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Dr. Jay Garfield on Healthy Realities

Dr. Jay Garfield professor of logic and Buddhist Studies

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I’m excited to share with you an extraordinary conversation I had recently with Dr. Jay Garfield about the interdependent nature of reality or emptiness.

Dr. Jay Garfield chairs Smith College’s philosophy department and directs its logic and Buddhist studies programs. He’s a visiting professor of Buddhist philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, a professor of philosophy at Melbourne University and an adjunct professor of philosophy at the Central University of Tibetan Studies.

Dr. Garfield’s research addresses the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of mind, ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of logic. He is one of the foremost Western scholars of Madhyamika Buddhist philosophy stemming from the Nalanda Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

Dr. Garfield has translated critical works from this tradition and he is the author of numerous books, including Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance and Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy.

Scott Snibbe: Dr. Garfield, thanks a lot for joining us today on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I’m in awe of your scholarship and your ability to clearly explain some of the most advanced Buddhist topics and I really appreciate you making the time from your schedule to speak with us.

Jay Garfield: A real pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Scott Snibbe: I wonder if you could just start off by sharing with us how you got into this wonderful path of practicing and studying the deepest aspects of Tibetan Buddhism?

Jay Garfield: Pretty much by accident, like most things in life. That is, when I did my graduate training in philosophy, I finished my PhD, like most people of my generation in that field, not knowing that there was such a thing as philosophy outside of the Western tradition. And I certainly knew nothing whatsoever about Buddhism.

My first introduction to Buddhist philosophy was reading the rough drafts of Robert Thurman’s translation of Tsongkhapa’s Lebcheng Nyingpo, The Essence of Hermeneutics, which is an extraordinarily complicated, difficult text. And I must say it took me a long time to understand a word of it. I would find myself thinking I was reading gobbledygook. But after a while I kind of settled into it and found it a fascinating text and a fascinating approach to doing philosophy.

I put it aside and didn’t think about this for a long time, because I had a career to get going in logic and foundations of cognitive science: that’s where I was working. I didn’t even think about this for about seven years.

And then Hampshire initiated a new curricular program, a very avant-garde program. They call it a third world expectation, but really what it was was a very strong multicultural requirement tied to a student’s major. And the requirement was that no student could study any subject without studying the way it was pursued in some non-Western culture. And of course you can’t require students to study things that you don’t teach. And so it was also made a requirement on faculty members to retool, to serve the third world expectation or leave. And faculty members were offered development money to retool.

I panicked, I thought, I don’t know anything about non-Western philosophy. But then I remembered medieval Tibetan epistemology. Maybe I could get a little grant, pay Bob Thurman enough money to teach me enough to put two weeks into a course on Tibetan epistemology, and I will have paid my debt to society.

So I did that, and I worked with Bob and got interested. The course went really well and students liked it. And the next year I wanted to develop a whole course in comparative epistemology. So I applied for a bigger grant, worked a little bit harder to get that, and students liked that even more.

I was starting to get really interested in this Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that I was reading and the Indian antecedent. And there was a NEH, National Endowment for the Humanities summer program on Nagarjuna being offered in Hawaii of all places. And I thought, Well, I’ll never get in, but why not apply because I’ve really got to learn this stuff?

So I applied. And to my astonishment I got in. I got to spend six weeks in Hawaii with a bunch of other crazy people studying Nagarjuna. And I really fell in love with things at that point. And I had a sabbatical coming up. I started to ask people if you’re really serious about learning Tibetan properly and studying Buddhist philosophy, where do you go?

And everybody said, you go to the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath India, if you can do it. So I applied for a grant. To my astonishment, I got it. I took my family off to India and never looked back. So that’s kind of how I got into it.

Scott Snibbe: That’s an incredible story, especially that somehow your university administration pushed you into studying Tibetan Buddhism.  I never heard that path before.

Jay Garfield: No, you have to get lucky. You have to get in the right place at the right time. And I was. I must say this was not my decision. I was pushed into it. And as soon as I fell in, I felt like I could swim and I really enjoyed it.

Scott Snibbe: Amazing. So I wanted to start with a deep question. Could you explain what reality is from a Buddhist perspective? In a way that our audience will understand, you know, without too much jargon?

Jay Garfield: Okay. That’s that’s a fun question. I’m going to begin by attacking the question. You said, from a Buddhist perspective, but as you know, Scott, there were a lot of different Buddhist perspectives. The Buddhist world is a really, really big world.

And, you know, I’m often working with Tibetan colleagues and they’ll ask me questions like, What do Westerners think the mind is? I take a long, deep breath and say the West is a really big place. There’s a lot of Westerners, they’ve got a lot of different views.  So when people ask me a question like that, I say, let’s take a deep breath and realize that there’s a lot of Buddhists and a lot of Buddhist traditions and a lot of different views about what reality is.

