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Buddhadharma : Spring 2018
REVIEW | MICHEL BITBOL 107 In unpacking the similarities and differ ences between the Greek and Indo–Bud dhist scientific methodological principles, we can draw inspiration from Erwin Schrödinger. In his book Nature and the Greeks, the cocreator of quantum phys ics offers a clear presentation of the fun damental principles of nascent Hellenic science, identifying two core principles he called “understandability” and “objectiva tion.” The first principle asserts that one should work under the assumption that “the display of nature can be understood,” rather than invoking the arbitrary deci sions of supernatural agents or the whims of fate. The second instructs the scientist to “step back into the role of an external observer” so as to “simplify” the task of understanding nature. This latter prin ciple is indeed a simplification, in that it restricts “nature” to objects that can be seen, known, and used, while excluding the seer, knower, and user. In early Hellenic science, the principle of understandability took three forms: attempts to identify the basic stuff out of which variegated material phenomena may arise; explanations of visible changes by the interplay of invisible elementary con stituents; and careful elaboration of intel lectual instruments of inference. Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander identified what they deemed to be the basic stuff of the world: water, air, earth, fire, or “the boundless,” respectively. Atomism, theo rized by Leucippus and Democritus, attrib uted the complex behaviors of phenomena to the motion of simple infinitesimal bod ies in empty space. And Aristotle, Pythag oras, and Euclid honed logic, arithmetic, and geometry—those carefully designed instruments for constructing systematic knowledge out of fragmentary observa tions—to precision. For Indo–Buddhists, the principle of understandability was a given. After all, the law of cause and effect was central to their ethical system. The editors thus reveal the remarkable level of rigor and sophistication reached by later Indian Buddhist scholars in their quest to under stand the world according to this law. The ontological aspect of understanding was pushed to a high degree of accuracy by the early Vaibhasika school, which includes the various branches of the Abhidharma. Perhaps the most famous Buddhist classi fication is the five aggregates of “dharmas” (or “factors of existence”), the constitutive parts of composite objects. Even earlier, the Rice Seedling Sutra, believed to be one of the first teachings of the Buddha, describes six elements from which complex phenomena of the mate rial aggregate arise. The first four “great elements” (mahabhuta)—earth, water, fire, and wind—mirror the predominant Greek view, promulgated by Empedocles. The other two, space and time, have analogues in Aristotle’s fifth element, “aether.” Also similar to the Greek view is the Buddhist proposition that the elements embody per ceptible qualities such as solidity, moisture, heat, and dryness. However, Buddhist thinkers went one step further, ascrib ing specific functions to material entities: earth provides solidity; water fosters cohe sion; fire brings about maturation; and air enables extension, or motion. Percep tible differences in characteristics were explained on the basis of the composite nature of material phenomena, which are said to include these elements, and their associated qualities, in various proportions. Indo–Buddhist thinkers, from the earli est sutras all the way up to Vasubandhu, addressed at length the question of what constitutes matter. The simplest definition