International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 177 19th December 2012


I. 'Living and Some Theories from the Indian Tradition' by Sushama Karve

II. 'Universals - Essence or Mental Construction: Buddhist View' by Ramala Sarma

III. 'Knowing the Natural Kind Term: Internalism vs. Externalism' by Sanjit Chakraborty

IV. 'Taking Up the Cause of Causality' by Raam Gokhale



This bumper seasonal issue of Philosophy Pathways is devoted to philosophers in India. From the evidence presented here, there appears to be a keen interest in issues in Western analytic philosophy, which in many cases mirror or bear a remarkably similar likeness to questions that have been raised throughout the long tradition of Indian philosophical thought.

Sushama Karve looks at theories from the Indian tradition which seek to address the question, 'How should one live?' These theories emphasize the duties and virtues associated with one's age and station in life, which benefit both the individual and society in harmony with one another. As the author observes, there is a remarkable correlation here with what Plato says about the role of his three classes in Republic, and the relation between these and the proper order of the human soul.

Ramala Sarma, Assistant Professor at Nowgong College, Assam, discusses a controversy over universals between the traditional Buddhist view and the theory of the Nyaya-Vaisesika school, the former maintaining that only the 'unique particular causally efficient point-instant' is real, all concepts and relations deriving from the human mind, while the latter claims that 'the generalised form is eternal' and has 'objective reality'. The former might be described as a version nominalism or conceptualism, although (to my mind) it bears more than a passing resemblance to Bradley's absolute idealism. The latter sounds Platonic in tone, but in the context the dialectic, seems more like the response of common sense realism, and the demand for an effective methodology of science.

Sanjit Chakraborty, a PhD student at Jadavpur University Kolkata, grapples with the question first raised by the American philosophers Kripke and Putnam concerning the nature of natural kind terms, such as 'tiger' or 'gold'. Are the meanings of these terms mere descriptions that we carry around in our heads internally, or do they refer to the underlying biological or atomic structure, which only the relevant experts have knowledge of? In the latter case, it follows that the ordinary person doesn't really 'know' what a tiger, or what gold, is. The clash between the internal and external view of meaning, as the author observes, raises particular difficulties in epistemology, where there remains an as yet unresolved tension between the internal and external views of justification.

Raam Gokhale, editor of the Pune Journal of Philosophy, looks at the analysis of causation in a dialogue derived from his discussions with Sushama Karve and Kedar Joshi. The argument hinges on David Hume's critique of the idea that causation involves a necessary connection between cause and effect. As one of the participants in the dialogue observes, Hume's scepticism about causation has interesting counterparts in Indian philosophy. The author takes the view, following Hume (and, in the 20th century, Carl Hempel) that all causal statements are, in principle, deducible from scientific laws. But that raises the question where the necessity of scientific laws comes from. Are they just universal generalizations, as Hume claimed, or do they express something stronger? For Western philosophers of science, this is familiar territory.

Finally, an announcement. Following the death of Professor David Hamlyn on 15th July (Philosophy Pathways issue 174) there is to be a Memorial Meeting organized by Birkbeck College London and the Institute of Philosophy, held on 12th January 2013, at 3pm, in the Chancellor's Hall, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1. The meeting will be followed by a Reception. I have been invited to give a short talk, 'David Hamlyn as teacher and mentor.' Other speakers include, Alex Byrne, Dorothy Edgington, John Haldane, Richard Sorabji and Nick Zangwill. All are welcome. If you would like to attend, it will be helpful in order to estimate numbers if you could contact Professor Edgington at

Good luck for 2013!

Geoffrey Klempner



It has always been an area of great interest for all thinkers and philosophers all over to know the world and to investigate into the meaning and purpose of human existence or human life. Different branches of science take care of the questions regarding the world around us. Philosophy looks into questions like: What is the nature of man? What does it mean to live? Do I live for some purpose or it is just a contingency? Is there/ should there be an objective in life? If yes, what should be the nature of it? Being very much here on this earth, though without asking for this existence, perhaps it is pertinent to have proper goals or objectives in life so that not just your own but the life of others around you as well becomes happier; that may well provide a purpose to the existence. These questions are connected with human relationships, man-nature relation, life after death etc. Here we are reminded of the extremely significant words inscribed on the temple of Delphi, Know Thyself; we need to understand them properly. As of now, we clearly know that there are no conclusive answers to these questions in any philosophy.

Another related question at this point would be: what is a good life? Since all the questions have been of great concern to great thinkers, philosophers, scientists, artists etc, we come across a plethora of answers right from Socrates and Plato to J Krishnamurti. It can be generally said that the common concern was peaceful co-existence of all on the earth and, at the same time, giving space to individual growth, freedom and well-being.

So, what should be the objective in life? Shankaracharya tells us that Moksha should be the final destination, the supreme objective of human life. According to Sartre filling up nothingness is what a human being should look for. Gautam Buddha gave us the four noble truths and showed the eightfold path. Soren Kierkegaard talks about authentic and inauthentic life. Ample scope to get lost in these diverse opinions! The age-old debate as to who comes first, the individual or the society still persists.

Whatever the questions and whatever the answers, we have to take into account the present scenario. It is like the entire humanity is ruled by scientific and technological advancement. Electronic gadgets and equipment have become 'necessities', getting connected via the internet seems to be the only mode of connecting. Cell phones have become inseparable human organs. Globalization is considered to be in the offing and wars -- and everything that goes with a war like colossal expenses, brutality beyond word, mass killing of innocents, acts that put humanity to shame -- are on the rise! Contradictions and conflicts are confusing humanity to no end.

Under the spell of modernity and technological advancement, as Rousseau pointed out, we are turning into 'uniform puppets'. Come to think of it, the puppets are uniform even in their confusion. Various kinds of uprisings, right from 'Pearl Square' to 'Occupy Wall Street', point out to this uniform confusion. There is common displeasure, dissension, anti-incumbency factor; the feeling that 'we don't want the present system' is obvious. Along with that an obscurity as to 'what do we want' is also obvious. This is on the social level.

On the individual level, youth, the future of the world, seem to be going after similar goals -- education that will fetch a fat salaried job, house, cars, trips abroad, wonderful spouse, perhaps a child or two -- the first four the sooner the better! In short keep earning money all through, all activities money oriented. In the course of time running into the rat race takes its toll and there are tense or broken relationships, stress related health problems. Depression, alienation, anxiety, feeling of insecurity set in at an early age. Then there is the inevitable search for solutions to these problems. Loneliness drives men -- not only old but also young ones -- crazy. All this further results in more complications in one's life. Hence this attempt at thinking afresh.

Who am I, why me and what I should do: these are the three questions that take a gigantic form and exhaust all the energy. Perhaps not everyone is capable of facing these questions and finding answers to them. In Indian philosophy a few frames are provided in the form of Varna dharma and Ashrama dharma, Karma Siddhanta or the theory of Karma, Purushartha or the theory of the objectives in one's life,. First let us see what do these mean and then we will go into their relevance. These cam be a part of Know Thyself.

Ashram Dharma

Let us begin with Ashram Dharma. There are four stages (Ashram) of one's life: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. Brahmacharya is studentship days. This begins approximately from the 7th year of one's life and continues till about the 24th year. Then comes the Grihastha or household stage. You get married, have your children, and bring them up. At the same time you look after the elders, help others as far as possible. When the children are grown up and you get old, it is time for you to retire. Then comes the third stage of Vanaprastha. During Vanaprastha you hand over the charge to the next generation, withdraw yourself from the daily routine and take up a detached attitude. In other words, you start thinking on different lines and engage in deeper, philosophical investigations like the meaning of life, who am I etc. The last stage is of Sanyasa or complete renunciation.

