MWP 1.3.f: No Final Goals

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The Middle Way involves the constant adjustment of goals in response to conditions, as we saw in the previous chapter, yet there are issues of motivation as well as of planning here. How can constantly adjusted goals motivate and inspire us, or give coherence to our course of action in life? Theists may talk here about the motivation of serving God, Buddhists about enlightenment as a final goal. Other individuals may talk of a sense of personal destiny or vocation guiding their lives.

It is here that we need to put together the concepts of incrementality and provisionality, to affirm the need for long-term goals in experience, and yet deny the need for metaphysical goals that go beyond experience.

Our desires readily attach themselves to imagined objects, but the adequacy of those imagined goals varies in proportion to the remoteness of their fulfilment in terms of time and conditions. The adequacy of more distant goals decreases because I do not yet understand all the conditions that may intervene to prevent them being fulfilled, and my long-term plans and goals are unavoidably vague and selective. If my goal is to cross the room and make myself a cup of tea in five minutes’ time, barring a completely unexpected change of conditions (e.g. a power cut, running out of tea, a heart attack, a sudden desire for whiskey instead) I am very likely to fulfil that goal. However, if my goal is to achieve world peace, it is both a rather vague aspiration and one that could be achieved by apparently contradictory means (e.g. conquering the world and imposing peace, or negotiating settlements to all disputes). Still, if we did have a long-term goal of world peace together with a strategy for achieving it, and were able to break the necessary progress down into manageable intermediate goals, it is a goal that could just about be brought within experience.

Final goals, however, are not within experience, but rather depend on metaphysical assumptions. In the case of enlightenment as the final goal of Buddhism, for example, even if we accept debatable evidence about the nature of such a state, we cannot tell that it is a final state or that no progression is possible beyond it. Enlightenment is not within experience because it is not provisional or incremental, and there is no way of assessing its value within experience before it is achieved. We can assess the value of the remote goal of world peace, because we have experience of what peace is like as a relative state compared to war, but we cannot, by definition, have experience of a final state.

We also cannot realise a final goal by breaking it down into manageable intermediate goals, because we are not clear about what intermediate goals would be required. If we allow the intermediate goals to define the supposed final goal, then we are deceiving ourselves that the final goal is in fact our goal. For example, if we had a final goal to have divine love throughout the earth (even though we admittedly have not experienced divine love), then increasing the level of earthly love in our village would not be an intermediate goal to this final goal – in fact we would be constructing our final goal imaginatively on the lines of the intermediate one that is within the realm of experience.

The biggest mistake made by Buddhists here is not just to have enlightenment as a remote goal even though it is beyond experience, but to believe that this goal is necessary for value and motivation on the path that it defines. This theoretically implies that there cannot be value and motivation without such a final goal – which conflicts with our experience that people gain value and motivation from all sorts of sources. It attempts to support the Middle Way from a metaphysical position, when, as I argued in 3.b, only an epistemological and moral principle based on experience can help us to move beyond metaphysics.

In an Aristotelian context, the justification of claims according to final outcomes is known as teleology. Aristotle can only support his teleological view of ethics from his belief that every creature has its own form, which also determines its purpose. The fulfilment of the proper purpose of a creature is hence its teleology. This depends on the metaphysical idea that we can have knowledge of an essential form from which to derive this idea of our proper purpose[1]. Buddhism, similarly (despite its supposed rejection of essences) derives its idea of an absolute final goal or purpose from a metaphysical claim – that the Buddha achieved enlightenment, and enlightenment gives knowledge of the absolute truth about everyone’s proper goals. So any views about the teleology of human beings as a whole (as opposed to the individual goals they may set themselves within experience) are clearly metaphysical and based only on dogmatic assumptions as to what these goals are.

Some continue to insist that, despite this point, special revelatory experiences (whether of God, or enlightenment, or other absolutes such as insight into Nature) tell us about final goals and thus they are not beyond experience. This claim is discussed more fully in 1.g above, but is basically mistaken because no finite experience can encompass absolutes. Just as a booming voice from the sky, however, impressive, might or might not be God, an experience of insight into what we believe to be the final goal might or might not be an experience of a goal that is really final – we are never in a position to judge. Simply adopting faith in such a goal does not help us, because it is in any case too remote to be a helpful object of identification.

In the case of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Buddhists often argue that their own revelatory claims are different from others because they are made by a historical person who achieved enlightenment, demonstrating that any other human being can do the same. Their case is thus claimed to be different from religious claims about special people chosen by God (prophets like Muhammad, or incarnations like Jesus or Krishna) who define final goals only in terms of obedience to a mysterious divine will that will reward them after death or at the end of time. However, the case of the Buddha’s enlightenment is not, in practice, epistemologically very different from claims about Muhammad being the seal of the prophets or Jesus being the son of God. If enlightenment was demonstrated by someone we know personally, we might have direct demonstration of it (though we would still have to assess the evidence for ourselves), but the final goal of the Buddha is only demonstrated to us through the mediation of a lengthy tradition and much inter-cultural translation.

Such a remote account of enlightenment might well provide symbolic meaning or inspiration where it represents more immediate goals, but it does not provide a helpful representational belief about a final goal. As Hume argued in relation to miracles[2], we have far more reason to doubt such a remote claim, on balance, than we have to accept it. Added to this is the argument that even if we did accept it, it would be of no use to us as a motivating goal, as explained above.

The final twist of argument that I have heard some Buddhists employ to defend enlightenment as a final goal is to claim that enlightenment is not a final goal, just a point on our horizon which may be intermediate to further goals beyond it[3]. Another version of this is to quote the perfection of wisdom literature as stating that enlightenment is empty and ultimately no different from unenlightened existence[4]. These moves deprive the metaphysical account of a final goal even of the virtue of consistency. One cannot at the same time claim that enlightenment is a perfect truth known by the Buddha and that it is no more than an intermediate goal to be understood within experience. The contradiction, I think, serves mainly as an ad hoc spoiler to pre-empt criticism rather than a genuine piece of dialectic. It does not help us in practice to bridge a gap between absolute and relative truth, but merely asserts in effect that we should accept absolute truth even though it is contradictory and we should thus not investigate it critically.  Most importantly here, we should not confuse the value of the meaning of final goals with that of belief in them. Final goals, whether Buddhist, theistic, or of any other kind, may have an archetypal value for us. They may have helpful emotional associations as well as being represented in the provisional frame of stories. For example, the story of the Buddha achieving enlightenment through following the Middle Way (discussed in 3.a) needs some sort of end point which we might provisionally give the label ‘enlightenment’ within the context of the story, even though this represents something more like ‘progress’ in our experience. Stories about final goals can in effect help us to make intermediate goals more meaningful, though only because of the provisionality of the story frame in which the final goals are considered (see III.6.f for more details on stories). However, this possible value changes for us when final goals become objects of belief because they can only function as metaphysical beliefs, attracting fixed identification rather than motivating investigation of conditions.


[1] Aristotle (1976) 1.vii

[2] Hume (1975) ch.10 (p.109 ff)

[3] I have heard this view attributed to Sangharakshita, though I cannot find any written references for it.

[4] For example, see The Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikararjnaparamita) section 7, or Mulamadhayamakakarika (Nagarjuna 1995) ch.25 e

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