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In part 1, I dealt with relativism, agnosticism, and what I call meta-relativism, concerning thinkers mainly in ancient Greece and India. Here in part 2, I’m treating skepticism and meta-relativism regarding men of philosophy in ancient Greece, India and China. Daoism, especially that of Lie Zi, could represent the best of meta-relativism. Let’s start with skepticism in ancient India.

Sanjaya Belatthiputta was a skeptic in ancient India, perhaps one of the influences on Buddha. When asked if there is life after death, he answered, “If I think ‘There is life after death,’ I will say there is. However, I do not think there is. I do not think there seems to be. I do not think otherwise. I do not think there is not. I do not think it isn’t the case that there is not.” This was later to be his constant refrain, often used when he was asked other metaphysical questions.

Sanjaya Belatthiputta’s statement is not that simple to comprehend. In fact, it is no more easy to grasp than an eel is. Which made Buddhists dub him and his followers “the eel-wrigglers.” I suppose not only was he incredulous about the existence of life after death, he was also doubtful whether his question as to its presence was valid. Doubt our doubt, his motto seems to have been. If we are suspicious of a thing, we are just a skeptic, but if we are skeptic about our skepticism, then we are what I call meta-skeptic. Meta-skepticism is relativism; if doubt of anything is right, then doubt of doubt is also right. If we doubt a proposition, the proposition might be wrong, but if we doubt our doubt of a proposition, then the proposition might be right, which might involve it perhaps being both right and wrong, a relativist viewpoint. And if we are skeptic and relativist, we are more than skeptic or more than relativist, a meta-skeptic, and/or a meta-relativist.

Skepticism and agnosticism both concern knowledge. A skeptic doubts that we know; an agnostic believes that we can never know. If we think God is, then the former denies that we know, whereas the latter argues that we never know. When they go further, they might be a believer; a drastic skeptic may doubt the doubt that we know, deciding that we at times cannot doubt our knowledge; a thoroughgoing agnostic could take it that we never know whether we never know, concluding that we sometimes do know for sure. A skeptic and an agnostic, when they run to extremes, will be one and the same, a believer. Some may call this an incompatible paradox, but this is what I mean by meta-relativism. They are an agnostic or a skeptic if they solely say we never know or if they merely doubt that we know; they are more than what these labels suggest if they are a strong believer depending on circumstances. Since they are not only an agnostic or a skeptic but also a believer, they can be seen as a meta-relativist.

Looking for the Western counterpart, we will find Pyrrhon of Elis, a skeptic in ancient Greece. Pyrrhon was an absolute one; it is said that he was so doubtful as to what he saw about, so doubtful whether there were objects around, in other words, so sure that there were no objects surrounding him, that he dared to bump into them, which was hurriedly stopped by his devoted disciples. He was, for better or for worse, a skeptic and believer, a meta-skeptic.

Zhuang Zi, a philosopher in ancient China, was a sort of Skeptic. He said that our life is limited while the desire for knowledge is not, and that if we strive for more and more knowledge, we will end up in danger of a brief span of life. Why the danger of short life? It is because we know what happens in the world but we do not know what makes it happen, so if we try to seek after the truth, the substance, the thing-in-itself, or the absolute, we will likely get nowhere, worn out. If we want to lead a good life, well and happy, then it may be that we should stop looking for the absolute truth; one of the consequences of skepticism.

We do not know who and what is right completely. Suppose you and I have had an argument. Whether you have defeated me or I have beaten you, whether you are right or I am wrong, or whether we both are right or wrong, we really have no idea. You may think, “Let a third party judge,” but it will not work out either. Why? Just think. Do you really believe anyone who agrees either with you or me, either with both of us or neither of us, can make a fair judgment?

The Great Way (Dao) cannot be thought of nor even named, so if we insist on considering it, we will at last get into a total chaos, confusion, and physical and mental exhaustion, which surely will bring about our early death. Hence the danger. The greatest knowledge is to know that there is a thing above us and so to be at rest, gaining outer health and inner wealth. Like Laozi, Zhuang Zi appears to have preferred ignorance to knowledge, believing it will bring us peace of mind and long life.

