Austin and Past Lives – a Mishmash

J.L Austin once remarked (Sense and Sensibilia, p. 4) that “One of the most important points to grasp is that these two terms ‘sense data’ and ‘material things’, live by taking in each other’s washing – what is spurious is not one term of the pair, but the antithesis itself.” Austin was reacting to the “garden path” of English philosophy’s long standing fantasy of ‘sense data,’ but he could just as well have been talking about the “mental / physical dilemma” or the “mind-body problem.” Austin tried to help us ‘rid ourselves’ of the sense datum hypothesis by “unpicking, one by one, a mass of seductive (mainly verbal) fallacies, of exposing a wide variety of concealed motives – an operation which leaves us, in a sense, just where we began.”

It would be a great relief if we could find our own way out what has become the really tiresome debate on consciousness illustrated by the one between John Searle, who says “Conscious states are caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain and are themselves higher level features of the brain” (Consciousness and Language, p. 9) and Daniel Dennett, who seems to think that if we listen to him drone on long enough we won’t notice it when he says that he thinks we are just computers. Actually he says “Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can be best understood as the operation of a “von Neumannesque” virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities” (Consciousness Explained, p. 210.) Earth to Daniel?

I think Siddhattha Gotama’s great contribution was to emphasize the contingent nature of reality and our place in it “. . .all form should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” And that when the follower sees this, he is led to the conclusion that, “Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated.”(Samyutta Nikaya, 59(7),”The Characteristic of Nonself”)

There is a teleological argument dating back to Plato and Aristotle:

1)      The world is too complex to have come about by accident.
2)      This must be the handiwork of some creator.
3)      Therefore God exists.

The problem with the argument is with the first assumption. Why couldn’t it have come about?  If the world is too complex to not have been created, then the creator must be more complex still, and where did the creator come from, and so on, ad infinitum. I see no need to posit a past life (with no evidence – what evidence could there be? The tulku who points out the mala from his past life? Could the lamas not just keep on looking until they find a child who points out the right mala?) My chief concern with the notion of past lives is that it leads us away from Gotama’s truth, the truth of contingency; the truth that I think he discovered under the Bodhi tree.

I think the tangle over self and not self may be just another “inclosure schema” that is characteristic of the limits of thought. Like the Liar’s paradox, Russell’s paradox, and others, thoughts of self and not self lead us into contradictions. But if we can finally give up the last of Parmenides’s shackles on our freedom, the “law” of (non-)contradiction, and realize that some contradictions are real; we can go on our way in peace. Yes, the contingent “I” exists. Yes, that “I” is just a stream of images, a dream. Yes, that “I” is entangled in a quantum world. Yes, Yes, Yes.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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