Essentialism Against Impermanence

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Bhadantacariya
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Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Bhadantacariya » Tue May 06, 2014 3:39 am

An Aristotelian can attempt to rebut the idea of impermanent identity by positing an essence. If a Buddhist argues, as one might, that, say, I am not ultimately the same person even if a single hair falls out of my head (since it is a contradiction to say the person with N hairs is identical to the person with N+1 hairs, as they bear a distinction, and distinct things cannot be identical), the Aristotelian could argue that a hair falling out is an accidental change, not an essential change, and my essence is still the same.

Even assuming essentialism, it still seems like the identity of the person has changed, unless you don't include accidents (properties, actions, etc) as taking part in identity. I feel as though even an Aristotelian essentialist ought to accede that a person's identity is their essence and accidents together, but I can't yet think of any problems arising in their supposing that a person's identity is nothing more than their essence. Just to avoid equivocation, I'm defining identity in the strictest possible sense, 100% non-difference.

Santaraksita argued in the "Compendium On Reality" that it is only possible for things that can cause to exist. So if an essence exists, it must cause. He also argued that permanent causation is absurd (because it would mean cause and effect occurring at the same time). So this means that if an essence exists, it must cause sometimes and not cause at other times. An Aristotelian would argue that since (as Sister Miriam Joseph writes) "Action is the faculties or power of [an essence] so as to produce an effect in something else or in itself," the change from causing to not causing is only an accidental change, and the essence of the actor remains identical in both situations.

Not that we have to assume essentialism necessarily. There was also a chapter in Santaraksita's tome criticizing essentialism, whose arguments I largely forget, of course, but perhaps one of you folks might have some thoughts.

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Wayfarer
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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Wayfarer » Tue May 06, 2014 4:04 am

Well, that is a very technical argument, although I one I am interested in.

I have read something similar in an essay called Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition by Richard P. Hayes, in which he quotes an argument by Vasubandhu against Isvara on similar grounds:
If the world had a single cause, whether that single cause be God or something
else, the entire universe would have to arise all at once. But what
we observe is that beings occur one after another. Now that fact could be
a function of God’s intending for each individual that it arise at a given
time and disappear later. But in that case, since there are numerous intentions,
it would turn out that the cause of the world is manifold. Moreover,
that plurality of intentions would be simultaneous, for the reason that god,
which is their source, putatively has no internal divisions.
(That article was referenced in the Wikipedia entry on 'God in Buddhism'.)

There is a discussion of this kind of argument in a blog post by neo-Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, here.

I can't really say I understand it, but my general feeling is to argue as follows: a lot hinges on the meaning of 'exist', when we say 'causes something to exist'. If we light a fire, it seems obvious to me that we have 'caused the fire to exist', doesn't it? Were it not for our intentional action, there would be no fire. So I guess I don't really understand the Buddhist arguments against the reality of causal relationships. It's something i have puzzled over for a long time.

On the other hand, I too am dubious about the notion of 'essence'. I don't think that 'an essence' in the Aristotelean sense can ever be demonstrated - well, past a certain point, anyway. I suppose we can analyse a material substance down to its components but they themselves are always subject to further analysis. Even the elements of the periodic table are not truly irreducible in that sense.

So, not much help from me, but I am interested in the topic, even if I don't understand it very well.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by muni » Tue May 06, 2014 7:18 am

I think that impermanence is a powerful method.
:soapbox:
The causal relationship view, seen from the view of a being on itself: “we-me mind-body” ánd something else is then the start of misperception by apprehended phenomena which are not exactly different from minds’ apprehended thoughts-concepts. But “we” see them as two things existing on themselves. And for example Longchenpa (Longchenpa, not a separate entity) said that there is no origination into separate entities.

But this of course is only chatter.

