[This article is quite technical in parts but as I am not qualified to write on Buddhist philosophy I have been careful to try and repeat what my teachers have told me, but the reader should investigate other sources before placing too much weight on what I say here. If you find this topic interesting I recommend reading the compact Four Noble Truths, with the original teachings available on line in four parts: 1, 2, 3 & 4.]
In the Dalai Lama’s recent Nottingham teachings (see this article for a report) H. H. reminded us of the way faith and reason works in Buddhism and I think it is worth saying a bit about this as there is much confusion about the proper place of faith in religion. In the case of Buddhism it is caught up with epistemology and causation so please bear with me; it does come together in the end. (Incidentally I recommend Pope John Paul’s Fides et Ratio encylical on how faith and reason work together in Catholocism.) Buddhism classifies knowledges into three categories: truths that are manifestly true and can be verified by direct sense perception, truths that can be verified through reasoning and truths that require the testimony of an authority. For example, to get a general picture of the weather here in Madrid I can just look outside the window, but I can tell through direct sense perception what is happening with the wind as I could outside (by feeling the movement of the air), but I can see from the motion of the trees that it is quite windy. However I would have to rely on some authority to tell me about the weather in Brighton. Note that the boundary between the first two categories isn’t always clear as the sight of the trees is a direct sense perception and the inferential step from here to wind is trivial, but you get the idea.
In Buddhism, knowledge of the nature of reality and an understanding of what causes gave rise to a given effect are central to its philosophy but if you haven’t thought about this before before you might think that a Buddhist practitioner would need to rely on the authority of an enlightened master for knowledge of the nature of reality but could verify causal inferences themselves. Actually the converse is true. The dependent nature of reality being verifiable through inference but for a complete and precise knowledge of which causes gave rise to a given effect can only be known by an enlightened master.
For sure when we look at a film of a snooker ball striking another and the video is stopped at the point of contact it is easy to predict what happens next (w.l.o.g., we assume no tricky spinning of the incoming ball). According to my understanding, the ability to make that prediction is precisely what constitutes causal knowledge, so we can say that knowledge of these kinds of causes are within our grasp (see this article for more on this.)
However, to have complete and precise causal knowledge we would have to know all of the causal factors that led to a given outcome. Consider the topical example of the proposition that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Tibetans since 1959 led to the recent earthquake. To be able to verify this causal relationship we would have to be able to an instance of similar unethical activity by a group of people and make some meaningful and verifiable (indeed falsifiable) prediction about what will happen as a result, and plainly ‘bad stuff will happen to these people in the future, possibly in future lives’ doesn’t count as it plainly will if you wait around long enough. For Buddhists the precise causal relationship between the PRC’s treatment of the Tibetans and the earthquake can only be known by a fully-enlightened Buddha. But a Buddhist master would be quick to point out the complete folly of such speculations, and might even venture that it was extremely unlikely that any such causal connection existed in this case, and would be quick to emphasise that if there were a causal connection (in the Buddhist view) it is totally wrong this fact would alter in any way our compassion for the victims (except to deepen it).
Some may object that the teachings on karma would preclude that ethical actions can have a casual influence on natural phenomenon like earthquakes (as Paul Sinha argues), the causes lying in geology, but this is not the case according to my own understanding of the Buddhist teachings. Geological factors can indeed be used to make predictions about earthquakes but that doesn’t mean that they exhaust all the causal factors. This I understand to be a manifestation of the dependent nature of reality, that all events are interconnected.
But exactly how those events are connected can only be known by an fully-enlightened Buddha. Now you might object that because only enlightened Buddhas can make such predictions, and those predictions can never be verified by ordinary people, then it must be a case of there being no causal relationship! This is an excellent and subtle point (even if I say so myself). From a Buddhist viewpoint we say that there is a causal relationship in such cases, so on the authority of the Buddhas we say that the killing of another sentient being, especially when it is motivated by a delusion like anger or craving, will create the causes for meeting life-threatening obstacles, probably in a future life. This kind of causal relationship can’t be verified but has to be taken on faith from the testimony of an enlightened Buddha.
On what basis can the Buddhist practitioner believe such a causal relationship? The same basis that I believed the Brighton weather report. Because that authority has reliably told me the weather in the past I have confidence that this forecast will be reliable. In the same way, by verifying the statements of the Buddha that fall into the second, verifiable-inferential category (such as the dependent nature of reality) confidence can be gained in those statements made by the Buddha that we can’t verify. We can probe them with symmetry arguments. For example, we can observe that a deluded mind inflicting harm and suffering is creating the cause for encountering harm and suffering, that the nature of the cause and the effect are the same—it is not as if we are being asked to believe that, well, that the mistreatment of people will result in an earthquake, a incredible proposition, the nature of the cause and the effect being quite different.
But, you cry, I suggested above that just such a causal relationship was possible. But look at what is being proposed more carefully. The proposition was that the actions that brought about suffering acted as causes for future suffering, with the earthquake being a supporting condition. The earthquake is only acting as an enabling condition in this case, the cause and the effect, a deluded mind inflicting suffering and the suffering of a deluded mind being of the same nature.
It is also easy to forget that we do observe that some people do meet with life obstacles while others in similar circumstances don’t. Of course this doesn’t prove that the proposed causal relationship is true, but it is important to remember that what is being proposed is consistent with what we do see. Indeed it offers an explanation for something that would otherwise remain inexplicable, and this is a point to its credit.
While such reasoning doesn’t end in a proof it can act as an important complement to faith. The evolution of thought could proceed as follows. Initially these unverifiable propositions may appear improbable so you will quite rationally take a sceptical attitude towards them, but you would be wise to remain open to some doubt that that scepticsim could be misplaced. As your Buddhist study and practice progresses you see that all these other things that also seemed improbable, but were open to verification (such as the interdependent nature of reality), turned out to be true and you will become more willing to entertain the prospect that the unverifiable propositions are true, especially when you notice that they remain consistent with some troubling features in observed reality. As you spend more time trying out the whole Buddhist package you should observe that reality starts to make more sense, that the world is a less confusing place. It is this overall confidence that provides the most powerful rationale for accepting unverifiable propositions on good authority.
You will notice that exactly the same thing happens with our tendency to believe incredible things that we can’t verify for ourselves in the physical sciences.