This is a partial book review because so far I've read only about 50 pages of the book. Still, I have some thoughts on it, so what the hell.
The book is The End of Suffering, by Russell Targ and J.J. Hurtak. It aims to be an exposition of Buddhist philosophy in simple, layman's terms. So far I don't find the exposition simple at all. But we'll get to that in a moment.
The authors begin by talking about the ill effects of a dualistic or black-and-white approach to existence. They seem to have a particular animus against Aristotle, whose "dualistic" logic is blamed for a variety of bad things. But their presentation of Aristotelian logic is oversimplified to the point of caricature. Yes, Aristotle said that a thing cannot be both A and non-A, but he added a crucial qualifier: at the same time and in the same respect. The authors neglect to mention the qualifying phrases.
Many of the alleged problems of Aristotelian logic vanish if this qualification is kept in mind. For instance, the authors predictably cite the apparently dual nature of light, which can sometimes exhibit the properties of a particle and other times exhibit the properties of a wave. Aristotelian logic, they suggest, can't address this conundrum. But in fact it can, because light does not exhibit both particle and wave properties at the same time and in the same respect. It exhibits those properties at different times and under different experimental conditions.
Intent on discrediting Aristotle, the authors claim that his "two-valued logic" gave rise to slavery and the subordination of women. Actually both of these things had been features of Greek civilization (and ancient civilizations in general) for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Aristotle came toward the end of the Golden Age of Greece, and his ideas had little influence in his own day.
Searching for more examples of how two-valued logic splits people into "us" vs. "them," the authors write:
Pope Pius XII successfully saved German cripples from Nazi euthanasia because they were largely Christians. But he expended no such effort to save millions of German Jews and gypsies because they were "the other." [p. 17]
Pius' role in attempting to avert or at least minimize the Holocaust remains controversial, but there is much recent scholarship indicating that he worked diligently behind the scenes to rescue as many Jews as possible. For people who eschew black-and-white thinking, the authors bring remarkably little nuance to this issue.
Then we reach one of the oddest statements I have read in a book - and I've read more than my share of very odd books.
Even in our contemporary Judeo-Christian instititions, two-valued logic is built in. We have a powerful - even omnipotent - deity way out there, and a puny little self (me) down here. This construct of thought has the effect of separating us from our divine nature by projecting our searching elsewhere and is the idolatry we are warned against in the Ten Commandments. Idolatry implies separation, and the idea that there is an omnipotent "god" out there is an idolatrous idea. [p. 18]
Did you get that? When the Ten Commandments inveigh against idolatry, they are telling us that we should not worship the Judeo-Christian God.
Incidentally, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not posit a "deity way out there." It posits a deity who is everywhere.
Then we have this bit of confusion:
It is logically incoherent to speak of anything as a source of darkness. Darkness cannot be the source of anything. [p. 19]
Speaking of logical incoherence, how did we go from talking about "a source of darkness" to talking about darkness as a source of something else? In the first case, we are pondering what gives rise to darkness. In the second case, we are pondering what darkness itself gives rise to. Two different issues.
Again blaming "Aristotelian-based thought," the authors complain, "Our language doesn't allow for shades of gray." (p. 27) Of course it does. Terms like probably, partly, sometimes, to some extent, arguably, conceivably, under some circumstances, etc., all express shades of gray. Nasty old Aristotle himself characteristically used the phrase always or for the most part.
After all this introductory material, the authors begin their principal topic, the four-valued logic of the Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna. Essentially, Nagarjuna posited a "tetralemma," a system in which there are four poles of logical possibility. These are:
- X exists.
- X does not exist.
- X both exists and does not exist.
- X neither exists nor does not exist.
The first two poles are consistent with Aristotelian logic. The third, we are told, is not. But is this true? Remember, Aristotle said A is not non-A at the same time and in the same respect. But A can be non-A at a different time and/or in a different respect. If we say that something both exists and does not exist, we are almost invariably speaking of it at different times or in different respects. It's not clear to me that Nagarjuna has really gone beyond Aristotle here.
What about the fourth option? Well, it seems to me that the fourth statement reduces very obviously to the third statement. They are just two different ways of saying the same thing.
The third statement is: X does exist and X does not exist.
The fourth statement is: X does not exist and X does not not exist.
"X does not exist" is the same in both statements. And "X does not not exist" is identical to "X does exist." So the two statements are interchangeable. Nagarjuna's four-valued logic reduces to three values. And his third value is already implied by Aristotle's qualifying phrases, so we can, if we wish, reduce the three values to just two. Then we're back to Aristotle - that crusty old codger who is singlehandedly responsible for slavery, domination of women, "dualistic capitalism," pollution, war, and man's inhumanity to man.
Now, maybe I'm missing the point. But if so, it's not for lack of trying to understand. The authors, at least so far, have not given me any reason to think that Nagarjuna was the brilliant intellect and astounding philosophical innovator they make him out to be. Maybe he was all of these things and more, but The End of Suffering has yet to explain why.
Of course, I've still got two-thirds of the book left to go ...