Monday, August 3, 2009

Philosophy: Consistency and Truth

In an intriguing book, Buddhism as Philosophy (a generous preview of which is available here), Mark Siderits argues that one should test the tenets of Buddhism, such as the theory of karman, if one wants to undertake a philosophical investigation of it:

Instead we might simply explore how this belief affected other aspects of Buddhism: their ethical teachings, for instance, or their artistic representations. There is a great deal we can learn by studying Buddhism and other religions in this way. By simply setting aside the question whether the teachings are true or false, and focusing on how different elements of the tradition might be related to one another, we can learn to see the inner logic of the system, how it hangs together as a system. This can help us see things we might otherwise miss. But it cannot tell us whether its teachings are reasonable. (p.10)

However, to "see the inner logic of a system" may be an important test for it and I can't understand why Siderits does not mention it. "External" tests run the risk to be just "internal" to a different system (for instance, contemporary common-knowledge of physics and biology). Moreover, by looking "externally" to a system, one tends to test just what looks odd to one's own background (such as the theory of karman). Instead, one accepts as obvious the fact that perception is a reliable means of knowledge. Looking at a system from within may instead make one aware of its inner contradictions or, more generally, of what is really constitutive for the system and, hence, test-worthy.
Siderits seem to presuppose a non-ambiguous concept of truth against which every teaching can be tested:

[I]n studying philosophy we are interested in finding out what the truth is. (We may not always find it, but that's our aim.) (p.10)

I do not want to argue here that truth is subjective-dependent etc. Rather, I just wonder whether consistency can be a safer compass in judging a system different from one's own.


Amod Lele said...

It seems to me that both of these things are important: if a system is true, it must be coherent both internally and externally (the latter meaning that it must fit with experienced reality as well as itself). One reason Siderits may privilege external coherence is that we don't usually (if ever) adopt a philosophical system wholesale, but rather piecemeal. The question then is: how well does this make sense to us, given the other things we currently believe to be true?

elisa freschi said...

Yes, good point, we do not adopt a philosophical system wholesale. But exactly because of that, does it make sense to ask whether a piece of a system fits with our background knowledge and claim that this test will prove its truth?
Don't we run the risk to mistake external consistency (=consistency with OUR background knowledge) with truth?
This does not amount to say that one should not test a system, even bit by bit, nor that one should not refute it if it fails to account for facts our background knowledge can account for. For instance, I do not think that neuroscience can prove Buddhist anātma-theory right, but surely ātmavādins should be able to explain why brain data fail to confirm their assumptions.

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