Atrekic Buddhism

To be clear, atrekic Buddhism is not a variety of Buddhism. It’s not un-Buddhist either, I think, but we’ll get to that later. The term “atrekic Buddhism” works in a similar way as “methodological anarchism” (famously proposed by Feyerabend) or “metaphilosophical anarchism”. The latter is a – more or less – anarchist approach to doing philosophy. It isn’t anarchism per sé (i.e., anarchism as political ideology), but can be thought of as something like anarchism about philosophy. That said, it could be argued that (political) anarchists should also be metaphilosophical anarchists (but not necessarily the other way around), which doesn’t mean, of course, that this is a settled issue. Similarly, it could be argued that Buddhists should be atrekic Buddhists (but again, not necessarily the other way around), even though very few are and were.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here, as I haven’t even explained yet what this “atrekic Buddhism” is supposed to be. So let’s take a couple of steps back, and try to answer two very obvious questions about the term: (1) What is “Buddhist” about atrekic Buddhism? and (2) What does “atrekic” mean?

What is “Buddhist” about atrekic Buddhism?

Arguably, the most central teaching of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths: (1) there is suffering, (2) there is an origin of suffering, (3) there is the cessation of suffering, and (4) there is a path leading to the cessation of suffering.1 The second of these “Truths” points at the Buddhist doctrine that suffering is rooted in craving or attachment, which is itself rooted in ignorance. The doctrine is a bit more complicated than this and involves various intermediate steps, but those don’t matter here. The basic idea is fairly straightforward: the origin of suffering is craving/​attachment. And consequently the path towards the cessation of suffering involves overcoming that craving/​attachment and its underlying causes.

In terms like “methodological anarchism” and “metaphilosophical anarchism”, the noun “anarchism” refers to a rejection of rules, power, or something related (i.e., to what could be considered the core idea of anarchism), and the adjective specifies what kind of rules/​power/​etc. should be rejected. Similarly, in the neologism “atrekic Buddhism”, the noun “Buddhism” refers to the (or a) core idea of Buddhism and the adjective “atrekic” to what this idea is applied to. (More about that below.) If the relevant core idea of Buddhism is that craving is bad and should, therefore, be abandoned, then atrekic Buddhism holds that craving for whatever “atrekic” refers to is bad and should, thus, be abandoned. That is what is “Buddhist” about atrekic Buddhism.

What does “atrekic” mean?

Philosophers like Greek-based adjectives to specify what some noun is about exactly. So, doxastic logic (from Greek δόξα, meaning a.o. “belief”) is logic applied to beliefs, and alethic relativism (from Greek ἀλήθεια, meaning a.o. “truth”) is relativism about truth. The adjective “atrekic” derives from ἀτρέκεια, which means “certainty” (but also “strict truth” or “precise truth”, and some related notions), and which itself derives from ἀτρεκής, meaning “certain”, “sure”, “precise”, “strict” (but also “real” or “genuine”, among others).2 The here relevant meaning is “certainty”. In other words, “atrekic” means something like “with regards to certainty”, and consequently, “atrekic Buddhism” can be conceived of as an application of a/the core idea(s) of Buddhism to certainty. As I explained that the here relevant core idea is the badness of craving and the aim for its abandonment, it should now be clear what “atrekic Buddhism” means: Atrekic Buddhism rejects the craving for certainty.

Atrekic Buddhism is not Skepticism

To clarify what atrekic Buddhism is about, it is useful to contrast it to (Pyrrhonian) skepticism.
The aim of Pyrrhonian skepticism is ataraxia, a calm and untroubled state resulting from a “suspension of judgment”, that is, from neither denying nor affirming anything. Skeptics argue that you cannot know anything with certainty, and since knowledge is assumed to be certain by definition, this means that you cannot know anything at all. Therefore, instead of claiming to know what we really cannot know, we should just give up and suspend judgment.

