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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Can one believe without faith?

In several Indian texts, the fact that the ṛṣis have seen dharma and, hence, authored the Veda has been "proven" on the strength of statements of the Veda itself. This sounds obviously flawed to a contemporary audience: the authority of a text (even this of the Veda) depends on its author, hence one cannot rely on a text's statement until one has independently established its author's authority. In other words, the text itself has not an independent epistemological power to establish the characteristics of the one who authored it.

Similarly, Ernst Steinkellner and Masatoshi Nagatomi (and Tilmann Vetter before them, see Vetter 1964) 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:

The testing of the validity of the Buddha's words requires a tool which was for Dignāga and and Dharmakīrti the pramāṇa, the valid means of cognition. Such a tool, at least in principle, may be expected to be one which is universally acceptable to all and free from dogmatic premises and presuppositions. Both Dignāga and Dharmakīrti struggle to achieve that end by polemically refuting the number and definitions of pramāṇas of the non-Buddhist schools which were contradictory to their own. We must note, however, that the final authority by which they claimed the validity of their pramāṇa system was none other than the Buddha's words which they accepted as authentic by faith (Nagatomi 1980, 245-6).

The issue is more than controversial among Buddhologists and Eli Franco and Tom Tillemans strongly disagree with this view. See for instance Franco 1999 and Tillemans 1999.
Whatever the case, a naif Western reader may overestimate these cases, forgetting to look at comparable instances in Western thought. For instance, let me point out common statements in Christian sermons, such as "God is love, as stated in the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians". 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 censure religious thought. 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 one cannot strictly speak of circularity. Moreover, it might be suggested that religious thought cannot avoid such a commitment and is, hence, inextricably linked with a decision which cannot be a priori explained through epistemology (which can, however, a posteriori justify it).

On this topic, you might look at this post by Jayarava. On Dharmakīrti's agenda in regard to faith (as seen by V. Eltschinger), see this post. On the problem of the boundaries of religious thought (and of philosophy, by the way), see this post.


michael reidy said...

You could contrast this with the view of Sankara (B.S.B. pass.) that the Vedas are the authority for truths that are beyond the reach of reason. The existence of God would be such a truth that cannot be established by reason. The pramanas are established by rational means but they might also be ratified by their use in the Vedas. The Vedas have no force and no persuasive power if they were to say that fire does not burn etc, things that are contrary to everyday experience. Sabda pramana is an ordinary pramana that achieves absolute power in the Vedas but only about those things that are beyond the scope of our rational powers.

Like Aquinas he would say that scriptural truth is certain whereas the deliverances of ratio are open to dispute.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, Śaṅkara's point you describe is based on the Mīmāṃsā assumption that the Veda is authoritative only in regard to what is dharma. In regard to perceptible items, sense-perception is instead the most authoritative means of knowledge and all the others are directly or indirectly based on it, insofar as they elaborate on perceptual data. The Veda's statement in this field just do not count and are to be construed as supplementing a prescription regarding dharma.

I agree also with the general statement that Sacred Texts are needed for things transgressing perception. But what about the (not only) Buddhist claim that we have some grasp of such items even without the Sacred Texts, e.g. through intellectual intuition?

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

I think circularity is problematic for Buddhists, or should be! Since the 1800's Buddhism has promoted itself as the "rational religion" - it was Western rationalists who first began to translate bodhi as "enlightenment". So: are we, or aren't we?

It's particularly an issue as these days Buddhists are claiming that they are aligned with scientists, and that science is only confirming what the Buddha said 25 centuries ago. There is some rational truth to this, but some deeply myopic misunderstanding as well.

If a truth is beyond reason, then in what sense is it true? Is 'true' a word with any meaning, or is it a floating signifier for what we happen to believe?

If Truth cannot be put into words, as Buddhists routinely claim, then how can a text claim authority?

BTW I like the cartoon very much, and would happily substitute 'the Bible' with 'the Tripiṭaka'.

Jayarava said...

Not sure if this is visible outside the UK, but try this:

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Jayarava, you hit the nail on the head.
I would add that I wonder why should Contemporary Scientific Knowledge be the absolute paradigm, given that one of the good sides of science is that it is by definition perfectible. Hence, to say that one claims coincide perfectly with what science says today (the 21st July 2011) entails that it will be proven wrong in, e.g., ten months or ten years.

