Jay’s introduction: Adam Ring is completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern University on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He has also been my friend for thirteen years, since he was a camper of mine back at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. He and I have been talking about the philosophical aspects of nonduality for several years now, and Adam is among my closest, and most critical, readers. (His brother Josh was also a columnist and designer for this magazine.) What follows here is an edited exchange about the philosophical and ethical problems of nonduality as expressed in my recent book Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nonduality. The conversation is structured around 34 quotations from Everything is God. Most back-and-forths consist of a passage from the book, followed by a question/challenge from Adam, a response from me and, in some cases, a counter-response from Adam. For those interested in a rigorous examination of nondual philosophy, I hope this will be as much of a treat for you as it is for me.
Adam’s introduction: As you can tell from my questions, I’m especially concerned that various commitments of Jay’s (in particular, a rather strong naturalism, a rather strong determinism, and a drive towards dedifferentiation) threaten to undermine the possibility of a thick notion of normativity, and the correlative notions of justification, responsibility, autonomy, obligation, and freedom along with it. Let’s get started.
God, Ontology, and Metaphysics
AR: Nondualism is a radically revisionary metaphysics. Why does the world remain untouched by this revisionary interpretation of it?
JM: The world as experienced remains essentially untouched by this interpretation insofar as we’re not positing an additional ontological entity (old man in the sky, “guiding force of evolution,” etc.). Of course the psychological relationship to the world may change profoundly and one’s own understanding of the reality or non-reality of the self, but ontologically, the objects within the world are the same under what might be called an atheist materialist metaphysics (if it is accurate) and a nondualistic one.
AR: But masks exist, yet existence does not. Being is not a being.
JM: I try to steer clear of whether it is sensible to say “existence does not exist” within the book. My claim regarding masks is that psychological/epistemological understandings of God and world return as permissible masks or interpretations of the numinous. Since none has priority ontologically or even metaphysically (except insofar as they make ontological claims), all masks are permitted insofar as they are different “fingers pointing at the moon” which say more about psychological and religious values than about the existence or nonexistence of angels, demons, gods, goddesses, etc.
JM: I admit to using the term “reality” loosely in the book and not defining it, rather like my use of the term existence. If I were to contrast reality and appearance quickly, I would do so according to unity versus multiplicity. It certainly appears that at this moment I am driving along Interstate 90 in a car; however, if the nondualists are right, this is only one level of reality and a complete account of reality would include both that dualistic, multiplicitous perception and the nondual truth underlying it. Note that for some nondualists (and almost all Jewish ones) it’s not that the highway and the car are illusion (maya) but rather that they offer an incomplete picture of reality which is both all God and surface appearance.
AR: Does God have nothing to do with mistaken utterances about the world of appearances?
JM: If we posit ein sof as truly infinite, then a mistaken utterance about the moon being made of green cheese is as much God as a correct astronomical understanding of the moon. Thus we can say that God has nothing to do with mistaken utterances about the world of appearances. All of these utterances have relative truth or lack thereof and we could say that if God is the ultimate truth, then statements which have relative truth are closer to God than those which do not. However, I think this is really a figure of speech. Error is no farther from God than accuracy as both statements are simply ripples on the pond of the divine. Of course God has something to do with mistaken utterances if those utterances have to do with the word “God” but I don’t mean this semantically. If someone says the world was created 6,000 years ago, someone else says the world came to be 5 billion years ago, the latter statement is obviously more accurate than the former but my claim, contrary to those of textual religious fundamentalists, is that neither statement really has much to say about God. God as mythic character perhaps depends on various attributions of action to him and thus folks who believe in the young earth may feel as though God’s very existence depends on the veracity of these statements. My claim is that a nondual God has nothing to do with these various statements about the world of form and my argument here is mainly with the fundamentalists who say that it does. Another related claim might be that God cannot allow the innocent to suffer; therefore if there is Auschwitz there is no God. From a traditional monotheistic perspective this may be a relevant point, but from a nondual perspective the existence of Auschwitz has nothing to do with whether being is or is not. Only a certain mask of God is challenged by Auschwitz; the nondual embrace of all masks is not.
AR: Is the impermanent and conditioned less real than the permanent and unconditioned? Why should we play by the rules of your concept of reality rather than mine?
JM: Again, I’m not taking a stand on issues of less or more real, and I’m not sure that the phrase “less real” is coherent. Where I am going with this is a somewhat Buddhist reading of conditioned phenomenon as lacking separate self or being empty. If we understand all conditioned phenomenon as temporary, evanescent, and thoroughly conditioned, then I suppose we could use the term “less real” to describe them if by real we mean enduring. Certainly I think this is how Plato viewed the matter: anything subject to change and decay was for him less real than that which was not subject to change and decay (e.g. the immortal soul as compared with the mortal body). I don’t have a dog in that hunt but do notice that it’s possible for the mind to hang out more with conditioned phenomenon or more with the unconditioned and that the latter tends to bring about less suffering and a deeper and more accurate and more complete picture of the nondual truth. So for me it’s not that the unconditioned is more real than the conditioned (although I think it is that way for Plato and most Buddhist philosophers); rather, given the existence of the conditioned and the unconditioned and the mind’s propensity to see only the former, spending time contemplating the latter seems like a good idea.
