01 April 2016

Buddhism & The Limits of Transcendental Idealism

Arthur Schopenhauer
In one chapter of his book on the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Bryan Magee mounts a vigorous defence of Transcendental Idealism. In doing so he seems to me to sum up a good deal of what is wrong with philosophy both in terms of starting assumptions and in terms of method. Schopenhauer, and in particular Magee's account of Schopenhauer, has been very influential on some of my colleagues in the Triratna Buddhist Order, so in this essay I'll highlight some of the problems with Magee's approach to reality.

Magee's first task is to clearly distinguish Transcendental Idealism from Idealism more generally. Idealism is a form of substance monism, a kind of polar opposite of Materialism. Both views are arguments about what is real, which is to say they are ontologies. Idealists argue that everything is just the mind, that nothing exists outside the mind. Clearly this entails a particular view of the mind that is very different from how a materialist sees it and makes it hard to explain other minds. It's a view that appeals to some Buddhists who are influenced by Yogācāra or Advaita Vedanta. But Magee is quick to point out that his is not what Kant had in mind when he coined the term Transcendental Idealism. In trying to bridge the gap between Hume, who argued that we can know nothing, and Newton, who demonstrated that we can know a great deal, Kant reasoned that in understanding sense impressions we superimpose structure onto experience in the form of what he called "a priori judgements". These include our concepts of space, time, and causation. These concepts are metaphysical. In this way Kant was able to embrace the knowledge derived from empirical methods, while accommodating Hume's critique of knowledge. Because a priori judgements enable us to make sense of experience, we cannot have experiences without them, but they come from our side, not from the world. At the same time Kant was able to embrace Newtons' practically derived knowledge. It is not that reality itself is created by our minds (Mono-substance Idealism), but that the world that we discern is a creation of the mind (hence "Idealism"), while reality itself remains beyond what we can discern (hence "Transcendental").

It was partly learning about this Kantian distinction between the world as we experience it (phenomena) and the world as it really is (noumena), that helped to clarify my own views about the Buddha's focus on experience. The early Buddhists use of language suggests that they were concerned only with the world of experience, the world that arises from the conditions of sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition. They were not concerned with reality. The early Buddhists seem to have understood that this world of experience (ayaṃ loko) was not "the world" (idaṃ sarvaṃ) as perceived by some of their contemporaries, but that it only emerged where our sense faculties were impinged on by the world. They did not explicitly place reality beyond our knowledge, but they had nothing to say about that reality, so we don't know what, if anything, they thought about it. A variety of inferences might be drawn from this silence, the most neutral is that they were disinterested in the question. This silence however is very significant in light of later Buddhist claims to understand reality through introspection.

Magee goes further however and argues that because the world of our experience is a creation of our mind, based on sense experience overlaid with a priori judgements, that reality must be utterly different from what we experience.
"... while it is possible for us to perceive or experience or think or envisage only in categories... determined by our own apparatus, whatever exists cannot in itself exist in terms of those categories, because existence as such cannot be in categories at all. This must mean that in an unfathomably un-understandable way whatever exists independently of experience must in and throughout its whole nature different from the world of our representations." (73) 
Now as I understand Kant, he was saying that reality is beyond knowing; whereas as Magee is saying that it is beyond comprehension, i.e. not simply that we can never know anything about a mind-independent reality, but that we lack the capacity to begin to understand it. I will offer two responses to this metaphysical speculation: what I call the "navigation argument" (which is a variety of the argument Johnson made against Berkeley), and the "other minds argument".

The Navigation Argument

Magee argues that both Kant and Schopenhauer differentiate themselves from either Realism or Idealism. In Magee's words:
"... [Kant and Schopenhauer] say, our perceptions and conceptions cannot be all there is, but cannot be 'like' what exists in addition to them, so what else there is cannot consist of an independently existing world which corresponds to them; however, since they constitute the limits of what we can envisage, we cannot form any notion of what there is besides." (74)
In the first place we can undermine Magee's assertion by pointing out that we navigate the world pretty well. If reality were utterly different from how we experience it, then we would certainly fall over, bang into things, and get lost a lot more often than we do. Effectively if the world were utterly different from how we experience it, we would not be able to navigate it. Experience would inevitably lead us into gross errors as though we were acting at random. But this is not what happens. So the world that exists independently of our minds must at the very least, on the human scale, be somewhat like the way we perceive it. Or more accurately the mental model we make of the world must be not unlike the world. As Justin Barrett observes:
"Nonreflective beliefs often correspond nicely to reality. This reliability comes from the observations that the mental tools responsible for these beliefs exist in large part because of their contribution to human survival throughout time." (2004: 9)
All too often we find the philosopher isolated from this kind of practical observation. Magee argues from an abstract perspective and does not take the time to check whether his conjecture is consistent with what we observe in practice. And in this case he seems to be wrong. But it emerges that Magee believes himself to be arguing with other philosophers, not with scientists.

