In the post that immediately precedes this one, I found fault with Nagarjuna's four-valued logic, saying that the statement "X does not not exist" is identical to the statement "X does exist," and therefore one of the four poles or axes (technically "lemmas") of his system is duplicative.
I was wrong.
I realized this just a short time ago when I was walking by the beach. I asked myself if it is true that two negatives always make a positive. In math this is true, but in life?
Consider this dialogue:
- Question: Are you happy?
- Answer: I'm not unhappy.
Now, "I'm not unhappy" is a double negative, equivalent to "I'm not not happy." So can we conclude that the person has just said, "I am happy"?
Clearly not. Most of us would assume that the person is saying his mood is somewhere between happiness and unhappiness. He is not happy, he is not unhappy.
This is more than just a semantic quirk. Imagine that you are looking at the ocean on a partly cloudy day (as I was). Is the ocean blue? Answer: It's not blue ... and it's not not blue.
It's not blue because there are strong overtones of gray, courtesy of the overcast sky. But it's not not blue because there are still hints and highlights of blue.
What do emotional states and colors have in common? Both exist on continuums. There is a spectrum of moods from happiness at one extreme to unhappiness at the other. There is a spectrum of colors from slate gray to blue to green, etc.
Now imagine yourself looking at the shoreline. If you point to a certain spot and ask, "Is that the shoreline?", a companion might say, "It's not the shoreline, and it's not not the shoreline."
This is possible because the shoreline, too, exists on a continuum. I don't just mean that the shoreline is constantly changing with each new incoming wave. Even if you could stop time and freeze the waves, you would still be hard pressed to define the exact location of the shoreline. Is it where the edge of the wave is visible? Or it the puddled water left over from the last receding wave? Or is it water-saturated sand just beyond those puddles? Or is it the damp sand a little farther inland? Or the less damp sand beyond that?
Now you look out to sea and notice the horizon. At last, a clear line of demarkation! There is an unmistakable and obvious dividing line between ocean and sky. Or so it seems.
But it seems this way only because you are looking from a distance. Up close the dividing line is not so clear. Is it the upper surface of the ocean waters, or is it the spray and bubbles rising from the water, or is it the hazy, saturated air above the water?
The water and the air are actually interacting as a complex system. If you could view the ocean and atmosphere from outer space, you would see it as a single interactive network, in which the water is constantly escaping into the air through evaporation, and the air is constantly replenishing the water through condensation. And the air, in the form of wind, is moving the water, sometimes in dramatic ways. The whole system extends for hundreds of miles, and is tied in with other oceans and with land masses and with the movement of tectonic plates and with the outgassing of undersea vents and with all sorts of other things.
The point is that a great many things can be seen as existing on a continuum. Perhaps everything can be seen that way. And so it does make sense to say, "X does not exist and X does not not exist." In fact, this may be the most accurate way of describing most of the phenomena we observe.
I still think the authors of The End of Suffering could have done a better job of explaining this. But the idea is sound. I stand corrected.