AR: I would presume that few scientists would deny the reality of their microscopes, their eyes and hands, and the various mid-sized objects that make inquiry into the things you list possible. By ‘what is there, really?’ you seem to mean ‘what are the fundamental building blocks of what there really is.’ But there’s no reason to believe that the complex is less real than the simple.
JM: This seems like a basic “great chain of being” point. Molecules are necessary for the existence of microscopes. Microscopes are not necessary for the existence of molecules. Thus, in terms of ontological priority, the molecules have priority, and so on down the line to atoms, subatomic particles, etc. As before, I’m not entirely denying the reality of waves on the ocean but I am suggesting that to see them only as waves and not as water is both incomplete and has a tendency to increase suffering. If someone were to hit the microscope with a hammer, viewed on the level of form, a great change has taken place. Viewed from the perspective of molecules and atoms, however, while some change has taken place, the change is less significant. Again if I were pressed on your more/less real point I would want to think more about the necessity of molecules to microscopes and not the reverse and perhaps could be backed into accepting some sort of more/less real priority. However, I try to avoid that in the book.
AR: Consider this: objectivity is a category that only applies to appearances – though, of course, not to mere appearances.
JM: I’m not sure I understand this point. To me objectivity is an ontological claim that something exists regardless of perspective and appears the same way regardless of perspective. The moon is made of rock is an objective truth which seems not to depend on perspective. It isn’t green cheese no matter how you look at it. The Big Dipper, on the other hand, is only a coherent label for a group of stars when that group of stars is viewed from a particular perspective. That’s what I mean when I describe it as subjective rather than objective.
AR: This is a classic Kantian point: we cannot presume that things in themselves are given to us to know as if from a God’s-eye view, and that objective knowledge of things in themselves is possible for beings like us, even as an ideal; rather, we must start with the phenomena – things as they appears to us – and determine what it is that we have to do to be taking or treating them as subjective appearances of some underlying objective reality. However you work out the details here, I think Kant’s basic idea is right: to take an appearance to be an appearance of an underlying objectivity requires that we subsume the appearance under conceptual rules, i.e. that we make systematically integrated judgments. For example, whenever I see a particular set of stars and say “look! it’s the Big Dipper!” I am applying the concept of Big Dipper to the appearance of a particular set of stars, judging them to be an appearance of the Big Dipper; in doing so, I take it that there’s an objective reality behind the appearance, such that anyone in my position ought to agree that the Big Dipper is over there. The fact that ‘Big Dipper’ is “merely a label” shouldn’t matter here. You might say that any name (e.g. Jay) is “merely a label”, but it’s still objectively true that you are Jay and I am not.
And the fact that a claim is essentially perspectival shouldn’t matter here either. “The wall in front of me is white” is true only from a certain perspective (it depends on where exactly I am, what the lighting conditions are, etc.), but it’s still objectively true, since anyone in my position ought to see that it is so.
JM: This was a big question for Maimonides in relation to the question of special providence and what God knows. For Maimonides the crucial question was does God know the details or only the generalities of existence. This question had consequences regarding free will, destiny, predestination, etc. for Maimonides. For me this feels like metaphysical speculation and while I could offer my own opinion on the subject, I’m not really sure it makes sense to discuss can the absolute assume a relative perspective since doing so feels like a category mistake to me. I’ve read some mystical interpretations of Christianity that the incarnation of Christ is precisely the absolute assuming a relative perspective. I also quote a passage from Eat Pray Love where Elizabeth Gilbert makes the same point: by doing a handstand on her roof she enables God to do a handstand on the roof because God assumes Gilbert’s relative perspective. Maybe.
AR: So much the worse for this perspective.
JM: Here again, there is sharp disagreement among the nondualists as to whether the relative possesses any truth whatsoever. For a good Hindu the answer is no. Relative truth is illusion. For most Kabbalists the answer is that the world has truth from our point of view but not from God’s point of view. That may be nothing more than a hedge. However, I’m not sure it’s so much the worse for God’s perspective; it is rather a seeing through of appearance into the reality underneath. Perhaps what you mean by “so much the worse” is something humanistic in which case I agree. The analogy here is the play “Our Town” where the living have only the perspective of the relative and the dead have only the perspective of the absolute. In many readings of the play the living are foolish and the dead are wise, but I learned and appreciate the reading that neither the living nor the dead have the truth but only the stage manager does—the person who is able to navigate between perspectives and care about both. The stage manager seems actually invested in the emotional travails of the residents of Grover’s Corners even as he also recognizes that all of what they do is fleeting, trivial, and empty. While I try not to do any kind of personalistic theology in the book, I would say from an individual human point of view that oscillation is likewise essential. Of course all of this is mucking about with sand castles on the beach and yet, as human beings, sand castles matter a great deal.
