Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Object-Oriented Buddhism 16—Om Levi Levi Ah Hum or, Buddhist Irreduction

Strolling through Levi Bryant's magnum opus, The Democracy of Objects (too slowly for him, unfortunately, as he's nearly done with editing), I came across the following:

the subsets of a set, the smaller objects composing larger objects, are simultaneously necessary conditions for that larger object while being independent of that object.

This is in a really banging section on the “strange mereology” of OOO. Mereology is the study of relationships between parts and wholes. The mereology is strange because analyzing objects into parts doesn't get rid of those objects. Yet the object is not “more than the sum of its parts” (holism).

I then realized that this is precisely what Buddhism says concerning a chariot:


And the venerable Nâgasena said to Milinda the king: 'You, Sire, have been brought up in great luxury, as beseems your noble birth. If you were to walk this dry weather on the hot and sandy ground, trampling under foot the gritty, gravelly grains of the hard sand, your feet would hurt you. And as your body would be in pain, your mind would be disturbed, and you would experience a sense of bodily suffering. How then did you come, on foot, or in a chariot?'

'I did not come, Sir, on foot. I came in a carriage.'

'Then if you came, Sire, in a carriage, explain to me what that is. Is it the pole that is the chariot?'

'I did not say that.'

'Is it the axle that is the chariot?'

'Certainly not.'

'Is it the wheels, or the framework, or the ropes, or the yoke, or the spokes of the wheels, or the goad, that are the chariot?'

And to all these he still answered no.

'Then is it all these parts of it that are the chariot?'

'No, Sir.'

'But is there anything outside them that is the chariot?'

And still he answered no.

'Then thus, ask as I may, I can discover no chariot. Chariot is a mere empty sound. What then is the chariot you say you came in? It is a falsehood that your Majesty has spoken, an untruth! There is no such thing as a chariot! You are king over all India, a mighty monarch. Of whom then are you afraid that you speak untruth? And he called upon the Yonakas and the brethren to witness, saying: 'Milinda the king here has said that he came by carriage. But when asked in that case to explain what the carriage was, he is unable to establish what he averred. Is it, forsooth, possible to approve him in that?'

When he had thus spoken the five hundred Yonakas shouted their applause, and said to the king: Now let your Majesty get out of that if you can?'

And Milinda the king replied to Nâgasena, and said: 'I have spoken no untruth, reverend Sir. It is on account of its having all these things--the pole, and the axle, the wheels, and the framework, the ropes, the yoke, the spokes, and the goad--that it comes under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of "chariot."'

'Very good! Your Majesty has rightly grasped the meaning of "chariot." And just even so it is on account of all those things you questioned me about--the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body, and the five constituent elements of being--that I come under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of "Nâgasena." (text available here)


“Is there anything outside of [these parts] that is a chariot?” “No.” The chariot just is these components. Not a frying pan, some batter and a slotted spoon. Yet there is no chariot-ness in the components themselves. So the word “chariot” and the present-at-hand chariot are both present-at-hand objects that inevitably fail to do justice to the components. Yet surely the King rode in on something.

Now before you confuse this with atomism (which the early Buddhists did, in fact), stop to reflect. First, we could apply the same principle to the wheels and the axle etc. They are also composed of parts. It turns out that there are far more objects that compose a chariot, the closer we examine it. OOO and Buddhism suggest that the set of objects that compose a chariot might be infinite.

Claiming, on the other hand, that the chariot is the sum of its relations would inevitably involve a holistic illusion of a set that was greater than the sum of its parts. Here, however, we have a set whose parts are larger than itself!

What Levi and Buddha are talking about is what Levi calls the principle of irreduction. You can't reduce an object to its parts. Even more paradoxically, both Levi and Buddha argue in addition that the object is not some holistic amalgam that is somehow “greater than the sum of its parts,” meaning either 1) that, if you took all the parts away, the object would still exist or 2) that chariot-ness is to be found in parts of the chariot. If you take a chariot apart, there is no chariot. Furthermore, the chariot is made of just these parts. As in Aristotle, where formal causes (of the four causes) are the most evocative of what he calls substance, you need certain shapes to make a chariot—wheels, axle, seat and so on. You could of course make them out of wood, stone, bananas or mandrill hair. But the chariot-ness doesn't reside in the wood. It doesn't even reside in the wheels! And yet, here we are, a chariot.


Early Buddhists did tend to reduce objects to atomic relations that were not analyzable further. Yet as this example demonstrates, the truth is far stranger than that, as later Buddhists argued.

The inescapable conclusion from all this is that emptiness does not mean “reduction to parts or relations.” Emptiness is precisely the principle of nonholistic irreduction.

1 comment:

Henry Warwick said...

From my training:

Nagasena spoke.
His word made the chariot
drive into the weeds.

He spoke too quickly
And was lost in the gloaming.
Words have no flavour.

This: not this (or that):
There is no end to talk of words.
A sunset of time.

Haiku is bullshit.
The puppy eats his own sick.
Now: Spontaneous.

The divine zeros
divide the path we take:
Dark Ecology.