Every Ashram has particular duties to observe. During the student days you are supposed to be engaged in learning whole-heartedly, take care of physical fitness, keep away from all sorts of bad habits -- which include intoxicants -- practice celibacy. Grihastha ashram is said to be the backbone of all the ashramas as well as of the society because a Grihastha takes care not just of his family but also others. He is expected to give alms, donate to the needy, and be hospitable to the Sanyasis. During Vanaprastha, it is one's duty to gradually move away and make way for the next generation; personal desires and their fulfillment should not be the first priority. Though Sanyasa is complete renunciation, the duties are not, cannot be renounced; the main duty of a Sansyasi is to keep moving around and offer his wisdom and knowledge to the society i.e. to the people. Thus he lives not for himself but for the society. In a way his 'I' vanishes or rather merges with the rest of the people. Come to think of it, a major duty of a Sansyasi seems to be circulation of knowledge as he keeps moving, without taking roots at any one place. Blood circulation is important to a body, so is knowledge circulation to a society.

Varna Dharma

This is a broad classification of men as per their natural tendencies or inclinations. It is given that there are basically four categories or classes of men: Kshtriya or the warrior class, the kings, rulers or politicians in today's world. Brahmana or those who are interested in and engaged in activities related to knowledge. Vaishya or business men; farmers, traders etc belong to this class. Shudra or those who do not belong to any of the above three. These classes have been allotted certain duties. The Kshatrias/ kings/ rulers should look after and protect their subjects; the Brahmins should engage themselves in conservation of knowledge and activities like teaching and learning; the Vaishyas being businessmen economic well being of a society, preservation and increase of wealth are their main concerns. Those who do not have any of these inclinations are the ones who are supposed to serve or help the three other three classes in whatever way they can. This is of course a very broad and general classification. But, if we observe around it is noticed that mostly people -- or children for that matter -- fall into one of the classes.

What is the use of this type of classification? If one cannot make a path for himself, if one is unable to find the right kind of activity, most suitable activity for him; this framework will help face the big question: what am I to do. As per your natural tendency the work is so to say given to you. Thus confusion regarding finding the right work is certainly lessened.

Besides/ beyond the Ashram and Varna-specific duties, there are five common rules to follow for everyone: truth, non-violence, non-stealing, non-accumulation, and celibacy. At every stage of life and whatever Varna you belong to, these are the 'ought' for all.

Here we are inevitably reminded of Plato's wisdom, courage and temperance when he talked about individual soul. Justice is the end/ objective of everything; the way to realize it is only through the collective man or the state. His ideal state consists of three parts or classes: 1) the ruling class or the head/ intelligence of a state i.e. a philosopher 2) the warriors or soldiers or militants; they are said to be the heart of a state. 3) The merchants, agriculturists, artisans and slaves. These correspond to the sensual soul and therefore to the lower parts of the human body. The ruling class has wisdom, militants have courage and the third class is supposed to be subservient, obedient to the two classes.

Purushartha Siddhanta

Now let us see in brief 'Purushartha Siddhanta' or the theory of 'objectives in life'. Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha are the four objectives that are described in this theory. Kama means desires and fulfillment of desires: sexual desire and other natural instinctive desires are included in this. Artha means the means for the fulfillment of these desires. Dharma here means the rules accepted by a society on the personal as well as social level; thus dharma provides the foundation for artha and kama. Moksha is the ultimate liberation or the highest freedom. After having fulfilled kama, artha and dharma moksha is the objective that goes beyond the three; this also implies that material achievements in themselves are not adequate for a human being. Man always yearns for something more, something transcendental that satisfies him in a non-material way/spiritual way.

In short it says that man is made up of various natural desires and they are to be satisfied; but not in any which way. Social rules/ norms/ acceptance are extremely important even for the satisfaction of your personal/ natural/ instinctive desires. And, it also says that being a human, you do not stop at this, there is a different kind of pursuit in Moksha. While going through the rigmarole of fulfilling the desires, one does feel that he is in some kind of bondage and he needs to be free from all the bondages.

Karma Siddhanta

Now we come to Karma Siddhanta or the theory of Karma. The basis for the theory is 'reap as you sow'. Depending on your earlier deeds or actions, you enjoy a good or bad life now and whatever you do now will decide the quality of your life ahead or your life in the next birth. Or, the fruits of your actions will commensurate with their fruits/ results. Even if you do not believe in prebirth-rebirth, this is a simple principle of 'every action has an equal reaction'. Sometimes it is argued that if you accept this theory then you don't have much left to do because all your suffering and happiness are predetermined; where is individual freedom of action in this theory if you do not accept prebirth and rebirth? But, even if you put aside one's past and future lives, this principle of 'reap as you sow' certainly holds true for this life. And, it is a fact that everyone is surely concerned with this life, the 'here and now'.

There are various academic/ technical/ logical difficulties involved in the theory like if karma is the deciding factor where and how did it begin? Surely, at the very beginning of the world there was no karma because there were no human beings. So how did this wheel of karma come into existence and how did it gather momentum? Why, in the first place it happened at all?

Similar problems can be found in all the four theories. But, what is our present concern? Is it finding faults with theories? Is it proving conclusively the superiority of one theory over another? Is it to have verbal -- verbose for that matter -- discussions and debates? Is philosophy only academics or is it something beyond it?

In our view, philosophy is very much rooted in the present and in the facts of today. What is happening to me and to the rest of the mankind are both major concerns of philosophy -- they should be.

Practical application

So what is the situation right now of man on the individual and social level? He is facing numerous problems on both the fronts; turning to philosophy is looking for some guidelines if not a complete solution. It is quite obvious now that any fragmentary approach -- in the form of specialization or special branches of knowledge -- to the problems is not much of a help. Maybe with such an approach we are adding to the problems rather than solving them. The prominent example of this would be technological advancement. Now we have faster means of communication, faster means of travel, enormous information is just a click away; we also have weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare, huge armies with magical arms. Both these have emerged out of technology.

In spite of and besides the scientific etc progress, the basic human suffering is still very much there; so is the basic question: what am I to do. How do I live in a society? Meaning what is my place in the society? Should I go for my own individual good or should the social good be given priority?

The above mentioned theories seem to be offering some kind of reconciliation between the personal and social fronts. Rather that positing these two as rivals, an effort is made at reaching at a reconciliation between the two so that they can be complimentary to each other.

Now let us try to see what these theories mean to us in the present context. Do they give us some guidelines for coming out of the present predicament of the modern man? This is the main question.

What is the state of man today? Like it is said in 'Alice in Wonderland', just to stay in one place he has to be on the run constantly! The technologically equipped man of today does not have time for himself, for others or for looking at nature. A fierce spirit of competition rules the world, achievements are measured in terms of material gains. Money, and more money, is the mantra. Barring a few isolated cases, everyone accepts the goal of making money without going into its plus and minus sides or side effects. Instead of being Artha/ means for fulfilling desires it has become the end. And in the process the original nature of man is lost or shrouded with the hectic activity of gathering money. That is perhaps the beginning of the problems because you cannot neglect your own self forever. 'To be with yourself' is an important activity in life. This throws light on your true nature, your likes and dislikes. It gives you an opportunity to examine your true interests. Rather than going through this, everybody is busy in earning more money. Who thinks about peace of mind, inner peace, inner satisfaction? Men of great achievements also say that without this inner satisfaction, the achievements/ objects cannot make one really happy.

This is perhaps what Rousseau meant by 'uniform puppets'. Without looking within, without taking the time off to find out my inclinations, like/ dislikes I run after some ideal that is accepted by most. I do not try and find out whether the ideal or objective suits me or not. J. Krishnamurti says that man is a secondhand human being; he lives on borrowed ideals and ideologies. It seems that he also lives on borrowed objectives. Putting on a shirt because everyone wears it, doesn't matter if it does not fit me! This is bound to create discomfort, confusion and to give rise to problems.

The point is one has to find out his inclinations or the Varna to which he belongs to; your natural tendencies should decide what profession you choose and not what profession is in demand or what the market requires. At the same time the ashram that you are in also has to be taken into account. Like duties, your desires and your activities differ from stage to stage. Accordingly you have to make changes in your lifestyle; otherwise there is bound to be conflict. A body of 60 years and desires of 20, can they go together?

So you go forward in life without Varna and Ashrama considerations and also 'borrow' goals and ideals. The net result is a constant feeling of unrest or uneasiness. How far can any society made up of such individuals be a restful society?

