Columbia Lecture on Buddhist Metaphysics and Ethics

UPDATE: Today’s Columbia Seminar on Comparative Philosophy meeting, with Jonathan C. Gold and Robert Wright, is CANCELLED due to blizzard forecasts in New York City.  We are planning to reschedule for NEXT Friday, February 15.  Full details to follow.


Welcomes, JONATHAN C. GOLD (Princeton University)

Please join us at Columbia University’ Department of Religion on February 8, 2013 at 5:30 for his lecture entitled,

Accepting the Conditions: “The Ethical Implications of Vasubandhu’s Buddhist Causal Theory”


This paper presents a view that I call “Buddhist Causal Framing,” which is characterized by the following four doctrines: (1) the reality and significance of entities or events are indexed to their roles in causal series; (2) causality itself is a relativistic mode of explanation, since it is only known via framing structures that reflect the interests and capacities of the knower; (3) entities judged “substantial” by causal criteria are thus ultimately subjective constructions; and yet (4) entities judged “substantial” by causal criteria are not entirely unreal, for, in a properly formulated causal explanation, the subjective frame allows one to test for objective patterns of dependence.  Buddhist Causal Framing is an abstracted and formalized version of the philosophical position advocated in works attributed to the great 4th/5th century Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, and the paper locates this view within Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma arguments and the Yogācāra doctrine of The Three Natures.  The main focus of the presentation, however, is on the philosophical significance of Buddhist Causal Framing itself.

The paper argues that Vasubandhu’s view, which is fundamentally bound to the interpretation of scripture, resembles the view of James Woodward, a modern philosopher who theorizes causal explanation on the structure of a scientific experiment. This similarity, it is argued, accounts for certain oft-noted resonances between Buddhism and a modern scientific worldview.  An ethical consideration of the relativity of frames helps to explain the well-known Buddhist discomfort with moral absolutes and justice-talk.  It is argued that the requirement that substantial significance be granted only to events with causal consequences within subjective frames amounts to a Buddhist moral ground for the social sciences.  Such a view would in principle counter (disprove) dogmatic and ideological positions that are inconsistent with their own historical/conceptual-constructedness (such as nationalisms and essential rights).  It would also seek to “right” moral wrongs through carefully uncovering, explaining, and intervening in their causes and conditions, rather than seeking retributive punishment.

The respondent to Jonathan C. Gold’s paper on February 8 will be:

Robert Wright, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, and and prize-winning author of best-selling books about science, evolutionary psychology, history, religion, and game theory, including The Evolution of God, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, The Moral Animal, and Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information.

5 replies on “Columbia Lecture on Buddhist Metaphysics and Ethics”

  1. I’m having a little trouble with this. I’ve fallen out of touch in recent years, but offhand the four numbered points look to me pretty uncontroversial – I mean, in Anglophone philosophy.

    Point (3) might look controversial at first glance, until one recalls that ‘subjective’ is a notoriously slippery word – best avoided in serious contexts, I’ve always thought. If we interpret the word in such a way that (3) can seem to follow from (2), as the presentation here suggests, then (3) no longer looks controversial, and the only problematic part of the four points would seem to be the ‘yet’ that introduces (4).

    Anyway that’s how things look to me offhand.

    I want to turn it into a question, in case anybody’s there. How are we to understand the term ‘subjective’ in (3)?

  2. Thanks for the comment.
    Woodward (_Making Things Happen_, OUP 2003, p. 90) uses the terms “subjective” and “objective” to indicate, respectively, the contributions to a causal judgment from, in the first case, the decisions that frame, for an experiment (say), “those possibilities we are willing to take seriously,” and in the second case, the “patterns of counterfactual dependence” that the experiment reveals. My phrase “subjective construction” is intended to display how this idea can be used to illuminate the Buddhist view that entities that are “conceptual constructions” (parikalpita) are unreal. The idea behind the four points overall is to use this form of causal reasoning to explain the Buddhist view of the fundamentally erroneous nature of all conceptual constructions, while still affirming the utility of conventions.
    The reason for the “yet” in point (4) is to counter the tendency to think that revealing an idea to be irrationally conditioned is to expose it as entirely false and invalid. The ethical analysis in the paper proposes that some ideas might be subject to such a critique, but not all.
    I hope you’ll consider coming to the talk, which is rescheduled for February 15.