But we can say a few very general things. So, after attacking the question, now I can answer parts of it in good conscience. The fundamental metaphysical idea running through Buddhist ideas about reality is that reality is characterized by thoroughgoing interdependence; that nothing exists with an intrinsic nature. Nothing exists independently.

And in the Indo-Tibetan tradition in which I work, the Prasangika Madhyamika tradition, that interdependence is glossed in three distinct ways. And it’s really important to understand these different dimensions of interdependence.

One is causal interdependence: everything that exists comes into existence, dependent upon cause and conditions. And everything that exists in turn serves as a cause or condition for something else. So things are built into a causal matrix.

Second, there is myriological or part-whole dependence: every composite object—and all objects are composite—depends upon its parts, the way its parts fit together.

And every object is also part of a larger whole and depends for its identity, depends for its functioning, on the whole of it, of which it’s a part.

So for instance, I depend on things like my liver and my heart and my brain and my blood vessels and my toes, all of these parts. Those parts depend upon smaller parts. But in order to be a real person, in order to be somebody who teaches philosophy, I also depend upon the community in which I’m embedded.

I depend on the college in which I teach, the students with whom I hang out, the colleagues to whom I talk. I depend causally on my parents. My kids depend upon me. My students depend upon what I teach them, but I depend upon them for having a classroom in which to teach.

There’s also a third dimension of this interdependence, and this is the hardest one for most people to wrap their minds around. But it’s a very important one, and that’s dependence on conceptual imputation. And what that means is that everything depends for its identity, for the character it has, for the way that it shows up for us in our world, on the conceptual matrix through which we understand it.

So if a student sees me as a teacher, it’s because they kind of know what a teacher is and think about me that way. If I see them as a student, I’m seeing them through that lens. If I’m looking at the table in front of me, I can be looking at a single thing, a table, or five things: slab of wood perched upon four sticks, or millions and billions of atoms, or part of the furniture in my room, depending on the concepts that I’m deploying in order to understand it.

So all three of these dimensions of interdependence, characterize reality. And that’s why Buddhists in this tradition say that everything is empty of intrinsic existence or intrinsic identity, but everything exists in this interdependent way. Or as we sometimes say, a conventional way. So one way to answer the question What is reality? is to say, To be real is to be conventionally real, to be interdependent, to come into existence depending on causes and conditions; to go out of existence when those causes and conditions are no longer present; hence to be interdependent, to be impermanent, to be empty of intrinsic existence.

And that’s a broad characterization of reality from the standpoint of this tradition.

Scott Snibbe: Reality is interdependence. It’s that nothing meets a final stop.

Jay Garfield: That’s right. That’s right. There’s a lot of different ways to look at this, but we can look at it from a phenomenological perspective. And I sometimes find this a useful way to explain this to students. We grow up thinking, naively, that our senses deliver reality just as it is. So that when I look at a blue sky, it’s blue; when I look at a red rose, I see something that’s just red; or green grass is green; that C-sharp sounds just so. 

But we forget—and it’s easy to remind ourselves, but then it’s easy to forget again—that everything that we perceive, we’re proceeding through the mediation of our senses and our cognitive capacities.

So when I see a rose, what I’m seeing is that rose appears very differently to a hummingbird or to a bee. They see him very different frequencies. It appears very differently to my dog who only experiences a volume of smell that might look kind of red. And to him, the smell is going to be much richer than it is to me.

And if I ask what that rose looks like, what that rose is like independent of my perception, my dog’s perception, or a hummingbird perception, there’s just no answer to that question. The only mode in which things can appear, the only way that they can exist, is in relation to other things. Perceptible objects exist in relation to perceivers. There is no way that the rose looks independently of a looker.

When we think about things that way, we see that the mind, the sense organs, the kind of beings we are, the interests we have determine our reality as much as anything else.

That’s a very fundamental Buddhistic insight.

Scott Snibbe: So even the way we each experience reality differs, between people and also different types of living beings.

Jay Garfield: Absolutely. But reality is independent of that. That just doesn’t even make sense.

Scott Snibbe: In a couple of your answers to these two questions, we were talking about subjectivity perception, we’re implying the mind here. And I wonder if I could ask you more explicitly—from this Buddhist perspective—what is the mind? What is the mind that’s having this experience?

Jay Garfield: The mind isn’t a single thing. That’s an important thing to remember, and that’s another important Buddhist insight. There’s not a substance or a continuing thing called the mind. Rather, the mind as we think about it, as it appears to us, is a collection of many cognitive processes and perceptual processes.

Some of those are introspective and really apparent to us. Others of those might be deep semi-conscious or subconscious cognitive processes. And our experience is determined as much by the shape of the processes of which we’re aware as it is by all of these unconscious processes going on under us.

