The Enlightenment agenda of the eighteenth century is based on the premise that human beings are rational beings in a causal world, which can be understood by the power of mathematics, physics, and the other sciences and disciplines which are based on human reason. The power of reason, it was assumed, is necessarily more powerful than all other forces which may exist in the world, and in the human mind. If this assumption was correct, then it should be possible not only to detect and defeat what is irrational in the world, but to eliminate its presence altogether. At least for all practical purposes.
The prioritization of the power of reason in the eighteenth century was based on a disdain for many (even most) of the elements of human experience throughout the thousands of years in which we lived in a quite different world. That world was full of darkness and ignorance, built on the basis of faulty ideas and associations; on mythopoeic patterns of thought, utilising groundless notions of the powers in nature. A world peopled by gods who needed to be appeased, and who could be propitiated by ritual human action; full of magical thinking, with demons and devils lurking at every turn.
According to this view, there was no reason in the world, until the emergence of classical civilisation in southern Europe in the middle years of the first millennium B.C.E.
I have cast doubt on this picture elsewhere. Yet there are elements of truth to it.
The Enlightenment agenda was developed in the context of a new understanding of the critical power of human thought, and also of the sciences. Newton showed that causality was the key to our world, and mathematics was the necessary toolkit for gaining an understanding of how the universe works. Without Newton’s demonstration that mathematics could be deployed to describe the motions of the Moon and the planets, and the phenomenon of gravity as a universal force in the cosmos, it is doubtful that the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century would have had the character it had.
The Enlightenment engagement with the visible and physical reality of the universe depended on an intelligible order present in the world, expressed in terms of causal relationships, and that man could frame his relationship with that ordered reality through mathematical and scientific inquiry. In which case, the development of the sciences was effectively the deployment of the human reason, carrying with it no baggage from the past which might skew our understanding. Religion and theology had no place in this new dispensation, despite the fact that Newton spent much of his time engaged with religious questions (a fact almost entirely unknown during the Enlightenment). It seemed obvious that there was no meaningful order in religion, which was now thought of in terms of the chief species of superstition. There was also no basis for believing in the reality of the divine, and no way in which the idea could survive scientific scrutiny.
The French writer Denis Diderot, and many others, considered that human reason could order human life on the basis of the nature of reason itself. We didn’t need any of the things which now were deemed to be superstition or without any aspect of reason, which included many of the customary arrangements and practices in human society. In effect, the whole of the long history of civilisation became, to the savants of the Enlightenment, a sojourn in a world of stupidity and horror. The Enlightenment would build the world anew from scratch, and it would be about the improvement of the physical and intellectual condition of the human race.
This is the background to Diderot’s Encyclopedia – it reflected the new understanding of the world, and the principles on which the new world would be built. Diderot made an exception for the crafts and trades. In addition to the intellectual life of man, the organisation of societal and customary relations in human life, the crafts were part of the fabric of living and understanding. Swathes of the crafts and trades might once have been wrapped up in elements of folklore and superstition, and from the earliest times, but their practicality was what was important. So the crafts could be stripped of their ancient accretions and described and defined anew, as what they were in terms of their contribution to human life.
In short, the achievement of a wholly secular enlightenment, which is what the enterprise of the European Enlightenment was all about, required the thorough redefinition of the past, and what the elements of that past meant. The improved state of man required a wholesale rewriting of human intellectual and social history. Old ideas would end their days on the scrapheap.
In Scotland (although the enterprise began in France), Hume’s contribution to the Enlightenment was rather different. Hume considered the idea that important aspects of the human reason could be understood by the introduction of the experimental method (as he understood it) into psychological subjects. He was essentially experimenting on himself, and exploring the scope and possibilities of his own thoughts. Whereas Diderot’s enterprise was to reshape the world in terms of a rational understanding of how things work, Hume was revising and rebuilding himself in terms of how the rational mind works.
Though Hume's approach was not wholly successful, some of his intuitions expanded our collective understanding of how we perceive reality – for example, his insight that we have no actual knowledge of the process of causation at all, and only a customary expectation of causal process, was a powerful one. We can describe causal processes, we can differentiate the nature of different causal processes, and we can formulate rules in connection with them, but we cannot know how causality itself operates, or even be sure that a perceived causal relation, often observed before, will obey the implicit rule the next time it is under scrutiny by us.
However, it is no longer clear that Hume was exploring his mental processes and understanding entirely within the framework of western secular thought, which is what the European Enlightenment was supposed to be about. In 2009 Alison Gopnik published an article in Hume Studies (Volume 35, Number 1 & 2, 2009 pp. 5-28) which suggested that Hume may have had an important encounter with Buddhist thought while residing and writing at La Flèche in France. Gopnik also wrote engagingly about her research (and its context) later on in an article in the Atlantic magazine (October 2015 issue).
This is the abstract for the article published in Hume Studies:
Philosophers and Buddhist scholars have noted the affinities between David Hume's empiricism and the Buddhist philosophical tradition. I show that it was possible for Hume to have had contact with Buddhist philosophical views. The link to Buddhism comes through the Jesuit scholars at the Royal College of La Flèche. Charles François Dolu was a Jesuit missionary who lived at the Royal College from 1723-1740, overlapping with Hume's stay. He had extensive knowledge both of other religions and cultures and of scientific ideas. Dolu had had first-hand experience with Theravada Buddhism as part of the second French embassy to Siam in 1687-1688. In 1727, Dolu also had talked with Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary who visited Tibet and made an extensive study of Tibetan Buddhism from 1716-1721. It is at least possible that Hume heard about Buddhist ideas through Dolu.