Magee mentions "empiricist philosophers" several times (e.g. 73-74) and sets about refuting their views on this subject:
"After two hundred years, empiricist philosophers still usually give the impression of proceeding on the assumption that, by and large, reality must roughly correspond to our conception of it." (74)
This seems to be typical of Magee. He seems not to have gotten over his bad experiences of philosophers at Oxford University in the 1950s and is always arguing against them. In this case he may well be accurately portraying the attitude of empiricist philosophers, I wouldn't know. But he seems to have overlooked the attitude of scientists who are, generally speaking, not philosophers. Most scientists in the last century or so have been aware that scientific knowledge have undermined the idea that reality corresponds to experience. Einstein showed in 1915, for example that time is not absolute, but dependent on the frame of reference. Most scientists take the world described by quantum mechanics to be more fundamental than the physics of scales of mass, energy and length relevant to human experience, and thus more real. Most people in the know seem to hold the view that the quantum world is not only counter-intuitive but incomprehensible. So in fact the average scientist is probably more sympathetic to Magee's view than Magee is to that of empirical philosophers. Whether the quantum scale world is more real is moot and I'll come back to this point.

Some people may be wondering what a real philosopher of science sounds like. What kinds of problems are they interested in and what kinds of approaches do they take. Serendipitously I found a relevant, short (21:21) YouTube video recently. In this video, Eleanor Knox gives an overview of the field of philosophy of science with respect to theories of quantum gravity in her talk The Curious Case of the Vanishing Spacetime. She provides a brief definition of the philosophy of physics. Knox is particularly interested in theories of quantum gravity in which spacetime is not fundamental, i.e. where spacetime is not one of the starting assumptions of the theory, but may emerge as a  special property under certain conditions. If the criteria for reality is that a quality is fundamental rather than emergent, then such theories seem to say that spacetime is not real. What I'm getting at here is that Magee's characterisation of empirical philosophy seems completely divorced from the actual practice of Empiricism by scientists and from modern philosophy of science. I'm pretty sure that my colleagues who cite Schopenhauer don't realise this. It's not simply because the book is now 20 years old. A good deal of the theory that requires us to reconsider our notions of reality were in place long before he started writing. Magee is not even arguing with the most up-to-date notions of his own time, let alone our time. It seems that he still imagines himself to be in a combative relationship with his former (now long dead) professors.

The most serious problem with Magee's speculations about reality is that if there were a world that existed independently and was utterly unlike the experiences we have, it is questionable whether we could have experiences. If reality is utterly unlike experience, then surely it would produce experiences that are utterly incomprehensible. And by this I do not mean the kinds of experience usually associated with the supernatural, since we find these difficult to explain, but they are inevitably like something we know. An experience of something utterly incomprehensible would literally defy comprehension. We would not be able to parse the experience as an experience. Indeed one might argue that such experiences could be happening all the time and that we are unable to comprehend them so we don't comprehend them, at all. Such a reality would not impinge on our phenomenal world at all. Magee would then be forced to bifurcate reality into that part of reality which does correspond to experience (at least to some extent) and that part which was utterly unlike experience. However, any claim to knowledge based on something unknowable is ipso facto a false claim, since claims to knowledge must rest on something knowable. Magee has gone beyond the limits of valid epistemology. There's simply no way for him to know anything at all about the reality he posits. To say that it is incomprehensible is still a definite statement, a claim to knowledge where by his own definition no knowledge can be obtained. There is literally nothing that could be said about a reality that is completely unlike experience. The concept is nonsensical at it's root.

The other side to this is our old friend "comparing notes". I previously wrote about this in 2014, inspired by Physicist Sean Carroll's quip - "If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long." (Is Experience Really Ineffable?, 4 Jul 2014; Carroll has since changed his Twitter bio). Magee's philosophy tacitly dismisses the possibility of comparing notes. I'm not sure why philosophers think like this, but Buddhist philosophers do it too. It's like the whole system of thinking about the world has to work without anyone ever having a discussion about what they are experiencing. As if every philosopher is too caught up in their own mind to acknowledge that they are not alone. But other minds are vitally important to how we think about the world, which brings us to my other argument.

