There is no such thing as truth.

Now, tell me if you think there is a problem with that statement. Or what about this one,

You can never know anything for sure.

I don’t know about you but I sure have heard such, if not similar, statements before. The problem with these statements is that they are self-refuting. So if someone tells me, there is no such thing as truth, and if I am using my brains at all, I’d say…….what, including this truth statement about truths? You see what I mean?

As you know from my earlier post, I just came back from visiting my parents. The night before I left, I browsed through my father’s modest library to see what I could find. There were stuff on politics and history but the majority were books on religion and spirituality. I spotted two intimidating volume, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha and Tibetan Book of The Living and Dying. Sorry… too deep for me. I mean, if you’ve ever read any Buddhist materials, you’d know how frustratingly confusing and difficult it is to comprehend the teachings. If you’re the Buddhism for Dummies sort, it might work for you but try going deeper and you’ll know what I mean. Or maybe I’m just not enlightened enough. In the end, I settled for an easier to digest but nevertheless concise volume written with the lay person in mind and two copies of my father’s personal spiritual notes. Well you know what, I’ve just finished that book and I tell you, I am not any less confused. The book I am referring to by the way is What Buddhist Believe by K. Sri Dhammananda.

There were a lot of hanging questions on many of the major doctrines. My intelligence must be sub-normal. Then I started learning about self-refuting statements and realize that there are other learned people out there who feel the same. Their critique is not necessarily on Buddhist thoughts but rather on systems of thought that are self-refuting. It so happens that I discovered quite a few of them in my reading of the book.

Here is a little lesson from Glenn Miller of A Christian Thinktank about self-refuting (stultifying) statements.

Let’s Start with Breakfast…
Imagine the following comical scenario.

A fellow Earthman runs up to you, with glazed and feverish eyes, and proceeds to explain how he has discovered a fundamental and absolute truth about himself. When you ask him to tell you this awesome truth, he blurts out this: “The fundamental truth is that I cannot pronounce or write the word ‘breakfast’!” You are not sure you heard him correctly, and so you ask him to write the truth down on a sheet of paper. He then writes legibly on the sheet: “I cannot pronounce or write the word ‘breakfast’.”

There is something obviously wrong here (other than the fact that the guy’s elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor!) and what the obvious wrong is is clear–the speaker contradicted himself in the process of speaking. He rendered his ‘truth’ ineffective–he stultified himself.

This is a special case of reductio ad absurdum — but the absurdity was that “what he said” (the words, pronunciation, the speech act itself) contradicted the “what he said” (the content, the intention, the meaning).

Now let’s generalize this type of argument.

The Nature of Self-Stultifying Statements
A self-stultifying statement is a statement that contradicts:

  1. itself;
  2. the case it advances as proof (if any);
  3. the presuppositions inherent in the subject matter being discussed;
  4. the presuppositions inherent in the speech act.

Let’s illustrate these cases with a simple example.

  • Case 1: Contradicting itself (“Even though a horse is black, it is not black.”)
  • Case 2: Contradicting the proof (“This black horse is not black”)
  • Case 3: Contradicting the subject matter (“This horse is black half of the time”–horses don’t change color often.)
  • Case 4: Contradicting the speech act (“I am a black horse”–semantic acts, of the English variety at least, are not performed by horses.)

Cases 1 and 2 do not occur very often, and Case 3 often produces “standard” reductio ad absurdum refutations. Case 4, however, is not as obvious (except with the guy who couldn’t say ‘breakfast’). Case 4 requires ‘unpacking’ of the presuppositions in speaking or discourse or language or communication, to see if what is being said (explicitly in the statement) is contradicting what is being said (implicitly in the presuppositions).

One last example before we turn to history for a moment.

Try “All sentences are meaningless.” The obvious question to ask here is “including this one?” The statement (no meaning) contradicts the presupposition (sentences are adequate vehicles for meaning). The position is self-stultifying. It cannot be even stated without contradicting itself–it ‘pulls the rug out from under itself.’ This contradiction will necessarily arise from this statement, and the obvious thing learned is that it is impossible to deny that ‘some sentences are meaningful.’ This is the value of looking for self-stultifying arguments — we find undeniable truths or absolutes. We may not be able to produce an air-tight proof for the position, but the fact that they cannot be denied at all can be seen as such a proof.

This is a clear example of Type #4 (contradicting the presuppositions in the speech act). Speakers normally presuppose that their utterances convey meaning (we will explore this more when we get to Zen) before they ‘go around uttering them.’

Self-Stultification and Critical Thinking
The point of developing the ability to detect self-stultifying arguments is to be able to construct Aristotle’s ‘negative demonstrations’ of truth-claims. If an epistemological position (or political or semantic or whatever position) can be shown to be self-stultifying, then it cannot be even advanced for serious consideration. We can then proceed to draw the implications of this inability as a ‘negatively demonstrated’ absolute. This will not help us at all in verifying or falsifying any position which passes this test, of course, but as we shall see, it will narrow the field considerably, if we use it correctly.
What this amounts to is the ability to stop an argument before it launches and to draw conclusions (negative demonstrations) from that ‘stopping.’ What we end up with are absolutes–in the sense of undeniables, not ultimates–in human language!

Practice Test One (or “Fun with Sentences”) Let’s examine several examples to see this work out in various forms.