  3. Thanks Jonathan! Alas, my day job far away won’t allow me to attend. Otherwise I would love to come; I expect it will be a valuable talk and discussion. Maybe I shouldn’t reply here, or not now; but I will. I invite you to postpone answering me until after the event.

    I asked what you meant by ‘subjective’ in point (3) in your presentation/paraphrase of a Buddhist view.

    You answered, “Woodward uses … ‘subjective’ … to indicate … the contributions to a causal judgment from … the decisions that frame, for an experiment (say), ‘those possibilities we are willing to take seriously.’”

    But ‘subjective’ is an adjective. Here again is the sentence at issue:

    (3) entities judged “substantial” by causal criteria are thus ultimately subjective constructions

    In context I think we’re to understand the actual point as,

    (3a) all entities are subjective constructions

    From the account of ‘subjective’ you offer, one could try to guess at what you might mean by ‘subjective’ here.

    One guess is (A) that your term ‘subjective’ here means “partly shaped by decisions.” On this reading, everyone would agree that an example of a “subjective construction” is a house. And on this reading, the ‘yet’ that introduces (4) seems unmotivated.

    Another guess is (B) that your answer means just this: that one is not to try to understand (3) by understanding its parts; rather, (3) is to be understood simply as pointing to the conjunction, “(1) and (2).” But on this reading, the purpose of including (3) could only be obfuscatory. And on this reading, the ‘yet’ that introduces (4) seems unmotivated.

    For my part, I have a different kind of guess. I guess that your response about ‘subjective’ does not at all address the question what you mean by ‘subjective’ (in the phrase ‘subjective constructions’). It does something else instead: it alludes to a reason (or a broad family of putative reasons) for thinking that some (or all) things are “subjective,” without actually articulating that conclusion at all.

    Here is (1234) slightly simplified:
    (1’) Whatever is real is in some causal chain.
    (2’) Our understanding of causal chains is shaped by our concerns.
    (3’) Therefore whatever is real is ____.
    (4’) Point (3’) doesn’t imply that whatever is real is wholly unreal (i.e. that there isn’t anything real).

    Point (1’) seems fairly uncontroversial. (If what’s meant is “… some causal chain that involves you and me,” it’s a little less uncontroversial. Does the point here deny other universes?)

    Point (2’) seems wholly uncontroversial.

    At present there is no point (3’).

    Point (4’) may seem uncontroversial at first glance, but I suppose it shouldn’t. Whether it is obviously true, obviously false, or somewhere in between, depends entirely on what point (3’) turns out to be.

    If you do have a ready clear articulation of what (3) is trying to say, then you might have an argument from (1)&(2) to (3). That would indeed be interesting — insofar as (1) and (2) are uncontroversial and (3) is controversial. (On guess (B) above, that can’t happen.)


    You write, “The reason for the “yet” in point (4) is to counter the tendency to think that revealing an idea to be irrationally conditioned is to expose it as entirely false and invalid.”

    What that suggests to me is that the ‘yet’ relies for its motivation on an equivocation by the term ‘subjective’ in (3), perhaps as between “… decision” and “… irrational decision.”


    I’m not sure you and I have any significant disagreement here, except that I think that as a tool in philosophy, the word ‘subjective’ is about as valuable as chloroform. I wonder if there is an analogous term in the Buddhist texts?

    Would it be fair to say that the main substantive purpose of your argument is to undo some of the damage done by that slippery term?

  4. Oops, my remark near the end, between demarcating asterisks, was a mistake — a mistake that weakens the overall thumbscrews of my comment. Here’s a better remark:


    You write, “The reason for the “yet” in point (4) is to counter the tendency to think that revealing an idea to be irrationally conditioned is to expose it as entirely false and invalid.”

