Sam Harris is sexy, right? Perhaps you agree. But think again. How you answer this question says a lot about your orientation.
Not your sexual orientation. Or at least not just your sexual orientation. It reveals something about how you swing philosophically–whether to the East or West.
Nagarjuna vs. Thomas Aquinas. The second century Indian philosopher, the Buddhist Nagarjuna, by reason of logic alone, and having never laid eyes on Sam Harris, would say that he is not sexy. Not sexy. And if you swing East philosophically, even if you’re a heterosexual woman with a thing for intellectual atheists, or a gay male for whom images of Sam Harris perk you up, you’re nevertheless likely to agree with Nagarjuna–or at least with his argument. Sam Harris is not sexy.
But the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian, the Catholic Thomas Aquinas, would beg to differ. Simply on being informed by trusted witnesses (imagine a time machine here) of the beguiling and mesmerizing powers of Sam Harris over some people’s imaginations, Aquinas would say–though he had never seen him himself, and by means of logic alone–that Sam Harris must be sexy.
So which is it? Sexy or not sexy? What’s going on here? Why would these two heavyweight logicians–the greatest classical logician of the East and the greatest medieval logician of the West–arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether or not an intellectual celebrity is sexy?
It could be that the disagreement exposes a flaw with logic started from metaphysical premises–and why we ultimately need science to settle speculative questions. It can be argued that, in metaphysics, where you start and stop an argument ultimately entails some sort of question begging: “Why did you start there and stop here?” Metaphysics can be too much like a machine for making sausage. Garbage in, garbage out.
But let’s set our cynicism aside for a moment, assume good intentions on the parts of both Nagarjuna and Aquinas (they’re not merely motivated reasoners, but are trying to get at the ultimate truth of matters), and give these two philosophers a fair shake.
Let’s start with Nagarjuna.
Nagarjuna: the first great ecologist. Nagarjuna begins his reasoning with an ecological insight: emptiness. What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne, no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be. Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present. Therefore, no person is sexy. No individual can be anything at all. Not essentially. No flower in the flower; no Sam Harris in Sam Harris.
Put another way, when you dig into a flower, you don’t find a flower. You find the veins of its leaves, the silky fibers of its petals, the green ooze coming from the cut stem. What you don’t find is the self-same flower through and through. You find parts that, combined, you call a flower.
Likewise with Sam Harris. Follow him down through the pupils of his eyes, and you don’t find him behind there–only ocular equipment and a brain. Where’s Sam? He depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Sam; he emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of himself. He is not something all by his lonesome, but dispersed into the system of contingent relations–including perceptual relations. Absent the right bodily, environmental, and perceptual conditions, Sam Harris is not the self-same Sam Harris he is at this moment. He’s empty. Change conditions and perceptions, and you change Sam.
Nagarjuna: Derrida of the East. Now if this sounds like an Eastern version of Derrida’s play of signifiers made flesh, you’re on to something.
Think of what Derrida would say about the dictionary and you’ve got a handle on what Nagarjuna is saying about the cosmos. Derrida would claim that no word in the dictionary is an island; that no word means anything absent the system of words in which it is embedded. Words are defined by other words.
And for Nagarjuna, it’s the same with individuals and things. Just as no single word means anything apart from all the other words in the dictionary–a dictionary is a catalog of self-referential signifiers–so individuals and things don’t mean anything apart from everything else. They’re in the play of signifiers–and signifieds. Not just Jesus, but all of us, are akin to words made flesh. If no word is an island, no flesh is an island either. We are not sexy of our own accord. We have no independent power of sexiness that we cast upon others like a warlock casts a spell.
The Tao of Nagarjuna. For Nagarjuna then, we should regard things, in ultimate terms, as: (1) empty (mutually interdependent arisings that are in constant and unstable flux); and (2) non-dual. Nagarjuna would thus like the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Though these lines come from a Taoist text, the last line is especially important from a Buddhist vantage, for it means that if you can arrest the chain of conditions that bring about a particular desire, you can change what manifests to perception. Desire colors perception. Change the perception part of the mutually interdependent arising equation, and, because all things are ultimately empty and non-dual, you literally change what they are in that moment–at least in relation to you.
So Nagarjuna puts the power of discernment and discrimination–the chopping power of conceptualization–in your hands. Existence is non-dual and a continuum. Think of the yin-yang symbol here, but smudge the line between the black and white fish. How you now cut the fish into two is your call: here’s where the white fish starts and the black fish stops, and here’s where the environment stops and Sam Harris starts. Like Solomon, you can divide your babies any way you like: Baby White divides from Baby Black here, Baby Go from Baby Stop there. But ultimately, there’s no dividing white from black, go from stop, up from down, etc. They’re all one; they’re non-dual; they’re relational; they often manifest along a continuum; and they’re empty.
So Nagarjuna would also like the second purport of the Tao Te Ching (again, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
others become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
And Nagarjuna, in the seventh stanza of his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (translated by Tenzin Dorjee and David Komito), writes this: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.”
