Deconstruction East and West

Why Cause and Effect Never Met

 

 

The teachings of Nagarjuna (150-250 CE) widely considered the most important Buddhist philosopher after the founding Buddha, begins his profound Middle Way treatise by challenging the notion of an independent cause and effect process.  He draws a distinction between independent causation and interdependent conditions and reasons that independent cause and effect activity does not even exist.
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Nagarjuna argues that all phenomena lack inherent existence, meaning that nothing exists with its own autonomous nature, essence or being.  He refers to this absence as emptiness.  Since all phenomena are empty of an independent nature, any causal process could not involve independent entities either.  Nagarjuna challenges the notion of cause and effect by showing how this would exclude all possibility of change.  Instead, he makes the argument that everything arises dependently, without attaining its own nature, thingness or selfhood.  Recognizing that nothing is produced or endures this way, is an altogether different understanding of life.
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The following is a brief summary of the arguments of Nagarjuna and his most influential disciple Chandrakirti (600-650 AD) in their challenge of inherent causation.  Thereafter, another brief explanation of their alternative analysis will be described as well as some overall implications regarding the vital issue of causation.

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THE ARGUMENTS:

Sameness Causation, Difference Causation and Causelessness 

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If a cause is considered to exist by way of its own independent power, such self-establishment must remain consistent throughout the entire production process to be considered valid.  This requires that a cause remain a cause and produce an effect that is either inherently the same as, or inherently different from itself. Without this qualification, a cause could not produce an effect without depending upon other factors apart from itself.  This would exclude the causal entity from qualifying as an independent, self-unified power.
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Nagarjuna identifies the only four ways in which inherently causation could occur, and then refutes them one by one.  These are the possibilities:  1) Inherent sameness or self-causation;  2) Inherent difference or otherness causation;  3) Both inherent sameness and otherness causation; and  4) Causelessness.  Each of these arguments will be explained using the classic seed and sprout example.

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 “Neither from itself nor from another,
   Nor from both,
   Nor without a cause,
   Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.”

   -Nagarjuna

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1. Inherent sameness causation (self-causation) – This is the view that the sprout is already present in the seed.  In other words, the sprout already existed within the seed before the sprout was produced, as the seed’s own inherent nature and causal potential to become a sprout.  In this view, a seed and sprout are simply different stages of the same entity. The effect then, is taken to inherently exist within the cause so that all effects are really the product of self-causation.
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The following are a few of the Middle Way emptiness arguments refuting self-causation.
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One of the most obvious challenges is to note that a sprout cannot be found in a seed.  Instead a seed is one of the conditions necessary for a sprout to arise. For if you place a seed in your hand, it will not turn into a sprout, nor can a sprout endure without ongoing conditions other than itself.  Innumerable factors are necessary for the sprouting of the seed, such as moisture, heat, oxygen, light or sometimes darkness, to name a few examples.
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If the sprout is considered to be the pure outgrowth of a seed, another problem emerges.  The cause, being the seed, could not be considered to be a cause of the sprout as the sprout would have already existed within the seed before it was created.  The producer in other words, would already be the product and production would be redundant.  For whenever there was a seed, there would already be a sprout and the idea of production would have no meaning.
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An additional problem arises with the idea self-causation.  Since the causal power would be in the seed, the seed would never stop causing and there would never be a time in which the seed was not in the process of becoming a sprout. Sameness causation leaves no opportunity for a sprout to arise as an effect.  In other words, when would the seed as a cause, cease to be a cause and become the effect as a sprout?  In inherent sameness causation, the distinction between a cause and effect cannot be made.  These are some examples of the confusion that results when considering production as involving self-causation.

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2. Inherent otherness or difference causation – This is the way cause and effect are often seen, as distinct entities, as causes having the capacity to produce different effects.  Otherness causation is the view that a seed and a sprout are inherently different phenomena but that nonetheless, a seed still has the innate capacity to produce a sprout.
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This scenario cannot explain causation either.  For if a cause is inherently different from an effect, how could it produce the effect?  How can anything be produced from something that it is inherently different and separate from?  That would be magic.  If an effect is inherently different from a cause, then anything could be produced from anything, as everything would be just as different.  In the argument for otherness causation, cause and effect lose all meaning.  If a seed and sprout are fundamentally different, then a sprout would not need a seed as anything would do.

