Incompleteness in knowledge and existence

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.

The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. The idea is that both thinkers would say we can’t understand the world just in terms of the set of entities that normally appears to us (like people and trees). Unless we either add God to the picture (ibn Sīnā) or remove the self from it (Śāntideva), we misinterpret everything else. That’s the thrust of the MacIntyre quote that the post had centred around: adding God to the world is not just a +1 to the set of entities, and removing the self is not just a -1. The presence or absence of God or self changes the nature of everything else.

That is to say that the “incompleteness” that the Muslim and the Buddhist can agree on is an epistemological incompleteness. MacIntyre’s original quote noted: “theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible…” (emphasis added this time) A world without God, for ibn Sīnā, cannot be adequately understood; it is incomplete in the sense that our knowledge of the entities in the world has a fatal gap, until we add God to make sense of them. Śāntideva – and other Buddhists including Aśvaghoṣa and Dharmakīrti – would say the same about a world with selves. Our knowledge of the world has a fatal gap until we remove the confusion that is the self. It is not just that by positing selves in the world we add one illusory kind of thing that isn’t there (as if we had posited unicorns). It is that by positing those selves we misunderstand the nature of everything else, as ibn Sīnā would say we do if we don’t allow God as an explanation.

But there is also a big difference between the two, one which I wasn’t seeing last time because of the ambiguity in the word “incompleteness”. Śāntideva and ibn Sīnā would not agree on ontological incompleteness – that is, the idea that things themselves, and not merely our knowledge of them, actually are incomplete. For I say that for Buddhists “all of those things [in the world] are indeed taken to be radically incomplete, lacking.” And that is a point on which ibn Sīnā would disagree and disagree strongly. The things of the world would be lacking, radically incomplete, if there were no God. Such a world, I believe, is described well by the existentialists. But of course as far as ibn Sīnā is concerned there is a God, and for that reason the things of the world are not actually lacking or radically incomplete at all. It is only our understanding of them that is incomplete, insofar as we miss the presence of God.

Buddhist views are very different. For Buddhists, unlike for Muslims (or other monotheists), there is a fundamental lack in all the things of the world. They are impermanent, essenceless (which is to say not-self) and unsatisfactory, anitya, anātman, duḥkha. To the extent that there is a lack in the things for ibn Sīnā, it is that they are incomplete without God; they require God to be complete. But – this is the key point I missed – they have God! God exists, for ibn Sīnā, and therefore we can see that things actually are complete if we understand them correctly – they all point beyond themselves to the ultimate truth that is God.

Buddhists, like existentialists, have no God – early and Madhyamaka Buddhists, at any rate. They do often tend to relate to godlike beings, such as the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, but in monotheistic terms these beings are more like angels or even saints than gods; they did not create the world, they do not underlie it. The world itself has no omnibenevolent creator making it, no fundamental goodness and order underlying it. There is karma, but while karma responds to goodness and badness, it is not itself good or bad, it is simply there, as gravity is there. (That is referring to gravity as an atheist would understand it; for ibn Sīnā gravity would need to be fundamentally good, because God created it.) On an early Buddhist understanding, karma is itself something we’re trying to get out of; an arhat, a perfected person, is no longer subject to it.

In short, for Śāntideva, the world actually is incomplete and lacking, and we misunderstand it if we don’t see this lack – a lack at least partially expressed in the notion of non-self. For ibn Sīnā it’s just that the world would be incomplete without God. But since he takes God to exist, for him the world is complete; it is as it should be. The similarity between the two is that we don’t adequately understand the world, it is incomplete in intelligibility, without the key idea of God or non-self.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

2 thoughts on “Incompleteness in knowledge and existence

  1. It would seem that the voices of Protagoras, Democritus, then Epicurus pose a comparable conversation when contact with the Vedic cultural east of Persia is admitted. First that Protagoras needs to be admitted as other than the relativist that the nominal imperial the west has assigned. In place of ‘Man is the measure all things, of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not,’ with a small correction in favor of dropping the imputed “…things..” in the first clause so that the translation begins with “Man is the measure of All, of things that are, that they are; of things that they are not. The perspective and context shifts toward acknowledging Brahma as the divine All. The recursive materialist subtext fades. Plato as a primary example is frequently mistaken to be a historian of western philosophy though he is more aptly described as a playwright of philosophies. Further the west versus east narrative echoes in an imperious fashion still among the ivied west without pause. Democritus’s (and Vico’s) naming of the metaphysical “conceits” opens completeness to include Paramaparusha and related principles of divinity in their incompletion. Also, in the sharing of a common bardic culture in the heroic tales of the Illiad and Trojan wars which stand in resonance with the Mahabharata as teaching from the tales of incompleteness. The demonstration favoring conceits, then indicates a different variety of completeness beyond cultural conceits. Heredotus’s histories has a passage where he asks a Phoenician where they originated from and his recorded response was “from the Erythean (red) Sea.” The conceits of completion serve to narrow history as well. The tectonic events which reduced the Sarasvati to a stream ending in a desert widens the framing of long held conceits. Ionian Athens was destroyed with the intention to erase the legacy of the migration into the region, which can also serve as a conduit for commerce among displaced communities as emporia. Intelligibility seems to be a relative state. Naming Protagoras as a “sophist” only indicates his success as a teacher of the arts of public speaking, as well as a partisan framing, if not also a xenophobia. Completeness can only stand as a comparative, and often in itself as a conceit.

  2. Knowledge and Existence. And Incompleteness thereof. This is the topic the author has presented. I am attempting to present Dvaita point of view. Knowledge of God is always incomplete. Knowledge
    of jeeva or persons is incomplete as one does not know his past or future lives. Knowledge of jada or insentinents is incomplete as the
    movement of jadas stands checkmated by the presence of two forms
    of God in each jada, which are beyond the scope of man. Existence
    of person is due to Prana demigod who cannot be controlled. Existence of person as a living entity is unfathomable due to its
    unpredictability. Existence of jadas is the same as knowledge of jadas discussed above. Existence of God can be known through Vedas only. Completeness or Purnatva is attributable only to God
    Vishnu

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