So right now you’re hearing me speak, you’re hearing the language that I’m speaking. And the people listening to this podcast will be hearing that language. If they speak English, they’re not hearing sounds, they’re hearing words. And they’re hearing words because they have unconscious language processing mechanisms that are turning that sound stream into segments. And those segments are meaningful words. If they were not English speakers, they would just be hearing a bunch of nonsense sound. That would sound very different.

So what we see is that our perception is guided both by our conscious processing and by our unconscious processing. Oftentimes in a Western way of thinking, we think of there being five sense faculties. Buddhists always add a sixth sense faculty—a mental sense faculty or an introspective faculty—emphasizing that when we introspect or become aware of the contents of our own minds, those aren’t directly obvious, directly evident to us. They’re not given to us as the kinds of things they are. Our internal sense faculty, that introspective faculty, can be as deceptive, as conceptually involved, as any external sense faculty.

And so again, when I encounter my own cognitive processes, I don’t encounter them just as they are. I encounter them as they show up to my introspection.

Just as when I encounter a rose, I don’t encounter it just as it is. I only encounter it as it appears to me. And just as when we ask, Well how’s the rose just on its own, apart from how I perceive it? We can’t answer that question. If I ask the question, what’s my mind like independently of how I perceive it or how I think of it, we can’t answer that question. It just doesn’t make any sense.

So the mind is a complex ensemble of perceptual and cognitive processes, constantly evolving, constantly changing, always in open interaction with objects of knowledge and objects of perception, and only comprehensible in that embedded, embodied, interdependent interaction with all of the phenomena of which we are conscious.

Scott Snibbe: And is there a sense again, from, the Buddhist perspective of what the relationship of the mind is to the brain and the body, or other material and immaterial phenomena.

Jay Garfield: Again, I said the mind isn’t some single thing that’s in relation to other things, it’s a complex set of processes. And a lot of those processes are physical processes. And some of those processes are higher order processes that supervene on physical processes; that are dependent upon them, that are different levels of description of physical processes.

So we don’t want to think in a kind of Cartesian way that we’ve got two substances: mind substance and body substance. And then they want to ask how they’re connected to one another. That doesn’t make any sense. When we think about cognitive processes, that’s a way of thinking about processes. When me think of physical processes, that’s a way of categorizing processes.

Just as if I were I to pay you five dollars for a cup of coffee.  If I gave you five ones, Or if I gave you a five dollar bill, or if I gave you twenty quarters, I would still be giving you five dollars. But in each case I would be doing something physical that would constitute a financial transaction.

Similarly, when we think we’re doing physical things, it’s not the physical thing that matters: not whether it’s five ones or a five. It’s how we describe it at a cognitive level. So a process can be at once physical and cognitive without any problem at all.  And the interdependence is there in all of us.

Scott Snibbe: So it’s a mistake to think the mind is separate from all these different processes or at one with any individual one.

Jay Garfield: That’s right, just one way of characterizing a particular stream of interdependent causal processes.

Scott Snibbe: So this brings to mind something that the Dalai Lama has surprisingly seemed to mention again and again in talks this year, where he mentioned a specific verse of a very special text called Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, this  first verse of Chapter 22.

And it’s surprising because these are often general talks to Westerners. I know you’ve translated and commented on this verse a lot. Do you mind if I,  read out the way the Dalai Lama has rephrased it in terms of you the meditator and then have you comment on this a little?

Jay Garfield: Please do.

Scott Snibbe: Okay. He says, quoting Nagarjuna:

I am neither one with the aggregates, nor different from the aggregates,
The aggregates are not in me, nor am I in the aggregates.
I don’t possess the aggregates.
What else am I?

—Nagarjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Chapter 22, Verse 1

And so can you explain, why is this important and useful and explain what aggregates mean?

Jay Garfield: Now, as you probably know, I just gave an hour and a half long talk on that verse last week

Scott Snibbe: Yes, it was, it was amazing.

Jay Garfield: Let’s start, by aggregates: this is just a kind of Buddhist hybrid English. We’re translating the Sanskrit term skandha or the Tibetan term phung po. And what that means is a pile or a heap of stuff, literally aggregate. It’s got more syllables, sounds a little more technical, but basically they aren’t technical terms, they mean a pile.

For those who care about this, the original meaning of the Pali term from which all of this comes is the pile of wood used to burn a corpse on a funeral pyre. And that is meant to be a kind of reminder not only that all we are are a pile of psychophysical processes, not a unified thing.

(A pile of piles, in fact, because we usually distinguish five aggregates: physical aggregate of the body, the sensory aggregate sensations that we have, the perceptual aggregate, the pile of perceptions, the disposition to personality traits, and our consciousness. You can divide it up differently. There’s nothing very important about this particular division.)