Karma siddhanta offers you a kind of consolation in the sense that it offers an answer to the perpetually disturbing question: why me? We come across men going through adverse conditions, facing difficult situations for no apparent reasons. This theory also teaches you to accept a situation beyond your control calmly and patiently. You are in a fix right now, but continue with your Varna and Ashram duties and in future you will enjoy the fruits of your actions; this ray of hope is invaluable to everyone. This way, stability and peace in a society is also maintained. A peaceful and stable society is invaluable even and especially today.

Thus all the four theories -- Varan, Ashrama, purushartha and Karma -- taken together or simultaneously do point at some guidelines to all beyond the boundaries of caste, creed, religion, nation. We are talking about globalization in a big way. The philosophy, the theories will also have to be global. These theories do not involve any kind of rituals, religious rites and are open enough to take the entire humanity into their fold.

Cosmos in the Rigveda

Besides these theories, there is the ancient concept/ principle of 'Rita' that is mentioned in Rigveda, one of the four Vedas. It is given that Rita is the principle on which the whole cosmos functions. All the rhythmic, cyclic events in the physical world like the seasons, death/ birth etc are governed by Rita. The world that is given to man, which is not man-made like the rivers, oceans mountains, trees etc come under this principle or rule. It is also said that even Gods are not allowed to violate Rita; violation of Rita will bring its own punishments. Interpreted in today's age, it means that going against nature will result into terrible things. Isn't it conservation of environment? We are suffering because somewhere in the course we forgot that the world that is given to us is not created by us, we are not the owners of it. Rather we have to take very good care of it because it is not our legacy; we have borrowed it from the next generations.

Manifestation of this Rita in the human world is seen in the form of Dharma or moral rules. The physical world runs on Rita, the human world, the inner or inter-human world functions on morality. 'Rina' or obligation is the word used for this. I am obliged to my forefathers and gurus, to the society. Following Rita and Rina ensures smooth functioning of a society. Happy/ peaceful individuals make a happy/ peaceful society which has the least friction -- be it human relationship or be it man-nature relationship. The individual and the society both on par, none is higher or lower. Remember, having found that GDP is not adequate we are talking of happiness-index of a nation?

* I would like to thank Ram Gokhale who helped me a lot with this article by way of discussions.


1. None of the four theories from the Indian tradition mentioned above were put forth by some particular persons in particular texts therefore no references to particular books or persons.

2. 'Purusha' does not mean only 'male' in the theory of Purushartha; it means an 'individual'.

(c) Sushama Karve 2012




In the history of philosophy, the problem of universals has occupied an important position. From the time immemorial, philosophers have taken a keen interest in this problem only because of its knotty character. In our daily life, we perceive particular things as belonging to a certain class. They have something common in them by virtue of which they are grouped together in the same class and called by the same name. This something which is common to all the members of a class is called universal or generality. Now the questions bound: What is common to a group of things or particulars? What type of thing is the universal? Does the universal stand for something that is objectively real? These are some of the basic questions that the philosophers dealt from time to time.

The universals, according to the Buddhist, are mere fancies or mental constructions without having any objective basis. For him, the only real is the discrete and disparate particulars which are momentary. No identity or similarity is conceived in reality. For these are mere fancies or imaginations. The so-called universals 'cow', 'horse', etc. do not represent any positive entity which inheres in different particulars. Unlike the realists, the Buddhist holds that words and concepts do not stand for real things. To him, the real is unique particular causally efficient point-instant which is beyond the range of words and concepts. We construct the idea of duration or time when the moments or point-instants are cognized to arise in succession.

Zen Master Seung Sahn[1] aptly compares our mind and the universe with the strip of film. In the long strip of film, everything is completely still. But as the film projector moves the frames quickly, and as all of these frames run past the lens quickly that the actions and the movements of the characters on the film seem to happen continuously. Thus every point-instant lasts only for a moment and is replaced by another. So, according to the Buddhist, reality is not being, but becoming. It is a flowing reality. The universal, for him, is the form constructed by the human understanding to apprehend the flowing reality. The universal is merely a generalised form imposed by our mind on the unique particulars which are grasped in pure sensation. Comprehension of objects in space and time is nothing but generalisation (samanya-laksana).

Now, what is the status of conceptual knowledge in the Buddhist theory? What is the relation between thought-constructions (universals) and the unique particulars? The Buddhist answers these questions through his theory of apoha (nominalism). The main thesis of apohavada can be written in three headlines[2]:

(i) Words and concepts are not directly related to reality. The belief in their objective reference is nothing but transcendental illusion.

(ii) The objects of conceptual cognitions are universals which are constructed by human understanding. That is to say, universals are thought-constructions.

(iii) Though the conceptual knowledge is ultimately false, it is empirically valid, because it has an indirect causal relation to reality.

Dignaga is the founder of the Buddhist nominalism. To understand the Buddhist theory of universal or apohavada, it is necessary to acknowledge the basic structure of the epistemology of Dignaga. According to Dignaga, there are two types of knowable objects: (i) the unique particulars (sva-laksana), the ultimate real, and (ii) the generalised objects or the universals (samanya-laksana), the thought-constructions. Relating to these two knowable objects, there are two means of knowledge: (i) perception (pratyaksa) or pure sensation through which only the particulars are grasped, and (ii) inference (anumana), which comprehends only the universals or the generalised objects. These two means of knowledge operate only in their own sphere strictly. But according to the Nyaya-Vaisesika, the same object may be grasped by perception, inference or any other means of knowledge.

For Buddhist, the real or unique particular can never be comprehended by thought. We can never be conscious of pure sensation, because consciousness involves thought. Pure sensation is devoid of any mode or determination. It is nirvikalpaka pratyaksa (indeterminate perception). A pure sensation, according to the Buddhist, is immediately and necessarily followed by thought-process which gives determination to the sensation and is called determinate perception. The Nyaya-Vaisesika also agrees with this view. But the Nyaya-Vaisesika differs from the Buddhist when the former says that the determinate perception (savikalpaka pratyaksa) is the valid perception as it comprehends the generalised form or the universal. On the other hand, the Buddhist maintains that the generalised form and the qualities inhering in the object are mere mental-construction or ideal. They have no relation with the external reality. In the determinate perception, we conceive ideal images as if they are really present in the external world. It is mere a pseudo perception. For instance, in the perceptual judgement 'this is a horse' the term 'this' refers to the unique particular and the term 'horse' refers to the thought-image. These two things are quite different, but they are falsely identified because of the non-comprehension of the difference prevailing between them.

The Buddhist maintains that the particular being devoid of all adjuncts and relations does not have time duration and extension. On the other hand, the Nyaya-Vaisesika maintains that the particular is a composite entity endowed with qualities. Regarding the nature of generalised form, these two schools differ in their views. According to the Nyaya-Vaisesika, the generalised form is eternal and it has objective reality; while according to the Buddhist, it is mere an unreal thought-image having no counterpart in the external world.

The actual problem for the Buddhists lies in the fact that they believe the object say, 'car' is empty of inherent existence.[3] For the Buddhists, the object 'car' is simply a collection of its parts, viz., wheels, paint, axles, cogs etc. In none of these parts we find 'car'. Thus the question bounds: what does the word 'car' actually refer to? While the essentialists like Plato, Aristotle and Nyaya-Vaisesika posit the existence of an entity 'car-ness', an abstract quality that all cars possess in common, the Buddhists hold that such an essence does not exist and this belief in the inherent existence of an entity is mere an illusion of the mind. Thus the words 'car-ness', tree-ness, horse-ness etc do not refer to any external entity. They simply refer to the objects in the mind, i.e., constructions of the mind.

Now a question naturally peeps into our mind: If horse-ness does not exist, then what consists in the similarity between one horse and the other? It may be said that the similarity is due to the common function performed by them. Many particulars are perceived and named as 'horses' because of the common function performed by them, or because of having similar cause. ekartha-kriyakaritvad, eka-hetutvae ca.[4]

But on this ground, the universal cannot be accepted in them. Being similar does not mean identity and similarity does not imply any common entity. As R. C. Pandey puts it,

     Different drugs are called similar because they are all
     effective in a disease. The effectiveness has created the
     notion of similarity, but positively there is nothing
     common in drugs.[5]
The notion of universal is not caused by any positive commonness which resides in all the members of a particular class. But they have a negative commonness in the case that they are different from the non-horses like cows, goats, etc.