JM: While I read Schelling I don’t know this concept.
AR: This is how Hegel (critically) refers to Schelling’s conception of the absolute in the Preface to the Phenomenology (sec 16). For this view, Hegel writes, “dealing with something from the perspective of the Absolute consists merely in declaring that, although one has been speaking of it just now as something definite, yet in the Absolute, the A=A, there is nothing of the kind, for there all is one. To pit this single insight, that in the Absolute everything is the same, against the full body of articulated cognition, which at least seeks and demands such fulfillment, to palm off its Absolute as the night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black – this is cognition naively reduced to vacuity.”
My concern is that, like Schelling’s philosophy of identity, hashva’ah achieves the sublime unity of the Absolute by dedifferentiating what is essentially different. My view is that, if there is an Absolute to be approached, it must be one that respects and accommodates difference through a process of dialectical ‘sublation’.
Self and Non-Self
AR: Then why does it have so many observable effects?
JM: The self has observable effects in the same way that movies do. As a phenomenon of perception, the movie Avatar exists and has an effect on the minds and hearts of people watching it. However, of course, the film does not really exist. It is a phenomenon caused by tricks of perception on the brain (indeed, with Avatar the case is perhaps even stronger since, unlike traditional films, most of the landscapes of the film only exist on computers). To respond to the movie Avatar on the atomic level and only see zeros and ones instead of CGI-generated worlds is a foolish mistake. However, if we were to really believe that Pandora existed, we would be wrong. Worse, in the case of the self, not only do we get really attached to Pandora existing but we get very upset when the tree is destroyed, not in an escapist or entertainment way, but with much suffering and heartache. So, the truth will set you free. Being able to navigate between different levels of reality and see that the conventional one is at best only partially true has liberatory potential.
AR: But I am not a thing, an object. I am a subject. And the same goes for you. But then the dualism of I and Thou is not even a candidate for delusion, since it makes no claim about any thing.
JM: The dualism of I and Thou is much misunderstood and is really a nondualistic dualism, so let me move on to what I think you mean rather than to what Buber means. Most people when they posit the I posit both a subject and an object. I am this person in this place, this consciousness between these ears, and I have properties which I would like to either magnify or reduce. Magnify the wealth, reduce the waistline. These are properties of objects, not subjects. I suppose one might say that really all we are seeking to do is adjust up the happiness of the subject—that is, provide a perception of happiness which the subject then receives—and that the waistline and wealth are mere instruments to bring about more happiness which is perceived by the I subject. At the very least, though, this does not accord with how people really experience the I and is instead a kind of meta-interpretation of that experience. I think if one can make claims about this subject, it is subject as object; otherwise, what claims could one really make?
AR: But existentialism does not deny the singularity of the subject. Like Hume, you are looking in the wrong place. Enter Kant’s ‘I think.’
JM: Once again, if by subject you mean that which has no attributes, then I can agree on Vedantin grounds that the atman is all that exists because the subject is ineffable. However, when I use the term Jay, I use it to refer to a being with certain characteristics, not simply the state of subjecthood which you seem to be referring to. When I say Jay exists, I mean this person in this time in this place with these attributes, and those attributes are objects.
AR: And yet, because of this emptiness, we are agents. This is the inescapable fact of reason.
JM: I don’t see this as a fact of reason but as an existential reality. In fact, to me, at the heart of existentialism is a decision to reason from the facts as we find them rather than as they may or may not ultimately be. We find ourselves as decision-makers with ethical responsibility. Behind this decision-maker is emptiness, and yet the nature of that emptiness has little bearing on the existential requirement to choose which emerges from lived experience.
AR: By “fact of reason” I don’t mean the Leibnizian “truth of reasoning” (as contrasted with “truth of fact”). I mean the Kantian claim that no empirical observation or metaphysical argument could give us good reason to believe in the free will. Instead, it is our practical reasoning, the everyday workings of our moral consciousness, that forces the concept of freedom on us a practical certainty (though certainly not a natural or metaphysical one). See Section III of Kant’s Groundwork.
AR: In what does this closeness between meditation and science consist?
JM: A priority of controlled observation over engaged practice – “This is observed.” How is the detached observer’s perspective secured? By leaving the practical situation – “The smooth clockwork of discursive thought is deliberately interrupted in such contexts, and its mechanistic nature can be observed.” The will is not observed from this perspective, but is inescapable from the practical perspective. What does this mean? That theory is absolute and practice relative? Or, rather, that the will is a practical concept, not a theoretical one. The contexts require different modes of consciousness, and that’s why the will is necessary in practice and impossible in theory. Neither context, though, is ultimate; neither is absolute.