But it’s to remind us that we’re piles of piles of stuff. It’s also because of that metaphor to remind us as one of the very famous sutras in the Pali Canon, The Fire Sutra says, that all of these aggregates are kind of fuel for the flames of Samsara. They’re all the basis of suffering. 

And that Nirvana, the word Nirvana, means blowing out a fire. It doesn’t mean extinguishing who we are. It means extinguishing the fire that’s consuming us, and leading life in a kind of less burnt up way. That’s just an aside, but it’s a nice aside because you asked about the term.

The statement—which, again, it’s interesting because His Holiness the Dalai Lama has elided bits of the translation because this occurs at the beginning of the chapter on the Buddha, on the Tathagata. And he’s elided the fact that it really focuses on the Tathagata, the Buddha not being the same or different from the aggregates.

And then you kind of have to do a little story around that. But we’ll leave that part aside. 

The question comes back to the question that you asked a moment ago about the body and about the mind. Because it’s asking what is the relationship between me as a person or you as a person and all of those psychophysical processes on which we depend and that in some sense constitute us.

Now Nagarguna, by the way, Is drawing this from earlier material. And then my commentary on this will draw on much later material: comments by Chandrakirti, comments by Tsongkhapa.  So it’s not just that verse, but this is how we have to read Buddhist texts. They’re always written in a long tradition and you want to know what their antecedents are as well as how they’re understood by later readers.

So the question is, Am I just identical to those piles or am I different from them? What’s the relationship between me and those constituents? I’m going to come back to a metaphor that I inadvertently introduced just a few moments ago, and that’s the metaphor of a pile of money.

So let’s pretend it goes like this. I borrow five dollars from you today. And I repay it tomorrow. And when I borrow it from you today, you hand me five one dollar bills. And when I repay it to you tomorrow, I send you a note by PayPal, and PayPal that money into your account. So today you handed me five pieces of paper. Tomorrow I sent some bits of information to your bank.

Now it makes total sense to say, I paid you back the five dollars that you lent me yesterday when I sent you that money. But I didn’t do that by handing you those five ones. And if we now ask, when you gave me those five dollars, that five dollars: was it identical to or different from those five ones? When I paid you back five dollars, was it identical to or different from the bits that went across the internet?

Now notice if we say that they were identical, then you’d have to say that those five pieces of paper were identical to bits going across the internet by the transitivity of identity. I mean, after all, if the money is identical to the paper  and the money is also identical to the bits, then the bits are identical to the paper. But that’s stupid, right?

So we don’t want to say the money is literally identical. Well, is it different? Did you give me two things when you gave me that money? First five pieces of paper and then five dollars. Did I give you two things? A bunch of bits of information and five dollars? No, that’s crazy. When you handed me those five ones, you gave me five dollars.

When I sent those bits on the way I gave you the five dollars. So, nor are the money different from those instantiations: not the same, nor different. Do we want to say that the money somehow is this transcendental thing that owns five ones somehow, where the five ones own some weird thing? No, we don’t want to say that at all.

So the money is neither the same nor different. It doesn’t possess its instantiation nor does its instantiation possess it. Now, there’s nothing mystical about this. What we want to say is that one of the ways to instantiate five dollars is a pile of ones. Another way is a bunch of bits. But five dollars occurs at a different level, a different kind of description than the physical.

Now, the point that I want to make is that this verse in Nagarjuna, which might sound very mysterious: I am neither identical to my components nor different from like components. I don’t own them. They don’t own me. My God, what am I? There’s nothing mystical about that at all. It’s to say that my existence as a person, what it is for me to be a person, to be a continuum of interdependent processes, is a description at a different plane, at a different level from the description in terms of my body, my sensations, my dispositions, and all of that. It supervenes on those, that is, it depends upon them. But it’s not identical to identical to them or reducible to them.

And it depends upon a whole lot besides. Just as that money doesn’t just depend on the pieces of paper or the bits. It depends on the banking system. It depends on the Federal Reserve. Let the federal reserve collapse and let people stop trading cash and those pieces of paper are absolutely worthless as anybody who might try to spend Confederate money will tell you. 

Similarly, if you take me out of the context of a society, of a world in which persons count for something, then all I am is a bunch of psychophysical processes and there is no person supervening on top of those.

So when we say that we’re neither the same nor different from our aggregates, what we’re saying is that what we think of ourselves as persons, we’re adopting a set of conventions, a way of seeing things. And that’s a different way of seeing things than the way we adopt when we start talking about bodies and psychophysical processes. But the interdependence is there. That interdependence doesn’t consist either in identity or indifference, something much broader.

Scott Snibbe: Is part of this analysis with the aggregates that you could replace little parts of the aggregates and still be you?