Now, how is this negative commonness formed? When we experience an object, such as a horse, the information that comes into our mind is simply the parts that constitute the horse. These are not actually the legs, skin, eyes, tail etc, but the actual atoms that form the object. When all these particular characteristics are cognized, the mind habitually compares this information with previous experience. Now everything that does not match this cluster of particular characteristics is excluded until this set of particular characteristics forms a unitary thing (horse) in the mind. However, this unitary thing 'horse' is actually the exclusion or negation of everything that does not share the particular characteristics of horse. In brief, the entity to which the word 'horse' refers is actually not non-horse, i.e., the negation of everything that is not a horse.

Buddhist view of universal as thought-construction reminds us of Locke's workmanship of understanding. Locke holds that the classifications found in the world are suggested by the nature in the first place. Yet, these are the workmanship of the understanding. However, there are fundamental differences between them. According to Locke, a conceptualist, universal concepts are formed by abstracting common qualities from the particulars observed. But the Buddhist holds that they are merely mental constructions. While for Locke, the universal concept has objective basis in the real resemblance of particulars, for the Buddhist, universal has no objective basis, as we do not find any similarity or identity in reality. However, both of them agree in denying the existence of real essence.

Buddhist apohavada faces severe criticism from the realist camp, particularly by Kumarila and Uddyotakara. The sum and substance of their criticisms is that the negation of the contrary is not a necessary part of the apprehension of the meaning of words. Nor a negation is logically possible without affirmation. Again, if concepts are considered to signify merely thought-construction, then no relations and distinctions would be possible among them.

     nacanvayavinirmukta pravrttih sabdalingayoh,
     tabhyam ca na vina poho na casadharanenvayah.

The Buddhist apohavada is definitely nominalistic, as the concepts, according to this theory, have no objective foundation. They are fancies of the mind. But the nominalism of the Buddhist is different from the so-called nominalism, as it does not hold that the concepts are mere names without having any common basis. Such view completely ignores the practical purpose displayed by words. Both Dignaga and Dharmakirti never say like that. They hold that language is the medium of communication of thought and they also admit a common basis of communication which makes mutual understanding possible. What they deny is that the common basis for language is derived from experience. It does not refer to any objective reality.

L. Wittgenstein contends that using word-names or descriptive sentences is merely one kind of language-game. They cannot be treated as models for others. There are different ways of using language; it has no fixed use. 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.'[7] Buddhist apohavada may be said to be a madhyam pantha (middle way) between the extreme realism that holds that universals are existent and perceivable simultaneously with the ordinary things[8] and the so-called nominalism that regards universal as mere names. Concepts are created by reason to present the particulars in its own form. Though these concepts are not ultimately real, they are accompanied by a belief in their objective reference. This belief is said to be necessary for practical life, because without this our purposeful activity would result in zero.


1. Sahn, Zen Master Seung, 'Moment Mind = 1\ Infinite Time', New Lotus Buddhisdoor International, 13-6-2012.

2. Cf., Dravid, R. R. (1974), The Problems of Universals in Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 265.

3. Gornall, A., 'Language: A Yogacara Explanation', New Lotus Buddhisdoor International, 16-5-2011.

4. Prasastapada-bhasya with Sridhara's Nyayakandali (1895), ed. By Vindhyeshwari Prasad Dwivedi, V.S.S. Banaras, p. 318, line 5.

5. Pandey, R. C. (1963), The Problem of Meaning in Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 206.

6. Sloka Vatika of Kumarila (1946), ed. by Dr. Kunhan Raja, Madrs University Press, apoha, p. 33.

7. Wittgenstein, L. (1972), Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, sect.109.

8. See Mukhopadhyay, P. K. (1984), Indian Realism, A Rigorous Descriptive Metaphysics, K. P. Bagchi & Company, Calcutta.

(c) Dr Ramala Sarma 2012




There is a tendency to explain meaning of sentences in terms of truth conditions, while truth conditions are to be explained by reference to the constituent terms of a sentence and its synthetic structure. Logicians consider the structure of a sentence from the point of view of symbolic logic and also seek a reliable logical theory which would explain how its truth conditions may be determined. On the other hand, the Grammarian emphasizes on the structure of natural language, seeking a mapping of each sentence from the perspective of 'semantic representation' or 'meaning'. We will find a radical progress in the structure of semantic theory from the period of Frege to the present. But one important question remains undiscussed. Putnam takes this point and asked, 'Why is the theory of meaning so hard?'

We may find a plausible answer from Putnam's own point of view. He thinks that mainly the problem lies in the use of general terms or names. Actually general terms can be given meaning in different ways:

  -- The Transformation of verbal forms, like hunter, i.e., one who hunts.

  -- Natural kind terms, like gold, tiger, lemon etc.

A natural kind term is determined by the properties which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for membership of the kind. Actually a natural kind term has some fundamental properties. For instance, water (H2O) is a natural kind term whose fundamental properties are being composed of molecules of one oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms.

There are two different theories that help us to understand a natural kind term. One is called the Description theory of natural kind terms and other a Causal theory of natural kind terms.

The distinction between Description and Causal theories also applies to the semantics of proper names, which I shall look at first.

The Description theory of proper names claims that to understand a proper name it is important to grasp its sense or intention. The common way of understanding sense or intention is in terms of a descriptive condition. The sense of a name is given by a definite description which is mainly associated with the name. For instance, 'Wittgenstein was a pupil of Russell and also a teacher of Anscombe'. Here 'Wittgenstein' is the name and 'The pupil of Russell and also teacher of Anscombe' are considered as the descriptions. Gareth Evans states that that,

     The Description Theory of what a name denotes holds that
     associated with each name as used by a group of speakers
     who believed and intend that theory are using the name with
     the same denotation, is a description or set of descriptions
     cullable from their beliefs which an item has to satisfy to
     be the bearer of the name.'[1]
On the other hand a causal theory has two different parts through those are associated with each other:

  1. Firstly, a theory of reference fixing, which tells us how a term is associated with its referent.

  2. Secondly, a theory of reference borrowing, mainly a social transmission of a term which has a causal chain linking with the linguistic community. I will discuss this later.

According to the traditional view of natural kind terms, (Description theory) the meaning of a natural kind term is given by specifying a conjunction of its fundamental properties. How can you define a tiger? The answer is so simple: just conjoin all its properties. A tiger has different properties, like striped, four-legged, carnivorous etc. Therefore the conjunction of all this properties is the actual meaning of the term 'tiger'. Now 'the tiger has the property x,y,z' is considered as an analytic truth. Because here the predicate term is contained in the subject. But Putnam challenges this point of view. He argues that this is a wrong idea. The term 'tiger' is not definable by simply conjoining some 'defining characteristics', like striped, four-legged, carnivorous etc. Then one may ask why is it not definable in such a way? Putnam clarifies that a natural kind can have abnormal members. A three legged tiger is still a tiger. Here we can find two different notions: natural kind terms and normal members. We know that a natural kind term has some certain characteristics which indicate the 'essential nature' of this term being mainly shared by its normal members. So a normal member is an individual which is essentially associated with that natural kind term. We may call this 'essential nature' as a 'characteristic' of these natural kind terms.