Not having read Schopenhauer in particular, I may be out of my league in saying anything about the will. In meditation in highly concentrated states I have observed a spark, so to speak, of will in relation to specific objects and actions. For example, an itch is noticed and one then notices the desire to scratch it. This will, with a lower-case w, appears as a response to stimuli. As for what I think I understand about the will more generally, I have not observed this in meditation and am not sure what it really is. As a description of the activities of the self, it does seem an apt account of how an individual goes about making decisions and ordering his or her life, but as an actual phenomenon I do not see it. In the classical Buddhist psychology there is no space for the will. Perceptions lead to sensations which lead to feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and those feelings condition responses. It is a fairly automatic process. Of course, one object of meditation is to make it less automatic.
As I tried to qualify in the selected quotation, the closeness between meditation and science is simply that from a perceptual point of view, meditation consists of observing the actions of mind as opposed to, say, dogma or theory or speculation as to those faculties. For example, if one postulates the existence of a soul, then it follows that various mental activities are the activities of that soul. However, the soul is never observed; it is assumed. In meditation, in contrast, no conclusions are meant to be reached apart from those which are observed. No stand is taken as to whether there is or is not a man behind the curtain. Instead meditation is quasi-behavioralist in that it allows the observation of the faculties of mind and the activities of mind. Of course, all this is still subject to a Kantian critique that we have no real idea what the mind is doing and to a neuroscientific critique that in talking about the “mind” we are being impermissibly imprecise since only the brain can be described. However, certainly from the Buddhist point of view these limitations are irrelevant since the context of mind is the context in which suffering and freedom from suffering exist and thus it is the relevant context for the real work of Buddhist meditation, namely to observe how suffering arises and learn new ways to minimize it. There are scientific accounts of how meditation works in the pre-frontal cortex, and as a meditator I find these very interesting and indeed inspiring insofar as these accounts demonstrate the physical basis for the psychological effects that meditators report. However, you don’t have to know how a car works in order to drive it.
Knowing or not knowing that the pre-frontal cortex exists has no bearing on how much success one is likely to have in meditation. The Buddha, of course, did not know about the pre-frontal cortex, and yet he was a pretty good meditator.
AR: Different causes and conditions could have brought about the same paragraph, e.g. a monkey at a typewriter. But under those conditions, I wouldn’t read the paragraph seriously, as I do. Is the problem with me, you, or the monkey?
JM: I’m not sure what you mean by “problem” here. I think the judgment on your part not to read the paragraph as seriously if it were written by a monkey (of course you would read it seriously in some sense—as a startling phenomenon of animal intelligence, but I take your meaning here) would seem to be well grounded because the monkey is unlikely to have deep insights into the nature of nondual philosophy. So while different conditions could have produced the same paragraph, knowledge of those conditions does lead to the forming of judgment about the paragraph’s merit. However, I don’t think this hypothetical really holds. Perhaps a better one is comparing a Jackson Pollack painting to a monkey’s splashing of paint around a canvas. There, interesting questions about the theory and nature of art are raised by our differing reactions to the two paintings, which on the surface may appear quite similar. I think part of what John Cage was getting at was an effacing of those differences and a calling of attention to the beauty of found art—in his case, sound not produced by intentional playing of musical instruments but of so-called random events and occurrences. This, however, strikes me as a debate about aesthetics rather than of nonduality. From the spiritual perspective, what’s important about understanding these words as being entirely conditioned is the relinquishment of ownership of those words and an understanding of each face (monkey or human) as a face of the Divine.
AR: Contrast with Kant’s principle of autonomy and its relation to the kingdom of ends: “A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he gives universal law in it but is also subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other.” (Groundwork: 4:433)
JM: I refuse Kant’s predication of moral consideration upon individual autonomy. Insofar as such autonomy is merely a phenomenon as opposed to an ontological principle of the human, I would fear predicating moral consideration upon it. Rather, I predicate moral consideration upon the ability to suffer (see F. Peter Singer) and the speciesist special consideration most of us give to human beings as opposed to animals, which of course can also suffer (precisely Singer’s qua Bentham’s point). As has been well observed, Kantian notions of autonomy run into trouble in marginal cases and cause one to wonder whether equal consideration should be given to all human beings or whether those who actually display more autonomy in their decision-making should in some way be given extra consideration. As before, without recapitulating the compatibilist argument again, one could indeed follow a Kantian line from a compatibilist perspective, although of course that would not satisfy Kant himself.
Ethics and Determinism
AR: What about ‘as it could’? Why treat all contingencies as necessities?
JM: I don’t think this is about treating contingencies as necessities rather than understanding the simple law of cause and effect—that every effect has a cause. If something happens, it is wholly caused by other conditions, no? Therefore everything happens as it must. To me the use of the word could suggests some sort of effort to rescue the ghost in the machine, a ghost I’m trying to lay to rest.
