Saturday, April 18, 2009

The "Eastern vs. Western Thinking" C(t)rap

Here's my problem with the "Western way of thinking" vs. "Eastern way of thinking" debate:

With Western thinking, opposite propositions are "either, or" (the lights are either on or they are off). With Eastern thinking, opposite propositions are "both, and" (the lights are both on and off).

Some people will argue that you can only use one of them. However, that insistence is depended on Western thinking- "You must choose to use either Western thinking or Eastern thinking." If you answer and say, "Western thinking", you make sense. But if you answer and say, "Eastern thinking", you are either denying Western thinking (used to make the determination) or you are accepting Eastern thinking, which accepts all paradoxes including both Eastern and Western thinking. But, the problem here is "how do you determine which way of thinking to use in reference to what?" Not only that, "which way of thinking do you use to arrive at your conclusion of which way of thinking to use in your original situation?"

In order to accept Eastern thinking you must deny that it is superior to any other way of thinking. Since that must be accepted, you must show how you know (why, not that) it is the correct way of thinking to be applied in the situation that you wish to use it in.

Keep in mind that there are many situations when using "both/and" is perfectly logical. But the trick is to look at the details of the claims. Specifically the context. If I were to say, "I am moving and not moving," I would be correct if I specify what I am talking about in each situation. In the first "I am moving" I'm talking about my hands typing this text. In the second "I am not moving" I'm talking about my body setting in my chair. Notice that my two statements "I am moving" and "I am not moving" aren't really related to each other at all.

When someone tries to use the Eastern way of thinking "both/and", press them for the details of the two things they are saying exist at the same time. You will discover that either the two are not actually opposites or they have little to nothing to do with each other.

Ravi Zacharias puts it this way, "Even in India we operate on the Western way of thinking. When we go to cross the street, it is either the bus or us!" If the Eastern way of thinking were used, "the bus AND we cross the street at the same time..." ....uh, yeah.

Eastern thinkers like to say that reality is full of paradoxes. They make a claim similar to the one I made above about my moving and not moving, and they say it is a paradox. (For definition, a paradox is a situation in which two opposites appear to be true at the same time, in the same context.) Eastern thinkers (Buddhism, Hindu, New Age, etc...) utilize this type of argument to show evidence that ultimately reality and everything in reality (including contradictions and opposites) are all true in the same context. When someone believes that this has been demonstrated, then they are free to believe any slew of ideas, even if they directly contradict each other. This removes the need for consistency between beliefs and between belief and practice.

The problem is that just because something appears to be a paradox (my example) does not mean that it is a paradox. In fact, I would go as far as to claim that there is no such thing as a true paradox. The only reason a situation can be called a paradox is because the information is limited. When one probes for more information the paradox can be resolved, and it can no longer be called a paradox.

Unfortunately, as humans our ability to gain knowledge is limited, so some paradoxes will stand. This is not to be taken as evidence of reality being a paradox (as the Eastern thinkers would have you believe), but of our limited knowledge. The limit of knowledge I am specifically referring to is our knowledge of things outside our three dimensions of space and one dimension of time.

The Christian worldview accepts the existence of something beyond the natural realm. So do the Eastern thinkers. The difference between the two is that Christianity aims to resolve the paradoxes, while the Eastern religions aim to create more paradoxes, without ever resolving any of them.

Unfortunately, with all worldviews, paradoxes do show up. Two paradoxes that currently stand in the Christian worldview are the doctrine of the Trinity and the belief that God is closer to us than even we are. In two later posts I will tackle these paradoxes, and show why they are paradoxes to us, but can be resolved with knowledge of things outside our existence.

Ravi Zacharias discusses this on the second episode of Just Thinking here (Part 1 is provided for context):

Understanding the Spirit of the Age- Part 1
Understanding the Spirit of the Age- Part 2

For more on this topic, see these podcasts:

Just Thinking
Let My People Think
Stand to Reason


  1. "Eastern thinkers (Buddhism, Hindu, New Age, etc...) utilize this type of argument to show evidence that ultimately reality and everything in reality (including contradictions and opposites) are all true in the same context."

    I disagree with a few things. One, the methods of thinking aren't Eastern and Western although it is convenient to label them so. It is more appropriately called Dualistic of Holistic.

    And secondly, I don't think they are saying that two or more phenomena are equally true in the same context.... rather, the truth of a phenomena is related to the context. Just as in physics, all problems are solved within a frame of reference. If the frame of reference changes, then the problem must be solved in a different way.

  2. Another note. I think the root of dualistic thinking is ego-centred. The ego-mind is what drives the whole perspective. I and thou. There is a perception of an independent, self-existing I relating to other independent self-existing objects. This is the foundation of dualist epistemology.

    The holistic perspective does not deny that I and thou exist, but that I and thou exist inherently contingently (rather than independent and self-existing). Without I, there is no thou; and without thou, I have nothing to contrast with I, therefore making it able to recognize I.