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“If, depending on others, another were to arise,
 Then thick darkness would arise even from a tongue of flame
 And all would be produced from all
 Because even all non-producers would equally have otherness.”

 -Chandrakirti

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Additionally, if cause and effect were each established as independently other, they could not interact.  A cause would remain a cause, excluding the possibility of a cause and effect being at the same place at the same time.  In other words, if cause and effect were independent rather than interdependent phenomena, they could never meet.  Furthermore, how could a cause that disintegrates before its effect, produce an effect?  And if a cause is simultaneous with an effect, it would not be needed, as it would be no cause at all.
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Further still, to explain production by way of an independent causal property is to beg the question of what caused the cause.  If a cause created itself, it would already have existed.  If created by another, then it would depend upon that condition and could not exist independently as a cause.
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These are some of the contradictions that occur when considering otherness causation.  In emptiness teachings, rather than seeing cause and effect as independent processes, they are understood in relational terms.  A cause needs an effect to be considered a cause, just as an effect needs a cause to be considered an effect.  Thus they are both empty of their own being.

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3. Both inherent sameness and otherness causation – This is the proposition that production involves a combination of self-causation and that utilizes inherent otherness. More specifically, this position contends that the effect of the sprout is the result of the seed’s innate productive potential to be a sprout along with inherently unrelated factors that bring about the causal effect.
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If a seed was to produce a sprout as the result of having both inherent sameness and otherness causal powers, then the seed would have two contrary causal natures.  The seed cannot be both inherently the same as the sprout and different from the sprout.  This is contradictory, as something cannot be identical to what it is inherently different.  They would be mutually exclusive.
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This option would further require a unifier for the two different causal modes of operation.  The question then arises as to what and where this unifier is.  Furthermore, the case for inherent causation requires that the cause remain independent as a causal force and yet in this scenario, the cause must depend upon a unifier.  The seed could not be an independent producer as it would depend upon something else.  For whatever exists dependently cannot also exist independently.
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In Emptiness Yoga, Jeffrey Hopkins describes this dual sameness and otherness position as taking two false positions and trying to make them true.
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If on the other hand, we recognize that there are no entities that inherently exist, then the argument for dependent rather than independent causation can be made, which is the emptiness argument.  Because there are no entities with inherent natures or forces, one cannot say that anything is inherently the same or different from anything else as nothing exists as its own thing.  This is the teaching of dependent co-arising in which cause and effect, along with everything else, can only be conventionally designated as nothing can ultimately be singled out.

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4. Causelessness – The last of Nagarjuna’s refutations is a response to the view that things appear spontaneously.
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If this was so, anything could arise anytime and anywhere.  In this theory, everything would be random and unpredictable.  One wouldn’t need to plant or water a seed to produce a sprout, as no particular action would be reliable.  Consequences would be pointless to consider and whatever did or did not happen wouldn’t matter.
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Effects would appear without any regularity and the whole idea of effects would be meaningless.  No one would have a clue as to what was happening and why. Sprouts and everything else would appear without explanation, but that is not observed to be the case.

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Dependent Co-Arising

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“Empty things are born from empty things.”   

-Nagarjuna

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The Middle Way philosophy contends that all phenomena neither exist as substantial entities, nor are they nonexistent, because they arise dependently.  It is from this perspective of interdependence that Nagarjuna takes a middle path between essential existence and nonexistence.  Since all phenomena lack independence, only relative, conventional comparisons can be made.  Therefore nothing can ultimately be the same or different from anything else.  In emptiness teachings, causes and effects can be neither the same, nor different, nor both, nor causeless.  Form is like an essenceless, interrelational movement.  Likewise, what comes and goes is essenseless, empty of thingness and therefore can only be conventionally designated.
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This way of seeing appears counterintuitive, because it seems as if there are separate things each effecting each other externally.  Emptiness teachings do not refute the conventional appearance and functioning of cause and effect, but reject its ontology.  Its understanding that cuts beneath surface appearances. The theory that phenomena possess inherent causal powers is contradictory.  It proposes change through the assumption of fixed powers.  Instead, Nagarjuna’s argument for dependent arising as an essenceless, interdependent movement avoids this contradiction and explains change.
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What is a seed?  A seed is not a singular entity.  Existing dependently, it is ultimately indefinable.  A seed is merely a conceptual label because it is empty of its own nature and cannot be singled out.  This does not mean that seeds and sprouts do not at all exist, but that they exist dependently and therefore only conventionally.  Therefore seeds cannot exist as substantive causal agents either.  It is practically necessary and reliable to refer to seeds.  However, we cannot ultimately say what they are because they do not exist in and of themselves.
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There are observable regularities that are reliable, such as spring following winter, nighttime, the day.  If you don’t moisten seeds they will not sprout. We can acknowledge relative and relational appearances without  involving reified causal powers.  When change is investigated, we do not discover entities either existing in themselves or in their conditions.  We can only appeal to regularities emptily nestled within countless other regularities, conventionally designated, with nothing independent left standing.  It is because of mere regularities that conditions are recognized as conditions, not because conditions exist as independent causes.