Putnam proposes that,

     To say that something is a lemon is, on the above
     definition, to say that it belongs to a natural kind whose
     normal members have certain properties; but not to say that
     it necessarily has those properties itself. There are no
     analytic truth of the every lemon has P.[2]
Putnam also suggests that we are never able to define a natural kind term by its 'defining characteristics', because normal members of the term (like, lemon, yellow, peel, tart taste etc.) may not actually be the ones we take to be normal at a given time. What we call 'normal' may change with time and vary under different circumstances. A stripeless white tiger is also a tiger or a blue lemon is also considered as a lemon. That is why Putnam thinks that we need to admit a causal theory of a natural kind terms. I will briefly clarify his view. According to Putnam, the modified definition of the natural kind term 'lemon' will be as follows:

     X is a lemon = df X belongs to a natural kind whose... (as
     before) OR X belongs to a natural kind whose natural
     numbers used to... (as before) OR X belongs to a natural
     kind whose normal members were formally believed to, or are
     now incorrectly believed to... (as before).'[3]
We have already seen that two ideas are significant in a causal theory of reference, the idea of reference fixing and the idea of reference borrowing. In this causal theory we may identify sense of a term with the type of its causal chain. It has a connection with causal network, i.e. social transmission of a name in our linguistic community. Putnam emphasizes this issue in rejecting the description theory. He argues that not only reference fixing but reference borrowing has an important role to play in the context of the definition of a natural kind term. Thus, Putnam extends the causal theory of reference of proper names to natural kind terms.

Madhucchanada Sen in her PhD thesis aptly mentions that,

     What is important for us about Kripke and Putnam's thesis
     about proper names and natural kind terms is that a
     person's having a thought about a natural kind is linked
     with not her mind but rather having some kind of direct
     relation with the natural kind or a sample of it in
     question. And this constitutes their externalism.[4]
I would like to discuss how an important insight that we find in Putnam's 'Twin Earth Thought Experiment' can help us in tackling the main question, 'Do the natural kind terms have wide content?' The most celebrated argument for its truth derives from a thought experiment devised by Putnam. In his famous article 'The Meaning of 'Meaning'', Putnam describes two presuppositions which traditional theories of meaning accept:

  A. Knowing the meaning of a term is just a matter of being in a
      certain psychological state.

  B. The meaning of a term determines its extension.

Putnam wants to clarify that we cannot admit these presuppositions together and we should drop one of them. It is quite true that we cannot relinquish the second presupposition as it will be a refutation of our theory of meaning, as it is necessary to admit on any theory of meaning that the meaning of a term determines its extension.

Here a relevant point remains undiscussed. We first need to take a closer look at this point. Quine emphasizes the principle, 'No entity without identity'.[5] If we are to admit mental states we need to state their identity conditions. For this we need to mention their identity conditions through their content. For instance,

  Arka believes that Ram is an avatar.

  Aban believes that Krishna is an avatar.

We find a difference between their beliefs because the contents of their beliefs are different. J. Kim suggests that 'Content has a lot to do with what is going on in the world, outside the physical boundaries of the subject.'[6] There are thus two types of mental content which we find in our Philosophy of mind.

1. Narrow content

A narrow content is a content of a particular belief which is determined by the individual's internal properties. An internal property is a property that does not depend at all on the individual's environment. We find this idea first in Descartes. After that, the descriptivist like Frege, Russell, also believed that names are actually descriptions in disguise. 'Wittgenstein' is not a proper name, it is the definite description, 'The eccentric pupil of Moore and Russell and the author of Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations'. Russell does not believe that Pegasus, ghost and such abstract entities have any existence and so the terms 'Pegasus' or 'ghost' are descriptions that are not applicable to anything in the world. Thus, the meaning of a mental state is determined by its internal properties. This internal property is understood in terms of the descriptive conditions. Fodor, Segal, J. Searle, Ned Block are the supporters of this view.

2. Broad or wide content

A wide content is a content of a particular belief which is not determined by the individual intrinsic properties. Actually it is determined by individual's relation to his/ her environment. We may call it also relational wide content. Putnam, Burge, Davidson, even now Fodor have become supporters of this view. I would like to discuss how an important insight that we find in Putnam's 'Twin Earth Thought Experiment' can help us in tackling the main question, 'Do the natural kind terms have wide content?'

Putnam asks us to imagine a science fiction scenario where we find a planet like our earth in the galaxy. Let us call it 'twin earth'. Let us also imagine that 'twin earth' and our earth are identical and are inhabited by persons who are molecule for molecule Doppelgangers. In a word they are truly identical. But there is one difference which we may find in Putnam's words:

     One of the peculiarities of Twin Earth is that the liquid
     called 'water' is not H2O but a different liquid whose
     chemical formula is very long and complicated. I shall
     abbreviate this chemical formula simply as xyz.[7]
However, all the observable properties of H2O and XYZ remain the same. Twin water or 'Twater' tastes like water and it quenches thirsts like water. Now Putnam urges us to imagine the period of 1750 when both the inhabitants of earth and twin earth had no knowledge of chemistry and were unable to realize that water and Twater had different chemical constructions. Let us also imagine that Palash is a boy in our earth and he says that 'water quenches thirst' and similarly a twin Palash who is actually molecule for molecule identical with our earthen Palash also says that 'water quenches thirst'. Putnam suggests that although they were in the same psychological state, there words referred to different things. Here by the term 'water' Palash meant H2O while twin-Palash meant XYZ because they learnt the use of the term water in completely different ways: one by an act of ostension to H2O and the other by an act of ostension of XYZ.

So it follows from this experiment that in spite of being in the same psychological state (narrow content) Palash and twin-Palash used the innocent term 'water' which actually meant two different objects. And changes in term (water or Twater) meaning led to a consequent change term's extension and even also create a change in speaker's mental state. So Putnam concludes that 'cut the pie any way you like, 'meaning' just ain't in the head'![8]

I think that this thought experiment also proves Putnam's anti-descriptivist stand point about the theory of reference. He also believes that the meaning of a natural kind term like 'water' is determined by its relational broad content or wide content. So no association of descriptions or internal states of the speaker is adequate for reference success. In this situation, a speaker should have to grasp the socio-linguistic phenomenon that is behind such a reference success. Putnam's idea of, 'Division of linguistic labor', suggests us that,

     It is simply that 'meanings' should be implicitly known (or
     associated with the relevant words and sentences) by every
     speaker who counts as fully competent in the use of
     language. This might be called the constraint of publicity.
     It requires that meaning should be public'.[9]
I also think that here Putnam wants to say that a fully competent speaker has the ability to use his/ her own words aptly and also understand the other's words properly in his/ her own linguistic community. It may depend on his/ her interactions with others in the same community circle of varying interest, capacity and also expertise.

Some remarks

I will now show that how the discussion of Internalism and externalism, or narrow and wide content, relates to the analysis of knowledge. The conception of 'knowing' and of 'making certain' are somehow intertwined. Here making certain means actually making sure that the knowledge of your object is 'caused, true belief'. How is this possible? This is the main place from where internalism and externalism each take their point of departure.

The externalist claims that my present belief is caused by my past beliefs. Even my future beliefs must be causally connected with my present and past beliefs. So there is a causal chain which guides our belief system. If we trace back to the origin of this belief then we will find that there is an 'initial baptism' or 'reference fixing' of a name or natural kind term by some speaker.

But the problem is that sometimes we believe in something without any causal processing. As an example, I believe that tomorrow is the last day of our world. Now the believer of causal theory will reply that, 'No, our beliefs must be reliably grounded as justified true beliefs.' Testimony of the speaker is one of the fundamental criteria of causal theory of our beliefs. But it is not out of danger. Because the conception of justification is to an extent considered as a contingent fact. Here we need to admit degrees of justification. Because in our justification we should admit some relevant alternative or probability to show that there is some probability that my justified belief may be true rather than false.

According to the causal theorist (basically the externalist) reference depends on the whole linguistic community through a casual network. But the internalist claims that justification of our belief is grounded entirely in the intrinsic part of our mind. Reasoning and memory are entirely a matter of internal access. Even the idea of self-knowledge is produced through internal access.

In response to this, the externalist claims that there is no private account of language. Even our self-knowledge is actually knowledge of our environment. Language is a social art. A speaker's knowledge always is trying to make a trade off with his/ her linguistic community. This is because the causal theory is able to give multiple descriptions of our belief term through its external aspect, which is related to the sociolinguistic background. Even the Division of linguistic labour tells us that in a linguistic community there are certain terms used by a community, the associated criteria of application for which are only known to a subset of the community, viz. the experts. The knowledge is actually transmitted to ordinary people from the experts.

Here, I would like to make a reconciliation between these two extremes and say that we should accept the internality in our belief, and externality of our justification.

* I dedicate this paper to my mother who always inspires me to write and think.