As for the link, it does not work here (I'm presently in Vienna), but I should be able to visit the UK in the next few months and I'll try then, thanks!

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

Science is not perfectible, but constantly disproving previously held theories - which is more consistent with your conclusion in fact.

As a cultural phenomenon science has far more explanatory power than religion. Even the Dalai Lama has said that where there is a conflict we should opt for science and change Buddhism to fit. Science is so successful that everyone - including the so-called social sciences and religieux - are trying to get in on the act. However many people still prefer magic - which ma be why Harry Potter 7.2 is breaking box-office records right now.

Let me know if you'll be in Camb.

michael reidy said...

That debate about natural theology is a continuing one. Being of a slightly fideist disposition I hold on the one hand that trust, assurance, faith, sraddha is built up as a gradual thing, not a sudden plunge. On the other hand this very trust enhances understanding (credo ut intelligam) and brings insights that might not be accessible to the 'raw' intellect. Meditation precedes understanding very often in that we get below the body of cliché that has to be surpassed. This is the triad of sravana, manana and nididhyasana (forgive the transliteration ye scholars).

elisa freschi said...

I am inclined to think that the higher explanatory power of science is not intrinsic to it, is just a product of our age. But I agree with you: no serious person could now believe that, e.g., God has created the world as it is some 6,000 years ago. Science has had the benefic by-product of challenging religion to rethink itself.
By the way, what do you mean by "not perfectible but constantly disproving previously held theories"? The latter is what I meant through the former…

elisa freschi said...

I am often interested in what you write, but this is the time I mostly agree with your point. Faith-understanding-faith… build a sort of circle (virtuous or vicious, according to one's point of view) which enhances itself.

Aleix said...

Hi everybody!

I just wanted to say that according to some famous Buddhist sages,e.g. Dignaaga (and I think most Buddhist would subscribe) shabda is not pramana. So a hardcore Buddhist has no faith in any text - no faith, but honour and respect towards the texts where the teachings are embedded.
Even in the Tipitaka, the famous Kalamasutta supports the later philosophical development of Buddhist epistemology.
Even in meditation practice one is not supposed to believe in anything beyond his or her experience.
Theory is best understood after experience.
However, I wonder whether following the instructions of a meditation master, for instance, can be considered "faith". Usually one is requested not to think and reason, not to hold skeptical thoughts (vicikicchaa) and not to be judgmental.
In fact, shraddhaa is one of the factors of enlightenment. But again, it is not supposed to be blind faith, but confidence based on experience, the dhamma experience or whatever the name one would like to use.
The Buddhist faith, in theory, has to be compared to the faith a patient develops in a treatment that is working and is improving his or her health.
To my mind, that's what the texts say, that's what the Buddhist masters of our time say. And I think this is no minor point, since, to my knowledge, one of the most relevant teachings of the Buddha was that faith without reason leads to ignorance and sorrow.
I don't think he was a rationalist, but I'm convinced he was very much concerned about fundamentalism and the sheer concept of "sacred scriptures".

But maybe I got it wrong...

elisa freschi said...

Dear Aleix,
I am sure many others may answer better than me. I spent maybe weeks during the last 6 years arguing about śraddhā and faith (one of my favourite discussants is Giuliano Giustarini, who wrote his PhD thesis on śraddhā in the Pāli Canon and wrote an article on this topic on "Rivista di Studi Sudasiatici" 1 2005). I often find out that scholars of Buddhist studies understand "faith" as a negatively connotated term, as if it necessarily meant "blind faith". But this is not (necessarily) the case and the whole issue boils down to the fact that in order to start on the Buddhist path, you need some preliminary confidence in it. Else, you would not engage in it. Now, once you have undertaken it, as you rightly note, you get a good feedback and think you "know" through that that you are on the right path. But we all know the placebo-effect. A treatment works better (in my opinion: only works) if you believe it will work. Hence, the confirmation you get is part of the hermeneutic circle starting from the initial confidence and leading to enlightenment. There is nothing wrong in that, in my humble opinion. And this does not entail fundamentalism, nor bind faith, as long as one is aware of it and open to contradictory evidence.

elisa freschi said...

Link to G. Giustarini's article mentioned in the preceding comment:

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