- Ontological Pluralism, Abhidharma Metaphysics, and the Two Truths:A Response to Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel has recently proposed an interpretation of the distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth, as that distinction is made within Abhidharma metaphysics (McDaniel 2019). According to McDaniel's proposal, the distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth is closely connected with a similar distinction between conventional existence and ultimate existence. What is more, the distinction between conventional existence and ultimate existence should be interpreted along ontological pluralist lines: the difference between things that ultimately exist and things that merely conventionally exist amounts to a difference in the modes of being enjoyed by the things in question.
One noteworthy feature of McDaniel's proposal is the fact that it connects Abhidharma metaphysics with contemporary work within analytic metaphysics, and in particular contemporary work in metametaphysics and metaontology related to ontological pluralism. This is a welcome development. Many of the metaphysical issues addressed by Abhidharma metaphysicians are also addressed by contemporary analytic metaphysicians, and this is true to some extent of work being done within the burgeoning subfields of analytic metametaphysics and metaontology. I have no doubt that work in contemporary metametaphysics might help us interpret and evaluate Abhidharma metaphysics (and vice versa). But I have some concerns with McDaniel's proposal. I do not have an alternative proposed interpretation of the conventional/ultimate truth distinction (as it occurs within Abhidharma metaphysics) that I would like to defend here. I also have very little to say about McDaniel's objections to the other proposed interpretations of the conventional/ultimate truth distinction that he discusses.
I do not criticize McDaniel's proposal on the grounds that it fails to reflect the manner in which the conventional/ultimate truth distinction was interpreted by Ābhidharmikas. Ābhidharmikas do not all speak with one [End Page 543] voice on this subject, so it is difficult to make any very confident generalizations regarding how they would have reacted to McDaniel's proposal. My concern is rather that McDaniel's interpretation of the conventional/ultimate truth distinction imposes limitations on Ābhidharmikas and their sympathizers that they should be hesitant to accept. For, first, McDaniel's proposed interpretation of the distinction, if adopted, would prevent us from employing certain powerful argumentative strategies that have or could be employed on behalf of certain core Abhidharma metaphysical theses (in particular, the thesis that persons are merely conventionally existent). Second, given McDaniel's proposed interpretation of the conventional/ultimate truth distinction, a core Abhidharma metaphysical thesis, namely that persons are merely conventionally existent, turns out to have less important implications than its proponents generally think it has.
Here's my plan for the remainder of this article. In section 2 I summarize McDaniel's proposal, in section 3 I present my concerns, and section 4 concludes the article.
II. McDaniel On Conventional versus Ultimate Truth
An important feature of Abhidharma metaphysics is its surprising ontological claims. Most notably, Ābhidharmikas contend that it is ultimately true that dharmas exist, but it is not ultimately true that persons exist, although there is some sense in which it is conventionally true that persons exist. What does this distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth amount to?
According to McDaniel, we should interpret the conventional/ultimate truth distinction (as that distinction was employed within Abhidharma metaphysics) in such a manner that that distinction tracks a similar distinction between conventional existence and ultimate existence. The latter distinction in turn should be interpreted along ontological pluralist lines, according to which the difference between things that ultimately exist and things that merely conventionally exist amounts to a difference in the modes of being enjoyed by the things in question.
What is ontological pluralism? What does it mean to say that some things enjoy different "modes of being"? One way to get a grip on what this thesis amounts to is by contrasting it with its competitor, according to which there is only one mode of being (i.e., monism with respect to being). This sort of monism versus pluralism dispute is similar to other monism versus pluralism disputes within philosophy—for example, the dispute between those who think that...