Jay Garfield: We do that all the time. Sometimes I get my hair cut. And so part of my physical aggregate ends up on the floor of the barber shop, where I go. But I walk out and people don’t say, Well, Jay Garfield walked in, I wonder who walked out, somebody with less hair?

My sensations change every time I turned my head, every time somebody says something new. They don’t think, Oh my God, I’ve become a different person. Because as persons, we kind of have an identity that’s independent of our constantly changing parts.

And we have to be constantly changing. That’s how we grow. That’s how we age. That’s how we learn. That’s how we interact. That’s how we die. But as persons, persons can persist while aggregates can change. The same thing is true of money too. I don’t recommend this, but if you take a dollar bill and just snip a little bit off the corner, it doesn’t suddenly become worth 98 cents. It’s still a dollar bill with a little snip taken off the corner.

Scott Snibbe: And what would you say to someone who starts to feel scared that they can’t find themselves in any one little part of themselves and potentially not in all of them. What’s the answer to that?

Jay Garfield: I’d tell them to relax. That one of the central Buddhist teachings, a very important Buddhist teaching, is the teaching of no self: that the very idea of a self as some persistent substantial entity that stands behind our bodies and minds, is different from them; the thing that owns them. That’s an illusion. It’s an illusion that we’re wired for.

Like we’re wired for lots of perceptual illusions. It’s one that’s very, very difficult to shake. But it is an illusion. All we are are persons. Just as there’s not a mysterious dollar substance that dollar bills inhabit, or a twenty dollar substance that inhabits twenty dollar bills. There’s no person substance, no core that inhabits us, just a constantly changing set of psychophysical processes.

It would be kind of like somebody who were to go to my college and say, I want to see Smith College. I’d say, Oh, here it is. They say, no, I just see a bunch of buildings. You could take a building away and still have Smith College. People put new buildings there and you still have it. I don’t want to see the buildings, I want to see the college.

Well, look, there’s all the students, there’s all the faculty members  and they say, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see the people at the college, but that’s not the college. That’s the people at the college and I want to see the college. We’re going to take away the people, we’re going to take away the buildings. Where’s the college? There’s nothing left.

The person was right. The college isn’t identical to the students or teachers. They change over time, not identical to the buildings, they change over time.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s some mysterious entity locked somewhere in a safe that is the college, that then has those buildings, has that campus, has those people. The college is just the continuing set of processes that are subserved by all of those physical things and all of those activities.

And people are just like that. They’re just like colleges, they’re complex things. Their personal identity is conventional, not substantial. And it persists through changes in all of the things that people comprise.

Scott Snibbe: That’s a great analogy. The other thing His Holiness the Dalai Lama has mentioned again and again, is that when he himself meditates on emptiness or dependent origination every day, that he says he now spends half the time meditating on a quantum mechanical view of reality reality, not only this  philosophical way of looking at reality. Of course we can’t get into his mind, but what’s your take on what His Holiness might mean by this view?

Jay Garfield: Oh, I know what he means by that view because I’ve talked with him about this. His Holiness is very much taken by quantum mechanics, especially in what we’ve come to call the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which suggests that quantum phenomena have an indeterminate existence prior to any measurement or observation.

And only when we measure them, do they collapse into particles or into waves; only when they measure them do they have determinate location, velocity, or mass. And aside from that, we can only talk about the probability of certain observations: that things themselves exist literally for their existence on acts of observation or interactions with other quantum particles.

That’s what we call quantum entanglement. We can’t talk about what a particle is or a wave is independent of its interaction with other quantum phenomena or with our minds. And so that’s a beautiful realization in physics of the emptiness of intrinsic existence of things at the most basic level.

And again, there we get causal interdependence, only in interaction do things come into existence. We get part-whole dependence. Quantum ensembles depend upon the properties and the probability functions of their components. But their components also depend for their properties on the ensembles in which they figure.

And we have dependence on conceptual imputation: only when we observe or measure do things come to have determinant values. So all of those dimensions of interdependence that might’ve seemed kind of weird and spooky when I first introduced them are just the basic bread and butter of physics. And that’s what His Holiness has in mind.

Scott Snibbe: So His holiness is an inherent of the Copenhagen view. There are different ways even of interpreting that view of course, but is that view that the mind plays an explicit role in collapsing those probabilities as we observe and interact with reality?

Jay Garfield: Yes, it’s the act of measurement. And, you know, that’s kind of fun if you’re coming at this from an Indian and Tibetan perspective as well. And that’s because the term for an instrument of knowledge, for a means of getting knowledge of the world, in Sanskrit is pramana, in Tibetan, tsenma, and prama means to measure. And so it’s measurement that makes things determine it from an Indian point of view. And it’s measurement that makes things determined it from a quantum point of view too in a very nice confluence. 

The other thing to note is that same root ma to measure is the root of the term maya, which means illusion or magic. The word magic comes from maya comes from ma, to measure. And so there’s also this kind of magical bringing things into existence through the act of measurement, all of those concepts are bound up there.

