Wax and justice

In Posts on April 19, 2011 at 11:56 pm

René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher, conducted a famous thought-experiment with a ball of wax. He took the wax, heated it at a fire, and observed that its appearance to his senses—its shape, color, and texture—changed completely. Yet it was still the same ball of wax. Descartes concluded that he apprehended the true nature of the wax, its “waxness,” with his mind alone.

I think Descartes came to the wrong conclusion. Rather, the idea of “wax” is only that—an idea. Descartes labeled the thing in his hand “wax” before and after melting it, but that doesn’t make his label the object’s “true nature.” Isn’t it more accurate to say that a ball of wax has no true nature (in the way Descartes meant) except what our minds give it? Didn’t Descartes miss the evident fact that concepts don’t exist separately from the people having them? Shakespeare, writing around the same time, nailed this question twice: first with “A rose by any other name…” and next with “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” England wins again.

This bears on things more interesting than wax. We often ask questions like, “What is justice?”—as if we could catch justice with a butterfly net, or land a spaceship on it. In fact, justice is a subjective human experience, inseparable from the humans experiencing it. To the extent that we enjoy shared values, most people will find our sense of justice triggered by similar stimuli; but to conclude that justice is a real thing somewhere out there, separate from our experience of it, is mistaken. “Justice” is a shared experience, like “the taste of strawberries”: not identical for all, irreducibly subjective, but closely enough agreed upon to allow for meaningful discussion about it. Rather than looking for justice out there in the solar system, we should recognize its malleability, and work on developing the most useful personal experience of it—an experience that treats others as ourselves, and includes people (and animals?) we normally overlook.

  1. The relative world never works, just as positions one takes on that world, such as justice, never work. It is not based on reality, so its judgements are flawed, which is fortunate for attorneys who make money on the flaws.
    The relative world is what we use until the absolute is revealed to us. There would be no need for concepts such as justice if everyone were enlightened, because in the perfection of true reality the question of just or not never arose, since everything is naturally perfect in each moment. This is why sacred world is talked about in Buddhism. In this world, dog shit and orchids are form and form IS emptiness, and that constant reminder of emptiness, the most perfect experience known to man,sanctifies everything.
    So, your comments on justice, are quite removed from what is ultimately important in human experience. Of course you are not writing to those who see the world that way,and i am not saying your comments are wrong, only, trying to help another Buddhist practitioner to sort the wheat from the chaff.
    You may wonder if these comments are pie in the sky or pollyannaish and question what kind of a reaction a realized person who experiences sacred world would have to someone stealing their car. They would call the police and try every way they could to get the car back and apprehend the thieves, while in every moment seeing the phone they picked up,the thoughts of concern entering their mind, the forms the police filled out, as form that IS emptiness, with the blissful freedom and lessening of the heavy handed realness of the world it provides. If for an instant, however, they lost that view they would be cooked by emotion like anyone else in the same situation.

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