Nagarjuna, one of the most important Buddhist philosophers, seems to have negated all phenomena in the universe. He said that in the universe, nothing arises nor perishes, nothing is eternal nor mortal, nothing is identical with nor different from itself, nothing is approaching nor leaving us. This is called Eight Negations, one of which, that nothing is approaching nor leaving us, is known as the negation of motion:

A man yet to run is not running; a man finished with running is not running; a man running now is not running. We all agree that a man yet to run, and a man finished with running, are not running. But how about a man running now? In reality, a man is either in motion or at rest. If he is moving, he cannot be stationary; if he is not moving, he has to be still. He cannot be both running and not running, the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction. Yet Nagarjuna said that a man running now is not running. Why is that? It is because one subject can only have one act. If we are sleeping in bed, we cannot be jogging around the park at the same time. If we are biting a piece of apple pie, we cannot be biting two pieces simultaneously, because our mouth is not so big as to have two bites in the same moment: a man biting a piece cannot be biting another piece. The same thing: A man running now cannot be running. The same logic applies to the statement that a thing yet to arise, a thing already arisen, and a thing arising now, cannot be arising, and that a thing yet to perish, a thing already perished, and a thing perishing now, cannot be perishing.

Then why is nothing identical with or different from itself? If the function of motion is the subject of motion, the subject and the function is one and the same. But a cutter and the cutting are not the same in any sense. Hence the separation of the subject and the function. On the other hand, if the subject and the function are totally discrete, the motion can be possible without the subject, as if a man could run a marathon without his head off. Which is out of the question. It follows that a thing cannot be identical with nor separate from itself.

Any assertion can be criticized. That is what Nagarjuna proved by eight negations, refuting all possible phenomenon. If we assert, we will be refuted; since he had no assertion, he would was never confuted.

Everything we see, hear, and feel has a large number, and a wide variety, of aspects, some of which we might scarcely notice. As a Jain insists, the world is multifaceted. Take water as an example. Water, as vapor, goes up above the sky, forming cloud; then water, as rain, falls down onto the ground, penetrating into the lowest part of earth, uniting with soil. And water is deadly needed and taken in by every organism, composing cells and organs.

So where is water? It is up above the sky, deep under the ground; it is in seas and oceans, in rivers and streams. And it is inside of us, of every living thing And what is water? It is cloud and rain; it is seas and oceans; it is rivers and streams; it is even soil itself; it is our cells and organs; it is everything, living and nonliving.

If asked what water is, we may answer that water is both cloud and rain, or vapor and liquid, since water really is, or we may reply that, in a sense, water is neither cloud nor rain, because water composes seas and oceans, and rivers and streams, other than cloud and rain. To make it brief, water both is and is not, whereas at the same time water neither is nor is not. Why is that? It is because water is multifaceted, comprising a diversity of things in nature. There is nothing for it but to be a relativist, or a meta-relativist, if we contemplate water in accordance with nature. The same is true for air, earth, or fire, the basic elements of nature.

It is thought that the essence of science is the reduction of multiplicity to simplicity. When we feel like having some coffee, we have to boil water, some of it evaporating. If we go to the Arctic to see a polar bear, we will find glaciers all around before our eyes made up of ice. And all of them ― water, vapor, and ice ― scientists deem to be one and the same. Thus scientists have a unified perspective of things in nature. Unfortunately, vapor and ice may not be a good substitute for water. Water is of vital significance as long as we live, but we can scarcely take in vapor instead of water. In a hot summer we prefer an iced coffee or tea, and yet there is no point in adding some water to coffee in place of ice. In our ordinary experience, water is water is water is water, ice is ice is ice is ice, and vapor is vapor is vapor is vapor, each being not necessarily substitutable, complementary, nor interchangeable. Water is not ice nor vapor, ice is not water nor vapor, and vapor is not water nor ice. We can drink water, but cannot vapor or ice, we can breathe in vapor but cannot water nor ice, and we can bite ice but cannot water nor vapor. And yet water is both vapor and ice!

Some may proclaim that simple is best, pluralitas non est poneda sine necessitate, an Ockham’s razor. In the abstract, it is indeed true that things in the universe, and the universe itself, is reducible and simple enough, just as water, ice and vapor is H2O, but in the world that we live in, our Lebenswelt, and which is an abundance of diversities and varieties, there are a profusion of colors, sounds, tastes, feels and smells, all of which are far from reducible.

Everything is in a state of flux: we want to have some green tea and decide to boil water, but when heated too long, much of the water evaporates, making it fruitless to enjoy the tasty liquid; we want to go fishing in the lake, but in the depths of winter, especially after a heavy snowfall, we may find it completely useless to be on the frozen kingdom. We cannot take in any drink or food unless we are heedful of what is going on before us. It is only after we have the recognition of this changeability that we are able to gain what we need.

