More about the two truths Let me begin to explain all this by saying more about the two truths. Ultimate truth is easy to explain. It is just what most people think of as truth: the property a statement has when it represents reality as being a certain way and reality mind-independently is that way. But the stipulation that correspondence be to how things mind-independently are means that many statements we take to be true are not ultimately true. Take the statement, “I am in Sinyang Hall.” Since buildings and other such composite entities are not mind-independently real, no statement about them could be ultimately true. That composite entities are not ultimately real is established by the ‘neither-identical-nor-distinct’ argument: the building cannot be identical with the atoms, since it is one and they are many; but neither can it be distinct from them, since it cannot be wholly located where each atom is (it being too large), and the hypothesis that it is only partly located where each atom is leads to an infinite regress (since the building can only be partly located where each of its atom-sized spatial regions is, thus necessitating that it have parts, etc.).5 It is important to add that while “I am in Sinyang Hall” is not ultimately true, it is not ultimately false either. For there being ultimately no Sinyang Hall, the statement “I am not located in Sinyang Hall” could not be ultimately true. While the statement lacks ultimate truth-value, the statement is conventionally true. Explaining what this means is rather more difficult. How, one wants to know, could there be any other way for a statement to be true than by corresponding to mind-independent reality? Well, “Hamlet is a Danish prince” is true, we say, yet there is no-one in the world to whom the name ‘Hamlet’ refers. The statement cannot be really, literally true, yet we still think there is some sense in which it is true. That Hamlet was a Danish prince is, we say, ‘true in the story.’ By this we mean that if the statements that make up the story were fact and not fiction, then this statement would be true in the literal sense. Conventional truth is a little like that. There really are no buildings, just atoms arranged in various ways. But given the way that the atoms around me are arranged, if in addition to atoms there were also such things as buildings, then “I am in Sinyang Hall” would be ultimately true. There are no such things as buildings. We only think
there are because it is useful for us to think of atoms arranged a certain way, not simply as the many things they actually are, but as composing one big thing, such as a building. If this pretense of ours reflected mind-independent reality, the statement would be ultimately true. Our pretense does not reflect realityindeed, given the neither-identical-nor-distinct argument, it cannot. But just as the statement about Hamlet does bear a certain complex relation to marks on a page, so the statement about Sinyang Hall bears a complex relation to the atoms around us. That is why it turns out to be useful, and why we say it is true when, strictly speaking, it is not. Now take the statement that Hamlet lives in Denmark. We know it is not literally true, but could it be ‘true in the story’ or ‘fictively true’? Opinions about this vary. The difficulty is that we think Denmark is a real place, while Hamlet is not a real person, and it is not clear how a real place could be related to an unreal person in the right way to make the story true. If you think that a real place can figure in the truth-maker for a statement that is only fictively true, then you will think the statement can be fictively true in a perfectly straightforward way. But if not, then you will need to hold that the true-in-the-story ‘Hamlet lives in Denmark’ is not about the real Denmark but some other sort of place entirely. Something similar happens with conventional truth. We agree that “I am in Sinyang Hall” is conventionally true, and we can also say that a statement like “There are such-and-such atoms arranged in such-andsuch a way” is ultimately true. But what about “Sinyang Hall is made of suchand-such atoms”? Since it says something about Sinyang Hall, we know it is not ultimately true (or false either), but could it be conventionally true? Here too, opinions will vary. The difficulty in this case is that if we can talk of Sinyang Hall and those atoms in the same breath, this will lead to contradictions. Perhaps the easiest way to see why is to think of the sorites puzzles that will emerge when we begin to look into how many randomly chosen atoms we can remove before Sinyang Hall ceases to exist.6 And there are other ways to show why permitting such talk leads to dire logical consequences.7 Still, there are those who would say that there can be a conventionally true statement referring to both Sinyang Hall and the atoms. Although Buddhist accounts of the two truths do not typically discuss this question, if they were asked, then, no doubt, many Buddhists would say just this. But this is because these Buddhists believe conventional truth harbors contradictions within itself, and so must be transcended. These Buddhists would not see a reason to try to insulate conventional truth from the contradictions that arise when you let in the referring expressions of ultimate truth. Other Buddhists, such as Dharmakīrti, would disagree. They would say that we cannot account for the usefulness of conventionally true statements if they inevitably give rise to contradictions. So the insulation between the two discourses must be two-way. To summarize, there are two things we might say about the conventional truth-value of “Sinyang Hall is made of such-and-such atoms.” We might say that it is conventionally true. That policy will lead to there being good reason to accept various contradictions. We might welcome this result as showing the
inherent instability of our ordinary ways of talking and thinking. On the other hand, we might take the resulting contradictions to show that conventional truth must be reformed. The proposed revision is that we not allow referring expressions from ultimate discourse to be employed in conventional discourse. Buddhist Reductionists might take either of these two stances. What I want to explore is what happens if we take the second, according to which that sentence has no truth-value, since it is simply meaningless. Now if that is the view we take of the relation between the two truths, then it follows quite straightforwardly that no argument the conclusion of which belongs to conventional discourse can have a premise that belongs to ultimate discourse. No statement about Sinyang Hall follows from any statement about atoms. That will sound counter-intuitive to many, but Buddhists will not be put off by this. All Buddhists agree that common sense is profoundly mistaken about any number of important facts about the world, so the intuitions shaped by common sense cannot always be trusted. What Buddhists disagree about is whether it is possible to revise common sense in such a way as to rid it of its liability to lead to contradictions. The Buddhist revisionists I am discussing now think it is. That is the point of their two-way semantic insulation. If they can then show that the relevant formulation of determinism could only be ultimately true, while the claim that persons are morally responsible for some of their actions is conventionally true, then they will have a way of establishing claim (1).