Scott Snibbe: So the underpinning of physics is mathematics obviously, and giving your background in logic and philosophy, I wonder if you could talk about this point where  mathematic stops being provable? Gödel’s theorem and Turing’s incompleteness theorem show, if I’m not mistaken that many things are true, but can’t be proven to be true. Does this relate in any way to emptiness and the underpinnings of reality?

Jay Garfield: I don’t think that the big limitative results in twentieth century logic connect directly to emptiness, but they might connect to something in the neighborhood. But only in the general neighborhood, I think it’s dangerous to try to force all of these things into the same box. So first let’s think about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.

Now, again, things get technical here pretty quickly. So I’m going to try to do this in as non-technical a way as I could. If we think about arithmetic, just ordinary arithmetic: multiplying, dividing, adding, subtracting, doing things with numbers, distinguishing even numbers from odd numbers and so forth. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, the very great mathematician, David Hilbert announced as one of the important problems to be solved in the twentieth century, to prove the completeness and the consistency of arithmetic.

Now, by completeness what we mean is that everything that is mathematically true, everything that’s true about numbers, ought to be provable. So that there should be a proof of everything that’s mathematically true.

By consistency, what we mean is that you can’t prove just anything. What you prove actually turns out to be true, that you don’t just prove false stuff, contradiction, stuff like that.

Now, we generally, most people simply assume that arithmetic is going to be complete and consistent. That if there’s an answer to how much money is in your bank account, you can find it. If there’s an answer to the question, what’s the sum of two numbers, you can prove that the sum of those numbers is that sum.

And most people have said that arithmetic is consistent. That if you can prove something mathematically, that it’s got to be true, that arithmetic isn’t going to lead you into falsehood.

What Kurt Gödel showed in 1932, he showed two things. It’s really important to see both of these things. The first incompleteness theorem was that if arithmetic is consistent, then it’s incomplete: you have a choice, consistency or completeness. Generally, we think consistency, because if arithmetic is inconsistent, well then it’s trivial and trivially complete.

So what Gödel showed is that if you have a consistent system strong enough to represent ordinary arithmetic, then there will be mathematical truths that you cannot prove. And we actually have some good examples of those.

On the other hand, he also proved (this was I think the deeper of the two results) the second incompleteness theorem, which was that if you can prove that arithmetic is consistent, then arithmetic is inconsistent.

That’s the really scary one to my mind. Like, that’s what some people like to call the “no thin rope theorem.” You know what I mean by that, if you’re trying to get a rope across a crevasse and a mountain, right? The big rope is too heavy. You throw the thin rope over it and then you try to pull it.

So what Gödel showed was that there is no thin rope. You can’t prove that arithmetic is consistent unless it’s inconsistent. And that means we can never, ever, ever know whether with arithmetic is consistent.

Now, that’s how these theorems look from the standpoint of what we often call classical logic or Russell-Frege logic.

By the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century logicians are exploring a different branch of logic called paraconsistent logic that goes beyond the consistent, where we tolerate contradictions. And if you look at Gödel’s theorems from the standpoint of paraconsistent logic, then, since what Gödel shows is that a very particular sentence, the sentence: You can’t prove me.

He proved that that sentence is true. And that looks like a straight up contradiction because we both proved the sentence and we proved the sentence can’t be true. And so paraconsistent logisticians like to think that what Gödel showed was not the incompleteness of arithmetic, but the inconsistency of arithmetic. And that we need to really think about how we want to understand consistency and inconsistence.

Now, either way, what this means is that when we start thinking about arithmetical truth, we cannot think of arithmetical truth or arithmetical knowledge as what we get by having axioms of which we can be absolutely certain and then proof procedures of which we can be absolutely certain that build an edifice of knowledge and foundation of those axioms. And that everything that’s true is then provable in that system. And everything is provable in that system is true. That’s a fantasy.

And so the connection, the slim connection to the idea of emptiness is this: one of the ways to understand the idea of emptiness is that reality has no foundations. There’s just interdependence, and it’s interdependence all the way down.

One of the places where people have most cherished the dream of absolute foundations and secure foundations is the domain of mathematics. And what Gödel showed was: you can’t even have it there, let alone in the empirical world. And that’s why as the eight thousand line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra says, bodhisattvas learn to live with groundlessness of things; that grounds are just things you don’t find.

Scott Snibbe: What you’ve described is in some ways you could say the emptiness of ideas, right? That these immaterial things, ideas are also empty in the way you’ve just talked about mathematics. Could you talk a little bit about how emptiness differs between ideas and physical objects and living beings, beings with minds: if there’s a difference and how they differ?