Do the one and the many, and being and non-being, really depend on each other to exist? Aquinas would say no, and so Nagarjuna’s non-dual claim exposes a fault line between East and West. Nagarjuna and the Tao Te Ching agree that you can’t have being without nothingness, and therefore even the ultimate–the One or the Tao–is itself empty. Nothing, not even God as the ultimate being (if God exists), has existence independently and essentially–and emptiness itself has no existence apart from beings.
So that’s the last stop on Nagarjuna’s (and the Tao Te Ching’s) logic train. Even emptiness is empty.
All aboard? Not Aquinas.
Where Aquinas and Nagarjuna part ways. It’s at these last two train stops–God is empty and emptiness is empty–that Aquinas and Nagarjuna lose their connection, for though Aquinas agrees with Nagarjuna that all created things are subject to change and contingent upon specific conditions to exist, he can’t agree that Ultimate Being (God) is in the same absurd, vulnerable, and ironic dilemma. God does not need emptiness to exist–nor, for that matter, darkness or evil. Before there was darkness, God was all light; before there was evil, God was all good.
The most existent being–God–is in need of nothing at all. Indeed, nothingness placed into God in a yin-yang manner as a condition of his Being, making him ultimately empty of a single and undivided essence, undermines God’s perfect existence and makes him not God at all. The Ultimate has to be unconditioned by anything–including nothing–to really be His Utmost. God is the necessary Being grounding contingent beings–and nothingness. And the contingent forms that do exist, first existed in the mind of God.
So Aquinas starts his reasoning, not with emptiness, but form.
Aquinas on form. There may be prior conditions out of which forms emerge, but for Aquinas this doesn’t make them empty. So long as they exist, forms are real–they possess real essences–and they consist of two things: actuality and potentiality (or, in Thomistic jargon, “act and potency”). God alone is perfect actuality, not needing to fulfill any potentials within himself. Aquinas’ God is a perfect being; the self-same throughout, lacking in nothing. But not created things.
Once all the conditions for a created form are in place, that form really exists, and the form has actual powers that are independent of its component parts. The form is an emergent property from conditions–but that doesn’t make it any less real. And the form has potencies. The form possesses, by the very nature of its being and form, powers that, though hidden now, manifest in the presence of certain conditions.
So just as a match has the potential for burning wood, you have the potential in your form to set certain people on fire sexually. Your “sexy power” resides in a potency that becomes actual under the right conditions.
In analyzing phenomena, Aquinas thus starts from an essentialist premise, with God as the most existent and essential Being. Nagarjuna starts from an ecological premise: you can never be free from interconnection, and therefore from emptiness. Emptiness haunts being.
So who’s right here?
Aquinas and Nagarjuna: they bleed on both sides. For Aquinas, God has to be transcendent. The first Being has to be prior to all subsequent existence and nothingness–and then remain in some sense apart from dynamic creation. But logically, Nargarjuna insists that being can’t even be conceived independent of nothingness, and therefore anything that exists–including God–has to be empty of essence. This point bloodies the nose of Aquinas’ position. If God is the Ultimate Pot, then, to exist, he needs form and emptiness exactly as white needs black, one needs zero, and good needs evil.
But Nagarjuna bleeds as well. Aquinas would insist that Nagarjuna needs to fix his infinite regress before claiming a victory for emptiness over being: where did the First Pot–the first emptiness–emerge from in the first place? Has it always existed? How can that be?
So both Aquinas and Nagarjuna draw blood when they come into contact most directly at the ultimate mystery–call it The Pot of Mystery. They both climb to the lip of The Pot of Mystery from opposite sides (Aquinas climbs up along the outside of its form; Nagarjuna climbs up along the inside, where the emptiness is). But both come to stillness and silence at reaching the lip of the The Pot. Before them, light falls upon clay that surrounds a dark and empty circle. It is here that logic and words fail them both.
Mountains are really mountains. Zen master Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin reached the same impass, and framed the faultline between emptiness and form as a process of alternation: accepting common sense, doubting common sense, accepting common sense (Quoted in Maseo Abe’s Zen and Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 4) :
Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, “Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.”
After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.”
But now, having attained the abode of final rest [awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.”
In other words, every thing that emerges out of the empty and non-dual cosmic network is interconnected with everything else–even as it obtains its own unreproducible identity in the now. Every thing is means and ends in the present. Being and emptiness are akin to looking at two sides of the same coin: mountains are not really mountains–and yet they are. Alternations in time (mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains) prevent us from seeing the whole truth at once in a single vision: the non-dual nature of reality.
Rock or pot: essence or ecology? So what’s the right metaphor here? Is God or the Ultimate akin to a rock (the self-same through and through and in need of nothing, transcending even the non-dual) or a pot (incapable of manifesting form without emptiness)? Do forms, at bottom, emerge and exist essentially or ecologically?
Perhaps to reconcile Aquinas with Nagarjuna, we might say that what we call God or the Ultimate is the non-dual (the one and zero are inseparable, inaccessible to logic absent the other, and only approached at the same time, if at all, by stillness and silence).
Aquinas, curiously, went silent toward the end of his life, and Nagarjuna deployed logic to bring his interlocutors to mystery and silence, showing that every logical starting point in metaphysics derails at some point in a contradiction.
So are you with Aquinas or Nagarjuna–or is this like asking, Do you want the vase, or the empty part of the vase? Is Sam Harris sexy?
How about Marilyn Martian?