1. Gareth Evans, 'The Causal Theory of Names', in his Collected Papers, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 2.

2. Hilary Putnam, 'Is Semantic Possible?' in his Philosophical Papers, Vol.2, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.141

3. ibid, p.143

4. Madhucchanda Sen, 'Externalism and The Mental', Thesis for PhD, Jadavpur University, 2008, p.51.

5. W. V. Quine, 'On what There is', in his From a Logical Point of View, Cambridge ,Mass ,Harvard University Press, 1988, p.

6. J. Kim, Philosophy of Mind, Colorado: West View Press, 1996

7. Hilary Putnam, 'The Meaning of 'Meaning'', in his Philosophical Papers, Vol.2, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.223.

8. ibid, p. 227.

9. Hilary Putnam, 'Meaning Holism', in his Philosophy of W. V. Quine, Ed. By L E. Halen and P. A. Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, Open Court, 1986, p.412.

(c) Sanjit Chakraborty 2012




A Dialogue Exploring the Basis of Causal Reasoning

     'From causes which appear similar we expect similar
     effects. This is the sum of our experimental conclusions.'
     - David Hume
     'The mechanics of the real cause, the true cause, the only
     cause -- I mean 'God' -- is beyond human logic and
     intellect.' - Kedar Joshi
     'Necessity is the mother of causation; invention is merely
     the grandchild' - Raam Gokhale
Scene & Players: At his new apartment in Pune, Ram has invited his friends Kedar and Sushama for a little philosophy. Over tea, they've just finished discussing the quotes with which they'll preface their new dialogue.

Kedar: You know it's bad form to quote yourself.

Ram: It's OK. For the attribution, I'll use my real name instead of the Indianization I've come to use in the dialogues.

Sushama: I've been meaning to ask you: why is the official spelling 'R-A-A-M'?

Ram: Like any cause we want to manipulate, spelling must be devised to produce the desired effect. In America, 'R-A-M' was pronounced like battering ram or random access memory, neither of which was the effect I was going for.

Kedar: I like the way your spelling segue-way leads to the subject we've come to discuss, especially now that the niceties of the tea are over.

Let's stick with the analogy. Picking out say smoking as the cause of lung cancer is like isolating the extra 'a' in 'Raam' as the cause of how your name is pronounced. Just as the cause of a pronunciation is the complete arrangement of letters in the spelling, the peculiarities of a speaker's larynx as well as the phonetic rules that agents follow, so the real cause of lung cancer includes all the physical factors from environmental pollution to heredity to smoking. But even if you assemble all the physical factors, it's logically conceivable that lung cancer won't occur. To make the connection necessary you need an agent with a purpose and a power and that agent is God. Otherwise you only have coordination not causation.

Sushama: Interesting. It sounds a lot like the medieval Muslim philosopher Al Ghazali who, prefiguring Hume, argued that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect, that in any causal relationship, the transition from cause to effect could be impeded by God. I think his example was how asbestos can stop fire from burning.

Ram: I remember Al Ghazali from my graduate school days. I was always puzzled by his example: asbestos just shows that the necessary connection between fire and burning is more complex than we realized. It requires the absence of asbestos. It doesn't show there are no necessary connections.

Sushama: I think Al Ghazali's point was that God could impede any causal chain. If you wear asbestos to keep fire from burning you, God could create some 'fasbestos' to burn you in spite of the asbestos.

Ram: Yes, but even in your modified example, God doesn't really impede causality; he merely creates another instance of it. Another way of stating this is God's works his 'miracles' by means of physical things be it asbestos or 'fasbestos'. It would be different if he simply suspended the relevant causal connection. That would be a true miracle.

Ultimately, Al Ghazali, no doubt a devout Muslim, thinks God is capable of what I've called true miracles. Just his examples suggest that God works within causality instead of turning it on and off like a light switch. He might've thought it more majestic of God to work within the causal order he's created though he's not bound by it. Still it's unclear whether Al Ghazali is denying necessary connections in the real world.

Sushama: You have a similar problem in Hume. Whether you consult the Treatise or the Enquiry, Hume only seems to address the epistemological question, saying we don't observe any necessary connection between cause and effect only constant conjunction. It's an open question what he thought of the metaphysical question, i.e. whether there exist any necessary connections. Perhaps Hume intended to remain agnostic about this question.

Kedar: That's the most philosophical position. If we can't know there are any necessary connections, we have no business asserting or denying them.

Ram: But we should remember: some coordinations are 'more equal' than others. The question is how do we distinguish coordinations like gravity which presumably exist for all time in all places from mere coincidences like hemlines and stock markets. We need a notion of physical necessity. That's why I said necessity is the mother of causation.

Kedar: What's necessary about physical necessity? The only necessity is logical necessity, like the law of excluded middle for example. It's necessary because its negation is inconceivable. The same could not be said about gravity.

Sushama: I think Ram is saying we have two sources when we look for necessity in the real world: logical necessity and physical necessity. If we use Lewis's possible world terminology, logical necessity dictates what obtains in all possible worlds and physical necessity dictates what obtains in an appropriately-sized neighborhood of the actual world, the size depending on how strong is the connection between the particular cause and effect under consideration.

Ram: I am glad you brought up the notion of a strong or not so strong connection between cause and effect. This is clearly how we think and speak about these things. Common sense supports that there are gradations of necessity, not black and white as Kedar would have it -- logical necessity and no necessity.

Kedar: I think common sense is a common muddle -- for example, it also supports the law of excluded middle applying to necessity: things are either necessary or they aren't -- there are no gradations.

And this possible worlds talk which sanctions gradations is just a complicated muddle. If gravity is necessary because it obtains in all 'close' possible worlds, we as philosophers have to ask who has ordered the entire array of possible worlds in this manner. Your only answer is that they are that way. But regularities have to be explained. Order suggests an order-er, or God who is the ultimate cause -- really the only cause in what is otherwise an inert world.

Sushama: Interesting. The pendulum swings between teleological and mechanistic explanations of change are as old as the Greeks with Plato and Aristotle favoring the former while preSocratics like the atomists had favored the latter. Each typically have their own pet examples, teleological theorists regarding an acorn becoming a tree as exemplar of change, mechanical theorists asking us to visualize billiard-ball-like collisions. Each typically has trouble with the other's example, for example, Aristotle's notion of a natural place or end for material objects for an explanation of gravity seems quite tortured today.

Your view uses the Humean point about the unobservability of necessary connections to support a teleological explanation about even billiard balls, the traditional stronghold of mechanistic explanations. Being up-to-date with developments in physics, you probably visualize billiard-ball-like atoms being involved even in the acorn-tree type examples -- just that without God arranging all coordinations be they acorn-tree or billiard balls, you don't believe we have a true explanation of either type of cause. I find your view interesting for that reason alone.

Ram: Yes, madmen are interesting...

Kedar (donning a mad look): Whatever do you mean?

Ram: I was just thinking of what Hamlet says to let the audience know he's not really mad: 'I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.'

Being able to distinguish things, be they hawks and handsaws or for that matter fire and ice is an essential feature of sanity. Kedar, if he's serious about all physical things lacking any causal powers, doesn't know the difference between even fire and ice, since it is in virtue of causal powers that we tell them apart. In general for any two things we know they are different in virtue of the difference they make to us, i.e. in virtue of their causal powers. If you deny that things have causal powers, they are not in themselves different. Our Hamlet here doesn't know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.

Kedar: As usual your reductio doesn't work. I can deny causal powers to fire and ice but still hold that very different events are coordinated with them though uncaused by them. That's how I can distinguish between your hawk and handsaw.

But I should point out, I don't accept that the indistinguishability is absurd. Echoing Kant, I would say we don't know what things are in themselves; they may in fact be the same stuff, differing perhaps in quantity not quality. And numerical differences alone don't imply causal powers.

Leaving out the part about God, my views are quite consonant with physicists like Bohm who also compare the universe to a video game: what you see as causation is merely coordination prearranged by the programmer of the game. Einstein's EPR argument also supports the same conclusion, though he didn't take it as far as I do. If I'm mad I'm in good company -- present company included by the way, since you have to be a little mad to be a philosopher.