Skepticism essentially is an admission of defeat in the quest for certainty. This quest is, perhaps, the defining feature of philosophy in both East and West, and similar (but not identical!) admissions of defeat can be found in Daoism in China and in Madhyamaka (i.e., the Buddhist school associated with the ideas of Nāgārjuna) in India. Donald Davidson once remarked that “Rorty sees the history of Western philosophy as a confused and victorless battle between unintelligible skepticism and lame attempts to answer it”,3 which is only a (very) slight exaggeration of much of (mainstream, Western) philosophy and of Richard Rorty’s view thereon. Philosophers aim for (certain kinds of) knowledge, knowledge is – by definition – true,4 and truth is absolute. Consequently, when something is (truly) known, it is certain, and thus, the aim of philosophy is certainty. The skeptic (more or less) admits all that, but holds that the quest is doomed and admits defeat. Atrekic Buddhism, in contrast, rejects the quest itself.

Zebras and butterflies

To further clarify the difference between (Pyrrhonian) skepticism and atrekic Buddhism let’s consider their responses to two famous puzzles (if you can call them that). The first is Fred Dretske’s scenario of encountering an animal in the zoo and wondering whether it is a real zebra or merely a cleverly disguised mule.5 The second is Zhuangzi 莊子 waking up from a dream in which he was a butterfly and wondering whether it really was a dream and he is perhaps a butterfly dreaming now that he is Zhuangzi instead.6 In Dretske’s scenario, the two options are:
(a) the observed zoo animal is a zebra; or
(b) the observed zoo animal is a cleverly disguised mule.
In Zhuangzi’s scenario the options are:
(a*) the being in question really is Zhuangzi and was dreaming that he was a butterfly; or
(b*) the being in question really is a butterfly and is dreaming that it is Zhuangzi.

The skeptic’s response to these two scenarios (or puzzles, as I called them above) is that they are undecidable. We can not know with certainty whether (a) or (b) is the case in Dretske’s zoo animal scenario. And neither can Zhuangzi know for certain whether (a*) or (b*) is the case. The appropriate response, therefore, is suspension of judgment (and that – for the skeptic – is (nearly?) always the appropriate response, as nothing is ever certain).

The atrekic Buddhist disagrees. The skeptic only believes that the choices between (a) and (b) and between (a*) and (b*) are undecidable because he craves certainty, but if he gives up (or overcomes) that craving, he’ll see that (b) and (b*) are exceedingly unlikely (given everything else we know).7 There is, then, no reason to suspend judgment. Rather, the atrekic Buddhist provisionally/​tentatively accepts (a) and (a*), and simultaneously accepts the uncertainty that is inherently involved in this provisional/​tentative acceptance.

The atrekic Buddhist isn’t alone in responding to the skeptic in this way, however. Certain varieties of pragmatist would (or might) respond in a very similar (or even identical) way. This doesn’t mean that those varieties of pragmatism (that are most closely associated with the ideas of W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, and Richard Rorty – the last two already mentioned above) and atrekic Buddhism are really the same, although the differences are subtle.

Craving as a cause of suffering

I mentioned above that according to the second “Noble Truth” suffering is (indirectly) caused by craving, which is itself (indirectly) caused by in ignorance. According to Buddhism, craving is bad because it produces suffering. (And ignorance is bad, because it produces the craving that causes suffering.) Similarly, in atrekic Buddhism, craving for certainty is bad and should, thus, be abandoned or overcome because it produces suffering. It does so in at least two ways.

Firstly, the craving for certainty causes the same kind of suffering as that experienced by pretas or “hungry ghosts”, who are always hungry and thirsty. Regardless of what and how much a preta eats and drinks, it remains hungry and thirsty. It can never satisfy its desires (or needs), and is, thus, doomed to suffer. In exactly the same way, an atrekic preta – that is, a being craving for certainty – can never really be satisfied (because nothing is ever really certain), and is, thus, doomed to suffer.