AR: Then what entitles us to believe in the messiah?
JM: Nothing entitles us to believe in the messiah. I don’t think beliefs are either entitled or not entitled, they’re simply beliefs. In the nondual rereading of messianism which I provide, some have suggested that history evolves with some directionality to it and that that directionality, in the words of Ramana, will resolve itself in the knowledge of the Self. Maybe, maybe not. I am not so optimistic and not so Hegelian. The reading I put forth in chapter five of the book is a reading of messianism which accords with my understanding of history and nonduality, and certainly if it indeed comes to pass that Ramana is right, then in retrospect, indeed all of this has been for a reason. Then again, maybe it won’t work out that way. One of my aims in chapter five is to provide a reading of messianism to which one could be “entitled” if by entitled we mean justified in some way. But I do not believe that such a belief is necessary in any way.
JM: True, since the word should can only be used in the sphere of the relative. Speaking relatively and conventionally, the reader should become convinced of the truth of nondualism because the argument has been so well made and consequentially because being so convinced will transform the reader’s life. From the absolute perspective, the statement is incoherent because should has no place in the absolute. As Yoda said, “Do or not do, there is no try.”
AR: With which of our five senses is this phenomenon perceived?
JM: Interestingly, in the Buddhist account of mind, thinking is a sense door. The Buddhists understand thinking as a perceptual activity whose objects are mental activities, memories, etc. So from a Buddhist psychological point of view, free will is observed as a phenomenon by the mind.
AR: Compare and contrast: convention, phenomenon.
JM: What I mean here is that the term for convention “free will” does describe a psychological phenomenon but not a reality (there’s that word again). Insofar as the psychological phenomenon is a reality, of course, free will exists, but most people think it exists ontologically–that is, by some spooky quantum mechanic operation there “really” is free will within the individual. My claim is that free will is a phenomenon that appears to the mind but that it only appears so to the extent that a movie appears to be made of a continuous solid action whereas we know of course that movies are actually very rapidly altering still frames. I would say that the action of a movie is both a phenomenon and a convention. It would not be interesting to talk about films in terms of stills, because only on the level of convention (echoing here Nietzsche’s conventional truth) do the emergent characteristics of the narrative appear: plot and character do not really appear in individual frames. Likewise it only makes sense to talk about ethics and morality on the level of convention because ethics and morality do not exist on the level of all is God/everything is one. Thus, perhaps as with Nietzsche’s conventional truth but with a little less contempt than Nietzsche has for it, these conventions are essential to ethical life while at the same time being ultimately inaccurate as descriptions of what is “really going on.”
AR: What is it to be more than a phenomenon?
JM: What I mean by phenomena are specifically mental phenomena which can be perceived as phenomena by the mind – love, interest, boredom, etc. – but which may not have any trans-subjective “reality.” Certainly these emotions and mind states have physical accompaniments or even causes, but at least in my experience they are largely phenomena of mind that the mind knows, even apart from their physical counterparts. By way of analogy, “phenomena” refers to the experiential features of the waves (like when you’re surfing or swimming) rather than the existence of water. Waves, not scientifically but in the experiential sense, have characteristics: height, speed, etc. However, what the wave really is, is a disturbance of the water by energy. Likewise the mental states which we know from our experience. These are interplays of light and shadow. Again avoiding language of more/less as applied to reality, my claim is that while the narrative of a movie is not necessary for the existence of the frames of the film, the frames of the film are necessary for the narrative of the movie. In this way we could say that the frames are more “real” than the movie’s story. However, this is your language, not mine. As above, this seems to be a great chain of being question. Are atoms more real than molecules? No, but they are more foundational, and the lower supports the higher
AR: This is unjustifiably optimistic. The uncontroversial claim is: ‘Everyone should do the best they can – and if they could do better, they should.’ But you don’t allow yourself to say this, so you translate it into the indicative. In this way, a true moral imperative is exchanged for a false empirical claim.
JM: Here again, the claim is based on cause and effect and nothing more. I am now doing the best job I can to answer your questions. Could I do a better job? That depends on what we mean by the question. On a conventional level, of course I could do a better job. I could research these questions in books of philosophy, I could engage in deeper reflection, etc. However, from what I’m calling an absolute perspective, those actions are not taken because factors are not in my mind and those factors absent and present are entirely conditioned by various causes. For example, if I had acquired better study habits as a child, I would be more apt to crack open the books in response to your thoughtful critiques. However since I did not acquire better study habits as a child, I am not doing so. This is what I mean by “I am doing the best I can.” Not that it’s impossible to imagine a world in which I could do this job better but that in this world with all of the traits of my personality and conditions of the moment, conditioned by other phenomena, this is in a very real sense the best I can do. Looking forward to the future, of course there are actions which could be taken to condition the mind in a different way so that it would act differently in the future. However, even those actions are also entirely conditioned, so in a sense we never choose anything. However, the phrase in a sense is the key. On a conventional level of course we do choose things all the time, and I do have responsibility for the slovenly job I am doing in responding to your queries. Everyone is doing the best they can is a statement from the ultimate perspective. It is not a false empirical claim, it’s a different usage of the term best they can from the conventional one.
