- A Reply to Andrew Brenner
In "Abhidharma Metaphysics and the Two Truths" (McDaniel 2019), I argued that a version of ontological pluralism—the view that there are different modes of being—is a philosophically satisfactory account of the doctrine of two truths as found in Abhidharma metaphysics, and that it is superior to accounts in the secondary literature.1 According to my account, the doctrine of two truths is best construed as a view that distinguishes between conventional and ultimate reality, the former of which is enjoyed by persons (and other composite objects) while the latter is enjoyed by only short-lived, impartite dharmas.2 Conventional truth and ultimate truth understood as features of sentences, beliefs, or propositions are accounted for in terms of conventional and ultimate existence.
Andrew Brenner argues (in this issue) that this account forecloses certain actual or potential arguments for core Abhidharma metaphysical theses, to which I reply in section 2 below. Brenner also argues that my account does not have the interesting normative consequences one might think that the doctrine of the two truths should have, to which I reply in section 3. There are other interesting arguments in Brenner's challenging response, but I lack the space here to reply to them. [End Page 557]
II. No Foreclosure
Two preliminaries before I discuss Brenner's argument. First, let's note the alternative account that Brenner indicates sympathy for, namely that to ultimately exist is to exist, while to conventionally exist is to not exist at all except according to a useful fiction. In this account, the only things that exist (in any way) are impartite dharmas. In what follows, I will use "nihilism" to stand for the metaphysical claim that there are no composite objects, and "the nihilist account" to stand for the interpretation that ascribes nihilism to philosophers of the Abhidharma. I presume that in the nihilist account, conventional truths are not really truths but rather are only true according to a useful fiction. In McDaniel 2019, the nihilist account was not on the table, since an explicit constraint on my project was that conventional truth is really a kind of truth. Here, the nihilist account will serve as a kind of foil.
Second, as Brenner notes, in my interpretation, persons are merely conventional existents, and I do not discuss any theses about selves. In this context, I do not take the terms "person" and "self" to be interchangeable. "Person" is a disposable covering term for each of us; instead of stating that persons are merely conventionally real, I could simply have said that I am merely conventionally real, Brenner is merely conventionally real, Obama is merely conventionally real, and so forth, without sacrificing anything of philosophical relevance.3 "Self" is not disposable in this way, since in the relevant literature, "self" has been given particularly metaphysical meanings that "person" has not been given. Here are several of them, subscripted for clarity: to be a self1 is to be a person who is identifiable independently of his or her parts;4 to be a self2 is to be a person whose existence does not simply consist in the existence of his or her parts; to be a self3 is to be a metaphysically significant constituent of a person;5 and to be a self4 is to be a non-physical, simple, thinking substance.6 In the account that I favor, persons are merely conventional existents but there are no selves (of any sort) period. Selves are neither ultimately nor conventionally real, but rather there just ain't any.
Brenner's first objection is that certain "argumentative strategies" are foreclosed given my account. One such is represented by the argument Brenner cites from Vasubandhu (2003, pp. 71–72), which is that selves exist only if they are directly perceived or correctly inferred; but they are neither, and so selves do not exist.7 However, this argument is not foreclosed by my account, since my account concerned the conventional existence of persons rather than the nonexistence of selves.8
Brenner suggests an interesting analogous argument for nihilism: persons exist only if they are directly perceived or...