Other Minds

If we eliminate Idealism, as we must, then we are forced to accept that there are other minds that also experience the world and with whom we can compare notes. To illustrate the relevance of this, we can use the example of a tennis game. It is one thing if I am alone at Wimbledon watching Novak Djokovic play Roger Federer. My head turns this way and that watching the ball. We cannot really generalise from this observation - I might be fantasising or hallucinating. I might observe accurately, but still come to false conclusions about the situation. It is something else again if a second person joins me and they move their head and eyes in the same way that I move mine. Our observations must be coordinated by something. And because it effects both of us at once, cannot be dependent on either of our individual minds. In other words the simplest case of comparing notes establishes objects that are external to our minds. If that coordinating factor is not reality itself, then we have to go in for some convoluted arguments to explain this coordination. Like epicycles to explain the motion of the planets in an earth centred model of the solar-system. If, as Magee argues, reality were utterly different from experience, one would have to add a coordinating factor separate from reality by being comprehensible to account for the fact that two of us appear to be tracking the same object at the same time. Again we get back to the two tier reality and we add the problem of the relation between reality and the post-hoc coordinating factor that we have invented.

Now fill the Wimbledon stadium with thousands of people, all of whom follow the ball back and forth simultaneously in a coordinated way, while looking at it from a range of angles. And add the millions who watch the TV coverage. This coordination is incredibly difficult to explain if reality is completely different from experience. By comparing notes on experience we can make inferences about what reality is like, at least on any scale that we can observe it at (there may be scales at which we cannot observe reality). And such observations are the business of the physical sciences. To be sure this is not the same as direct knowledge of reality; the knowledge is only inferred. But with care we can construct theories which reliably, accurately, and precisely predict how reality behaves within the margin of error inherent in all observations. The recent detection of the Higgs Boson and gravity waves are astounding examples of such predictions. Reality is still transcendental, it is still beyond our individual ken; but it is empirically real in the sense that through comparing notes and repetition we can infer what it is like.

In these kinds of arguments philosophers seem to be looking to make a true/false or real/unreal distinction. The scientist on the other hand wants to know whether the theory about reality makes accurate and precise predictions. Newton's theory of gravity is strictly speaking false, so a philosopher might say that it is uninteresting. But it does make accurate and precise predictions for all of our earth bound activities, and even for sending a spaceship to the moon. The first inaccurate prediction of Newton's theory was the precession of the orbit of Mercury which is affected by conditions not accounted for by Newton. This failure refutes Newton's theory in a relativistic frame and this lead to rethinking how we conceptualise gravity away from forces of attraction between masses towards a theory in which mass bends spacetime and bent spacetime constrains how masses move. We are not attached to the earth by an attractive force, but instead follow curved paths through bent spacetime whenever we try to escape the earth. However, the scientist doesn't see this as the end of the story, they see Newton's theory as a partial expression of a more accurate theory, which is accurate when certain conditions apply. When we look at the world in a non-relativistic frame, it behaves as though masses exert an attractive force on each other and Newton's gravity equation accurately and precisely describes how masses behave within the margins of error that we can measure them. The true/false dichotomy puts unhelpful limits on how we can proceed to better know our world and discourages inquiry.

The scientific method of knowledge seeking has revealed more and more about the universe we live in at different scales. We have learned that some of those scales are difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. The human mind struggles at both the largest scales and the smallest. At the largest scale for example we have the universe beginning with a big bang that no one yet understands and a universe filled with mass we cannot see and governed by a force which is accelerating the expansion of the universe that we cannot measure directly (aka dark matter and dark energy). The mainstream theories as they stand are incomplete, even though they are still accurate and precise at other scales - the solar system for example. The Big Bang involves infinities - an infinitely small universe with infinite energy density. One of the basic rules of thumb in physics that I learned in high-school is that if you do a sum and the answer is infinity, then you've made a mistake. Something like a big bang must have happened, but it cannot be exactly as current theories describe it, because of the infinities. The theory is incomplete and with any luck it will turn out to be like Newton, a description of a special case that is encompassed by a more general theory. At the other end of the scale, the nano-scale and beyond, some of us are capable of understanding the maths developed to describe the behaviour of matter/energy, but the underlying reality is impossible to understand. So in this sense Magee is correct. But scale is hugely important in these discussions.