AR: We regularly distinguish between natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes and famines, Hurricane Katrina) and man-made disasters (e.g. holocausts and wars, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina). While no one would protest the former, since they simply are, we often do protest the latter, believing that they should not and do not have to be. Only by seeing that it is not the case that man-made disasters simply are can we make sense of our activism; only then can we do something about them.
JM: I’m not sure what the objection is here. To a traditional theist, wars, earthquakes, and famines pose theological problems which have to be somehow squared with various principles about the existence of God. For a nondualist these questions shift. I don’t ask “how did God allow this to happen?” It happened; it’s part of the unfolding of God. Whatever my God concept is, that is what must be queried in the light of the Haiti earthquake, Auschwitz, and so forth. People have rescued all kinds of God concepts from the throes of history. Pat Robertson has told us that the Haiti earthquake is in response to the Haitians’ deal with the devil. Very well he has fashioned an interpretation of events to fit his pre-existing God concept. Someone else perhaps may have lost their faith in God as a result of the Haiti earthquake and the suffering it unleashed on the grounds that a good God could not allow such a thing to happen. For a nondualist all of this is pleasant, idle speculation but not more. It’s essentially folks trying to square ideas they’d like to have with events in history which threaten those ideas. For myself, a more important theological/religious question is, this happened. Can I make space for it, accept it, and then respond to it skillfully? In the case of Haiti, can I look with open eyes at the suffering of innocent people as a result of this earthquake, can I accept it rather than turn the channel or make it all go away with some tidy pseudo-theological principle like Robertson’s, and can I then respond with money or smart Huffington Post articles or whatever is the most effective mode of response? The goal here is an end to the perpetual scurrying around and trying to make everything fit into a theological box, explaining the Holocaust and children with cancer with some recourse to a higher order. Once, such ideas must have been deeply comforting, because people believed in them. Today, however, something seems to have shifted, and I find more people are horrified by such ideas than comforted by them.
AR: What about reasons?
JM: Reasons are some of the many causes that go into a decision. As you know, reasons are not sufficient to predict any decision-making outcome. Sometimes people act with reasons which we think are justifiable, other times they do not, and the presence of those reasons is insufficient to motivate action. In terms of explaining the ethical defensibility of an action, reasons may play an important role. However, in actually explaining why decisions are actually made, unfortunately, articulable reasons play, in my view, a supporting role at most.
AR: But you’ve reduced ‘I’ to a label; there is no I that can cause anything. Accordingly, ‘responsibility’ is not a meaningful word in your language – though you might wish it were.
JM: Responsibility may not be as rich a concept as in a Kantian system, but as a compatibilist description of where to place accountability for actions I think it is strong enough. Granted, as an ontological account of where decisions come from, there is less space for responsibility in my system. However, I don’t think that’s what we really mean by responsibility anyway. After all, if someone shoots another person with a gun, no one would really claim that the gun killed the other person. We’re looking for responsibility in terms of agency, not strict causality. So, in the same hypothetical, even if causally what really happened was, forty years ago someone was unloved by their mother and thus today they pull the trigger on a gun, that level of causality is not legally relevant, or, except in extreme cases, ethically relevant. I think our conventional understanding of legal responsibility is obviously correct here: that the threshold of admissibility of past causes and conditions should be whether those causes and conditions rendered someone “insane,” i.e. unable to make an ethical decision in the present. This seems right to me, even though all of the decision-making processes we all experience all the time are wholly conditioned as well. Legal responsibility is predicated on the ability to make a choice, conventionally speaking, and that is all that is necessary. Real responsibility, whatever that means, has no legal or ethical consequence.
AR: This is asserted, but not explained.
JM: My meaning here is explained elsewhere in the chapter where I quote Nisargadatta, “As long as you believe yourself to be in control, believe yourself to be responsible.” I would admit to the possibility that someone could be so enlightened as to only see from “God’s point of view” and thus would not take any action which only benefits the small individual self. If such a person existed, he or she would not behave unethically, at least insofar as most if not all unethical behavior is undertaken for the benefit of the self. However, even if such a person does exist on the face of the earth, I’ve never met him or her, and that’s what I mean by this sentence: That few of us are so enlightened as to not have any need to worry about the imperatives of conventional ethics. Most of us still have our egos quite intact, thank you very much, and thus must contend with conventional ethics.
AR: I don’t think you explain how the imperatives arise on their own anyway, though it’s probably because I’m skeptical that all immorality can be reduced to manifestations of egoism that I would expect more of an explanation. This especially concerns imperfect positive duties (are limitations on charitable giving always obstacles imposed by the ego?) and more complicated cases of immorality (is it always the case that a soldier carrying out immoral orders really does it out of egoism?).