The world is constantly changing. Water is becoming more and more gaseous if heated; water easily solidifies when the temperature drops below the freezing point. Things are subject to change depending on circumstances. We cannot say water is water. Water is not water for good. Water is vapor and/or ice. We should not believe water is water. We may as well be doubtful or agnostic. Then we will be able to have tea or catch fish, and then to eat or drink and fit in the environment. The understanding of change is the first step and the important key to adaptation without which it would be impossible to flourish and even survive. Meta-relativism may be a fit attitude toward this mutable multiverse.

No one is perfect; we are confined, limited, finite; our knowledge is also confined, limited, finite. The world is more than we think we know. Being is becoming. To be in this world is to change inevitably. We all change, every living and nonliving thing changes, and the relationship between us and the surroundings changes. Strictly speaking, there is no telling what will happen tomorrow. Why is that? When we think, we will put things in a fixed state of matters, whereas things in reality do alter constantly; we assume the world to be dead, while the world as such is alive. Thinking takes time. When we suppose the world to be something, it means we take some time to contemplate, and when we have finished thinking, time has passed, things around us have changed, a bit at least, and what we thought a moment ago does not really apply to what the world is now. We cannot have the entirety of the multiverse; it is beyond our comprehension to grasp the whole of the world, which fact may oblige us to have a skeptical, agnostic and/or relative viewpoint.

In the ancient world, some topics were beyond science, such as the universe, the afterlife, and gods ― the latter two still are. Certain rational thinkers in the ancient world may well have avoided thinking too much about the questions. Confucius, one of the ancient rationalists, when asked how to serve gods and what the afterlife is like, he answered that since he didn’t know much about the way to wait on human beings, or what this life is, he had no idea about the answers to these questions. Confucius also said that to know is to go on the right path, and to respect yet avoid gods. These words show that Confucius was, like Socrates, pious and at the same time he liked moral behavior better than metaphysical speculation. Another sensible thinker, in ancient India, was Buddha, as opposed to the general reputation as a mystic yogi. He usually remained silent at queries on the nature of the cosmos and the afterlife, citing a man shot with a poisoned arrow: When a man was shot with a poisoned arrow, his friends and relatives called for a doctor in no time, but the man wouldn’t let the doctor treat him, exclaiming, “I won’t have this removed till I know who and what the shooter was, and what the bowstring and the shaft were made of!” He would die untreated. Buddha’s intention was that we all should seek after moral truth before metaphysical truth, that we are to die in vain, fruitless, if only we keep on with abstract pursuits, and that we should first and foremost follow the right pass, trying to be virtuous and therefore happy, a form of blissful ignorance.

Last but not least, I’d like to write about Lie Zi, one of the Dao philosophers in ancient China, after Laozi and before Zhuang Zi. He was a relativist, agnostic, skeptic, and seeker of a good life. His famous story about meta-relativism goes like this: Once there was a man afraid that the universe, including the sun, the moon, the stars, and the earth, should one day collapse and fall into pieces, so much so that he could neither sleep nor eat; there would be no safe place. Then there was another man trying to enlighten and reassure him, saying that heaven is just an accumulation of ether prevailing all throughout the universe. Ether constantly contracts, expands, inspires, and expires up in the heaven. And the sun, the moon, and the stars are merely a collection of shining light-like ether. If they were to fall, they wouldn’t hurt you. And the earth is a concentration of matter, on which you tread and tramp on every minute of your day. How come you should be afraid of their collapse? The former, relieved of his anxiety and distress, and the latter, having succeeded in convincing him, were both happy. Then a philosopher, hearing about their conversation, laughed a reply that everything in the heaven is composed of ether, and everything on our planet of earth. It is hard to know what they are, or what they will be in the distant future, to be sure, but since anything gathered is doomed to disperse, why don’t they? It seems kind of unlikely apprehension that the universe should fall into decay sometime in the distant future, but they are doomed to, so anyone who should meet with the collapse cannot help but despair. Then Lie Zi said, laughing, that both of them who asserted that the universe will and won’t fall down were mistaken; it might someday but we never know; however, both were a good judge; anyway, those alive don’t know about those dead, and those dead don’t about those alive; those in the future have no idea of those in the past, and vice versa. So let’s not fret over the collapse of the universe! All of which means that Lie Zi was a meta-relativist; he said both of the contradictory propositions are both right and wrong, and he was at the same time skeptic of them; he added that we should stop worrying about such metaphysical matters, and suggested living a good life rather than bothering with metaphysics.

One thought on “Meta-Relativism 2: Asia’s Ancient Thinkers

  1. Pingback: Meta-Relativism 2: Asia’s Ancient Thinkers – The Philosophical Hack

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