 No Truth: “There is no such thing as truth.” Then, obviously, this sentence is not true, and therefore, there really might be something like truth. You should recognize this as a slight variation of the Liar’s Paradox, akin to “all sentences are false.” (This assumes that the statement is not about truth as having some type of ontological/physical/metaphysical existence; in which case our approach does not generally apply.) Implication: It is undeniable that some sentences are true.

No Certainty: “You can never know anything for sure.” Does the speaker know that for sure? If he does, then it is self-stultifying. If the speaker doesn’t know it for sure, then maybe some things can be known for sure. Implication: It is undeniable that some things can be known for sure–certainty is possible.

Sentences and Reality: “Sentences never describe reality, only the speaker’s mental states.” When we turn this back on itself, the question is obvious: does that sentence say anything at all about sentences or is it only about the speaker’s state of mind?! (You should be able to see the pattern emerging by now: any sentence saying something about all sentences is saying something about itself.) Implication: .It is undeniable that sentences can describe reality.

Generalizations: “All generalizations are false.” As a sentence of the “all X are…” form, this is itself clearly a generalization. And…we net out with a lair’s paradox.

So how is Buddhist thought guilty of this? That, I am afraid, will have to be for another time, if I do get around to it at all. It will be a time consuming endeavor to go through the book again to pick out and expose what I think are self-refuting reasoning and statements. Furthermore, I am in no way qualified, being neither an expert in Buddhism (though my whole family were brought up as Buddhist) nor Epistemology. If I do decide to take this on, it will only be from a lay person’s perspective, presented in small doses, as and when I feel the need to write about them. But since I have come this far, I feel I should at least attempt to expose one contradiction.

According to Dhamananda…
What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exists. [Note: He is not speaking of material things alone but thoughts, emotions, spirit, ideas, as well as words (which convey meaning and purpose) because they are all dependant on conditions which are always changing]  Every written word [including that statement], every carved stone, every painted picture, the structure of civilization, every generation of man, vanishes away like the leaves and flowers of forgotten summers. All is changeable, continuous transformation, ceaseless mutation, and a moving stream. Everything exists from moment to moment. Nothing on earth partakes of the character of absolute reality. That there will be no death of what is born is impossible. Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to destruction. Matter and spirit are false abstraction that, in reality, are only changing factors which are connected and which arise in functional dependance on each other. ( extracted from pg 85-87, What Buddhist Believe)

The Buddha’s teaching is the Ultimate Truth of the world [this is also a sentence made up of words]. (pg 56, What Buddhist Believe)

Applying this logic, firstly all the above statements are changeable, therefore they are meaningless or unreliable at best. Secondly, since the Buddha exists, he together with his truth (a result of self-realization, not devine revelation) are changeable. Implication: Why should we give weight to anything or anyone who is changeable? Buddhist might argue that the Buddha is not considered being in the same realm as human beings since having achieved a permanent state of nibanna (even though they could not say what nibanna really is, they can only say what it is not). But surely they won’t deny that it was in the realm of earthly, and therefore, conditioned existence that the Buddha first began the journey towards enlightenment, therefore he is also subject to the conditions that supported his final conclusion about ultimate reality. Let’s go a little further, Imagine if Buddha had lived during Jesus’ time and they both happen to meet and Jesus shared with Buddha all those things about God and the prophets etc, or if Buddha was born a Jew in Moses’ time and therefore a witness of God’s intervention on earth, do you think Buddha might have come to a different conclusion? But the Buddhist might say, that was exactly why the Buddha withdraw himself from all conditioned experiences so that he will be unbiased in his judgement. But any judgement made from that position is already a biased one based on the condition of detachment. Suppose your neighbor withdraws into a cave to mediate on the reality of the universe and announced a few years later that he has discovered the truth about the universe. Now would you call it the great enlightenment or the great delusion? What I am trying to say is that a person living under the same limitations of space and time [which the Buddha was] cannot presume to know he/she knows the truth about the universe, especially so if they have removed themself from the daily realities of life. Even if God were to appear in front of him he’d say that it’s just an illusion because he is operating from a position of detachment, therefore it still is a biased judgement. Implication: It is possible that some things do exists which are not subject to change.

What I find most frustrating is a dismissive attitude towards people who can’t understand the teachings. They either say you’re just posing a question for the sake of splitting hairs or the questions themselves were wrongly put or you’re not in the position to understand the answer because of it’s profundity. (pg 34-35, What Buddhist Believe) Now, isn’t that a convenient way to get away with it? Well what if I say that the Buddha cannot grasp the concept of God because he is not in the position to understand it’s profundity, which implies that the Buddha was not as enlightened as claimed to be after all? Will the Buddhist accept that? No, but they’ll tell you that you do not have to accept their teachings. The Buddha expressly discouraged His followers from accepting anything they heard (even if it comes from Himself) without first testing it’s validity. ( pg 279, What Buddhist Believe) Which is what we are trying to do here. The Buddha’s teaching on kamma, non-self, salvation through self-effort and even Godlessness should be put to the test as well. But how do we test them for validity? I have included a little help below.

Now you see why this can be a time consuming endeavor. While I ponder over weather I should venture further into this, I would suggest that you read up on Glenn Miller’s very helpful essay on self-stultifying statements and another on how to decide between conflicting revelations (of truth). They help train and guide the mind to think critically in a multiple choice world.

Good luck! I need to take a much needed break now.


You may also read about my father’s spiritual journey here.