If we look at atoms we do not see the dark energy that is accelerating galaxies away from each other. If we look at quarks we do not see the way that electrons around atoms make them hang together and form compounds. If we look at galaxies we do not see quantum behaviour. If we simply look at the world with our human senses we see the world on a particular scale. How and where we look at the universe has a huge impact on what kind of universe we see. This is important for Buddhists to remember as well. The Buddha was only commenting on the universe as it can be observed with the naked senses, i.e. on the world of experience. Buddhist doctrine has nothing to say about the universe on the cosmic, the micro- or nano- scales. It has nothing to say about the Big Bang, galaxies, microbes, atoms, quarks or fields. All these are beyond the scope of ancient Buddhism. These are important limits that Buddhists need to acknowledge. One cannot understand reality on different scales through introspection! There are no insights into Relativity or quantum mechanics to be had in meditation. It is past time that we stopped fooling ourselves on this score.

This brings us back to the question of the relationship between the scales. Is one scale more real than another? Is either the cosmic- or the nano-scale more real than the world we observe with our senses? Many scientists would argue that quantum mechanics is a more accurate description of reality. This is a problem of reductive explanations. If something can be explained in terms of other simpler things (all of chemistry in terms of 96 elements, electrons, and the electro-magnetic force) then the assumption is that the simpler thing is not just more fundamental (hence "fundamental particles"), but somehow more real. Is it accurate? The acme of a reductive approach is to find the most basic entities and forces with which one can describe reality. But this does not take into account either the effects of scale or the effects of complexity. Consider for example that it is not possible to predict the weather any more accurately based on quantum mechanics or relativity, than it is using classical mechanics. Despite having near perfect knowledge of the molecules of the atmosphere and the energy in the system, our understanding falls short. Therefore a reductive knowledge of chemistry and physics does not constitute knowledge of reality where weather is concerned. Nor for any other complex system with emergent properties (like a living being).

Chemists can be deceived by the simple systems we set up in the lab. If you fill a balloon with hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and apply a flame to get a big bang, a fireball, and some water (I've done this many times). This is accurate as far as it goes. As is the equation 2H2 + O2 → H20. But only as far as it goes. A simple system like this is a very narrow window into reality. For a start a gram of hydrogen gas contains about 60,221,412,900,000,000,000,000 molecules of hydrogen! This number, the Avogadro Constant, is unimaginably large. In order to understand the processes that are involved and formulate general laws, we have to do many experiments like this, burning many different fuels with oxygen, using many different oxidisers with hydrogen, many different combinations, under many different conditions of temperature and pressure. And even then, pure hydrogen and pure oxygen never exist in nature, so even if we know how these two elements react, we have to take into account the constant presence of other molecules and how they react. For example it turns out that in the balloon experiment the visible fireball is caused by carbon atoms in the rubber of the balloon. Hydrogen itself burns with a colourless flame (or more accurately emits light that is not visible to the human eye when it oxidises).

Nor does quantum mechanics give us a better understanding of celestial mechanics, because on the cosmic scale the individual effects of so many quanta interacting are lost in the smearing of probabilities. A one gram object, say a very pure diamond made only of sextillions of carbon atoms, does not behave in the same way as a single carbon atom, or a single election, or a quark, or a perturbation in the quantum fields. Behaviour and properties are scale dependent. Under these constraints what does "real" even mean?

To understand what reality is like, reductive explanations have to work alongside holistic explanations, each element must be seen in context. And in a sense this is why philosophy can be so frustrating - it sometimes seems as though humans, and in particular, the human mind, is seen by philosophers as operating in isolation. And yet humans are social. Taking one human in isolation may tell us something about humans, but blinds us to the nature of humans, because we are adapted to living in large groups with layers of intimacy (the Dunbar numbers: 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500, 5000 ...). Our nature really only becomes apparent in interactions at these different scales: in relationships of varying intimacy. A quirk of history has made us fascinated by individual psychology, when in fact we ought to pay a great deal more attention to social psychology. The intellectual shape of Imperialist Europe has emphasised individualism, selfishness, competition, and ruthlessness, because these qualities are what justify Imperialism and Mercantilism. This often blinds us to the importance of collectives, empathy, cooperation and altruism. Nothing about nature, for example, suggests that the former are more important than the latter. Indeed it seems that we see cooperation and symbiosis at all levels of life. The "selfish gene" is Neoliberalism applied to biology. We could describe life in terms of "altruistic molecules" such as ATP which exists to facilitate other life sustaining reactions. The metaphor is no less accurate and perhaps more apt.

