Buddhist and Tantric Perspectives on Causality and Society

Article excerpt

In this article, I will attempt to give a critical survey of Buddhist and Indian Tantric views on the concept of causality. My intention is to highlight and illuminate some aspects of these views and to discuss how we as individuals and societies can embrace an inclusive perspective on this issue to move forward into a future characterized by optimism, peace, caring and wisdom. This is not to suggest that Buddhists and Tantrists are superior to other religious practitioners and traditions in organizing our social life. Nor is this article an attempt to proselytize the virtues of having Buddhists and Tantrists in charge of our global society. Rather, what I aim to do is to offer possible alternative lenses with which to understand the world in which we live, and its causal processes and evolutionary potential, from the vantage point of what can be considered nondominant worldviews.

My thesis is this: that by taking into account non-dominant views on causality and society, and adding these views to our current problem-solving algorithm with regards to the many global challenges we face, it might be possible to enrich our experience of ourselves and of each other, possibly enabling a wider range of creative responses to these aforesaid challenges. I begin by outlining what I see to be the currently dominant causal theories. I then give a snapshot of the foundations and development of Buddhist thinking on causality, followed by forays into Buddhist Vajrayana thinking and north Indian Tantric perspectives, with particular attention on the latter's philosophical antecedents in an ancient Indian system of thought called Samkhya. I attempt throughout to draw out the social futures implications of such strands of thinking, discussing the way such theories are correlated to the organization of social systems and the crafting of social policies while offering a critique of the business-as-usual approach informed by dominant views on causality. In this process, I weave my suggestions on transformative action for positive futures into the body of my predominantly philosophical discussion.

Dominant Perspectives

Aristotle is justifiably the single greatest contributor to the theory of causality in Western philosophy. His articulation of the four types of causes--material, efficient, formal and final--forms the foundation of modern conceptions of causality (Olen 18). For Aristotle, the material cause is the substance or material that makes up a thing, as in the wood that makes up a wooden chair. The efficient cause is that which initiates change in a thing, as in the carpenter that cuts and carves the wood into a chair. The formal cause is the shape or defining characteristic that a thing takes when it changes, as in a chair of such and such a shape that has come about as a result of the carpenter shaping the wood. And the final cause is the goal or purpose of the change of a thing, as in the purpose of the carpenter that drives him/her to shape the wood the way he/she did.

Modern Western philosophy shows a multivalent attitude to causality. Bertrand Russell famously denied that there is such a thing as causation due to its perceived incoherence, Rudolf Carnap noted the imprecision of concepts of cause and effect due to their occurrence within a perceptual world, whereas others such as David Hume, John Stuart Mill and John L. Mackie posited variants of what has come to be called the Regularity View of Causation (RVC) (Koons 19-21; Pruss 36-37; Psillos 3-4). Simply stated, the RVC assumes that there are no necessary connections in nature that make an effect inescapably follow a cause. Rather, the ontological conditions for causation lie in non-causal spatiotemporal relations and actual regularities between events. In other words, for the Humean RVC thesis, there is no intrinsic cause-effect relation between events in the natural world that operates independently of the mind. Whether couched in terms of Hume's contiguity, priority, and constant conjunction, or in terms of Mackie's INUS (insufficient but necessary part of an unnecessary but sufficient) conditions, or of Lewis's counterfactual conditionals, Humean analyses of causation generally involve the need for regularities, direct or indirect (Pruss 31-37; Psillos 19-52). …

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