What is Theravada Buddhism? Theravada is a Pali word, with the literal meaning of the ‘school of the elder monks’. There is a Pali Canon of the teaching of the Buddha, and Theravada Buddhism uses those teachings as the basis of its doctrines. Theravada Buddhism is conservative in doctrine and in matters of monastic discipline. There is no other complete Buddhist canon of teachings surviving in a classic Indic language.
The sect originated in Sri Lanka, but is now found in many places around the whole of Southeast Asia.
Theravada Buddhism has some interesting ideas about the nature of causality (Pratītyasamutpāda). Causality, or the idea of cause and effect, is one of the most important ideas in Buddhism as a whole, as well as to the Theravada branch. It differs from western notions of causality, in that it understands cause and effect in terms of ‘dependent co-arising’ (which is what Pratītyasamutpāda means). In the Pali Canon, a differentiation is made between ideas of ‘root cause’ (hetu), and ‘facilitating cause’ (pacca). Effects are brought about by a combined interaction of these two causes. Much of the logic of Buddhism is based on this view of causality.
The significance of this is that it provides explanation of the nature of suffering, and provides an understanding of how suffering may be escaped. This notion of causality also provides an obstacle to patterns of thought which argue for absolute and unquestionable beliefs concerning reality itself. The understanding is that the removal of a cause of something, will also remove the result. The logic of this way of looking at causality is that there is a path which can end both suffering and aimless existence (Samsara, which term can mean ‘wandering’ or ‘world’).
This is of course a very different conception of causality from the one we understand in the west. And it is an old idea. That cause produces an effect because a property belongs to something (svadha) appears in Vedic literature, which takes the idea back to the 2nd Millennium B.C.E., and is found in the Rigveda and the Brahmanas. Pratītyasamutpāda doctrine is more complex however, since it does not involve a single causality. The doctrine involves instead an indirect conditioned causality, and a plural causality.
Hume’s famous image of our understanding of causality is of billiard balls, and how their behaviour can be predicted. This is the Newtonian model of causality. Hume’s insight was that though we could describe and predict their behaviour, we had no idea what was actually behind the behaviour on the billiard table. We know how they behaved a year ago. And how they behaved a week ago. But we have nothing but customary experience to indicate that the same behaviour will happen today.
In Buddhism, the concept of causality implies a plurality of causes which co-originate phenomena. So one thing implies another. This is the basis of the idea of Karma, where the causes can co-originate phenomena both within lifetimes, and across lifetimes. So, what happens in one life can create the necessary conditions which may result in rebirth in another realm of existence for a different lifetime. This is based on the idea of a ‘dependent co-arising’
Peter Harvey argued in 1990 that Pratītyasamutpāda is an ontological principle. Meaning that it is a theory which can provide an explanation for ‘the nature and relations of being, becoming, existence and ultimate reality’. All that stands by itself is the state of Nirvana. Everything which has existence and multiplicity does not not stand alone, but depends on and arises from pre-existing states. When they cease, other dependent states arise. It does not matter whether we are talking about physical or mental states. ‘Dependent arisings’ therefore have a causal conditioning. In which case, Pratītyasamutpāda is the basis of the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality itself. It is Buddhism’s ontology.
So dependent origination is deemed necessary and sufficient according to the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda. In Majjhima Nikaya this idea is expressed as follows:
When this is, that is; This arising, that arises; When this is not, that is not; This ceasing, that ceases.
If Hume had discussions with the Jesuits at La Flèche about Buddhist ideas concerning the nature of reality, he may well have encountered Buddhist views on the nature of causality. In which case, his observation of the unfathomability of the nature of causal relations becomes extremely interesting. He may have understood that the Buddhist view of causality is an ontological one, in that it understands the nature of causality in terms of ‘this being so, that being so’, and does not require the concept of a creator god, a transcendent creative principle, or the notion of a first cause of any kind. This kind of concept of causality refers to conditions created by a plurality of causes that necessarily co-originate phenomena. It is what happens when you do not simply have the one thing, but a multiplicity of entities, which have properties of their own.
So it is possible that Hume’s lack of interest in Plato (he wrote one page about Plato in his volume of Essays), does not mean he had no substantial interest in ontological questions, but perhaps that he understood ontology to be a matter of causality, rather than a transcendent creative principle, about which we might be able to say very little. This does not make Hume a Buddhist by any means, and I am not suggesting that he was. But it does suggest the possibility that there is a hinterland of Hume’s thought and influences still to be explored.
Are there obvious parallelisms between Hume’s thought and Theravara Buddhism? ‘Dependent arisings’ with causal conditioning, of course, need to be established and understood if suffering is to be avoided. In Buddhism, this becomes a key function of scholarship and the priesthood. If there is some condition or state which is unwanted, that state is caused by the pre-existence of something else, and to alter that state involves the removal of the thing which pre-exists. This opens up a whole realm for speculation about ‘why this is so’, and ‘why this is not so’, using the concepts of root cause, and facilitating causes. It is also a way of understanding which is necessarily conjectural in approach, inimical to any belief system which has a fixed mindset, or postulates absolute beliefs about the nature of reality. Within such an intellectual model of how things are related, things can be conjectured to be the case, but relationships can also be analysed, and disputed. So Theravara Buddhism has a form of scepticism built in to the way it deals with reality (the schisms in early Buddhism point to this characteristic very strongly).
Which is where we find the intellectual outlook of Hume. Sceptical, with no absolute beliefs about the nature of reality. Prepared to inquire into the limits of human understanding, but not to attach himself to any thought which has not been critically examined, and which, even so, must always and necessarily remain a matter of conjecture.
TY, December 26 2016.