Secondly, the atrekic preta will try to find solace in fake certainties offered by religious and other (semi-religious) worldviews (including nominally secular or science-based worldviews). Notice that science never provides certainty – scientific claims are always provisional and open to refutation by counter-evidence – while religious claims are dogmatic. The core claims of religions and semi-religious worldviews are presented as absolute and final truths and are effectively immune to counter-evidence of any kind (even if religions sometimes give up more peripheral claims in light of overwhelming counter-evidence). The problem with these fake certainties is that they conflict with the (different) fake certainties offered by other religious (and semi-religious) worldviews, and this conflict between worldviews leads to (sometimes violent) conflict between people, to strife, and to suffering. (I have written about this before in The Stories We Believe in, among others.)

Ignorance as the root of craving

Buddhism and atrekic Buddhism share the ideas that suffering is bad, that craving leads to suffering, and that craving is ultimately rooted in ignorance. They disagree about the nature of that ignorance, however. According to Buddhism, it is ignorance of (the nature and causes of) suffering, impermanence, and no(t)-self (with emptiness often added in Mahāyāna Buddhism) that is to blame, but it is hard to see how ignorance of these facts or ideas8 can produce the craving for certainty specifically. Much more plausibly, that specific craving is rooted in ignorance about the nature of truth and epistemic justification (and the relation between the two) and other aspects of epistemology, as well as – perhaps – aspects of human psychology and evolution. It seems to me that epistemological ignorance is by far the most important kind of ignorance here, but Buddhism has little (if anything) to say about that. Some of the Western philosophers mentioned above, on the other hand, do have something (or even a lot) to say about the topic, but a discussion thereof would take us out of the domain of atrekic Buddhism and into that of some variety of pragmatism and will have to wait for a future post.

On a side note, I find the term “ignorance” rather unpleasant, overly judgmental, and arrogant/​patronizing, especially in this context. I’d prefer something like “lack of awareness” or “lack of recognition”, but phrases like those would obscure the parallel between Buddhism and atrekic Buddhism, so I’ll stick with the unpleasant “ignorance” for now.

Buddhism should be atrekic

Arguably, Buddhists should be atrekic Buddhists, even if few of them actually are. If Buddhists aim to overcome craving (or attachment) because it leads to suffering, then they should also abandon the craving for certainty because that craving leads to suffering as well. Furthermore, it isn’t all that hard to find passages in the large Buddhist corpus that reject an attachment to ideas, and some of these passages could be interpreted as hinting at something like atrekic Buddhism – that is, a rejection of the craving for (or attachment to) certainty. Probably the most famous is a passage in the Alagaddūpama Sutta in which the Buddha argues that the Dharma (i.e., Buddhism) is like a raft that has to be abandoned once it served its purpose (i.e., crossing over a river or “crossing over” toward awakening),9 but there are many other passages in various texts that seem to reject a dogmatic attachment to the Dharma. For example, the Chinese Yogācāra philosopher Xuanzang 玄奘 warned in his Discourse on the Perfection of Consciousness Only 成唯識論 that one should not get overly attached to views because any kind of attachment is unhelpful.10

While it could, thus, be argued that Buddhism should be atrekic in theory, in practice it rarely is, and for understandable reasons. Buddhism is a religion, however, and like all other religions, it offers a smorgasbord of fake certainties. The attractiveness of religions lays at least partially in the fake certainties they offer to atrekic pretas (i.e., to most of us).

Therapy for atrekic pretas

Craving or attachment is a default feature of humans and is hard to abandon. It takes Buddhist monks years of practice and how many of them actually succeed(ed) is quite debatable. Largely the same is true for the craving for certainty: it is more or less a human default (and thus extremely widespread if not universal) and hard to overcome.

Atrekic pretas are intolerant to uncertainty, but the extent to which people crave certainty differs both between individuals11 and between cultures.12 Furthermore, even people who are more tolerant to some uncertainty tend to crave at least some certainty in at least some areas that matter to them. Some kind or level of craving for certainty is widespread, perhaps even universal.