AR: You have asserted this and the fact of its widespread acceptance after the Sabbateans ‘lost’ the debate. But that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to it and your other commitments. How am I empowered to transform what must be? What is more capable of receiving and reflecting the light than what is and must be? Is that how the world should be?
JM: A thornier problem also described in the book is when someone is fully realized from a nondual perspective and understands even his (usually his) selfish desires as part of the nondual matrix, i.e. God. One such teacher in India had an affair with one of his students and said that of course it was not he, the teacher, who took these actions but Brahman, the whole, the system, we might say God. From an absolute point of view this teacher was of course correct, just as it was God who gassed the Jews in Auschwitz. However, if suffering matters, then both the abuse of teacher’s power and, of course, the acts of genocide were profoundly unethical. A test of the teacher’s mettle might be to agree entirely that God, as the teacher, slept with the student, and then say that God, as the teacher, should be sent to jail. If the teacher is indeed fully realized, then the physical conditions of being in jail, while unpleasant, should also only be ripples on the surface of the infinite and no more dislikeable than this particular teacher’s well-appointed apartment. Of course one is more pleasant than the other and the instance of Brahman in the faculties of the teacher would prefer the apartment to jail. But all is one, right? Clearly we see that at least for most of us, we are not so enlightened as to see jails and apartments as equal, nor so enlightened as to be free from selfish motive in sleeping with attractive young students.
Admittedly my claim of the imperative to transform what is already perfect derives itself a bit from religious Jewish sources as opposed to from philosophical argument here. However, if we could have recourse to existentialism, the answer is an obvious one. We have no idea what the causes and conditions are behind the black box of the self. Where we find ourselves, we appear to have free will and thus responsibility. From that conventional perspective, and from the reality of the other, and the other’s suffering, I think, following Rorty, that the western system of ethics more or less reinvents itself. Not because of the skyhooks of Kant or Hegel but simply from the existential situation of self and other and the possibility of suffering.
Suffering does present a problem for nonduality. An individual suffering is no less God than the same individual relaxing in a hammock. This I think is why the Buddha refused most metaphysical debates (he was obviously much wiser than I) and instead said that he taught only suffering and the end of suffering. The paradox is that suffering may indeed disappear as a problem from the enlightened perspective, but from the unenlightened perspective suffering seems to be a serious problem indeed. It’s not clear why happiness or misery should matter if everything is God, and yet existentially and as humanists we are compelled, I think, to say that it does. Admittedly, that imperative is unjustified and I think Rorty and Sartre are both quite clear and upfront on this point. Yet operating as we do in the shadow of the last century’s genocides, I agree with Levinas that responsibility to the other is somehow, inexplicably, the necessary beginning point rather than what I understand as the Heideggerian nonduality. Granted, this is, as some critics of Levinas have argued, essentially a religious argument, i.e. it seems to depend on some notion of revelation rather than reason. However, the weight of the Holocaust and other evils seems sufficient to justify it.
AR: Better: Compatibilism allows for the relative nonexistence of the self, the total determinism of all phenomena, and yet also the relative truth of the self and ethical responsibility for one’s actions.
JM: Agreed. My account of the non-existence of free will and the existence of free will insofar as it relates to ethical responsibility is a classic compatibilistic account. I have so drunk the Kool-Aid of this view that I no longer understand the alternatives.
The Example of Anger
AR: But we take responsibility for some effects, and not for others. We are willing to justify others’ anger at us. And this is not only done out of slavish self-hatred, but also noble autonomy: I am responsible, for I will to be determined thus. This is what makes me an agent.
JM: Agreed, but this is back to the question of compatibilism. At some times it is indeed more skillful to analyze events from the relative point of view, such as occasions which require ethical action. At other times it may be useful to remember that all of the operations of ethical reasoning, all of its successes and failures, are entirely conditioned, selfless, and ownerless. When I consider the evil wrought by Dick Cheney, I can become very angry at Dick Cheney for being such a malefactor. I find, however, that this anger leads nowhere. When I reflect, however, on the causes and conditions that brought Dick Cheney’s moral reasoning to bear within his mind, I can then reflect more calmly on how those factors can be maximized or minimized in others. What causes and conditions are necessary for a Dick Cheney to come into being rather than a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? How can I contribute in my small way to making more people like the latter and fewer like the former? How can education, sensitization toward suffering, contemplative practice, and a thousand other factors contribute to making fewer Dick Cheneys in the world?
