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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Circularity in religious thought

I have already noticed in a previous post how the fact that God (or the ṛṣis) authored the Veda has been allegedly proven on the strength of statements of the Veda itself (stating, for instance, that the ṛṣis "have seen dharma"). This sounds obviously flawed to a contemporary audience: the authority of a text (even the Veda) depends on its author, hence one cannot rely on a text until one has independently established His/Her author's authority. Hence, the text itself has no independent epistemological power to establish the fact that someone did (or did not) author it.

Similarly, Ernst Steinkellner (and Vetter before him) argued that there is a similar circularity at the foundation of the validity of Buddhist thought:

the path taught by the Buddha is valid ----»because it is established by instruments of knowledge ---»the validity of these instruments has been established by the Buddha


Hence, the very instruments which should prove the Buddha's authority are only justified through His authority.
However, a naif Western reader may overestimate these cases, forgetting to look at comparable instances in Western thought. For instance, let me point at common statements in the Christian churches, such as "God is love, as stated in the second letter of St. Paul to the Corintians". In fact, that God is love is presupposed by the existence of his Revelation. Hence, the Revelation itself cannot independently prove it.
The above discussion is not meant in order to blame religious thought for that. In fact, circularity is not a flaw for a believer –who already trusts the Sacred Texts and is hence not disturbed by an appeal to their authority. One can imagine that an emotive commitment is used in order to found an epistemological one, so that the circularity is not exactly such. Moreover, in my opinion, religious thought cannot avoid such a commitment and is hence inextricably linked with a decision which cannot be totally explained through epistemology (which can, however, a posteriori justify it).

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