    Hm. In your/Woodward’s response to my question about the meaning of ‘subjective’, you didn’t mention irrationality or say anything that suggested to me irrationality. The parts that might have suggested irrationality were “decisions” and “willing to take seriously.” (Granted, by my guess the response to the question doesn’t address the question.)

    Conceivably the picture is something like this: ‘subjective’ means “… the human mind …” and you think most people will correctly infer “… irrational …”, and most people will incorrectly infer further, “completely wrong.” But although I don’t know what the premises of the two inferences are, I submit that only a tiny minority of the people who would draw the first inference would also draw the second.

    Is drawing the first inference a necessary condition of understanding what you mean by ‘subjective’ here?


  5. Well, it was ridiculous and rude of me to go after an abstract like that. As abstracts go, this one is very extraordinarily forthcoming and clear. Sweet enough to draw flies. The four points do paint a sort of a picture of a controversial view. I’m sorry, and grateful for the advertisement. If there is a verbal equivalent of chloroform, it might be valuably applied to me.

    I’m going to blather on a bit because I enjoy it; maybe someone can use something.

    I seem to recall that in James Q. Wilson’s book On Crime (or at least one of the editions thereof), there’s a nice and persuasive discussion of how we should understand questions like “What are the causes of crime?” The question should be understood to mean, how can we potentially get a handle on it? What are the handles? And then one sees that the right answer to the question depends on who “we” are: what our powers are, and why we care. (Wilson’s emphasis was on the powers; I don’t remember if he included cognitive powers.) The question would have very different imports in conversations among (a) police, (b) legislators, (c) political theorists talking about constitutions, (d) habitual criminals in crime rehab, etc.

    This sort of point may be more prima facie plausible, more grossly true, in the social sciences than elsewhere.

    Some philosopher has pointed out that scientists – I mean, you know, real scientists, yer high-class scientists, chemists and physicists – hardly talk about “causes.” The term doesn’t appear in the theories. And theoretical science does aim to be maximally independent of details about the conversants, and thus maximally independent of the JamesQWilsonian point.

    And yet, when a philosopher hears the words ‘causation’ and ‘reality’ she thinks of physics. General claims like “whatever is real is in causal chains” make her think of particles in lonely space, and how far apart they can be. Wilson’s point suggests that this philosopher might be hugely misunderstanding the word ‘cause’: where it is at home and where it is not.

    Such a philosopher could take your abstract to suggest the argument: “Science studies things, things are shaped by values, therefore science should be informed by values. Therefore social science should be shaped by values.” As you may suggest, that argument could be useful dialectically as a riposte to people who argue simplistically that social science should be amoral because physics is amoral. But a worry about that argument is that if it is taken to give the main reason why social science should be shaped by values, it might suppress attention to reasons special to social science, which might be more important.

    The Buddhist discussion (about which I know nothing) might avoid this problem if, in discussing “causation” (and “things” in general), it thinks in the first instance of human things in social life, rather than impersonal particles in the vasty deep. But one has the general impression that Buddhists are inspired above all by the calming vision of impersonal particles in the vasty deep.

    Wilson’s point about causation is not so much that it reflects the fact of conversants; rather the point is that it varies with varying conversants, to the extent that speaking of causation in general – the general human conversation – doesn’t make much sense. To the point that reality or significance is indexed to causal chains, one could imagine him replying, “Yes, but a more important point of the same kind is that causation is indexed to the who/whom.”

    That’s not a criticism of anything you say, but it harmonizes with a worry about the program sketched at the end of the abstract: to “seek to ‘right’ moral wrongs through carefully uncovering, explaining, and intervening in their causes and conditions, rather than seeking retributive punishment.”

    Trivially, it is a mistake to overemphasize retribution, or see it as too fundamental. But the picture here seems kin to a program of removing the who/whom from morality, such as the notion of obligation (which is inherently “to” someone); removing concepts internal to relations between people – social relations, business relations, etc.

    Though for my part I think anything is good just insofar as it means net pleasure for the universe, I also think the feelings by which we attend to reciprocity are essential to right moral sensibility: essential to our best cognitive resources for feeling the net pleasure at stake in our options. That is to say, they’re part of the utilitarian practical calculus.

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