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Buddha Dhamma -
Methaphysical and Ethical Arguments

By Late Professor K. N. Jayatilleke Ph. D. (Cantab) - Courtesy Vesak Lipi

The Buddhist view on this matter is both relevant and interesting. Our desire influence or condition our belief, to which we tenaciously cling (tapha paccaya dithupadanam) but this does not necessarily mean that, these beliefs are always false for when they happen to be 'right beliefs' (samma ditthi), they are in fact true.

So although desires affect our beliefs, this fact has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the beliefs. We have, however, because of our emotional involvement with these beliefs to weigh the evidence for against their truth or falsity without prejudice. As Buddhists, we have to examine the truth even of the belief in rebirth objectively without being prejudiced for (chanda) or against (dosa) or being affected by fear (bhaya) even if it be the fear of the beyond or being guided by our erroneous beliefs (moha). So the desire to believe or not to believe does not affect the truth or falsity of the belief but we have to guard against the prejudice resulting from the desire in our quest for truth.

Authority And Revelation
Another set of arguments for survival are based on authority. It may be stated that many poets and mystics as well as rational thinkers brought up in a tradition which condemned the belief, nevertheless, professed it.

The classic case is that of Giordano Bruno, who is said to have stated in his profession of faith before the Inquisition: 'I have held and hold souls to be immortal speaking as a Catholic, they do not pass from body to body, but go to Paradise, Purgatory or Hell. But I have reasoned deeply, and, speaking as a philosopher, since the soul is not found without body and yet is not body, it may be in one body or in another, and pass from body to body. This, if it be not (proved) true seems at least, likely.' (See, REINCARNATION an East-West Anthology, Ed. J. Head & S. L. Cranston, New York, 1961). Over two hundred and fifty well-known poets, philosophers and writers of the Western world have either held or professed some sort of belief in rebirth.

All that this seems to suggest is that the belief is worth examining and it does not in any way imply the truth of the belief.

The argument from revelation is also unacceptable to science and Buddhism. It is true that certain texts in the Vedic tradition, particularly the middle and late Upanishads profess a belief in rebirth but there is a variety of views on the subject of survival in the Vedic tradition, itself. In one of the early Upanishads rebirth is denied. It is said: 'there are these three worlds, the world of men, the world of departed spirits and the world of the gods. The world of men is obtained through a son only, not by any other means' (Bvhad Aranayaka Upanisad, 1.5, 15). While there are these contradictions within the revelational traditions, the different theistic revelations also contradict each other on the problem of survival. So the doctrine of rebirth cannot be established by an argument from authority or revelation, since authority and revelation are not acceptable means of knowledge.

Methaphysical And Ethical Arguments
The metaphysical (theoritical) arguments are no better. Apart from the fact that they make use of unverifiable concept like 'soul', the arguments are of doubtful value and are generally discredited today. One of the traditional arguments for survival has been that the 'soul is a substance, substances are indestructible, therefore the soul is indestructible, ie. Immortal.' But apart from the difficulty of the concept of a 'soul', the notion of an indestructible substance is discredited today.

With regard to rebirth, we have already met with a sample of such a metaphysical argument in that of Giordano Bruno. Such arguments, based on pure reasoning intended to prove the truth of rebirth are to be met with, for example, in a work by Professor John Me Taggart (Philosophy) of Cambridge, called 'Some Dogmas of Religion' (Ch.IV). But they have little appeal today since it is recognized that matters of fact cannot be proved by pure reasoning (takka) as the Buddha himself pointed out (Ma takka hetu).



The ethical argument has a greater appeal, but this is so only for those who accept its presuppositions. According to the Buddha, karma was one of the predominant factors responsible for human inequalities. This has often been represented as embodying the following rational ethical argument consisting of an empirical and ethical premiss viz.

¦people are of unequal status, those of unequal status ought to be such by virtue of their own actions - therefore, since this is not due to their actions in this life, it should be due to their actions in prior lives. This means that both pre-existence and karma are the case.This is an argument that has appealed to many thinkers down the ages, but most modern thinkers would not accept the second ethical premises namely that 'those of unequal status ought to be such by virtue of their own actions.' This is because most people believe today that the universe or nature is a moral and there is no ethical reason why anything should or should not be so. On the other hand, many hold that ethical statements are neither true or false. It is nevertheless a fact that many people brought up in a belief in the inherent justice of nature ask questions of the form, 'why should so and so be born healthy while I am in a state of ill-health from birth etc. >

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