Our lives are all about shared experiences. Which is why people like me write essays like this! It's not so much a matter of if we compare notes, but that we are constantly communicating about our experience and our disposition towards it and processing what other people are telling us about theirs. Just as pure hydrogen is never found in nature, an individual human is only a theoretical construct. We are all social, all of the time. Even misanthropes and hermits must be understood in relation to social norms. The contents of our minds are constantly influenced by our environment, both in the sense of the social situation (long term and present) and by non-human external influences.

Psychology and philosophy wrongly prioritise the individual and their point of view. Philosophers like Magee try to argue what reality is like based on the individual's point of view, when they ought to be thinking in terms of how collectives of humans work together to understand their experiences. Shared experiences define us and our world. And they allow us insights into what the world is really like beyond the way that we discern it through our sensory faculties.


I understand Kant's Transcendental Idealism to be a truism, for individuals. It is unavoidable that we, as individuals, are virtually always describing our experience, rather than the world itself. The limitation may not apply to someone capable of close and repeated examination of experience. Newton plainly made some enormous strides in understanding reality through his observations of light for example. And we think also of Galileo with his telescope; Hook with his microscope; and so on. But even then, if others had not succeeded in making the same observations at some point, we might not remember these names. We don't usually notice this distinction between experience and the world, largely because our models of the world are so very successful at allowing us to navigate the world. However the world is, it cannot be so different from how we experience it, or this would not be so. Samuel Johnson's dismissal of Berkeley's Idealism is actually quite powerful.
"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- 'I refute it thus.'" Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) 
Philosophers dismiss this (Magee explicitly dismisses it) as though Boswell did not see Johnson kick that stone and the two of them had not shared an understanding of what happened when he did. As though a third party would not have seen something too. As though thousands of people watching a tennis ball flying back and forward between two players were not seeing the same ball. In denying that this is happening, they also fail to propose any other mechanism for coordinating experience which would be required if it were not reality that was doing it. Why anyone find this kind of philosophy interesting is a mystery to me.

The fact is that we are not alone. We can combine our observations to make inferences about the world that are accurate, i.e. that lead to beliefs that yield expected results when one acts upon them. We do this all the time. So a form of collective and/or inferential Realism also seems to me to be useful. Mercier and Sperber have tried to show that reason itself is a collective activity. Collectively we overcome the limits of the individual mind, we can accurately infer knowledge beyond the barrier of experience and can understand how things really are, though how things are depends to some extent on what scale we are looking at. The kind of universe we see depends on scale at which we examine it.

The other point to make about this way of looking at reality, is that it demystifies and disenchants the notion of the noumenal. Yes, to some extent it is true that there is a noumenal world which underlies the world of phenomena, the world as we experience it. But it is far less mysterious than some would like us to believe. The counter-intuitive aspects of quantum mechanics aside, the world at the scale we experience it is quite comprehensible as the very accurate and precise laws of classical physics and chemistry show (c.f. Sean Carroll's blog The World of Everyday Experience, in One Equation and related essays). It's not that the noumenal world is some kind of "higher" reality that gives the phenomenal world meaning or explains God or anything of that nature. The noumenal world is simply the mundane facts of how our universe operates: it boils down to the way that fields interact and couple to produce matter and energy as we experience them. There's no succour in the noumenal for the longings of the religious and/or Romantics for a higher purpose for human life. God is not in the gaps.

If we Buddhists accept this definition, and accept that introspection does not lead to insight into reality, it leaves the field clear for the physical sciences to describe reality and leave us to continue to work with the domain of experience. And thus allows for a great deal of compatibility between Buddhism and Science. And this is not a compatibility that rests on bogus claims of similarity between ancient and modern knowledge. It's a compatibility based on clearly demarcating who has expertise where. What might be unnerving for Buddhists is that our expertise on experience is now under a strong challenge from scientists who've begun to take an interest in experience itself. They are beginning to describe phenomena like our sense of self in the kind of detail with could only dream of. Many Buddhists (traditional and modern) are too weighed down by intellectual baggage to ever break free. Buddhism is due a radical intellectual make-over. But we have core competencies that will continue to be relevant for the foreseeable future. We just have to get over ourselves and get on with doing what we do best.



Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Magee, Bryan. (1997) The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. 2nd Ed. Clarendon Press.
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