Likewise on the personal scale, when someone cuts me off in traffic I typically respond with road rage at that individual. However, insofar as that rage is unskillful, it is useful to see that this is not a schmuck cutting me off personally but rather an instance of mental factors which I share with the other individual such as rushing, occasional lapse in consideration, playing the game of highway driving, etc. Without naively standing in the other person’s shoes, I can recognize the causes of being cut off as being entirely un-owned, impersonal, and evanescent. This in no way diminishes responsibility in the realm of the conventional. It is not the abuse excuse writ large. When someone commits a crime, they bear moral responsibility for committing that crime even though ultimately the action is entirely conditioned by external forces, including a history of abuse, drug use by a pregnant mother, economic necessity, whatever. My view is that those conditions 100% determine the action the murderer takes and yet, we locate responsibility in the mythic individual and that is exactly how it should be.
AR: But we must distinguish the presence of anger in situation when I’m angry from that in situations when you’re angry. Don’t I react differently to these different situations? Behold the problem of the essential indexical. Indexicals are terms like ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘now’ that only get their content in the context of utterance. The “problem of the essential indexical” is the title of an essay by John Perry, and it’s one of the most important essays in the philosophy of language in the last 30 years (you can find it here). Perry shows that indexicals are ineliminable in the expression of certain beliefs, especially those beliefs that are tied to self-location and self-determination (i.e. action). He shows this by way of a couple of examples, most famously the one that opens the paper:
“I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch. “I believed at the outset that the shopper with a torn sack was making a mess. And I was right. But I didn’t believe that I was making a mess. That seems to be something I came to believe. And when I came to believe that, I stopped following the trail around the counter, and rearranged the torn sack in my cart. My change in beliefs seems to explain my change in behaviour. My aim in this essay is to make a key point about the characterization of this change, and of beliefs in general.”
What does this have to do with your book? When I’m angry, having the belief “anger is present” is true, in the same way that Perry’s belief “the shopper with a torn sack is making a mess.” But in order to capture the phenomenon of being angry accurately – and to act appropriately – “anger is present” is not enough, since that characterization doesn’t differentiate between anger present to me and anger present to you. In fact, the “I” in “I am angry” is an essential indexical. You can try to invent funny ways of expressing it (e.g. “anger is present”, “‘Jay’ is angry”), but in order to describe the actual phenomenon accurately, you’ll need to bring that indexical back in (“anger is present… to me”, “…and I am ‘Jay’”).
You’re interested in transforming the way that we react to our anger. However, it is important to recognize that it is our anger that we are reacting (or not reacting) to, and the problem cannot be solved by new turns of phrase. As a philosopher named Arnold Davidson has said, “In aiming to transform a sensibility, one must capture it precisely, and if one’s descriptions are too coarse, too rough or too smooth, they will hold no interest, seeming to have missed the mark completely.”
JM: Of course I react differently to my anger and to yours. To me the more important distinction is whether I react differently to saying I am angry as opposed to anger is present. That distinction is something I can do something about and I think it is the more important one.
AR: Perhaps, but also very different. In the latter cases, I walk away; in the former cases, I stay and argue. Of course, not everyone is open to argument, and to the extent that they refuse to enter the space of reasons, they render themselves inanimate. From these too, I walk away. But when argument is possible, as we enter the space of reasons, my anger subsides. This happens just as much when consensus is reached in my favor as when it is in my opponent’s, since my opponent has become by partner in the cooperative work of communicative action.
JM: Of course, I agree. One can argue with some people more effectively than one can with a machine, and indeed it is one of my great pet peeves when human beings choose to act like machines and thus shut themselves off from rational argumentation. Perhaps we experience argument differently, however. I find that trying to reason with someone who should be reasonable but proves not to be reasonable (in my opinion) is infuriating. Often I find it more relaxing simply to relinquish any position of arrogance and authority relative to the reasons for another person’s actions because their internal psychological factors play such a greater role in their decision-making than the reasons to which I or they might point. So yes, the response should be different.
However, if we maintain the mechanistic understanding of human psychology, we can look at the argument as simply providing additional information that the computer ought to take into account. In some cases, the new information may cause the computer to reach a different result. However, this is true for my GPS just as much as it is for a living human being. The GPS has a route it wants me to take. If I provide additional information (e.g. the satellite tells it there’s traffic on its preferred route) the GPS will change its mind without any need for a homunculus-like soul in the driver’s seat (of the GPS or the car).
AR: What you here call living is what many call dying. Enter Socrates and Nietzsche.
JM: As above, in talking about truth and statements as related to God, “accuracy” is a relative term which has to do with the accordance of truth statements with states of being in the relative conventional world. Obviously it is more accurate to say that the moon is made of rock than to say it is made of green cheese, and the nondual fact that the moon is empty of self and independent existence does not change that. Certainly in this case, accuracy matters because the more accurate we are about the nature of anger, the more skillfully we can respond to it. I grant that in some western humanist hermeneutics, the notion of surrendering struggle against being is a form of death. Witness the Sufi saying “Die before you die.” However, my own experience in a purely personal and emotive sense is that to stop seeking is indeed to start living. To stop postponing value to some future time and place and to see it in the present moment with all of its shortcomings is for me indeed to suck the marrow out of life, even when life is entirely ordinary.
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