In awareness the carefulness regarding fire is certainly not lost. This I guess need no concept fire.
Last edited by muni on Tue May 06, 2014 7:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
The presence of space makes it possible for the whole universe to be set out within it, and yet this does not alter or condition space in any way. Although rainbows appear in the sky, they do not make any difference to the sky; it is simply that the sky makes the appearance of rainbows possible.
Phenomena adorn emptiness, but never corrupt it. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

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Kim O'Hara
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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Kim O'Hara » Tue May 06, 2014 7:25 am

Wayfarer wrote:... I too am dubious about the notion of 'essence'. I don't think that 'an essence' in the Aristotelean sense can ever be demonstrated - well, past a certain point, anyway. I suppose we can analyse a material substance down to its components but they themselves are always subject to further analysis. Even the elements of the periodic table are not truly irreducible in that sense.
I think an Aristotelian "essence" is a convenient fiction, much as "God the creator" is a convenient fiction: if you say that either of them exists, you have an unarguable basis for whatever conclusions you want to arrive at.
BTW, the "essence" of (e.g.) Wayfarer is surely not Wayfarer's material substance, and "essence" of gold is, equally surely, not an atom of gold. Essences, if they exist at all, are non-material and indivisible.

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Wayfarer » Tue May 06, 2014 7:39 am

...as is 'substance'. The meaning of these terms is hardly understood in contemporary discourse, but I certainly don't dismiss them as 'convenient fictions'.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Kim O'Hara
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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Kim O'Hara » Tue May 06, 2014 8:21 am

Wayfarer wrote:...as is 'substance'. The meaning of these terms is hardly understood in contemporary discourse, but I certainly don't dismiss them as 'convenient fictions'.
I don't mean to be rude, Wayfarer, but what else are they? They are certainly convenient in philosophical discourse, ancient or modern. Do they denote anything in particular? If so, what? If not, they would seem to be fictions.

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Wayfarer » Tue May 06, 2014 8:50 am

I didn't take it as being rude. It's a pretty deep question in a scholastic sort of way, which I'm interested in exploring. But I think if you dismiss the Aristotelean position in that way, it prevents a real exploration of the issue.

I do have a kind of heuristic that I have developed around these questions but am interested in seeing the OP's further response.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

Bhadantacariya
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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Bhadantacariya » Tue May 06, 2014 6:27 pm

This is one argument I've heard for essentialism, do pick it apart as needed. I guess the essentialists would say that, for example, these two things are trees because they both have the same essence (that of tree) even though many of their accidental properties (number of leaves, color of bark, etc.) may be wildly different. The nominalists would say that universals don't exist in an ultimate mind-indepedent sense, and these two things are trees not because they have the same essence of a real universal (tree) but only because many of their accidental properties are similar. The essentialist might stop the nominalist right there and say that the nominalist just admitted the objective mind-independent basis for the universal of 'similarity.'

My main problem with essentialism is that it basically excludes from essence anything that can distinguish two things from each other. What's the difference between a tree and a comet? Any answer to that question would be accidental, I'd guess (one is alive, one is not, one can cause photosynthesis to occur, one can't). What's the difference between the essence of a tree and the essence of a comet? This question is more difficult as essence is so vague and inscrutable.

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Matt J
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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Matt J » Tue May 06, 2014 7:31 pm

I have some thoughts:

For me, the whole idea of essence is a fiction. It cannot be uncovered or experienced, it can only be thought. In fact, it is merely a thought. Essence cannot be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. Which means the only way we know about essence is by thinking about essence, and in the absence of thinking about essence, there is no essence.

I like to analyze this from at least two ways: from space and from time. Take any object, like a hand. There is no hand, there is just a collection of fingers and a palm. There are no fingers, just finger segments, etc. Or go the opposite way. Where would the hand be without the body? Where would the body be without the air? Where would air be without the trees, sunlights, etc.?

Or you can go back and forth in time. My hand undergoes constant change. It was one kind of hand when I was a child, and it will be another kind of hand when I am old. But what about before I was born? The materials for my hand didn't leap from the void, ex nihilo. They came from my mother, who got some of it from food, etc. Also, when I die, my hand will dissolve into the dust.

So saying there is a hand here is drawing mental lines in space and time.

