, 279).  

So, what does it mean to “lessen one’s karmic retribution?” Daisaku Ikeda writes:

Present effects are due to karmic causes from the past. However, future effects arise from the causes we make in the present. It is always the present that counts. It is what we do in the present moment that decides our future; our past causes do not govern our future as well. Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that no matter what kind of karmic causes we have made in the past,[it is] through the causes we make in the present we can achieve a brilliant future.”

To face the problems of life with courage & faith is the goal of Buddhist practice, along with doing (& helping) others to do the same (in their lives).  We must see that as Nichiren says: “difficulties will arise, & these are to be looked at as ‘peaceful’ practices” (Nichiren Daishonin, The Record of Orally Transmitted Teachings p. 115).  When one decides to practice Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, one essentially commits to transforming one’s life, instead of accepting our “destiny,” then we can transform our karma with the Buddhahood that resides within us all.  Ikeda goes on to point out that this act of lessening one’s karmic retribution is at the heart of our practice. 

I also found this interesting distinction on cause & effect (in Living Buddhism March-April, 09, page 77):

“Nichiren refers to two kinds of Buddhist teachings, those that view things from the standpoint of ‘cause to effect’ & those that approach things from ‘effect to cause’” 

This idea/teaching suggests that instead of approaching the practice from a cause to effect position, as Shakyamuni taught to cause the effect of Buddhism; one should effect a cause of Buddhism (as encouraged by Nichiren).  This idea might be related to the (complicated) concept of True Cause & True Effect (two of the Three Mystic Principles, the third is True land):

“In one sense, how we approach life and our Buddhist practice depends on whether we have a perspective of ‘true effect’ or ‘true cause.’ A perspective of ‘true effect,’ only sees enlightenment, or happiness, a result of past causes. From the perspective of ‘true cause,’ enlightenment, or happiness, is an ever-present potential; the cause for bringing it forth can only be made right now, in the present moment. The moment we make the ‘true cause,’ enlightenment reveals itself.” (Jeff Kriger, SGI-USA Study Department vice Leader)

Let us effect the cause of Buddhism in our daily lives as imperfect as we are, as we suffer through our hardships, as we rise to challenge our past mistakes, as we join together to celebrate our victories & as we chant Nam Myho Renge Kyo.

 Aurelio Madrid

April 2009