Buddhism offers a more or less clearly structured path towards the overcoming of craving, but I’m not convinced that the (exact) same path applies to atrekic Buddhism. How does one abandon the craving for certainty? There is something called “Intolerance of Uncertainty Therapy” for people suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD),13 and this therapy appears to be effective.14 It aims to decrease anxiety and patients’ tendency to worry by helping them to develop some tolerance for (or even acceptance of) uncertainty in their daily lives. However, I don’t think that this kind of therapy is appropriate for – or even applicable to – the non-clinical kind of craving for certainty that is the topic here. Atrekic pretas aren’t suffering from GAD.

I’m not aware of any other research on overcoming/​abandoning the craving for certainty, however. There might not be any, given that normal, non-clinical levels of craving for certainty are rarely considered to be a problem. And, perhaps, this is right. To the extent that non-clinical craving for certainty is problematic because it causes suffering (through conflict between worldviews – see above) it isn’t remediable by any kind of therapy either (because it is too widespread and one cannot submit entire populations to therapy). And to the extent that the craving for certainty is an obstacle for various kinds of philosophical and related contemplation, no therapy might be needed – overcoming “ignorance” (i.e., the root cause) may be sufficient. If this is right, this may very well be the most fundamental difference between Buddhism and atrekic Buddhism – in the former, a mere lifting of ignorance (of the relevant kind) is not nearly sufficient, while in the latter it may be. Or in other words, while Buddhism requires a radical shift in the practitioner’s attitudes and ways of seeing and approaching the world,15 atrekic Buddhism might just require a relatively minor intellectual switch.

Closing remarks

There are, then, and this should have been obvious from the start, fundamental differences between Buddhism and atrekic Buddhism. As mentioned above, the latter is not a variety of Buddhism in roughly the same way that metaphilosophical anarchism is not a variety of anarchism. Nevertheless, there are very significant parallels between some of the core ideas of Buddhism and atrekic Buddhism as well, and moreover, it can be argued that Buddhists should also be atrekic Buddhists. For those reasons, the term “atrekic Buddhism” is not entirely inappropriate.

Probably, I haven’t convinced you that you should be a atrekic Buddhist yet, as a fundamental part of the argument in its favor is still missing. That part, the nature of the “ignorance” (or lack of recognition/​awareness etc.) involved cannot be provided by Buddhist thought (except, perhaps, in a very loose interpretation of that label) and, thus, lays outside the scope of this short article. I can be provided by certain kinds of pragmatism, but that is a topic for a future post.

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  1. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11).
  2. The word “atrekic” is hideous, by the way. If there would be a competition for ugly neologisms, it surely would be a top contender.
  3. Donald Davidson (1987), “Afterthoughts”, in: Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (OUP): 154–57, at 157.
  4. The other parts of the definition are (since Gettier) more controversial.
  5. Fred Dretske (1970), “Epistemic Operators”, The Journal of Philosophy 67.24: 1007-1023. — I discussed this scenario/​example before in Skepticism, Pragmatism, and Zebras.
  6. 齊物論: §14.
  7. Although it actually has happened on a very small number of occasions that zoos painted stripes on donkeys to pass them off as zebras.
  8. I think they are facts, but since not everyone will agree, I wrote “facts or ideas” here.
  9. MN 22.13–4.
  10. T31n1585, 6c.
  11. Mark Freeston et al. (1994), “Why do people worry?”, Personality and Individual Differences 17.6: 791–802.
  12. Geert Hofstede (1980). Culture’s Consequences, First edition. Second, revised and updated edition: 2001 (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
  13. Michel Dugas & Melissa Robichaud (2007), Cognitive-behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: From science to practice (New York: Routledge).
  14. Colin van der Heiden, Peter Muris, & Henk van der Molen (2012), “Randomized controlled trial on the effectiveness of metacognitive therapy and intolerance-of-uncertainty therapy for generalized anxiety disorder”, Behaviour Research and Therapy 50.2: 100–9.
  15. e.g., Jay Garfield (2021), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration (OUP).

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