Now these are just two ways to look at it. You can add different senses, different distances, different times of day and seasons, etc. all which alter the experience of the hand. Sextus Empiricus outlines these in his 10 Modes.
"The essence of meditation practice is to let go of all your expectations about meditation. All the qualities of your natural mind -- peace, openness, relaxation, and clarity -- are present in your mind just as it is. You don't have to do anything different. You don't have to shift or change your awareness. All you have to do while observing your mind is to recognize the qualities it already has."
--- Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by LastLegend » Tue May 06, 2014 9:10 pm

If essence stays fixed all the time, how can it perform actions?
If exists in and of itself, how?
Make personal vows.

End of the day: I don’t know.

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by Wayfarer » Wed May 07, 2014 12:00 am

Bhadantacariya wrote:I guess the essentialists would say that, for example, these two things are trees because they both have the same essence (that of tree) even though many of their accidental properties (number of leaves, color of bark, etc.) may be wildly different.
Let's go back to the source:
‘Essence’ is the standard English translation of Aristotle's curious phrase to ti ên einai literally “the what it was to be” for a thing. This phrase so boggled his Roman translators that they coined the word essentia to render the entire phrase, and it is from this Latin word that ours derives. Aristotle also sometimes uses the shorter phrase to ti esti, literally “the what it is,” for approximately the same idea.

In his logical works, Aristotle links the notion of essence to that of definition (horismos)—“a definition is an account (logos) that signifies an essence” —and he links both of these notions to a certain kind of per se predication (kath’ hauto, literally, “in respect of itself” —“what belongs to a thing in respect of itself belongs to it in its essence (en tôi ti esti)” for we refer to it “in the account that states the essence”. He reiterates these ideas in Ζ.4: “there is an essence of just those things whose logos is a definition”, “the essence of a thing is what it is said to be in respect of itself”.

It is important to remember that for Aristotle, one defines things, not words. The definition of tiger does not tell us the meaning of the word ‘tiger’; it tells us what it is to be a tiger, what a tiger is said to be in respect of itself. Thus, the definition of tiger states the essence—the “what it is to be” of a tiger, what is predicated of the tiger per se...
source
The nominalists would say that universals don't exist in an ultimate mind-indepedent sense, and these two things are trees not because they have the same essence of a real universal (tree) but only because many of their accidental properties are similar. The essentialist might stop the nominalist right there and say that the nominalist just admitted the objective mind-independent basis for the universal of 'similarity.'
And I would agree with that objection. Any type of logical argument depends on terms such as 'because', and 'if' and other logical terms which in turn depend on putting ideas into categories and talking about the ways in which they are similar or different. But how can that be 'mind-independent'? Such distinctions and categories are only apparent to a mind!

I think 'universals' are real, but not in the sense that objects of perception are. Rather they are like the categories through which thought analyses and understands nature. But that doesn't make them simply subjective, because they are shared by anyone with similar perceptions and senses. So I think they are real in a different sense to objects - they are not material or corporeal, but they are real within the domain of logical laws, numbers, and the like.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Essentialism Against Impermanence

Post by 5heaps » Thu May 15, 2014 11:50 pm

Bhadantacariya wrote:An Aristotelian can attempt to rebut the idea of impermanent identity by positing an essence. If a Buddhist argues, as one might, that, say, I am not ultimately the same person even if a single hair falls out of my head (since it is a contradiction to say the person with N hairs is identical to the person with N+1 hairs, as they bear a distinction, and distinct things cannot be identical), the Aristotelian could argue that a hair falling out is an accidental change, not an essential change, and my essence is still the same.
dharma has no trouble with things of similar type existing in the next moment. for example part of the definition of a cup is that it is a continuum. a cup exists in moment a and in moment b

thats not the problem

the problem with essences is that these continuums are static/unchanging ie. are not momentary existing only momentarily undergoing production duration and disintegration. they are an unchanging essence somehow spreads over time like butter over bread

the minimal requirement for being a buddhist with correct view is to negate essences by directly perceiving subtle impermanence: the fact that nothing has the power to endure into the 2nd moment of its own accord...which does not negate that something of similar type still exists in that 2nd moment ie. its the same cup

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