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 “When this is, that arises,
   Like short when there is long.
   When this is produced, that is produced,
   Like light from the arising of a flame.”

   -Nagarjuna

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Implications For Other Fields

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Addressing inherent cause and effect is not a side point, but challenges an ingrained perspective in which phenomena are believed to originate, persist, move and produce by way of their own self-nature.  Without deconstructing inherent causation, investigation into all areas of life will be locked into a perspective of fundamental separation with its resulting mechanical determinism.  Foundational reference points, such as atomic particles constituting the building blocks of reality, will be seen as the solid base of objective analysis.  Conclusions will then be rooted in fixed and fragmented interpretations of a world that is unfathomably dynamic and intimately connected.
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Quantum physics has described phenomena as nonlocalized rather than reified and reductionist.  There are innumerable conditions that conventionally appear to have afforded mobile animals the function of representing life as a collection of distinct entities in the midst of an incomprehensible network of interrelations. This reductionist lens can be practical, but has become mistaken for an objective, overarching view of the way things really are.  A reified perspective of cause and effect is an example of this.
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To see this practical function as a foundational reality, is to approach life as fundamentally fragmented, which is a condition for tremendous human conflict and suffering.  We can instead recognize that our attempt to land on explanations grounded in inherent entities with causal powers is an outdated paradigm.  It leads to dead end inquiries, with questions and answers rooted in the belief in solid, final truths, rather than the open-endedness of interdependence and relativity.

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“There is not a single thing
 That does not arise dependently.
 Therefore there is not a single thing
 That is not emptiness.”

 -Nagarjuna
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References

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Nagarjuna, Arya. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.  Translation and Commentary By Garfield, Jay L., Oxford University Press, 1995, Print, Kindle.

Hopkins, Jeffrey. Emptiness Yoga.  Shambhala Publications (previously printed by Snow Lion Publications), 1995, Print, eBook.

Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel – The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books, 2009, Print, Kindle.

5 Responses to “Why Cause and Effect Never Met”

  1. riverflow

    So well put, Susan, and–not surprising for you–also with clarity. I have begun re-reading Garfield’s commentary myself [sic!!] lately, and what you’ve written here (and elsewhere) only helps my own practice. Thank you!!

    Reply
  2. gregorylent

    my favorite phrase, “no independent origination” … says it all

    Reply
  3. Paul

    Your Cause and Effect article is brilliant. I love the flow of the dependent origination flavor it has.

    Reply
  4. Cal Izard

    This is a lucid and thoughtful presentation of the wisdom teachings of the Buddha. I recommend this essay to anyone who has ever felt that life is like a dream.

    Reply
  5. Vajra Dorje

    What Nagarjuna was getting at, and what he beautifully explicated in the Prajna-Paramiita Sutra, is that there are 3 modes of human experience. 1.) Reality, 2.) the phenomenal world of concepts and percepts and 3.) the world of illusion. This later is the mistaking of a view of reality for reality itself . This is dogmatism and clinging, the root cause of human suffering.

    It needs to be understood that one can “move about freely” in the phenomenal world and use science, mathematics and every other form of conceptual knowledge without making the mistake of misplaced absoluteness. One can be a scientist and know full well that one is engaged in model building, building alternate models of phenomena as opposed to discovering reality.

    The Buddha, Nagarjuna, exhort us to understand that the human mind gives us interpretations of reality, not reality itself. But that does not make the human mind and its interpretations worthless or evil. Quite the contrary. Knowledge of the limits of human reason and knowledge of reality allow us to use the human mind in a free, uncluttered, constructive and creative way.

    Reply

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