Sushama: Thank you for the backhanded compliment but on a historical note I feel obliged to point out Kant's ding an sich seems more motivated by a Berkeleyian skepticism about our inability to get beyond experience. Your 'same stuff' -- you really need a catchier, more Germanic phrase -- can also be motivated as Ram pointed out by your Humean agnosticism about necessary connections. If there's no necessary connection between fire and burning or fire and illumination, we don't know what fire is in itself. It's interesting to see that both roads -- Berkeley and Hume -- lead to the same destination.

Kedar: FYI, my own ding an sich is also motivated by our inability to get beyond experience. But if Hume gets you there too, more power to Hume. All roads eventually lead to the truth if you take them far enough.

Ram: It would be weird if all roads led to this 'Rome'. Sushama, earlier you were saying Indian philosophy has a strain that is skeptical about causation. What road does it take?

Sushama: There is considerable Buddhist literature about causation. For example, Nagarjuna writing around 200 AD is skeptical about causation for reasons reminiscent of Parmenides. He says: a thing can originate neither out of itself nor out of a not-self nor out of both nor out of neither.

If the effect is already existent in its cause, it is already an existing fact requiring no further production; if the effect does not exist in its cause, nothing can produce it, for nothing can produce a hare's horn or a barren woman's son. And if a thing cannot arise out of itself, how can it arise out of not-self? Again, to say that a thing can arise out of itself and not-self is to maintain that light and darkness can remain together. And certainly nothing can arise at random and be uncaused. So Nagarjuna's view is described as non-origination, which perhaps sounds even more radical than Kedar's view.

But there are other strains in Indian philosophy like the effect preexisting in the cause held by the Mimansa, Sankhya and Advaita Vedanta schools. This is in contrast to the view that an effect does not preexist in the cause -- it is a new beginning -- which is held by the Charvaka and Nyaya-vaisheshika schools...

Kedar: Enough history. Earlier I Googled 'causation' and the only remotely philosophical entry I got was a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about probabilistic causation. Did you see it Ram? Is Google championing a particular philosophical position?

Ram: I think Google is a work in progress. When I first Googled 'causation', only the probabilistic causation article appeared. But yesterday, a whole slew of other articles appeared, almost like Google could tell my interest was more than a passing one. Still Google may be recommending the probabilistic causation as the most clickable article. After all, it cites people like Clark Glymour, the notable philosopher of science, as commentator/ contributor.

Sushama: What did the most clickable article say?

Kedar: The central idea of the article was that causes increase the probability of their effects. While this sounds initially plausible, the example they gave was unfortunate. It was the example I gave at the beginning of our discussion, that smoking causes lung cancer. There are no probabilities in this. If we knew all the factors that determined that a smoker would develop lung cancer, the total cause would be a sufficient condition for the effect. They should've given an example from quantum mechanics, though there too I believe probabilities only reflect our ignorance about all the factors. If all the factors were known, the effect would be logically entailed by them.

Ram: Kedar brings up an excellent point. When analyzing the metaphysics of causation we should distinguish between probabilities which reflect our uncertainty and those which reflect a genuine random element in nature as quantum mechanics maintains.

As an aside, we should perhaps call QM's uncertainty principle, the indeterminacy principle. This is because according to the standard interpretation of QM, the probabilities of finding an electron at particular positions given certain momentums don't reflect our ignorance or uncertainty about its location; the probabilities are metaphysical in that all the knowledge in the world won't give you a precise location; in fact the electron has no precise location; it's not merely uncertain -- it is indeterminate.

That aside, in defining causation, we should not use probability in the sense of subjective uncertainty. This is because in doing philosophy our actual knowledge or lack of it isn't a constraint, for look at how far the Greeks, Moslems and Indians got.

Sushama: OK, I won't let my ignorance affect my ability to do philosophy. Where does that lead us?

Ram: To the correct account of causation, of course. My account -- I say my account though it seems so straightforward others must've thought of it -- is motivated by the observation that any causal reasoning, or inductive reasoning for that matter, can be made deductive by adding appropriate implicit premises. No doubt it needs to be cleaned up a little, but let me explain it in broad outline. Let's first consider an example of deterministic causation, that a struck match will light.

We can make the argument deductive by adding initial conditions such as the match isn't wet, it's not coated with asbestos, there is sufficient oxygen, etc. and lastly we would stipulate a law such as 'under these conditions, a match will light'.

In this sense, every determined effect has a total cause in Kedar's sense of being a sufficient condition for the effect, the sufficient condition being a conjunct of all true initial conditions, laws of nature and subsidiary laws necessary to logically entail the effect. Yes I said entail, Kedar -- I'll have more to say about the distinction between logical necessity and physical necessity later.

Now any of the initial conditions maybe identified as the cause of the effect, which conjunct is chosen depending on pragmatic considerations like which occurred last, which was subject to experimenter control, which was a surprise, etc. The cause will then be a necessary condition within that sufficient condition which is the effect's total cause.

Note: there may be other jointly-sufficient conditions which entail the same effect. The real total cause is picked out by which one's initial conditions are true and are spatio-temporally contiguous with the effect.

On this analysis, smoking is a cause of lung cancer not because it increases its probability but because it is a subset of the initial conditions of one sufficient condition for getting lung cancer. Smoking raises the probability of lung cancer but identifying that fact as the criterion of the causal link damns the degree of necessity involved by faint praise. This is because given the appropriate hidden premises the argument from smoking to lung cancer can be made deductive if the effect is determinate.

Sushama: Of course, the effect may not be determinate.

Ram: Sure. In that case, the increase in probability observation captures the right idea. That's the only other alternative if you're committed to the cause making some difference to the truth-value of the effect. I would just say the initial conditions and laws entail that the probability of the effect is higher than without the cause. This is consistent with our account of deterministic causation: we may say the effect always follows the total cause, just that in this case the effect is a higher probability. This gives a clearer exposition of what is meant by probability-raising.

Kedar: Interesting account. I think it addresses all the usual difficulties of regularity theorists such as asymmetry and spurious causation and it seems less ad hoc than the probability theorists' answer to the probability lowering cases.

Sushama: Hold on. Presumably this is from the probabilistic causation article which I have yet to read. Someone will have to bring me up to speed on asymmetry, spurious causation and probability lowering cases.

Ram: Sure. Regularity theorists have to be able to deal with the fact that if causes and effects are simple correlations, why don't we regard effects as causes and vice versa. Regularity theorists typically stipulate that causes precede their effects temporally. But it's desirable to have some explanation of this rather than merely stipulate it. Probability theorists have an explanation which I won't go into. But I think my account explains the asymmetry better: causality is asymmetrical because laws of nature typically distinguish between antecedent conditions and consequent conditions.

And spurious causation is when regularities are explained by a common cause. The standard example is the drop in the mercury column in a barometer is not a cause of a storm though it may be perfectly correlated with that. My account rules out such cases since there is no law of nature with barometer mercury dropping as an initial condition and a storm as the effect entailed -- though that the two are correlated is a true statement. This is considerably simpler than the 'screening-off' approach that Reichenbach has suggested.

In both cases, regularity theorists have problems that probabilistic theories of causation solve. I just think my account solves them better.

Sushama: What about probability lowering cases? Can a cause actually lower the probability of its effect?

Ram: As unlikely as that sounds, an example can be given. For example, suppose it's Thanksgiving and you're either going to your paternal grandmother's house for turkey or maternal. The probability of catching a cold from the relatives at your paternal grandma's house is .8. At your maternal, it's .9. If your going to either is 50/50, then the prior probability of your getting sick was .85 which is higher than the .8 probability of getting sick if you go to your paternal grandma's house. But if you go to your paternal grandma's house and get sick, we would certainly say that going there made you sick even though it lowered the probability.

Probabilistic causation theorists would say that the probability of getting sick increased (from ,8 to .85) along one of the routes connecting the two events. But I would say this talk of routes is highly suggestive of our account of total cause as a sufficient condition among possibly other sufficient conditions. Why not stick with an account that jibes with our intuition that causal reasoning could be made deductive with the addition of implicit premises?

