Restarting the Middle Way

Back after a ten day break. This new avatar has weekly rather than daily updates - the topic is too weighty for a daily barrage.


Human beings are hardwired to ask ‘axial questions,’ i.e., questions that probe the foundations of our existence. I can think of four questions that all of us ask in one form or another:

  1. What's out there?

  2. Why does it make any sense?

  3. Who am I?

  4. How should I live?

These questions cut across cultures and disciplines. For example, the Guru Granth Sahib starts with the phrase ‘Ek Onkar Satnam,’ pointing to a single creator of whom we are all emanations. He’s the one being who truly exists, so that all our existences are dependent on his. An obvious metaphysical question arises:

How can the existence of B depend on the existence of A? Isn’t existence the one thing that is self-guaranteed and independent of other existences?

A simple answer: If B is caused by A, then B owes its existence to A.

But if God is the only existent, then he can't be my cause for then he and I would be two existents, not one. So how does derived existence work? I am not going to attempt an answer here, and instead note that:

  1. Madhyamika (and Nagarjuna) offer a theory of how existence is co-dependent rather than independent.

  2. Faith leads naturally to philosophy.

In the Sikh tradition and many other faith traditions, the divine being simultaneously reveals what's out there, why it makes sense, what’s my human destiny within that revelation and how I should live in accordance with that destiny.

That’s one way to package all of reality. The deepest stratum of reality - especially supernatural reality - is often what we mean by the term ‘metaphysics.’ It’s related to the technical meaning, for the philosophical discipline of that name also seeks ultimate explanations, but the metaphysical impulse is strong and precedes rigor and discipline. Put another way, the spectrum of everyday meanings is very broad. Consider this screenshot from Biblio:

Numerology and palmistry are beyond my pay grade, but the variety on display is pretty impressive isn't it? I want to occupy the twilight zone between a) the metaphysical bazaar above, with sellers displaying occult remedies and logical treatises side by side and b) the church of reason of which Kant and Nagarjuna are major deities. The twilight zone offers freedoms as well as dangers that excite me, and the church needs some competition, if only from other churches - so that Nagarjuna’s articulation of reason is a counterpoint to Kant’s.

Equally importantly, I believe as Kant did, that metaphysics is the queen of the sciences. Unlike physics, whose founding ideas permeate modern culture, the basic intuitions of metaphysics don’t find a place in our schooling. When I open an undergraduate textbook on metaphysics (there are none for high school students), I don’t see anything that would excite a generally curious person - they are far from ambassadors of the queen.

Kant and Aristotle and Nagarjuna are scientists of the axial questions, and their inquiries - if appropriately conveyed - are of great interest to all of us. Inviting the queen to the street forces us to think clearly - it’s a struggle to explain thinkers such as Kant and Nagarjuna in everyday language, but in doing so, we will learn to think clearly about subtle topics. But most importantly, it’s only when we understand them in the simplest possible manner that we can go beyond them.

What does it mean for one thing to owe its existence to another?

The ‘first science’ is one we should all learn, no less so than algebra or world history.