    I think there is strong evidence for the second opinion that all phenomena are interdependent and no phenomena is self-existing. I think the dualistic model is helpful in a conventional sense - but it is not ultimate truth.... in the same way that Newtonian physics are helpful for conventional reality (big objects at normal speeds) but quantum physics is necessary for ultimate/fundamental reality (extremely small phenomena at very high speeds).

    I believe Martin Buber goes into detail about "I and thou". It is not an un-Christian way of thinking by any means.... but the point within the Christian paradigm is that I is contingent on the ultimate Thou - God. Either way, it is a recognition that I is not self-existing and independent but rather contingent. The object of that contingency is Christianity is God; in Hinduism Brahma (God); in Buddhism it is different.

  3. What does the "I vs thou" or "ego-centered" explanation have to do with the truth-claims of "dualistic" thinking? Does it invalidate it in some way?

    Let me provide an example of the Eastern Thinking directly from Buddhism: "we do not exist (the negative), yet we do not not exist (the positive)". Buddhism claims that both are true in the same context as each other. You are claiming that Eastern Thinking is just stating that truth is dependent on context. However for that to be true, the contexts MUST be different. How do you explain this discrepancy between your claim about Eastern Thinking and the Buddhist claim that is based in Eastern Thinking?

  4. 1) My point about I vs. Thou and ego-centrist thinking is that it is foundational to being able to think dualistically.

    2) Strawman. Buddhism does not claim that we do not exist and that we do exist in the same context.

    In the context of conventional truth, we exist. In the context of ultimate truth, we do not exist - as permanent identities. Buddhism is just saying there is no permanent, unchanging essence we call self. In that sense, we do not exist. In the purely conventional sense, the sense of me sitting at a keyboard typing, I do exist. But in the ultimate scheme of things, I am not a fixed, unchanging identity with an essence that does not change - that fixed, unchanging identity with an essence (soul/atman) is non-existent; it is a construction.

  5. If something ultimately "is not", how can it be said in any context that that same something also "is" (especially in a context subordinate to "ultimate")?

  6. Because, in the context of a moment - you exist as a configuration of a variety of factors.

    In the context of the ultimate - you have no permanent, unchanging essence. This does not mean you cease to exist in a conventional sense as a configuration of a variety of inputs producing an output - but that that output is constantly changing and that there is no core, unchanging, essence about you. In the sense that there is no core, unchanging, essence about you - you do not exist. In the sense that you are a product of various inputs producing an output - you exist. But those inputs are constantly in flux, and hence the output is constantly in flux.

    In other words, "things change" is the ultimate truth.

  7. It appears that we are using two different meanings of the word "ultimate" here. From, which one are you using?

    Is your view of time that past and future moments are just as real (exist) as the present moment?

  8. I'm not employing; I'm employing a philosophical term that is distinguished in Buddhism.

    Conventional reality is the reality we are experiencing right now.
    Ultimate reality is the way things are.

    Tien'tai Buddhism posits it like this:
    The Three Truths
    1) Conventional reality exist
    2) Ultimate reality exist
    3) The fact that both exist at the same time is a truth

    I think I've clarified myself about as best as I can with pretty clear examples.

    In the context of this moment, I exist as a person typing on a keyboard. That is a conventional existence.

    In the context of the ultimate, I do not exist as an unchanging, permanent identity with an essence.

    What is unclear here?

  9. The word "ultimate" is still unclear. Can you provide a definition (not examples)? Look at the definitions on and tell me which one is closest to the definition you are using. You can qualify it if you need to.

    I think I know, but I'm not sure. Instead of me asking "is this it...Is this it...Is this it?" ad infinitum, it would be much easier if you could just define it.

    I don't want to risk a strawman on this one. So, if you can't define the term, we're out of luck on this discussion.

  10. A mere definition is not sufficient to understand a philosophical term oftentimes, because the term must be understood within the context of the whole philosophy. I am afraid will not add much.

    If you want a definition for "ultimate reality", this is the best I can do because it's simply stating what it is (which is what a definition is):
    "In the context of the ultimate, I do not exist as an unchanging, permanent identity with an essence."
    Or elsewise put as,
    "in the context of the ultimate, nothing exists as an unchanging, permanent identity with essence."
    or I could just shorten it to....
    "no essence."

    In browsing, all definitions for ultimate apply quite well:
    "highest; not subsidiary
    a fundamental fact or principle.
    not to be improved upon or surpassed; greatest; unsurpassed"

  11. Are you saying that the "ultimate" context supersedes the other contexts (with no context superseding "ultimate"), or is it the final context in a chain of contexts?

  12. Middle way.

    Or as Tiantai puts it;
    1. Ultimate reality is true. No essence.
    2. Conventional reality is true. Provisional existence.
    3. That conventional reality and ultimate reality are true is true. No essence and provisional existence.

  13. par·a·dox (pār'ə-dŏks')
    A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true: the paradox that standing is more tiring than walking.