Jay Garfield: I don’t think there is a big difference. I think it’s a broad, intuitive idea. And it’s the idea that when you try to examine something and find out what its nature is independent of anything else, you come up empty. There’s nothing there to be found. When you look for foundations or ultimate grounds, you come up empty. There’s nothing there to be found.

Another way to put that is, we sometimes think—and this is an idea that is there in Buddhism, but it’s also true in the Western skeptical tradition. It’s the heart of Pyrrho’s philosophy, Sextus Empiricus, of David Hume, of Wittgenstein. So you don’t have to go to Asia. You don’t have to shave your head. You don’t have to wear funny clothes to get this stuff.

You can find it right here in the West. It’s the idea that we often think that our ordinary conventions or our practices are justified because they’re grounded in an independent access to reality. We behave this way because reality is like this. We talk this way because we’re like this. We think this way, because our minds are like this.

And what skeptics argue is: you’ve got to reverse that. We say that things are like this because of the conventions we have. Those conventions might be agreement and laws, like drive on the right versus drive on the left.

They might be ways of talking or speaking English: we won’t to speak Mandarin right now. They might be ways of thinking. They might be ways of proving things in mathematics. They might be ways of identifying things: that’s a car, that’s an SUV, that’s a truck; draw these big distinctions that we then grammify.

But a way to think about this is that our ontology, our sense of what there is in the world and what its nature is depends on our conventions or our customs, not the other way around. So that when we look for something behind conventions, behind conventional reality, we don’t find anything at all.

That’s another way to think about emptiness. And that’s just true in any domain; that, as Wittgenstein puts it beautifully in his book on certainty, “We looked for the foundations of the house and found that they were supported by the walls.”

Scott Snibbe: That’s very good. So, if I’m not mistaken, what you just said is that there isn’t a difference between the emptiness of objects and ideas and minds. And I hadn’t planned on going here in this interview, but if you don’t mind indulging me, does that mean that there are potentially other bases for consciousness? For example, in computers we talk about artificial intelligence. Could a mind ever manifest within an algorithmic matrix?

Jay Garfield: Sure. If you think that the property of being conscious of something. (I am always suspicious of the word consciousness. It makes it sound like it’s this thing: that I’ve got some and my dog has a dollop of it and maybe bugs have a little tiny dollop. And I hate that. Right?) Rather, we can talk about what it is to be conscious of something in different respects.

But if you think that conscious processes arise out of physical stuff; that they can arise out of nervous systems and organisms embedded in the world in a particular way, I don’t know, I think maybe the United States is conscious? Maybe the planet is conscious? Maybe the solar system is conscious?

There’s a lot of complexity there. We might not be able to understand that, but if you imagine for a minute, that a few cells are talking to each other in your liver and saying, Wouldn’t it be really weird if his whole body was conscious? Because they don’t have the perspective on us, but they’ve got pretty complex processing going on.

I sometimes think that when I ask, Is the United States conscious, that I’m doing the same thing. And then it may well be that wherever you get sufficient complexity and interdependence, then you’ve got some sense in which something is conscious of something else. I just don’t know.

Scott Snibbe: Well, we may all find out within the next few decades.   

You and I haven’t talked that much about the kind of moral basis for these thoughts. Why do we think about these things? Why do we read about them and study them? What’s the benefit to human beings of contemplating and meditating on things like emptiness, interdependence?

Jay Garfield: I think that’s really where the rubber hits the road. Here’s a way to put it: thinking about emptiness and interdependence is an antidote to thinking about yourself as a self-subsistent object, an independent object that stands over and against the world; to think of yourself as subject, everything else and everybody else as your object of knowledge.

When we think that way, which I think is a reflexive way to think, by the way. I think we’re kind of wired to think that way. This is what Buddhists call the superimposition of subject-object duality; that I think of myself as a subject and the world is my object.

To turn to Wittgenstein, in his book The Tractatus he says that to think that way is to think of yourself as like the relationship between the eye and the visual field. The eye sees everything else. And we know that there is an eye because we can see. But the eye is never an object of sight, only a subject.

When we think of ourselves that way, we think of ourselves literally as outside of space and time, as somehow transcendental subjects of the world. We think of ourselves as free of the bonds of causality, in the sense that St. Augustine thinks, right? That we aren’t bound by causes, that we have a free will, that we can just make stuff happen without any antecedent determination.

We also then think that other people are free in that sense. So we hold them morally responsible for things that they’re not recognizing, that they like us are subject to causes and conditions.

When we do this, we distort the moral landscape in very fundamental ways. One way that we distort it is that we locate ourselves at what I call the center pole of the moral world. There’s me, and I’m pretty damned important, and there’s everybody else. And the people close to me, they’re really important: my kids, my spouse, my dog. And then there’s the people a little bit further: my neighbors or my mom, and my brothers and sisters. They’re not quite as important, but they’re still pretty important.