Kedar: I would agree with your account, only substituting something like the program of the universe for laws of nature. The program idea makes it clear that the ultimate source of necessity is the Programmer who has made the program or the laws what they are.

But I must say I'm surprised at your account, since earlier you made the dubious distinction between physical necessity and logical necessity. Now you're saying the total cause entails the effect. Are you admitting that if something is logically unnecessary it is physically unnecessary?

Ram: Not at all. Physical necessity -- like an apple falling when released close to the earth -- means 'entailed by the laws of the actual universe'. Logical necessity means 'entailed in all possible universes' -- like 2+2=4.

Sushama: I get the distinction but wouldn't Kedar be right to point out that the necessity in both cases is due to logical entailment?

Ram: That an apple will fall is not a logical truth as is 2+2=4. That it is entailed by the law of gravity is a logical truth. In general a cause and effect relation entailed by laws of nature is physically necessary though logically unnecessary because the laws themselves are logically unnecessary. What is logically necessary is that the logically unnecessary laws entail the cause and effect relationship. What makes their consequences physically necessary is that the laws obtain in our universe for all time.

Sushama: On your view things are either logically necessary or physically necessary or not necessary in either sense. I think Kedar would say that there is nothing which is neither entailed by the laws of logic nor the laws of the universe; it's a determinate world on his view -- it just sometimes appears to have a random element because we're ignorant of all the factors.

But necessity needs something which is not necessary to be distinguished from. If as Kedar would have it, there is no metaphysical randomness, isn't there only the logically necessary and the unnecessary?

Ram: I think any theory of causation should allow for the possibility of randomness existing in the real world, especially since our best theories to date seem to assert it. Once you recognize that there is the logically necessary and the possibly random, you have to allow that there are things which are necessary in the sense that the laws of nature entail them. They are necessary because the laws of nature can't be changed.

Kedar: The laws or the program can be changed. Because we may be unable to change them, they may remain the same for all time. That doesn't make them necessary however.

Ram: Even if laws of nature can be changed, it would've been a law of nature all along that it could've been changed in that way. Then that truth would be physically necessary. The possibility of changing a particular law of nature doesn't remove all traces of physical necessity; it just creates an alternative instance of it. It's just like Al Ghazali's asbestos.

Kedar: That's where the program idea is most suggestive. The programmer can effect changes without some asbestos or fasbestos -- he can merely change the code. The struck match may not light even if you put in the kitchen sink full of initial conditions and laws as premises.

Ram: You're forgetting I can add as a premise that the laws of nature are not now being changed by the programmer. Then striking causes the match to light because it is a necessary component of a particular way of lighting it, the way being a deductively sufficient condition for lighting it.

Sushama: Hold on. I'm still unclear about the source or force of the physical necessity. Is it ultimately due to logical necessity?

Ram: Our formulations of the laws of nature are justified by the fact that they entail the cause and effect relationships we accept as necessary. So the cause and effect relationships are necessary in a more primary sense as far as we're concerned.

The situation is analogous with legal laws. Murder is not wrong because the laws say so or entail it. Rather the laws are formulated to express our feeling that murder is wrong. Once the laws are formulated we can speak of a difference between the legally wrong -- which means entailed by the legal laws -- and the morally wrong. Just so we can speak of the logical necessity of the laws of nature entailing a cause and effect relationship and the physical necessity of the causal relationship itself which is mirrored in the logical relationship but is not identical to it.

Sushama: Interesting analogy, but there is one crucial difference: when legal laws forbid something there is a penalty for transgression; when laws of nature forbid something there is no possibility of transgression. I think you made this observation on the Pune Journal of Philosophy Facebook page. If I may quote: 'The laws of nature require no enforcement agent. There's no cop waiting to give you a speeding ticket if you go faster than the speed of light.' I love that one.

Paradoxically, necessity reveals itself just where it isn't absolute, in the person of the cop for example. Where it is absolute, we're left only with constant conjunction.

Ram: Wouldn't it be funny if in all instances of causation, we saw a little phantom policeman connecting the cause and effect. Hmm... that suggests another argument against Hume. Hume points out that we observe no necessary connection between cause and effect only constant conjunction, but what would it be to observe a necessary connection?

To take it more seriously than the phantom policeman, imagine that we see a blue light between cause and effect which is supposed to be the necessity we observe. Why shouldn't we consider the light another effect of the cause, requiring an additional blue light and so on ad infinitum? If necessity is something that can be observed, it would be another effect of the cause requiring another observation of necessity. This shows that the demand to see a necessary connection between cause and effect is misguided.

Nature doesn't need to show us that cause and effect are necessarily connected, or rather it does show it in the most parsimonious way possible: by having the effect invariably follow the total cause in the case of deterministic causation and the probability of the effect invariably increasing following the total cause in the case of probabilistic causation.

Kedar: Cute. It must feel nice to have framed your own infinite regress argument. But if we saw a blue light in all cases of causation, we wouldn't think it was an effect of any particular cause so an regress needn't commence. Observing it in general, we could take it as an indication of necessity so the demand to see a necessary connection is not misguided.

Sushama: Oh come on, Kedar... this is as good an infinite regress argument as any. Personally, from Plato's Third Man argument onward, I've never found such arguments very persuasive. But Ram only needs to show the demand to see necessary connections itself isn't necessary and this, given his 'parsimoniousness of nature' point, I think he's adequately done -- after all, parsimony weighs against even one flash of light.

Kedar: Hume's point still stands. We either observe necessity or we intuit it. Your infinite regress argument may show we shouldn't expect to observe it. That leaves only intuition. Hume would say if we search our intuition, we would only find two sources of necessity: logic and the cumulative weight of experience or habit; and since the connection between cause and effect cannot be logical, the necessity we feel must be due to the force of habit.

Ram and I agree that the connection between total cause and its effect is logical. Ram says the logic is chosen to mirror an inanimate metaphysical necessity -- i.e. 'things' have powers. I would say it reflects the intentions of the programmer. The difference is on Ram's view it's a total mystery how things have causal powers. Since on my view it is only the agents that have powers -- even we may have the power to write the code someday -- there is no such mystery.

Ram: There is a mysterious aspect of your view: how is it that the code, or language, affects reality rather than merely mirror it.

Kedar: The code doesn't affect reality it is the reality. The rest is mere appearance.

Ram: OK, I'll stick with your game analogy. The code by itself is powerless without the hardware. Things do have powers if only to produce what you call appearances.

Moreover on your view there is the added mystery of how non-material agents can affect material things. This has traditionally been a problem for dualist philosophers of mind but I don't see how for you it's not a problem for God.

Kedar: Well I said at the outset, God is beyond human logic or intellect.


Sushama: After our 'Are We Three?' philosophy of mind dialogue, I think I can intuit when you two have reached an impasse. I say let's get back to the account of causation Ram developed.

A lot hinges on the laws of nature which are the hidden premises in the deductive argument. Aren't laws of nature themselves a subject for extended philosophical discussion and therefore shouldn't be presumed in developing an account of causation?

Ram: You're right to point out that laws of nature generate their own philosophical controversies. But clearly such laws should play a role in any account of causation -- don't we think they do? In fact I think it's a lacuna of the probabilistic theory of causation that it doesn't directly refer to them. Moreover, Kedar and I haven't really left you hanging: we deal with laws of nature extensively in our 'Just-if-ication' dialogue which you can look up when you get home.

Kedar: And don't forget: that dialogue also deals with the issue of a justification for induction which is another huge topic. That's the problem with philosophy: very few problems are standalone. I know when Ram and I argue it's often a tangled mess of related issues. I swear, we've talked necessity to death from the first dialogue, 'Slumdog Philosopher' onward.

Ram: Yes Sushama, you've formed a necessary buffer between us for this our causation conversation. I may say you -- as are we all -- necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for this conversation to turn into 'dialogue'. So much for causes -- we just seem to be missing the law of nature.

Kedar: No we have a law of nature: three philosophers can't get together for tea without writing a dialogue.

(They laugh and leave off philosophy for the remaining duration.)

(c) Raam Gokhale 2012


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020