    Source: American Heritage Dictionary 2006

    What is the paradox?
    Nothing exists (as an independent, permanent essence).
    Things exist provisionally on other things, codependent origination.
    Both of the above statements are true.

    Those statements do not contradict each other; they are considered true by Buddhists; I don't see where you are finding a logical fallacy other than saying "Buddhist say things exist and they don't exist at the same time (paradox)" which is easily answered by the meaning of "don't exist" (as independent, permanent essences) and "to exist" (as to exist provisionally dependent on other things).

  14. It seems that the paradox is resolved by saying that no single thing (independent permanent essence) exists, only combinations (codependent impermanent things) exist.

    My question now becomes, "What are the codeterminants codependent upon?" If it is more codependent things, then where does the cycle end, or does it?

  15. To say that combinations exist is failing to grasp impermanence; and to ask what the codeterminants are codependent upon is to fail to grasp the interdependence and interpentration of all things.

  16. Uh, huh. That's why I'm asking.

    Just stating that I "fail to grasp" tells me nothing, Samuel. If I "fail to grasp" why are you not trying to help me grasp?

    I'm not saying that the combinations exist in themselves either. I'm asking, "if everything is interdependent on everything else, is everything else interdependent on everything other than it?" What I am doing here is asking the same question in different words, so that I make sure that I understand your answer. But if you won't answer either of the questions (you just state that I don't understand, and leave me hanging), then I can't understand.

    "Throw me a frikin' bone!" :)

  17. " 'if everything is interdependent on everything else, is everything else interdependent on everything other than it?' "

    That's a word salad there so I'm not sure exactly what you're asking.... because your saying if X, is X? To which I would say, yes, X.

    And the whole point of me saying you failed to grasp is so you might look at it from a different angle and have a "eureka" moment. I think you're still trying to understand the Buddhist paradigm through a fundamentally dualistic paradigm which is like trying to experience sex while one is a eunuch; or trying to solve a 3-dimensional geometry problem with euclidean geometry. Or for a computer example, it's like trying to run a Mac program on Windows?

    In your question of "combinations exist" there is still grasping at something independently existing. Whether a noun is simple or compound- it is still a noun. Whether singular or a combination, a thing is still a thing, and Buddhism rejects independent existence. The reason I said you failed to grasp is simply because the question doesn't make sense in the context of the Buddhist statement of impermanence of all things.

    Sort of how existentialism would posit it as "experience precedes essence" - if Buddhist thinking has you wrapped in tangles, existentialism is the closest Western philosophy to it and is a decent starting point.

  18. Okay, let me try asking it a different way.

    Let's say that we have a system of just six balls each of different colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet), nothing more or less exists. You are saying that the existence of each "ball" (I place it in quotes because each ball does not exist independently) depends on the existence of the other five "balls" (which are dependent on the existence of the five "balls" other than it, including the one dependent on it for existence).

    To clarify that last part...if we reduce the system down to two "balls" (say, red and blue), the existence of the red "ball" is dependent on the existence of the blue "ball"; and the existence of the blue "ball" is dependent on the existence of the red "ball".

    Is this closer to the idea of interdependence?

  19. I believe so.... But it is important to note that the balls themselves have no independent existence.

    They are still subject to impermanence - they don't exist as independent things, only in relation to the other. Blue ball exists only in relation to red ball, and both blue ball and red ball are impermanent.

  20. And just not to lump all Buddhism together, within Buddhism there are a variety of schools with a variety of takes on the situation. Add in Hinduism, and it would probably take a few hours of lecture before the both of us even had a basic conceptual grasp of all the different theories of ontology.

    From what little I know of Buddhism:
    1) Some schools state that there are fundamental parts/elements of reality (somewhat like atoms)
    2) Some schools state that everything is impermanent and there are no fundamental parts of reality
    3) Some schools state that mind is everything (yogacara)
    4) And a jillion others.

    Depending on what sect of Buddhism you were studying you would probably get a different answer. In general, I think mainstream Hinduism acknowledges the existence of Brahman and atman, although the implications on the ontology of all things I do not know.

  21. Oh, crap. That just opened a huge can of worms! I'm going to place the lid back on for now...

    Let me take us back around to the original topic.

    In an earlier comment you stated, "I think you're still trying to understand the Buddhist paradigm through a fundamentally dualistic paradigm".

    I understand that to mean, "One must either understand Buddhism through a holistic paradigm or no other paradigm, if one wishes to understand Buddhism properly."

    Is that correct?

  22. I'm going to go back to my previous analogies. Trying to understand Buddhism, and possibly Hinduism, with a dualistic perspective is like trying to 3-dimensional problems with Euclidean geometry. Does not compute.

    To understand Buddhism properly, one must either understand Buddhism through a holistic paradigm or no paradigm (this is different than your statement "holistic p, or no other p").

    In other words, it's not so much a battle of "which is right paradigm" as I think you may be trying to go in that direction - but a matter of you can't understand another language if you are committed to only speaking and hearing your own. If your cup is full, how can you put anything into it?


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