Notes from BPU Sri Lanka - Third Year

Rationalism - Introduction - 11th of February, 2011 

  • The real meaning of 'philosophy' is the study of being or mind. Buddhism teaches about previous, present and future life. Christianity teaches only the present and future life, and what was before life is God. Christianity believes, that after death one can go to heaven. Thus religions teach about life. Buddhism teaches especially about previous lives – what happens now is related to what we have done in the past – thus present and past lives are connected. In Christianity it is not so, there is no acceptance of past life.
  • Rationalism believes, that experience that we get through our senses is incorrect. The way to get correct knowledge is thinking, rationalism. Like with a crane – one time crane stands on one leg, but it can stand on two legs as well – one may wonder which one is true and which one is false. However, we have to accept both as correct.
  • In medieval West the philosophers believed that what cannot be explained by wisdom or evidence can be proved by existence of God – thus a 'God concept' was used. However, there was hidden knowledge, truth (sacca). When there is no possibility to believe a truth, it can be called 'hidden knowledge'.
  • In the Buddha's time people believed, that world arose from 'asat' (non-existence). But the question was how an existing world can appear from non-existence (asat). Thus from asat (non-existence) had to arise sat (existence). However, sat should arise from sat. People who tried to argue this way can be called 'takkivīmasī', 'those who are arguing and questioning'.
  • In the Buddha's time also some people believed, that after death one is extinguished into non-existence, while others believed that one would be reborn according to God.
  • Buddhism cannot be accepted as a rationalistic view, because Buddhism accepts knowledge that comes through five senses (which is not accepted by Rationalism).

The word rationalism has come into English language from Latin word 'ratio', which means 'reason'. Rationalism is based on reasoning. In Pāli text this meaning is given as takkivīmasī. Traditionalists (anusāvakā) and rationalist (takkivīmasī) were means of knowledge that were mentioned in Kālāma Sutta in the Buddha's time. Sīgalovāda Sutta mentioned that householder Sīgala was venerating six-directions/sites every day in the morning. For that, what he learned from the tradition?

In western philosophy, rational thinking is very popular among philosophers. In Greek period, Plato and Aristotle were rationalists and they were mathematicians also (though Socrates was also a famous philosopher from that time, he was not a rationalist). Mathematics is based on logical reason. In maths everything is based on examining – thus they emphasize that the only way to get correct knowledge in rational thinking. Rationalist philosophers can be classified under two major groups:
  1. Early rational philosophers
  2. Modern rational philosophers

Ancient rational philosophers introduced solutions for the problems of the world using rational thinking, but their solutions were not scientific. Aristotle believed that God exists. He introduced the idea of 'Unmoved Mover'. In the philosophy of Upaniad, the concept of Brāhman is also explained with the help of rational argument. Upaniad thinkers claimed that the universe had been created by the Brāhman. Upaniad use rational thinking to prove the opinion - universe was created by the Brāhman: they said go to the forest and look at a mango tree, it has its own identity. Mango tree is not identical with a coconut tree. Even among mango tree there are variations. Each group has its own identity. To keep these things in order, there must be someone who created it (a creator) - Brāhman of God. With the emergence of scientific knowledge scientists used experiments to verify theories introduced by ancient traditional philosophers.

  • Traditional philosophers don't like to change their view, while modern philosophers try to find mistakes and change the previous ideas.

Sometimes scientist disprove the argument of rationalist using experiments especially Galileo disproved the famous hypothesis of Aristotle. As a result of scientific knowledge modern rational philosophers began to improve, with the help of scientific knowledge. Among them René Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza - all these three philosophers used scientific methods in their rational arguments. They respected the scientific theories. Early rationalists did not know about these scientific theories – therefore, their arguments were discarded/rejected by scientists. For an example, once Aristotle introduced the theory of Earth in the center of the Universe. He claimed, that the center of the Universe was Earth and the Sun moved around the Earth. The rational ideas of Aristotle have been disproved with scientific revelations. According to rationalists the knowledge can be gained without the empirical factors (whatever has been cognized by five senses). They argued that the knowledge a person gained through sense experience might not always be correct. For example mirage.

Other important idea of rationalism is necessity. Example – students have to work hard to get through their exams. Here passing the exam is empirical necessity, while hard work is the rational necessity.

- Empirical necessity is that what is necessarily needed – to pass exam is the thing we need to do. However, for passing exam we must work hard – working hard itself is not needed, but it is an unavoidable requirement for fulfilling the aim – passing the examination. Thus the empirical (visible) necessity is passing the exam while the rational (logical) necessity is working hard (studying).

The aim of rationalism is rather finding the logical necessity than the empirical necessity, because logical necessity always helps to find a solution for metaphysical and moral problems.

Innate Idea According to modern rationalists some ideas are present since birth. Those ideas do not require any suggestion. As an example, hunger and sower(?). According to Descartes some ideas exist from the day of birth of a person. Such ideas do not require any sense experience - they are inborn ideas - Descartes argued that idea of the existence of the God is also innate.