Then there’s people that voted like me. And there’s people that didn’t vote like. We have these expanding circles. And so we think that the moral landscape is defined by proximity to us. That’s just screwball, right? Nobody can take that seriously as a model of the moral universe, but it is the one that we carry within us all the time.

And so we think that it’s more rational to care about the people closer to us than the people further away; that enmity makes sense if people are far enough away and friendship only makes sense if people are close by. And that’s crazy.

It also leads us to fail to see that our own behavior is determined by causes and conditions and not freely chosen. And the behavior of others is determined by causes and conditions and not freely chosen. So we get excessive pride for our accomplishments, excessive shame for our failings. We blame people for things that they were caused to do and so forth. And that distorts the moral landscape.

From most Buddhist frameworks, when we think about the overarching principles that structure healthy moral experience, they’re principles of friendliness, of care, of a kind of impartiality and an ability to rejoice in the success and the wellbeing of others. Those are often called the Brahmaviharas or the Divine States.

What’s common to those states is the de-centering of the self: that I don’t think of myself as special. I’ve got a sense of interdependence with others. That enables a healthy, moral experience. That’s blocked by seeing ourselves as selves. And it’s enabled by understanding that we’re empty of self.

And so to me, the reason for thinking hard about emptiness, thinking hard about our own emptiness, to thinking that emptiness is interdependence. It’s not like interdependent. It’s not a cause of interdependent. It is interdependence. That when we think that our very nature is interdependence, the next time somebody says, “Stand on your own two feet,” or, “We need to become independent of the rest of the world.” I just want to know what the hell that means.

Does that mean that I’m supposed to not only grow my own food, but create the dirt that it grew in? Does that mean that I’m supposed to cause the sun to shine all by myself? I mean, what does independence even mean?

It’s a bizarre fetish. But it’s a fetish that underlies a lot of our instinctive moral thinking. So, if we can get rid of the fetish of independence and replace it with the realistic view of interdependence, we get a much saner understanding of the moral landscape. And with any luck we can become more effective moral agents by seeing the world that way.

Scott Snibbe: What you’ve said is very powerful because we often think in Buddhism that there are two things we need to master: the emptiness view and the compassion view. But what you’ve just described is the direct path from emptiness to compassion to equanimity; that by reducing your view of your self, you naturally equalize the importance and the interdependence you see with everyone else, right?

Jay Garfield: I don’t think they’re different. I think they’re one in the same thing.

Scott Snibbe: And the way you described them, they are.  Why do you think they say, that from a practice standpoint you can’t hold both in your mind until you’re enlightened?

Jay Garfield: Just because it’s hard. I mean, look, people can really come to develop a conceptual understanding of emptiness and interdependence just by doing a lot of hard thinking, a lot of hard reasoning. And they can do that and still be deeply unpleasant, morally flawed individuals. 

Other people can spontaneously develop a beautiful moral comportment, but not be able to articulate why. So in that sense, they’re different from the standpoint of our knowledge of them. You can know about emptiness without transforming yourself, or you can be morally transformed without understanding how that came to be.

But that doesn’t mean that the moral transformation and the realization of emptiness themselves are different. Just like, for instance, you could wake up early in the morning and see the morning star Hesperus or you could stay awake in the evening and see the evening star Phosphorus and think that you’re seeing two different things, but they’re the same thing, they’re both Venus.

And the fact that we encounter them differently, cognitively and affectively doesn’t mean that they’re different things.

Scott Snibbe: That’s beautiful. I think that  may be a nice place to end, actually. Is there anything else that you’d like to add for our audience before we sign off?

Jay Garfield: Just to thank you for having me and to thank people for listening in and taking these ideas seriously.

Scott Snibbe: Thank you so much. Some of the amazing speakers we talk with, I have the sense after having chatted with you that there are some ideas I’ll take with me for the rest of my life, certain clarifications and connections. So, I’m very grateful for you joining us. And I think our audience will really appreciate this interview.

Thank you, Dr. Garfield.

Jay Garfield: Take care.

Thanks for joining us for this deep and fascinating interview with Dr. Jay Garfield. I was struck by the power of Dr. Garfield’s connection between compassion and emptiness, by showing how, when we realize our interdependence on other beings, ideas, and the world around us, this realization helps us to dissolve our self-centered view and embrace the needs of all beings and the world around us.

For more information on the work of Dr. Jay Garfield, please visit jaygarfield.org.

If you have any feedback on this episode, we welcome it on our website skepticspath.org or our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages.

You can also join a private meditation discussion group that’s linked from our website. Thanks to Steven Butler, my partner in Skeptics Path for conceiving and producing this interview series. 

This is our last episode of the first year of our podcast. So we wish you a safe and healthy end to 2020 and a happy new year.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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